What If We Kept Horses as Spiritual Guides, Teachers and Psychotherapists?

I left the competitive horse world in my mid-twenties, once I figured out that the more successful horses and riders became, the crazier they got. The horses I loved and worked with did the impossible for me day after day. In the world I inhabited, horses who weren’t great athletes wound up in dog food cans. There was tremendous pressure to make sure that those who passed through my hands found a niche in a performance specialty. Their lives depended on it.

The problem is that horses were not designed to live like hot-house flowers. They’re set up to move about eighteen hours a day among a small band of friends and family foraging for a variety of delicacies. Performance horses in the fifties and sixties lived in box stalls, usually about 12 X 12-feet. Their diets had little to do with what nature intended. Denied social bonding, a wholesome diet and freedom of movement, horses get nutty. They become overly dependent on their human handlers for everything. It’s a sick relationship based on a healthy calling to bond with another species.

The people caught up in performance specialties don’t seem to fare much better than the horses. Most appear to get into it because of a profound calling to horses. It seems to take Nano-seconds for highly motivated humans to turn into pathological control freaks in performance specialty realms. I became obsessed with figuring out why.

That led to a graduate program in clinical psychology. I began to learn what made people tick. It was a fruitful time. I met my soul mate, who turned out to be a dog guy. I also developed what turned into a life-long fascination with how relationships work. What makes some marriages and families function well and messes up others? How does one person’s psychopathology affect that of others in his or her life? What sorts of relationships mitigate the damaging effects of chronic mental illnesses?

Being a born critter person, I naturally explored animals as potential helpers for those who suffered from what eventually became known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My first informal dog trial worked beautifully. Within a couple of months, I worked out a loose protocol employing my dogs in my clinical practice, which at the time was office based. I quickly turned it into a home-visit practice, which just as quickly morphed into a practice primarily run out of our home. If a patient had animals at home, that’s where we worked. If not, or if the patient was too distracted at home, we worked in the setting my dogs were the most comfortable with.

Countless patients whose brains had been hijacked by unspeakable trauma found their way back through the delighted grins of dogs who were genuinely happy to see them. They practiced holding paws, throwing sticks and trotting down woodland trails behind wagging tails. While they did that, their brains re-wired their happy to enthusiastic greetings, eye contact, and giving joy to another. Mindfulness training happened in the context of Life. Gradually, the humans re-established a sense of confidence in their abilities to make authentic and safe relationships. Then, they practiced these newly reintegrated skills on the people in their lives. And, they’re off…

Whoopee, I knew how to treat an untreatable disease without psychotropic pharmaceuticals. It worked. My practice perpetually over flowed. Life was good. I thought about horses often, but usually with a sigh of relief for having escaped the craziness of the performance world. There was a longing for them though. I dreamed of them nightly. That never went away.

Life took another sharp turn after my husband died. His death coincided with that of the last of the golden retrievers who had lived and worked with us for a quarter of a century. I was bereft. Then, my beautiful mountainside property began to slide. What the …?

I moved 120-miles north with my one surviving cat. A property on the Northern California coast called me. I went. Eventually, I met a woman who was seriously horse crazy. We became partners in an herbal business. She nagged me about her burning calling to be among horses. Life happened.

She dragged me out to look at a horse she thought was perfect. What I saw was a lame, traumatized three-year old Walker whose mouth was shredded, his back was tender in four areas and his feet were misshapen from ridiculous trimming. I was horrified for that poor horse and bought him for her on the spot.

We all have crazy moments. That was a big one for me. I thought she knew about horses. She told me she did. I was in such a state of shock by beholding that poor, young horse, that in the moment, I hadn’t been quick enough to process that my partner didn’t really have a clue. Well, she was about to learn. And I have to hand it to her, she dug in and learned. She learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. We quickly began to challenge one another to grow our respective equine skill sets.

My partner taught me to be far less compulsive about “training” and far more attentive to mood. I came up in a world in which performance was the gold standard by which all horses’ value was measured. We quickly wound up with three profoundly compromised young horses. My job became figuring out how to give them viable lives in a world that still valued horses primarily for their athleticism.

None of these horses was ever going to become blue ribbon athletes. I felt frantic while the partner was amassing wounded horses. She found them, but I kept being the one who had to pay for their upkeep. It strained our relationship mightily. I also pushed me to discover the wild world of equine guided, assisted and facilitated learning and psychotherapy. It dovetailed beautifully with what I had been doing with dogs. The holistic approach through horses worked even better and faster than that with dogs and cats.

