BLOG#10: Be more like a horse, one connection at a time.
I used to think that horses grazing together were doing nothing other than eating grass, but I was wrong. I see now that they constantly look after each other through present-moment awareness and subtle body language. Now I enjoy seeing others discover for themselves the intelligence of herd communication. In our Inner Mirror workshop at Earthhorse one thing we do is invite people to observe the herd and comment on what they see, including the slightest gesture. In a recent workshop the first observation was that each horse in the herd was facing a slightly different direction. We realised this was not random. The horses were able to survey 360 degrees, scanning the landscape with their ears while eating grass. Another useful observation was that each horse took up their own space, pretty much equidistant from each other.
As we were peacefully observing, loud machinery started up in the neighbouring farm. All the horses looked up at once, heads high, ears forward, bodies taut, ready for action. They instantly formed a straight line facing the direction of the noise, just like an army contingent at inspection, but before making a move they waited for the head mare to let them know whether it was a fight, flight, or ignore situation. After about 30 seconds she turned her back to the noise and relaxed the angle of her head. She was saying “don’t bother about that, it won’t hurt us”. One by one the others turned their backs also and returned to grazing. Again, without fuss or effort, each horse took a unique direction, maintaining a respectful space from each other. This recovery was in spite of the machinery noise carrying on with the same intensity. But there was a discernable change in the group now, as one horse at a time raised his/her head to look around for a few seconds, moving his/her ears around like antenae before going back to grazing. Lynda Kohanov (The Five Roles of a Master Herder) would say that they were each taking up one of five possible leadership roles, that of the sentinal.
What can a simple observation like this teach us about human life? Even though the human herd is much larger, more complex, and more mobile than a horse herd, the calm and orderly nature of equine society reminds us of what could also work for us. What we saw was horses naturally keeping their own space, a safe distance from each other. On average that space was two horse lengths. Any time a horse found himself too close to another he would take a few steps away. Any horse stepping away from another is, of course, being submissive, but this is not a bad thing if submitting is the same as willing cooperation. But if a horse asks another to move too abruptly, too often, or too much, he might receive a little threatening kick or bite. If several threatening kicks don’t send the protagonist away, then a full-on contact kick might come next. This is a common situation as horses affirm or renegotiate their place in the hierarchy. None of it is surprising, but the special gift from horses is seeing how quickly they difuse anger, modeling healthy one-on-one behaviour for us. Humans typically make negotiations unnecessarily difficult and complicated, while horses don’t agonise over whether or not they have hurt another’s feelings, and neither do they harbour resentment. They don’t walk around seething all day, saying their mates, “guess what he did to me?”, and the horse who receives a reprimand doesn’t sulk for a week. Even though they have immense strength and fighting ability, with the exception of stallion fights in the wild they avoid serious scraps; they get over power struggles straight away and “go back to grazing”. They have learned this as a species because it is in the best interests of the herd to be calm, peaceful, and available to deal with whatever greater threat might come along. If only humans could just as quickly get over disagreements and bad stuff happening. What if, in the best interests of the human herd, we refused to carry around our resentment. It really is as though we don’t realise that what goes on inside us emotionally has a real affect on the people around us. The reason horses can let go so readily, where we find it so difficult, is that they are not ego-driven. They put the herd before individualism and as a result are masters in mindfulness, leadership, and harmonious communal living.
I think about the role of the head mare and I see that everything she does is in order to keep the herd safe. I see her leading the herd with body language from the front of the group or by directing from behind. I see her reprimanding a young horse, I see her protecting the horses at the bottom of the hierarchy, and I see just how effectively she raises the alarm then turns it off for immediate calmness. Sometimes she has to be forceful, but not out of egotistical motivation or malice. Although it might not always look like it to us, the reason she does anything at all is for the safety and well-being of the whole herd. Let’s be more like a horse, leading with care and compassion, learning how to give and take, letting go of hurts and insults. Let’s endeavour to do this in the interests of the whole human herd, one connection at a time.
BLOG # 9: Soul-to-soul connection
Through Equine Assisted Therapy work, clients often experience the unknown and the unknowable in a way that I can only explain as soul-to-soul connection — horse-to-human. Whenever I meditate in the presence of horses, or work with clients in a variety of meditative practices, the result is a profound sense of connectedness to all of life.
