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

 

Resources

  1. 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/
  2. Deification is Still Objectificaiton https://naturallifemanship.com/deification-still-objectification/
  3. Assessing equine emotional state https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159118301163
  4. 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
  5. What is Attachment Theory https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337
  6. Current perspectives on attachment and bonding in the dog-human dyad https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4348122/
  7. 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

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84 Responses

  1. So sorry to hear about your accident Callie. I have always enjoyed watching you and listening to the lessons ever since I started horse riding 5 years ago.Thank you for all your help.

  2. As I read this the word “honest” kept coming forward. Being honest with oneself. Our horses always are. And as you wrote, we don’t fool them. Perhaps what we often don’t get is how okay that is with them. Thanks so much for the reminder that where we are is perfect.

  3. This might be the MOST amazing and helpful thing I’ve ever learned about being around horses. I can’t thank you enough for publishing this. Both the part about not faking how we feel, and not deifying horses, are immensely important points.
    I’ve known about HRV for a long time, but never thought to apply it to other animals (duh!!!), and also didn’t think about how a horse’s electromagnetic heart field is much larger than a human’s.
    You’ve written a very important and great article, for me, anyway!

  4. Heartfelt best wishes as you continue your journey. I hope I’ll catch glimpses of your efforts for years to come; I’ll always be grateful PG and I discovered Training Journals at just the right time.

    1. Thank you so much Kalli! I have loved your questions, feedback, meeting you at the farm a few years back. Much gratitude!

  5. Callie, thank you for sharing your true self with us and showing that there is strength in vulnerability. I loved your article and the sharing of your personal discoveries.

    In addition to learning from my own horse, I volunteer with a program called The Spirit of Leadership in Cleveland. Through experiential learning with horses, working with and observing the herd, the people that come get to learn about Leadership, team building and most of all, themselves. I have seen miracles in the presence of these horses. We are all so lucky to have them in our lives.

      1. Indeed. There is a rescued Zebra in the herd named Holly. She teaches about diversity, that in our differences, lies our collective strength. You are not too far from Cleveland. If you every find yourself our this way I would be happy to host you.

  6. Wow! Being 65yo, still riding after many life injuries/experiences; including several head injuries – This subject, article and addition resources really hit home.

    As we are currently deep in snow season, this gives me the motivation to be connected w/out expectations on my part or my equine’s.

    I am excited for Spring as these realizations about connection enhance our rides together!

    Thanks for sharing!!

  7. Natural Lifemanship has been a gift to myself and my ‘girls. I’m learning to be able to read and better respond to their reactions so that I can to be considerate of their feelings by being present–and ‘asking not telling’. It’s not unusual for my personal frustrations to ‘tear up’ when I feel their hearts reaching out to me. The connection that follows is amazing! So who is the real trainer???

  8. Thank you for sharing it all makes sense. The more balanced one is with one’s self the more balanced and connected one can be with the world and all things in it. I am glad there are people like you in our world much love and Blessing Jeff

  9. Thanks for sharing that very personal story.
    Lately I’ve read and/or listened to several pieces about this type of connection and the science behind it. I’m taking that as a sign I need to go deeper or pay closer attention. Although I’ve always had that kind of connection with my horses, I couldn’t articulate it nor describe it. I look forward to reading the research you shared.

  10. Thank you for writing this! Awesome stuff to understand. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    They are not brethren, they are not underlings; They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.— Henry Beston, The Outermost House

  11. I believe every word you say. I was taught a long time ago that there is no difference between a 2 legged [human] and a 4 legged [horse, dog, etc] or winged ones They all teach us about who we are, why we are here and what place they have in our life. If one listens they will learn what balance is, and grounding and why they are important not only for the 4 legged but more importantly for the 2 legged. The teachings of animals are pure, and unadulterated, but you have to be present to receive.

  12. Wow! What a horrific experience you had. I’m glad you are ok. I love all that you have learned through this. I began a journey 7 years ago that started with the book “The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer. I highly recommend it. It talks about so many of the things you touch upon in your article. I just bought my first horse this year after 35 years of raising 3 wonderful daughters. I am an empty nester and although I have a wonderful, supportive husband of 35 years, I was missing something. It was just the connection with nature and experiencing that with, through and on riding my horse. For me, there is no better feeling than going out into the redrocks (Las Vegas) and riding while enjoying the beauty around me and reflecting on how wonderful life is and that it’s an experience meant to be enjoyed through our body. We are a soul experiencing life through a vessel, our body. You are my favorite trainer to watch. You are calm and confident. I am learning so much through your videos. I hope one day to meet you. I wish I could go to your clinics but for me it’s just too far away. I hope you come to Vegas one day so that I can learn from you in person. You are great. I wish you the best.

    1. I love that book Katie! I read it a few years ago too.
      Your place near the redrocks sounds amazing, I love the area around Vegas. It would be wonderful to meet someday 🙂

  13. Thank you for sharing your story Callie. I hope you are fully mended. Your story is very powerful. I enjoyed reading that one of the mares in the herd came to you in your time of need to stand with you. Since taking the Pure Liberty course, I spend almost as much time with my horse as I do riding my horse. He is very personable and a real jokester. His presence touches me in a way I can’t articulate. I just hope my presence with him is as meaningful to him.

