“Most of psychology has been aimed at simply getting out of pain,” explains Martin Seligman, considered by many to be the father of positive psychology. Positive psychology, he explains, is about using your signature strengths to increase positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.
Seligman further explains that when positive psychology moves daily functioning into the realm of wellbeing, the faults that one has are naturally disarmed of their power. And while there are now a multitude of positive psychology practitioners, one wonders if the experiential methodology that positive psychology seems to lend itself to is utilized to achieve its ends? One such method is equine therapy.
A deceptively influential factor in the field of positive psychology, and one that is missed quite frequently in traditional psychology is the concept of flow. First described by Mikahly Csikszentmihalyi, a collegues of Seligman’s, flow is the state of total immersion in an activity, to the point that conscious thought stops, and the person can be said to be completely “in the moment” acting solely on instinct and intuition.
While those who experience flow frequently, Seligman calls these “high flow” people, understand it quite well, the concept remains foreign to much of the population. Even more telling, asking a person to avoid the distractions that sabotage flow — think cell phones, internet, television, etc –, can often result in serious resistance. The reason for this is that flow is not something that can simply be taught. Rather, it must be stumbled upon. As Seligman’s elaborates, it is the intersection of our strengths with challenges that just meet our level.
However, most people have little idea what their strengths really are. And here, equine therapy can be extremely inviting. The reason for this is that almost any of the six signature strengths Seligman describes can be useful when working with horses.
Consider, wisdom, the first strength, for example. Wisdom will allow a person to reflect upon experiences with a horse and read them in a way that produces the desired result. This, of course, involves a person not only interpreting the horse’s behavior, but also his/her own in order to make the needed adjustments. Let’s consider humanity, the second signature strength identified by Seligman. In this case, the desire to be kind and compassionate, is a strength needed by all horses, but certainly some more than others. Further, this strength will allow the person to utilize approaches more considerate of the horse’s welfare.
Unlike any other forms of experiential therapy, however, equine therapy demands connection. Without connecting with a horse, a person will struggle to achieve the mutual gains that amaze wizened horseman and passive onlookers alike. It is, after all, something that elevates a person beyond his/her own capacity. And horses are plenty willing to share. We must however, be engaged, open to the relationship, find meaning in it, and wanting the achievement, all key parts of positive psychology.
Horses photo available from Shutterstock.