Why horses? And how does it work?

by James Cassese LCSW

"The age of the utilitarian horse is over. But the horse as an object of art, as a subject of concern, as a monument to character development is now more important than ever."

Charles de Kunffy

While not entirely accurate in global-terms, De Kunffy places the dynamic nature of our relationship with horses in an historical context, appreciating that there are eras, ages, epochs, generations in our continued and ever-evolving relationship with the horse. It recognizes that prior incarnations of the horse-human relationship continue to exist in our consciousness, a concept that is pivotal in equine-interactive psychotherapy and learning (EIPL).

Although their place in modern life has changed, horses are flexible, responsive and resilient beings who continue to offer relationship to us in complex ways. In contemporary American experience, most of us have grown up with little equine contact. Although the horse was already no longer part of my generation’s day-to-day experience, many of us grew up with TV shows and movies where horses figured prominently. (insert pic from Bonanza, Wild Wild West, Mr. Ed) For the most part, in the past several decades, the majority of us have lived with little equine interaction—even on TV. Our relationship to the horse thrives, however, in the realm of the collective unconscious, the place where symbols and myths that exist across race, culture, gender are held and are only accessible through the unconscious or the dream world. One of the ways to perceive the collective unconscious is to attend to the slang, images and myths of the culture. Horse references are so embedded in our contemporary language, that we rarely even notice their appearance—despite our distance from horses. One might say that a manager is “taking the reins” in a new department. It might have been said that in the competitive interview process, he was a “dark horse”. If he has doubts about the job that he has been given, he might be seen to be “looking a gift horse in the mouth,” which for whatever reason is not something one should do. He might be seen as “putting the cart before the horse,” or told to “hold his horses” or even to “get off his high horse” if he appears to begin with too great an agenda for change. People might object to his taking over the department, lamenting that the organization is “changing horses mid-stream.” People can be seen to “eat like a horse”, live in a “one-horse town”. Old-time wisdom tells us that we can “lead a horse to water, but we can’t make him drink”, or that we have “closed the barn gate after the horses have gotten free.” We often wrongly use the fish-related word flounder, where the horse-related “founder is meant: the project foundered (not floundered) because of a lack of funds.” The vernacular continues, as does the relationship to the horse, arguably beyond our awareness, even though the horse is no longer a means of transport, an agricultural tool or military weapon. To de Kunffy’s point “the horse as an object of art, as a subject of concern, as a monument to character development is now more important than ever." The equine is at once, and has always been both a living breathing four-legged creature as well as a symbol. Visually, the line of its neck, the power of its hind, the flow of its tail invite psychological projections, interpretations. Everything about it invites ideas and concepts to us. Myths and legends are filled with stories about people and their horses, and in many of them, the horse teaches us something. For example, where Pegasus, the great winged horse of Greek mythology stomped his foot on the ground, magical waters sprung forth to inspire poets who drank from its spring. Chiron, the majestic centaur cured himself of a deadly wound and educated others in the practice of the healing arts. If they aren’t teaching us something directly, mythical horses are often bringing us messages, usually of a spiritual nature. Mohammed received his sacred visions astride Al borak, the white winged mare who not only took him to heaven, but also brought him safely back again. Hindu mythology tells of the horse as the messenger for the great god Vishnu, who will sound the end of evil and wrongdoings on this earth. The Bible records Zechariah’s vision in which the horse is the guardian angel of the world that moves between heaven and earth conveying the Lord’s message. And it is prophesied that Vishnu, Mohammed and Christ would all return to earth—each of them--on white horses. Kanthaka was the favorite white horse of Siddharta, who later became Buddha. The prince was riding Kanthaka when he first saw suffering and it was that same horse on which he escaped from the palace. Kanthaka, the myth goes, died of a broken heart when Siddharta didn’t return. In this new age, our interdependent evolution has brought us to a place of higher reason, of deeper exploration, personal growth and spiritual enlightenment. We have the incredible opportunity to explore these internalized symbols and their conscious and unconscious meaning, woven together with psychoanalytic interpretations, psychotherapeutic approaches, and experiential learning. Equine Energetix: The Natural Evolution of the Horse-Human Bond. People often ask me “why horses?” as in, “why not fill-in-the-blank creature?” All manner of creature from dogs to birds, ferrets to turtles do offer a number of therapeutic benefits to the human patient. There is something different, though, about the way people interact with horses. It may have something to do with the fact that in the thousands of years that we have evolved along with them, they have literally and metaphorically taken us places. Their ability to quickly and reliably transport us not only offered us greater mobility, but allowed for trade, and currency, which in turn allowed for the development of social class and the spread of language. Indeed most of the progress of our civilization for the past 4000 years has been largely dependent on help from the horse. Yet, no one really knows how it all started. The domestication of the horse--in a sense, our earliest “official” relationship with the species--is something that remains somewhat mysterious. Although horses appear in cave art from more than 30,000 years ago, they were likely not tame and instead hunted solely for meat. Recent thinking suggests that the earliest evidence of domestication, measured by the human’s ability to control breeding in captivity, existed as early as 4,000 years ago. Marsha Levine of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research