Part Eight: The Horse
Welcome to the final part of this blog series – the week it’s all been leading up to. The reason I have taken so much time to lay the foundations for this week is to give people the understanding, that I believe is necessary, to really get a sense of the potential the horse-human relationship has for personal and collective healing and growth.
I understand that if you’ve never had anything to do with horses the idea of ‘equine facilitated practice’ may seem far off and unrelatable. Perhaps it does to some of those within the equestrian world also. Like anything, it’s difficult to relate to something if you have no reference point for it in your own experience. Hence our seven-week preamble. By starting with ourselves right here, with awareness and compassion, we begin to experience the depth of our being and from there we are able to acknowledge this depth in others – be they humans, animals or the body of Earth itself.
So, with the groundwork in place I hope that this final part will serve to demystify ‘equine facilitated practice’, and stir a curiosity to assist you on your own journey to developing ‘a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ (1).
Well then, without further ado, let’s go…
‘But It’s Just an Animal’
The well-known primatologist and ethologist Jane Goodall once wrote, ‘You cannot share your life with a dog, or cat [or horse] and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities, minds and feelings’ (2).
Anyone who has spent time with animals intuitively knows this to be true. However, this unbalanced age of strict logic and quantitative methodology at the expense of our emotional, intuitive, seemingly illogical and inherently unmeasurable aspects has created a rift causing us to dismiss what we feel to be true (that animals have unique characters, minds and feelings), and defaulting to the reigning paradigm of the time (‘it’s just an animal’).
Our relationship to the horse seems to amplify this battle between the logical and illogical. However, the reigning beliefs of how horses ‘should be dealt with’ are beginning to shift and the silent depth that draws people to these amazing creatures is beginning to find a voice. A voice that can bring an empowered balance to these opposing aspects.
As Jane Goodall wrote, for anyone who has shared their life with an animal, there is no doubt that they have minds, feelings and are as uniquely individual as humans. But the idea of human superiority runs deep. How many of us acknowledge our pets as unique characters but raise a sceptical eyebrow at the prospect of an animal not only being able to, but wanting to offer the mighty human a lesson? From unconditional love and loyalty embodied by the dog, to balanced power taught by the horse, can we see, process and release our belief in human superiority enough to allow ourselves to learn something new?
It would be easier not to bother discussing whether animals are sentient, instead granting it as a given. However, having realised how deep-rooted my own unexamined assumptions regarding animal consciousness have been, I have made reference to a few sources to really wake us up to the sentience that lays beyond the idea of ‘just an animal’.
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness acts as our first scientifically backed wake-up call on the topic. On 7th July 2012 a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviours in human and non-human animals (3). In light of unequivocal observations from comparative research, the following declaration was made:
‘The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.’ (3)
Furthermore, the work of Dr Candace Pert – which we have referred to earlier in this series- found the biomolecular basis of emotions to be highly conserved from single celled organisms all the way up to the highly complex human organism. The fact that these molecules are so highly conserved points to their central role in our survival and also tells us that yes, animals do indeed have emotions (4).
With the myth of human superiority due to consciousness and emotion dissolving, a curiosity arises. No doubt we are in some ways different to our four-legged friends, but how? And what can we learn from this?
By exploring the horse in light of our seven-week investigation, we begin to see the realm in which equine facilitated practice operates. From there it becomes possible to understand how such a niche area of work has the potential to aid us in healing the disconnection we suffer from, whilst also teaching us the skills required to own our power in a healthy balanced way. Only then can we generate the change our hearts long for and release the dysfunction the ego creates.
The Horse and the Ego
Let’s first look at the horse in terms of the ego. I’ll give us a brief refresher here but do head back to part four if you feel you need to further your understanding.
Eckhart Tolle tells us ‘ego is no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought form’ (5). Remember the diagram from earlier in the series? – ego is mistaking who we are for an idea of who we are. I have included it here for reference.
As we have seen, and can become aware of in our own lives, we humans spend a lot of our time lost in thought. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with thought itself but when we lose our sense of being to the act of thinking, that is when we run into issues.
