Horses are the oldest land mammal species on the planet Earth. Scientists estimate that they have survived and thrived for approximately 65 million years. Why is this? How has a species of herbivores, prey animals, survived eons when other species have died off? What do horses know that we don’t?
Horses, it turns out, have a lot to teach us. Horses are social animals with very highly developed emotional and social intelligence. Within their family units and communities they have well defined roles, and each herd member is responsible not only for himself or herself, but each is responsible for the whole.
Horses may be the originators of ‘think globally, act locally’. They have highly tuned senses that enable them to take in detail and the big picture simultaneously. When a threat in their environment is discovered, they communicate and act as one. Their leaders guide them to safer ground. Everyone cooperates, everyone collaborates, and everyone is usually better off for it.
During the last century and a half, humans have lost touch with the horse and its wisdom. We no longer need them to plow fields, carry us into battle, or take us into town for supplies. We have machinery and technology to perform the former work of the horse.
In recent decades however, we have re-discovered the horse’s usefulness – its ability to heal. Horses have been used in rehabilitation programs for people with physical disabilities. The act of being astride a horse’s back helps people heal. Exercise physiologists and occupational therapists will tell you that the motion of the horse simulates the movement of walking, and therefore stimulates the muscles as though the person were actually walking. Many patients have improved significantly from their therapeutic rides on horses. The unexpected benefit was that their emotions changed too. Yes, the horse heals. In case after case, practitioners noticed that patients participating in therapeutic riding programs experienced elevated mood, improved self-esteem, and experienced other positive changes to their emotional states.
How is this possible? How does a horse help a human feel better? There is an old cowboy saying that has been attributed to everyone from John Wayne to Gene Autry: “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.” It appears that we are learning that there is truth to that statement.
Horses are highly tuned emotional and spiritual beings. They have an incredible emotional intelligence and intuitive spirit that enables them to meet us where we are, accept us in that moment and help us move forward. Horses can actually sense where a person’s body has experienced an injury or trauma, and will often put their muzzle on that exact spot. Invariably, the human will acknowledge not only that the horse has discovered an undisclosed chronic injury or trauma, but that after the horse’s intervention, the pain in that location is diminished or eliminated. Yes, the horse heals.
The nascent and growing field of Equine Guided Learning (EGL) explores the healing capability of the horse and enables people from all walks of life to experience this profound awareness for themselves. Horses know when we are authentic and when we are pretending or incongruent. They model and mirror our behavior for us. The power of EGL is in allowing the horse to be itself, and letting the horse guide the participant through the process. Participants often see themselves or their behavior in the actions of the horse. This interactive and experiential learning is profound and often catalytic for individuals and groups.
Exercises range from merely entering the world of the horse and observing herd dynamics, to interacting with one individual horse, from round pen exercises where the horse is at liberty to move freely, to traveling through an obstacle course with the horse as partner – a test of mutual trust and collaboration for both partners.
Equine Guided Learning comes in many forms. It is used as an adjunct to traditional psychotherapy and social work models, and in these instances should be conducted in close collaboration with appropriate mental health professionals. It is also used in cutting-edge executive and leadership training programs, organizational development, and in personal exploration and growth. It has even become an elite service offering at many spas and resorts throughout the U.S.
It is interesting that in this Year of The Horse, we continue to find new ways to grow and heal through our connection to this wise and wonderful species.
Lisa Murray Machala is a licensed Massage Therapist and Usui Reiki Master-Teacher. She is the founder and owner of Michigan Equine Therapy and MedicinePony.com. She is an elective instructor at Irene’s Myomassology Institute in Southfield, MI and can be reached at 248-921-6322 or ReikiPony@gmail.com