A very happy I Love Horses Day to everyone! Back in March, I became a mentor and volunteer with a fabulous organization called Animals as Natural Therapy. While they do have a wide array of animals such as rabbits, chickens, goats, and pooches, the heart of their work comes from their therapy horses. Having mentored for a full season, attended several mobile therapy animal sessions, and even help with day camps, I have learned a great deal from the horses.
It’s easy to forget that horses are prey animals, because they are so big, fast, and powerful. But horses have fears, depend on each other for security and safety, and are always on alert for potential dangers. Because of this, they have some powerful lessons to teach us about trust, relationships with others, and communication.
How to Be a Good Listener
Sure, a horse is a good listener, because they don’t speak the same language as us. But they still are able to communicate through body language and facial expressions. And when we talk to horses, they actually listen. I mean, listen listen. Their ears will prick forward and back as you talk to them. They’ll turn to face you. Sometimes they even nuzzle you as you get to the good part, as if to say, “tell me more”, or, “I’m right here for you.”
Many of us, myself included, listen to respond. We are paying attention to the words the other is saying, but we’re formulating a response, hoping it’s a GOOD response, the PERFECT response. But how many of us listen to UNDERSTAND? I mean, listen like a horse. Listen as though we CAN’T respond with words, but with our behavior. A coach once told me a great mantra for practicing better listening. She called it WAIT. Ask yourself “Why Am I Talking?” If you don’t have a damn good reason for speaking, perhaps we will be of better service just staying quiet, and practicing being a really good listener.
Set Strong Boundaries and Respect Others’ Boundaries
Animals as Natural Therapy has all participants practice sharing a contract with the horses. “I promise to take care of you, I need you to promise you’ll take care of me. If you make a mistake, I promise to forgive you. Please promise me that if I make a mistake you will forgive me.” This contract helps set boundaries, which I feel is important when working with others.
Of course, horses don’t sign a contract or make certain promises to other horses, but you can see them setting and respecting others’ boundaries. Horses have very clear body language. Ears pinned and teeth bared sends a message loud and clear to their herd mates. But this isn’t an aggressive behavior. This is the horses setting their boundaries and giving us, or the other horse, an opportunity to stand down, walk away, and respect their wishes. If only we could be this clear in our communication with others.
You Can Fool Others, You Can Maybe Fool Yourself, But You Can’t Fool Your Horse
Horses are so attuned to us, it’s almost scary. If we are acting agitated, even slightly, the horse picks up on this emotion, and mirrors it back to us. I’ve seen some crazy iterations of this. I didn’t even notice how a young day camp participant was moping (she wanted a different horse to ride, but wasn’t expressing her feelings) until I noticed her HORSE was acting kind of mopey. She had fooled me, but she hadn’t fooled her horse! “Ghost” walked sluggishly, didn’t want to approach the obstacles, and ignored even other counselors.
This experience taught me a lot about self-awareness, and how my attitude can impact others around me. If something is going on with my horse, or even your pet, or animal at work, it might not be THEM, it could be something going on with ourselves. You can fool others with our words, you might even fool yourself by denying your feelings, but we can never fool our horse!
Relationships Take Work
Working with horses, or any animal for that matter, is rewarding, fulfilling, and passionate work. It is also often grueling, challenging, and unglamorous work. Horses need to have their stables, and sometimes paddock, mucked (cleaning out poop, pee, and dirty hay). They need to be groomed, fed a specialized diet, and training them requires patience, trust, and good observation skills. While a dream come true for many people, working with horses is not always easy. But no relationship ever is.
I love watching the relationship between a horse and their person unfold, but I also love that the relationship isn’t just given. It’s earned. One participant in my first session paired with a horse who made her cry with frustration on their first day working together. But after that breakdown, the student really turned it around, and ended up having a remarkably touching relationship with “Annie”. They demonstrated what hard work can accomplish by performing what is called a “join-up”, which honestly only occurs when their is good communication, trust, and positive vibes between human and animal. Letting the horse run free in an arena, the person starts speaking to them, getting the horse to run faster and tune into the person’s voice. When the focus is all on the person, they turn away and let the horse come to them. When this happens, it’s amazing, the person can walk anywhere, any direction, at any pace, and the horse will stay right with them. Imagine going from crying to practically linking psychically with a horse. That’s the power of a good relationship!
Lessons from a Horse
I really love my work with Animals as Natural Therapy. It’s such a powerful reminder of the wonderful lessons nature and the animal kingdom have to share with us. What lesson has an animal or encounter in nature taught you? How can we share our gratitude by practicing living those lessons today, tomorrow, and forever? Lessons from the animal kingdom, and on today, I Love Horses Day, especially our equine friends. Changing our hearts and minds to change our lives.