Strength and Vulnerability: Horses' Super-Power Moves

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“Would you like the horses to come closer?” I asked.

One little boy who had been with us all week at camp reminded us about a story I had told on Monday. He thought it might help the newcomers have a sense of how to get the horses to walk toward us. In the story, I spoke of how an 8-year old girl had been very excited to make her first visit to the ranch.

When she arrived on an afternoon in late spring, the clouds were gathering dark and heavy over the Flatirons and heading East toward the ranch. At the first flash of lightning, we haltered the animals to take them inside. Once safely inside the arena, our doe-eyed pony Chloe and her faithful friend Tommy turned their hindquarters to us and moved away in opposite directions. A nearby horse kicked at the wooden sides of his stall, hard.

“Mom,” she said. “I need to go home right now. I don’t like this storm.”

The girl had been so excited to be with the horses that it had taken a lot of effort to muster those words. Her mother and I huddled, making plans for a rain date. As we talked, we watched out of the corner of our eyes as Chloe and Tommy each did a 180 and moved closer to the girl. The horse in the stall stopped banging and a sense of calm settled over the barn, even as the rain began to fall on the metal roof.

“Wait!” the girl laughed, “I don’t need to go home anymore!” Chloe and Tommy followed her to the round pen, seemingly at ease now that she had spoken her truth.

Horses, you see, are masters of perception.

While their size may be impressive to us, equines are prey animals and by nature quite distrustful of anything that seems discordant or unusual. At the slightest threat, they are ready to react by taking flight, or if that is impossible, to fight or freeze. They are constantly scanning the environment for predatory behavior—not just outwardly aggressive acts but also anything that looks sneaky. Predators often pretend to be doing something else when they are really zeroing in for an attack, but horses are wise to that kind of trick.

That’s probably why equines seem to be especially sensitive to a person who is saying one thing outwardly and another thing under his or her breath. In response to such behavior, horses may act nervous, flighty, or even disinterested. By contrast, when a person shares something personal and raw, horses often feel compelled to approach that person. When individuals let down their guard and are honest with how they are feeling, horses often show signs of a parasympathetic response; they will move in, drop their heads, lick and chew, yawn, or even lay down when people talk openly.

“What are you feeling?” I asked the boys.

The one who had told us about the girl in the storm said somewhat cryptically, “Emotions,” but looking at him I could see love streaming through his soft gaze. I scanned the other boys and could sense that some of them were still feeling intimidated by the size and novelty of the horses.

“It’s completely normal, even smart, to be afraid of horses.” I said. “Why don’t we stand together and ask them to come close, but not too close.”

We talked about where we would like the horses to stop and I showed the boys how to waive their arms to make an energetic barrier. As if on cue, Chance began to inch toward the group of boys. Though he isn’t outgoing in the way Goose is, he is often the first to reach out to more timid people. Chance stopped a few feet away and stood calmly while the boys approached to stroke his neck and shoulder. He wasn’t ticklish at all on this day.

Time and time again, horses remind me of a few truths. It can be hard to say things like:

“I am scared. I want to go home even though I thought I really wanted to be here.”

“I want to get close but I am afraid.”

“I don’t like it when you approach me like that. Please respect my boundaries so I can enjoy being with you.”

Yet, often the hardest and scariest things to say are the ones that bring us the greatest sense of relief. In trusting relationships, when we reveal ourselves we feel closer to others. Since horses are by their nature both incredibly straightforward and vulnerable, they recognize and respond to this kind of behavior in people. But, in hurtful or dysfunctional relationships, that may not always be the case. For those of us who have been hurt before, horses can provide a safe space to find our voice and to experiment with being vulnerable. In response, horses tend not to move away, judge us, or somehow use this against us. Instead, they will often reward us, as Chance was doing, by moving in, lowering his head, and showing them he felt safe with them. For this group of boys, quieting down and feeling emotions in each others’ presence was a step toward greater openness and connection.

I needed a similar kind of courage when my now-husband asked me to marry him on a September day eight years ago. With reluctance, I responded to his great enthusiasm by sharing my concerns, thinking that it would probably drive him away and make me feel all the more distant. But sharing those fears only brought us closer and gave me the sense I needed to know that it was the right decision to make our lives together.

One of the gifts horses offer us is this example of how it’s possible to be both vulnerable and strong. Horses and other large prey animals fear attack from predators, so they seek safety with others. Within the herd, they can let down their guard, but they never stop listening to signals in the environment that tell them who and what they can trust. You can call it horse sense or intuition, but horses must have a good read on others’ moment-by-moment feelings and intentions.

Recently, I was working with a couple whose past experiences had caused them to distrust a lot about each other—they had even begun to doubt whether or not they could experience true love or emotion. As they spoke, the horses slowly circled around them, sometimes standing between them so they couldn’t see one another, as if protecting them and at the same time surrounding them with a palpable sense of love. When the wife said she couldn’t believe that her husband really cared for her, I asked her to look at Goose. The white horse stood taking deep breaths, his head resting on the man’s heart.

“This horse believes his emotions are true. Can you?”

She started to cry, saying, “Yes, I can. I am just afraid to.”

This was the breakthrough that helped unlock her emotions. Now, in this moment, we weren’t arguing over who was telling the truth or whether or not they still loved one another. Instead, we were able to look at what behaviors were destroying their trust. The husband felt seen and heard, and from there, could begin to see the pain and fear his actions were causing.

As for this couple, being vulnerable is just the start: It won’t answer the hard questions or make all of our problems go away, but it is an important step. If we begin by being present and honest with ourselves, we can truly meet others. The amazing thing is that horses are already waiting for us, ready to invite us into a place of openness, connection, and power.

We invite you to come experience this for yourself at one of our upcoming workshops:

Horseback riding lessons in Colorado