Horses are said to be able to read/sense humans’ feelings and emotions, which they mirror back to clients. This process can be helpful in therapy and learning. This abridged poem speaks of a divine mirror.
A mirror receives and reflects back what it sees
It does not judge, adjust, or write commentary,
We are the ones to do that.
A mirror simply reveals.
And invites responsibility.
When we learn to love anyone or anything,
It is because they have somehow, if just for a moment
Mirrored us truthfully yet compassionately to ourselves.
Richard Rohr (Abridged)
We recently had the first session with a man who had experienced a life where people perceived him as confronting and aggressive. One of the horses immediately approached him and put its nose gently on different parts of his clothing. He described feeling anxious and asked several times, “what is it doing?” The horse stood for some time with the man and the man asked more questions and comments, “Why is it doing this?”, “You guys must’ve trained the horses really well so they would approach me”.
This man was truly puzzled at why the horse was approaching him. He was too scared to move close to the horse. The horse eventually moved away about 2-3 metres. We encouraged him to move closer to the horse. He was anxious but did this. The horse moved closer to him when he did this. Finally, they were standing together and the man agreed reluctantly to try to touch the horse on its neck.
He and the horse stood together for a few minutes and the man had, had enough time and wanted to finish. He said, in the end, that he had never been that close to a horse before, and that maybe he “used to be” an aggressive person, rather than he still is.
No-one who knew this man reported him to be aggressive or confronting. He is a big man but came across as very soft and gentle. The health professional who referred him called him a big “teddy bear”. It’s interesting that 30 minutes with a perceptive horse has questioned this mans’ belief of 20 years when he has not questioned this before.
Sometimes a horse is needed to show us our “distorted beliefs” to help us get closer to our authentic selves.
Whanaungatanga. 1. (noun) relationship, kinship, sense of family connection - a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging. It develops as a result of kinship rights and obligations, which also serve to strengthen each member of the kin group. (Maori dictionary)
I recently attended some training related to horses. One of the questions asked was, how do horses show care or concern to each other. The answer was “standing together, eating together, just being together”.
A wise horse advocate once said, “A horse will be OK leaving the herd alone, to attend shows or go out riding etc; when they know that they are coming back to their herd, and they feel that it is a stable place to be.”
Whakawhanaungatanga has also been called “connectedness”. Connection to our whanau, iwi, hapu or our family and the important people around us. If this connectedness was broken, severed or damaged through trauma, abuse or other suffering, our sense of belonging can be non-existent or distorted.
One of the aims of counselling, therapy or other similar types of support, is to assist this search belonging or re-connectedness. Equine assisted therapy can also help with this.
We all need a secure herd to embed in, return to; to ground us and foster our inner strength, and enable us to lean into our suffering and bear the weights of life whatever they are for us.
It’s been a challenging year, especially the latter part. I’ve met and worked with the bravest and most remarkable people. I feel privileged to have worked with these people and that they have trusted our team with their problems and have chosen to work with us. I am continually amazed by their stories and their resilience.
I am also humbled by the horses I work with. Their “presence” and perceptiveness are some of the reasons I keep doing this work and why I wanted to do it in the first place. Our limited human communication can never completely understand these creatures who are simple, present and authentic.
I lost a horse to illness this year. The decision to end her life had to be made and it was the right decision. It was and still is heart-wrenching and I miss her.
She was funny and sweet and cheeky and always first in line for food. She was helpful to children and walked beside them when they were sad or angry, and tolerated their activities around her. She reminded people of their loved ones who had passed on. When someone was sad, she often would approach them and put her soft nose on their cheek and blow in their ear. Her knees hurt due to her age.
After she died, another horse, who had known her for 20 years, stood over her body for 3 hours and could not take their eyes of her, when they carried her body gently into the grave.
Jaleah, I miss you and I want to remember you as the stunning, beautiful creature that you were.
Nga mihi, a ka aroha ahau ki a koe
Things change and new people and horses join us. A new year brings new opportunities and challenges.
Have a safe and blessed New Year!
We work regularly with 3 horses, a small pony, a larger pony and a tall, heavy dark brown horse. Despite this large horse being a gentle giant, it often will represent people in clients lives, who were abusive and related to their traumatic experiences.
Myself and my colleague have often felt a little sorry for this horse, as, due to its size, rather than it's personality, it gets labelled the "bad guy" quite often.
