I will never forget the day my brother and I came home from school, only to find Dad home early from work and Mom nowhere in sight. He said to us, “I’m afraid your mother has had a bit of a nervous breakdown, and she’s in the hospital.” It was shortly after Christmas, 1973. Mom’s drinking finally had her “hitting bottom” to the point that medical intervention became necessary. To this day, I have no idea what the inciting incident was that had her hospitalized, nor do I have much recall of the months that followed. It was all a blur. I just knew there had been too many times Mom was drunk when we needed her, and I had already altered my young life around her episodes. I had given up on bringing friends home long before this day because it was just too embarrassing. I do not remember who got my brother and I to school after that day, who made our dinners, how we managed to keep the dogs and cats fed, or even if I had a birthday celebration that January. There are family photos of every year of my birthday except my 14th. What I do recall is spending a lot of time talking to my therapist. We communicated at least twice a day, if not more. It was necessary, as nobody else was going to get up before school started and go out there in the pouring rain to feed her. If I looked out the bedroom window, she was usually staring in my direction, her big brown eyes wondering when I was coming out next.
Nobody in the family understood my attraction to horses. They all knew I had an affinity for animals, but the horse was an anomaly. Mom came from a traumatized heritage, and scientists have now proven certain traumas carry through to the next generation. Her parents left Poland in 1930, when she was just a week old. The oppression they escaped from with little money or belongings made for a hard life farming on the Canadian prairies before they moved west. Mom’s most vivid memory of a horse was getting kicked in the chin by one of the farm’s plough horses when she was playing underfoot as a small child. She retained the scar for the rest of her life. So when I first began begging for a horse, it took some convincing. Horses were work animals in her world, as they were for my father’s family, where they had also been a status symbol in the horse and buggy days of a developing western metropolis. They most certainly were not considered “therapists” or co-facilitators for human psychological care, and in fact, the lofty new titles afforded these wonderful animals has not been applied to their species until very recently.
Every behavior a horse does naturally has now been carefully analyzed and their herd dynamic has been extrapolated to human behavior. When I started riding there was basically Western and English and not much deviation from traditional methods. I rode both ways, and as most kids enjoy doing, I also rode bareback with a halter when I was too lazy to tack up. Little did I know, all of those long, quiet hours spent feeding, mucking, grooming, and riding White Cloud, were therapy for the sad days of not having a Mom who was fully present and healthy in my early teenage years. Allegedly, every time the mare followed me, every time she moved in accordance with how I made the request, and every time she responded to my voice, has a meaning in Equine Assisted Guidance and Learning.
According to a recent article Dr. Schoen and I have discussed, horses can help humans in 8 ways:
1. They help us find common ground.
2. They help keep us calm.
3. They help us learn by developing
empathy and social skills.
4. They keep us healthy, physically
5. They relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms.
6. They can be our best therapists.
7. They help us live in the present.
8. They inspire a sense of wonder in
all of us.
These ideas began in the early 1990s after Linda Kohanov released her book, The Tao of Equus. By then, I had continued getting unofficial therapy from horses, long after Mom had been going to AA and managed a full recovery, helping other alcoholics recover from their addictions too. Ala-Teen was the organization that helped my brother and I understand what had happened to our mother, and helped us avoid going down that same path as adults. I really could have used an organization like Horses Healing Hearts for children of alcoholics and addicts, but nothing like it existed at the time:
The horses and all of their awe-inspiring mystical personalities kept me drawn into their lives until I became a full-time professional trainer instead of the zoologist I wanted to become prior to the experience with Mom’s addiction. Without realizing it, the horses really did mirror everything I was going through. My focus on them was what eventually led to the abilities I acquired insofar as being able to evaluate, calm, and transform the most traumatized and difficult of mounts that found their way into my hands.
As horses have come into their new starring roles in the past few years, fueled by the rise of stories such as Linda’s, the entertaining shows of Cavalia and Odysseo, or popularized in movies like the Horse Whisperer and others, there has also been the emergence of a new type of horse-person. They are drawn to horses by the mystique of equine nature, and not so much by the desire to ride and compete. In the past, as I, and many others in my field either as professionals or competitive amateurs and juniors, took our horses over jumps, we did not think in terms of the jumps being metaphors for obstacles in our lives. I have watched YouTube videos of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy with fascination as a group of people are taken into the horses’ pen and asked what obstacles they need to clear for themselves. Metaphorically, as they coerce a loose horse to hop over a low jump, that is a clearing for their own personal issue. I guess you could say that during my 30+ years of jumping horses that I have cleared a lot of obstacles. Of course, many just seem to keep returning too! Maybe I should still be riding 🙂
While I can see how incredible these new programs are for people, coming from the perspective of a trainer, and for Dr. Schoen as a pioneering holistic, integrative veterinarian, our primary concern is for the welfare of the horses themselves, and their overall wellbeing. The horse-person that is emerging from this new field is one that, as a trainer, we could consider a “beginner” around horses, although some long-time riders are benefitting from the recent revelations too. From my viewpoint, I have noticed several issues that may need to be taken into consideration when relaying equine imagery to public. It appears some safety concerns are not always being addressed, both in and out of the workshop situations, and people are left with the impression that horses can be treated as pets.
