A while ago I wrote a list of things we can learn from horses - I use it when I'm introducing this work to new people at workshops and open days. Last month, I talked about them on my Facebook page - but given the ephemerality of Facebook posts, I thought it was worth collecting them here.
#1: OUR BODIES ARE A SOURCE OF WISDOM
Our bodies are a source of wisdom: our physical sensations, and the emotions that these often express, are the surest guide we have to what we truly need and value, and thus to a life of authenticity, purpose and fulfilment. Learning to be alive in our bodies – to be with and listen to our body and to welcome greater aliveness – is also fundamental to healing from trauma.
Horses are alive to their body's information in every moment. They notice every subtle change, and respond without resistance so that they can return to calm as soon as possible. By working mindfully and respectfully with them, we can learn to do this too, reducing stress and refining our understanding of what really helps us to thrive, rather than just survive.
This work, then, is about transforming our relationship with our bodies. It goes much further than “body positivity” (which often seems to me to be about learning to feel positive about your body as something that is still somewhat separate to your self).
Instead, it's about coming home to your body. Being with the horses in this way gives us the felt experience of belonging and welcome, and it’s extraordinary how healing that is in itself, without any particular processing of wounds or recounting of stories being needed.
The sharing of despair is welcome too, of course. We all have our wounds and longings, often unspoken for many years, and these were never meant to be carried in solitude. But it’s the experience of welcome and belonging that makes it possible to share them, and that experience has to be felt in the body, not just exist as an idea in the mind.
#2: ALL EMOTION IS INFORMATION
Conventional wisdom is that we should pursue happiness. Whole industries have grown up around the promise of the secret to a happy life. Happiness, we’re told, is the key to success at work and in our relationships, and optimism, gratitude, “positive thinking”, plus some good old hard work, will get us there.
But is that true? It turns out that trying to be optimistic and positive all of the time actually reduces our chances of being truly happy. The “it’s all good” attitude encourages us to ignore or even fear our so-called “negative” emotions: the uncomfortable ones like sadness, anger, worry, fear or guilt. And although it might seem illogical, avoiding “negative” feelings actually makes us less resilient when things don’t go our way, and less likely to find lasting success and fulfilment.
This is because there’s some pretty important information in those darker emotions. Evolution gave us – and horses, and all other mammals – emotions for a simple reason: their job is to keep us, and our pack, herd, or family, alive, by telling us what we need. Emotions like joy or contentment are a sign that our needs – for love, inspiration, or warmth, for example – are being met. Fear, on the other hand, warns us that we need to respond danger; sadness lets us know how much we care, and long for connection; anger tells us that we need respect, consideration and fairness; guilt tells us when we’ve violated our own values.
Horses do emotions really well. Whether they’re happy or sad, playful or worried, they respond authentically, and then move on. We humans have made things really complicated for ourselves. But when we learn how to hear the messages in all our emotions, we can act with awareness rather than just react to what life throws at us, and we can choose to move towards what really makes us feel fulfilled and alive. The truth, then, is that we're most likely to find happiness not by trying to be happy, but by learning to welcome all our emotions, and find meaning in the highs AND the lows of life.
Horses model this radical acceptance of all emotional states really well - and they also help to amplify and clarify our own feelings: often, people who struggle to know what they're feeling can connect with their emotions more fully in the presence of a horse, and horses also call our attention, through their body language and behaviour, to emotions that we might be unaware of. They're the ultimate emotional intelligence coaches.
#3: BEING AUTHENTIC CREATES SAFETY, RELAXATION AND BELONGING
Safety and belonging are two of our most powerful needs. Without a felt sense of safety - knowing in our bodies that we're safe, as well as knowing it intellectually - we can't easily learn, create, or connect deeply with others. We are left hungry for belonging in our life, and even in our own skin.
Unfortunately, in our hunger to feel safe and to know that we belong, we often develop patterns that create anxiety, confusion, and disconnection. We try to fit in by editing ourselves, shutting down thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we don't think will be welcomed or accepted - and lose touch with our own truth. We try to earn acceptance by being good, or nice, or smart - but never escape the feeling that we're not quite good enough. Or, despairing of ever being accepted for who we are, we might turn away from closeness and connection, telling ourselves it's better not to need anyone else - and pay the price in deep loneliness.