A woman in her mid fifties came to work with our horses because she felt as though she had been “dead inside for at least a decade”. She wasn’t sure whether or not people had souls, but she figured that if they did, hers had long since gone elsewhere. Being a devoted career woman, she had given her life to her work, and now she felt as though life was empty and pointless. She wanted to find some meaning. She was keen to learn to meditate but found she couldn’t keep her mind on her breath or a mantra, and at the same time her inner voice kept telling her it was all a bit pointless and probably didn’t work anyway. I quessed that to start with, a mindfulness meditation would be best for her where the emphasis is on developing awareness of all mental and physical processes, more than on concentrating on one single thing. I told her that horses are in this sort of mindful state most of the time, and that we can see this when we watch them grazing. So, as a learning exercise, we spent half an hour in silence watching our herd graze, and I asked her to describe what she saw:
“All seven horses are eating grass, pushing it around with their soft noses, gently picking out the tasty bits. One horse makes a relaxed but sharp snort which the others ignore. She goes back to grazing. Nearby a horse shakes his whole body for a few seconds. Straight away he goes back to grazing. Another swishes his tail to swat a fly, then back to grazing. His neighbour moves to another spot … back to grazing. All horses have their ears moving about following sounds while they are grazing and they also appear to be seeing everything around them while their noses remain on the ground. One horse brings his head up to follow a sound that the others ignore … back to grazing. I can see they all have the breeze blowing in their hair, and I can feel it gently on my skin as well. One horse scratches an itch … then back to grazing. Another comes to sniff my hand … back to grazing. The half hour passed very quickly and I feel incredibly calm as though I have been transported to another place. It reminds me of the mindfulness lesson I had earlier where I had my mind on one idea while having a wider awareness of everything around me. I took a strong impression of this horse experience home and that night was inspired to practise mindful eating. I was eating alone and did not allow myself to be distracted by TV, books, talking, or anything else. Whenever my mind wandered I simply took note of it and then went back to the awareness of eating my meal. Food had never tasted so good!”
The horses were acutely aware of their environment while grazing, and whatever distracted them were fleeting moments, followed by an immediate return to grazing. This behavior is very closely related to the experience of a meditator gently returning to the meditation object once distractions are gently noticed and accepted. For horses it is “back to grazing”. This phrase, adopted by Linda Kohanov (a pioneer of horse facilitated therapy), provides a powerful analogy for letting go and returning to the task, whatever it might be. Horses are masters of letting go of whatever disturbs their peace, but simultaneously they are fully aware of what is going on around them since in the wild they might at any time need to run from perceived danger. That doesn’t mean they are living in fear, they are simply aware, and their awareness is what helps them survive.
My client had allowed the horses to take her to a deeper, calmer place within herself. Whether she calls this her soul, or not, really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that approached from a meditative state, horses invite us to meet undefined parts of ourselves where we sense our deepest human values and existential meaning. They open us to the experience of a sacred dimension within ourselves.
Blog # 8 Horses Grieve for Their Friends
Recently we buried two beloved horses from our herd. The first was a 30+ year old mini called Chipper who had Cushings disease and was prone to laminitis. We had wondered whether he would survive his last winter, but he seemed to cope well with fed supplements and special “old man” food. As spring emerged though, he went downhill quickly. The signs were slight to start with – moving slower, not keeping up with the herd, lying down more. Then one day I came across him on the side of a hill, making a very strange bellowing noise in distress from being disorientated and losing sight of his herd mates. Maybe it was time to alert the vet that Chipper’s time was coming? We put it off. We loved him dearly and didn’t want to say goodbye just then. A morning or two later my partner Sarah found him lying down, unwilling or unable to get up. There was no denying now that it was his time. Our wonderful vet from Raglan came, and after we said our farewells with lots of hugs and tears, Chipper was released in the most humane manner possible.
We wanted the other seven horses to be aware that Chipper had gone so we left him lying where he was for a couple of hours. They came by and looked at him, although they had gone out of sight earlier when the vet was euthanising him. One of the horses “pawed” him to try to get him up, or maybe just to see whether there was any life left. Other than that, they did not display unusual behavior. By nightfall the digger had completed the large hole, Chipper was lowered into it, and the soil returned. Early the next morning we came across an amazing sight: the whole herd was gathered around the burial mound in a semi-circle, then their ceremony began. Tara, the lead mare, took each of the other horses over the mound, one by one. Each horse “pawed” the ground once or twice then moved on. Finally, Chipper’s closest herd mate – another mini horse – walked across and lay down on the mound. He stayed there, with his ear to the ground for a while as the others looked on. To us humans the whole thing looked like a funeral. Were we just anthropomorphising?
Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, has studied animal emotion extensively and has published some fascinating results. He is convinced that animals grieve, and he gives many moving examples of sea lions, elephants, dolphins, wolves and birds grieving for their family members. He says it is arrogant to think we’re the only animals who mourn. There was a time when the mere thought that animals could have emotions similar to, or the same as human (animals), was regarded as ridiculous. Now, it is scientifically accepted that many species have the same complexity of emotion as humans, including love and grief. It is obvious that they experience fear, pain, and even happiness. We only have to throw a ball at the beach for a dog to see happiness personified, but for some reason (probably to do with our misplaced sense of superiority), humans have assumed sole rights to the emotion of love.
Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques are now capable of demonstrating that humans form emotions in a primitive part of the brain called the limbic system. We share this part of the brain with all mammals. Scientists also tell us that we share the same neurotransmitter chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins, with other species. It seems obvious then, that if the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry are the same, the feelings or emotions will also be the same, or very similar. We assume we are very different from animals because we have this highly developed frontal cortex that allows us to think and reason. Horses largely lack this, but their brains are perfect for what they were designed to do, that is, to keep safe and to survive in their natural environment. Scientists also tell us that animals experience moment-to-moment consciousness, just as humans do. This was agreed by a group of prominent scientists in 2012 in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals. As well as experiencing consciousness and the same emotions as us, many species experience and demonstrate love for each other. Why wouldn’t they? Surely, love or concern for other members of a group, herd or community, is a survival asset.
For the most recent horse death at Earthhorse Aotearoa, the herd reacted in a different, but equally moving, manner. Our elderly thoroughbred, Jake, had cancer. We knew we would have to euthanise him within the next few months, and we also knew we couldn’t ask him to go through the coming winter. We kept a close eye on Jake, knowing we would call the vet before he got to the stage of suffering badly. Any horse owner who keeps their horses for life will tell you that timing is a difficult thing to get right, not only in terms of dealing with our emotions, but because horses are good at hiding their pain. It was the other horses who told us the story of Jake’s suffering. To look at him he seemed fine and healthy except for a fist-sized lump on his hindquarters, but what changed was the behaviour of the herd. We observe our horses closely since they are a therapy herd and we need to monitor changes in heirarchy and behaviour to adapt our work with them. What we saw for a number of weeks was that Jake constantly had one or another horse close by as though they were operating a buddying roster. Tara, the lead mare, was especially attentive and would mutually groom and stand head to head for hours. I have a vivid picture in my mind (but had no camera at the time unfortunately) of Jake leaning his neck and head over Tara’s back as though sleeping. It was unusual for her to spend so much time with Jake, who was near the bottom of the herd heirarchy — she had other favourites for grooming and hanging out. On the day we decided it was Jake’s time, all the horses took their turn to say goodbye to him, then as with Chipper, they walked out of sight for the lethal injection part. Unlike Chipper, where the horses grieved for three days after he died, with Jake the horses had already processed his parting through months of nurturing. The day after he was buried we saw one horse (a relatively new addition to the herd) standing on the grave site for a few hours, but it seemed the others had already come to terms with Jake going. I was reminded of parting with a dear friend in his 90s, where after months of suffering, it was a great relief to see him pass away. All our emotions were spent, and we had already said our goodbyes. Why should it be any less of an emotional journey for horses.
Blog # 7 The Horse as our Mirror
Have you ever been in a room where the atmosphere around someone sucks the energy out of the space? And the opposite, where a person radiates happiness, joy and vitality? If we can sense the emotional state of humans so easily, then think how much more sensitive a prey animal like a horse is around predators such as ourselves. Their lives have depended for millennia on accurately reading predators, and they are experts at it. Even though we have domesticated horses, and most of them are comfortable sharing space with us, scientific studies tell us that the horse senses our heart rate, smells our levels of adrenalin, and senses our intentions, merely through reading the signs of our body language. What is really wonderful is that we can use that sensitivity to learn about ourselves.
