Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to go on a days course entitled “Introduction to Natural Horsemanship” at Kingdom Horse CIC near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. The course had been arranged by Kingdom Horse CIC and the wonderful Growing Rural Enterprise, who support those in or who want to start in rural enterprise.

The course was led by Ingela Larsson-Smith, an incredible professional horsewoman with an innate ability for Natural Horsemanship. Ingela’s no-nonsense approach quickly became clear but with an injection of humour she came across as a dynamic and motivating teacher (“Leader”). I have put “Leader” there as this is what much of our learning involved in the morning… Learning about horse dynamics.

Now I suppose I should start by saying outright that I am NOT a horsey person. As much as I would love to be, this was a past-time that evaded my youth, primarily because of its expense and also due to a lack of access to any horses! I have a very healthy respect for horses and I would add a mild intimidation of them, due to their size, power and perhaps, I am now realising, their ability to look straight into your soul, know what’s their without a second glance and read you like an open book. I have been horse riding on several occasions throughout my life, mostly in Poland when I was on holiday and when I lived there. I learnt to trot and canter (once) but the lessons were stretched so far apart that there was no continuity. As a result I didn’t get a chance to really build a relationship with any of the horses I worked with, which I can quite clearly see created a massive barrier to any developments I might make in horse riding or with horses. I have always felt that it is essential to create a relationship, a bond with any animal, human or non-human before making strides in any direction for requests or expectations of the other individual. Seems quite logical to me AND respectful.

So I was very interested in the way Ingela started our workshop by telling us about the structure of the herd and the different roles within the herd. I was aware that horse hierarchy is matriarchal but that was as far as it went. Dog dynamics, no problem but horse? As a prey animal they have to operate very differently to the way wild dogs or wolves might. As with any animal they rely on their instincts and senses and I have to say, I see them up at the top of the list when it comes to sensitivity. Many horsemen and women will agree. I’m now toying with the idea that my feelings of unease are some kind of counter-transference with the horse and that I am in fact picking up on the horses unease. This is not impossible but… who knows?

We were told about the Lead, Dominant and Passive horses within the herd and how each role is played and what their goals are. Fascinating and at the end of the day my brain could not stop processing the comparisons and similarities between the herd dynamic and pack dynamics and our own human social dynamics. Very different but the conclusion I came to was simply that, horses and dogs seem to have established dynamics that work for them, their species, their needs and function. Whilst we may be very “developed” or “advanced”, there seems to be quite a mess and hodgepotch of dynamics that well… don’t really work for us humans. We haven’t found that perfect way of working that we can all agree on that keeps everybody happy. Will we ever find such a dynamic?

After a VERY hearty, generous and delicious vegetarian lunch we went to the outdoor arena where for the first time in my life, I saw horses interacting very enthusiastically. It was stupendous. From grooming, whinnying, kicking to chasing we saw it all. And within such a small arena it felt very intense. We were seeing herd dynamics in action.

The activities that we then engaged in took more than a little courage for me to start off with. Walking across the arena boldly through the horses I was acutely aware of how I was feeling and couldn’t help but avoid eye contact. I didn’t want to upset any of the horses even indirectly. And back again… diagonally. Every body had a go and everything went fine. Whilst I wasn’t surprised it went fine, I was still glad to have gotten through it without event.

Later we paired up with a horse of our choosing with whom we were going to work. We’d had the chance to check out some of the horses, observe them in action, their personalities emerging and despite the lack of “Hey who are you? Pleased to meet you. What do you like?” it soon became apparent who was easy going (passive) and who was a little more… shall we say… headstrong (dominant). No names mentioned, ELGAR! I chose Charlie, a relatively easy going chap although a little reserved. He wasn’t 100% certain about trusting me and the same went for me so I guess we were even.  We worked together over a series of activities replicating the behaviour we had seen between the horses – swishing the halter rope end gently over the back of the horse, around their legs and back legs similar to the way the horses do with their tails. Charlie was not against this although a little reticent. Slowly through our activities, Charlie became more willing and I more trusting. The bond was being built.

We finally moved to getting our horses to move in a certain way using a combination of the activities we’d done and pure intention. This was a fascinating concept for me. I am a believer in the power of intention and energy. It strikes me as completely logical when working with an animal that is able to read miniscule muscle contractions that we ourselves are not aware of and where the luxury of spoken communication is not available. Admittedly, I did feel that time was not on our side and felt a little rushed. I think Charlie picked up on this. We did achieve what we were aiming to do on a few occasions but it wasn’t a case of “Do ‘A’ then ‘B’ and the horse will do ‘C'”. Not at all. This was the start. The first tentative steps and beginning of what could/ could have become a wonderful relationship.

I imagine many of you are wondering, “but what has this got to do with HumAnima? What’s it got to do with counselling? Or AAT with dogs for that matter?”. Good questions. I am a very abstract thinker and like to think outside the box. I have been aware of Natural Horsemanship for a number of years and as a dog trainer, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the principles of Natural Horsemanship could be translated to human-dog interaction/ relationships. I’m still wondering this. There are principles and building blocks in place in Natural Horsemanship that could be applied to human-dog relationships, such as the herd dynamic vs. pack structure. Now whilst I am very much aware of the consternation amongst some dog trainers and behaviourists about the carrying over of wolf pack structure to domestic dog relationships with humans, there are undoubtedly elements of these relationships that we can use as principles or ideas to further out own relationships with our companion dogs and other animals. Also, the initial activities we took part in with the horses to build our relationship with them should go without saying when interacting with unfamiliar animals with whom we are to have a future. You don’t walk up to a complete stranger and say “Marry me. I want your children. I want a future with you.”.

As for the counselling, some of you may have heard of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) or Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP). This is an approach which is a form of Animal Assisted Therapy and works with the clients challenges or issues through their interaction with the horse. Horses have been seen to have particular qualities that make interacting with them whilst in a vulnerable place (emotionally) supportive and comforting but above all else, clients are able to see their own behaviour, energy and its influence through their interaction with the horse and the horses response to them. It can be an extremely powerful approach especially as these animals are willing to offer unconditional positive regard and empathy up front without “payment in advance”. Qualities that are necessary in good therapists!

For the same reasons as before I am curious whether the principles of interaction with horses through EAP/ EFP can be translated or adapted into a structure that can be used with other animals. And if not, whether there are elements of EAP/ EFP that can be benchmarked to apply within other forms of AAT.

At the end of the day I felt happy. Fulfilled. Accomplished and very pleased that I had met some wonderful people but also some amazing horses. I felt a bond with them. I wasn’t afraid but felt calm within. I can see why people love horses so very much.