This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. Previous posts have introduced the series, provided a brief overview and understanding of the research, and have explored how the presence of animals can provide us with the motivation – and courage – to seek out help.
Today’s post focuses on some of what we have in common with horses and other animals – and how this can both be drawn upon to enhance healing and wellness approaches, and help explain why many of us are drawn to connecting with animals. We will also explore some of the differences between us, and how these too can present us with growth opportunities.
We are all Mammals
Humans are mammals. As such, we share many characteristics with horses and other animals, particularly regarding our emotional processes. In fact, our limbic system, containing the amygdala and hypothalamus, which is the centre of emotion and learning in the human brain, is often referred to as the ‘Mammalian brain”.
Why? Because we share this part of our brain with all other mammals.
- You experience frustration when things don’t work out as you’d like? So does your dog.
- You feel alarmed sometimes? Horses do too.
- And do you feel a need to be close to those to whom you are attached? That too is a core emotion experienced by all mammals.
A key gift this ‘common ground’ has the potential to bestow is that feeling of connection, being known and understood; attachment needs that we all share.
So often clients tell me:
“He understand me.” ~ “She’s been here too.” ~
“They are just like me.”
This sense of connection, grounded in real biological common ground, creates many of the opportunities for healing and growth which arise when we bring humans and animals together, and explains much of the ‘why’ behind the human animal bond research findings. Our shared emotional experiences also presents us with many genuine opportunities to give words to and discuss our own areas of struggle through parallel experiences facing the horses. This allows us to work indirectly or “one step removed” which can often be both safer and more effective, and to engage in psycho education through the animals.
Yet I sense our comprehension and growth find even greater depth and value when married and balanced with recognition and understanding of the antonym of this common ground: the ways in which we differ.
While I believe we are only just starting to comprehend and respect the cognitive abilities of horses and other animals, there are certainly aspects of our human brains that are not shared by all mammals. While these differences may give us a sense of superiority (I prefer to see it as a greater level of responsibility) they can also present us humans with problems.
For example, as we explored within a prior blog post about fear, when a horse experiences an emotion they usually notice, process and release it, while we “may be inclined to dismiss or minimise the feeling of alarm; to prematurely tell ourselves or others, ‘don’t be scared’. Or we may hold on to the feeling; ruminate, agonise and relive our fears, often over and over.”
At these times we can turn to horses as role models, and to the simple wisdom their way of operating and being in the world can present and teach us. Susan Chernak McEloy says it beautifully: “Animals invite us back to a world they have never left.”
I believe this ‘same yet not the same’ scenario is an underlying reason why so many of us experience the core conditions conducive for healing and growth to arise which we explored within our previous two blog posts on the research and motivational aspects of the human animal bond:
Congruency ~ empathy ~ unconditional positive regard
We feel and experience their empathy because of all we have in common; they have those emotions too.
Yet we can trust they are genuine (congruent) and don’t judge us (unconditional positive regard) in part because of how they are different from us.
The answer is not to just say we are ‘just like other mammals’ or to just say ‘we are different from other mammals’.
True growth happens best when we recognise that both are true.
Prey or Predator?
Frequently in natural horsemanship, and increasingly in equine therapy circles, I meet the, “horses are prey animals, humans are predators” analogy to explain equine and human behaviour, and to help us become better communicators.
Humans certainly can be predators and we often act this way. For example when we go out into the field with purpose and intent to catch a horse, we may resemble the lion who has pre-selected the antelope he intends to eat for dinner. No surprise then if the horse we have set our sights on is a little hard to catch that day.
In her article, ‘The Science of it All‘, EFL facilitator Wendy Golding states, “Horses are prey animals and this affects how they are built, how they learn, how they respond to their environment, how they protect and defend themselves, and how they socialize. What does it mean to be a prey animal? Prey means they are hunted by predators. Horses have ensured their species survival through highly sensitive observational skills and intuitive responses to their environment. Unlike humans who rely mainly on intellect, horses access the wisdom of their entire bodies, allowing them to read and respond to all the energies around them.”
Observing and accepting feedback from our horses certainly presents us with many opportunities to become more aware of all we are communicating non verbally, and to make changes to this in our relationships – with horses, people and self.
Yet I see this as just one part of the reality; one part of what we can learn from our connection with horses. Because humans aren’t always predators.
We are also prey animals.
From an evolutionary perspective we were not always the hunters, we were sometimes the hunted. And as a result, all that evolution bestows upon the horse as prey animal – including those observation skills and intuitive responses to the environment – also exists within us.
Sometimes we need to consciously reconnect with those parts of ourselves; and horses – as both McElroy and Golding express – can help us do this.
At other times they are all too present, especially when we have experienced trauma.
Sue Falkner March (advanced instructor in TEAM, Centred Riding and Connected Riding) teaches the horsemanship aspects of our equine therapy training workshops at Healing Hooves. Sue often starts these days of training by having participants find what is called ‘neutral pelvis’; a body position that puts us into balance, relaxes our body and makes us much more effective around horses. Sue often remarks that many of us, especially women, instead spend much time in what she calls the ‘arched equitator’ position, something common to a prey animal. If you have a tendency to do this you may notice that you do it even more when you feel anxious or concerned – much like the alarmed horse with his head and tail up in the air.
Again I believe we owe it to ourselves, and the animals we love, to recognise and value both what we have in common, and what we don’t. This is, in my opinion, more genuine and closer to truth; and at the same time it allows us to access, create and share more healing and growth opportunities – for our clients, our horses and ourselves.
Time after time I have borne witness to a client being held in a place which somehow perfectly encompasses and balances the parallels they feel and experience with a horse, with the ways they differ, to present unique moments of insight and healing.