Through the eye of the horse
by Sunny Schlenger
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in Average Suburbia, far from the Arizona high desert where I’m living now. I rode horses on trail rides through my mid-teens, always pretending I was a cowgirl.
And then I moved out west and met a real cowgirl who has introduced me to a world of service I had never imagined.
Andrea runs a non-profit therapeutic riding center for people with physical and emotional challenges and I got to know her when I became her business coach. She invited me to intern with her in her equine therapy practice and I’ve been able to see close-up how horses can turn people’s lives around.
Horses are prey animals in the wild and to survive they depend on non-verbal communication with each other. They are masters of living in the moment and giving feedback to the rest of the herd because their lives depend upon it. And, almost miraculously, they can show us how to do that.
I found this fact to be very surprising because I’ve always just thought of horses as large dogs but with more inscrutable expressions. Horses don’t wag their tails, for example. But knowing dogs doesn’t help you understand horses and it certainly doesn’t help you to understand how horses view us.
My introductory session was with Nicky, a tall bay paint. I was told to go and put a halter on him, which I had no idea how to do. But the lesson wasn’t about how to put the halter on; it was about dealing with my emotions as I stood there trying to figure out which end of the halter was “up”. Nicky waited patiently as I began to get frustrated, feeling more and more stupid with every passing minute.
Feeling stupid is a trigger for me, bringing up a number of life experiences including the time I had to stand in front of my 4th grade class doing an arithmetic problem on the blackboard and how I went blank when I heard the laughter from my classmates. Hello, math anxiety.
In this halter exercise, I felt stupid in front of my client and in front of Nicky. Yes, I imagined that the horse was judging me and found me to be an idiot.
Fast forward a few months. I began to work with Andrea at a satellite program she runs for teenage girls suffering from substance abuse, family dynamics problems and issues with self-esteem. A group is attempting to put a halter on Hondo and I know pretty much how they feel. Part of me wants to help them succeed in this endeavor, but I now know that it’s not about “success”. In fact, I don’t really know what it’s about for them.
And that’s why this therapy is so effective — it’s based on a model where the horses are the teachers, not a psychologist or even an equine specialist. The horses are teaching the girls about negative self-talk, learning from feedback and how best to communicate in a group.
Horses are powerful mirrors because they have no ego. They respond authentically to the (hidden) messages they’re receiving, and they let you know exactly how they feel about them. Nicky was kind to me that first day; he was quiet and even helpful, putting his head down for me to try to put on the upside-down halter. But he could have just as easily gone to the back of the stall and told me, “Sorry, not interested.”
And what would I have done then? That’s what I’m learning from working with the girls and the horses. As human beings, there are so many possible ways for us to react in situations that confuse or frustrate us. But the most sensible thing to do is to look for feedback. What is the horse telling us we need to do differently?
While dogs will work for praise, horses are only interested in their own comfort. If you can make them feel safe, they will probably be more willing to do your bidding. In one exercise, the girls were unsure why Hondo and Gracie were running away from them. It took them awhile to realize that they were holding large pool noodles for an obstacle course as they approached.
How does this relate to the way we all treat one other? Horses have taught me that we need to observe and understand the impact not only of our actions, but of our fears and subtle intentions, too. It’s all energy that we may be unconsciously projecting.
I’m grateful to be involved in such an amazing process of learning from animals who share the earth with us not just as beasts of burden, but as eloquent transmitters of knowledge we need to pass on.