Recently, we started working with a woman who has some anger issues. She is familiar with horses and so the size of the horses has not seemed to be an issue for her. In the first session she spent some time individually with all of the horses. She brushed them one at a time. The small pony walked away from her, the larger pony stayed still. But the large brown horse stayed with her. When she moved away it followed, staying close by. When the woman moved towards the other horses, the big horse stood in between her and them. For more than 30 minutes this horse stayed right next to the woman. Human and horse were connected and no words were spoken in this time.
Eventually the woman said, "I wanted to choose the other horse, but the big guy chose me. I think I need this horse as the other ones are too scared to carry my baggage. This one is big enough to handle it."
The scary, "abusive" horse became the big strong capable horse that could carry the weight of the burden that the woman had brought in with her.
We worked with a young man some time ago with a history of deprivation and abuse. One of the things we were asked, was to try to help him address his anger. This was difficult for him to manage.
We asked him to carry out an activity which included identifying some challenges and goals he had. He chose “anger” and “frustration” as challenges and “sports” as a goal he wanted to achieve. He was asked to build representations of this out of the props available in the arena. It took him a long time to identify a goal he wanted to achieve, and it seemed that he said sports just to get the task over with. After identifying these things, he was also asked to find a good quality he could name about himself. When we asked this, he said “I don’t know” and then lay down on the grass. The task of finding good qualities about himself seemed insurmountable. We asked him to continue with the task and left him with the horses to complete the task.
This young man stayed laying or sitting on the ground for the remainder of the session, approximately 45 minutes. 2 of the horses moved in and out of the spaces he had built but stayed away from him. The white horse in the session, moved slowly closer to the young man over the time he was sitting on the ground, and for the last 20 minutes of the session stood between him and the frustration and anger spaces, just behind him.
As soon as we ended the session he stood up and put his arms around this white horse. He stayed with this horse for a time. He finally said that this horse reminded him of a very close friend.
Sometimes our good qualities are hard to see and our flaws and challenges seem overwhelming, so much so, that it stops us in our tracks and silences us.
Knowing a wise friend, “has our back” is sometimes all we need to be able to move forward.
Recently, I was privileged to work with a young girl who had tragically lost her mother to cancer. She did not speak about this very much in sessions but occasionally one or other of the horses would remind her of her mother. In one session we were looking at building obstacles, which consisted of poles and cones. The horses would not go close to the obstacles at all. The girl tried to change them by lowering the obstacle or moving position of them but the horses would not move near them.
The girl thought the horses were scared to go over the obstacles and this is why they stayed away. She decided to remove the obstacle completely and make the “obstacle” into a walkway. She made it narrower and then chose the same horse to take through. This horse would only walk through this with the another horse in the area. The girl did this a few times and each time the horse would go through only with the other one.
The girl eventually said, “they can go through the area only with their friend. Then they don’t feel so scared”.
The “obstacle” of the loss of her mother (as she had mentioned at an earlier session) was something she couldn’t go near, as the horses “described” to her. But she saw they were able to “go through” the difficult area with a friend, and so it wasn’t as fearful as being alone.
The simplicity and discernment of the horses’ actions are, as usual, much more profound than words.
The face of grief isn't always recognizable. And the story behind it isn't always identifiable.
Grief has many faces and many stories and they are both unique and the same. The loss of a loved one, the loss of a pet, the loss of hope, the loss of health….. The story below came from a client with his own grief issue who kindly allowed me to share his own story.
“I had some health issues that were chronic and degenerative. I had always been an active person and did not wish to change my lifestyle. I was only in my 40’s. I found it difficult to slow down and rest. I agreed to meet a horse and have a session around this issue.
I met a large brown horse and immediately had to suppress some tears when I entered to arena and stood close to her. She stood with me but when I tried to move closer, she moved away slightly. I felt more alone after this small gesture but the horse did not move any further away.
At some point horses in a nearby field start to run. I felt sadder and more disabled watching them. The large brown horse came closer to me and touched the area of my body where my pain was, with her mouth. She stayed there until I stopped needing to suppress the tears.
My health issues were unchanged and I can’t “run around” like the horses’ in the other field, but I have come to some acceptance about my illness and can face the future better with this more honest acknowledgement of my health.”
This mans’ health continued to deteriorate but he was able to stop fighting or avoiding this inevitability and begin managing his life better. He was more relaxed and less anxious.
This man needed to grieve for a part of his life and health, that he was losing. This is not harder or easier or better or worse than anyone else’s experience of grief. A horse just allowed him to stay in the moment and stood with him whilst he did it.
I certainly don't want to say that loss of a loved one is or a traumatic loss is the same as this story, but I did want to show that grief can be different for everyone.