When you spend time around horses, you can actually imagine that they read our minds. Have you heard it said that horses act as mirrors to our true state of mind or state of being? How can a horse act as a mirror, and why would we even want them to? As an Equine Assisted Therapist I see how the presence of horses provides a special kind of mirror, one that doesn’t only reflect back exactly what is there, but also reflects the contrary. So a horse can let us know what we are actually feeling (and sometimes this is surprising) but it can also happen that a horse is uncomfortable with what she is reading from us — maybe we are pretending to be one thing (eg, relaxed) when actually we are another thing (eg., nervious) and the non-verbal messages we give out could frighten her. But, however a horse responds to us, we can read their reactions and uncover amazingly useful information for our own personal growth, reflection, and learning. The term I like to use for this process is “reflective feedback”, since sometimes we see a mirror image of ourselves, and at other times a horse’s honest reaction to us can jolt us into facing what sort of subliminal messages we give out.
One absolute about horses is that they don’t lie — they are disarmingly honest. Taking that a step further, I would suggest that a happy horse living in a healthy environment is a fully realised being. Teachers from Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions apply the term “realised being” to someone who is fully aware, who is not driven by ego, who is able to live in the moment without worry for past or future, and who is fully at one with their world. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass has written that “hanging out with realised beings is a way to inspire and find guidance in your own path. A realised being is like a pure mirror who shows you all of the places where there is dust on your own mirror. Such a being is a clear mirror because he or she doesn’t have any attachments, so all you see are your own attachments writ large.” A horse is a realised being with exactly these qualities and abilities. By spending meditative and thoughtful time with them (and I don’t mean by going for a ride, although that can be wonderful too) we see who we really are, and experience ourselves as nature, not just as creatures in nature.
Humans are such weird creatures. We are normally in such a hurry to find answers that we miss out on knowing who we truly are. We are so keen to achieve goals that we miss the interesting pathways we are actually on. We are in such a hurry that we become uncomfortable with emptiness, silence, and being alone. But these are places where we meet ourselves head on. These are places where we learn and grow. Spending unfocused time in silence in the company of horses, simply sharing their space, shows us this. Horses teach us that what is happening right now, and how we are right now, is perfect. Seeing this is all we need in order to be at peace. Horses do not tell themselves that they need to change to feel happier. They don’t seek perfection by trying to be better or more accomplished versions of themselves. They don’t compare themselves with others. They accept who they are, as they are. Creating periods of silence and mindfulness in our lives helps us to slow down, accept the present, and allow creative solutions to arise naturally. There is no more perfect a model for this than a horse.
In a recent workshop we ran at Earthhorse Aotearoa, one of the experiences we invited people into was a silent meditation. This started as a meditation with each other and then an invitation to explore the same with one of our therapy horses. The third part of the experience was to enter into the 250-year-old stand of trees on our property (a remnant of the original native forest), and spend time in silence with a tree, a leaf, a bird, or whatever. Practising silence and experiencing oneness with another person, a horse, and within a forest was a transformative experience for people in the workshop, and it was for me too. When I lead this kind of meditative practice with horses I am transformed by it every time.
Discovering horses as an emotional and spiritual mirror is an amazing experience. We learn to trust our inner nature, we enhance our ability to read others by becoming more sensitive to body language, and we develop a greater trust of our own gut instinct. How often do we hear about “living in the moment”? But how can we actually experience this when there are so many distractions around? Horses are masters at living in the Now, and whether we just hang out with them in their living space, or whether we enjoy professionally led experiential sessions with them, they are indeed life-changing moments for us.
Blog # 6 – Leading with the Language of Love
One year in the 1980s I lived in Italy. I was there on an Italian Government scholarship to work on my PhD (which is another story), that took me to some fabulous places all around Italy where I researched ancient documents in libraries, monastries, art museums, etc. I was reminded recently of a scene I saw there often, especially around famous monuments. It goes like this: tourist goes up to an Italian street seller of something humble like roasted chestnuts, and asks a complicated question in English such as how to get to the Vatican. Italian seller, not understanding a word, does the typical Italian shoulder shrug action. Tourist simply asks the same question at twice the volume. They just didn’t get it that they were in Italy, and that the language spoken there was, oddly enough, Italian. (When in Rome, right?) Was my Italian perfect? Hell, no. But the locals really appreciated my poor but persistent efforts to speak their language.
