Introduction; Partnership Through Time
The human/horse intersection has for centuries been a partnership that has always had a stronger connection than that of purely workmates. Far from beasts of burden horses have long served in an unofficial role as our emotional partners; their natural ability to sense, feel, absorb and reflect human emotion creates a cathartic and symbiotic relationship. The human and animal interspecies relationship is both mollifying and cohesive and different animals fit into different parameters of human wellness; for example dogs are wonderful human partners to be sure, yet as predatory animals by nature their service and relationship from a companionship perspective is uniquely different than animals that are classified as a prey species.
One of the most important players in emotional wellness therapy is communication. Lack of good communication can cause a number of issues, where quality communication can remedy issues that may be lingering or eliminate them from ever existing in the first place.
Like many of us I have had a long and interesting journey of discovery in my own relationships with horses and have had the unique opportunity to create interactive wellness programs with horse partners and those living with challenges. The one thing that was always very clear to me is that the underlying connection that has assisted greatly in human progress and development is the nurturing aspect between us, serving as a natural therapeutic tonic. This unique relationship, which is certainly accompanied by the beauty and awe of the physical horse, is based upon that which is unseen. You can touch the horse physically, but you connect with the horse emotionally.
Interspecies communication is like the music beyond the words; transcending through perceived barriers, we are connected through our emotions and as we open the window into the unknown, we find our partnership with the horse.
The Horse; Reflections
“The eye of the horse is a mirror to our soul”, this was the very first thought that came to my mind many moons ago when I was asked, while involved in my first horse to human therapeutic partnership, “Why do you think this works so well?”
Why the horse?
What makes horses uniquely suited to human emotional wellness is that their herd dynamic inter-family relationship structure is based upon emotional intelligence and communication; each having their own individual strengths and weaknesses manifesting in dependency/co-dependency necessity for survival both as a “societal” group and as individuals. In many ways the natural herd structure and accord with both the environment and their interpersonal relationships as a whole, mirror our own circumstance. This unique “mirroring” has long been the underwriter of the human and horse partnership. Horses not only afford an aesthetically pleasing visual draw, their emotionally connective ability with humans living with challenges, as well as the family support system, is felt, seen, expressed and shared.
Horses can mirror us in three essential ways; firstly they’re uniquely individual, how the individual connects to and depends upon others for survival is a close second and thirdly by way of their relationship and role in perpetuating the overall herd societal structure.
Horses can “survive” physically with the proverbial food and water but suffer tremendously without quality emotional relationships; psychological isolation even in the mentally strong individual herd animal can manifest into patterns of behavior that are collaterally anti-social, narcissistic and over all difficult to manage in large doses. Even the most independent and emotionally sound horse has a natural affinity for relationships with their peers and though may seem content and “happy” on their own, can struggle to feel a sense of contentment without them.
Individually horses feel and sense many of the same things we do even if not in the same exact manner; their experiences and reactions to them are not accompanied by the gift of reason, (even though not all humans seem to employ reason before reaction). Because horses feel and experience as individuals things such as fear, anxiety, emotional trauma, loneliness as well as happiness, contentment and joy, again albeit in a different tone than we do, they are also subjected to how they fit into the herd puzzle because of these emotions.
You will note that missing from this parallel is the emotion of anger which in the horse is replaced by fear and uncertainty and can be expressed as a form of resentment or even stubbornness. Anger and animosity in the purest sense are antagonists to herd structure and would be counterproductive to their society’s survival because anger not tempered with reason and animosity without the succor of forgiveness can dismember the family structure. Without the cohesive family herd structure, the sustainable success of the species is compromised and fractured. Horses compete naturally for their place in the herd environment but Mother Nature cannot allow them to plot against one another and because of the lack of internally plotted animosities, horses become exceptional, emotionally non-threatening companions. (Competition is natural and healthy for the sustainability of the herd, allowing true leaders to emerge and emotional intelligence to prevail).
Horses reflect and mirror many of the best of our emotions without some of the worst. In light of this we not only find a likeness to the better angels of our nature reflected back to us but also an emotional absorbent of some of the things that we attempt to hide. There is safety in emotionally confiding in horses as they will not “judge” that which we deem as our own inadequacies.
