I have been thinking about this one for a while. It's niggled away at me every time I read it in descriptions of equine-assisted therapy and learning: the statement that the horses who do this work can be metaphors for clients. It sits alongside another statement that I see a lot - that I used myself when I first started doing this work - that horses are mirrors for clients, reflecting their feelings and thoughts. Neither of these statements are completely untrue, and I don't think either of them are intended to diminish the role of the horses that we work with, but they both need to be reconsidered if we are to realise the full potential of this work - and behave ethically towards the horses.
Metaphor is a form of symbolism, in which one thing is another: for example, when we talk about someone being a workhorse (!) or the black sheep of the family, or say that "All the world's a stage". To say that a horse is a metaphor for a client, then, is to say that the client sees the horse and what it does in the session as a person or situation in their own life, or perhaps an aspect of themselves. You might say that when the horse is a metaphor for the client, it's a screen onto which the client projects their own inner state, their stories and interpretations, and their patterns of relating to others.
It's inevitable that clients will project their stuff onto the horses in this work. For one thing, we humans project our stuff onto each other all the time, so it's going to show up when we interact with horses too. Sarah Schlote has written about this - with reference to horse professionals in particular - in her excellent recent blog article. (I'm going to say here that I really, really love Sarah's work. If you are interested in how to work with trauma in humans or horses, and especially in horses and humans together, you should check it out.) For another, horses are powerful symbols in many human cultures, often associated with instinct, intuition, darkness, the body, and physical power, but also with light, rationality and the power of thought - and with the integration of these, represented in the many horse-human hybrids found in mythology, such as the horse-headed goddesses Cybele, Demeter and others, of old Europe, Vishnu's avatar Hayagriva (the god of knowledge and wisdom), and Chiron the centaur who invented medicine. Horses also have a significant role in many spiritual traditions: they carry shamans to the otherworld, they accompany gods and goddesses in many of their adventures, and the winged white mare Al Borak (Lightning) carried the prophet Mohammed to the Seventh Heaven after his death.
So it's not surprising that equine-led growth and healing work can touch rich layers of personal and collective symbolic meaning. And that in itself is not a problem: on the contrary, it's a pathway to deep healing and transformation. What is a problem is when our facilitation approach allows or even encourages clients to see the flesh-and-blood horses in front of them primarily as symbols of people or situations in their own lives, at the expense of seeing the horses as beings with the same feelings and needs - for safety, autonomy, and choice, for example - as we have. This can happen, for example, if facilitators set up activities where horses are labelled as representing someone or something in the client's life and then ask the client to attempt a challenge involving that person or situation. It can also be more subtle, though, if our facilitation allows the horse to remain a metaphor/symbol for the client, a screen for their projections, instead of supporting the client - perhaps over a considerable period of time, depending on the client - to recognise their own projections, and shift to relating to the horse as an equal, autonomous, sentient being.
This is important. It goes to the heart of what equine-led growth and healing is really all about, both ethically and in terms of what it offers clients, because fundamentally, the two are linked. How we work with the horses and what healing we offer clients are the same thing, because all healing is relational: it happens in and through the relationships between horse and client, horse and facilitator, and client and facilitator. The facilitator is there to support the client to explore being-in-relationship with the horse, and to ensure the physical and emotional safety of both the client and the horse in the process.
If the horse remains a metaphor - or worse, an object to be moved around to achieve some symbolic challenge - then the horse is not an equal being. (Ask yourself: would it be ok in talk therapy for a client to see other people in their lives as metaphors?) At the worst end of the spectrum, we see stressed, overwhelmed horses being herded around an arena, doing circuits of a round pen, or being haltered and forced to tolerate having their faces petted, in the name of increasing someone's self-esteem or providing them with emotional support. As I've understood more about how horses actually experience these sorts of activities, looking through a trauma-informed relational neuroscience lens - again, read Sarah Schlote's blog for a good overview - it has become impossible to justify any type of equine-facilitated learning interaction that doesn't start from consent and emotional as well as physical safety for the horses as well as the humans.
And, if the horse remains a metaphor, then the client never gets to experience and integrate at the bodily, emotional, mental and soul level, what being-in-relationship with ourselves, other beings, and the world, feels like, and the true power of this work is missed.
I've written elsewhere about healing through relationship, and about the practice of "right relationship" as crucial to both healing from trauma and personal growth, so I won't cover those topics again here. What I want to do instead is give an example that I hope illustrates what we lose when we see horses as metaphors, mirrors, or therapeutic tools.
One of my clients (who has very kindly given permission for me to share this story here) was struggling to find a way of being at ease with knowing that a person she experienced as intrusive had just moved into a house very near her - uncomfortably close. Her question for exploration in the session was how she could live with it and not have worry and frustration about the situation take over her life. She was working with Lulu in our square corral, and it took a little time at the start for her to come to a deeply-felt sense of her question. While she did, Lulu waited, eyes closed, in the corner of the corral. But when she voiced her question, connected to the strength of her longing for ease with the situation, Lulu opened her eyes, and began a slow, deliberate walk: down one side of the corral, turning right and continuing to the exact middle of the next side, then turning right again and walking straight to where the client was standing in the centre. There, Lulu paused, gently nosed the client back a foot or so, continued to the far side, turned right, walked to the corner, turned right again, parked exactly where she'd started, and then lay down. My client sat down where she was - for her, it was a powerful modelling and experience of relaxation and peace. It looked like this:
So, how do we understand what happened? You could see it as random behaviour that happens to be a great metaphor for softly but firmly claiming your space, setting your boundaries, and then relaxing and getting on with your own life. But why at just that moment? And never before or since? What if, instead, it's an intentional piece of communication on Lulu's part, using spatial symbolism because horses, as Temple Grandin has taught us, think in pictures? Bluntly, is the horse a metaphor, or is she using visual metaphor to communicate?
It's one example. But I've had so many of these moments in my own practice - and heard other practitioners give similar examples - that I have little doubt that the horses understand our needs, longings, and questions with considerable sophistication, and that when they are empowered to do so, they will offer not just compassion, and opportunities to become aware of our wounds, our patterns and our protections, but also insights into our struggles, and suggestions about how we can heal and grow.
Coming to really know this - whether I can completely explain it or not - has meant that over the last few years I've dropped from my practice any types of sessions that don't enable the horses genuinely to consent (or not), and to express themselves freely. It's also meant that I've prioritised deepening my facilitation skills in the direction of supporting exploration, in the moment, of the relationship between the horse and the client as equal beings - tracking, soothing, and disentangling that relationship in its physical, mental, emotional and soul dimensions. Getting better at doing this will be a lifelong project, but that's the only way to do the work, the horses, and ourselves, justice.