“Horses quickly anchor us making it difficult to escape from some of the basic realities of our existence. Around them we are confronted with existential truths and with matters of life and death…” (McCormick, Horse Sense for the Human Heart). This quote has been a guide post for most of my work in equine assisted learning and therapy. When someone asks you what you do for a living, it can be hard to sum it up in one sentence or not make a long story longer. It is hard to explain why horses help humans in the way that they do especially when my background is not like most. Though the last 15 years has been solely working with horses, my career didn’t start off with them. I have been a rider my whole life but my first foray into animal assisted work was with dolphins working at the Dolphin Research Center. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea of animal assisted therapy. It was also the first time I was ever intimidated by something. The dolphin I worked with was named Little Bit and he was anything but little and a little wild. But there was something about being with him that no matter how nervous I was swimming with him was absolute freedom. I have felt that same feeling with the horses. When there is conscious awareness of the fact that control is not real, that if I really trust the horse, there is freedom in that as well.
What I didn’t know then, that I am beginning to understand, is the idea of letting go. Not just letting go of an emotion or a past situation but really opening up and letting go of control. There is something that shifts within our soul when we are faced with the notion that we are not in control. That is the feeling of vulnerability. It’s hard not to look at the way a horse or even a dolphin lives in the wild. They are at all times vulnerable to so many outside forces that they cannot control. Yet they don’t experience the same kind of anxiety humans feel as we go through our life. There is real danger in the wild when each moment revolves around life or death survival yet they still live their lives sharing and having relationships. When we truly connect with animals or people three things have to happen; we have to let go, we have to open up to be seen and we have to acknowledge how we really feel. The horses and dolphins or whatever animals I have worked with have tried to teach this. For all of our modern conveniences that keep us safe like our homes, electricity, phones even weapons can all fail. When we work with horses there can be an energy of dominance and control but it isn’t real. If you were to see a fight between the horse and a human, who would win? It’s obvious to most that humans cannot truly control anything but the fear of our vulnerability tries to tell us otherwise. Through that fear we hide and hold so tightly to something that doesn’t exist that we miss what life can really offer us. The hardest part is letting go. But when we let go, release fear and become vulnerable there is freedom in that we no longer have to hide. When we no longer hide then we can be seen.
When a horse looks at us, there is a fear that they may see us for who we really are. They may see that on some level that we fear their power or that we realize how small we are. You know when someone really “sees” you, it feels intimidating. But if we can just acknowledge that we feel naked and there is fear there, then we come into a state of congruence. When we are seen by another we expose our soul to them. We reveal the fact that we are human, imperfect, full of guilt, shame and fear. And we discover that so it everyone else. We reveal that we are not made of super reinforced carbon but we are made of flesh and bone and we can be hurt. There is fear in the feeling that we are not adequate and that if someone sees us for what we truly are that they will learn the truth of that. Brene Brown, renowned author and speaker on vulnerability tells us that “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.” If we are motivated enough by our desire to connect with another living being, then we have to be seen. We have to open up our heart to all the ugliness and beauty that resides within us and let it show. What makes it easier to do that with a horse is that they don’t judge us. When we let what is inside match with what is outside, then they know they can trust us and in return will connect. That connection is unlike anything else. If we can experience that level of connection and vulnerability in the barn, then we have a chance of carrying it out into the real world knowing that there are people who will do the same. Those that judge us for our vulnerabilities lack the courage to be vulnerable themselves.
The picture is of a young girl and her project horse. This horse was an amazing jumper but did not like humans very much. She had thrown every rider and had seriously injured one. But this young girl knew there was something else there and she needed something from the human first. When this young girl brought the mare home, she began just spending time with her loose in the arena. She just spent time with the mare with no expectations talking to her and connecting with her. This went on for quite a while before she even got on. But when the girl got on the first time she admitted to the mare that she was afraid. Not of the mare hurting her but she was afraid that she was not a good enough rider. There was a shift that happened in that minute. The mare was able to see the girl and all her vulnerabilities and in return the mare gave her trust and allowed her to see how loving she really could be. We were doing a photo shoot for the yoga book and I noticed that the girl was just walking the mare around reading a book. I asked her about the mare and while she told me the story the mare softened even more. So we asked her to demonstrate her favorite pose and she did but this time she let go of the reins and let the mare walk. There was nothing but complete mutual trust in that photo. They allowed us to see them being vulnerable together.
When people ask me why I do what I do, I still have a hard time putting into words the deep level of trust and connection that is possible when we work with horses and other animals. But I do know that it starts with letting go of my tight grip on control. Because experience tells me that when I let go of my fear and trust, that’s when the really amazing things happen and the fear of the unknown goes away. I know it has an element of opening up and being vulnerable because that is the only state in which a true exchange and connection can happen. Experience tells me that when connection happens on that level it “feels” different. And I know that it takes the ability to let others see me for who I am from the inside out. I know this because experience tells me that when I let a horse see me, they let me see them. In that moment, I know that we are all the same.
Blair McKissock MSEd RYT is a speaker and author on experiential and nature based learning. She loves sharing the amazing world of equine assisted learning and therapies through her work at Strides to Success in Plainfield Indiana. You can learn more about coaching, OmHorse mounted yoga sessions and upcoming equine assisted workshops at www.stridestosuccess.org.