It seems there are more and more articles being written about horses as the key players in learning and therapy. As well, more and more studies are being performed and published (for more articles per day than most people have time to read, Russia-based Symposium participant Laura Williams’ “Humans and Horses” Facebook group is a global resource—and you can join by messaging her or the Healing with Horse Collective and we will “invite” you). Much of these write-ups focus on the question, “Why horses?”
On the one hand, it would seem that the answer to this question would be pretty well laid out by now. From Tao of Equus to Power of the Herd, Linda Kohanov devotes chapters full of history, anecdotes, and statistics to this question, as do most books on EAL/P. Many practitioner websites offer explanations, as do organizations like EAGALA and PATH.
So a reader of such articles, books, and websites may wonder, is this question still necessary?
Based on the fact that articles continue to focus on it and researchers are studying it, the question of why horses are such a powerful healing source for humans still seems to need answering. Perhaps this is because so many of these articles are introducing the concept to the general public. Or, perhaps the reason is that the question has not been answered in a way that really gets to the heart of what people have felt and practitioners have witnessed.
Some say it is hard to put into words why horses have a balancing effect on humans because the healing comes from the realm of the nonverbal. There is a realm out there, a way of seeing and being so fundamentally different, that we have not fully grasped it—at least not with words. After all, words at best only evoke concepts—they are markers of ideas culture has brought attention to, shared, and accepted. Nobel prize winning writer I.B. Singer once said that Jewish communities never saw the pre-World War signs of war, in part, because Yiddish didn’t have a word for “war.” As an American author who wrote stories exclusively in Yiddish, Singer said, “To have a word, you must have a concept.” Is it possible that in our culture, which is immersed in a language, even a grammar of separations—of subject and object rather than subject to subject—there are concepts that are only unable to be spoken because we have not chosen to shape our language to them? If so, how do we begin to shift our perspective so that concepts we have not given voice to can find a way into the collective conversations, as they are already ancient infiltrators into the collective psyche?
Just this week, Mark Mottershead’s Horse Conscous newsletter presented Ari Sizemore’s article “How Do Horses Experience the World Differently To Us?” Essentially, Sizemore says, humans process the world through cognition, and horses feel the world; “They make a decision based on how their body feels and act on the feeling.” We, however, have called such a system of knowing reactive, or naïve, or unthinking. Psychologists might call it projection. Overarching assumptions are that such a way of being in the world is unreliable.
Unreliable, and yet. And yet. So many are struggling with aftereffects of what psychologists might call “trauma,” and the solutions that seem to be having the most success include equine therapies and somatic processes. These work on experience and the whole being, not just a conscious, willed, cognitive decision.
And let’s dig down a bit more. Sizemore goes on to point out that “Physical sensations and feelings have a more consistent meaning for horses than do body movements” like a learned signal or cue. Horses can learn that a particular body movement means something—they can be trained to cues. However, for horses, “The same body movement with different intentions and physical sensations and feelings can mean entirely different things.” It’s the whole picture, or more accurately the whole feeling–how it feels to the horse’s whole body, and beyond the body, that makes the language. As herd animals, it would also be how it feels to the herd—one horse’s body in relationship to the other bodies in the herd. Such felt language opens the horse’s being to that which is around, not just that which can be seen, as well as to what other herd members feel. And if we are open to more than our eyes can physically see, what might we suddenly be open to receive? This might be what energy healers talk about. “Energy” is the most neutral word we have for that which might “speak” if we used our whole bodies as receivers of communication. Other descriptors might be “spirit” or, as Paulo Coelho calls it in The Alchemist, the soul of the world.
For horses, such a way of being has allowed them to thrive millions of years before humans existed, and now with humans, and so for the equine species, such a way of being seems to have proven to be pretty reliable. And possibly, it’s something we need, a bridge back to the soul of the world.
So it appears that answering the seemingly simple question “why horses?” requires so much re-education of our culture—about horses, about animals, about energy, about us, about the world—that is why there are so many books, websites, studies, and articles. We are on a wave of re-inventing the world.
Even on such a wave, we could strive to sound reasonable while witnessing deep pain and amazing healing, as this EAGALA practitioner, Jimmy Downes, quoted in Wendy Kagan’s Hudson Valley, New York-published article “Healed by Horses” sounds when he uses the EAGALA wording, “This is a solution-focused short-term therapy.” Downes works with military veterans, addicts, and he served families, teachers, and first responders of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He describes, “Through exercises that involve observation and engagement as well as metaphor and projection, equine therapy can be an effective alternative to traditional talk therapy, giving people insight into their own behaviors, patterns, and habits.” Re-invention can sound reasonable, even if such language misses so much of…something. Some believe that to get the clients we have to sound objective, or knowledgeable—we have to speak the language of science-based research.
My language, even as a former professor in a heavily science-based college psychology department (perhaps because of that background!), and also because of having once been an English professor, is narrative. After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” So if you’re like me, you tell stories. Even Downes’ description implies how critical narrative—or at least literary tropes such as metaphor—and body-based processes such as projection are to our healing. So it makes sense to use that paradigm when answering the question of why horses help us heal. To me, they put us back into our story—something that makes us as whole as, well, the love of a horse.
In Susan Richards’ last of three horse-focused memoirs Saddled: How a Spirited Horse Reined Me In and Set Me Free, Richards says, “It was like being born…It’s like being reborn into a new person. And that came about because of (my horse) Georgia.” While that is a nice sum-up, the memoir itself chronicles how, as Richards got sober, left an abusive husband, and reshaped her life, she “was becoming clearer as a human being, because (she) was sober, and (she) was becoming closer and closer to this animal.”
Ultimately, it is useful to use whatever language your target client will want to hear, and that gets you excited. Whichever genre you use, it is imperative to keep striving to make language shape into a new way of seeing, a way that evokes how it feels when the Soul of the World, in the shape of a graceful horse, sees you, chooses you, follows you, holds you, carries you, loves you.
The point is, once you get used to the idea that you are on the wave of re-invention, the important question becomes: If you, with a soul mate horse next to you, could reinvent the world even beyond your short life, what would you do?