Throughout history, horses and people have been forming special bonds. Some are made famous in movies like Hidalgo, but most happen anonymously where people and horses live together. A hundred years ago, this was just about everywhere, but now people mostly interact with horses on farms and ranches. Nonetheless, the special bond between people and horses remains strong.
What is it that makes this special bond? Horses feel people. They understand people on an emotional level. Horses also form relationships with people in a similar way to other horses. Their group dynamics are similar to ours. They have personalities that are similar to human personalities; some are shy, some are bossy, some are friendly and affectionate, and others stern.
When people form relationships with horses, they have to do it on the horse’s terms–on an emotional level. They need to convey their feelings and intentions through emotion and movement. Words are used to convey emotion through volume, rhythm and inflection.
By communicating with the horses without using language, people can begin to better understand themselves, how their own states of mind affect their relationships with themselves and others. The self-awareness that is gained allows us to make appropriate changes in our relationships when required. This is the reason horses are so helpful in therapy.
Equine Teaching Moments
When our clients work with horses, there are many teaching moments that come about during their time here at Fire Mountain. This summer one such teaching moment came about when Joe, one of our clients, was feeding Torrey, one of our horses.
As a part of his therapeutic program, Joe had been assigned a few chores with the horses. Each morning and afternoon, Joe would be responsible for spreading hay around the pasture or feeding the horses vitamins and supplements, and filling the water troughs around the pasture. Each day varied, but those were the primary chores out in the pasture.
Torrey and Joe began to form a bond when Joe was doing his chores because they had similar personalities. Joe had low self-esteem, lacked confidence and self-love. Torrey, the old man of the herd, had similar problems. A natural bond formed between Joe and Torrey.
One summer morning, when there was dew on the grass and the sun was coming up in full force, Joe was out in the pasture doing his regular routine of horse chores. When Torrey saw Joe in the pasture, he would often come around and play affectionately. But on this day, Torrey was getting too close and too playful, testing the boundaries with Joe. Horses tend to test boundaries with other horses and individuals, so this was something that would occasionally happen with clients.
Jerry, a staff member supervising horse chores, noticed that Joe was taking the playfulness even though Jerry could tell that Joe didn’t want it. Jerry could see Torrey nudge Joe, nip at his shirt, and wrap his head around Joe’s shoulders. Joe wouldn’t remove himself from the situation even though he was saying “Stop Torrey”, showing that he was uncomfortable.
Jerry saw this happening and said “Hey, why don’t you just step away?” Taking Jerry’s advice, Joe stepped away. Torrey recognized from Joe’s movement that his playful behavior was inappropriate, so he stepped back as well. This was a teaching moment for Joe and Torrey.
Jerry pulled Joe aside and explained how he can change the relationship with just a simple movement. When Joe stepped back, he changed the physical relationship with Torrey. Torrey understood this instantly and took a step back also. Joe had reset the boundaries of that interaction with Torrey in a way that was clear and not aggressive or fearful.
This also opened the opportunity for Joe to explore different ways to shift energy just by physical interactions. For example, what if Joe had stepped in and put his hand up? Would that come off as more aggressive and cause tension, or would it have the same effect that simply stepping away would have had? We strive to empower our clients and open their eyes to the amount of possibilities that they can take control of.
Making The Connection
This is a lesson that can also transition to relationships with other individuals, such as family, friends, or strangers. We can learn to establish boundaries and communicate our needs in subtle and effective ways. We never have to accept a relationship that makes us uncomfortable nor do we need to take dramatic actions to change them. Sometimes dramatic action is necessary, but most of the time, subtle clues are all that are required and those clues help us maintain our boundaries and relationships.