Healing with Horses
Alyssa Aubrey is the Founder and Program Director of Medicine Horse Ranch, a 1,000 acre horse, cattle and sheep facility in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco. She specializes in experiential learning and human development through working with horses. She is a certified Equine-Guided Educator. Below is an interview about her work with horses and how it can affect people on a deep personal level.
What is Equine Guided Learning and what would one expect to happen at the first horse interaction at a ranch like yours?
Equine Guided Learning incorporates horses into human self-development. The word “guide” means one who takes another into unexplored territory. In my EGL work, the horse has the primary role and is doing much more than assisting or facilitating; the horse is the one being listened to for authentic feedback. This creates a relational dynamic between the horse and the facilitator and also the horse and the participant/student/client. Even in the more traditional vocation of horsemanship, masterful horsemen and horsewomen consider the horses behavior and mood while training and/or riding and will make adjustments in consideration of the horse’s kinesthetic feedback. Naming horse as guide calls forth a level of respect, distinct from the horse being a prop or a tool that is being used. This distinction is one of the more important standards/codes of ethics set forth in Equine Guided Learning.
The role of the human facilitator is to create and hold a safe learning space or container allowing the person being coached to have personal reflections that encourage learning to happen. The human coach is also holding safety as a primary and fundamental consideration while the participant is interacting with the horse. Often emotional changes occur as the body is prompted to let go of old stories and habits which impede the new emerging growth. The client may be coming to an Equine Guided Learning group program or private coaching session with one or more topics or issues relevant to making changes in their lives.
Common EGL topics may include: some kind of transition such as a marriage ending or job loss, a desire to sharpen or focus a goal, create a vision for a meaningful future, nourish creativity, build self-confidence, develop trust, improve communication skills (verbal and non-verbal), practice setting healthy boundaries.
Being on land like ours (1,000 acres in West Marin), around animals and in nature opens human consciousness and allows our instinctive connection to the natural world to open and inform us, restoring our spirit and our hope for the world we live in.
Why is it that interacting with horses can be healing for some people?
For many people being with animals feels safer than people. Horses, like all animals are non-judgmental and larger visual reflections of ourselves. Working with horses offers new perspectives and pathways for exploration which many people find comforting and reassuring. Instinctively we know the horse has no agenda for us, they are honest, cannot be bribed or manipulated, nor do they make us right or wrong.
They respond to our energy and congruency, our visibility and authenticity and they will often move away from us when we are performing, being incongruent or pretentious. I believe many people are relieved to find such frankness.
To date I’ve worked with over 2,500 people from all walks of life and continually notice the student’s ability to take feedback from a horse when they cannot accept it from the human being…even if they have never been around horses before and/or don’t especially like or know anything about the horse.
Related: The Power of Equine Therapy
What is it about horses, compared with another type of animal like dogs or birds, that you find so appealing?
That’s a great question and one that I could speak about from a variety of perspectives. Like many women who come to my classes, I’ve had a deep love for horses all my life. Although I did not own a horse as a young girl, or have the ability to ride on a regular basis, horses have always been in my dreams, my internal landscape and my psyche.
Many a time I have buried my face in my horse’s mane when life seemed overwhelming. I’ve squealed with girlish laughter as my horse carried me over the land at a full gallop. The horse has not indulged my romantic notions of who they are, but required instead that I show up engaged and fully present in their company. They have taught me about self-leadership, overcoming fear, dedication, commitment and forgiveness. Horses have celebrated and encouraged my intuitive gifts and deepened my faith and my spirit more than any other life experience or relationship. I have a thousand words to express my love for horses, none of them truly adequate or satisfying enough to thank them.
What is it that people who have had interaction with your horses say they experience that is different from other experiences?
One of my newer students called this morning to say that she was still feeling the experience of being with horses from three weeks ago. In her words, the horse gave her encouragement to have authentic conversations with her mother. She reported that the holidays were always a trying time and it often felt like a power struggle between the two. She remembered how grounded and centered her body felt, how brave and authentic the horse reflected she was being in her session…she recalled this state in her body whenever she interacted with her mom over Christmas and was astonished at the harmony that seemed available for the first time in years. Under many varied circumstances, this is the kind of feedback I receive from students on a fairly regular basis.
Does interacting with the horses sometimes awaken a commitment in people to remain dedicated to personal change for the long-term?