In a compact scale of the herd unit, the individual horse “finding his or her place” or niche in the hierarchical structure also presents similarities to our own experience in doing the same. An extension of ourselves individually; the singular horse is a moveable puzzle piece. Based upon individual strengths and weaknesses each horse will, sometimes through attrition we see expressed physically, both carve out their place as well as seize their space and level. Their personal herd dynamic finds its way into the overall herd dynamics of the group. The primary goal is harmony and safety which leads to the much larger picture the “one small individual” plays; ultimate sustainability of the species.
There is no unimportant individual in any horse society, each cog in the wheel plays an essential role which carries with it responsibility, the smallest relationship a microcosm of the whole. Horses work together in a co-dependent manner because as a prey species the herd survival relies upon it and they are interconnected like dominoes; “your safety and harmony is ultimately in my best interest.”
To be sure, predatory animals living socially also work together and have a structured communicated arrangement. One of the most interesting things in nature I have ever studied has been the offensive and defensive relationship between prey and predator; to make a complex relationship simplified, on the one hand you have a species that “eats to survive” and on the other you have a species that “survives to eat”, so to speak. The differences between the predatory therapy animal and the prey therapy animal are as subtle as they are profound. Horses experience “reward” in the form of social harmony and comfort whereas the predator relates reward sourced through food. Thus the horse aligns with us in our search and yearning for emotional harmony, safety and comfort, making them a naturally fitted partner along the journey of human wellness.
Emotional Support; Purpose & Reason
Horses reach a broader audience than only those who ride them; indeed physical contact, though wonderful, is not required to have a relationship with a horse, the great emotional communicator. Some of the most profound human/horse relationships I ever was witness to were between horses and children living with challenges that made it impossible for them to “touch” the horses, but they were nonetheless touched by them.
Animals have been providing emotional support to humans for centuries, and it could be argued that among the greatest gifts is that very thing. The line between an animal bringing you joy as a “pet” and stability or purpose for your emotional support, is not defined by the animal itself but human need. The connotation “pet” basically means to me “an animal you can pet”, you shower them with care and kindness and enjoy the rewards that that kind of relationship brings you; you being the facilitator.
Emotional support animals play a more caregiver-like role, themselves counted on for their unending love, loyalty, affection, the human thus the recipient. Because of the range of emotions horses can sense and feel, absorb and reflect, they can individually as well as collectively have incredible purpose as emotional support animals. I know for me I have always felt much better after being with a horse or two. Horses may not seem at first glance the ideal thought of emotional support companion because of things like their size and what is required to keep them physically, but when you take a look at the beautiful complexity of their communication ability and social structure you will find a sanctuary for many human emotions.
Emotional support needs can come in a wide variety of areas but its remedy is rooted in communication, a feeling, succor for the yearning of emotional stability and balance, purpose of life. Whether the desire for an emotional support animal comes from a singular area of need or from several, horses can and do provide a source of comfort. Their natural ability to absorb human emotion provides a safe place for the insecure and uncertain, often anxiety filled human counterpart to disarm and unburden themselves of emotions they do not feel comfortable sharing with another.
The sense of requiring emotional support can stem from a collection of anxieties working in unison to make a person feel things like fear and ambiguity; horses are equipped to filter this and provide an environment of catharsis. I truly feel that the greatest therapy a horse has to offer comes from the emotional relationship we have with them. Emotional relationships are a natural desire of human nature, and so they are for the horse, yet when what is required to have a meaningful relationship of any kind is missing, communication, we tend to start projecting. Because they are a “natural absorbent”, emotional wellness therapy that includes the horse as part of it can supply profound results.
You don’t have to “need” an emotional support animal to enjoy the benefits of the relationship and that sense of fulfillment they provide, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with turning to an animal to share the load of emotional complexities we all of deal with. Horses are a great source of companionship for anyone because of their character and personality; if emotional support is what you need they can provide it, if emotional maintenance is what you need, they can provide that also.
Emotional wellness is a major component for sustained physical health and healing, and horses are a wonderful go-to for finding in them, what it is we seek in ourselves.
Equine PTSD, The Human Parallel
The feeling of stress after a traumatic emotional event is something that all sentient beings, animal or human, can and do experience. Fortunately many such experiences only affect a brief time period and are filtered, processed and moved on from. However when the impact of trauma lingers unprocessed or wholly unfiltered, especially when experienced in a life threatening manner or something similar, self preservation identifies a trigger and associates it with the event in order to add a layer of protection against its reoccurrence. Emotional experience plays a very large role in every part of a horse’s psychological life, positive and confident as well as protective and uncertain. Negative, unfiltered experiences of trauma can cause just as much distorted behavior as positive experiences can nurture harmony; it is with the horse, it is with the human.
