Twenty years ago, as I began to gather research that would eventually form the basis of my book, Riding Home—The Power of Horses to Heal, I had my first eyewitness exposure to the psychological impact a horse can have on a human. It occurred when I was invited to observe a unique equine program at a high-end health spa outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s called Miraval, and then as well as today, it offers what it calls the Equine Experience, created and led by a brilliant therapist and horseman named Wyatt Webb.
Unlike other equine health spa programs which focus chiefly on horseback riding, the Equine Experience offers what it says is “a program designed to help participants challenge learned behaviors, correct false beliefs, and rediscover one’s authentic self.” This is accomplished not only by interacting with horses without any riding, but in short periods of time. It usually begins with a mixed group of six men and women each being asked by the program leader to interact on the ground with one of the program’s horses. Tasks are simple and range from getting a horse to walk from point A to B without the aid of a halter and lead rope to picking up and cleaning each of a horse’s four feet. Since most participants have limited or no prior experience dealing with horses, the way each person goes about these tasks instantly reveals profound information about their coping skills, learned beliefs, and personal relationship abilities.
A forty-year-old woman named Mary was asked to walk over to a horse named Daisy and pick up and clean all four of her feet. Mary tried everything she could think of—making noises, pinching the horse’s leg, even verbal pleading—to get Daisy to lift up a hoof, but nothing worked. After about five minutes Mary stopped trying and tears started rolling down her cheeks. Mary was asked to come back and share with the group what she was thinking and feeling. She said, “I feel like such a failure. I hate myself for not being able to do this.” The therapist said, “Mary, have you ever done this before?” Mary said, “No.” The therapist said, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” Mary said, “It’s embarrassing.” Then she paused, thought for a moment, and almost absentmindedly added, “That’s probably why I don’t like to try anything new.”
The therapist asked Mary to share what else was occurring for her. Mary told the group that she thought her need to look good and not ask for help was probably something she had done her whole life, without thinking. By now Mary had stopped crying and looked deep in thought. She said this had probably prevented her from doing things she had always wanted to try, both personally and professionally. The therapist asked Mary if she could now see how a lifelong attachment to what others thought of her and wanting to look good in others’ eyes might have caused her to overcompensate by “playing small” and, consequently, robbed her of wonderful, untried life experiences. He also asked her if she thought exploring this insight with a therapist when she returned home was something she might consider. Mary took a deep breath, smiled slightly, and said yes. Her entire session had taken forty-three minutes. I was astounded. Miraval’s Equine Experience brilliantly demonstrates the natural ability of horses, when interacting with humans, to instantly present a psychological awareness to a person that is often not only insightful but in many cases transformative.
Over the next few years I watched as horses were brought in to assist therapists in a number of varied human rehabilitation programs in what is now generally referred to as equine-facilitated psychotherapy, equine-assisted therapy, or sometimes simply equine therapy. In addition to how horses helped with self-awareness, I could see how humans with mental and emotional wounds were also experiencing profound healing effects from interacting with horses. Even though they may lack any knowledge of equine behavior, many humans with certain types of emotional damage experience positive feelings of well-being, acceptance, and compassion as they unconsciously identify with two primary equine survival traits: hypervigilance and herd-dynamic-based social skills. This identification can lead a person to the self-awareness necessary for healing his or her emotional wounds. At its core, the motivation for every decision a horse makes is always based on what is in its best interest in terms of survival.
Hypervigilance allows horses to detect the slightest sound, smell, or movement, any of which might indicate the presence of a life-threatening predator. Their superhuman senses also enable horses to be extraordinarily perceptive to both the presence and the current emotional state of all living creatures—including humans—as well as everything else in their surroundings. It is impossible to deceive a horse. If a person is feeling angry or anxious, a horse will know it immediately from the person’s body language. A person can hide negative emotions from another person by acting as if they are actually feeling happy and relaxed. This often works with other people. It never works with a horse. The equine ability to read, with flawless accuracy, not just the behavior of others but their silent intentions is what gives the horse the psychological mirroring expertise of the most gifted human therapist. The horse’s survival skill of external awareness through hypervigilance also exists as a symptom in humans suffering from PTSD. It can be acquired by a soldier in combat or by someone who has grown up in an alcoholic or abusive family. It is both the identification with and the attraction to what is familiar between a hypervigilant horse and a hypervigilant human victim of emotional trauma that creates feelings of safety, acceptance and compassion that constitutes the first of the two natural equine qualities that enable horses to dramatically help in the healing process of these wounded individuals.
The second natural equine survival characteristic that gives horses their unique ability to heal the emotional wounds of humans involves herd dynamics. In order to increase their chances of survival, horses live in herds. When a mountain lion shows up, it’s safer to be in a herd of fifty horses than all alone. Any species that depends on living in groups in order to survive must be able to continually get along with all of that group’s members. Horses have textbook-perfect social skills. They must care about each other, help each other, look out for each other, and peacefully resolve conflicts without hurting each other. They are masters at getting along with their own species as well as with humans. To promote social harmony and keep the herd together, horses possess a number of evolutionary hardwired qualities including being accepting, tolerant, kind, respectful, honest, fair, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and forgiving. If a person behaves with kindness, the most likely response from another will be positive. If a person behaves in a controlling, forceful manner, the most likely response from another will be annoyance or resistance. In other words, if one wants to be positively accepted by another, one usually needs to behave in a positive manner. The same is true with horses. A person, with or without the assistance of an equine therapist, can see himself or herself reflected back from the behavior of a horse. A horse will consistently mirror back the exact feelings, attitudes, and intentions of a human that initiates even the slightest interaction. This can instantly be observed by how the horse responds to the person.
Horses do not judge humans they judge our behavior including our most subtle intentions. Amazingly, the fastest and most accurate way to discover who you are and what you’re presenting to the world is revealed from interacting with a horse. The horse’s sophisticated herd-dynamic-based social skills along with their hypervigilance are not only at the core of their epic fifty-five million years of survival—they constitute the basis of the horse’s power to heal our human emotional wounds many of which often originate in either a past trauma or from one’s damaged feelings of self-worth. The populations that most often suffer from these wounds are War Veterans with PTSD and troubled teenagers, defined as At Risk Youth. Although Autism is not classified as an emotional disorder, many autistic children have also found significant emotional healing from participating in equine therapy. Today, with the guidance of a professional equine specialist, a horse with its natural mirroring ability can help initiate therapeutic psychological epiphanies for anyone in need of emotional healing. To think that millions of emotionally wounded men, women and children can get a second chance at a healthy and meaningful life is heartwarming. The idea that this can be achieved from a breakthrough in self-awareness that occurred from simply interacting with a horse is extraordinary.
This story is adapted from my new book RIDING HOME – The Power of Horses to Heal and appears in Chapter 3: “Horses Healing Humans … Bodies and Minds”. It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to everyone and found in the pages this book. To learn more about the book please visit: ridinghome.com. Every book ordered will benefit children of families in need, veterans with PTSD and children with autism. To contact and for articles & blogs by Tim Hayes go to: hayesisforhorses.com