How horses help humans advance their personal development

Horses were a big part of my upbringing. I guess I was one of those lucky little girls who didn’t just read about them in fairy tales but actually got to go out and ride. I was by no means a “formally” trained horse handler, however, and there were no special boots or pants that I wore—quite the opposite really. These were nitty-gritty outings where none of that mattered.

Looking back, those days at the ranch were a nice balance of work and play where sometimes it was hard to tell one from the other. At seven years old, cleaning the wooden stalls were sometimes competitions between my sister and I but they often morphed into chat sessions, or daydreaming about what our lives would be like when we grew up. Sometimes we pampered the horses, with lengthy brushings and braiding of their manes and tails. We adorned them with wildflowers or feathers and took pride in caring for them. In some ways they were our best friends, witnesses to our secrets and dreams, the ones who carried us across the countryside and ran boundlessly at thrilling speeds we couldn’t attain on our own.

The “horse knowledge” I received was passed on by family members, mainly by way of my mother, grandfather and uncle, who were all part of the group that gathered early on Saturday mornings to saddle up and ride through West Sonoma County’s orchards. A quarter horse named Leo quickly captured my heart, with his kind brown eyes, muscular stature and calm, confident demeanor.
A picnic-style lunch was packed, and we brought the dogs along, too. While I didn’t realize it at the time, the memories I was making would last a lifetime and the lessons that I learned about relating with horses would later pop up in other situations. Respect, trust, discipline, freedom and courage are a few key concepts that come to mind when I think about those days at the ranch, and the horses were some of my most impressionable teachers.

Horses as Healers
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the term Equine Guided Education (EGE), coined by Ariana Strozzi Mazzucchi, a pioneer in the field of Equine Education and the author of books, “Horse Sense for the Leader Within” and “Equine Guided Education.” Strozzi Mazzucchi has been practicing EGE since 1989 and has hosted countless workshops and classes and even developed an EGE certification program at Skyhorse Ranch in Valley Ford. Her programs aim to provide educational coaching and therapeutic models that encourage effective relationship, communication, coordination and social interactions skills for individuals and/or groups.

EGE, Equine Experiential Learning and a number of other names and acronyms describe the work done with horses that has proven to be a beneficial modality for business executives, leaders, therapists, coaches, teachers, at-risk youth and many others. The practices or programs may or may not ever include mounting a horse. Equine-assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) are a few common names for therapy with horses that are led by licensed clinicians.

“It can be complicated, the term ‘horse therapy,’ and it’s commonly used when it shouldn’t be,” said Maxine Freitas, founder and director of Equi-Ed, a therapeutic riding organization based in Santa Rosa. Freitas is also an Equine Science instructor for Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC). Therapeutic riding is an entirely different realm but yet another way that individuals can benefit from interactions with horses.

Humans allowing horses to be the guide on a path of self-discovery has been going on unofficially for centuries, but clarification, research and communication about the critical role that horses play in the process is emerging in new ways. As horses become less of a common experience than they have been at other points in history, the work done with them is becoming not only more appreciated but also scientifically founded.

“One hundred years ago horses used to be everywhere and were part of the day, and they helped humans operate with common sense and an expanded awareness of the natural word,” said Strozzi Mazzucchi, who also pointed out that humans and horses have been working together since the earliest of times.

“It’s a little bit like naming organic food ‘organic,’” explained Christy Erickson, a local EGE practitioner. What Erickson meant was that although organic food has always existed, it was not previously named and defined the way it is today. Erickson gained her certification in EGE from SkyHorse Ranch and primarily uses EGE work during Executive Coaching and Leadership Development sessions.

After working internationally and nationally with clients, Erickson began looking for ways to expand her practice and to get business executives out of the office and into the outdoors. Creating new, mutually beneficial relationships in the workplace is a goal of many of her clients and a common reoccurring theme, and often the interpersonal work that it takes to understand the key issues of a situation is reached rapidly with horses as the guides.