So how about horses - do they have egos?
In its simplest form, ego is the Latin word for “I”. You could say the horse has an ego in that she has a sense of herself as separate to a degree. In fact, I would say any animal has this sense of them self as a separate “I” to a degree, otherwise how would they be able to experience themselves and protect themselves? That is to say, if there wasn’t a level of perceived separation between “I” and “other” there would be nothing for the animal to be relative to in order to experience himself. And no drive to protect his own body.
However, when we use the term ego, what we are really referring to is identification with the thought of “I” which disconnects us from our bodies in the present moment and creates the illusion of separation. It is this identification with thought form (ego) that horses do not suffer from due to their constant embodied connection. This constant embodiment was - and is- essential to their survival as prey animals. Receiving the plethora of information from their bodies in the form of feelings is vital to assessing threats in the environment, such as predators on the prowl, and in managing herd dynamics non-verbally. As a result, they are highly aware and connected to their bodies. And as we know, the body exists in the present moment.
For those who are perhaps unfamiliar with horses and are a touch sceptical about their mental capacity it might be tempting to argue that ‘horses don’t think so they can’t get lost in thought, therefore they don’t have an ego’. However, it’s not that horses don’t think, it’s that they don’t get attached to the act of thinking.
A 2016 study showed horses to be capable of heterospecific referential communication - the ability to communicate about something specifically to a member of a different species (humans) in pursuit of a desired goal (6). Co-author of the published research, Rachele Malavasi, Ph.D., states in an article appearing in The Horse: ‘Having this ability means that horses do not just ‘behave’ without considering the consequence of their actions. They are able to create a mental plan (for example, to reach a goal with the help of others around them), to evaluate the attentional state of that audience, and to modify their communicative strategy accordingly. Horses seem therefore able of iterative problem solving strategy’ (7). For those who have been repeatedly outsmarted by the Houdini’s of the horse world, or who suffer the deafening tones of stable doors being used as rudimentary drum kits when dinner time approaches, this will hardly come as a surprise.
Whilst horses are certainly capable of thinking and mentally planning, they do not do so at the expense of their ability to feel. We humans on the other hand, have become so preoccupied with thought that we cut ourselves off from the body and our ability to feel the emotions and sensations that arise in our present experience. In her book The Tao of Equus, equine facilitated learning pioneer Linda Kohanov elucidates the non-verbal equine state that marries thought and feeling, contrasting it to our human identification with thought at the cost of feeling:
‘Our uniquely human talent for language is associated with the temporal lobes [of the brain], which horses do not have. This feature of the human brain, combined with our increased ability to focus through the frontal cortex, creates the double-edged sword of concentrated attention. The frontal cortex’s ability to filter out everything else allows us to pay attention to something through force of will. Yet sensations and feelings are constantly pouring into our body-minds. When we form a thought and narrow the focus of that thought enough to fit it into the context of spoken or written language, we are abstracting from that complexity. As we pass these simplified snapshots of reality on to other people, they eventually solidify into a cultural perspective that literally shapes the way we perceive the world. When we look at a horse for example, we’re filtering a stream of sense data through a stereotyped thought pattern, the pattern to which we’ve grown accustomed through parental and cultural reinforcement. As a result, there’s a lot of data that never comes to our attention. Because our culture overemphasises the kind of abstraction needed to translate experience into language, we’ve reached the point where the emotions and memories we are most conscious of are primarily set in motion by thoughts and words.’
‘In horses, it appears that memories are stimulated by emotion and the physiological sensations that give rise to those emotions. However, these animals do not actually separate thought and memory from feeling and sensation. The four are always connected. A horse’s mind is literally swimming in a sea of nuance that also exists in the human brain before it filters experience through language. Most people identify themselves with what rises to the surface of the ocean and is captured by the frontal cortex- temporal lobe net. This net is woven by the habits of thought our language imposes on perception and the small amount of sense data that makes it through the mental sieve’ (8).
