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Horse Sweat & Human Tears; Understanding the Emotional Relationship

There is nothing like setting the stage for self work like having the Rocky Mountains in the background, a bold stormy sky above, a large expansive field, and a horse that wants nothing to do with you.

I became an official Buddhist and, unknowingly, a horse trainer the same year, at age 13. My mother took me to Nepal where I suddenly felt the intensity of the spiritual philosophy behind Buddhism while I, most likely not coincidentally, starting leasing a wild little chestnut mare that was deemed dangerous and out of control (I am also a red head.) As time passed, I found myself in Colorado in horse country torn between my love for horses and my yearning for spiritual practice. What came next was some sort of combining the two and, what else does a life long philosopher and soul seeker do but, become a professional at it. So I became a psychotherapist and an equine facilitated psychotherapist at that.

My specialty is working with horses and people to help build relationship and to do so without any force. I ask students to be willing to ride their horses with no restraints other than a neck rope, but if we are being honest, a small piece of rope around the horse’s neck isn’t going to do much of anything if they decide they want to eat the grass in the next field over or decided that they don’t like you much and you can exit off their back, now. The neck rope is a suggestion, not a demand and I’m sure you can imagine what it is like to sit on a 1000 lb. animal that happens to be the 5th fastest land animal with only a suggestion to keep you there.

We are finding that horses may be more emotionally intelligent than their human partners and I find that, to understand their intelligence, we need to understand their gift to help us find our power and empower them. I asked a group of riding students in a clinic of mine, when did they feel more powerful, when they were riding with bits, whips, and spurs, or when they were riding bareback in a neck rope? After a brief pause, everyone chimed in “with nothing.” But technically, using big bits can force the horse to stop, holding whips means we can beat horses into obedience, and sharp spurs can create reactions from the horse when the horse might not want to react. Why would having more control make you feel less powerful?

There is a Buddhist saying, the bigger your pasture, the more control you have over your horse.  Of course, the Buddha wasn’t talking about horse training, he was talking about the mind, but I ask this question; What really is the difference?

I want to talk about what is behind relationship and what horses have taught me as I indeed think horses are relationship gurus. Where my Buddhist upbringing has left me asking questions, the horses have filled the gap with answers. Buddhists do not seem to do that well in relationship. You would think that living for the benefit of others, practicing a calm mind and open heart, and striving to understand the limitless of the human mind would ripen someone to get along with others, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. My hypothesis; Buddhists don’t have a strong habit of allowing others to influence them. Actually, our whole society struggles with this. We praise the thick skinned people of our society, that ones that don’t take things personally, the ones that are in their heads and don’t emotionally react. The people that do react, that do feel the gravity of emotions, are told their feelings are not valid and are, ironically, also loved so much more by horses.

Our culture has gravitated towards productivity and relationships slow that down. Relationships ask us to do a time out and check in with ourselves and with someone else and check into the connection between the two of us. Buddhism, therapy, and many spiritual practices help us check in with ourself. Some even help us check in with others. Relationship is the ability to check in to the connection between.

When I step into a pen with a horse, I ask that horse two questions; Can I influence you? Can you influence me? If the answers are yes and yes, then we have a relationship, and a very powerful one I may add. Where we as humans get into trouble is not when we are asking our horses and ourselves those two questions, it is when we get fixed on the one; Can I influence you? and we forget that we also need to be influenced. The horse tolerates us telling them what to do, but at a certain point, the horse realizes they don’t have a say in what happens and they stop listening. Unlike humans, at that point, horses don’t tolerate a relationship like that and will voice their opinion by not wanting to be caught, not wanting to be touched, not wanting someone on their back, and not listening to their rider.

Let’s be honest, if someone was telling you what to do and not listening to your requests, how long would it be before your eyes started to dull, your posture slouched, where you shrugged from touch, and you lost sight of contact with that person all together?

We have all been on both ends of this issue. We work on ourselves. We think, if we can smile more, speak softly, maybe we can influence the other person more. The truth is that we as humanity are in a sad state when it comes to relationships. When I ask horses if I can influence them and can they influence me, the response takes about 30 seconds to 30 minutes and the answer is usually yes and yes. When I ask that question to humans, it is often yes to one and no to the other, which creates a dynamic where either I become the controller or I become the controlled.

A true teacher doesn’t ask a student if they can influence them and stops. A true teacher allows the student to influence them back. I have taken horses to be my teachers, each one having a new lesson for me to learn. When I see students take that thinking on, their horses just relax and can rest with their rider. It takes a leap of faith to crawl on the back of a 1000 lb. animal, that happens to be the 5th fastest land animal, has the response of a bucking bronc when in fear, and give up your control so you can pick up your power. But really, is it worth the risk in hopes of changing your life?

About the Author
Kaia Livingstone

Kaia Livingstone


Kaia Livingstone runs a private practice outside of Boulder, Colorado and specialized in EFP, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. She has dedicated her life to the study and discovery of the horse and human bond and strives to help others find their higher potential through their healing process. Kaia's website.

Photo by Kaia Livingstone & wild horses by Karin Biela

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