Book Review: Lead with Your Heart, by Allan J. Hamilton, MD

Lessons from a Life with Horses
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Lessons from a Life with Horses

From Allan J. Hamilton, MD, author of Zen Mind, Zen Horse, comes another thought-provoking collection of 100+ short essays aptly sub-titled Lessons from a Life with Horses. The author, a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon who is a medical script consultant for TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, raises Lipizzaners on his ranch near Tucson, AZ.

Lead With Heart

Hamilton has spent nearly three decades working with horses, and has developed a keen insight into what makes our equine companions tick. Lead with Your Heart is the sort of book that will have horse people nodding their heads in agreement with the author’s observations.

For instance, in “Behold the Eye” Hamilton counsels that buyers should pay attention to a horse’s eyes. Sound familiar? Here’s what he says:

A horse’s eye should be large, round and kind. Looking into it should be like staring into a dark, clear pool that drinks in all the movement and detail beyond it. A horse’s mind is a peculiar balancing act between caution and curiosity. The horse’s eye should have an intelligent inquisitiveness to it, combined with a flicker of caution.

We must learn to read the attitude our horse’s eyes express, he continues. For example, his eye will grow dull and lose its curiosity and engagement as soon as he is bored, and especially if we fall into the trap of redundance in our work with him. By the same token, caution will shift to hesitation and even anxiety if we ask too much of him too early. Learn to recognize how his eye relaxes when he understands what we are asking of him.

Note the peculiar softness in his gaze when he trusts us. When he feels genuine attachment and affection for us, when his eyes say, ‘We belong to each other,’ that is the highest compliment a horse can ever pay us.

This little book is full of gentle wisdom, which goes a long way with horses. The author often encourages us to look at things in a different way. In “The Lower the Head, the Better the Frame of Mind,” he points out that the horse’s head position is a barometer of his own internal emotional state.

Initially, as he is learning, it is not unusual for a horse to elevate his head, Hamilton writes. This is a natural manifestation of avoidance behavior. We do not need to worry about it but simply acknowledge this is an indication he is still learning (and therefore a bit anxious). When he becomes more comfortable that the task is well within his repertoire, he will relax and his head will come down of its own accord.

Avoid focusing of getting the horse to lower his head; instead, focus on getting him more comfortable with the task. Work on his state of mind, not the position of his head.

What I liked most about the book is its surprises. Turn a page and there’s a bit of artwork—the face of a horse composed of flowers, or a wave rising into the shapes of three horses. Turn another page and there’s a great quote, such as this one from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it.

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Lead with Your Heart: Lessons from a Life with Horses, a 232-page hardback with a dozen color inserts,is available from Story Publishing (www.storey.com, 413-346-2100) in North Adams, MA, for $18.95. Also available on Amazon.