From this we begin to get a sense of the small distorted fragment we live from when we’re identified with surface level thoughts, and the rich source of intelligence we deny ourselves by repeating the old habit to move away from our present experience in a bid to ‘just get comfortable’.
By learning to return to our bodies we can marry thought with feeling, balancing the logical and the illogical aspects of ourselves and gain access to the ‘sea of nuance’ and depth of being that exists prior to any mental filtering. This sea is the whole to which we belong and the birthplace of creativity. But as we have explored, we have a backlog of unfelt pain in our systems and a habit to move away from it. Until we are willing to surrender to our present experience, that ‘sea of nuance’ will remain forever a concept, its truth left swimming beyond the words of this page.
Luckily for us, the horse seems willing to lend us a hoof in learning to swim.
The Horse – A Lesson in Emotional Agility
Whilst, as humans, our response to emotion is unconsciously governed by the belief ‘that the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’, horses embody a completely different perspective – one which views emotion as a source of valuable information.
This ability to receive the information encoded in emotion is natural to the horse. Accessing it has been an essential survival tool required to sense a predator’s presence and gauge its intention from a distance in order to avoid becoming lunch. Therefore, the human habit to repress emotion is a foreign and dangerous concept to the horse (and something they are astute at detecting).
In her later book, The Power of the Herd, Kohanov coins this innate equine facility to use emotions as information ‘emotional agility’. She distils the process into a concise four-point method that any human can learn – ‘one that provides an antidote to the stress we mistakenly create by denying the body’s intelligence and its incredibly efficient use of emotion as a non-verbal communication system’ (9).
The four-point process follows:
1. Feel the emotion in its purest form.
2. Get the message behind the emotion.
3. Change something in response to the message.
4. Go back to grazing (i.e. get back to living your life, letting go of the story).
By listening and responding to the silent information conveyed through feelings, horses do not burden themselves with the weight of unprocessed emotion, instead they are free to meet and respond to whatever challenge arises next. In contrast, most humans don’t dare engage in step one. Just as emotional agility has been essential to the survival of the horse as a prey species, we are coming to realise the importance acknowledging, claiming, processing and releasing our emotions has for our individual health and survival as a whole. As Dr Candace Pert reminds us, ‘the more we deny them, the greater the ultimate toxicity’ (10).
This information may come as a relief to those that have spent their lives unable to ignore their feelings and wondering, ‘what do I do with all this?’ only to be told they’re ‘too sensitive’. Sadly, this is the case for many and, without guidance on how to navigate the inner world of emotion and felt sense, it’s not uncommon for people to turn against themselves and shame their sensitivity. It’s never the emotion that’s the issue, but its repression and stagnation that comes simply from a lack of awareness and understanding of how to work with this aspect of ourselves.
I recently watched a clip from an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday in which she interviews Jack Kornfield, author, clinical psychologist and one of the key teachers to bring mindfulness practices to the Western world. In this episode, Kornfield comments on how his Ivy League education was only ‘half an education’. He learned about history, philosophy, science and many academic pursuits of the mind, but at the end there was a large component of life unanswered – ‘How do I deal with this suffering in my heart?’ ‘How do I deal with my fear, my anger, my confusion?’ ‘How do I deal with my emotions? – the stuff that actually plays out in our lives’ (11). It was seeking the answers to such questions that led him East to find teachings on this vacuous zone of Western knowledge.
It is these brave and curious pioneers that have sourced the seeds essential to bring life to this barren land of Western education. Luckily for us, these teachings are now widely accessible (see resources section at end) and what’s more, horses offer us the opportunity to experientially integrate many of these teachings, facilitating the healing of our hearts, embodiment of our values and cultivation of the essential skills for accessing our human potential.
The horse’s fluency in the language of emotion and non-verbal communication enables them to astutely detect incongruence between how someone is feeling and the façade they are presenting. Kohanov writes, ‘A person who is “emotionally incongruent,” who acts one way while feeling the opposite appears dangerously out of focus to the equine awareness system’ (8). This is because when you’re incongruent your feelings, expressed by the non-verbal communication that horses are so tuned into, do not matching your actions and this is ‘incredibly unsettling to a species that survives by being able to gauge a predator’s intentions at a distance (8)’.
