The 5-Element Theory: A Touch of History and Horses

By Amy Snow and Nancy Zidonis

A horse balanced in the Fire Element exhibits vigorous energy in summer.

Historical Context

Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on a series of theories that form a rich source of techniques for sustaining health and allowing the body, human or equine, to heal itself when not in balance. The first and most ancient theory is that of Yin and Yang, the two opposing yet essential aspects of Chi, the dynamic force that promotes life. The Yin-Yang Theory distinguishes Chinese philosophy and thought from all other philosophies in both the ancient and modern worlds.

Later, The Five-Element Theory was developed with the intention of creating an organized system of understanding the world rather than seeing life as a random and mystical series of unrelated events. In earliest references to the "elements" they were called "seats of government" and reflected a political structure having little to do with medicine. It wasn't until a book written during the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD24) entitled Great Transmission of the Valued Book do we find the first direct reference to "elements:" Water and Fire provide food, Metal and Wood provide prosperity and the Earth makes provisions. This is when scholars saw the organic nature of everything on earth; they understood that the living body was in constant interaction with its environment.

Energetic Phases

In Chinese the Five Elements are called Wu Zing. Wu means "five" in English. Xing means "movement, change, transition, process." The Chinese refer to this theory as "The Five Phases of Transformation." The intention of this system or model was to describe energetic phases of movement and change. It was the energetic sense of nature's basic constituents as they transitioned and transformed from one to the next that was important.

Spring's renewal of life brings renewed energy to a horse balanced in the Wood Element.

For instance, spring is associated with the Wood "element." The energetic sense of spring is the amazing power of life bursting forth from dormancy in winter. Wind tends to blow in the spring thus testing the strength and flexibility of both the old and young limbs of a tree to see if they are worthy of fresh life. Wood is the energy of birth, new beginnings, new possibilities, a newly green earth incrementally building its power to support growth just as the days become warmer and warmer leading to summer. Life forms in spring and then transforms into a phase of high energy to promote growth. This transition is to Fire, which is associated with summer: a time of heat, a time when the crops grow day-by-day toward maturity at the end of summer

The point is, the energetic sense of Fire is entirely different than that of Wood. It was the energetic shifts that interested the Chinese most when they applied this system to medicine. They looked to the natural cycles of seasons and life as an energetic model. Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water provided a metaphor that represented the natural cyclical flow of life interacting within its environment. Health is when the body seamlessly transforms and transitions in a balance of Yin and Yang from one energetic phase to the next.

Western Chinese Medicine practitioners have used the word "element," rather than expressing the original conceptual intent of phases of transformation, because it was convenient to identify the five natural phenomena as "elements". It has become convention in the west to refer to the theory of the five phases as The Five-Element Theory. Unfortunately, it has also caused some confusion regarding the application of the theory at times. Often, people view the Elements very literally and think of them as rigid categories and not depictions of energetics.

A horse balanced in the Water Element knows to contain the warmth of his body, his Yang energy, in winter.

The purpose in applying the Five-Element Theory to medicine was to create a scientific method of discerning patterns of disharmony, that is, an imbalance of the Yin-Yang in the body. They used, and we continue to use in Chinese Medicine, these five symbols of different energetics to distinguish diseases. Prior to this, disease was attributed to supernatural causes. The Five-Element Theory provided a scientific construct in which deductive and inductive thought could be used to ascertain the nature of illness.


Horses and the 5-Element Theory

The horse is extremely connected to the energetics of his own body and the cycles of his environment. A healthy horse is a horse that embodies all of the elements in harmonious balance. During the spring a healthy horse can withstand the winds that help clean the earth so that new life can emerge. His tendons and ligaments can flex, bend and strengthen as his body awakens to renewed movement after the winter months just as the branches on a tree are healthy if they can bend with the winds of spring. His eyes are clear and ready to envision beginnings of a new warming season of activity. He is very content to graze on the new green grass in the pasture. The surge of his own life-force is present in his body. This horse feels renewed because his energy is balanced in the Wood Element.

As the days increase in warmth and the light green of the new grass turns to a verdant, lush green of summer the healthy horse is joyous and full of vitality as the summer months unfold. Every ounce of his being emanates his burning passion to move his body with utter confidence. His vigorous equine spirit soars. It is a pleasure to watch this animal knowing that his Chi and Blood are flowing perfectly, giving him the energy he needs to be balanced in the Fire Element.

Toward the end of summer the energy begins its return to the earth. The intensity of summer heat is passed, grasses yellow, leaves lose their brilliance and fade, the smells shift to softer fragrances, while the crops are maturing as they ready for gathering. The horse balanced in the Earth Element knows it is time to begin to slow his pace, eat sufficiently to build his muscles and strength so that he will not have to worry about keeping warm during the cooler months approaching. The ancient Chinese saw Late Summer as a season unto itself since it has its own distinct energetics.

A healthy horse is a horse that embodies all of the elements in harmonious balance.

Fall brings the ingathering of the crops to sustain life through the winter months. Harvest is a phase of energy where the horse's immune system must be strong; his Protective Chi needs to be well gathered to defend himself from the increasing cold. A horse well balanced in the Metal Element will gain his own armor; his coat grows thick and long. He prepares for the greater cold to come where his metal will be challenged.

Fall is a time of harvest. A horse balanced in the Earth Element knows to eat well in preparation for the cold months ahead.

The horse that stores his Yang Chi, his warming energy, and moves in careful measure during the winter months, is balanced in the Water phase of transformation. He knows deep in his bones that he must sustain his essence through the chill of winter and let as little dissipate as possible. Water is the basis of life and the Kidney Organ System is responsible for storing and sustaining his Original Chi given to him by his ancestors. His long-term health is based on how well balanced he can be during this time while the earth is dormant. He must ready himself for the exuberance of spring by storing his energetic resources. The promise of spring will come again and a new cycle of life and earth will be repeated.

The balanced horse is a healthy horse. His body is readily able to contend and blend with his environment throughout his life. The Five-Element Theory can serve as a guide to living a good life well.



About the authors:

Nancy Zidonis and Amy Snow are the authors of: Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual, The Well-Connected Dog: A Guide To Canine Acupressure, and Acu-Cat: A Guide to Feline Acupressure. They own Tallgrass Publishers, which offers Meridian Charts for horses, dogs, and cats, plus Introducing Equine Acupressure, a 50-minute training video. They also provide training courses worldwide. To contact them: 888-841-7211;;