At my first afternoon hosting kids at my horses’ Hunstsville pasture in a program called Coping for Kids, we started with an activity in which the four attendees would meet the horses out loose, in their herd setting. As this activity was completing and the kids were converging to discuss, I saw the tallest attendee, a 14-year-old boy, suddenly stop and turn to look back at one of the horses, River.
River was still, head up, eyes bright, looking right at this young man. The boy turned and, for a moment, both looked at each other from about 20 feet apart. Then with a little start, this young man turned around and walked to the group.
As we began to talk about this first meeting with the horses, each young person telling impressively observant things about most of the 10 horses they’d just met, this boy said he felt “something” happen between he and River. He said, “Actually, it’s like he gave me something.”
I asked, “If you could describe what that something was, how would you describe it?”
The boy thought before answering. “Well, I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. It was like a spiritual experience.”
Everyone was quiet, and they might not have heard his muffled voice. This wasn’t the type of response the others had offered. I have witnessed many times, though, that something that seemed very momentary, easy to overlook like that gaze between horse and boy–something so subtle, might have felt entirely different from the boy’s perspective. As well, twelve to twenty feet of distance is actually like arm’s length to a horse—it’s their point of intimate connection, at which perhaps their first deeply personal connection can be felt.
“What was that spiritual moment like?” I asked after his first words had a moment of gravity and quiet attention from the group.
The boy thought, and said, “If I had to put a name to it, I guess I’d call it…joy.”
This kind of moment is what Coping with Kids is for—the kind of service this herd and I, in my business called Horse Way Experiences, recently settled in the Ogden Mountain Valley, provides both kids and adults. Once the gift is given, we humans can learn from horses how to cultivate it; from that cultivation, our lives transform. As one adult participant of our Horse Meditation Circles said, “The horses just walk around and you think you’re just having this pleasant, light experience. And then your life just unfolds into something magical.”
The horses and I have been doing this for almost 20 years. And in times like these, moments of connection that deepen to spiritual experiences are a way to shift worry to something much more meaningful.
Joy is, after all, a coping skill.
Can a horse send a wave of joy so profound that a 14-year-old boy would call it a spiritual experience? The trails in the valley are well used by me and other horse enthusiasts, and joy may not be an unusual descriptor of what we horse owners get out of those trail rides. But what is it about a horse—not just riding or performing with a horse—that can only be described as spiritual? The more you pay attention, the more you see it.
To answer such questions, I’ve worked my way into enquiries that led me out of my initial career as a college English professor and into psychology; ethology, or the study of animal behavior and emotions; human consciousness studies; and Jungian, Gestalt, systems, somatics, and other mind-body connection theories and practices. Horse Way is part of a vocational field called Equine Guided Learning, and this field of human development and experiential learning has become a recognized and increasingly mainstream way for people to learn about themselves from a different lens. What’s more, experts from so many human studies backgrounds have gathered in this field, bringing together some of the most fascinating insights on consciousness and sentience, that it can, and will, put a person on the cutting edge of what we know, and not just about horses.
The practice of teaming with horses is grounded in research and training that has shown that horses, given a chance to respond freely, actually seem to be able to see us very clearly. (Just how they do that is a longer conversation, and I welcome questions and thoughts in the form of emails; you’ll find my email address below). What is well documented is that, in a horse’s presence—even without the trail, competition ring, or saddle–humans begin to truly heal from traumas that sophisticated counseling techniques, theories, or pharmaceuticals can do no more than manage. They can turn troubled teens’ lives around, for good. They can help autistic people organize the disordered sensory information that lead to overwhelm and improve their cognitive functioning. They can help work teams function better and leaders find ways to bring a blocked vision to action. They can help smooth life transitions such as divorce, loss of a loved one, job changes, and other major life events and be with us as we reshape our disappointments and difficulties into more authentic lives—or at least new stages of life, bringing deeper appreciation and expansive understanding to our life shifts. They may even be able to help our bodies heal from chronic or life-threatening illnesses. I’ve seen all these shifts, and more.
My life with this herd of horses has been the stuff of storybooks. As I let the horses take the lead, they have repeatedly stretched what my human mind could fathom. And I’ve been invited to tell a few of my stories here. I hope in doing so I can share a bit of the wonder, as well as explore what makes us human through the eyes of a horse.