Scary Horse

August 25, 2009

I realised something pretty powerful and maybe very obvious today, through some young men and a couple of horses. Yep. You heard me. Young men and horses.

I am privileged enough to get to attend Equine Assisted Therapy and Life Skills with some young dudes I am friends with. I know that is a mouthful, and the word “equine” makes me feel funny for some reason. I dont’ like to say it. And the word therapy can also be scary for us guys.  But man! Don’t let those words put you off because this is one powerful thing to take part in!

For those of you that don’t know, Equine Therapy is basically therapy using horses. So the people taking part interact with the horses and the horses, being the incredible creatures they are, do all the work, allowing the human facilitators to merely observe and feedback what is happening in the arena.

The horses are incredibly sensitive and intelligent animals. They pick up on every little feeling, attitude and motive the participants have. And they simply reflect that back through their behaviour. For example, last week when we showed up to the first session, all the guys (15 in total) were a bit nervous, and the horse stood straight up, body completely erect, in front of the group, wide eyed, ears sticking straight up, looking something like a horse crack addict.

The other amazing thing that happens during the group sessions is to see how the participants work with and behave with one another, and the horse, as they try and carry out the tasks they are given. Tasks like, “get that enormous, stubborn horse that stomps and bites, to walk through those two poles…without touching the horse! Yeah! Pretty difficult. But it can be done! How the participants approach the task, and deal with the fellow participants, is also a mirror image of how they interact with the world, and others they regularly come into contact with. And all of this is debriefed and talked about throughout the session, and in the end. Very enlightening! 

I hope I am not boring you, but I assure you words can do it no justice! You have to see it and experience it for yourself. But until then, back to my point: the powerful, yet maybe obvious thing I learned today.

The young men were given the very task I mentioned before, to get the horse to walk in between two poles, without touching it. They were given no advice, no help, and just told to work as a group. At first it was an unorganized chaos. They were all just doing their own thing, making noise, throwing grass, going in their own directions, and they made no grounds with the horse.

But then they regrouped, and made a plan. They assigned a leader. They spoke about how calmer body language would help and also agreed not to make loud noise. They said they must trust each other and they must not be scared of the horse, or at least try not to show it, and in the case that they feel scared, take a step back and allow the braver ones to be in front. They had a plan.

They went back out to conquer the horse with this new strategy. They made a little ground but were still struggling, but this time, they communicated properly, and changed their strategies as they went. They spontaneously decided to all hold hands and surround the horse and walk it into the poles. And after a few minutes, that is exactly what they did.

During the feedback session one of the guys was talking about how he felt vulnerable and scared because some of the group members would teasingly hold his hand and pull him closer to the horses backside, a known dangerous area of a horse. The young man perceptively pointed out that the guys who acted like that, goofing off yet putting others in danger, were actually just scared, and that is why they acted like that. They were scared of the horse, scared of the task, and so they just messed around. Man!

How many young people have I seen do the same in life?! They have all the potential in the world, but do things that look like self sabotage, through negative behaviour patterns. But what a realization to think that negative behavior actually stems out of a fear. A fear they won’t succeed. A fear they will never reach their goal. A fear that the goal is way to high, or far, or big to achieve. A fear that they do not even have a goal.

I know I have done the same thing at certain points in my life. And I know manypeople that have, and still do it as well. But how wonderful is it, when we are in a place of fear, to know that the person beside us is there to hold our hand in support, and not to pull us closer to danger. We have no control over the guy whose hand we are holding, but we have control over our self. Maybe we can’t change the behavior of the person holding our hand, but we can be the supporting hand that he or she may need. Because he or she is probably just scared.