Horses need safety and belonging just as much as we do. Being part of a herd is literally a matter of life and death for them. But for horses, belonging in the herd isn't based on "fitting in" as we would understand it. Instead, the herd's survival depends on all its members knowing what they feel and what they need, and acting on that without hesitating or second-guessing: in other words, on being authentic.
And survival for horses depends on a very finely-tuned sense of whether other beings around them are being authentic, too: they're uneasy when things don't seem to line up. (Linda Kohanov relates this to the need to read the intentions of a predator moving through their territory: is it just casually wandering past, in which case there's no need for the herd to waste energy running, or is it looking for a meal?)
Working with horses helps us learn the power of authenticity, because horses are uneasy around us when we're denying what we feel and need, or trying to be good or smart or nice, and they relax when we acknowledge what's really true for us. Being welcomed into the herd simply for being authentic can be a transformative experience. For many people, it's the first time they've known what it is to feel truly safe with others, and to belong instead of hustling to fit in or earn approval.
And once you've had that experience - once you've felt safety and belonging in every cell of your body - you never want to go back to selling yourself out again.
#4: NOBODY *MAKES* YOU FEEL ANGRY, HAPPY, SAD... OR ANYTHING ELSE
Often when we notice a feeling, we say “he/she/it made me angry” - or happy, or excited, or whatever. Most of the time, especially with enjoyable feelings, that habit of thinking doesn’t get us into too much trouble. But it does confuse the stimulus or trigger for the feeling – what the other person said or did – for the real cause of the feeling, which is a need, either met or unmet. For example, if we’re happy, it might be because we are getting the connection or fun that we long for. And if we’re angry, it might be because a need for consideration or truthfulness or space is not being met.
When we attribute our feelings simply to what other people have done or not done, we lose connection with others, and with ourselves. We lose connection with others, because “she made me...” involves blame (and often judgement too), or projection, which makes it hard to really see or hear the other person or imagine what might have been going on for them. When we’re blaming, it’s easy to go on the attack, and then space for mutual understanding disappears pretty rapidly.
And we lose connection with ourselves, because we hand over control of how we feel to other people, and miss the opportunity to understand what really makes us tick: what we’re drawn to, and what knocks us off balance. A whole new layer of awareness and choice opens up when we shift from “she drives me crazy” to “I feel really irritated when she talks while I’m talking because I need consideration and space to express my perspective”.
Things get even richer when we notice how the story that we tell ourselves about what’s happening shapes our emotional reaction. If I believe she interrupts me because she doesn’t care about my thoughts or feelings, I’m going to feel very differently about it than if I consider the possibility that she’s so anxious to connect that the timing of her responses is slightly off.
Noticing the stories we tell ourselves about what others are doing, and our emotional reactions to these stories, allows us to unhook from our patterned responses to life and creates new possibilities. But it can be difficult to learn how do this with other humans, whose own stories and patterned reactions tend to bounce off ours in unhelpful ways! This is where working with horses can really help.
Horses don’t tell themselves stories about you. Nor do they blame or credit you for how they’re feeling. (They can have trauma triggers and responses, but that’s a different topic.) They simply feel, and respond in the moment to attempt to meet the need that their feeling is pointing them towards (safety, protection, play, care...). This makes them remarkably “clean” teachers when we’re learning to recognise and let go of our own stories and projections, so we too can show up open and available for connection. Lulu was particularly good at this kind of teaching.
But horses do bring up our own stories – people I work with will often default to thinking that a horse doesn’t like them or doesn’t want to be with them, for example, when in fact the horse is simply being tactful about approaching them. (And in the horse world it’s sadly very common for riders to project their own wounds and stories onto their horses.) Gently bringing awareness to and loosening that default interpretation, often woven from layered pain, to reveal the beautiful needs underneath, is essential, life-giving work.