So it is with horses. Too often I have witnessed horse owners yelling at their horses, either literally, or by insisting the horse react in response to excessive physical force. The poor horse is treated as though she is an idiot or “naughty”. Shamefully, I have done this myself, although hopefully no longer. To be respectful and get results with horses we must “speak horse”. Anyone can get the basics of the language in an hour. Of course, horses speak horse very effectively. Using their unique body language, they lead each other to fresh water and green pastures, keep each other out of harm’s way, are playful, mate together, give birth, support each other, and much more. And the miracle is that we humans can learn to be better leaders in the human world by observing and learning “horse” from them.
What sort of language do people usually use with horses? Isn’t it usual to walk in a straight line to a horse, saying something friendly? Then comes touching on the nose and head, followed by patting. Then the halter goes on the horse’s head for control, and the person walks off pulling the horse behind. This is all well intentioned, but it is typical predator language, and a horse doesn’t understand it, at least not in the way we want her to! For a start, she doesn’t understand English (apart from a few select commands), and chances are we don’t touch her in a way that she understands as friendly. Finally, by putting on a halter and lead rope and pulling the horse along we have destroyed any trust we might have been able to develop. Imagine doing that to a human who uses a language other than English or, worse still, imagine doing that to an autistic person. What would we most likely communicate then? Love, admiration, awe? Or fear? In a horse not habituated to humans, that would be fear, for sure. Domesticated horses are more likely to respond with indifference because they have become used to our bumbling ways. Fortunately, they are largely forgiving of our ignorance. But we can ask the horse to collaborate with us. We can learn to use her language and by doing so we learn a huge amount about ourselves and our own leadership qualities.
At Earthorse Aotearoa, clients learn through interacting with horses, how to “ask” a horse to walk with them, rather than “making” the horse do it. Through this seemingly simple task we discover how our own energy levels and intentional focus affect the horse and how it is possible to become aligned with her. This learning is even more powerful if the horse becomes a metaphor for something in the client’s life, such as a new job, new workmate, etc. Working with a personal story while experiencing a 600 kilo animal responding willingly to our subtle leadership cues has a wonderfully life affirming effect that is carried back to everyday life.
We all have leadership abilities — we need them for everyday interactions with our family, community and at work, whether or not we have a formal leadership role. From horses we learn how to be assertive without fear when it is needed and how to lead with the language of love.
Blog # 5 — Finding peace in the midst of the herd
How do you meditate with horses? At Earthhorse Aotearoa we do this in two ways. The first is to invite a horse to be the point of attention as we meditate on one or more aspects of the horse through our senses. This can be on a visual aspect such as the beautiful soft brown eye of a relaxed horse, or the delicious nutty smell around their necks, or their velvetty smooth coats. In this way the meditation object takes the place of a mantra. The second method is where we practice traditional meditations in the presence of horses. What do horses have to add to this process? For a start, horses are very grounded. They are part of nature just as we are, but in spite of 6000 years of domestication with humans, they have not lost touch with their natural state of being. They are expert at leading us to a place where we can deeply renew our connection with nature. Secondly, horses are emotionally authentic and honest. They can’t lie. They read our body language truthfully and let us know if we project one emotion (eg, happiness) when we are actually feeling another (eg, anxiety). They teach us to be authentic and real as well as grounded in our true being. We refer to horses as Zen Masters on four legs because they know how to live in the present (the now) without anxiety for the past or future. And they teach us how to take a wider, softer, focus.
