As equine therapy is truly a modality that is best experienced, as opposed to described, sometimes it is helpful to share a personal accounting of a way in which a horse can help a human. Therefore, this blog post is actually an excerpt from my book, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond. This is part one in a series:
My introduction to what equine facilitated psychotherapy really is was one that, like most moments of sagacity, left me utterly speechless. Even of more consequence to me was the fact that I had known horses my entire life, having ridden for almost as many years, and been involved in every aspect of the horse business from training, breeding, showing, transporting and mending horses, from the age of five. Yet I had, as many so often do, failed to consider my horses’ capacity for any awareness beyond that of my own.
While I recognized horses were highly intuitive and had even had moments with them that evidenced this, I had never once imagined that they knew more about me, than I knew about me. In fact, it was the other way around – I thought I knew more about them, than they knew about them.
Yet what I am about to describe, remains, to this day, one of the most profound experiences of my life, and represents the precise moment that shifted my entire perception of what horses are actually capable of thinking, feeling, and knowing about humans.
I had just returned from what was one of the worst experiences of my life. My father had been violently murdered, and the media had aired and printed photos of his body lying the brush, all over the news, and in the newspaper. As I rushed home from the funeral that day, and slammed the front door behind me, I raced through the living room, desperate to get out to the horses. I couldn’t wait to put my riding breeches on, and put the painful memory of the day – my trauma – behind me.
As I walked back through the kitchen, past the family photos that hung on the walls of the old ranch style house that had been our home, and pulled open the sliding glass door to look over toward the arena, the pasture where the mares and foals lived caught my eye. Never before had I paused to watch them, having always been too eager for riding to bother. Yet I stood there, on the porch, my eyes fixed on them, unsure myself even as to why. The three foals, Boomer, Backstreet, and Bien Vida stood together, as they always did, occasionally taking turns to romp through the pasture only to return to the shade of the pepper tree that reached out over the pasture fence.
A movement to my left interrupted my stupor, and my eyes wandered over to Nimo’s pen, where he stood looking back my way. His gaze was fixed on me, as if he knew something was different today. Nimo was the three-year-old Oldenburg stallion that I had put off starting all summer. He was the apple of my eye.
Born with a confidence and presence uncanny for such a young horse, he was not just breathtaking, but incredibly athletic. So athletic, in fact, that he scared me, at times. The first time I had put him through the jump chute to test his jumping ability, he jumped as high as the 5-foot standards. It wasn’t so much that he could jump incredibly well it was that he knew he could. He would race down the jump chute, going way too fast, and then just at the right moment – back off, slow down, and explode into the air. After which he would puff himself up, with his typical bravado, as if to say, Tell me that wasn’t the best jump you’ve ever seen. He’d hold his head up as high as he could, arching his neck, and snorting ostentatiously. Literally walking on his toes, tail flung up over his back, he looked like a cat trying to be larger than he really was. Nimo had a strut that telegraphed very clearly he had just accomplished something no other horse had.
Taking on everything put in front of him with that kind of confidence was just natural for Nimo. So while he had bravado, sure, it was hardly undeserved. He learned in one lesson, after all, what took the other young horses ten lessons to learn. Yet it was Nimo’s interest in people that really separated him from the rest of the horses. Even for a stallion, he was always more interested in me than the others.
One of the 18 horses that were now mine to care for, he was born the year after my mother and I decided to breed our own show jumpers. Curious from the beginning, at only a few days old, he would run up to the fence, away from his mother, as I walked by. I had never had another young horse do that, but then again, when I met Nimo for the first time, at just six hours old, he tried to challenge me. I still remember that day like it was yesterday.
As I knelt down in his stall, he came right up, looked at me, paused, and then jumped suddenly, toward me. I jumped back completely surprised, to which he gaily trotted off shaking his head as if to say, Think twice, ma’am this is my stall. Who was this little horse? I wondered.
Photo by Linda Tanner, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.