*****

It turned out that during my years of treating people with dogs, there was a whole movement of people doing similar work with horses. I was ecstatic. I had finally made my way back home, through an extremely problematic partnership.

I hadn’t looked in the literature for information on treating mental health issues with horses until I accidentally shared a moment with a border at the ranch where we kept our little band. It was a lovely summer evening. I was on my way to visit with our two mares who were enjoying the dusk in  a back pasture. As I passed the darkened and perpetually dank indoor arena, I heard an odd chirping coming from the back. I paused and peered into the darkness. Now highly pitched words were mixed among the chirps.

First, I thought that it was a migrating bird I hadn’t yet encountered. When words arrived in the same timbre, I was intrigued. This was a curiosity that I couldn’t pass up. I leaned into the front gate of the arena. There was movement back there, but I still couldn’t see much.

“Are you okay?” My query was met with more chirping. I went in awash in curiosity. What I found still makes me chuckle.

In the far back corner of the arena was one very patient, elderly horse standing about twelve feet away from one morbidly obese middle-aged man with a grin from ear-to-ear and a huge western saddle laying catty-whompus in the sand footing between them. I asked the man how it was going. He said, “It’s fantastic! I’ve never been better in my life.”

I looked quizzically at him, the horse and the saddle. “How so?”

The man flung his hands above his head and did a little dance. Of course, the horse backed itself into the far back corner when he did that. The man  didn’t seem to notice. He was carried away by bliss.

I asked him what he was trying to do. He said, “When I came today, I thought that I was going to try out this new saddle.” He looked at the forlorn hunk of leather and fittings sprawled across the sand. Then he waved toward the horse. “He doesn’t like it.”

I looked over at the horse. He was a beautifully conformed quarter horse that looked to be about eighteen years old. “Is he yours?”

“He sure is!” The look of pride and satisfaction on the man’s face could have lit the Vatican.

“He’s beautiful. How long have you had him?”

“Three days, he said. Every word that came out of his mouth had an exclamation mark attached. I’ve rarely encountered humans who can hold onto a sense of excitement that long. It was contagious. I was excited for him and a bit scared for his lovely, old horse.

“He’s a really nice horse. He’ll make you a great friend, if you figure out how to be with him. He’s trying to figure out you as much as you are him. You might want to work with him from the ground for a while before you try to ride him. Horses are like women. You can’t rush them.”

The man’s face flushed. “Really? I thought he was getting bored and I had to ride him to keep him fit.”

“That’s not been my experience with horses. The slow way around gets you home safe and sound. What is it that you like about being with your horse?”

He sighed and then his out-sized grin flashed across his face. “When we’re together, that’s where my head is. It’s right here right now. That never happens to me. I’m always thinking, worrying about work and home. You know, life. Here, hours go by and they feel like seconds. I’m totally engaged here.”

It was in that moment that I got what it was that the dogs had done for my earlier patients, the horses did too, only faster and smoother. The “it” was mindfulness training. Being in the presence of someone from a different species requires us to be more present and engaged. When that being outweighs us by ten times, the imperative becomes even more compelling.

To develop and maintain effective boundaries with someone that much bigger requires us to pay attention differently than we do in our human-constructed worlds. That focuses our attention fully in the now by shutting down the internal dialogue that most of us spend most of our lives engaged in. There is nothing more freeing for the human psyche.

When our internal dialogues quiet down, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, our brains become more agile. New and more complex pathways appear in our nervous systems. These build in resilience into our neuronal nets. And, it feels great. We want more from our first taste.

It’s also what calms horses and all the critters that I’ve tried it on so far, including humans. When our nervous systems focus on now by dropping that internal dialogue, critters easily connect with us. It’s like the static on our channel clears.

Most domesticated animals zoom into the link the second it manifests, unless they sense something off. Their bodies show us, once we get hip to what it looks like. An authentic connection is heralded by a release of tension.

That may look like a yawn or a shake and roll or even just a tiny quiver. A release happens in the human too. Sometimes it’s subtle. Others, it’s more intense. It looks like both systems are recalibrating when they hit the link. Once it’s secure, the channel seems to open a river of information flowing between the human and critter. The critter may relax, knowing that they’ve discovered a safe spot. It can go other ways though. We have to be ready for anything.

When horses sense something scary in the human, they may react. The good news about that is that it invites people to delve deeper into their issues. The horses will guide them, if they’re astute enough to listen, into healthier realms.

Those lucky enough to have horses in their lives now have options to develop this aspect of their horsemanship. Regardless of what else you and your horse do together, developing a Mindfulness practice with the animal will give you far better communication.

