Feed on

pip-headThere she is standing tall and strong on the stone-strewn sand of the paddock but with a spring in her stance, much like an athlete poised on the balls of her feet, ready to surge forward whenever need or fancy might spur her to do so. Her liver-chestnut coat is sleek and shining dark along the outlines of her newly developed muscular contours. The eyes, they are bright and alert proclaiming health and vitality after one of the most difficult periods she and I have shared during the few years that we have been together. The transition to our new tough surroundings has largely been accomplished, the present holds promise and I rejoice, mindful of how this healthy horse has helped me by allowing me to help her. The circle is complete.


Horses helping humans

In recent months I have encountered a pronounced presence of social media posts featuring a growing number of ventures dedicated to the use of horses to help humans in the name of equine assisted therapy or something similar. The conditions which those horses have had to contend with in their interaction with the humans relying on their assistance ranges from the physical to the psychological and combinations of both. In some cases a horse has even been brought into the presence of their dying human ostensibly to wish the latter farewell.

Many of the stories that emerge from encounters such as these are deeply moving. Some have become the stuff of highly popular books and films. In some cases there is evidence that not only the human has benefitted, so too has the horse, although in many cases that was not the original goal.


Doubts and misgivings

Yet I must confess that I entertain huge doubts and misgivings when considering humans’ use of horses to address human deficiencies, especially where such use is accompanied by the use of instruments of force or the threat of it, as in the case of many riding-for-the-disabled facilities. However, even in a “natural horsemanship” yard such, as ours, where bitless and barefoot is the norm, one is not entirely screened off from the source of such doubts and misgivings.

Horses being prepared for clients at the riding-for-the-disabled centre in Athens

Horses being prepared for clients at the riding-for-the-disabled centre in Athens

By way of example, Darta, a gelding at our livery yard who is well into his twenties and who had until quite recently been an emaciated sufferer of chronic diarrhoea, has just been given away to be used in a riding-for-the-disabled programme. He is due to be shipped out in the near future. Several months ago Vicki and I bought a special feed for him to which we added slippery elm, both at our own expense. This we – mainly Vicki – fed him twice a day, recently reducing the frequency to once a day because of the progress he has made. Darta’s diarrhoea is greatly diminished and he has put on weight, filling out beautifully.

Upon our return to the yard yesterday following a family visit, we discovered that Darta’s feed is finished and there were no plans to do anything about it. Yet he will soon be used for work which, based on what we have seen during visits to riding-for-the-disabled facilities in the past, could be quite strenuous, although the new owner has undertaken to match his workload to his condition. We have also heard that the new owner has a limited budget in spite of her good intentions. This is a problem which seems to be almost endemic to riding-for-the-disabled facilities. Will Darta pay a price for the dubious privilege of being used to help humans with health issues? Thankfully, initial indications are that he will not and Vicki and I have decided to buy another bag of feed for him.


Dysfunctional and maladjusted

In many cases where horses are used to help humans, the latter are to some or other extent dysfunctional or maladjusted due to inherent or acquired deficiencies. When we humans use horses to address such deficiencies we are not only imposing on them the baggage which ostensibly balanced – physically, mentally and emotionally – individuals (the facilitators) usually carry with them but also the acute demands which such deficiencies can make on them. I am tempted to question whether this is something an enlightened human would want to do to a horse.

The chaos of trauma which is all too often the norm in our dealings with the horse

Of course, it does not stop there. In my limited experience there are very few horses that I have encountered in human captivity which are themselves not dysfunctional or maladjusted due to inherent but especially acquired deficiencies. Trauma and its debilitating effects sometimes seem to be the norm in the horses we humans keep in captivity. When this is taken into account, I find myself tempted to ask whether we humans should not be devoting ourselves to helping horses rather than using them to help us, if for no other reason than that they would appear to need such assistance more than we do.


Education, learning and coaching

In the last few decades we have also witnessed the emergence and rapid spread of humans’ use of horses for human education, learning and coaching programmes which often carry a hefty price tag, whether for personal and/or professional development. Some examples of this include Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling’s “Genuine Leadership: A Path to Comprehensive Harmony in Life” (formerly “European Horse Meditation”), Linda Kohanov’s global Eponaquest network, the European Association for Horse Assisted Education headed by Gerhard and Karin Krebs, Sandra Wallin’s “Equine Guided Development” programmes, and the equine-facilitated learning and coaching projects undertaken by the likes of Kathy Pike and others.

