As prey animals, horses are highly attuned to their environment. They are able to note discrepancies between how a person presents themselves and what their intentions are. I always like to use the example of an African watering hole we have all seen in a nature documentary where various species are gathered. You might be surprised to see herds of zebra, wildebeest, impala, and other prey animals grazing contently as a pride of lions are napping nearby under a tree. This is because these herds are able to distinguish between a lion that is napping and observing the herds with a lack of interest, and those lions that are becoming more active and coordinating their hunting and stalking behavior.
We as humans are naturally predators, making our relationship with horses rather unique. While they have been domesticated for thousands of years, horses still have innate reflexes that help protect themselves from threats. Anything we do around horses that mimics predatory behavior can cause a horse to flee, disengage, or become agitated. This includes whether or not we are congruent with our behavior and our emotions. For example, if I talk a big game that I am an expert horseman and work with horses all the time, but in reality, I’m terrified of horses and have never spent any time with them, a horse is going to pick up on that immediately. They are going to note my hesitation and fear and perceive that as an indication that there is something threatening in their environment; whether it is myself or another source.
The herd dynamic also serves as a protective mechanism for horses and when we are working directly with a horse, we become part of it’s herd. Being the alpha is taxing and horses like to share that responsibility as much as possible, but only when they trust someone else is calm and confident enough to assume that role. Horses are much more complacent when they recognize their handler is aware of their surroundings, is congruent with their intentions, and displays confidence. In contrast, a horse is going to throw itself into the leader role and take charge when they perceive their handler is nervous, incongruent, or distracted.
In this way, horses are a highly-tuned, nonjudgemental mirror able to reflect how we as individuals present ourself to others. By noting a horse’s body language and behavior, I work with individuals to gain a better understanding on how their emotions and behaviors manifest or are internalized by others. When we pair traditional talk therapy with the interactive biofeedback from a horse, we gain immediate responses and awareness into ourselves and situation.