emotion in equine therapy

One of the most commonly promulgated benefits of equine therapy is that for those who may have trouble being aware of just how they feel, or the even more challenging why, working with horses can help identify these feelings. Yet, for those in the field of equine therapy, the mechanisms behind this process are somewhat up to debate.

Much of the difference in understanding as to how horses can actually help people put their finger on how they are feeling is related to the fact that horses do not respond to people in the same way that people do. Horses are said to be much more intuitive to human defense mechanisms, and are not easily bluffed. Where another person may not recognize the projection of a troubled other, the horse will indeed have a response that is reflective of the very emotion from which the person is trying to defend. This is the main reason that projective identification is not possible in equine therapy.

A person, in discomfort, may attempt to deflect his negative feelings onto another, and the other, unknowingly, will act these out, thereby enacting a situation where the discomfort, which is detested, becomes reality, horses will act quite differently. Instead of acting out the projection, a horse will respond to it. And the response the horse offers will always be within the context of a herd animal, and thus herd behavior.

For example, let’s say that the troubled person projects his/her feelings of anger onto another person, and the person then acts out angrily, thereby creating the undesirable emotion. Ok, now lets take this same scenario into the arena. A person who projects his anger onto the horse, proclaiming that the horse is actually the angry one, will not necessarily produce an angry horse. Rather, the horse will respond to the person’s hidden anger by attempting to bring it to the surface. This can be done in several ways. The horse may “haze” the client — circling around him in progressively smaller circles in an attempt to dominate space. The horse may also repeatedly move into’s the person’s space, nudging him out of the way.

By using her body, the horse essentially places the person in a position where anger would be a healthy response. This is all done to draw the anger to the surface — out of the unconscious — thereby making the person “readable” to the horse, and a viable herd member. In order to understand this, it is important to remember that herd animal relate predominantly through physiological responses, and unconscious drives, emotions, and motives, have physiological traces. For horses, hidden emotions are like hidden physiological responses, making communication, and the establishment of the horse’s safety — through a congruent and connected herd — impossible. So in order to preserve her own safety then, the horse must make the person  — her current herd member — more congruent, through evoking his hidden unconscious material. For while people can operate with closeted emotion, horses cannot, and therefore, identifying any emotion that is covert, and responding to it is an automatic process for the horse.

Photo by nathanmac87, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.