Linda Kohanov interacting with a traumatised horse

While it is true that we have much to learn from and through horses – I speak from experience – and personal development is perhaps the single most important aspect of this, I must confess to having serious doubts about any programme which insists on little more than humans performing physical exercises on the back of a horse, whether Tai Chi, yoga or anything similar. In my experience such exercises can greatly help humans undergo the physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual (as in consciousness and awareness raising rather than pie in the sky) development which can lead to mutually beneficial relationships between them and horses. Indeed, they can even do so in the absence of the horse. Unless I am missing something – and I am open to being shown that I am – I fail to see why horses should both literally and figuratively be burdened with such exercises and the humans who perform them.

Tai Chi on horseback before employing the principles while riding

Tai Chi on horseback before employing the principles while riding

Perhaps the form of equine assisted or facilitated education, learning, coaching, development or whatever which could be branded as the most insidious, if we are inclined to do so, lies in humans’ use of horses for crass money-making purposes in the business sector. The aim is to make it possible for business managers to acquire the skills required to boost private profit by developing and employing skills, techniques and approaches which we can learn from the horse in their interaction with their subordinates. I must confess that it is with great difficulty that I resist the temptation to condemn such practices as an example of the cynical abuse of horses.


What is in it for the horse?

Ultimately, this is the question that I am left with when I consider humans’ use of horses to address human deficiencies (including their inability to work as a team to make money for the business in which they are employed). What is in it for the horse? Is there any way in which horses can benefit from humans’ use of horses to benefit humans?

There was a time when I would have been more inclined to answer this question offhand in the negative. Then I read Linda Kohanov’s book, The Tao of Equus, and I realised from the examples which she cites that horses can benefit from humans’ use of them for human ends. Since then I have encountered anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is not an exception. Then again, it is not the norm either.

Indeed, from what I have heard from friends, acquaintances and others, it would appear that horses stand to benefit but probably only in certain conditions. For instance, friends in Australia have revealed that both horses and humans have benefitted where the two species have been afforded an opportunity to interact with each other voluntarily. In some cases a horse has actually sensed something in the human which required healing, something to which it could relate so closely, that it was persuaded to make their own way to that human and spend time with them in a way that was deeply moving and, as such, healing.


Human helps horse helps human…

When I review my own experiences with horses since 2007, when the seeds of the healing process of change that I am still experiencing were first sown, I realise that what has made it possible has been something utterly contrary to any use of horses on my part. Indeed, the opposite is true. Which is not to say that I stopped using horses for my own benefit from one day to the next, but rather that I truly began to benefit in ways that I could not have imagined until I consciously started to put the horse first, not to the extent that I would so undermine my own position as to be of no use to the horse, but as far as I could to ensure that our own horses are healthy, content and self-assured.

Pip's ribs showing clearly while on a walk towards the end of June

Pip’s ribs showing clearly while on a walk towards the end of June

To this extent, a number of trends are discernible in my self-development which I owe to the horse and in this sense have benefitted from my equine friends. I list some of them here:

  1. to be able to meet the horses on a level playing field, as it were, I needed to move into the state in which they live but into which I had never ventured before, namely, the here and now, hence without any baggage, without any reasoning, without any regrets and without any fears. The more I manage to do this now, the more readily I am able to share space and time with our horses as a friend and carer, and the calmer and more content I feel;
  2. in the here and now, the more I seek to become what I am doing, the more easily the now transforms into being and the more readily I am able to connect to our horses energetically, thereby rendering it utterly unnecessary (if it ever was) to be the mean little bossy bastard our horses have known me to be in the past (and on the odd embarrassing occasion still do, unfortunately);
  3. the more I help our horses (especially with injuries), the closer our bond becomes and the more responsive and trusting they and I become;
  4. the less I seek to relate to our horses as a horse, the more readily they choose to interact with me as a trustworthy human;
  5. the more our horses challenge me to find the means within myself to interact with them in the absence of force (or pressure) or the threat of force (pressure), the more liberated I feel;
  6. the less I expect of our horses, the more they give and, by doing so, teach me to give of myself rather than seek to receive. In the absence of any need to receive, there is contentment;
  7. similarly, the less I demand of our horses, the more they give of themselves;
  8. the more joy I am capable of sharing with our horses, the more they seek my company and the more responsive they become. I realise that true leadership lies not in leading but in becoming the kind of human a horse seeks to be with.
Pip strong, healthy and confident during her daily feed

Pip strong, healthy and confident during her daily feed

Ultimately, what I have learned in relation to horses helping humans is that the starting point lies within us and not the horse. The more I help my horse, Pip, the more she seems to help me and the more she helps me, the more I am capable of helping her and the…. And so it goes until we are both caught up in a cycle of ongoing mutual enrichment which becomes deeper and more rewarding the more intensely it occurs.


