equine therapyFor most therapists, dealing with a borderline patient can be like trying to heal an infection without antibiotics. Try remedy after remedy, and the oozing may stop temporarily, but the infection still brews under the surface. In fact, many therapists even refuse to see borderline patients. So this makes one wonder, just how do horses respond to borderlines?

Interestingly, this question crossed my mind recently as I reflected on a former client of mine. Presented with the job of training her young horse, I accepted, completely unaware of what I was getting into. While I was informed that her horses was a biter, what I wasn’t told was that left to his own devices, he was nothing short of malicious. In fact, he’d come after people in the stall with teeth barred. He hated to be touched, constantly had his ears pinned, and had even kicked people in the past.

Innocently, I attempted to train this animal, as I always do with very clear requests and expectations, and effusive praise for any movement toward the desired goal. Yet this horse was unpredictable. While one day he’d seem to move in the right direction, the next day he’d completely refuse to go to work, even rearing straight up to avoid it.

But then I must also explain his owner. Full of the most noxious kind of smarmy praise, she’d dote over her horse, while her history of lashing out unexpectedly at people disguised something shockingly different from what she offered her horse. The poor boundaries, excessive need for control and admiration, and very tightly wound affect, all smacked over the kind of intense anger that even strangers feel and sense around a borderline.

So it made absolute sense that her horse was also tense, but putting the pieces together I realized that he was only doing what all horses do with borderlines — provoking their intense anger. Yet, unlike other disorders with unconscious anger, the unpredictability of the direction of the borderline’s anger causes horses to respond with both fear and anger.

After all, borderlines are known for both self harm, and violent rage toward others. So to a herd animal, the anger needs to be expressed to make the borderline more readable and safe, however the situation is a catch 22, for provoking the borderline’s anger jeopardizes the horse’s safety. And bear in mind, the horse is acting instinctively, meaning he is not able to consciously choose not to force the borderline to act out his/her anger. Instead, he is only doing what all herd animals do — to try to make other herd members more readable, congruent, and safe. And here, the horse is caught in the same bind as the therapist treating the borderline, as any limit or boundary imposed on the erratic client will likely lead to an angry outburst. Yet the client needs boundaries, just as, according to a horse, he/she needs to be honest about the anger that lurks beneath the surface.

The truth was, this horse wanted nothing to do with his owner, and his behavior reflected this, as he was always worse on the weeks when she was in town (she worked out of town two weeks out of every month). And while those who’d seen this horse’s behavior might be quick to blame him, the reality was that he was only expressing what we all felt around his owner — yet dare not express.

Photo by jdj150, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.