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The Tricky Balance of EFL

There is a balance I try to observe every time I am with a horse. I hope this balance that I practice spills out into my lessons. But it’s hard.

When we work with a horse, our human brains want to come up with a lesson to teach ourselves something or to teach our horse something. And we do it. Maybe successfully or maybe not so successfully. In the realm of Equine Facilitated Learning (and honestly, every time you are with a horse), what we SHOULD be doing is allowing our horse to have a say. If we do not see them as partners, then there is nothing they can teach us and all the work we do at Breaking Free could be done with a stuffed animal and come to the same result. My PATH workshop instructor said that if you can do the lesson pulling a little red wagon behind you instead of a horse and the result is the same, then the horse was not a partner but rather a tool. So when planning a lesson I take into consideration the possible reactions the horse might have and allow plenty of time for the student to explore that reaction. If you want your horse to cross a puddle and he won’t, you could certainly smack him or pull him hard enough to cross it. But neither of you will learn anything. You should ask yourself, “Am I worried about crossing the puddle?” or “Am I unclear about what I’m asking him to do?” or “Is there a baby step we can start with to build up his trust, then cross the puddle later?” etc. These questions will teach you both and the next time you come to a puddle, there will be no issue. And I will say here, that this does not mean let them do whatever they want. Being a clear and confident leader is just as important to your relationship as not being a dominating leader that doesn’t let the horse have a say. So on one side of the pendulum, we have what a horse IS: A horse is a sentient being capable of complex relationships, problem solving skills, communication and trust. A horse can give us biofeedback that no human could. Horses can teach us things about ourselves in real time that only years of hindsight could provide if we did it on our own.

When we start treating our horse like a partner and listening to what he has to say, the temptation is to listen with human rationalizing. A horse “doesn’t like me”, “is mad at me for____”, is jealous of _____” , etc. And the truth is, horses do not have these secondary emotions. They do not feel things like jealousy, shame or even anger. Everything they feel is based on their safety as prey animals and/or conditioned responses from training and handling. If your horse won’t walk into the arena, it is because he doesn’t trust you enough to keep him safe in there. It is not because he is embarrassed by the pink glitter bridle you are making him wear. Once when I was with a herd of horses, I stepped back when one approached me because I was apprehensive of this particular horse. Someone critiqued my interaction saying, “I know if I stepped backward from a child when they approached me, that would hurt their feelings. I think the horse felt the same way.” I couldn’t disagree more. The horse did not have “hurt feelings”. I think the horse understood that I was not ready, did not feel safe and so he retreated. There you have the other side of the pendulum, what a horse is NOT: A horse is not a human. They do not care about what you are wearing. They will not judge you today based on your attitude from last week. They will not get jealous if you work with a different horse. Everything they tell you is a here and now reaction based on their safety which includes conditioned responses, communication, trust, physical needs and energy conservation.

In our own lives, we can take a cue from the horse and look for the primary emotion first. This will save us a lot of trouble managing our secondary emotions. These secondary emotions swoop in to help us process what we are feeling, but it’s not the true source. This beautiful thing happens when you can listen to your horse and share your desires with them in this real time, primal language that they understand. When you find that balance and mutual respect between yourself and your equine partner, that’s when lives start to change.

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