Horses carrying around behavioral disorders from post traumatic stress can fool you; they can seem to be in perfect harmony with themselves, other horses, and in the environment as a whole. This is because the ghost that is PTSD is frequently associated with a single moment of trauma, and can be for the most part “kept in the closet of the mind” only cracking the door at seemingly unconnected times. Mother Nature’s gift of self preservation helps ensure survival and one of the instruments of its practical use comes from the anticipatory response mechanism. In order to avoid experiencing the trauma again a trigger is assigned and attached to a “memory” and by way of a warning system things in the environment, even loosely attached to the traumatic experience, become associated. (Associations are identified as triggers and anticipated in the form of anxiety). It’s worth noting that horses can also struggle with PTSD from purely emotional experiences; post traumatic stress is emotionally governed, physical trauma with no psychological trauma attached to it will not manifest into an emotional disorder. One of the keys to processing physically seeded Equine PTSD is to provide similar physical experiences with positive emotional outcomes; remedy is rather more complex however, for the emotionally rooted wound.
Trauma that is purely of an emotional aspect or physical injury that has long since healed with a heavy and lingering backdrop of unprocessed emotion still attached, can pave the way for behavioral disruptions. Sensations of fear, abandonment, loneliness or a disconnection from changes in the environment are felt when interpretation ability is compromised by an alarmist (over protective) version of the anticipatory response mechanism; this greatly affects the ability to manage even simple things in life. Psychological challenges stemming from one trigger, just one singular major event can, over time, build and manifest as other loosely associated triggers and further mentally isolate the otherwise naturally gregarious horse. Once the horse begins to feel a sense of internal isolation and isn’t able to as easily communicate themselves to and with other horses or their environment in general, normal and healthy co-dependency/co-existence begins to break down. When the normal avenue of environmental harmony is compromised, the desire for fulfillment becomes internalized and once socially processed stress is isolated, leading to aberrations in behavior patterns. These aberrations can disrupt normal behavior “out of the blue” from “nothing”, like ghosts within the psychology, opening the way for addictive, abnormal patterns within behavior. An addictive pattern within the behavior means that the overload of emotions has become overwhelming to the point that the horse’s tendencies will be to outsource toward things perceived to offer aid.
The strong desire for safety, comfort and appeasement within the growing internal maelstrom of the psyche begins to attach itself to that which gives a sense of relief; this desire is often fulfilled through attachment disorder, (addiction) and/or dangerously expressive physical processing, or both. Once learned experiences (reason) that previously governed the interpretational aspect are superseded by anxiety and anticipation, you’re left with an un-buffered equation of, anticipate and react, sustaining lingering trauma “post event”.
In dealing with and helping to process trauma deeply housed within the psyche it is essential to realize that you’re not going to erase it, it will always be there. Your goal is to soften its impact, minimize the time of its affect and use the very thing which helps trigger it in the first place against it; associations. Once there is a layered experience that manifests into learned behaviors your best opportunity to chip away at the relevancy of the association is to isolate an associated event and overlay the anticipated response with a “comfortable escape”, replacing the expected negative stress.
Compartmentalizing the psyche with closely associated positive experiences affords the opportunity for an individual to realize harmony where there was only anxiety. You’re not re-creating the psyche, you’re working to help align or reassemble the pieces of a puzzle.
Because horses can experience a full range of emotional disorders to one degree or another means they can play a vital role in the development of therapeutic assistance to humans faced with similar challenges. Reflective Learning Therapy is the term I use for this concept because horses offer a safe, non-threatening alternative for those individuals dealing with trauma internally that they do not feel comfortable discussing in detail. The horse is such a great natural emotional communicator they can help absorb, filter and thus reflect back a sense of calm.
In order for affective therapy to take place the person needs to feel they can freely release their stress and emotions without the perceived threat of ridicule or judgment; nothing will be processed without its being absorbed out of the psyche. Working with an equine partner in any number of simple to complicated tasks depending on the situation, begins to build a depth of emotional communication between the human and horse; the avenue with which emotional stress and trauma can be minimized.
