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Equine Therapy: The Nature of Horse and Human Relationships

equine therapyWhile relationships can often lead to copious amounts of confusion, frustration, and elation, for most of us, defining the nature of them is actually quite challenging. For one thing, we are the relationship. That is to say that we ourselves, comprise what we are trying to understand. Therefore attempting to understand a relationship that you are a part of is much like trying to develop self awareness without any external input.

Well, when it comes to understanding horse and human relationships, the case is much the same.
While the rise of “natural horsemanship” has given weight to the idea that understanding and working within the horse’s natural instincts could lead to a more positive and fulfilling horse-human relationship, in terms of reflecting on the nature of this relationship, little has been said. Just as relationships among people can be of many different forms, such as adversarial, unequal, codependent, emotionally vacuous, incestuous, mistrustful, and emotionally charged, so can relationships with horses.

For example, consider the horse owner who arrives to the barn, quickly pulls her horse out of his stall without so much as hello, proceeds to groom him as quickly as possible, hops on and demands a stellar performance. Her horse, meanwhile, fails to greet his owner, instead turning toward the back of his stall when she arrives, stands stalk still as if programmed, and performs his duties under saddles with little expression. While the rider may not be abusive toward her horse, and the horse may not display resistance, this relationship certainly lack any emotional fabric. The two operate almost as if the other did not exist with very little communication, and even less emotion.

Now consider a rider who has had a terrible day at the office, comes to the barn and looks to her horse to make her feel better. In fact she emotionally unloads on him, barging into his stall, standing way too close, failing to consider his need for space. As the horse becomes increasingly nervous about his owners labile behavior, he fidgets as she grooms him, is tense when she gets on, and remains worried the remainder of the ride. However, because the rider is much too preoccupied with her own emotions, she fails to see how the horse is responding, and the situation escalates until either the horse runs off, or the rider reprimands him strongly. Clearly this is a codependent relationship, as neither party is able to care for his/her own needs. The rider is too fragile emotionally, and the horse is also too worried.

In both of these cases, a horse trainer may tell the rider to cue the horse differently, all the while missing the very nature of the relationship that has been evolving. But in the field of equine facilitated psychotherapy, the nature of the horse-human relationship becomes the fodder for many sessions, as it is highly indicative of the person’s many relationships, animal or human. Therefore, when the skilled therapist can help the client become aware of, and experience fully, the relationship that she, herself, has contributed to, change can begin to occur. And because the partner in this relationship is four legged, he is probably very likely to be receptive to change.

Photo by Phoenix Wolf-Ray, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Equine Therapy: The Nature of Horse and Human Relationships

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2011). Equine Therapy: The Nature of Horse and Human Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 12, 2019, from


Last updated: 12 Jun 2011
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