So, how about we try to let go of “she made me mad”, and instead notice the story we’re telling ourselves about what she’s doing or saying, the feeling that comes up for us, and what we really need. This simple (but not easy) practice is part of the groundwork for true freedom and real connection – with horses AND humans.
#5: DEVELOPING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
Boundaries. When I ask people – women in particular – what would help them to experience more ease and flow in their lives, they often say that they think they need to have better boundaries. “Boundaries” is a familiar term, and intuitively it makes sense that having clear boundaries is a good thing: living without a sense of one’s own self as distinct from other people, or without being able to say no to things that feel wrong for us, is confusing and scary and can leave us feeling a lot of anxiety and shame.
But what does having healthy boundaries actually mean? Is it like a wall that creates a safe space around us, or a set of clear rules for how we’re going to interact with other people, what we will and won’t accept from them? For many people who long for better boundaries, there’s an extra layer of anxiety and shame that comes with not even knowing where the “right” place is to set them, let alone how to go about it. So, how do we put the concept of healthy boundaries into practice?
It’s actually surprisingly simple (though again, not necessarily easy). Authentic boundaries come from an awareness of our needs in the moment, rather than from abstract, generalised rules or limits. In other words, there is no absolutely “right” place to set them – it depends on what we need. And if you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ll know that we discover what we need by attending to our emotions – because the purpose of emotions is precisely to alert us to what we need to survive, and, once our survival needs are taken care of, to thrive.
When we know what we need, we can take action to meet that need, which might involve the kind of thing we generally think of as “setting a boundary”: asking someone to give us more physical space, for example, or to communicate with us by email only. But of course, that doesn’t mean we want everyone, at all times, to communicate with us by email only: that request is specific to a particular person and situation, because we need safety, or consideration or privacy (or something else!)
In just the same way, sometimes a horse will want closeness or play with their best friend, and sometimes they will need more physical space, or rest. If you've ever watched Anam Cara and Bella's interactions, you'll know what I mean :-) Horses generally also feel more comfortable with some herd members than others. They don’t think of this as “setting boundaries” in a general sense though; instead, they ask for space, or play, or mutual grooming in response to their feelings and needs in the moment.
When I invite someone to interact reflectively with a horse from the ground to explore boundaries, things go more smoothly if we adopt the same approach: instead of worrying about making sure they “set a clear boundary” with the horse, I’ll ask them to pay attention to what their body is telling them feels safe and enjoyable, and to what the horse is feeling, as shown by body language, breathing, facial expression – and if things aren’t feeling safe and enjoyable for both of them, we make a change. This usually leads to a rich conversation between human and horse, and some powerful learning for the human.
So the key skills we need in order to develop healthy boundaries are:
- awareness of our feelings and needs,
- the willingness to figure out what specifically, in that particular situation, would meet the need,
- the courage to ask for it - sometimes this means asking something of yourself rather than anyone else, and
- a willingness to hear “no” from the other person, and to say “no” ourselves, and still stay in dialogue.
No magic formulas, just listening to yourself, taking responsibility for identifying what you need to ask for, being vulnerable, and being open to the other person’s response.
Healthy boundaries, then, are based on trust: trusting ourselves to know what we need and act on that, and trusting that our needs can be met in our important relationships. As we develop this trust, we don’t need a wall to keep others at a safe distance, and we don’t need to tightly monitor and manage what’s going on around us in order to feel ok, because we know, more and more deeply, that we are safe and we belong, at home in our own skin.
#6: WE NEED EACH OTHER
Humans, horses, and all other social creatures are wired for connection. From our earliest moments, we learn how to be in this world through our relationships with others. When these relationships are warm and nourishing and create a sense of safety and belonging, we thrive. When these relationships are cold, or distant, or scary, we do what we need to do to survive. Perhaps we keep others at a safe distance, or try make sure there's no conflict around us, or perhaps our nervous system learns to see threats everywhere and stays in fight/flight almost all the time (which becomes chronic anxiety).
The good news is, we are also wired to heal these survival-driven patterns. And we do it through experiencing warm, nourishing relationships, where we know - in our bodies, not just our minds - that we are safe and unconditionally welcomed.
We need each other.