Not only can the equine caregiver help therapy emotion in partnership tasks, they are excellent indicators of human emotion that isn’t necessarily and purposefully expressed. Horses are wonderful “barn barometers” and when you want to know the level of stress or anxiety in their human counterpart, all you have to do is watch closely for the subtle signs a horse is giving in reflection. This reflection of human emotion is in my opinion, an essential element for not only identifying the depth of unspoken anxiety and stress, but also the key in developing case specific therapeutic programs. The horse can indicate moments of elevated emotional stress because this is a natural herd dynamic trait that allows them to read the herd environment for signs of danger; making it a natural alarm of sorts when working a person through emotional traumas. Horses, by reflection, can indicate when to press through and when to back off, making them in my opinion a reliable option to consider along the road of wellness.
Equine Assisted Education; Learning Is Discovery
The educator seeking an avenue to enhance the delivery and impact of their curriculum would do well to consider the horse.
Environmentally based classrooms allow for discovery and help encourage self reliance, replacing a sense of outsourcing and dependency. An educational program involving horses not only changes the game from a typical teacher/student classroom perspective, it brings with it a multitude of unique teaching opportunities for students who struggle with “normal” curriculum environments.
Equine assisted education offers many exclusive benefits. Partnered with uniquely devised curriculum for students in teams, in groups, or singularly, horses can provide opportunities for discovering things yet unrealized, help develop enhanced problem solving skills and build the confidence to share thoughts, learn tasks and work with others for a common goal. True learning is poignantly found through the avenue of discovery, creating an environment of discovery is an instructors most powerful tool with which to implement a curriculum; learning “how to learn” and identifying with achievable goals is just as important as the subject matter focused on to get there.
Education presented with practical life skills in accompaniment, is education with depth and substance.
Horses present what is for many students without opportunity quite a different “animal” to learn about and from, allowing the teacher a unique opportunity to choreograph curriculum in ways a typical classroom doesn’t allow for. Yet far from purely their physical presence we once again are accessing the primary tool provided by the emotionally intelligent horse, their communication ability.
Communication skills are at the core of life itself regardless of the relationship whether personal or professional, they are also the key for education and learning. No curriculum can be successfully implemented without efficient lines of communication between those involved. The horses’ ability to assist us with our communicative processes through interaction and environmental awareness presents great opportunity for teaching and learning. Education implemented through horses helps us understand and recognize that only part of communicating is done through written or spoken word, and that learning how to recognize and understand emotional communication, how to read an environment before reacting to it, teaches personal accountability for the impact an individual has to that immediate environment.
It is always important to remember that how information is delivered greatly affects how that information is received and implemented. Emotional inflection carries weight that supersedes the message either in a positive or negative manner, something quite important to be mindful of at all times in all situations. Working with horses in various manners such as specifically designed obstacle courses, present wonderful opportunities for non-verbal, environmental awareness education.
This uncommon “classroom” experience allows the opportunity not only to enhance the student learning experience individually and collectively, it also provides a different avenue of learning, a useful strategy to help the student that views “normal” classrooms as a challenge. Change the environment, change the game.
Courses can be designed for individual skills as well as for teamwork skills, leadership skills, group cooperation, problem solving and programs designed for peer leadership development, to name but a few. The environment of learning has a lot to do with ones willingness to be taught; the more fluid and natural the environment, the more collaborative the education. When lessons learned are a byproduct of discovery and experience, the student can begin to realize that self confident, “can-do” part of them that may have been dormant. This in turn goes a long way for individuals of various backgrounds and “circles of friends” finding ways of mutual understanding and respect; a single dose of individual humanity can supersede an assumed negativity in a group demographic.
Equine assisted education has a lot more to offer than just a field trip excursion, learning to be aware of and care for more than yourself in an environment that demands your attention facilitates learning. Some of the most impactful and lasting lessons we learn are absorbed through experience; when education is built through the avenue of experience, it becomes knowledge.
Selecting Horses; Purposeful Partnerships
Selecting the right horse for any task or future goal is much like a “job interview” of sorts; your primary focus is to choose ability from a pool of character.
Because horses are social animals equipped with emotional intelligence, they are subject to the rhythms of their environment; they will have singular strengths and weaknesses psychologically that greatly affect their ability to manage stress in the environment which by turn has tremendous impact on their ability to perform physically and mentally. The very first question that needs answered is, how well does the individual processes stress? Just because horses as a species are wonderful communicators that are able to both reflect and absorb their environment and are naturally athletic does not mean that every horse as an individual is going to be a rock star. The development of their skill sets individually is incumbent upon the herd structure and where they fit.