suggests, based on evidence regarding the difficulties of breeding within captivity, that for an environment to have been created where horses felt comfortable, safe and at ease to the degree that breeding occurred, “domestication could have been initiated by the horses themselves.” Of course, she is unable to identify whether it was simply by chance or the decision of the horse that led to the genetic changes that predisposed some horses to be able to breed in captivity, therefore allowing domestication to occur. It is worth noting that all the other species close to equus ferus caballus did not survive very long, in evolutionary terms. Despite their quick reflexes and speed, it is quite probable that, had the horse not been “domesticated” by humans, the species would have long ago been extinct. Domesticating the horse for travel and weight-bearing purposes allowed for huge shifts in human civilization. Suddenly, humans were able to travel further and faster than ever before, opening up the ability to trade exotic items over great distances. The ability to use the horse and the capacity for trade allowed for another huge shift in human civilization—social differentiation. With the advent of expanded trading abilities, hierarchy emerges among tribe members, which develops into a class-based culture system. As such, the horse-human relationship has been one that may have served both species over millennia and includes a history distinct from other cattle or domesticated animals. For example, many people don’t know the debt that the child welfare, feminist and civil rights movements owe to a horse. In the early 1820s, a man named Richard Martin helped enact legislation preventing the cruel treatment of horses and cattle in the United Kingdom. The following year, he brought a case against a street vendor who had been found viciously beating his donkey. When Martin saw that the magistrates were not taking the crime seriously, he had the animal brought into the court so that they could see its wounds. The abuser was fined—the first person in the world known to be convicted of animal cruelty. While this event alone was cause for celebration, it also laid the groundwork for an even bigger deal. Martin’s focus on the legislation related to equine welfare and his work establishing the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals added to the momentum of a broader public humanitarian movement that allowed inroads for protection for children in the United States. In 1873, in New York City, Henry Bergh, who had begun the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 7 years earlier, became involved in helping to rescue a young 9-year old girl from ongoing horrific child abuse at the hands of her step-mother. Eight child welfare agencies at the time were unable to pry this emaciated and scarred child from the hands of her abuser, until Bergh got involved. Making a case that this young girl was indeed an “animal,” Bergh was able to invoke the animal protection statutes he’d recently obtained to remove the child from the incredibly abusive household. The perpetrator was given a year jail sentence, the maximum that the humane laws allowed. This case is often accepted as the “shot heard ‘round the world” for the child protection movements, but could not have happened without the legislation enacted for the prevention of cruelty to animals, beginning with the Treatment of Horses Bill. Once established, the child protection movement created inroads that advanced universal human rights, including the anti-slavery movement and accelerating progress in women’s rights, including her right to vote. The suffragist and feminist movements led the way for even greater strides in the area of civil rights in this country. And like those turns of phrase that reference horses, deeply embedded and perhaps long forgotten (at least consciously), the presence of the horse, symbolically and physically has served to advance our civilization. At the turn of the last century, Sigmund Freud examined the famous (in psychoanalytic circles) case of “Little Hans” who, at age 5, developed a phobia of horses. In 1909, Freud interpreted that phobia to be an aspect of Little Hans’ burgeoning sexuality and his interpretation informed one of his most important contributions to psychoanalysis: The Oedipus Complex in 1910. Freud also believed that dreams are the myths of the man and myths are the dreams of the species and taught us that ‘dreams are the royal road to the unsconscious.” Soon after Freud’s development of the Oedipus Complex, his former student, Carl Jung discussed the image of the black mare that appeared to one of his patients in a dream as illustrating on of his key concepts, the “anima,” the feminine aspect of the male psyche. Like Pegasus, the black mare in his patient’s dream provided inspiration for Jung’s development of the concept of “anima” which has four distinct levels, which he named Eve (Madonna/Whore), Helen (self-reliant, insightful/not altogether virtuous), Mary (virtuous), and Sophia (wise). In broad terms, the entire process of anima development in a male is about the his opening up to emotionality, and in that way a broader spirituality, by creating a new conscious paradigm that includes intuitive processes, creativity and imagination, and psychic sensitivity towards himself and others where it might not have existed previously. Jacques Lacan, revisited Freud’s conception of “Little Hans” in the late 1950s and suggested that rather than the horse symbolizing a castrating father, instead it represented different people in Hans’s life. Lacan then used this interpretation of this boy’s fearful relationship to horses as inspiration for his contributions to analytic thought about phobias, particularly that a phobia makes a traumatic situation thinkable, by introducing a symbolic dimension, even if it is only a provisional solution. It is unlikely that Lacan could have known that his metaphorical interpretations would have literal application decades later. Adding an actual horse to the therapeutic process with a credentialed and experienced clinician in Equine-interactive Psychotherapy and Learning often makes it possible to discuss psychologically stressful matters, to express difficult and complex emotions and to abreact traumas. So, how does it actually work? It begins with some innate equine abilities. As prey animals, horses are suspicious of humans, even from birth. Survival in the wild depends on the equine’s ability to react swiftly to cues in its environment. With its