  14. Wishing you the best for a full recovery from your cycle accident…Thanks for sharing your unbelievable experience with us and; your knowledge, notes from observation of horses in their natural state, and for all you teach us! Blessing to you.

  15. Thank you for sharing Callie, you are so right! My Belle has taught me far more that I have ever taught her. She is the wise one, not me, and when I am sad, she will come up to me and snuggle.

  16. I’m so sorry to hear about your accident Callie. I had a bad accident off my horse two years ago and it’s been a long road to recovery. It took me a while to realize that there is always a silver lining. My accident (broke my neck) changed my perspective on many things. Over the past two years I have learned the importance of self forgiveness and of living in the present, among other things. I am only now back to riding – taking baby steps and going back to redo all the wonderful online courses I have from you, Wendy and Patrick. You continue to be an inspiration to me!

    1. Thank you so much Teresa! I am glad you are back to riding and it is amazing the gifts that come in these surprising and unexpected ways… ie. accidents and injuries!

  17. I have post concussion syndrome from a tbi that happened 2 years ago this coming May. I know all too well how being patient with yourself is a struggle, and sometimes you do cry into your hands. I wish you success in your healing! 💕

  18. Hi Callie,
    Wow – what a scary thing! I’m so thankful it wasn’t worse and you’re on the road to recovery. I’ve never had to deal with a head injury and the aftermath, and it doesn’t sound easy. Thanks for sharing this experience. Horses are so “real” and honest with us – such a gift. What a sweet mare to come to you like that. They know.
    Lots of luv – Heather

  19. Hi Callie, While reading your story, I was deeply touched and started to cry…I haven’t cried much since my diagnosis of breast cancer….just going to tough it out! hurry up & get through it! Take action & get rid of it! My horse knew, she sensed something was going on with me and we became much closer and understanding of each other. For 1 thing, I wasn’t climbing on her back To ride every time I was with her…I did things like reading aloud to her while sitting under our pepper tree. I started doing more on the ground with her, because I couldn’t ride, liberty training, long walks down the road together, like friends hanging out! She has taught me so much about living in the moment and just being there for each other. I also was involved in a motorcycle crash in 2015…I had PTSD so bad after the accident, I couldn’t drive for 6 months, & when I did I would have to pull over to deep breathe my way out of a panic attack! My horse healed me, she was my therapist along with my human therapist! It has taken years to get better than boom! Cancer shows up with Covid this year! I’m so grateful we have our horses To help heal our hearts & minds, and we choose to learn & grow to be better communicators in this world! I’m so sorry you had the accident, I’m grateful you are alive today to tell your story and we are gifted by your true authentic self and the good work you do!! Thank you Callie❤️

    1. Beautifully written, thought-provoking commentary to such an amazing article! I wanted to cry reading both Callie’s honest assessment of her accident and then when reading your response. I wish you all the best for your challenges in overcoming Cancer!

    2. Hi Suzanne, thank you for this heartfelt comment. I tend to be a pretty private person, which is why I haven’t mentioned this accident before. Reading your comment made it completely worthwhile to have struggled through figuring out how to communicate this.
      It is touching to hear how your situation with cancer is deeping the relationship between you and your mare. It is amazing the gifts that can come in the worst of times.

  20. Thank you so much for sharing this very personal experience Callie. It is very good timing for me following my own accident in October, my physical injuries were extensive and I received a lot of attention but the aftermath of my Concussion and the psychological affects of the accident still rumble on so your post was of great interest to me. So again… Many thanks!

    1. I so relate Tracy – head injuries aren’t visible and even I keep second-guessing when I feel off… is this a head thing, is this me just being silly, etc?

  21. Callie, sending hugs and blessings for your complete healing! I have a long-time friend who is a wonderful horsewoman and had a horrific car accident recently. She had just started riding again after a year of healing from a horseback riding injury! Her head trauma is extensive and she has suffered physical pain and also the pain of memory loss and all the frustration of not being able to ride. I sent her your article and I hope she will be encouraged to spend time with her horse in other ways. Thank you for such interesting, helpful information and research! You are wise beyond your years! So glad I found you when I did! Margo and I thank you and Kaitlyn for being there when we needed an advocate! Blessings and Love for your future!!

    1. Hi Shay, I am so sorry to hear of your friend’s accident! With this glimpse into what head injuries can be like, I have so much compassion for anyone who is struggling with one. We are so happy to have you at Honey Brook Stables too!

  22. So grateful for CRK/Horseclass and your open heart and curious spirit, Cassie. Your struggles and reaching out and not drawing back make a very big place for others to do the same in community. Glad to have become a small part of what you’ve worked to create here. Prayers for continued healing.

  23. So sorry to hear about your accident; hope you are well on your way to complete recovery. This article took a load off me. I always felt I had to project a calm, confident energy even when I felt anything but calm and confident! Now I feel I can be myself with my horse! Thank you!

