How Horses See Us

The young woman in the round pen had first chosen my horse Legend to work with in an Equine Assisted Learning session. Almost as soon as the woman started asking for movement, however, the bay Arabian gelding backed to the gate and turned around, asking to leave the pen.
Since the girl had come to the ranch, a residential program for college-aged women, we’d seen subterfuge, defiance, and a persona that seemed to revel in bad hygiene, an unwillingness or inability to express herself at her age level, and occasional mumbled cuss words. She made advances toward the other girls and sought to create alliances that undermined the efforts of others who were beginning to build an honest, supportive community. Legend’s behavior did not, as a result, completely surprise me. Still, she’d taken a big step in choosing to do a session at all, as no one was ever forced into these sessions. Also, she’d made an interesting choice in picking Legend, the well-adjusted, loving leader of the herd. These decisions were not lost on me.
Then I saw that Denny, my little buckskin mustang from the Uintas, step to the gate from the outside. No human intervention would be needed to encourage the girl and simultaneously allow the horses’ free choices and wisdom. Denny, after all, made her laugh, she’d said just the other day. As I opened the gate to let Legend out, Denny went in. The girl with dark, wavy short hair the same color as her saddle-brown eyes shrugged her shoulders.
She asked Denny to move around the round pen. The gold and black horse arched his neck and lilted his way around, black-tipped ears forward or flitting toward her. She asked him to turn, and he turned on a dime and moved around the pen in the other direction. The girl began to smile, her eyes to sparkle. Any sense of rejection melted away.
She asked Denny for another turn, and got perfection. She stopped him, walked to him. He bowed his head down to her hands, their bodies lightly touching as his neck swanned over her shoulder. She pressed her cheek on his for a moment, then backed away and asked him to move again. He lightly lifted his front feet from the ground, exaggerating the arch in his neck, and danced away, the picture of innocence, with just a light touch of flirtatious fun.
Up to now, none of us had seen this side of the girl. Her eyes were beautiful, her face open and smiling. Her body seemed to have morphed into a tall, slender woman. It was nothing less than delightful, and the other students, staff, and I were all charmed and inspired. What relationship was revealing itself here?
The next time the girl stopped to pet the wild horse, she said this reminded her of her last relationship. Turns out, that was with a boy.
This happens often. The horse sees something that has not been seen before. Something better than we expect. We onlookers were seeing, not just the “feel” or “energy” of her last relationship, but a relationship that looked like the best qualities she had—qualities that were clearly more authentic to who she really was than the version of the girl we had come to know.
Then something else started to happen. Denny lowered his muzzle to her hand gently, but then as she stayed close, he pushed into her shoulder, he nibbled, just a little. The next time, he bumped her, jostled her. Was it playful? She laughed, we smiled. She turned again to move away from him, and he followed her, just a little closer than the last time, with just a little more mischief to his playfulness. Her smile remained, but there was a staring sort of effort in her eyes, a stiffness in her body.
Before long, what had seemed simply delightful devolved into a lot of pushing, till a body position I’d come to associate with this girl started to appear. The stiffness melted to her more typical lowered head and sullen glances. Caved shoulders and a belly hid her slender stature, and all that grown up dignity combined with childlike lightheartedness disappeared. She was backed into the round pen fence.
I could have started coaching her. But I hadn’t coached the dance we’d seen before. This was something important. So I went against my facilitation training. I paused. In the space of the group’s collected held breath, the girl said, “This is what happened with him. It’s what happens with every guy.”

And so we were in it. We could all feel the tragedy of this downward spiral. I noted, though…she was the one who broke these relationships off. As she’d initially chosen Legend, there was something else in her, trying to find space.

As we continued, this awareness brought another. She realized that when she was young, she and her father had a similar playful repertoire as she had with each boyfriend. At some point, though, while she was still a pre-teen, her father started pushing just a little harder. We all watched as Denny and her energy morphed into the dance of a young girl who became more afraid than delighted, but who still tried to pretend she was having fun, despite being picked on. Not bullied, exactly—really nothing more sinister than a father teaching his daughter she needed to toughen up.
She had done what he asked.
In future sessions I now knew, we’d explore how the young girl had learned to “do it like dad,” and had absorbed other behaviors he hadn’t intended for her to know about, much less emulate, that were part of his way of seeing the world and acting in it. This was her father’s story, not hers.
How had Denny known to unearth this narrative, or that it was there at all? What had Legend seen that he did not want to reveal or engage with? How had the horses known which of them could work with this girl the best, at this stage? And how could these horses know more about this girl than any staff or student, the instant they saw her? And perhaps most important, how did they know this was about loyalty and love, not subterfuge and defiance, as her therapists were focused on, building the narrative in each set of notes passed from private practice to wilderness therapy to residential program?
The way in which Denny guided the girl through these layers of truths, we onlookers no longer saw her as subversive or flawed. We just couldn’t. The context we were given was so much larger, and more true, we never would be able to see her as “wrong” again. She had, after all, become this person through conditioning and mostly unconsciously. It’s source was a sort of loyalty, just as her father acted out of love—preparing his adorable, vulnerable daughter for a world in which you have to fight, and even engage in other subterfuges, just to hold your own.
Because of a horse’s way of seeing, the young woman began a process of self-retrieval, fully supported by program staff and students.

We don’t start, or even end, as bad people. I had a Jungian mentor, Jim Hollis, who taught that it’s good people who do bad things, not bad people. He wrote a book about it. His point was that we often do these things because, at some point, we believed we had to. Then to justify those choices, we shape our worldview so that such behaviors are seen as necessary, not just part of one situation, but every situation. Then we’re just a good person doing what’s necessary—even if that means we do bad things, and now we’ve normed it.

That session occurred almost 15 years ago. It was a seminal day in which Denny enacted miracles in this woman’s, and three others’ subsequent sessions. I began to really step back, stop following my training, feel what wanted to happen, and discover a whole world of wisdom in the space of a horse and human meeting as sentient beings, unencumbered by judgments, “facilitation,” or intervention.

For me, it began with Denny and Legend. It was both validation and beyond belief, seeing just how wise Denny was. And Legend. And horses. And humans. And other animals. And nature. And…you get the picture.
It has taken years to unpack the learning from that day, and to learn how to facilitate in a way that honored it. Since then, some of the Equine Assisted, Facilitated, or Guided trainings have evolved as well.
What I saw that day required a conscious effort at what I would call spell-breaking. Anything less would have been a step back into the trance of human beliefs that, I knew, were not serving anyone. A new way of honoring the wisdom of others; of facilitating and leading by pausing, allowing something to come through; of honoring the sentient, sometimes even superior wisdom of horses and other species; and more. I’m still learning. You know what? It’s so worth it.

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