Horses, emotions and feelings…


Or – can human feelings be dangerous to horses?

In my experience horses have no problems when people are coming to them with strong emotions or feelings. That is, as long as the person is owning her own emotions or feelings and taking responsibility for them.

(Note – to make it easier for me through the text, I refer to feelings as emotions you are cognitively aware of, and to emotions as the raw emotion that you can feel but can't yet cognitively understand/place/identify – but that you can learn to regulate. I also refer to the client, therapist and equine professional as her, and to the horse as him, well aware of that it gives my text a gender bias that is not there.)

I have always been a very fearful person. According to many horsey people (riding instructors, horsemanship trainers etc) I have met during my life, a fearful person, is with her inability to control her fear (potentially) creating dangerous situations with horses. These instructor's/trainer's advice were always – "do not show your fear. If you do, you will make the horse fearful and then you will create dangerous situations and cause accidents". So I did my best to control and hide my fears, to both trainers and horses. I did my best to be brave and courageous. Because I so badly wanted to be around horses, to get to know them, to understand them, but mostly just to be with them, without this crippling feeling of fear. And the more I suppressed my fears, the more I tried to be courageous, the more I pushed through – also feeling very alone and ashamed of my fears – the more dangerous situations I created. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I and my fears were dangerous, I found no way of overcoming my fears, even though I had tried so hard for many, many years. My conclusion was that I needed to stay away from horses.

But I couldn't stop pursuing being with horses. I withdrew sometimes, just to come back, wanting to be with them again. During these times, signing up for riding seemed to be the only option for me to be with horses.

15 years ago, we moved to the countryside, to a farm. I somehow ended up with the responsibility to take care of our livery yard. With my fears, my only option was to find my own way of being with horses. I made the decision that I needed to stop listening to what other people were telling me about how to do things "the right way". What I found out during that process is that horses too are very fearful, not to mention their owners. I am not saying all horses, or all owners, but fear was - is much more present than I had ever imagined, in the world of horses and humans. I thought it was just me.

Now I have spent over 15 years with horses, more or less on full-time, met hundreds of hundreds of horses in different settings, even owned and managed/worked in a small riding school and equine educational center, besides managing the livery yard. I have come to learn to own my fears. I have yet never met a sound horse who have a problem with my fears, as long as I stay in the feeling, acknowledging it to myself, and taking care of myself in the situation. It is funny how this process of not overcoming my fears, or faking it until I can make it, but instead just be the fearful person I am actually has led to me being so much less fearful around horses. Nowadays I feel the most safe (all categories) when I am in the middle of a horse herd, known, or unknown. Now, that is most often an experience of peace and rest for me, but also a situation that wakes my curiosity and playfulness.

Discovering what owning my fears could change, I moved on to having my other emotions, acknowledging them, when I am with horses. And I have seen the same results with the ones I have tried out so far. If I go to my horses feeling sad e.g. and wanting to be comforted, some of my horses still shut down at times. The tolerate my feeling of sadness, they have a choice to move away, but they also suffer from having been conditioned, and most people condition their horses to stay with them, stand still by their side, if the horse perceives the person "asking him" (aka demanding) for something. This is not something I want to expose them too, or encourage, so I then go to my more unconditioned horses, and they react with biting me, whisking me off, not wanting to be close, or by being too close, up in my face, making me feel uncomfortable by their almost, at that moment, intrusive curiosity. This tells me I am still not always owning my own sadness or taking the responsibility to take care of myself when I am sad. My horses are not un-empathetic, they just point out that it is my emotion, my feeling and that I both need to own it, feel it and care for myself. This is a discussion about responsibility, between me and my horses. They will happily stay with me – comfort me – as long as I stay true to my own feelings. Or not – they will as happily also choose to walk away, at times. It is their choice. Whatever they chose to do, stay with me, or walk away, it demands of me that I recognize my feelings and recognize that they belong to me. And then the potential comforting is not comforting anymore – is turns into sharing. I share my feelings (acknowledged emotions) with them – and then they know I am not there to have them give me anything. Then they can be themselves and I can be myself. And then we can truly meet, and it is perfectly okay that I am sad, then they do not mind about that at all. And I need to not mind what they chose to do. I need to be okay with them wanting to engage or not, knowing that this engagement is also about them. But if I share my feelings and they stay – we are in connection with each other. Which only can happen when I am in connection with myself (again, that is, being mindful of my own emotions and feelings, taking responsibility for them caring for myself).

I have also tried it out with joy and playfulness. If I go out to my horses wanting to explore playfulness, they will engage with me, when I am not asking them to do that, to fulfill something for me. They will also happily share my joy as long as I am owning my own joy, not claiming they are the ones that make me joyful. Or not. Maybe they are just not up for some joy or playfulness, they might be busy with something else.

Horses are different in this way than humans. We humans take care of, meet, comfort, listen to, stay – even when a person is not owning their feelings, does not know what they feel, does not take care of themselves. We do this – as long as it makes us feel good. If it does not make us feel good – we walk away. Typically (hopefully not if you are a therapist in session).

I want to add – horses that know people who own their feelings, horses that are used to being listened to, horses that are used to that their opinion, their abilities count, are different in this way.

Horses who are not used to this – might stay with people even when they do not "want to" (it is not in their best interest to do so), because they too have (as a person might have) lost their ability to take care of themselves, to protect themselves, to choose. If we as providers of EAP then force them to stay in this situation, we will just reinforce what they already have learned. And if this is in an EAP session, this message will come through to the client as well. If the horse has no choice to engage or not, how and why would the client understand that she too can have choices? How is this client to learn about her own emotions, learn to recognize them? Learn to have them? Learn to take responsibility for herself, while having them? She will learn the opposite. Possibly she will learn that force and control is the way to move forward, and learn to keep on stunting their own emotions and feelings, because nobody's feelings or emotions seem to matter? And there is no choices?