nearly 360-degree vision, the horse is physically engineered to be able to observe and respond to information. The greater its ability to identify subtle changes in its surroundings, the more fit the horse is for survival. The horse that startles or reacts to changes in its environment--such as the sudden appearance of a lawn mower where there was a picnic table the day before--is, in Darwinian terms, the smarter or "fitter" horse. In other words, the more attentive, responsive and perhaps even intuitive, the more likely it will survive. As a herd animal, the horse is also able to communicate with its herdmates in ways that may not be immediately apparent to the human eye. The angle of the ears, the curve of posture, the twitch of muscle or swish of a tail can transmit information. Here again, their very existence is predicated on the accuracy and swiftness of these transmissions. This ability to sense subtleties in its environment (and convey that information) is easily transferred to recognition and response to the affect and behavior of the human. In other words, if we are angry or fearful in the presence of a horse, the horse’s reaction will be specific to those emotions. In this way, the horse has evolved into a startlingly accurate mirror. The human emotional state is instantly reflected by the horse, even when that state is not immediately apparent to the human herself. Swedish researchers collected data supporting this concept on a physiological level. In an article published in The Veterinary Journal, horses’ heart rates literally decreased or accelerated to match those of their handlers. A small study on heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) in humans and horses recently posited that horses also adjust their HRV in response to that of the human. They used this data as evidence of the horse’s sentience, and indicated that because of this variation, the horse was not exactly mirroring the human, but rather responding to her. In psychological terms, when we refer to a mirror, we are talking about a reflection of the person who gazes into it. To the degree that mirror can be objective, without agenda, we can say the reflection is clear. Even the best therapists must keep on their toes to make sure that their reflection of the patient is accurate. This is different from empathy, during which the therapist seeks to maintain a moment-to-moment perception of the world through the patient’s eyes. The horse’s ability to match his HRV to the human’s represents a kind of physiological empathy, in that the equine is mimicking the HRV of the person. Another interesting element of this study, was that the horse was able to do this regardless of whether the human was previously known to him or a stranger. This may reflect a deeper energetic connection that exists between horse and human that dates back thousands of years. Today, we have science to help us explain that which many of us who spend time around the horses already sense. Some scientists have been able to study and quantify the electromagnetic fields emanating from our bodies. The Institute for Heart Math (the organization that was heavily involved in the study I mentioned above) has shown that the gut actually emanates more energy than the brain in humans. Neurophysiologists like Candace Pert (one of the scientists who helped discover “endorphins”), have posited that we react emotionally on a cellular level, with physiological changes that had previously been understood to be controlled only by the brain. In examining the neuroscience of the emotion, Pert and others have found that human response to emotion is a chemical reaction that occurs in receptor cells. The idea is that, molecules are drawn into certain receptor cells, like a lock and key by a kind of magnetic pull. Pert calls this “the molecules of emotion” and demonstrates that these cells exist throughout the entire body and that indeed the spleen, for example, has more of certain of them than the brain . If this idea is correct, think about the contrast in size (and therefore receptor cells) in the horse’s gut vs. their brain. When you combine the idea that we may actually feel things, literally in our bodies not in our brains, with what we know about the electromagnetic fields emanating from horse and human, we may have the beginnings of a scientific explanation of why we are so in touch with feeling when we are in the presence of horses. Because the field around the horse’s heart is actually 50 times greater than that of the human, we are literally engulfed in their heart energy when we step within 20 feet of them. Between this highly developed ability to sense their environment, along with their ability to create physiological empathy, with the aid of a clinician, interacting with a horse can help the client to view her own projections and transferences, and perceive, from an external perspective, her own psyche and its unique functioning. In this way, utilizing EILP, the client has the ability to work with a biofeedbacklike process to witness how her behaviors impact around her. Generally, humans are not likely to attribute hidden agendas to the horse in EILP and, as a result, they are perceived to be objective which inspires great trust. Far greater, say, than another human (including therapists) against whom the unconscious defensive structure is almost always activated to some degree. When humans interact with horses, the unconscious defenses are irrelevant, something the human client seems to immediately perceive. For example, one of the most common concerns that clients will express, is that they “hope the horse will like me.” Clients rarely, if ever, spontaneously offer this anxiety about other people. But because the horse is perceived (like babies sometimes are) as being able to perceive depth, people seem to expect that the horse will see deeply inside them. And they expect to be judged. Here is where the horse really excels as a therapeutic agent. The horse doesn’t judge and most people will also recognize that as a truth. At Equine Energetix we utilize the horse's uncanny perception to assist in personal growth and the development of insight for our clients in a variety of ways. As the horse is a flexible and responsive animal, they can be utilized in almost any type of therapeutic process. From individual psychotherapy, to experiential learning, from couples’ counseling to group process, from corporate team building to life coaching workshops, the horse can enhance nearly any personal growth endeavor.


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