Horses have a unique set of innate characteristics which make them ideal learning partners and co-therapists in our work. Here I’ll discuss some of these characteristics and the ways in which they benefit clients.
Bridging the prey/predator relationship gap
Learning to bridge the prey/predator relationship gap with horses can help us learn curiosity, empathy, and compassion for others as we begin to more fully understand their experience.
Horses are prey animals: Even the most domesticated horses remain wired by nature as prey animals and are always aware of and concerned for their safety and survival despite the fact that they are no longer need to protect themselves from the predators that hunted them in their natural environment.
Humans are predators: Humans are at the top of the food chain and are the ultimate predators (hunters in our natural environment), and since safety and survival are not our primary concern, we are motivated by very different interests. We are driven by such things as our goals and accomplishments, our personal relationships, the praise and recognition of others or the acquisition of material possessions, to name just a few. Because our perspective on life is so very different from a horse’s it can be very difficult, even seemingly impossible, for us to understand their experience.
The relationship gap and our hidden assumptions: Surprisingly, this relationship gap is not unlike the one we experience with other humans. Most of us live by our stories and assumptions about other people, even those closest to us like our family members. Left unexplored, these assumptions lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and conflict, and also limits opportunities to build intimacy with others by learning more about them.
Seeing through another’s eyes: The skills required to build a relationship with a horse, are the very same skills that will help you develop curiosity, compassion, empathy, and understanding in your human relationships. The horses offer a unique opportunity to practice those interactions outside of your human relationships while you build your confidence and effectiveness in a supportive environment with honest and forgiving learning partners.
Heightened intuition; a mirror for your emotions
A horse’s heightened intuition makes him extremely perceptive to your unconscious thoughts and feelings and allows him to reflect them back to you, as if in a mirror. Horses provide a model for you to trust your own intuition and sense of what is right for you.
As prey animals, horses depend on their acute senses and intuition for survival. They are constantly aware of their environment, the emotions of their fellow herd members, and the hidden intentions of the predators that hunt them.
Their environment: Horses notice things that would never show up on a human’s radar; a bird landing on a tree across the street, or a neighbor’s dog being let out into the yard. A horse can even sense a coyote off in the woods, out of sight, more than half a mile away.
The emotions of their fellow herd members: Horses rely on their intuitive connection with their herd members for survival. If the lead mare senses danger, her body will tense and she will spring to attention. This energy will move like a wave of sound through the herd as each horse picks up her distress and becomes alert to the danger.
The hidden intentions of the predators that hunt them: Have you ever heard of a cougar having hidden intentions? Picture a cougar pretending it is not hungry and attempting to project an attitude of “I’m a peaceable guy today, just out for a stroll, maybe I don’t even notice you,” then casually angling closer to stragglers and trying to seem disinterested, right up until he’s ready to pounce on his prey.
A mirror for your emotions: Just as the lead mare will send her feeling of distress through the herd to alert them to danger, a human’s feelings will travel much like sound waves, through space and the other horses will sense them. In essence, a horse will feel what you are feeling, and then will display that emotion through their behavior. Observing your emotions being acted out by a horse can be like seeing a reflection of your inner self in a mirror. Horses know what you are feeling even if you don’t and this can be a powerful experience for those who are unaware of their authentic feelings, or have not yet had the courage to express them.
Congruency: coming out from behind the mask
Learning to express our real feelings and intentions with horses helps you learn to build trust and become more authentic in your human relationships, without the risk of judgment or criticism.
The masks we wear: Even without meaning to, we tend to hide our real feelings and intentions in our relationships. We all have feelings, wants, and needs and it isn’t always emotionally safe or socially appropriate to make them known. We have developed carefully crafted masks and distracting or manipulative behaviors designed to hide our emotions and protect ourselves from the judgments and criticism of others.
Let’s get real: Horses see right through these masks and behaviors and immediately recognize the ones that are not consistent or “congruent” with the person’s actual internal experience. They respond with fear, distrust, and distance like they would with that cougar, until the person is able to acknowledge their real feelings and intentions and allow them to show. It is not the feeling itself that makes a horse uneasy, but a person’s attempt to hide it.
Authenticity: what you see is what you get
Because horses always express exactly what they are feeling, they can give us valuable feedback about how others experience us.
No guesswork: Because humans tend to hide their feelings, it is often difficult to know how other people experience you. Do they like you? Dislike you? Do they understand what you are trying to communicate? Unlike humans, horses are unable to hide their feelings. They use their own non-verbal language, as well as the very same energetic language that underlies every spoken human interaction, to communicate exactly how they feel about you and your way of interacting.
Show me how you feel about me: If they trust you and feel curious about you, they might move closer. If they feel afraid or distrusting, they may move away and observe you from a distance. They are always honest and authentic in their responses, without concern for your reaction. Watching a horse respond to you can give you valuable information about how others see and experience you, and what you might chose to do differently in order to change the dynamics in your relationship.
Replicating your human relationships
In your interactions with the horses, you will find yourself behaving with the horse just as you do in your human relationships, and together you will recreate the very same dynamics.
Recreating your human relationships: Because you are practiced in your own way of interacting in relationships, you will rely on those tried and true methods when you interact with the horses as well. Because horses respond authentically to your interaction with them, together you will recreate the same dynamics that show up consistently in your human relationships.
Try, try again: Because horses are endlessly forgiving and live entirely in the moment, they adjust immediately to any changes you make in the way you interact with them. These adjustments or “do-overs” are met with a fresh response each time, giving you many opportunities to practice and apply your learning with each interaction. In this way, they become remarkable source of feedback about how effective you are at incorporating your new skills. They will help provide you with consistent positive feedback for making the changes you want to see in yourself.
A language beyond words
Horses model a non-verbal and energetic way of communicating that will help you move beyond words to uncover the truth underneath.
Words aren’t enough: We’ve all had the experience of our spoken language getting in the way. We say the wrong thing, we are misunderstood by someone, or we question whether someone actually means what they say. What we are experiencing is our intuition telling us that something got missed in that interaction. Research shows that only 10% of communication comes from the spoken word. That leaves 90% to come from other sources.
Louder than words: It turns out that humans, like horses, are very sensitive to those incongruent moments when what someone says and what they actually mean don’t match. Horses model a way of communicating that gathers information from all sources. They help give you permission to listen to your intuition and the hunches, gut feelings, and body sensations that tell you what is really being said.
Feel your way through: Once you begin to trust yourself and learn how to read a horse’s non-verbal language, you’ll rely less on your words and develop the confidence to calmly “feel” your way through your human interactions. You’ll begin to notice when your own words and behaviors are inconsistent, and learn to act with greater integrity and authenticity in your interactions. You will translate your learning easily back into your spoken interactions because you will be far more connected with yourself.
The Play of Leadership
Horses rely on clear leadership roles within the herd to ensure their safety. They play dominance games with one another to test the strength of their leaders.
Leadership games: When they feel safe and confident, horses play dominance games with one another to establish the pecking order of leadership within the herd. A strong leader increases their chances of survival and they must continue to test the strength of their leader in each moment to make sure they are qualified for the job.
Testing the leader: Because horses are continually seeking leadership to feel safe, they test their human counterparts in the same way. A horse will give you endless opportunities to practice setting boundaries, asserting yourself confidently, trusting yourself and your decisions, and following through with what you say you will do.
Collaborative leadership: Horses model a method of leadership that is playful and collaborative as well as assertive. After-all, they must stick together and maintain their relationships at the same time they are asserting their leadership. Emulating these qualities while interacting with a horse builds confidence and self esteem as you prove to yourself what you are capable of in relationships.