by Garet Bedrosian
LCSW, CIRT, CBT, CET
I have always been intrigued with horses. As a child I would watch western movies and fantasize about having adventures with my faithful equine companion. We would be inseparable. I imagined the two of us riding into perilous situations but always emerging triumphant and ever more committed to one another. It was the perfect relationship.
My love affair with horses has never waned. I have been riding for years and have had my own horses and even a ranch at one point. My latest adventure with horses has been in my work with couples and individuals interested in healing relationship wounds.
Many people are intimidated by horses because they are so large but it is important to know that they are prey animals with exquisitely honed survival instincts. Their senses are attuned to signs of danger and their ‘scary’ behaviors are often reactions to feeling unsafe. They feel, smell and see subtle energetic shifts which trigger their alarm systems and their defensive reactions which are to either run or hide from their predators.
I work with people whose internal alarm systems are stuck. That chronic high alert state has caused them relational challenges. They often loose that loving feeling, see their partners as the enemy or feel lost and do not know how to find what they are seeking. Having an intimate relationship with someone in self-protect mode is impossible.
The most basic problem is that their ‘horse sense’ is telling them that they are in emotional danger so their animal brains are looking for ways to keep them safe. Most of time this is an unconscious reaction to something in the present that triggered a past wound but rather than looking inside for the danger they look outside themselves. They then try to get someone else to change in an attempt feel safe again. This just starts the reactive merry-go-round until they are dizzy and do not know how it began and how to stop it.
I have found that one of the biggest obstacles to relational healing is the inability to step back and become aware of those internal triggers and what you might be doing to contribute to the difficulties. It’s much easier to see what your partner is doing and to tell them all about it. (And, by the way, if they would just do it your way everything would be ok.)
I encourage people to work with the horses because it is the least threatening way to learn about relational energy. Horses are divine mirrors and give immediate feedback. They either want the connection or they do not and it is not personal. It is all about safety.
If we want a relationship with a horse we must become internally quiet and attuned. Horses are herd animals and see relationships as partnerships. The horse that possesses the most confidence, groundedness and clarity emerges as the leader. The leader is entrusted with the herd’s safety because they are most attuned to the environment and the herd. If we are anxious, angry, scared or self-protective the horse will sense it and feel scared and want to take charge. They do not care about the story behind those emotions. They don’t have time to care. They just need to find safety and if you are unsettled it is apparently not with you. Sound familiar?
The only way to get a horse to trust you is to be vulnerable. To lead with your heart and your kind, gentle, soothing, reassuring emotions. If your goal is to have a happy, healthy relationship with a horse or a partner you need to do the same. Lead with love. No matter what your partner does or doesn’t do if you lead with love and curiosity you will find your way to connection, understanding and joy. There is nothing more rewarding.
After a session with the horses a couple had this to say, “At one point we had to stop, step back and get into sync with one another. We need to do that with one another outside the arena. I bet it would work.” The husband said, “Sometimes in therapy I have felt beat up but the horse isn’t beating me up. He’s just saying, hey man tell me what you want. His wife said to him, “Now I know what you must feel like.”
Because of their equus experience they felt more hopeful about the relationship. They gained insight into how they each contributed to the struggles and felt more empowered and willing to change their own relational energy so they could create the relationship they wanted.
My childhood instincts were true. Horses do make the perfect relationship partners because they are present, honest and reliable. You don’t have to guess where you stand with them. Their nonverbal communication is quite clear. They will be your faithful companion or they will not.
Take a lesson from our Equine Partners:
* If you want to feel safe you need to be safe. (Learn to calm your inner pony.)
* If your partner is being reactive (running or hiding) then ask yourself what you might have done to scare them and what you need to do to make them feel safe again. (Remember horses love sugar.)
* Learn about the wild west that lives inside of you so that you can communicate clearly and lovingly what you need to feel safe. (Smoke signals do not work)
* Appreciate your partner for everything and anything they do on this adventure.
(Give them a big horse hug. Wrap your arms around their neck with your head against their head and squeeze tight.)