As a result, horses (when coupled with a highly aware facilitator) can show us where we are stuck and what emotions we need to acknowledge, claim and process on our journey to developing ‘a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ (1).
Are you still with me? This can all seem a little mind boggling, especially when you have no experience for reference. To make things a little clearer (or perhaps even a little more mind boggling) I will briefly touch on some of the research behind non-verbal communication (energetic communication to be more specific) and its relationship to the horse- human bond.
Recent advances in biomagnetic measuring technologies have allowed researchers to measure the magnetic field produced by the heart, finding it to be five thousand times greater in strength than the field generated by the brain and detectable up to several feet away from the body in all directions. The electrical component of the heart’s field (measured by ECG - electrocardiogram) is sixty times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded by EEG (electroencephalogram). The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field of the body (12). Research conducted by the HeartMath Institute has shown that information about our emotional state is encoded in the hearts electromagnetic field and communicated throughout the body and to the external environment (12). Our thoughts and emotions energetically affect those in our environment whether or not we are conscious of it (12)(13).
These advances in technology have enabled early research into the horse- human relationship to take place and help us to understand the level on which this body of work exists. Drs Ann Baldwin and Ellen Gehrke joined with industry pioneer Lisa Walters and a team from the HeartMath Institute to conduct investigations into the energetic relationship between horses and humans to find some very interesting results.
When the beat-to-beat changes in heart rhythm (known as Heart Rate Variability) begin to get in ‘sync’ with our brain waves, cortisol levels (stress hormones) drop and hormones associated with ‘positive’ states increase. This is referred to as a state of coherence (in which two waves are either phase or frequency locked). In this state, subtle awareness expands and is often called a state of ‘peak performance’. The team used HRV as a tool to measure coherence in both horses and humans. The data suggested that horses almost always stay in coherence and if they move out, they quickly return to the coherent state. From experiments pairing horses with people (both familiar and unfamiliar) they concluded that the horse’s coherent state was influencing the human state, more than the other way around (14).
They summarised, ‘For humans, being in a state of coherence is one of the keys to expanding awareness, which can lead to gaining new perspective, as well as personal growth. Since the research indicates that the horse is influencing the human’s state more than the human is influencing the horse, we suspect that this is one of the reasons horses help people. It appears they help resonate/tune us back to more coherence’ (14).
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about horses ‘mirroring’ people’s emotional states. Whilst equine behaviour can be for a range of reasons, just like our own, the research team suspected that, after looking at the results of the research, ‘horses are perceiving, interpreting and responding to very subtle energy fields that they come into contact with. It would make sense that if the collective feeling they perceive is calm, they will respond calmly. If the collective feeling is fear, they may feel/sense fear and start behaving fearfully’ (14).
Research into the horse-human bond is revealing some interesting results but don’t worry about getting too bogged down in the scientific detail. The power of this work doesn’t lie in you being able to understand heart and brain rhythms in detail, but a willingness to meet and viscerally investigate what arises in your own present experience. A simple way that I view this work, based on what we have explored over the past seven weeks follows:
Horses live in their bodies rather than identifying with an idea of themselves (ego). Therefore, they remain connected to the present moment – they are an anchor to the now. Horses use all emotions as information rather than suppressing them. They are highly energetically aware so can detect incongruences in how you feel (encoded in your heart’s electromagnetic field) and what you are willing to acknowledge you feel. As a result, they are able to act as a moment to moment feedback system, pointing us in the direction of what we need to acknowledge, claim and process to move forward.
Furthermore, it seems that they embody a way of being that helps us tune back to a coherent state - the key to expanding awareness which can lead to gaining new perspectives and personal growth.
I see this as the fundamental basis of this work, from which the many reported transformative and healing experiences arise.
