The Human/Horse Affinities
We have many things in common with the horse + plenty to share with each other!
The horse offers several ethological characteristics that are very useful in the exploration of themes pertaining to human behaviour. We call these commonalities 'affinities'.
Horses are masters of social consciousness. They live in a very organized and highly functional society made up of family bands and larger herds, where the wellbeing of the group is the prime directive and peace and harmony are the norm. The same beneficent social consciousness that has ensured their successful evolution through the millennia also positions them as excellent candidates for human self-development programs.
A horse is the ultimate aware being. He knows where he is, where everyone else is and what's going on around him. All of his highly-developed senses are at work - watching, listening, smelling, tasting and feeling. He has a connection to the rest of the group - is aware and ready to initiate an action or follow another if needed. This unwavering state of mindfulness is a significant factor in choosing the horse as an ideal species for equine assisted programing and provides opportunity to explore themes pertaining to awareness and group dynamics.
Horses have their own personalities. They can be shy, outgoing, energetic, curious, quiet and even obviously humorous. Like humans, they appreciate being respected and treated as individuals with their own unique preferences and ways. For that reason, the clients who interact with them encounter many opportunities to explore themes about individuality and other analogies related to human personality and 'horsenality'.
Horses process emotions as information, make adjustments and get on with the day-to-day with very little fuss, while they rely extensively on their intuition and instinct. They are congruent at all times - they know how they are feeling and take appropriate, immediate action to relieve stress as required. When they are happy and content, it is easy to see through observation and they will work collectively as well to maintain a calm energy balance in the group. The outcome of various equine assisted group exercises shows these traits quite clearly. They provide an excellent example and many opportunities to explore emotional intelligence and themes like congruence and authenticity for humans.
Horses mostly live in the present moment. They don't worry, feel guilty or regret the past - or ruminate over future plans like we do. They have a way of showing us how to live 'in the moment' and appreciate all of the gifts that nature provides to all of us all of the time, regardless of who we are or where we are going. Their way of being present provides informative analogies when exploring themes like presence and self-regulation.
Horses form peer-peer friendships as we do. Their relationships within the larger group can be complex, but like humans, they appreciate the enrichment and security that a special friend can offer. Often, this can happen very quickly in the horse-human meeting. This provides analogies for tasks that are designed to explore concepts around friendship, reliance on friends for help, etc.
Horses know and respect the unique abilities of each group member and depend on each other to perform those tasks that they do well. At any given time, the group will follow a worthy leader(s). Leadership is gained through proof of ability and necessity and is not, as myth would have it, through demonstration of the most aggression or physical presence. Recent studies have suggested that there may not even be a strict hierarchical mechanism, but rather, trust in the leader that is based on personal relationship. In fact, it is often the most peaceful and benevolent horse who is leading at any given time. As an example, the lead horse in one situation may be the one who happens to be the most observant or externally focused and able to alert the group of present danger. Other horses in the group may lead at another time because they have critical knowledge about routes and the location of various resources such as water, food, minerals, safe shelter, etc.
Often, if a particular horse moves away from the herd, all the others will follow - they know and trust that their herd-member has a good reason for doing so and they go along together. This is leadership/followership by capability/worthiness and trust. Individuals will follow those who have the most capacity to lead at the time, because they are stronger, have some critical knowledge or ability. This is another area where observation and interaction can be of great benefit to humans who are struggling with group dynamics and concepts of leadership. The horse will only willingly follow a worthy leader and can, for any number of reasons, be the leader, which provides many opportunities for exploration.
Horses have a very sophisticated system of body language, gestures and sounds that are known to every member of their society. They are either innate or are taught to them by the group in their formative years. They express their intention clearly, get a result and return to normal, peaceful life as soon as possible. Their straightforward and practical approach to communications offers a meaningful example for humans who are seeking to be more effective communicators.
Horses choose their associations based on experienced behaviour and do not have the capacity to make assumptions about individuals whom they have not yet met. They only know a horse or person as they are presenting to them in the moment - the energy and intention. They don't know a person's story, understand where they are from, or any other details about them, so they are, essentially, judgement-free. They respond to others based on direct interaction with them and they decide in the moment how they want to relate to another horse or human. They provide instant and honest feedback, sometimes referred to as 'a mirror' that can be very revealing, healing and helpful to humans.
Horses have a 'comfort zone' or 'bubble' around them and they take great care to approach each other in a considerate and socially-acceptable way. They also have individual needs in this area. Some are very gregarious and physical and are fine with a high level of contact and energy, while others are more reserved or introverted and would prefer to be approached in a quiet and respectful manner - and they will express that if their space is invaded inappropriately! When meeting EAL horses, visitors learn the 'horse handshake', an analogy that describes the concept quite well and ensures that everyone's personal space is being respected. Horses are skilful about expressing their physical and emotional boundaries. They respond instantly to a situation that makes them uncomfortable, angry or fearful and take steps to address unwanted or inappropriate behaviour from other individuals. They will also support each other individually and collectively to ensure that harmonious balance is maintained within the group at all times. These traits lend themselves very well to exercises that are designed to explore appropriate social interactions, physical/emotional boundaries and effective group dynamics.
Horses are very skilled at optimizing their resources. They rely on individual and collective knowledge when planning territorial routes, locating food, water and shelter and timing daily movement of the group. This is readily apparent even in small, domestic situations. Individuals will also utilize their personal communications skillset and their physicality to gain effective control over resources such as food and water. This trait provides significant opportunities to explore themes pertaining to effective identification and use of available resources.
The wellbeing of the horse depends on the ability to move freely, behave, socialize and express themselves fully within their society. And just like humans, their mental, emotional and physical health is compromised in an environment where they are not free to act, think and express themselves as natural, sentient beings. Exploration of this affinity provides many opportunities to explore our own individuality and our way of being in society.
This brief is a result of my experience in observing horses over a period of approximately 40 years, extensive self-study and experiential work within the context of equine assisted learning programs for approximately five years. I am not a behaviourist, but have a keen interest in the topic. I am happy to correspond with anyone who is seeking to explore further and have provided contact coordinates at the end of the article. This is an original, living document and any resemblance to any published work is not intended. - Terry
That's Why We Bring Humans and Horses Together!
As we welcome people to come and explore all of these horse/human affinities - and probably some that we haven't even become aware of - we maintain an unwavering commitment to a horsekeeping model that ensures that the health and well being of our treasured charges is always top priority. Here, you will find healthy, calm, content beings, much respected and appreciated as unique individuals, who are always ready to meet new people and share their ‘horseness’ with anyone who wants to take a few minutes to be with them.