There’s something that sets the horses apart from the other farm animals: most children will have an idea about them but few will have had contact with them. We have the imagery of horses as part of our world from very young: the cowboy’s invaluable colleague, our comrades fighting in wars, the mighty heroes of history sat proudly on their backs on statues and paintings, young girls’ story books, the Lloyds black stallion on TV, even the ‘dancing horses’ in the Olympics. It is unsurprising that the first question we get asked is: ‘Can I ride it?’
However, on first contact with the horses, or any of the large livestock (even the sheep) the common reaction is: “It can smell my fear and will attack me!” “It will know I am weak and will therefore use that to its advantage!” “If I go behind it, it will kick me for sure!” This would otherwise be a reaction to a predator (or Spielberg’s dinosaurs) but reveals the real vulnerability that lies beneath the desire to jump on them and gallop around the field. My response to this is that horses are prey and work on a highly sensitive fight-flight response mechanism – the herd keep themselves safe by looking out for danger and responding accordingly. They are tuned in to read any number of voluntary and involuntary reactions in others, to assess whether or not to relax or run. Fortunately for us, they look for our cues as they would another horse. Also fortunately for us, they don’t care what we look like or who we are.
Here lies the amazing beauty of working ‘therapeutically’ with horses. Horses do not judge us or use our feelings against us. They do not hold a preconception. They do not reject us.
What they do is allow for empathy, companionship, reflection and feedback. However, they take our lead on this. They will move away from rather than cooperate with aggression, react in a number of ways to indecision and can see below bravado to the intention. If a child is asking a horse to move but does not believe that the animal will listen, or that they themselves are worth listening to, it rarely will. If they believe it will happen, if they convey their intention in the way that they ask, something will happen. In this way children can gain self-belief and pride that they have made something work. They are forced to drop bravado and are rewarded for being themselves.
As children gain confidence and hone the clarity of their command, the energy required to coerce the horse complete a task reduces. We can set the arena up to represent things that might happen in school (4 blocks in a square representing a confusing task with no clear solution, for example), getting the horse to speed up or slow down using voice then small physical cues, or simply having the horse move a foot at a time. Children can see real progress in a short period of time.
Often, this high level emotional interaction with the horses is a mirror for young people to see themselves and understand their impact on relationships both at home and in school. One young man found it increasingly difficult to get a horse to learn to move away from him. The horse continually stood head on, making him unable to direct any instruction so that she might move forward on her own. He repeatedly asked her with increasing frustration to no avail. Until finally he paused to take a breath and reframed the task calmly, so that she might better understand what to do. And, he was successful!
When debriefing, he revealed that he first thought the horse was ignoring the task because “She could get away with it,” as she’d figured out he was not strong enough to make her carry our his instructions. He then reflected that perhaps she didn’t understand what to do. And he was glad he persevered as, in his words, “If he’d given up on her and not shown her how to succeed she would have been pretty devastated.” With little prompting, he was able to consider how this could be transferred to a number of different situations at school, seeing how he was received when he was able to be heard clearly and also to reflect how he might change his behaviour with different teachers in different scenarios. The same message he’d been given many times, but here was allowed to realise it for himself.
Written by Rachel Toynton (Senior Visit Coordinator, Hill House Farm)
It is with trepidation that I write this blog. The world of horses and range equine assisted learning / intervention and accompanying research is expansive and growing, and the work of natural horsemanship practitioners and ‘horse whisperers’ is huge and increasing in popularity. I have read a lot, taken on various CPD, discovered the wonderful work of Tricia Day at EAQ and got tons of advice from Tish and Laura here at the Farm. I am inspired from childhood by stories from Dick King-Smith and Nicholas Evans, the understanding of an old Arab mare who accompanied me through formative teenage challenges. I am motivated to keep learning by the powerful interactions witnessed doing this work, to make the absolute most of the precious time that we have whilst the children are on the Farm.
Our equine team are a range of horses and ponies (and one very popular donkey), all mature-ish, worked with so as not to be easily flappable, but with enough personality to give as good as they get (and a good amount of beauty and long manes to go with it!).