  24. I have shared this with many horse friends. Thank you so much for your sharing. A life altering read for my relationship with my horse.

  25. I’m so sorry for the pain this awful accident has caused you. You are a very gifted teacher, and I’ve learned so much from you over the years. I think this is the best article you’ve ever written, and I love your story about the mustang mare. We have 5 adopted mustangs, and their ability to sympathize with my emotions often astonishes me. It far exceeds my husbands! LOL! When I need a sympathetic ear, I head for the barn. I find peace and healing when I’m in their world. I pray you do as well. Bless you Callie as you continue to heal and grow even better than before.

    1. Hi Denise, thank you for reading this and I am honored at your comment. That is amazing that you have 5 mustangs, they are very special creatures 🙂

  26. And there lies in “F.A.I.T.H” from “ ..there for me “ to there for everyone ….

    That is the class of CRK, HorseClass or whatever one may like to call it as…

    A sharing that is well and true is simply unstoppable, just as honesty …

  27. Hi Callie,

    Sorry about your motorbike accident but glad that you have recovered. I think the sentence you wrote at the end is a powerful one – horses do not want you to be perfect; they just want you to be there. In many ways this is true in human beings too – between friends, siblings, with your child and of course between husband and wife.

    Regards
    Sathya

  28. Thank you Callie for such a beautifully written, honest article. It makes you vulnerable and real (like we readers are). Your last line was especially beautiful to me and worthy of keeping. “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.”
    Thank you!

  29. Callie,
    You are an amazing woman! I am so sorry that you had such a horrible accident and have had to deal with the trauma afterward. After reading your story, I am struggling to find the words that want to be spoken. At this time, I’m going through a very frightening experience with Zara and my own health. Somehow your story and my experiences are blending in a very profound way. It has to do with adversity and the kinds of choices we make as we deal with them. Sometimes that means making a new normal. After certain kinds of events, things change and we have to accept that change. That’s what I’m facing but there is no point in getting bitter and angry. From your experience, you have gained a great deal of wisdom and you use it to help the community of people you have created. You have shown a wonderful example of rising above the darkness and by sharing it, many of us who are also experiencing our own darkened world, are given some hope and light.

    Thanks from Zara and me for all the wonderful things you have given. I hope you are doing well – physically, emotionally and intellectually. I can see your spiritual side is shining bright!

    1. Hi Connie, thank you! This comment really means a lot to me. I am sorry to hear that you and Zara are going through some health challenges as well right now.
      I completely resonate with the idea of new normal, and embracing the new normal, even if at first it doesn’t feel so pleasant. There is a richness in every experience.
      I appreciate you as part of our community here!

  30. This was a powerful post. What you’re talking about is at the core of spending positive, transformational time with horses in ways that are good for both them and us. Loved it!

  31. I just want to thank you for sharing with us and discussing your accident. I understand how hard that can be as I’m a very private person, myself. Healing physically and emotionally takes time and, just as with horses, we can’t rush it but it will happen. I enjoy a ride on the “iron horse,” myself.

  32. Wow, Callie. Thank you so much for sharing this and what you’ve learned from it. You’ve gone through quite an experience. I want to offer you my empathy. What you learned and articulated so well helps me understand better what I’ve been trying to learn for so long in EGE (Equine Guided Education).

    1. Thank you Carol! I really appreciate your comment. Horses do have so much to teach us, I belive that EGE is a very important field.

  33. Callie,
    Thank you so much for sharing this difficult , terrible accident you had and all that you have and are going to go through over the next while. It takes a long time for the brain to heal it is not fast. I am so glad you are alive !
    The heart warming reaction of your horse does not surprise me and brought tears to my eyes to hear how intuitive and compassionate your horse is. Horses especially and dogs too, all animals are so very special in our time of need, when we do not need to hear words but a special heart bond that understands.
    You are a very special person and we thank you for sharing your personal experience and also how you explained what you learned from it too.
    Callie take care of yourself, take your time to heal yourself.
    Blessing to you.
    Leah

  34. Somehow I missed this blog last week, but am so glad I had another chance to read it. Thank you, Callie, for sharing your story. You endured a terrible life experience, and yet came through it with the most beautiful realizations about presence and connection, lessons that will help so many others. I am truly grateful for the work that you do, and hope your recovery continues to progress. Take good care . . .

  35. So sorry about your accident and challenges. Very thankful that you survived and continue to share your wisdom with the world. Thank you for sharing your journey. You are always so courageously authentic. Last year I volunteered with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) group at Bridle Paths, a Therapeutic Riding Center in Leesburg, VA. It opened my eyes to and what wonderful companions horses make in the healing process. I met Su Meck and went on to read her riveting book, “I Forgot to Remember” about her TBI and life afterward: https://www.amazon.com/I-Forgot-Remember-Memoir-Amnesia/dp/1451685815. Thank you for the resources you posted to learn more and for inspiring us with your honesty and courage.

    1. Thanks for sharing that Roseanna! I am sure Callie would enjoy that book 🙂

      -Julia, HorseClass Community Manager

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