By Pat Rothchild
I made mistakes as I was transitioning from being a retired performance equine trainer to a holistic co-facilitator with horses. One was to become overly attached to what the new experts thought about how horses function. I hadn’t spent much time among horses at liberty before this transformation began.
This new approach required me to dust off my Beginner’s Mind. A willingness to make errors and learn from them is essential to growth. It’s how we evolve. It’s also a fantastically efficient way to facilitate the growth of new neurons.
I was taught that horses’ personalities were static, as were the roles they assumed in their ‘herds.’ Though this interpretation didn’t square with what I had observed in my earlier careers with horses or people, I opted to see if I had misinterpreted what I had seen before. Most of what I had originally learned about psychotherapy had fallen into disregard by then, so why wouldn’t the horse world have evolved too?
Then I spent a few years among horses who had endured trauma. They were put on pasture for the first time in their young lives. They certainly were not static in their psychological and social development. In fact, like humans who experience trauma and then achieve safety that they can believe in, their progression through their developmental stages jump-started.
Those three horses dashed through their previously arrested development. In the process, they showed me that they traded up their roles in the band, according to the needs of the moment, not according to which horse drew the lead straw versus the sentry straw when they met. They all did everything, but not all at the same time.
After a while, I noticed that this tactic was working for me too, in other dimensions of life. The process turned into a grand permission, granted by the horses, to let go of a lot of the boundaries I had built around roles I fill, so I could use more of me in any given moment.
Though I still trip over myself from time-to-time, I find that Life works better without all those fences littering my internal pasture. The horses helped me expand my sensibilities by modeling something different from what I was told was the norm.
This is an example of the function of Mindfulness. Horses kinda-sorta force us toward mindfulness. When we’re mindful, our whole brain lights up. Incoming data is processed more fully. It’s easier to discern when mismatched data sets show up. This makes it far easier to recalibrate around errors. We ALL make them! It’s the most sure-fired way to determine that someone is fully alive and learning. Interpreting the behavior of anyone including our own, is guesswork. We can and, I think should, continually educate ourselves so our guesses become increasingly accurate, but we’ll never get to dispense with error. The important thing is to get good at recognizing when we’re making errors, so we can correct our courses. It’s what we do once we recognize our goofs that counts.
Now this is a key point: Who did what in the herd appeared to me to be a matter of the energetics of the moment.
When I was learning from the traumatized horses let out on pasture for the first time in their lives, I spent hours a day in their environment and dropped in on them at all hours, so I got to observe and participate in a broad spectrum of their lives. My observations were processed by a nervous system (mine) that’s spent most of its life figuring out how chaotic energy attains and loses balance. That’s my default setting. This skews how I interpret experiences.
The woman who taught me that horses’ personalities and roles were static has a different default setting for how she processes incoming data. She interpreted what she observed over the course of an active equestrienne life too. Her interpretations were often at odds with mine.
I don’t know if or how our observational styles may have differed. I do know that this teacher – from whom I learned a lot of great information – and I frequently saw the same stuff differently. This is NOT because she’s bad and wrong and I’m good and right. It’s because our life experiences, those of our ancestors, and what we made of them, have shaped our nervous systems differently.
We experience Life differently. She is also a visual artist. I am not. I’m called to play with language. When she looked at swaths of blue, she would come up with a repertoire of maybe 75 descriptors for shading, hue… I would come up with four, maybe.
When I saw a woman who didn’t know how to swim, looking like she was wading into deep psychological waters, my instincts screamed, “Slow Down!” Hers appeared to urge her to go deeper right away. Now, I’ve spent the last 36 years doing repair work on traumatized psyches. When I see one who may be about to retraumatize herself, I think of the 786 things that can go wrong, because I’ve dealt with them, a lot. She sees the potential for a breakthrough, I think.
Neither of us is right or wrong. Sometimes, people do need a push to get unstuck. On the other hand, when people’s brains are already compromised by stress, some pushes can easily cause setbacks. These can take the form of shutting down, or acting out. It’s rarely helpful and always generates the need for more work. We have developed different innate talents, learned different skill sets and practiced them with different styles and personalities.
It seems to work best when we just forgive one another our trespasses and move on. Most of the time, when critters or humans behave in frightening or challenging ways, there’s more than meets the eye generating the problematic behavior. To the extent that we can suspend judgement and stay present, we can support our friends while they either figure out better strategies, or source its physiological underpinnings. Blame and judgement serve a temporary function in some situations, but it isn’t a cool neighborhood to take up residence in.
One way of looking at this is that it’s an indication of the need for more control over those of us who are practicing. Some folks will want to create protocols, rules, policies and procedures for the industry. There can be utility and danger on this path. Proceed with caution is my best advice here.
