Within the “Horse as Healer” profession there is an assumption that all horses are ready, capable, and willing to be a healer. There is a belief that you can turn any horse or herd loose and they will interact with clients in a meaningful manner. The overarching idea is that there is no special training required for a horse to interact with clients in a growth and learning setting. In fact, many promote the idea that you shouldn’t train the horse for specific responses so that they authentically respond to the client’s internal state.
While it is true that you can’t train a horse to interact with clients, it is not necessarily fair to horses to send them into work in the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning field without first helping to heal their past trauma and conditioning. The truth is that all of our horses come to us with a past and that will color their responses to clients in a session. It is our job, as equine specialists and EAP/L professionals, to ensure that our horses are prepared to handle the stress of therapeutic work.
While this topic is much bigger than what I can cover in a single article, let’s look at one example of how you can better prepare your horses for this kind of work.
Walking Heart to Heart
I have made an observation working with many herds over the years and spending time with horses without an agenda. Many horses who are trained to ride, or are currently ridden, are not comfortable with you standing behind their girth line.
At first glance, it can seem as though this is not an issue for your horses. However, what I have found is that the more time I spend with a horse, allowing them to understand that they have choice, the clearer they become in their true desires and comfort level. That brings up the first critical point. Just because your horse is loose, and can therefore advocate for himself, does not mean that he will do so if conditioned otherwise. Don’t assume that your horse will take care of his own needs for safety if you have not first taught him that he has a choice in interacting with humans.
As horses start to learn that they can walk away without any repercussions and that the human is going to ask permission to interact, you will start to see a different side to your horses. Spend plenty of time with your herd loose interacting without any form of control (other than personal boundaries for safety) and watch how their personalities shift.
As that healing begins to take place, you may find that your horses do not want you to stand behind their shoulder. For riding horses, the space behind the girth is the place that humans have taken the greatest advantage. Horses are typically not asked permission about being ridden. Instead they are conditioned to allow us on their back through many different forms of control, manipulation, and coercion. While it can seem as though they eventually accept this as their job, once you take away the restraints and repercussions, horses often say no to that request until trust and understanding is built.
What I have found time and again is that when you step behind the shoulder and try to connect from that position the horse will walk away, turn to face you, back up to keep you in front of the shoulder, or use some other evasive behavior. I worked with one Percheron who continuously walked forward to position me right behind his tail. He wasn’t going to have it any other way – I could interact at is head or stand directly behind him. Period. He was a horse that was used for coaching and also ridden on occasion though I had never ridden him.
What does that mean with clients? If your horse is either functioning from conditioned responses to allow someone in their space when they don’t want that to happen, you are potentially creating an unsafe situation for the horse. If your horse finds his voice and sets a boundary with a client in an inappropriate manner, you again have a potentially unsafe scenario.
Instead, you need to work through the past conditioning so that your horse knows that he has a voice, but is also comfortable and empowered with you standing anywhere in relation to him. Standing right behind the shoulder is the perfect place to connect into heart energy. When you are in this space, start teaching your horse that you are not there to climb on his back but rather to connect heart to heart. Horses thrive on connection.
You can use breathing and grounding exercises to begin shifting your energy. Set an intention to connect by sending loving, compassionate feelings to your horse. Allow your horse to move away if he so desires, but maintain your focus and connection. Stay grounded in your body and invite your horse to circle back around you. Don’t use driving aids to push him in a circle around you. Instead, extend a hand to guide him in a circle while drawing him in with your core. Pull your horse back into you energetically.
At first, he may circle back to you and reconnect with his face or nose. Continue to ask for permission to be with him in a different way and ask your horse to stay connected while setting his own boundaries about what feels safe for him. When your horse comes to truly welcome you in his heart space he will begin to wrap around you and envelop you. Now you have his heart and his trust. Now healing has occurred.
From this place, you can extend the connection by inviting him to walk with you heart to heart. Invite him to travel with you side by side. You do not need a halter or equipment. Again, use an open inviting hand, energy, focus, and connection to make a request to walk with you while you are behind the shoulder. This level of trust and understanding will help your horse to work through the fear, trauma, and conditioning stored in his body.
Heart to heart walking is one example of how you can prepare your horses to connect with people in a much more meaningful and empowered manner. Set your horses up for success by undoing some of their past training. Then they will be able to authentically and honestly interact with clients in a meaningful and safe manner.