Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting Out of the Way of Our Horses

Photo taken Summer 2005: A treasured cozy moment with Tansy.
Her son, Taran, is beside her.

Last summer, Shannon Knapp from Horse Sense of the Carolinas sent an e-mail question to dozens of practitioners in the Equine Guided/Assisted Learning community. It was one of those “food for thought” inquiries, which I always appreciate. Essentially, it was this: Should we be using our personal horses for this work?

It’s a good question. After all, we’re attached to our own horses in different ways than we might be to those with whom we simply work. We have a history with our horses. We know their personalities and their stories, as we would members of our own human families. Intentionally or not, we may allow our relationships with them to get in the way of our work with clients. Our expectations may interfere with the learning and growth process.

With regard to clients, we’re reminded by our teachers to “allow” people to fully experience sessions with horse partners. We’re encouraged to “get out of the way” of our clients. Let sessions unfold without undue interference. I value these words of wisdom and carry them in my heart as I step into the circle of each client/horse interaction.

I would add to this wisdom that we also need to get out of the way of our horses. When we project expectations, judgments, personal agendas and biases onto them, we hinder the process. We begin to engage in prediction of outcome. We get in the way.

I must admit that, at times, I’ve made assumptions about what one of my horses might do during a session, only to be amazed and humbled by a completely different response. These experiences challenged me to reevaluate my attitudes, to reconsider the limitations I place on the horses in my herd.

My mare, Tansy, is a perfect example of misplaced expectations. In the five years I’ve known this highly sensitive mare, we’ve come to an understanding. She is not a “people person.” She isn’t rude or aggressive. She simply isn’t interested in cozying up to people. While I was initially put off by her standoffishness, I’ve come to recognize that she’s simply not an overly affectionate being. Tansy is content to look at me across the pasture without any compulsion to approach me or even be approached by me. She is who she is. I accept her.

But, when I first put her in the round pen with a coaching client, I was dumbfounded to discover that her responses were completely contrary to my expectations. She was approachable, she allowed the client to touch her without any indication of fear or distrust, and she stood patiently as the client released tears of frustration related to an event in her life. Throughout the session, Tansy was fully present and engaged.

I had to take a few seconds to collect myself. “Who is this mare?” I’d never seen anything like this from Tansy! With a little effort, I checked my attitude. I reminded myself to let go, to just go with the flow. By doing so, the experience unfolded in profound ways for the client.

Within the circle of partnership, Tansy shed her reservations and embraced the moment with openness and compassion. In the process, she allowed me to connect with a part of her that I’d never experienced. The client came away from her session with valuable insights, and I walked away with an entirely new, unexpected understanding of my horse.

Of course, I never said anything to my client about this revelation. Her session with Tansy wasn’t about me. Nonetheless, I was both astounded and gratified by what I’d learned.

Recalling the session, I sometimes think about the “what ifs.” What if I hadn’t checked my attitude? What if I’d allowed my own expectations about my horse to creep into the session? How would that have impacted the client’s experience? By projecting limitations ~ thereby getting in Tansy’s way ~ I would’ve also gotten in the way of the client and her learning opportunity.

The original question was: Should we be using our personal horses for this work? I think the answer lies in our ability to answer the next “food for thought” questions: If we work with clients and horses from our own herds, are we able to release our biases? Are we willing to step back and go with the flow when our horses respond in ways that we perceive are out of character? What can we do internally to create and hold space when we’re caught off guard by unexpected responses?

I believe these self-inquiries represent some of the challenges we face, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable obstacles. Those of us who share our horse companions with clients simply have to go one step further than practitioners who don’t. We release our judgments about clients and the process and we let go of our expectations of who we assume our horses are.

Tansy’s responses demonstrate that I really can’t predict what will happen in the circle of partnership. So, I integrate what I’ve learned from experience. Let go, embrace the mystery and get out of her way.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Equal Partnership with Horses

In a partnership, both parties have equal, albeit different, responsibilities. Partners compliment one another, earn trust, and work together with mutual respect for the benefit of the relationship.

What I’ve discovered in countless hours of research -- online, in books and in discussions – is that very few horse people genuinely embrace the concept of equal partnerships between people and horses. The language is there … sometimes … but then it trips itself up with words like “domination,” “alpha horse,” “pecking order,” and so on. But rarely do people talk about real 50/50 relationships.

Here’s how I see it. The words “domination” and “partnership” are mutually exclusive. The former is based on control, submission and subjugation, while the latter is based on equality, collaboration and shared responsibility. Domination and partnership cannot reside in the same relationship – not if it’s a healthy one.

My suspicion is that the word partnership is primarily a misused word in the horse world, as most training methods that I’ve encountered are based on the premise that the trainer is the dominant being in the relationship.

These training methods are modeled on the generally accepted idea that there is a hierarchy within a herd. I don’t subscribe to this idea. The idea of a hierarchy is contradictory to what I’ve witnessed in the herds that I’ve worked with.

What is domination in a herd? Generally speaking, it’s understood as horses gaining and consistently maintaining control/domination over other horses, which presumably results in a top-down pecking order. I’ve never seen this.

What I have seen is horses acting aggressively toward each other, and I’ve seen signs of situational domination. These tend to be temporary, quickly resolved shows of aggression, and they seem to result from imbalance in particular situations.

When a horse thinks he’s not going to get enough to eat, for example, he’ll push other horses away from food. This is bullying, which I suspect is brought about by fear that there won’t be enough food to go around – a reaction to an imbalance in sustenance.

I’ve also witnessed horses setting boundaries with one another in the pasture. Boundary setting isn’t domination, either. From my point of view, it’s about requesting personal space. Some horses, like some people, need more personal space than others and they’re more assertive about enforcing it. Once the boundary has been established, however, balance is restored. This usually takes a few seconds. Rarely do horses chase each other around for more than a few minutes.

The only animals that give a sustained chase are predators.

Mostly what I’ve witnessed is horses living together in functional groups, each with its own place that isn’t higher or lower than any other horse in the herd. Watchfulness and direction setting in the herd appear to be shared responsibilities. This is collaboration, not domination. It’s the herd working together for the benefit of the entire group rather than falling in behind a specified leader.

When we establish ourselves as dominant over horses, we’re putting into play an intense, sustained, unnatural assertion of control that horses don’t understand and don’t respect, because it’s something that they don’t encounter in their every day herd lives. This behavior is specific to their interactions with humans.

Dominance is a human choice that we impose onto our relationships with horses. I think if we maximized the potential for true partnership, rather than trying to coerce our horses into submission, we’d co-create more harmonious, more respectful relationships with them.