Strozzi Mazzucchi has also found this to be true. “With horses around, I can get to a core topic with someone in minutes, what might take six months otherwise.”

How it Works
Personal development aided by horses can come in many guises. Depending on the individual or group dynamic, personality and beliefs, what might work for one may not be the ticket for another. According to the professionals, just being in the presence of horses can be an inspiring and grounding experience that has the potential to perpetuate introspection while rejuvenating the spirit.

“They are energetic wizards that trust what they feel,” explained Strozzi Mazzucchi, who also likes to acknowledge the “universal appeal” of horses. The size, strength and beauty of horses thundering across a wide open plain is enough to quicken the pulse and stir up a wide range
of deeply imbedded emotions.

“Underneath everything that we do is the goal of getting people reconnected to the natural world,” said Strozzi Mazzucchi, who will maintain a satellite location of SkyHorse Ranch in Valley Ford but is expanding operations along the Mendocino Coast.

Basically, horses have been known to respond to humans favorably when the individual is being real and authentic or when a person’s body language matches his or her internal emotional landscape. “Seven percent of communication is based on words; the rest is non-verbal,” said Strozzi Mazzucchi. This could be where leaders fall short of gaining the trust they need from others. Humans have been socialized to “fake it till they make it,” and to put up a lot of protection and hide feelings.

“This makes people nervous, and it makes horses nervous too,” explained Strozzi Mazzucchi. “Our social instincts are so similar; if a human is around when a horse is born, it will think you are part of the herd.”

Offering an Issue
Individuals ready and willing may feel comfortable verbalizing an issue or simply setting an intention during a session with an EGE practitioner and a horse or horses. This is where non-verbal and experiential influence takes hold and the concept becomes difficult to put into words. Explaining the interaction is hard, even for a writer. The experience, however, can be enlightening and profound, resonating with the human subject in a unique way.

Never one to shy away from a personal exploration, I put my own relationship and family issues to the test with the help of local EGE practitioners, Erickson and her partner, Leslie Anne Webb, founders of Equine Energy Exchange (E3). Operating out of Jim Lerum’s ranch, Sweetwater Shires, located on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where the herd dynamics of 20 Shires (a horse breed often confused with the large Clydesdale) is in and of itself one of those awe-inspiring moments. Just being around these gentle giants can be a good reminder of where humans might stand in the scheme of the natural world. The feeling is similar to gazing out at the wide ocean or looking up at a towering redwood tree: feeling small in a good way.

I think many of us have heard the analogy of taking a step back and trying to view our lives or difficult situations as a movie reel or a play. I’ve participated in this detachment mind game and, in a sense, I feel like the horses were on a similar track in terms of their teaching method. What the horses did for me that day in pasture was become actors in the play of my chosen situation. Horses took on the various roles of family members, and my reactions and behavioral responses became obvious to me in new ways that were experiential and hands-on—unlike the mind-game reel. I also gained quick clarity or insight as to how I might alter my behavior in the situation, and I had the opportunity to try on a new behavior and experience the different reaction from the horse.

“Humans can take in feedback from a horse. We innately know that they are non-judgmental, generous and patient,” said Strozzi Mazzucchi.

Giving Back
But the session with Erickson and Webb didn’t end with my ah-ha moments, and I was invited to give back to the horse for his non-verbal attention to my issue. Webb, who specializes in energy work with horses, showed me how to locate tension spots on the horse. Using my human hands, brain and heart, I was able to help him release a little stress by applying gentle pressure to certain areas of his body while watching for particular physical responses.

“It closes the circle with the horse,” said Erickson, who went on to explain, “In leadership there can be this feeling of taking, and a lot of leaders might think they are relating to others but find out that they really aren’t. Saying ‘thank you,’ offering acknowledgement, or sharing what we learn can be other forms of completing the communication loop and giving back.”

Personally for me, this was a very moving part of the process that left me filled with a sense of gratitude, purpose, connection and completeness. Webb summed it up nicely: “Humans get so much out of giving,” and, in essence, I think this is what both horses and humans have in common. SD