My sense is that many of us are re-examining life very differently these days. Perhaps even since 9/11, the desire to find heart and meaning in one’s life has become more urgent. Today’s world has a multitude of complex issues; people are often overwhelmed and unsure how to initiate change, and if one person can truly make a difference. One of the biological similarities of both humans and horses is the need to be of service, to contribute to the whole, finding our place of belonging in relationship to something of value. Horses evoke passion, purpose and strong desire to be connected and in authentic conversations. Often just standing next to these 1,000 lbs. of energy takes us out of our logical or rational thinking and into our feeling animal body; where both curiosity and possibility live. Horses are excellent training partners as we notice the relationship between their cooperation when our mind, body and spirit are aligned.
Long term and sustainable change happens when we have practices that support the changes we say we want to make. Our culture has an instant gratification and quick fix mentality in many instances. We are largely hooked on the big “ah ha” moments (especially in California), and we’re not necessarily saddled up to the process of how embodied change occurs and is sustained over time. One of my teachers, once said, “it takes 20 years to be a masterful horseman or horsewoman, and if we told people this up front, most would never throw a leg over the horse.”
In your opinion, do horses have emotions, and in what manner are they expressed? How can you tell if a horse is happy or sad? Do horses express emotion physically by playing or by movements that one could say seem like dance?
I think happy and sad are human labels for varied energetic states. The emotion of happy might be compared to high energy and sad or feeling depressed to the lack of energy. Horses live in energy, they make their decisions from how they feel (safe, not safe) rather than what they think. Horses love to play and are naturally very social. In the wild, they live in herds or bands (normally comprised of 6-8 horses) which could be likened to the human family or tribe. When horses present too much energy, and are hard to handle, it is often from being overly confined (stalled) and unable to move about as nature intended. There is a surplus of store energy that the horse needs to release. An excited horse can also be mirroring the energy of the human handler or group it is with, or some phenomena in the larger environment (a predator) or when a horse is calm and cooperative, partnering the energy in the space (the human, group, other horses and environment) feels congruent, aligned, and so forth. I believe that horses are highly sensitive, intuitive, masters at reading body language and fully embodied sensate beings. I often hear people say things like, “the horse doesn’t like me,” “the horse is mad at me,” and so forth. This is our human projection, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the horse’s state of being.
How difficult has it been to manage during this time of recession, and do you find people are more open to trying new experiences now than in an economic upswing, or less, or the same?
It’s interesting — my business has doubled in the last two years to the point that I have had to hire staff and train volunteers to help me. People are turning inward to find answers to life’s complexities and I think beginning to understand that outside or external fixes are temporary at best. I’ve noticed a number of people coming into my EGL mentoring/internship programs seeking to incorporate horses into their professional life (i.e; horses and law enforcement, horses and medicine, horses and youth at risk programs, horses and team building and leadership development) This June, I am starting a pilot program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders who are falling behind or failing reading in school. The program called Horse Sense and Readers™ is a blend of Equine Guided Learning, Reading and Expressive Arts.
Horses used to be employed for transportation before the emergence of the automobile and motorcycle so humans on a large scale had relationships with them they don’t have now. Is the increased mechanization of society related to an increase in social isolation, and a reduction in emotional and social awareness?
In doing some research on this topic, I discovered some interesting statistics:
• More than 400 million active users on Facebook worldwide
• Over 238 million people watch television each day
• The US has about 250 million cell phone subscribers
• There are over one billion computers in use worldwide
Our world has become increasingly complicated, crowded, noisy and technologically based, it is easy to become distracted and disconnected from what has true heart and meaning, to become numbed out. We forget that life has both a rhythm and a calling.
Reconnecting to the natural world and with horses offers a unique opportunity to reconnect ourselves to ourselves, our families, and the world around us by slowing down, and being fully present in the moment. When we allow ourselves to be on “horse time” we listen to our inner guidance, honor the wisdom coming through and deepen our appreciation for being fully alive. “Meanings, moods, the whole scale of our inner experience, finds in nature the ‘correspondences’ through which we may know our boundless selves.” — Kathleen Raine
Have you ever played music near the horses, and do they respond to it?
Yes, all the time – they do respond to music and to singing and especially native drumming.
It seemed in your personal story, you experienced a major detour away from working with animals just when you were going that direction. What brought you back to the animal path so many years later?
I see my story not so much as a detour away from animals but rather a move towards developing trust and capacity with people. I was a painfully shy, insecure young girl. I understood even at a young age that if I didn’t interrupt my tendencies to hide behind animals, I would never discover my full potential. I intentionally put myself in challenging and uncomfortable circumstances/situations to strengthen the underdeveloped, fragmented places inside me. Animals have always been a source of spirit and love; especially horses and even more so since I’ve incorporated them into my professional life as an Equine Guided Educator.
Image Credit: Alyssa Aubrey