Lately I have been having some wonderful discussions about the difference between horse training and therapy. As of May 1st, I announced that I would no longer be offering either horse training or therapy but that Spirit Horse will now combine the best of both. The feedback has been mixed (to my semi-surprise.) I know some folks believe that they should be kept separate, that our problems have no place in the saddle, and what possible good could come from talking in the tack? Trust me, I am no stranger to these comments and for me, my life passion is about respectfully challenging the ways we do things, the way we treat our horses, the way we treat our friends, family, community, and ourselves. Over the years, I noticed that we work with horses a little bit as if we were a prison guard - the idea being that they need to do what we want… or else. This works up to a point, but then the horse asks us back, “or else what?” and we need to respond. Since we often establish a relationship based on control right off the bat with horses, the response is usually “or else I hurt you.” The problem with this is that it turns very ugly very quick and we now need to communicate through pain. Once we start that path, it is very difficult to get off of it (but not impossible!). Don’t get me wrong, horses need boundaries, just like us. Boundaries are what allow us to get to know each other more and on a deeper level. We need to know the rules of relationship, the do’s and don’ts, before we can become more subtle and establish how we will be in our time together, but boundaries don’t need to be angry or aggressive. Indeed, they just need to be clear.
In the documentary, Path of the Horse, a woman named Stormy May goes on a journey to find a better way of working with horses. She goes around the world meeting some of the best horse whisperers of our time. For those interested in this work, it is a must see. Nevzorov, one of the last whispers she meets in Russia, is able to combine relaxation and power in the horse with partnership and the effects are breathtaking. What he is able to do with horses is simply beautiful and in total harmony with the horse. Upon reading his book, The Horse Crucified and Risen, which is a very controversial read, he states that he thinks only a very limited few are able to do this work with horses at liberty and with the horses’ permission. After contemplating that statement from Nevzorov and, frankly, many other horse whispers who have said the very same thing, I respectfully disagree. AND, I do think that in order to work with horses where we create partnership, mutual respect, and one with no violence or aggression going either way, we have to check in with our beliefs and mindset because at the end of the day, horse whispering isn’t something we DO, its a state of mind. If our mind believes that the only way we can get what we want is through force, by making it happen for ourselves, by being bullied or bulling, by either hurting or being hurt, we will sadly never get to connect to the horse, and maybe we might not even get to connect fully to others. We need to be wiling to change our mindset, to change our beliefs, and ride and work without arrogance and pride being at the forefront of how we handle difficult situations. Not everyone is ready for this work, but those that are will be asked to change their mindset of who they are not what they do with horses.
I think this is why you meet horse people who are fantastic with horses, and yet, you don’t see their students have the same ability. Teachers are teaching what they do and yet, when we do something from a scared, tense, or confused mental place, it doesn’t really matter what we do because it most likely won’t work or it creates other problems that we now need to solve. We are not sure what to do next so we try doing what we were told to do bigger in hopes it will work, pull harder, kick more, bigger tools, bigger anger. Now we are fighting the horse, fighting ourselves, and the only way out that we know is to try to do something else, that may or may not work. If we work with the mindset of the human, how to clearly and calmly establish the rules, educate the horse on what we are hoping to accomplish and get them on board with our plan, the sky is the limit.
So do I think that horse training and therapy shouldn’t mix? I think it is a shame they don’t. I wish we were asked to question our way of relating to horses more, be challenged to find a more harmonious way with them, a more harmonious way with ourselves! If how we treat the horse is a metaphor for how we treat ourselves, then no wonder we struggle with anxiety and tension as a culture. We treat ourselves like we are never good enough, like we can’t be trusted to listen to our inner voice, to the part in all of us that can let go and realize that we actually don’t have as much control as we think. That our power lies in our ability to let go, in our ability to ask for what we want and create boundaries around how we don’t want to be treated. I will leave you with a quote from the grandfather of existential therapy that I think speaks beautifully to the work we can do with horses and the truth we can experience,
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." -Viktor E. Frankl
Kaia Livingstone is a psychotherapist who runs a private practice outside of Boulder, CO. She specializes in helping horses and humans bond in order to help them relate and connect on a deeper level as well as heal and grow.