Horses are, by nature, herd animals. They form relationships and connections based on mutual need and survival in the wild. To observe a wild horse is to get a glimpse into a community. Domesticated horses pastured together will demonstrate many of the same dynamics as wild horses. Not all horses get along with each other. Just like humans, horses have their likes and dislikes, and just like us, they can have good and bad days. Horses, as much as humans, have their unique characteristics and temperaments. Their autonomic nervous systems, just like ours, inform and predict patterns of behavior and responses. Not all horses are a good match for all humans. For example, a high-strung tense horse may become tenser when connecting with a highly anxious person. Horses provide a portal into not only their nervous system, but ours. An observer can easily see horses’ ability to be highly tuned to the world around them. Unlike humans, horses do not hold on to preconceived notions of each other. When regulated and grounded, the same highly anxious human will be accepted by that same tense horse once the human is regulated.

This provides an opportunity for self-development and growth. The two-way street of connection encourages insight and reflection from the human participant. The horse and human ask the same questions of each other and the world around them. The questions are: Am I safe? Are you safe? Is the environment around us safe? These same questions are echoed in the Polyvagal Theory and Dr. Porges’ definition of neuoroception.

Horses teach us about adaptability and flexibility. In a moment they can go from fight or flight to resting. They seem to move seamlessly from an activated state to a state of regulation. There is so much to learn from them about letting go of anxiety and moving to a state of rest.

Over the years, the answer to the question of “why incorporate horses into therapy?” has changed. You can still find evidence of the old perspective that horses are mirrors on long-abandoned websites, but as the field of animal-assisted therapy evolved so has an awareness of the central role of relationship and connection to both human and animal well-being. When working with horses, we are reminded that what we bring to a relationship is influenced by our nervous system and the nervous systems of others. To connect with others, we need to embody a state that encourages and supports calmness. Horses ask that we are in the present moment with them, communicating messages of safety. There is so much more to say, but to hear it all, please tune in to our webinars.