In my experience, the root of violence, bullying, aggression, etc. is often FEAR – because the being has been wounded and is super afraid and armored against being wounded or suffering again. We see this in the human world and I’ve seen it over and over again in the equine world.
In the equine world, the wounding/suffering and subsequent fear is often centered around scarcity of resources (or focalized resources). According to equine ethologist Lucy Rees, wild horses do not display aggressive behaviours; even in times of famine, the horses don’t fight, they just spread out more.
In our domestic world, horses are regularly deprived of 24/7 access to grazing or low-sugar hay, they are usually thrown together with non-family members, and they rarely have enough land to support normal herd dynamics (where the horse/stallion is able to flee far away from an aggressor and therefore never forced to fight).
Caveat: Please note I am using (and will continue to use) the word “herd” in a common usage way. The technical definition of a herd, according to ethologist Victor Ros is a “a functional structure usually comprised of 1 or more breeding units (bands) and temporal assemblages as those of bachelor bands and mixed sex groups”. Victor would correctly call all of our herds “a domestic group where we have chosen who lives with who.”
Anyhoo… A few years ago, Kesia and I boarded 3 of our horses together on 5 acres. My horse Zorra had recently come to be with me, from a home where she was deprived of normal equine feeding behaviour (she was schedule-fed), and bullied by her sister in a small area for 8 years solid. Kesia’s two horses had each experienced a variety of traumatic living arrangements where they were deprived of food (schedule-fed), locked up in a stall/paddock, placed with a variety of unrelated herdmates, and on one occasion her gelding Spero had been thrown in (no introduction, no acclimation period in an adjacent field or paddock) with a herd of geldings who beat him black and blue for 24 hours until she was able to remove him.
Needless to say, with three horses like this, things were not entirely smooth and peaceful at Tiny Ranch! Here’s what usually ended up happening; note that each of these two large slow feeders can accommodate 3-4 horses in a peaceful herd:
Spero would occasionally drive Amalia off her slow feeder – because he could. And neither horse would let Zorra under the 24 foot shelter to eat. So we started off by giving Zorra a hay net nearby – to give them a visceral experience of eating “together”:
On rainy days we put the hay net inside the nearby walk-in-/walk-out stall, so Zorra could be under cover. Of course, sometimes Amalia would take the stall and Spero would be under the shelter and Zorra would be left standing out in the rain with no food. Keep in mind, they were never confined to this gravelled paddock – they always had access to at least 2 other fields that had a little bit of grass and large trees to shelter under if desired.
Still, it was very difficult to see Zorra so bullied by the other two, and to watch Spero driving Amalia for no apparent reason. And to watch Amalia pin her ears and snake her neck at Zorra if she even walked within 20 feet of her – again, for no reason that I could discern. When I came out to be with Zorra, Spero would try to drive Zorra away so that he could be with me.
The whole environment just felt so tense and agitated and unpeaceful! A quick Internet search revealed to me that equine bullying/aggression is a HUGE, widespread problem in the domestic horse world.
I went home one Saturday really dispirited. But also aware that I had experienced the exact same aggressive/bullyin behaviour from my teenage son in the morning and then again right afterwards from the horses at the barn. Twice in one day? Even a thickie like me knows that’s the universe pointing a big red arrow and trying to get a message/teaching through to me.
I tried to discuss it with my husband and he said, “How do you get a horse, or a teenager, to move beyond self-interest into compassion?! You’re asking the impossible.”
Nothing’s impossible. But where’s the switch? HOW do we get them to flip that switch between SELF (self-protection, self-absorption, self-focus) to at least consideration, if not compassion, for others?
By the evening I finally remembered the 2 deer that came to visit the day before, and stayed with me – right up at the front of the pastures – the entire time I was there. DUH! Kind of unusual behaviour for 2 wild deer doncha think? Especially when I climbed up on the fence 15 feet away to spend time watching them – having never seen a deer that close before. I saw them poop (who knew their stool was so small?), jump 5 foot fences from a standstill, and slither under fences – who knew they could contort like that!?
So I pulled out my Medicine Cards book and looked up deer and what do you know, but there’s my answer – the message the universe is sending me. What does Fawn encounter at the beginning of her journey? A gigantic demon – guarding the entrance to Sacred Mountain. And all deer does is gaze at demon with complete and total love and compassion and all the resistance and anger and fear of demon melts away.
The power of fear is transformed by the process of deer:
Second: and while in that space of total acceptance of their current state, flow pure love and compassion to that being. To do this, I imagine my heart/chest opening and a stream of love and compassion flowing out from my heart to the other being. I stay in this visualized imagining for as long as I feel I need to.