Horses aren’t going to do our work for us, only we can do that. But they sure are willing to show us where the light switch is to illuminate our situation and guide us on our path back home.
Considering the Horse’s ‘Pain Body’
Before we all go running to find our nearest equine sage, hoping for beautiful experiences of harmony and transformation (who ever said transformation was a serene experience!?), we need to understand there’s more to this work than simply finding a horse to ‘make us feel better’ – if you take this approach you may find yourself bitterly disappointed when your equine partner would rather not engage with you. I wonder what feelings that would evoke? Perhaps you would find yourself planning on how to get the ‘stupid horse’ to engage rather than feel into your present experience? Ah, but that is exactly where the potential of this work resides!
When I first started reading about equine facilitated practices, whilst intrigued, I was often left at odds with how this related to my own experiences with horses. It wasn’t uncommon to read about poignant moments of healing between horse and human and the shifts that occurred for the person involved. Whilst touching, I couldn’t help but wonder about the horses. I frequently felt frustrated and confused by the contrast in these reports and what I saw at the yard daily – one horse crib biting obsessively, another not wanting to be caught, my own horse tearing through the fences in defiance of the ‘separate paddock’ rule (or more accurately, in a bid for connection with her own kind). It was clear this work wasn’t as straight forward as ‘here’s a horse, she’ll make you feel better’. Trapped in a paradox, knowing that the healing power of the horse-human bond was real but sensing that its manifestation was much more complex than met the eye, I switched gears in a bid to understand the horse in the horse-human equation.
As is tradition, we are often all too quick to extract what we can from a situation for our own gain, often realising too late (if at all) the impact it has had on another - and ultimately ourselves too. That is why I want to turn our attention to acknowledging horses as mortal and sentient in their own right and how this is fundamental in accessing the potential of the horse-human bond.
We’re going to explore the horse in terms of Eckhart Tolle’s definition of the ‘pain body’ and its parallels with the ‘freezing response’ as detailed by trauma specialist Peter A. Levine. Both of which we discussed in part three of this series. As a result, I hope to give us a reference point for an aspect of the horse we could refer to as the ‘equine pain body’.
The pain body is described by Tolle as ‘the remnants of pain left behind by every strong negative emotion that is not fully faced, accepted, and then let go of [which] join together to form an energy field that lives in the very cells of your body’ (5).
Levine explains that ‘the long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the “immobility” or “freezing” state.’ Instead, the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on body and spirit. (15).
So, what has this got to do with the horse?
Levine describes how the ‘immobility’ or ‘freezing’ response ‘is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat’ (15). If fight and flight fail or are not perceived as options, the “freezing” response serves as a last-ditch survival function acting as a key part of the nervous system’s circuit breaker to enable the organism to survive the intense activation of a serious inescapable situation without risking energetic overload (15).
Horses do not repress emotions and hence do not store remnants of unfelt negative emotions to create a pain body in the sense of Tolle’s definition. However, they are mammals who have access to the ‘freezing’ response when faced with an overwhelming threat. In which case, perhaps we could term the equine pain body ‘the frozen residues of energy that have not been discharged from the nervous system following activation of the freezing response’.
Levine states, ‘the physiological evidence clearly shows that the ability to go into and come out of this natural response is the key to avoiding the debilitating effects of trauma’ (15). If they are unable to move through and out of the ‘freezing response’ it would follow that, just like humans, the frozen residue of energy would remain trapped within their nervous system, wreaking havoc on equine body and spirit.
How does the way we interact with horses and cater for their social and emotional needs in the domesticated setting impact their ability to process and move through the ‘freezing response’?
What part does trauma have to play in the horse-human bond?
From the array of stereotypes exhibited by horses in domestic settings, the equine qualities we’ve spoken of in the first half of this discussion aren’t always abundantly apparent. Could the equine pain body be at the root of it?