“To create an effective learning experience, therapists must “trust the process” between the horse(s) and the client(s) and allow successes as well as failures, frustrations, and discouragements to happen naturally.” - EAGALA
Trusting the process is an easy thing to say and all EAGALA professionals know this is what we need to do. Doing it though, can be a difficult thing. We can have a session that is planned down to the last letter, or a freer flowing, “let’s see what happens” session, though we know (based on all previous experience) that we cannot predict what the horses or the client will do.
In a session we asked a client to build a space representing something to them and that it would be large enough for a horse to enter. The client spent time building a space but seemed reluctant and slow and sat down for a time in the space. He said “I want to shut them out (of the space).” The arena had plant borders on 3 sides and electric fence tape on one side.
He attempted to move a small brown horse into the space and it moved into the space and straight out again. He tried a larger white horse and it went towards the space but not in.
After this, the small brown horse and the larger white horse were walking along the fence line looking over the fence tape. The small brown horse was looking under the fence tape.
Before we knew it, the small brown horse put its head under the tape and ran out of the area knocking the fence down. The larger white horse ran jumping over the fence on the ground to join the small brown horse. The other horses in the field next to the arena, ran to the fence to join them. The horses appeared anxious whilst doing this, and all of us (client and mental health specialist) brought the horses back to the area. The client held the small brown horse whilst we were doing this. He admitted to having a panic attack and said he was having them throughout the session. He spent some time with the small brown horse and the larger white horse and we ended the session soon after this. He also mentioned that he thought the horses were saying, “get the hell away from here”.
The client was very anxious and wanted to “shut the horses out”, the horses were anxious and wanted to “get the hell away from there”. What ended up happening was the action of the horses leaving seemed to “break” the tension of the situation and allow a shift to happen. The clients panic changed to “real” fear and a need to “help” some panicking horses. He was able to process this further later and look at what it meant for him.
I'm fascinated to understand why we are continually surprised that the horses and clients come together with the process unfolding however it does. The horses are always in the present and always respond to whatever is happening in the "here and now".
So the consistent reminders by the horses (and the clients, often) to “trust the process” will likely be always needed in the work, despite knowing this is what we must do.
1. Identifying and Coping with Feelings
Many people struggling with mental health issues have learned that feeling is painful. They may attempt in different ways, to numb sadness, anger, fear or even joy. For therapy to be successful, one of the first steps is learning to identify, experience and cope with emotions without trying to escape.
Equine therapy is a powerful way to get in touch with thoughts and feelings. Instead of using their minds to address problems, which often leads to denial, blaming others or intellectualizing their way around the problem, they use their bodies and hearts to feel and react in the moment.
Horses have a unique ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. If someone is angry or aggressive, the horse may become obstinate. If the person is anxious, the horse may get skittish. But when approached by someone who is open and calm, the horse is more likely to respond in kind. Witnessing the horse’s response promotes self-awareness and can help people see themselves in a more realistic way.
2. Communication Skills
Through working with horses, people recognize their patterns of interacting with others. Horses do not speak, but they are excellent communicators. Learning to understand horse behaviour can help people learn how others function in the world and the way their behaviour impacts others.
In equine therapy, people talk about what they see and feel. Through the horse’s responses and the therapist’s guidance, they begin to recognize the ways in which their perceptions are accurate or misguided, and the ways they may be projecting their own issues onto others.
3. Setting Boundaries
Working with a horse can quickly expose a person’s unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns. In an equine therapy session, facilitators may draw metaphors between the client’s interaction with the horse and the patterns in their own lives, addressing difficult issues. Lessons may be as simple as how much physical space the horse needs to feel comfortable.
Without any words at all, horses make clear when someone has crossed their boundaries. Trying to control or dominate will not work with a horse. Similarly, being extremely detached or passive can make it difficult to lead a horse and will deter the horse from complying with a request.
4. Overcoming Fears
Horses are large animals, which can bring up unmet needs, fears, past trauma, and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. Regardless of the horse, people commonly fear that the horse won’t like them, won’t pick them, or could hurt them physically or emotionally. Rather than giving in to their usual reaction – to escape or get defensive – people learn to tolerate and process the emotion.
In a safe environment, clients learn to face their fears and build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges. People who are intimidated and nervous at first may be surprised to discover how quickly they can process those feelings and find comfort in their relationship with the horse. Empowered by the experience, people may develop the confidence to address other fears and transfer these lessons to day-to-day life.
Clients don’t have to love horses or have experience working with animals in order to benefit from equine therapy. They simply have to be willing to give treatment a chance and move in a different direction than they have in the past.
Horses are soothing, gentle animals. They are straightforward in their interactions without lying or manipulating. They do not judge or blame. Their presence alone can be immensely healing.