Doing Deer is an energetic way of saying to a being: “I SEE you. And I hear you. I honor the pain and trauma you’ve been through, or are going through, in your life and I am here to just stream love and compassion to you.”
The next day, Sunday morning, my son brought me the exact same angry, bullying behaviour again and I Did Deer with him. Within 5 minutes I was able to discern the true root underneath the presenting behaviour, but even before my discernment arrived, his behaviour (body language, tone, volume, frustration, etc.) began changing, because me regarding him with complete acceptance and compassion immediately began shifting his energy – like air flowing out of a balloon. My teenage son, like the horses, is unable to articulate his root issues. But by Doing Deer, I was able to perceive what was really going on for him.
Once I had a sense of what was underneath his noxious behaviour, I talked to him about what I was sensing and asked him questions, “Ok, I’m feeling for what’s really underneath your nastiness… I’m wondering if you’re frustrated about what happened at school / how your life is going / where you are not feeling respected, or that you can’t get how/what you want?” etc.
We ended up sitting on the couch together; relief poured out of him as he was able to talk about his feelings, he just needed me to unlock the floodgate for him. Then we brainstormed solutions together and were soon back to our usual close relationship. Temper blowouts averted, actions and words we would later regret averted, just from Doing Deer.
The following morning, I went to the barn, fully prepared to be tested on my ability to Do Deer!
I did my visualizing/imagining in the car and arrived already in the state of Deer. Zorra was sleeping flat out on the pasture. Spero was 5 feet away from her lying down with his legs tucked under him. And Amalia was standing about 4 feet behind Spero. I stood and watched, noticing and appreciating how they felt safe with each other and remembering when all 3 had laid down together one afternoon last week:
Noticing and accepting that there may be large chunks of time when they are kind, calm, and provide a safe space for each other – acknowledging the tiny chunk of their time that I am actually around.
I filled the slow feeders and then let them into the paddock. I sensed from the eating pattern of the feeders, and the fact that the hay net was empty, that Zorra might be extra hungry. So when I filled the hay net in the stall, I also put 2 flakes of loose hay in the box. The difference: None of this was done with worry, or frustration, or impatience for their process or relationship. I had fixed it in my mind that I was there simply to observe and accept. And no matter what happened, to hold a place of compassion.
They all came in to the gravelled paddock area and Zorra went straight to the stall, and Amalia and Spero to the slow feeders under the shelter. And for the entire two and a half hours I was there, there was not one aggressive act towards Zorra. Spero moved Amalia off her feeder 2 or 3 times, but fairly calmly, just laid back ears on both parts, nothing else.
By the time I was ready to leave – I had asked Zorra if she wanted to go out for a walk, but she just wanted to stay there and eat – both Spero and Amalia had left me completely alone with Zorra the entire time. By staying in that place of total acceptance, love, and compassion, I had realized even more pieces of their wounding/story that I needed to tap on for them.
But my acceptance of what IS left me feeling, so what if they never eat together? Or if it takes them 2 years to be able to eat together? Who cares! Just set Zorra up in the stall – which actually works well, because Spero doesn’t like the stall much and Amalia only occasionally goes in there. And THEN I was able to see and appreciate all the other ways they are getting along well, and showing a growing relationship and bonding. When I was able to view them from this place, I realized how much progress they had made since day one.
I gave Zorra another loose flake in the hay net box just before I left and I left feeling GOOD. They were all under shelter if it rained, and they were all feeling safe, with access to plenty of food. And I knew where the next level of healing was for Amalia and Spero.
Maybe because I existed in a state of pure love, acceptance and compassion, it was easier for them to communicate the next level of their need to me – and here’s a novel idea: maybe they would much rather communicate that way than having to act out their wounding for me!
We humans are the ones who create all these woundings and trauma in horses – because we are not able to house them in a truly natural (wild) environment, nor do we keep family members together. So I figure we are also the ones who need to take on the responsibility of getting them the healing they need. In my experience, simply addressing the physical circumstances/environment – although vitally important – is not enough to create significant shift. For these man-made woundings, we need to also address the emotional, energetic layer via mind/body therapies like Reiki, BodyTalk, Energy healing, EFT Tapping, etc.
So if this is an issue at your barn, I encourage you to give the EFT Tapping video a try, or look for a local practitioner who can come in and work with your herd (even if you’re boarding with others) at the emotional/energetic level. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether the wounded, fearful horse is yours or someone else’s – if they’re all together, then any healing will benefit the whole herd, including your horse.