Over the summer we took a break from working with clients (mainly so they could have holidays), and we spent lots of valuable time with our beloved herd. We gave them all massages (Equine Touch) and we had a ball taking several of our horses to the beach for relaxing rides. Sometimes we took the miniature horses so they could splash around in the sea and be loved on by admiring young people (and not always so young). We love seeing the joy on the faces of people discovering delightful mini horses on the beach. The summer holiday was also great to use as a time to practice meditation with horses. Many days it was just too hot to move, so meditating under a tree with a horse was an attractive option. We are lucky with our farm, because it has a large stand of native trees that were part of the original forest before the area was cleared for farming. There is a huge Totora tree in an area where the horses can choose to shelter, which has a large protruding root ideal for sitting on. Several times I sat there and meditated as our seven horses came and went as they pleased. On each occasion one horse would choose to stand very close by, head down, eyes half closed as though in meditation too. And of course they would be, since that is their default state. As prey animals they know how to be alert to their enviornment, while at the same time being deeply relaxed. Meditating with a horse puts us exactly on their wavelength for a while, and what a peaceful wavelength that is! There was one time last week when I had been meditating under the tree for about ten minutes when I got the idea that I should open my eyes. What I saw just blew me away. There were four of the big horses standing in front of me in a semi-circle with their heads down, fast asleep. It was a profound moment of feeling totally at peace and of belonging deeply to the earth. I wanted to keep that special moment going but eventually I had to move. The horses responded by gently wandering down the hill to their water trough. It was a beautiful peaceful moment I will always cherish.
Last week I wrote about the many visitors who have been coming through the Earthhorse gates for free half-hour introduction sessions with the horses. Many showed interest in returning for private sessions, and some also expressed interest in joining us for a whole-day workshop here in Waitetuna Valley. As a result, we are offering a workshop on Saturday 24th February — Meditation and Mindfulness with Horses. This will be for a small group of four people, which keeps the experience intimate and personal. (If we get more than four enquiries we are prepared to offer a repeat workshop on the Sunday 25th February.) Click below for more information or call us on 0221714122
Blog # 4 — Opening up the farm gate
At the New Year we opened the gates to Earthhorse Aotearoa at Waitetuna Valley and invited people for free half-hour introductions to our work with the therapy herd. The idea was to introduce people who were curious about equine assisted therapy and personal development, but who hadn’t come across the work before. It can be a challenge understanding how horses aid people to grow mentally and spiritually, so actually meeting the herd and getting a taste of how it works is helpful. In one sense equine assisted therapy is a very new modality, but in another it is as old as nature itself since humans and animals have learned and benefited from each other’s company for millenia.
We were touched by the way people immediately responded to the zen-like nature of the horses. One visitor, after a short grounding exercise, opened up about her experiences of abuse as a child and was supported by our old thoroughbred, who has himself received some awful treatment in his past. He put his head lightly on her shoulder for several minutes, and held her by his presense. This horse has an uncanny way of bringing insight into a personal story. There was a time a few years ago when he voluntarily hung his head for an hour over the shoulder of an acutely depressed client and drew her out of a very black hole.
Another couple of visitors who stick in my memory from the last three weeks were so energised by the presence of horses along with our native trees and birds, that their joy and curiosity was obvious and they stayed a whole lot longer than half an hour. We don’t mind that at all since it is such a pleasure to share the good energy from horses and nature with people who appreciate it.
The horses continue to have a positive effect on us too of course. There are days when I get so busy with the managing of the farm, and with all the physical and planning jobs that need doing, that I lose my focus. I forget that life does not have to revolve around DOING things, but that it is about BEING: being human, being alive, being part of nature. Of course we all have to get stuff done, but I believe the secret is to quietly work away at a goal without being personally attached to it, without exaggerating its importance. If on the other hand I allow myself to be more mindfull of the process, to enjoy all aspects of the task, then the sense of mental pressure and anxiety disappears. The horses remind me every day to notice where I am, what I am doing, and to accept what is happening in the moment. They are masters of self awareness and mindfulness, and have so much to teach us. Every day they reveal their wisdom.
We have had so many visitors and they have all been wonderful. Their questioning has been insightful, and it seems that all benefited from meeting our horses and getting a taste of how they offer insight on the journey to increased mental and spiritual health. The interest has been so great that we are continuing the free introductions. All you need to do is PM on Messenger or call 022 1714 122 if you are interested.
Blog # 3 — A powerful metaphor
Today is the first day of 2018. Wow, how did that happen? As we enter this new year, we reflect back on the wonderful experiences we have had with our clients and horses here at Earthhorse. Here is a simple client story with a powerful message.
