Through the Eye of the Horse
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
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
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
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
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.