When I was a youngster, there were few trainers around who got that. I was lucky enough to have spent several years with a classical dressage trainer early on. He had a life-long mindfulness practice, which he certainly did not think of as such. It informed his life though. That was enough for me to get the importance of how I used my attention. There are few greater gifts.

Life among horses is a gift. It requires dedication to provide horse-happy life-long homes for a band of equines. Well-kept horses live around thirty-five years. Large tracts of land suitable for horses are expensive or very far flung. It’s far easier to stable horses at local boarding facilities. The potential problems associated with that can suck the vitality out of our connections with our horses though.

When we board them out, they’re at the effect of whoever manages the property. Some folks who hold those positions are magnificently evolved in their approaches, some talk a better game than they can deliver and others are still stuck in their own unexamined dominion delusions. Most have a sprinkling of all three issues at play.

Human minds are big and complex. A lot can go wrong with them. They take loads of maintenance to keep healthy. Cultural mores have a huge effect on our mental and physical health. We have been enculturated to believe that critter lives are resources, not sentient beings. Most of us who live and/or work with critters get some of those edges smoothed out through our relationships with them. Some don’t.

The enormity of the commitment we’re taking on when we take responsibility for a horse or a band of them is beyond words. Caring for them appropriately and having a reasonably functional human life carries thousands of challenges. I’m beginning to develop some ideas for new ways we humans might think about structuring and managing horse-human facilities and ownership models. Can we even, in good conscience, own an animal?

I loved when we began to refer to our pets as companions. Now, it’s time to make the next step. How about looking at animals with whom we share our lives as our teachers, coaches or spiritual guides? Might their homes evolve into our spiritual gathering places, schools or clinics? Might the kinship of fellow horse women and men bind us together to see to the care of a herd comprised of several bands brought together on a large tract of land? Several resident caretakers can provide for the horses needs on site either simultaneously or sequentially, so long as a couple of humans are consistently there.

With holistically kept horses hanging around, there’s going to be healing and growth. These can be a bumpy businesses. It would be great to build into horse properties models for ways people can peacefully resolve conflicts with the help of the herd.

Horses are splendid conflict resolution models. They seem to get it when negotiations are underway between humans. When the humans are functional members of their band, they can get on purpose about helping to resolve upsets. When one or more of the humans also has some group skills, issues that can rip apart families and partnerships can be noted and addressed before they morph into disasters.

That healing can be extended into the larger community of man. Economically, the setup could generate self-sustaining income by inviting folks to the site for a variety of opportunities to play and work with horses in their worlds. The more people who experience mindfulness training from horses, the better.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve talked with loads of women about their issues with keeping their horses. I lost mine to my partner when we went our separate ways. The recent economic collapse was super tough on horses and their humans. I think that we can do better than the private ownership model. When one person or family is obligated to cover the whole deal, any life change can endanger their horses. Sometimes it takes their lives. Often, that beats the alternatives. We can do better than this.

I write this as we, in the States are enduring a seismic shift among our policy makers. Life is changing. In this moment, those changes aren’t looking good for life on earth. In our hierarchal-designed human world, this sort of change is hardest on those at the bottom of the pecking order, which is where animals are. Domesticated and wild critters will have a tough path ahead. More horses and their humans may join the ranks of those schlepping over hill and dale in search of their next haven. I fervently hope that they find them. In the meantime, let’s open some space to imagine a third way.

The gentleman I stumbled on in the arena would have benefitted from being coached by a good holistic horse practitioner as he began to learn about his new horse. So could his horse. At that facility, there wasn’t anyone on site who had that role. I’ve never been on any horse site at which the humans didn’t need more wrangling than the horses.

Boarding facilities are often problematic for the horses’ humans too. There’s usually a lot of judgments flying around. Cliques are common. People have different ideas on how horses should be kept. Often, everybody thinks they’re right, so everybody else must be wrong. The reasons for others’ wrongness is often examined in detail. Stables can be like junior high school on a social level.

My guess is that this tendency has more to do with the inherent competitiveness involved in performance specialties than the horses. Performance specialties can only exist in a left-hemisphere-dominant mindset. I view it as a symptom of our culturally reinforced Dominion Delusion. Regular time among horses in a holistic setting with other humans who are practicing relating with them as teachers, spiritual guides and counselors fixes this mental imbalance. We need that now.

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6 thoughts on “What If We Kept Horses as Spiritual Guides, Teachers and Psychotherapists?”

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