When we force a horse into an unknown scenario in which they don’t feel safe, limiting their options for fight or flight with dominance and small spaces, they are left with only one option – ‘freeze’. When we then deprive them of what feels like a truly safe and natural space (a herd), rather layering requests on top of requests and limiting their options for self-expression, we create an environment where ‘freeze’ becomes the only option. Perhaps we could look at ‘freeze’ as a spectrum from the ‘freezing response’ where the horse dissociates from what is perceived to be a life-threatening situation, to the learned helplessness we see in so many horses today. Their options for expression limited to the point that they just ‘turn off’.
You can just as easily see this occur in human- human scenarios:
Your boss asks you to perform a task, you cannot do it because you haven’t been given the tools to do so. You try to communicate this to your boss, but rather than listen and try to understand you he just continues to tell you to complete the task. However, you still don’t have the tools. So, you get frustrated. In response to your frustration your boss releases his pent-up rage upon you, blaming you for being unable to do the task and your ‘cheek’ for challenging his authority. You learn expressing frustration (fight) isn’t going to help you get the job done with this person. In the meantime, you still haven’t received the tools you need to complete said task. You are then left with the option to leave (flight). But alas, you’re trapped by identification with the mental story that ‘I can’t leave, I need this job, I’ll never find another one’. With fight and flight written off you resign yourself to a state of indifference (freeze). When the boss shouts at you, you just sit there and take it. You still can’t perform the task he’s asking of you because he still hasn’t provided you with the tools to do so. However, you’ve learned that communicating that need isn’t an option and, in your mind, leaving isn’t an option either. So, you start to find alternative toxic outlets for your frustration, gossiping and engaging in power play, or you numb out all-together.
Whilst horses don’t engage in gossiping, the array of equine stereotypes are likely an outlet for such frustrations. Perhaps now you really start to empathise with many horse’s situations!
The ‘equine pain body’ brings up a lot of questions about our relationship to the horse in every context but for now let’s draw it back to how it relates to equine facilitated practice.
I think it’s important to note that a horse that has experienced trauma doesn’t exclude him from this work at all, in fact his choice to participate could lead to healing opportunities that other horses would not be drawn to. The energies locked within the traumatised system are capable of moving us to new levels of wisdom and are the grist for the mill of the ‘wounded healer’. The importance is an awareness of these aspects of the horse and a view of her not as a healing or personal growth ‘tool’ but a sentient being in her own right.
Without honouring the sentience and depth of the horse, the quality of equine facilitated work is limited. Each horse’s experiences, ‘pain-body’ (or trauma in the system) and unique character will affect how they behave and respond to emotional states of humans (and whether they wish to engage in such work at all). I hope this consideration of the horse provides some level of insight into how tapping the potential of the horse-human relationship is a little more complex than one might imagine. The skill of the equine facilitated practitioner comes from honouring the horse’s sentience, cultivating the level of awareness and sensitivity required to tune into their silent messages and trusting their moment-to -moment input, whilst at the same time remaining receptive to their own inner state to provide a safe space for another to explore their inner life.
Phew, whilst that sounds like a long check list to go and find ‘out there’, these skills can only be cultivated by starting with your experience in the present moment. This work all unfolds from the now – the only place you’ll find the horse. I often think this work would be better termed ‘human facilitated equine teachings’, but that would probably cause even more blank dinner party stares than ‘equine facilitated learning’!
So where are we going with all this?
I hope this exploration has helped to a) give you an idea of what equine facilitated practice is all about and b) demonstrate that without honouring and respecting the horse as sentient, we block them from their own potential and their ability to help us tap ours.
This is not a call to mollycoddle horses, but rather to bring some mindful awareness to the depth and complexity on the equine side of the horse-human equation. In the foreword to Angela Dunning’s book The Horse Leads the Way, Kohanov speaks of Dunning’s emphasis ‘that in order to help our mortal horses fully access their mythic healing abilities, we must care for their social and emotional, as well as physical needs’ (16).
Relationship to Horse
From a larger viewpoint, this is a call to all involved with horses to find the courage place a clear, non-judgemental eye on the way we relate to the horse. Whether it be in sport, equine facilitated therapy and learning, veterinary practice or pleasure.
We’ve all seen the array of equine hang ups – from loading issues to cribbing, separation anxiety to the ‘switched off’ and dissociated. The question is, can we pause and become curious about these ‘mortal’ behaviours rather than play out the knee jerk reaction to grab the twitch, opt for the stronger bit or force a situation in order to achieve a result.
In doing so, what can we to learn about ourselves and new ways of partnership available for horse and human?
The answers won’t initially be clear and looking at ourselves might feel a little daunting, but without asking the questions, we’ll never find the answers. This isn't a call to start an angry campaign or promote the judging and shaming of those that 'do things differently', but rather a means to open a brave discussion, be that with yourself, your friends or with your horse.
When we bring our focus to relationship, we realise it’s not about the result itself but rather the process. At the end of the day, when we look back, it’s the unmeasurable aspects of life which give it meaning. The connection that reminds us we belong.
The reason I have put such effort into attempting to theorise and outline the equine pain-body and emphasise how, despite their emotional agility, horses still carry their own ‘stuff’ is because of an insight I had with the horses whilst pondering why they bother partnering with us at all...
It seems as though horses have partnered with us not so that we can use them to heal our own pain bodies but because in the process of partnering with horses to heal, the healing of our own pain bodies also heals the equine pain body. Not just the individual pain body of the horse and human involved but also the collective pain body of relationship between horse and human.
In Native America the horse is the totem animal for power. No abuse of power will ever lead to wisdom. Healing our relationship to horse is healing our relationship to power.
‘True power is wisdom found in remembering your total journey. Wisdom comes from remembering the pathways you have walked in another person’s moccasins. Compassion, caring, teaching, loving and sharing your gifts, talents and abilities are the gateways to power’ (17).
In a world where power is synonymous with control, supremacy and rule over others we are in sore need of a path back to understanding and embodying what true power really is.
The horse offers us just that.
Whether you feel drawn to horses or not, we all have the innate capacity to begin the journey of learning how to embody the gateways to our own power and bring an awareness to what environmentalist Joanna Macy calls ‘the greatest danger of our time’.
She writes, ‘There’s so much going on in our world today that makes us want to close down and not see and not hear. It’s easy to shut down in the face of suffering. But I think that’s the greatest danger of our time. The greatest peril is not nuclear war weapons, not climate change, not impoverishment of more than half the world’s population. The greatest danger is the deadening of our hearts and minds. It arises not from indifference but from fear. The fear we might be shattered by pain or stuck in despair for ever’ (18).
What will you choose to do with this heart and mind of yours?
Thank you for your interest and attention during the course of this series. It has been a privilege (and a challenge!) to share my understanding of this body of work with you. I hope to have provided you with a useful reference point for equine facilitated practice and the potential it offers.
At times my words may feel heavy, but there’s no point beating around the bush: we either opt to look at ourselves, clearly and non-judgementally in order to effect real change or continue on our current dysfunctional trajectory. It really is that simple. Rather than stagnating in the doom and gloom of our current predicament I intend this series to offer hope, that there really is a ‘much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ (1) that we are all inherently capable of developing. Should we choose to.
Over the past eight weeks we have explored at length our human predicament and the route home. Can we be brave and begin the work to ‘create a clearing in the dense forest of our lives’? Below you will find a list of resources which offer teachings designed to awaken heart and mind and deliver us back to the connection we’re neurobiologically wired for. I invite you to begin integrating them in your life - make them your own and watch what starts to happen.
As for me, I will continue to develop my understanding of the horse-human bond as I undertake the Eponaquest Equine Facilitated Learning Apprenticeship in the USA, starting next month. From there I hope to offer my own outlet for this body of work to serve horses and humans alike. Should you be interested in anything that has been discussed here do feel free to contact me.
