Many practitioners talk about how horses engage with us, but few seem to explore why they choose to engage with us in equine experiential learning. Why do horses stay – when the gate is open and they are free to leave? Why do they engage when they are not motivated by fear, learned helplessness or bribery? Why do they seem to intentionally work with us?
Why for example did my senior mare whose arthritis had flared up and was in pain, choose to limp more than 20 meters over to a client, lower her head, and start breathing in what seemed to be in a slow deliberately controlled way? Why did another mare who had been lying on the ground sleeping, slowly get up, walk over to a client dealing with the heaviness of grief, and begin panting for several minutes? Why did seven horses surround another client and synchronise their breathing – similar to what the arthritic mare did?
In my previous post I discussed how they regulate our bodies’ systems to bring about more stability and coherence. We can indirectly change our heart rate by altering our breathing rhythm. Our hearts produce the strongest oscillating rhythms in our bodies and influence all other systems. When we can bring our heart rate into greater coherence, our bodies function more effectively as a whole. Since the horse’s heart field is more powerful than ours, their hearts – also affected by their breathing, dominate our heart field rhythm, causing it to synchronise with theirs.
So why do they bother? Why do they take the trouble to work with (or on) us, and change their breathing rhythms when they have the option to rest, graze, hang out at the water trough, or engage with other horses?
Here are three universal principles that may offer some insight
1. We are not separate – humans and horses are all part of nature, and not separate. When we observe herd dynamics we can see the unification of the herd, despite the individual characters. There is a code of unity within the group. Everyone matters. When we are in their space, we become part of the whole.
2. What is experienced by one is experienced by all – when we observe herd dynamics we see the entire herd respond to a potential threat in the environment at the same time, even when only one member of the herd notices the threat. It stands to reason then if we are not separate, at some level they experience what we are experiencing. So, for example, if we experience dysregulation, they would feel that also.
3. Everything in nature seeks balance or equilibrium – another way to explain this is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Again, observing the herd, there might be a burst of energy as the herd detects imminent threat and runs in unison to safety. Then they stop, orient to the threat, perhaps snort (to discharge the residual survival energy), lower their heads and go back to grazing or resting. This is an example of returning to equilibrium.
Equilibrium is a state of coherence where our bodies function more effectively as a whole, and for horses this is essential for survival. Instinctively horses know that a stressed member of the herd is a liability to the herd. Through resonance she will be affecting all other herd members. While in a stressed state, she will not be present enough to detect potential danger and communicate this to the herd. She might also become easy prey – attracting predators and putting the entire herd at risk. Every member of the herd needs to be in a state of coherence, including us – because what is experienced by one is experienced by all.
What can we do?
- When we see our horses working in this way, we can be respectful and allow them sufficient time to contribute to our clients’ well-being for as long as practicable.
- I find my horses are easily startled when clients touch them while they seem to be intentionally controlling their breathing, and often look as if they are in a trance-like state, so I ask clients to withhold from touching them.
- We can use this as an opportunity to draw attention to what the horses seem to be doing, and invite clients to be present with their own bodies and notice what they are experiencing. This supports the horses’ work also.
Horses may see us as humans, but we are also mammals or animals, and part of nature. Horses are not afflicted by the illusion of separation to the same degree as humans, and may have the capacity to see that we are indeed one.
By Cindy Jacobs, CEEL Co-founder and trainer