How do horses help with human personal development? By meeting horses in a genuine “Equine Assisted Learning” environment, a client is invited to tap into a horse’s unique point of view while the facilitator guides him or her in applying the learning to their own life. This is done through a number of techniques, the simplest one being observation and reflection on an interaction with a horse. Sometimes the personal break-through might seem fairly simple but at the same time offering a powerful revelation. Here’s one such example. One of our clients called “Sam” was invited to walk our thoroughbred Jake around the arena during a private session. He walked ahead of Jake, effectively pulling him around with the lead rope. He didn’t do this in a cruel way (and actually that’s a common way people lead horses generally), but he was constantly looking behind at Jake to see if he was coming. The problem is that Jake wasn’t actually coming very willingly at all. Sam discovered that if he looked Jake in the eye like that, it made the horse nervous. Jake was reacting as though he was thinking, “what does he want from me?” Sam was invited to explore other ways of leading Jake, and discovered that walking at the shoulder of the horse was much more effective and felt more like a willing partnership. This experience became a powerful metaphor for how Sam leads his life, which we discovered as we talked about how he looks behind to see how he is doing (looking into the past — living in the past) and how he has a habit of seeking approval and direction from others. Walking in partnership with Jake when he was “invited” to walk with Sam, and where Sam directed the activity by facing forward and deciding where they were both going to put their feet safely, was a much more positive experience for both horse and human. After this session Sam was able to take the embodied memory of this experience home with him, where he explored how this realisation could be translated into more effective communication with people in his life.
Blog # 2 — A window into the work
Horses give immediate honest feedback to our emotions and behaviour, rapidly leading to personal insight.
We’ve been working really hard on the new website over the past months and the feedback has been phenomenal. People are engaging with the ideas around Equine Assisted Counselling (EAC), loving the images and stories from our herd, and starting to get to know the humans who serve the horses on our little farm. One of our biggest challenges has been trying to distil some big ideas and philosophies into small bites that can be meaningful at first glance. That’s where phrases like the one you see above have come from. It basically tells you what happens when well prepared horses are invited into a learning and therapy process with people. Over the years, we’ve come to see this perspective as central to the human-equine therapeutic relationship and we’ve been lucky to witness some moving examples of how this principle actually works.
When I started training as a practitioner in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning in Australia in 2011, I had almost no idea of how it would work. I knew of RDA (Riding for the Disabled) and how guided riding helps with motor control, balance, confidence, and more, but this was different, and I could only guess how horses could assist people psychologically and in personal growth. The only knowledge I had was from Linda Kohanov’s 2007 book, The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of The Horse. Linda writes about her own awakening to the communicative and healing powers of horses and the discoveries she made about their innate ability to be loving guides, teachers, and therapists to humans. Her stories of clients’ transformative experiences with horses demonstrated that they could offer “true reflections of our deepest souls”.
I was blown away by the training at the Equine Psychotherapy Institute in Victoria. It showed in so many stunning working examples, how effectively horses give honest feedback on peoples’ actual emotional states (as opposed to the ones they think they are presenting). One of the most extraordinary things was how quickly those insights came. What might have taken many hours of talk therapy in rooms, often happened in a single session with horses. How is this possible? Do horses have some sort of magical powers? Well, no they don’t, but they are very aware beings. Over thousands of years, as vulnerable prey animals, they have been closely attuned to all of nature for their survival. Humans on the other hand, as predators in the main, typically focus on one thing at a time while blocking out other information. While single-minded focus and thinking ability has served us well in many respects, they are also the source of much human misery. Horses extend the invitation to us to take a wider, softer, focus.
Here is a story of one of our clients (name and personal details changed). Michael is a 12 year old boy who came to us from a very abusive background, was frightened of most things, panicked easily, and his default reaction to most things was anger. When he met our horses his fear of them was overwhelming and he could not be anywhere near them. But over the course of weeks and months the horses became his friends and he involved them in the stories he wove around them. By identifying with the horses, seeing how they reacted to events and other beings, and discussing how they processed their fears, he was able to identify his fears and ask the horses to help process his feelings. By using playful exercises and controlled experiments with the horses, his observations of how they keep themselves safe while remaining alert to danger helped him to take a wider view of his world and gain an awareness of how to keep himself safe. One session he loved was watching the herd members jostling for space and authority over each other during a free-for-all feeding session. He astutely observed their pushing, shoving, allowing, and leadership qualities, which led to an animated discussion of his experiences of bullying. He learned that horses sometimes push each other around, but they don’t hurt each other or get into unneccessary physical fights. What do horses do to avoid hurting each other? They show their displeasure through body language, then they walk away, forget about it, and go back to grazing. “Going back to grazing” has become one of Michael’s mantras.
