Horses have plowed our fields, carried us into battle, transported us across continents, thrilled us with sport, and now (as perhaps always), they are with us in healing.
I have been drawn to training, and understanding behavior, because everything I learn helps me understand myself, and others.
To me, the lessons from working with horses are not metaphors for life, they are life, and I have realized that the line of who is training who is often gray and blurred.
I think, as horse people, we want to be perfect for our horses – steady, calm, unafraid, not stressed. However, my own experiences, especially through this past year, as well as some interesting research, suggests that perhaps what is most connecting is not this version of perfection.
I have two favorite places in the world. One is with a horse, the other is riding an iron horse – motorcycles. I love to sail down the freeway or twist around a back road.
Last year in the Spring, I had an accident where after a swerve to avoid a car in our lane, the bike hit a telephone pole and I was thrown into a tree. I was knocked unconscious, helmet cracked.
I was very lucky that the physical symptoms of headaches and nausea only lasted a few weeks, however, in the following months, I experienced many of the strange symptoms that others who have had head injuries are all too familiar with but seem to vary with every injury – mood swings, depression, memory loss, etc.
The kind of work I am doing now with horses provided an ideal resting place, as “training plans” for the horses would often go out the window, when I couldn’t do anything but sit in their pen and cry.
What I experienced is that the deepest moments of connection often came when I wasn’t trying to create it. I wasn’t doing anything but frankly sitting there feeling horrible and vulnerable.
One time stands out. I was out in the back fields, where about 40 horses have a few hundred acres to roam. These are mustangs that were wild, are living here at the Return to Freedom sanctuary, and have no regular handling. I often go out with my notebook, and sit at a distance to watch, observe, and make notes on their patterns and behaviors.
This day I was sitting there studiously with my notebook and pen, and was once again overwhelmed with frustration and sadness when I realized I couldn’t remember any of the horses’ names.
Putting my head in my hands I started to cry and a few minutes later became aware that one of the mares had left the group, walked over, and was now half sliding down the little embankment to where I was sitting. She stood there and I sat there, probably for only 5 minutes or so, but her presence completely enveloped me.
She was there for me. The horses were there for me
My horses, goats, dogs, even guinea pigs (in their own little way) have always been my closest
friends, as a child and an adult.
As much as I always strive to be “better”, as long as I am authentic, they are there.
When research looks at emotion and attempts to measure “connection” between individuals, a common, and very useful metric to measure, is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measurement of the variance in time between heartbeats – different than simply looking at beats per minute.
When the HRV variance is higher and relatively consistent, creating an even wave-like pattern when viewed on a graph, it is indicative of a positive emotional state.
When HRV is low, it is indicative of a negative emotional state – stress, fear, or anger.
HRV research in horses and people is not new, and most findings fit with what we might guess with “common sense”.
When horses are together, their HRV patterns can sync, entraining to each other, then if separated they become stressed, and their HRV drops.
Horses have a large heart, and a large electromagnetic field compared to us humans, so research suggests their rhythms affect us more than the other way around. (4)
Our horses don’t need us to be cool, calm, and collected if it is an act. They need us to be present in our bodies, truly feeling what is there, so that feeling and emotion can shift.
A study published this past summer caught my attention as it compared horse’s responses to adolescents with the question of whether the adolescent’s attachment style would affect the horse’s behavior.
Attachment theory is a psychological theory that our interactions as youngsters, how we related to and bonded with parents and caregivers, will affect how we relate in our adult relationships as well. (5)
There are four generally accepted attachment styles, with each having its characteristic traits and behavior patterns indicative of that style.
Attachment does not occur only between people, as the research is expanding looking at attachment in animals and between people and animals. (6,7)
This particular study was titled Effect of Human Attachment Style on Horse Behaviour and Physiology during Equine-Assisted Activities (1). Equine Assisted activities refers to learning or therapy where horses are involved, and again, this study was about seeing how a person’s attachment style, based on a questionnaire, would affect the horses they were working with.
Would a “secure” attachment style (considered the most developmentally healthy) mean a better interaction with a horse?
The study monitored the horses' heart rates and noted their behaviors towards the youth and found that the horses actually showed more affiliative behaviors and had more consistent heart rates (fewer spikes that can be indicative of stress) when working with youth who had tested as having fearful or preoccupied attachment styles.
Once again, perfection is not required for connection.
Of course, this was a pilot study and I feel it raises many questions, beginning with the fact that attachment styles can be quite complex and are not easily and accurately identified. Also, the study did not quantify the adolescent’s behavior, and how their attachment styles affected how they behaved towards the horses.
In working with horses, it is important to be the best we can in our relationship with them, but I think that means first connecting with what we are, in that day and in that moment. Sometimes this is an uncomfortable place to go. It would be easier to put on a smile, grab the halter, and go through the motions of a cheery horse person, but the horses aren’t the only ones that feel the disconnect.
We can change our mental and emotional state, but we need to be where we are first.
Our horses can change, but equally, we need to allow them to be where they are too.
An article from Kate Naylor (2), an equine-assisted therapist, wrote an interesting piece on the dangers of objectifying horses, not in the way that is most common, seeing them as tools and a means for work or sport, but in seeing them as perfect creatures, higher gods, or a sort of spiritual reflection back to us.
“When the horse is simply a conduit, a reflection of our inner world, or a creature on a pedestal, we still control him. We decide what he tells us and when, we decide what his behavior means to us.”
We can miss the individual in front of us, with his own fears, patterns, and needs.
Whatever our spiritual beliefs, we are all here operating in these earth suits, and we all encounter the challenges and trials of life.
If we can show up as ourselves, right in that moment, and see the horse in that moment too, we can find the best path forward together.
Quoting Kate’s article again, perhaps we can be with our horses in “a way in which horses are neither less than or better than, but animals just like us; full of foibles and bad habits and grace and healing – and in this third way are both the human and horse honored for their real, flesh and blood contribution. In letting go of controlling the other, we can see what is really there, right in front of us.”
Through my experiences last year, it was not only about letting go of controlling the other. What I realized is that when I was connected to myself, I didn’t need to “control” myself either. I didn’t need to fight against the painful emotions or the ugly thoughts, because when I was connected, they eventually drifted on.
The horses didn’t need me to be perfect, they just needed me to be there, present with all the imperfections life has given both of us.
If you are interested in learning more about equine-assisted learning and therapy, I highly recommend the training with Natural Lifemanship. Learn More Here
- Effect of human attachment style on Horse Behavior and Physiology During Equine Assisted Activities – A Pilot Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7401529/
- Deification is Still Objectificaiton https://naturallifemanship.com/deification-still-objectification/
- Assessing equine emotional state https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159118301163
- The Horse-Human Heart Connection. Results of Studies Using Heart Rate Variability. Ellen Kay Gerke, PhD http://isar.dk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Dr_Kaye_Article.pdf
- What is Attachment Theory https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337
- Current perspectives on attachment and bonding in the dog-human dyad https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4348122/
- The Potential of Human–Horse Attachment in Creating Favorable Settings for Professional Care: A Study of Adolescents’ Visit to a Farm https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7552679/#B21-animals-10-01707