Render unto Caesar…

If I put my mind to it, I am sure that I could come up with other self-development trends which are discernible in my interaction with our and other horses. Again though, I wish to emphasis as strongly as I can, that the benefits which I have derived from my interaction with those horses have not transformed me into a perfect human being. I still stuff up, far too often for my liking and the horses are unsparing in showing me very graphically when I do. What is hugely inspiring now, though, is to be aware of the changes that I am experiencing compared with where I was when I set out.

Perhaps some of the self-development trends which I have mentioned could form the basis for the extrapolation of guidelines for programmes designed to help horses help humans. I have no idea whether this is either possible or desirable.

What I do know is that there are huge temptations along the way, which have the capacity to undermine the entire process and they all have to do with the pursuit of self, whether it takes the form of money, power, status or anything else. For this reason I have decided that, while I am content to accept money in return for services directly rendered to another human, such as the sale of my books, I will no longer accept payment for anything which I do that is of direct benefit to a horse, such as performing Equine Touch. This will be my gift to the horses for what they have given me. To paraphrase a well-known saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but render unto the horse what belongs to a horse if they are to be a horse”!

Pip during our early morning walk overlooking the valley where she lives

Pip during our early morning walk overlooking the valley where she lives


Horses and Humans on Facebook

May I remind you that we now have a Horses and Humans group on Facebook. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so on this blog or on the the Horses and Humans Facebook group page. All new posts will feature on that page along with additional content posted by any of our members. Please feel free to join us at:


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Equine Touch

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2 Responses to “Human Helps Horse Helps Human Helps…”

  1. Patrick says:

    hullo Andrew thank you for the news from Spain, It is pleasing to know your horses thrive in spain. Your latest blog post covers many aspects….something not connected to your lines of thought is my perception that an intelligent and grounded person must, yes must, become wiser with age……therefore human simply getting old gives a better chance to the horse…….In amongst your stuff I read that you do not intend to make money out of horses…….yes yes yes…..way to go. Meantime these few days in Scotland we are enjoying an Indian summer out and about with the horses….cheerio meantime from Patrick

  2. Another interesting article from you, Andrew, and I wish I had time to interact more with the various sites and pages of this sort. However, here is a quick comment regarding money and horses.
    Historically, money and horses have been inextricably linked. In addition only royal personages or people of great learning or other significance and usually associated with the court were allowed to possess horses. Gypsy belief and folklore are good illustrations of how horses represent money, success and prestige, or the lack of it, according to how they show up in dreams. There are many more ancient, cultural, ethnic and religious examples of horses being connected with deity, wisdom and riches, especially gold and the sun. Horses are precious and prestigious, of that there is no doubt, however callously misused they have been over time. Additionally the right to ride doesn’t include the horse’s perspective and, interestingly, is now becoming hotly debated.
    As to making money from horses in one form or another I believe that it falls largely into two categories as you indicate; one for the good of the person and the other for the perceived good of the horse. Although I’m also very aware that some under the umbrella of the good of the horse are far more about the authority of the person over the horse. However, teaching people to be present and agenda-free with horses at liberty is, in my opinion, invaluable for the person and a blessed gift to the horse. I also believe that inspiring people to realise their peaceful potential, or more correctly to realise that their potential for peaceful communication, along with the power of peace and belonging, is also invaluable. Teaching people to be leaders without followers and to be content in the present without intention in the presence of a horse is music to a horse’s energy and soul. To allow horses to benefit from the trusting and beautiful people wishing to learn a way to do this is a gift to the horse. So I charge for that in order to be able to offer it as a contribution to the horse as well as to the person.
    My upcoming book on How to Create Real Heart-Based Relationship with Horses is nearly finished and I will be selling it with joy! But any work I undertake for animal charities is free and I feel good with that too. It is true that horses are increasingly used as dumping grounds for emotional baggage and I’m not happy about that. As an energy psychologist I’m trained to guide the client through trauma, to deep peaceful resolution, with sophisticated and effective processes, routed in leading edge emerging science. That can work for horses too but sadly it’s not necessarily the norm in other practices.
    So I agree, the charging question poses a dilemma for people wanting to spend their waking hours in pursuit of searching for and delivering understanding and honour to the horse, if only in perpetually finding that the more we know the more there is to know – and in my case to balance that with the no-agenda personal peace state – but even trainee earth angels have to eat!