Why It Works—
Connecting with Horses

This section explores what others are learning about the relationships that can develop between horses and humans. Connecting With Horses is the title of a book by Margrit Coates. The following draws on her writings and the writing of others. For further reading on this topic, you will find links to websites in the Resources section.

There are many physical reasons why therapeutic riding works. The rider sits above the trainer and the therapeutic riding volunteers. From this elevated position, the rider experiences the rhythmic swinging motions of the warm-bodied horse as the horse is led around the arena, pastures and trails of the farm.

It is exciting to ride a horse. You might assume that this is the biggest factor in achieving the beneficial effects that are seen with our special children. However, a horse is a very special animal and there are other aspects to the horse that come into play.

Horses are prey animals

Horses share a characteristic with some other mammals that are involved in therapy. Think about dolphins, whales and elephants. What they all have in common is that they are prey animals. In the wild, they live with the constant fear that their young or the weak of the herd may be attacked and killed by predators.

There are many features that distinguish predators and prey animals. Predators, like cats and dogs, have forward facing eyes to help them focus on their prey. Once they have caught their prey, they spend much of the day sleeping or resting in one place.

Prey animals, on the other hand, must spend most of the day eating. They have eyes on both sides of their heads for maximum visibility. Their ears are constantly on the move to detect the slightest sound that may signal danger. They have a much keener sense of smell than dogs or cats.

Because horses are preyed upon in nature, their primary concern is safety. They have a highly developed sense of their surroundings and the emotional state of other herd members, including us. A horse will instantly assess how we are feeling and how we tend to be in the world and will often mirror this back to us in their behavior, allowing for powerful and enduring experiential learning to take place.

Horses stick with the herd

In nature, horses are always on the alert for potential threats and ready to take to their heels if there is the slightest suspicion that something unexpected will happen. If they are free to go, they will act on that suspicion and escape to a less threatening place. Given that a horse will flee when danger seems imminent, a human can only come close to a free range horse in situations where there is no threat. Such a relationship only develops as mutual trust grows over a period of time. A horse cannot be intimidated into being close.

Nevertheless, horses are curious and, if they feel no threat, will often slowly approach a human as they would approach another member of their herd.

Like humans, horses are highly social animals that form strong bonds of family and friendship. They can teach us how to be assertive, set boundaries and be clear and respectful in our communication. Interacting with horses offers a chance to develop leadership and confidence as we are empowered to let go of beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve our goals and dreams.  In this way, horses help guide us towards being our authentic selves.

A relationship between equals

Good relationships between humans and horses can only develop in non-stress, welcoming conditions. The best horse-human relationships are not based on power on either side. Horses and humans are very different, but neither is superior.

In human relationships, we have difficulty avoiding hierarchies, even if both humans strive to avoid it.  The best boss working with a confident employee is still the boss. A helper may appear to be superior to the person being helped. This hierarchy may influence how ideas are exchanged and decisions made. We have all seen the band-wagon effect when a boss is keen on an idea and his team goes along with the idea rather than making waves.

In non-hierarchical relationships, reviewing possibilities and choosing actions is likely to be based more on factors that matter, leading to creative ideas and different ways of sizing up alternatives. Some humans believe that such communication occurs with their horses. Whether all humans working with horses can communicate in this way is open to question. However, it may be that some of our special children are benefiting from such communication.

Horses don’t judge us and they can show us how to live mindfully in the present moment. They model how to move between the fight, flight, freeze response, back to grazing once the “alarm” has passed. Humans tend to engage all our senses when we are around these big, powerful animals, making the experience more profound than therapy in an office.