I find the discussion in the EAP world about if clients with their at times, for themselves, overwhelming emotions or their tendency to numb out emotions, to dissociate, are harmful to horses somewhat skewed, one-dimensional and simplistic.

Yes. Definitively yes, if you work with horses not able to choose, not used to being listened to, but to accommodate humans at all times, then yes. This can definitively, possibly be harmful to them, more so, in the long run.

But if you work with horses that have choices, are allowed to be agents, at least to some extent, in their own lives, then they will know how to take care of themselves. They will have an intrinsic knowledge about emotions, about how to protect themselves, which they usually do by walking away. So it is helpful for them if they are not restricted in sessions, it then becomes easier for them to take care of themselves. But if the are restricted, if you work with horses in halters e.g. you need to be able to "hear and see" when the horse is voicing a wish to NOT engage.

I find this discussion also somewhat polarized and it is dividing people into groups, the humans who knows and are "mentally healthy" – the providers, and the humans who do not know and are "mentally unhealthy" – instead of building teams – where all humans are humans – it is just a matter about where we are on a scale of self-knowledge/awareness – humanness.

Is see other problems in this discussion too. E.g. the notion that it is always connection and the relationship with the horse that is in focus in EAP, that it is the goal. It is not, imo. It is the client's relationship with herself that is in focus and their process to get there, in their own way, with their own solutions. It might include building a relationship with the horse, often, it is part of the result. But should, imo, never be forced.

In the meantime, when a client is exploring this, she might not at all, or maybe sometimes, be able to engage and be in contact with a horse. This is easy to understand, if the person is not able to be in contact with herself, forcing her to be in contact with either herself, OR a horse, would be disrespectful, counterproductive, and possibly re-traumatizing.

So, as provides of EAP, we have the responsibility for both he client and the horse. A horse that does not have any means to "speak up for himself" or if there is nobody around that hears him when he does – he will eventually burn out, colic, get sick in other ways, possibly become depressed and might even end up in learned helplessness, as I see it.

A client that is forced to do things they are not ready for, will potentially be harmed instead of helped. And by forced, I mean anything from the providers being so directive that the client does not feel there are any choices than following the directions, to the client not understanding the concept of choice. Such a client would do anything you ask of her. Meaning she will end up leading her own re-traumatization by forcing herself to "connect". That could possibly be viewed as self-harm, or provoke self-harm, instead of what we want people to learn form EAP, the ability to self-care.

And since so many of us in EAP come from the world of equestrianism or horsemanship, where we have been taught to be directive (as leaders of horses), we have it in our bones to be that. I think we need to monitor ourselves here. By mixing equestrianism with therapy, we need to be very mindful of what we are asking for. In riding, there is a lot of talk about "connection". This connection - is not what we strive for in therapy. And as I see it, part of what we see as "connection" in riding, is not. But that is another discussion.

So am I saying directiveness is always a bad thing? No. Directiveness is often needed when working with especially traumatized clients, but still need to be done in away that respects the client and her choices, as well as the horse. To be able to discern when to be directive and not – you need to train and learn about this. And move out of your equestrian background, because this is another type of directiveness. It is about holding the frame, about calling back to reality, to "the now", about being the grounded person, not about forcing connection, forcing solutions, forcing anything onto a client.

But – don't take my words to be the truth on this. This is just me exploring a topic dear to me. I am not a therapist. I am an Equine Professional who have seen this work being done in a respectful way, to both horses and clients. Not in a perfect way, but with this as the framework and as important guidelines. And if you ask the therapists I have been working with, they might explain this differently.

This is my understanding of it. Since I have also walked this way of understanding and owning my emotions, I have take myself as an example. I know what I have, and am experiencing in this. I also know how I react to the many discussions about clients, horses and emotions/feelings and the potential danger often therapists sees in either the client being harmful to horses, or the equine professional in the team being harmful to the horses, or clients, by not being able to have, recognize and own their feelings. Imo, this takes away the horses own emotional competence and capability to take care of himself. Imo, much actually have to do with what kind of horses we work with (emotionally mature/capable or not), and what kind of life we allow them to have, how much we understand about their biological, emotional, social and cognitive needs. This is an important responsibility which "should" be own jointly in the treatment team, where the equine professional can add knowledge about horses, and where the therapist can help the equine professional to understand about emotions and thereby help her grow self-awareness.

My reasoning has, for me, implications on how we view equine welfare, but also how we as providers understand the concept of freedom - personally, and how that is connected to your view of welfare. It also has implications on our own understanding of what we as providers put on the horse. We often ask clients, who is the horse (in different ways), but maybe we need to ask ourselves the same question. Who is the horse? To me? How we choose to describe the horses we work with in EAP (to ourselves, to our clients, in marketing) – will tell us what we put onto them, what kind of responsibilities we ask them to carry, what part of our work - if any, we ask, demand of them, to do. And in all this - our language is important. What words we choose to use - will make a difference. Maybe not to the horse, but to you, your clients, your team mates and everybody else that listens to you, because we define the world around us, as well as ourselves, very much from how we use words. Words can be powerful in shaping someones opinion of horses, of themselves, relationships, everything...

Being thought-provoking to myself again…. 😉 

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Friday, 12 July 2024