It is very exciting and fulfilling for me to see a client like Michael respond to the horse’s kindness and wisdom. Of course his abusive history remains, and will always have an impact on his life, but the horses have gifted him greater confidence, self respect, and a wider, softer focus which can be built upon. The horses never fail to amaze me by their generous spirit and transformative powers.
Blog # 1 — New Beginnings
Welcome to the first blog post on our new-look Earthhorse website. This equine work springs from vulnerability and emotional honesty, for us, for the horses, and for our clients. In these posts we are going to share our own experiences, introduce you to our herd, and highlight some amazing moments with our clients (while maintaining confidentiality).
How did we stumble across this fairly rare kind of work? This is my third career, my first as a professional musician, and my second as a university academic. But I have always been crazy about horses and had meantime learned as much as I could about natural horsemanship, barefoot hoof trimming, and Equine Touch bodywork during my spare time while working in universities. Then, seven years ago I took on a job as Dean of Humanities in an Australian University. I took up the five-year contract, motivated by a desire for adventure, as well as (if I am brutally honest) the attraction of enhanced status and high earnings. But you know when you have a gut feeling that something is just not 100% right? Well, I knew from day one that the new university was not a happy place and that I really should not have taken a job there. Actually, I also had that feeling at the job interview, but I was so flattered to be offered the job, I thought, “hell, let’s just do it anyway”. The Australian job went downhill very rapidly and I was made redundant after 18 months, along with many of my colleagues. Fortunately my gut instinct had alerted me to the inevitability of such an outcome, so I had meantime begun to train as a counsellor. This is something I had always wanted to do and which I had been putting into practice informally as a university manager. At this stage I also learned about practitioner training from the Equine Psychotherapy Institute in Victoria, and since we were still in Australia I knew this was a “must do”. I had a very positive “yes” gut feeling to the idea. I soon realised that my life experiences such as dealing with childhood sexual abuse, addictions and depression, as well as thirty years of exploration of a variety of spiritual practices, set me up well for this kind of work. I was blown away by how effective the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy training was, and it was also personally helpful, as of course it was necessary to go into therapy myself in order to be a practitioner.
Redundancy turned out to be an extremely painful experience — much more than I would have imagined. For one thing, I was totally humiliated by such a resounding “failure”, regardless of how I could rationalise it. I “unfriended” most of my old friends and colleagues out of intense embarassment, and I tried to keep my hurt to myself. This of course, was not a healthy way of dealing with grief! After a year of unsuccessfully applying for jobs the money ran out, savings disappeared, and we had to sell our little farm in Dunedin. All this was heartbreaking and worrying, and eventually I had to face the reality that as a woman in her early 60s I was not valued, either by my industry or by wider society. Self-esteem plummeted, the black dog of long ago revisited, and huge financial worries dominated. Meantime, I qualified in counselling, in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, and in Equine Touch bodywork. But starting a new career in these modalities in Australia was not an option so we scuttled to Sarah’s family in the Waikato where we received wonderful unconditional support. Fortunately, at the point of selling up in Dunedin, we had bought 11 acres of land near Raglan. At this time we meant it only as a “land bank” as we fully expected I would get another academic job. The land ended up being the sum total of our worldly possessions — apart from our two beautiful quarter horses that we brought from Australia (who are actually not possessions to us, but family). We borrowed from another family member to buy a caravan and we now live on our beautiful Waitetuna Valley property with our herd. People ask us if this is a temporary living situation prior to building a proper house, but no … this is it. However, one year of caravan living later, we look at life very differently. We no longer think of “poor little us living in a caravan”, but are very grateful that we have such a comfortable and simple way of life. Our life is no longer looking to the future and worrying about all the “what ifs”. We embrace the reality of the temporary and cyclic nature of all life, and we give thanks for the gift of having our beautiful herd with us (now up to seven). We gain wisdom every day from living right in the midst of nature and from leading our clients to discover their own truths and strengths, learning from horses how to live in the moment and how to be emotionally honest.
That, in brief, is the journey that brought us here. I’ll share parts of it in more detail as we go (and you may, occasionally hear from Sarah on these pages) but mostly I’m looking ahead and invite you to come with us as we bring this beautiful modality to our community (and to all of you) with the help of some of the best therapists and counsellors we know – our herd of beautiful and loving horses.