equine therapyIn July of last year, Newsweek ran an article titled, “United States of Narcissism.” The article explored America’s rather explosive rise of self-obsession, and self-admiration, self-absorption and self-indulgence.

All About The Self

You get the concept. Narcissism is the inability to see past that blindingly imposing thing known as the self to comprehend how one’s actions may affect another. According to Sara Konrath, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, narcissism is measured in her studies as a lack of empathy. 

So to put things in context, in this country, we are experiencing an astronomical drop in empathy.

And yet how often do we target empathy as a learning objective? Unless you follow the studies on Emotional Intelligence, and much of the work of Daniel Goleman, the author of several books on the subject, including “Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Primal Leadership, and Working With Emotional Intelligence,” the answer is not much.

The Self-Obsession — Depression Continuum

According to E.O. Smith, an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University, the co-editor of Evolutionary Medicine, and editor of Social Play in Primates and Primate Ecology and Human Origins, our physiology and behavior are the products of thousands of generations of evolutionary history.

Smith goes on to say that every day we play out behaviors that have been part of the human experience for a very long time, yet these behaviors are enacted in an arena that is far different from that in which they evolved. Smith argues that this discordance between behavior and environment sets up conditions in which there can be real conflict between our evolved psychological predispositions and the dictates of culture.

Examples of this conflict are shown in social phenomenons such as drug abuse, depression, beauty and self-image, obesity and dieting, stress and violence, ethnic diversity and welfare.

For this reason, Buddhism, a practice, in many ways, much older than modern Western psychotherapy, generally approaches depression from a quite different viewpoint. The Buddhist perspective is that an underlying selfishness/egotism is often the basic cause of feeling depressed.

Buddha’s prescription for happiness, then, is to forget yourself and love others. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: People who have the tendency to use more self-referential terms (I, me, myself) tend to have more health problems and earlier deaths. Being self-absorbed has an immediate effect of narrowing one’s focus and blurring one’s vision.

How Can Equine Therapy Help?

The truth is, as much as empathy may be helpful to our mood, in our daily lives, we don’t really have to have empathy. It is not a prerequisite for our survival.

Yet for a horse, it is. Empathy is woven into the communication patterns of all herd animals — without understanding the emotions of another, transmitting messages of alarm and safety become impossible.

So when a person – let’s just say a self-absorbed person – interacts with a horse, the lack of understanding of the horse’s emotional state (we can even simply say fear level), can create a dangerous situation.

Why would this be the case? Well, to a horse, a person who is self-absorbed is a non-entity — something that cannot be understood by the horse, or can understand him. So in a time of danger, the horse sees this person as neither an asset (something that would aid his survival), or a threat. So what does the horse likely do? Well, should the person be in the way of escape, he gets run over. And if not, probably dragged at the end of a rope.

Is it possible for the horse to actually see the person as an aid to his survival? Certainly, many years of horse competition, racing and other completely unnatural forms of performance that horses have been made to do, would attest to this. All of these environments contain many things that evoke a fear response in horses.

But what all of these environments require is a person who is uniquely cued into the horse’s behavior, or said in another way, out of his/her own head. This actually becomes a way for the person to protect himself. For without having some understanding of what is happening for the horse, the person handling or riding him is in a very dangerous situation. Why? Because not only is he/she unable to predict the movements of the horse, but also because the horse does not see him/her as safe, and thus the flight response takes over and the horse becomes dangerous.

So in a controlled way, working with a horse in a potentially frightening environment forces a narcissist to stop thinking some much about himself, or risk getting run over by a frightened horse.

Horse and pond photo available from Shutterstock