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, have explored how the presence of animals can make it safe to seek help, and discussed what we have in common with horses.

Today’s post applies our understanding of our shared biology, to how we can look to horses and other animals for life lessons.

Whether we are engaging in an animal assisted therapy program or simply observing our own four legged friends, animals can be powerful role models with much to teach us. But why does this potential exist and how can we best harness it?

Perhaps it comes down to the fact that horses – and many other animals – are:

Close enough to be relatable, yet distinct enough to show us some different options.

The best way to illustrate this is perhaps through a real-life example, in this case a session from early on in my equine therapy career.

My client that day was ‘Anna’, a young Mom struggling with social anxiety and depression. Anna was constantly critiquing herself, especially after social interactions, and always fell short of her own impossibly high standards. The result was her increasing reluctance to interact with people in any environment, which impacted many aspects of her life.

During her first few sessions Anna was drawn to our herd leader, an Arabian gelding called Skye. Anna observed the wary look in Skye’s eye and his tendency to notice everything that happened in his environment. “That’s just like me at work,” Anna noted as we watched the herd across the fence. Anna soon discovered many other characteristics she and Skye shared, including heightened sensitivity and a strong desire to take care of their family.

During this particular session we brought Skye and another horse into the arena. Instead of tying either horse up we unclipped both their lead ropes and I guided Anna to the other side of the fence. We watched Skye trot around the arena, head high in the air, while his companion fell asleep by the gate.

Anna looked up at me, the concern evident in her eyes not unlike that in Skye’s, “Is he OK?”

I watched Skye pause for a moment and stare at the rest of the horses grazing in the nearby paddock. “It’s hard for Skye to be away from his herd, and running is his way of releasing the emotion that’s coming up for him”.  As I spoke, Skye resumed his circuit of the arena and pooped, “that’s also something horses do when they’re scared,” I added with a smile.

Before long Skye returned to the gate to join his equine and human companions. Head a little lower now, he started to lick and chew – which I explained to Anna was another form of emotional release – and within moments his body language resembled that of the other horse: head comfortably down, back leg resting on its toe, and bottom lip droopy.

A horse at rest.

Watching Skye, Anna let out the breath neither she nor I had noticed she had been holding. “I wish I could be more like Skye,” she whispered, gently rubbing his neck as his eyelids started to close. “He knew just what he needed to do with those feelings, and he went right ahead and did it.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “I don’t think it occurred to Skye to do anything else.”

Anna giggled, “I don’t think he even worried what we thought of him when he pooped.”

I smiled again. Within a few simple moments Skye had provided Anna with all she needed to start making some significant changes in how she approached life; to find the insight and courage to start living – and expressing – in a more emotionally honest way.

How did this happen?

For Anna to see and trust Skye as a role model she needed first to be able to relate to him; recognising all they had in common, including a heightened sensitivity which often led to uncomfortable emotions, facilitated this.

Anna also knew that Skye frequently felt, and sometimes behaved, as she did, and from this she perceived that he understood what life could be like for her.

That was empathy.

Anna then needed to witness Skye responding to their shared emotion in a way which differed from what she would typically do.  Anna watched as Skye experienced, felt, processed and released his alarm – safely and respectfully – but without concern for what we or anyone else may think of him. Unlike Anna, or most other humans for that matter, Skye allowed the emotion to move through him, without clogging the process up with unnecessary judgement and over analysis. In this he invited Anna to consider a different way of doing things; a possibility of allowing herself to feel and release her emotions without the crippling self analysis and critique she usually subjected herself to.

This all needed to be delivered in a way which was non judgmental and congruent, conditions which had been established between Anna and Skye during their earlier interactions, and which we explore as frequently being provided by animals in an earlier post.

The end result?

This experience presented an opportunity for Anna to witness and perceive a different, healthier response to emotions which she experienced in her own life, within the context of an emotionally safe relationship which she trusted to be both genuine and unconditional. And from there, an invitation was provided for Anna to apply this possible new way of being within her own life and relationships.

Witnessing all of the above unfold, and become further integrated and applied in subsequent sessions, was a great honour. It also served, and continues to serve, as a valuable reminder for myself as facilitator: of why I chose, and continue to choose, to build my practice and life with animals firmly as a central part.

You can find more examples of animals as relatable role models in the blog post: “Is no fear a good thing?”

Our next article in this series will look at another benefit of recognising all we share with horses: how we can draw upon these similarities, and the differences, within a psycho education animal assisted therapy approach.

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