I’ve watched the psychotherapeutic profession lose connection with our original mandate, which was to heal the human soul. From my perspective, we have devolved horrifically over the past few decades. Many in the profession appear to me to have forsaken their calling as healers in favor of becoming social control agents for the State. That’s where the money and status has migrated lately.
Another perspective is to celebrate our diversity. Whoopee! We’ll be able to reach more people and horses because of the variances in our experiences, styles and settings. We share a calling to facilitate healing when everyone who’s equipped with a human body is profoundly stressed. We are uniquely equipped to intervene. Let’s have at it!
Again, proceed with caution. Nervous systems are complex and powerful. Lots can go wrong with them. Chronic or profound stress is near the top of the list of things that skew health toward disease. Healing generates stress too, so as healers, we need to get great at dealing with the stress levels of our horses, clients and ourselves, if we’re to heal more than we hurt.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll be called to heal whether we think of and market our offers as education, or healing. The population we serve is stressed and bent. Our clients may or may not be aware of how much their stress is impacting them. They may or may not be motivated to address it. Make no mistake though, it’s there. It’s that rhino out on the back forty who’s eating down the hay we were going to put up for the winter. Why aren’t we talking about him?
Chronic stress is a serious health issue. It effects our bodies, minds and spirits in ways we’re just beginning to discern. It’s tricky to treat. The advocates of psychotropic pharmaceuticals haven’t found anything that works beyond dampening it down. Their stuff causes so many side effects that I steer folks away from them, even though that’s risky from a professional perspective. Talk therapy, when conducted along traditional lines, doesn’t work. Critter-facilitated growth and education models work great, when they’re conducted well. There are other interventions that work too. We’re here to talk about horses though, so for now I’m sticking to that.
Now it well may be true that as horses mature, they become more attached to certain roles and styles. This matches my observations, mostly. What doesn’t match is the theory that they’re stuck with whatever personality they get off the van with. That, I’m sure isn’t so. I’ve seen far too many horses, dogs, cats and humans go through enormous overhauls in those sectors successfully. Our nervous systems are tremendously malleable. So are theirs.
Look under the hood…
Sometimes, what looks like a personality issue, or even a character disorder, isn’t. It’s a physiological problem. If a critter demonstrates problematic behavioral issues, look under the hood. Liver issues often look like irritability, sometimes even viciousness. Get them on a better diet and some supplemental herbs and watch them settle into the loving, curious open spirits they were born to be. Gut issues can also sometimes be the foundation of behavioral issues. There are loads of neurons in our guts. If that biome gets off balance, so does behavior.
Allergies and sensitivities are on the upswing, probably as a result of the contaminants in our food and water. The critter food has even worse issues than the human food supply chain these days. This can have behavioral consequences too. We ALL can get cranky when our systems get out of whack. After a lifetime of bumping into the physiological behavioral drivers, I have learned to look. The best results have come from consulting with a great holistic vet who is a whiz at kinesthetic testing.
I know one who works over the phone. She works with horses wherever they are, if you can get a phone secured to them, she can do her thing. She saved my cats and me about 18-months ago when she picked up black mold and glyphosate in the cats. I had the water supply and house tested. The water was contaminated with Round Up (which she says she finds consistently across the States) and I discovered a horrible black mold infestation from poorly installed windows in the house. It’s been a monumental ordeal, but we’re all on the upswing now.
I am now working on dysfunctional behavioral patterns that I had adopted while my health was deteriorating. My liver was failing, unbeknownst to me. While that was happening, everybody on two legs gradually transformed into idiots, from my compromised perspective. I began to lose my temper over dumb, little stuff. When driving, I began to screech at other drivers, from behind closed windows… I was turning into an A-1 jerk and I couldn’t stop it. It all looked like other peoples’ fault. Once I got the mold and glyphosate out of my system, my thoughts changed back to my earlier style, unless I’m triggered. I’m working on diffusing the triggers now, but it’s a process to reclaim one’s mind after it’s been hijacked. We have to retrain our nervous systems. The same stuff happens with our critter friends and family.
When deciding how to approach a practice that works with equines, my proclivities cause me to favor the diversity model. Others will gravitate toward policies and procedures. We, our horses and clients need both to be in balance. My style is to read, listen and watch as many different approaches as I can. I also like to throw out what I’m up to, to others. That helps me expand my network and skill level simultaneously. I have more information from which to draw when I’m out there with clients and horses, concentrating on the energetics of the moment. Hopefully, my experience will prove useful to others when they’re out there too.
Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners