Horses are mysterious and generous beings that often go above and beyond in the service of humans. Even when they have an ‘ideal lifestyle’ where they live in a herd, are free to roam and graze most of their days, have agency over their own bodies, are free from pain and illness, and can choose to participate in equine therapy sessions, they may still be working too hard.
Equine therapy practitioners often describe the way horses work as ‘mirroring’ or responding to the client. They sometimes explain that horses have the capacity to show clients what they can’t see about themselves.
What we can’t see about ourselves can be disturbing to the horses
What we can’t see about ourselves is our subconscious world, which is made up of our beliefs, conditioning, unresolved experiences and traumas, and unprocessed emotions. Our subconscious world is what is mostly unknown to us, and is what has the most influence on our thinking, choices, behaviours, and experiences. In terms of energy, it has the most power.
In equine therapy programs, clients typically enter the horses’ space and engage with the horses – initially by greeting them. Being prey animals, horses need to know what they are dealing with in order to determine how safe they are. Consequently they are exceptionally sensitive to our clients’ energy – specifically the unconscious stuff.
Imagine someone walking towards you and you could see chaotic energies swarming around them – yet they were unaware of them. You would barely see the person as you focus on the energies in order to take care of yourself. Chances are you would be responding to those energies, too!
That is pretty much what happens for our horses every time a person enters their space that does not have awareness of their ‘stuff’ and therefore probably doesn’t take conscious ownership of it.
Since the person is unaware of such energies – of unresolved experiences and traumas, and unprocessed emotions, the horses need to be extra concerned because they may not be entirely under the person’s control, and there is no knowing what the person might do.
When we are not aware of what we are feeling or holding in our bodies, the horses will respond to this unclaimed, and misqualified energy – usually in the form of overt, highly expressive or unusual behaviour. This might include anything from nipping or kicking each other, to chasing their own tails, or twitching and scratching, and so on.
When we see such overt, expressive behaviours, our horses may be working too hard, and this kind of continued exposure to clients may lead to burn out for our horses.
What can we do to minimise the impact on our horses?
Here are 4 steps to prepare ourselves and our clients to minimise the impact we may have on our horses:
- Before you start or enter the horses’ space, invite your client to join you in turning your head and looking around / taking time to feel more settled in the environment. This practice of orienting is working with our biology, and calms the nervous system. It gives us a chance to determine how safe we feel and notice what is in our environment.
- Ground yourself and your client. This brings you both into the present, and into your bodies.
- Ask your client to find a word that matches how she is feeling right now. This helps her to take responsibility for what she brings into the horses’ space. (Silently do this for yourself also).
- Ask your client if she can notice how her body tells her how she is feeling. This connects her mind to her body’s responses – which is what the horses are primarily responding to.
Use a somatic approach
The body houses our subconscious mind. Helping clients notice and track their physiological responses to their stories brings the subconscious up to conscious awareness. When the client begins to notice their ‘energies,’ they become less concerning to the horses. With this approach, the horses may seem more attentive, however the impact on them is significantly reduced because they do not have to show the client what they are not able to see themselves. Consequently their work is deeper more subtle, and more impactful, but far easier on them.