Equine Facilitated Human Development and Learning
Artist: Nancy Coyne
When we want to expand our learning through new and innovative types of experiential activities, there are huge benefits to be gained from getting out of our usual environment and partnering up with a horse in a round pen. Interacting with horses takes us to the edge of our awareness and opens us up to new possibilities for our personal growth and development. As a result, in the outside world, we can pursue our purpose and goals with more confidence and conviction, and we can fully engage as empathetic and constructive partners in all our roles and endeavours.
Let’s explore why horses are so instructional, what kinds of activities take place in Equine Facilitated Human Development and Learning (EFHDL), and how it works.
How does it work?
Two different species with much in common
Our human brains are uniquely equipped for us excel cognitively at highly complex functions such as language, retrospection and forward planning. Whilst this gives us a lot of advantages, we often find that the tricky part is relating and interacting with others when we want our ideas to be accepted and implemented – that is, when we seek a partnership. These relational skills come from an older, deeper part of the brain, one that processes the senses, feelings, emotions and memories that arise from our interactions with others and the environment.
That relational part of partnership interactions is the part that horses can help us with, because their brains and bodies are superbly equipped for them to excel at sensing and reading not only the environment, but also the intention, the emotional state and the leadership quality of whomever they interact with. This gives them vital, non-verbal information on who and what they are dealing with, on whether they want the relationship to continue, and if so, what terms can be negotiated. These are attributes that all humans can benefit from learning and continually improving, and horses can show us how to do it by being willing to partner with us, giving us the chance to use and improve this part of the brain.
This capacity for self awareness and relational awareness (known as emotional and social intelligence) is now recognised as an essential life skill for us humans for dealing with the personal, partnership or work challenges we face, and for managing ourselves and / or others when facing situations of increasing complexity or anxiety.
Improving our human herds
As humans we are social animals who need to relate and interact to feel a sense of belonging and to expand our potential. However we tend to get into difficulty as soon as we organise ourselves into structures, groups, organisations and societies because differing wishes, needs, goals and cultural norms must be negotiated. It’s that old relationship thing again…
As herd animals, horses are not that much different in that there is a constant shuffling going on as leadership is tested and the social structure is continually adjusted according to who takes or earns the leadership function at any given moment and how the followers find their personal fit and function in the herd.
The way horses understand, use, and direct their power and how they achieve influence in their relationships as leaders and as followers offers us a meaningful analogy in our own partnership and societal interactions, because their communication and relationships are clearly defined and, importantly, there is no emotional fallout left lingering afterwards (as is often the case with humans) that could contaminate future interactions.
Going into the learning zone
As learners, we humans do best when our curiosity is piqued, and when we’re faced with something that stretches us beyond our existing skills and competencies, such as when we’re invited to explore new terrains and to experiment with options that weren’t previously in our repertoire. We may then question and let go of old and self–limiting patterns or attitudes, or, some new capacity or ability could be revealed that had perhaps been dormant or unrecognised thus far.
Putting one’s self in front of a live, self-expressive horse and freely interacting with his energy and presence in the spirit of forging a partnership – opens both the horse and the human to a relational experience whereby assumptions are tested and mutually respectful boundaries established. The horse shows us who we truly are, by responding to our actual energy and intention, not to an image we may have been trying to project. These are liberating and authentic experiences that can naturally translate into the other places we operate in our life structure.
EFHDL activities safely invite people into this learning zone, this powerful place of possibility, by encouraging a state of openness to new learning and then helping to ensure that the new experiences are positively integrated into life going forward after the sessions are over.
Becoming the best we can be
We all carry mythical and archetypal images in our minds of horses – which is not surprising because, like dogs, horses have accompanied humans on our evolutionary journey since the very beginning. Horses have fed us, carried us, gone to war with us and entertained us in our leisure and competitive pursuits. More recently, we recognised that for as far back as records began, people who had been engaging with horses as partners had been reporting that the experience enriched them in mind, body and spirit.
As Winston Churchill, himself an accomplished horsesman, famously said: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Now, horses are helping us become the best we can be through accelerating our personal and adult development, and also through many other approaches such as therapeutic and rehabilitation applications with recovering victims of serious trauma and by helping us to deal with many other of the setbacks or challenges life can throw in our way. This breakthrough in human potential acceleration is to be accredited to people who are, or have, dedicated their lives to the Mastery of revealing, understanding – and importantly -teaching the real depth and relationship potential underpinning horse:human bond. These include Linda Kohanov, Kathleen Barry Ingram, Pat Parelli, Linda Parelli, Ray Hunt and others in the vaquero lineage, and also to their next generations of proteges and students who are taking and applying their work into the world and developing it with the same dedication.
EFHDL deals with the horse as he really is: a sentient prey animal, one who is naturally friendly to humans unless given cause to be otherwise; whose survival advantage is the power of escape from any perceived danger, change, place or thing that triggers his fear/flight reaction. The horse as a species survives by being able to sense and to flee from danger, but his preference is to express himself fully and to enjoy the company of his partners in a calm and collaborative state.
EFHDL provides humans with
Feedback: Horses mirror the way other people see us – giving us live and reliable bio-feedback on how we show up, how effective we are and highlighting behaviours – some of which we may not yet be aware.
Resonance: They are hard-wired to resonate with us emotionally, providing us with a sense of connection and feeling felt; they can help us to discover and regulate our emotional states, overcome blockages and develop resilience.
Congruence: Horses organize themselves to ensure the herd is safe and is able to handle whatever challenge or crisis it faces. This comes from congruent behaviour and authentic leadership and followership. Horses will partner with us as they will another horse in the herd, but we must demonstrate the same quality of leadership and followership, skills that a are vital assets in our own lives.
Partnerships: As humans we like to think we are masters of communication, yet almost all problems are caused by misunderstandings. In the non-verbal language between horses there is virtually no misunderstanding: signals are clear, unambiguous and intentional. We can learn the essence of this from them and use it to become highly effective in all our partnerships.
Change: Horses can be taught to re-programme their prey-animal tendencies and adapt to new variables presented to them. Compared to us humans, this can happen in a relatively short period of time, but the stages in the process of resistance, vulnerability, and the emotional process is the same. Thus, they can both model personal adaptation and reflect back to us where we are succeeding or struggling in the change process.
What kinds of activities?
EFHDL incorporates a wide range of activities including herd-observation, passive reflection and active collaboration activities. Most activities are ground based, usually at liberty or on-line in an enclosed area sometimes using obstacles. People can work with one or more horses, and sometimes the activities involve working with a group or herd. Some activities can involve riding, driving, grooming and caretaking of the horse. The activities can involve touching the horse or working from a distance if touching is not wanted, and influencing the horse by playing with him at different speeds and by changing directions.
EFHDL activities are purposely designed for the specific needs of individuals or groups. All activities are facilitated by an expert (an Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning Facilitator) who is qualified in the multidisciplinary integration of horsemanship with human growth and development. The facilitator designs, coordinates and interprets the activities with clients, providing a safe, enjoyable and truly memorable experience in which the emphasis is on the value of physical, emotional and spiritual balance in one’s self and in one’s relationships.