We are fortunate to have multiple Boulder equine therapy providers. The following explanation of why therapeutic interactions with horses can be so powerful was written by a mentor of mine, Lottie Grimes, LPC, co-founder of Groundwork Ranch Equine-Assisted Learning Center of Colorado.
My practice is based on ethology; understanding how survival in the wild has shaped animal physiology and behavior. While I appreciate the beauty and complexity of horse/human interactions, I don’t work with horses in my practice because they’re novel or magical. I work with horses because they teach important lessons about personal responsibility, communication, and relationships efficiently and consistently.
As prey animals, horses depend on social affiliation to survive. Oftentimes wild horse herds will join with other grazing animals to create large, multi-species herds. If one animal in this herd senses danger and becomes alert, all animals in the herd will alert. When one animal in the herd relaxes, the whole herd will relax. This adaptation essentially means that the emotional state of one member of the herd is a reflection of the emotional state of any other member of the herd.
When a client works with a horse, they form a mini-herd. In this context, the horse is driven to adopt the emotional state of the other member of its herd, the human handler, meaning that the horse always feels the same way the client feels. Even those who are not particularly fond of horses report feeling almost immediately understood and validated by the horse during equine assisted therapy sessions.
Additionally, most clients strongly identify with their horse due to their similar emotional states. This identification allows the client to draw further parallels between them as a means to explore thoughts and feelings, social roles, and personal strengths, among other things.
The impact of the synchronized emotional state can lead to concrete social skill improvement when the interaction between the horse and client becomes strained for any number of reasons. If, for example, the client becomes impatient and begins to feel agitated, the horse will immediately feel threatened and agitated as well, and behave accordingly. At this point, the only way the client can calm the horse and elicit cooperation is to convince the horse of its safety by adopting a calm, confident emotional state. Responsibility for improving the situation lies solely with the client; it is only through emotional self-regulation that positive change can happen. Fortunately, the reward for applying these new social problem-solving skills is swift; the horse will display a calmer state of mind as soon as the client does.
Not the ones speaking the same language, but the ones sharing the same feeling, understand each other.-Rumi