93 per cent of communication is non-verbal. Are you using yours effectively with your horse? Have you ever wondered why horses can respond totally differently to two people, even though their behaviour appears exactly the same? Whether doing mounted or ground work, I have witnessed this on numerous of occasions. I’ve been surprised by the vastly different results that two people performing the same actions often get. What is it about some people that are able to get that quiet sense of co-operation from their horses, while others seem to constantly struggle? I have been fascinated by this phenomenon for many years. Through my work in the field of Equine Guided Psychotherapy (EGP), I have been able to explore it in perhaps more detail than traditional horse work might normally allow for.
EGP is a form of psychotherapy for people that takes place on the ground with horses. The client might come for a range of issues including stress, anxiety or depression. Instead of traditional talking therapy, activities with horses are carefully designed to help each client move further towards their outcome. Often the horses are loose and have the choice to stay close to the client or keep their distance. In the EGP field, many practitioners believe that there is an underlying process taking place within the client which is different from their spoken communication. For practitioners, the horses gave them important clues about what their clients’ inner processes might be.
Where the horses choose to stand when I am running an EGP session is an important piece of feedback for me. I have often found that when a client feels connected to their body with good access to their somatic (body) intelligence, the herd will often choose to stay close by. It is when we, as humans, inevitably return to our heads (maybe in discussing the exercise that has just taken place or talking about what might happen in the future) that the horses will often lose interest in the process and move further away.
We can see this in the round pen when training horses too. When sending a horse away for example, every cell in my body is saying ‘go away.’ I don’t need to say the words because my intention is very clear and my body follows. My eyes are fixed onto the horse’s eyes, the muscles in my face change and my stomach area is open, projecting my energy. If there was any area of doubt that crept in, the horse would be reading me, seeing and feeling this through my non-verbal communication.
Through the Monty Roberts method of horsemanship and Equine Guided Psychotherapy, I have come to the belief that horses attune to our inner truth. In other words, they respond to what we are feeling, rather than what we say we are feeling. They are constantly scanning for this somatic information. Their ancestors have had to as a matter of survival. Being able to read another animal’s true intention has enabled them to drink from the same watering hole as predators, keeping them going through 60 million years of evolution. If we know what to look for, we can learn from the horse’s natural expertise in this area, honouring them as teachers of honesty and complete congruency.
One of the most extreme examples I have seen in this area of my work came about on a Life Skills Course I was facilitating with young people that had been expelled from school. One of the clients used to alternate between an ‘egocentric’ and a ‘victim’ state of being. In the egocentric state, she made jokes to the rest of the group, spoke loudly and showed no fear, even though it didn’t match her non-verbal communication. In the victim state of being, she spoke very quietly, felt she had no choice and would often assign blame for all kinds of things to other members of the group.
One of the ponies we used for the riding part of the course was particularly expressive when relating to this client’s different emotional states. When the client was in either of these states, he used to strike up a nice canter and then come to a grinding halt and stick his head on the floor simultaneously. Not easy to stay on regardless how well balanced you are! There were other times that he went beautifully, despite the fact she had only been riding for a few months. What made the difference? I believe it was her internal state. He went well when her internal state reflected her external state and she acted with authenticity.