The hierarchical structure of the natural herd dynamics are based upon emotional intelligence, this allows for a natural separation of individuals in a herd structure that lends itself to herd sustainability. Physically the horse is athletic by nature, not for the benefit of human sport mind you, but for the benefit of survival in a volatile world. Physically speaking different breeds have been and are bred for specific physical goals and by virtue of this you will increase your chances of getting a physically talented athlete by proxy of the breeding, however that horse’s ability to mentally optimize that which he/she is bred for is still bound to the psyche. This is why in athletics sustaining of high level physical ability can be very difficult and random; unless paired with a herd dynamic evaluation you’re leaving it to fate where on the herd dynamic totem pole your horse is likely to fit. Where they fit plays a major role when in competition against peers.
Matching the total horse to task or goal is essential and a wide range of herd dynamic character traits and tendencies come in to play. When it comes to athletics sure, if you invest in a horse breed dedicated to the sport you will have yourself a horse that has all the earmarks of athleticism that breed delivers, however it doesn’t mean the individual horse is going to be a super star athlete. So few are indeed, because no matter how we try to define the physical breed and lines the individual horse is still a part of Mother Nature’s design; a socially dependent herd animal.
The herd dynamic structure requires different strengths and weaknesses in the majority of horses that bind them together, dependency and codependency creates an atmosphere where individuals need one another for their own survival. This partnership in nature cannot be overruled and will not be “bred-out” of the species so it is best to embrace its existence and respect its influence. Understanding the total horse gives the opportunity to work with what nature has given the individual so that we as trainers, coaches, educators, therapists, caregivers etc., can create an environment of success and employ the advantage of selecting the individual for their own unique character traits.
Horses being contemplated for emotional support partners, wellness caregivers or education accomplices must be considered first and foremost based upon their emotional intelligence and capacity for managing emotional stress. A purposeful partnership, especially when an emotional connection is required for success, can only be fully realized by considering “who” the horse is. It is essential that the herd dynamic traits of the individual horse are suited for what is required for the task at hand or goal that is set.
In wellness therapies matching horse ability to human need is vital, not every horse or human will fit one to the other. One of the contributing factors to “burn out” for horses is being matched to humans and/or an environment they’re not naturally equipped to manage emotionally. Recruiting horses for any program is much more involved than simply taking in a horse for the program. Selecting horses isn’t like going to a car lot and picking out a car that looks good that you can afford, because your car comes with its driver and if you’re on the “previously owned” lot, the unknown history is very much a part of both the now and the future.
The right horse for the right task matched to the naturally fitted goal and or human partner is not only fulfilling for both but quite often magical. The physical horse presents us a vision of beauty, but it is the emotional horse that provides us a connection of meaning.
Final Thoughts; Hope Is A Destination
Realizing hope, embracing its possibility and potential, is a very powerful thing.
There are few things more compromising to the human psyche than forlorn hope; it degrades our potential and minimizes our self worth. Horses have a unique way of being representative of the hope we sometimes don’t sense within ourselves, and for many throughout history the draw was real; a good horse can help you get across the prairie, escape danger, hunt for food, go into battle, or survive the deafening grip of loneliness.
There is a unique connection to be had with horses that is in my opinion, quite different than that which is experienced with other animals for a multitude of reasons. Human nature in all of its many parts aligns well with those that make up the emotional horse, opening the way for a partnership that, like our own with one another, can be as beautiful as it is challenging. Other animals, dogs particularly, certainly provide esteemed and valued connective relationships and being more reasonably accessible than the upkeep and care demands of a horse, dogs are highly prized, reliable companions. I love dogs, I love all animals to be sure, and I feel that the many animal companions provide their own specialized spin on what they bring to the relationship table.
Modern times have changed the once common in everyday life human horse partnership; we have vehicles and machinery and so on, greatly subverting the physical, workman type of relationship we once depended upon as human kind marched through the ages of progress. Yet the fabric of that relationship is still alive and is still of great value and purpose, even if not as commonly accessible or known to as many.
One thing that has long connected us to the horse is hope, we project it into them and they by turn reflect it back into us. We see the hope of success when we find an athlete, we sense the hope in healing when connect in partnership, through the horse we are touched by the promise of hope, and reminded who we are when we see our reflection in their eyes. Horses have a beautiful way of reminding us that no matter what we’re going through in life, hope is a worthy destination.
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