When articles such as the one from the Huffington Post show a child mounted on a horse and he is not wearing a helmet or proper footwear, this sends the wrong impression that all horses are safe to ride in this way. Those of us who know horses well also know that it is not a good idea to stand directly in front of them and grab them around the head or give them a kiss either. Not every horse is receptive to such a direct invasion of their space, and people could be hurt if they walk right up to a horse and try to interact in such manner. Having worked at a barn with an active therapeutic riding program, I can say from experience that not all horses are suitable for use in therapy, even if all they have to do is “act like a horse.”
These programs, such as EAGALA are becoming so popular however, that the new-comer to horses is going to need a very warm and compassionate welcome from those of us who have had four-legged therapists to count on for decades, and have also developed the professional skills necessary to help those who wish to explore horses more personally. Some of the newcomers to horses will hopefully want to learn how to ride and handle them correctly for the purposes of keeping the horses as sound, fit, and healthy as possible, as well as enjoying the benefits horses provide to human wellness. We are aware that it takes much more than a few experiences and encounters with horses to gain the ability to work with them independently, or in a boarding-barn situation.
Taking the current research about how horses can help humans with an array of psychological and physical disorders we can see a future for horses that potentially allows for those horses that may not be suitable for traditional riding and showing to lead a life of usefulness and engagement with humans that they would not have been priviledged to in the past. While watching the videos of the therapy sessions on YouTube, I noticed some of the horses were not sound, and hoped they were getting proper veterinary care for their issues.
On the other hand, it seems somewhat ironic that the traditional side of showing and training horses is undergoing its own shift in priorities as the regulating bodies for equestrian sports are having to deal with the enormous problems created around the doping of horses in competition. It is appearing to me that we have conflicting divisions in the equestrian world, and this is where Dr. Schoen and I are optimistic about bringing compassion into every aspect of the equine environment, to benefit all those concerned.
There is a somewhat idealized, romantic version of working with horses gaining in predominance on the social-media networks via the popular clinics and inspirational shows that involve working with horses at liberty and training them with freedom and harmony. Some modes of thought are convincing newer horse-people that all the classical means of working with horses are inhumane and use force, whereas their methods do not. Since everyone has varying filters on what constitutes force and humane or inhumane treatment, there tends to be some confusing techniques presented to eager audiences who genuinely want to learn how to communicate with horses. Some of the “branded” takes on training are not as humane as they are made out to be. In my opinion, pretty much everything we do with a horse is forcing it to do something it would not likely be doing otherwise. On the other hand, sometimes the use of force is legitimately abusive to the horse. It is simply a label, and how we use language. The use of language in the equine industry is what has been causing much of the division, and we would like to see a more nonviolent, compassionate way of communicating with all horse-people become the norm. This includes those who have had the enlightening experience of engaging horses in an EAL workshop, those who are learning some type of popular training method, or those who have been immersed in training and showing in various disciplines for many years. We all need to work together for the sake of horses at large.
As rescues become overwhelmed with the numbers of unwanted horses, and hay prices continue to increase while land for horses decreases in availability, there will be a need to create a new paradigm, and a new life for many more horses.
I am amazed, excited, and cautiously optimistic, as is Dr. Schoen, for this extraordinary rise of former “beasts of burden” to their new roles as helpers of humanity. What we need to ensure as human beings is that we do not judge the “other” kind of rider, or horse-person, or blame them in any way using the labels we have created for them, as it only serves to divide us from the common goals of being of benefit to horses, and our fellow humans. Everyone suffers in some way, from the stressed out executive who walks away from an EAP session with a huge smile and new leadership skills, to the wealthy socialite mounted on her imported dressage stallion. We are human. Our best therapists, apparently, are not. Let us find compassion for all, and move bravely forwards into this beautiful new consciousness. Thank you, horses.
White Cloud and I, 1973 (yes, I used to ride without a helmet and proper footwear…but I advocate strongly for proper safety gear now)
Nobody was able to explain to me in 1974 just how valuable my $150 horse was to my well-being, or why. My Mom was a beautiful, generous, and caring person who probably felt misunderstood, and under-appreciated, and there is some irony in how White Cloud came into my hands. Mom was a volunteer for the Canadian Mental Health Association and taught dance classes to special-needs students. Cloudy had been the faithful ranch horse of one of those students. In some remote way, both Mom and the horse probably knew exactly what they were doing. We just didn’t have the formal definitions 40 years ago, and now we do.