Best wishes for your own onward journey,
Until next time,
I often think a resources list can feel quite daunting – look at all the information out there, where do I start?! No need to worry, choose what you feel drawn to, and if it doesn’t resonate with you, leave it, try something new, come back to it later, or not at all. All this will still be here should you choose to return to it at a later date. Here’s a selection of key resources I have returned to (and continue to return to) time and time again:
Short books including short teachings – a great way to drop small nuggets of wisdom into your mind (even if you don’t fully grasp what they point to initially) and allow them to germinate.
- Pema Chödrön. The Pocket Pema Chödrön.
- Gary Zukav and Linda Francis. Thoughts From The Heart Of The Soul, Meditations for Emotional Awareness.
- Thich Nhat Hanh. How to Love.
Audiobooks and podcasts - great for a car journey or an end of day wind down:
- Tara Brach Podcast. [Accessed via podcast app on iPhone]
- Heart Wisdom Podcast with Jack Kornfield. [Accessed via podcast app on iPhone]
- Pema Chödrön. Getting Unstuck, Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. [Audiobook]. Sounds True
- Eckhart Tolle. A New Earth, Create a Better Life.
- Tara Brach. True Refuge. Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.
- Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness. The Classic Guide.
- Jack Kornfield. No Time Like The Present. Finding Freedom and Joy Right Where You Are.
- Linda Kohanov (Five books): The Tao of Equus. Riding Between the Worlds. The Power of the Herd. The Way of the Horse. The Five Roles of a Master Herder.
- Brene Brown. Rising Strong. (& other title by same author)
Guided training in awareness and compassion:
- The Power of Awareness, A Seven Week Online Mindfulness Training to Cultivate Clarity, Compassion and Well-being. https://www.soundstrue.com/store/power-of-awareness/?sq=1
1. Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
2. The Guardian. Interview with Robin McKie. Chimps with everything: Jane Goodall's 50 years in the jungle. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jun/27/jane-goodall-chimps-africa-interview. June 26, 2010. Accessed November 6, 2019.
3. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf. Accessed November 6, 2019.
4. Pert CB. Your Body is Your Subconscious Mind. [Audiobook]. USA: Sounds True; 2004.
5. Tolle E. A New Earth, Create a Better Life. 2nd edition. UK: Penguin Books; 2016. pp. 22, 141-142.
6. Malavasi R, Huber L. Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans. Animal Cognition. 2016: 19(5):899. doi: 10.1007/s10071-016-0987-0.
7. The Horse. Study Confirms Horses ‘Talk’ to Human Handlers. https://thehorse.com/17891/study-confirms-horses-talk-to-human-handlers/. June 9, 2016. Accessed November 6, 2019.
8. Kohanov L. The Tao of Equus. CA: New World Library; 2001. pp. 32-33, 161-162.
9. Kohanov L. The Power of the Herd. CA: New World Library; 2013. pp. 234- 235.
10. Pert CB. Molecules of Emotion. NY: Pocket Books; 1999. pp 285- 286.
11. YouTubeGB. Oprah Winfry Network. SuperSoul Sunday. ‘Jack Kornfield: Ivy League Grad to Devoted Monk’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BI30q_mjdk. Accessed November 6, 2019.
12. McCraty R. The Energetic Heart: GCI Edition. CA: HeartMath Institute; 2015. pp. 1-2.
13. McCraty R. Science of the Heart Volume 2: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance. An Overview of Research Conducted by the HeartMath Institute. CA: HeartMath Institute; 2015. pp. 36-44.
14. EquuSatori Centre. Horses, Humans and the Frequencies of Connection. http://www.equusatori.com/wordpress1/?p=206. March 15, 2011. Accessed November 6, 2019.
15. Levine PA. Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 1997. pp. 7, 15-21
16. Dunning A. The Horse Leads the Way. GB: YouCaxton Publications; 2017. p. viii.
17. Sams J, Carson D. Medicine Cards. Revised, Expanded Edition NY: St. Matin’s Press; 1999. pp. 177-179.
18. Macy J. The Wings of Bodhisattva. Insight Journal. 2001. pp. 34-36. https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/the-wings-of-the-bodhisattva/. Accessed November 7, 2019.