It’s All About (Attuned) Relationships!
Horses are not mirrors….
For much of human history horses have been integral to our daily lives, serving mostly as “tools”…. for transportation, for agriculture, for leisure and sport, and more recently for therapeutic purposes (both hippotherapy and mental health therapy) and for human growth and learning. In this way, humans in industrialized societies have increasingly come to view our interactions with horses as useful in and of themselves. Nevertheless, the predominant paradigm continues to posit the horse as a tool, for example as a provider of bilateral movement during mounted work, or as a metaphorical mirror for human characteristics and concerns.
Objects are metaphors, relationships are not. The horse is not a metaphor for other relationships. The relationship between horse and human is a real relationship.
Natural Lifemanship views the horse much, much differently than many other forms of equine-assisted psychotherapy and Natural Horsemanship. In Natural Lifemanship, the horse’s value is as a real relationship partner. Furthermore, rather than viewing the relationship as a hierarchical one, where the human strives to dominate, lead, or “think for” the horse or act as the “herd leader”, we assert that the most beneficial horse-human relationship accrues from a partnership in which each partner chooses to ‘do the right thing’ for the other because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear or submissiveness. This difference may sometimes seem subtle because many EAP models and horse training approaches now stress the importance of the relationship and, on the surface, many of the techniques used in working with the horse appear to be the same. However the distinction is crucial especially when treating individuals whose coping skills and relationship patterns have been shaped by complex trauma. Read about trauma-informed care.
The growth experienced in a simple and sound relationship with a horse is transferred to more complex human interactions.
One reason this distinction is so important is because the entire therapeutic process centers around how the client builds the relationship with their horse and the inner changes that must occur in the process of creating the desired connection. As we describe below, those changes must be genuine or they will not achieve the desired results. Conversely, when the client’s inner changes reliably and immediately bring about the desired change in horse behavior, the effect is naturally and physiologically rewarding, which results in positive behavioral reinforcement for the client. Importantly, behaviors are not just what we do on the outside, they are what occurs on the inside as well. In TF-EAP work, the client’s ability to create a rewarding, satisfying, safe and predictable relationship with their horse is brought about by their growing ability to self-regulate internally and to challenge their dysfunctional beliefs surrounding relationships. This process is intended to create actual physiological changes in neuro-functioning that affect the client’s behavior in ALL relationships. For this reason, we don’t teach the client to control their horse (just as we wouldn’t encourage the client to try and control other human beings). We allow the client to build a relationship based on their existing schema and patterns of behavior and, as they come to discover these don’t produce the kind of relationship they want, we guide them in thinking through and applying sound relationship principles that apply equally well in the round pen as in other arenas of their lives. Ultimately, this work results in the client being able to control his or herself and relating with others in a way that allows them to do the same.
It is through this process that “horse whispering” is transformed into “life whispering.”
This process is equally beneficial for the horse, whose only opportunity to partner in an equal (non-hierarchical) relationship is with human beings, and not in the herd. A recent research study describes how this relationship changes both the horse and the human through “somatic attunement”.¹ Regardless of the task or activity, an attuned, or connected relationship is always the goal.
The primary reason we use horses in Natural Lifemanship is because a horse will often react or respond to a person’s behavior in much the same way that another person will. This is the dynamic that sets the use of horses apart from the use of other animals. A dog, for example, may not respond to our behaviors the way our friends, spouse, employees, employer, or family members will respond. A dog will often demonstrate acceptance regardless of how we act. It is this type of unconditional acceptance that makes dogs and other animals beneficial in many therapeutic settings. Horses are generally more honest in their responses, which allow the client to take responsibility for the relationship they build with a horse. A horse will typically not give love and acceptance until the client learns to build a relationship that fosters love and acceptance, the same way they must do in human relationships. It is human nature to become comfortable with the familiar. Therefore, when building a relationship with a horse, clients re-create the familiar patterns of interaction they have learned throughout their lives. Most clients inadvertently choose a horse that will treat them the way they’re used to being treated or that they believe they can treat in the same manner they treat other people. If they don’t or can’t choose this type of horse, the client will eventually create this type of horse. The horse will help them understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behavior affect the relationship.
Horses will respond now the way humans will, eventually.
Horses are able to do this because they live in the present. A horse responds to what the client is doing in the present, rather than what they did in the past or what they may do in the future. A typical human’s response is tied to the past, present, and future which is not conducive to honest, immediate feedback. Once clients understand the things in the relationship for which they are responsible, they can make changes in themselves to improve the relationship with the horse, and then apply those same changes to more complex human interactions.
A sound principle is a sound principle regardless of where it is applied.
In the horse world, training techniques have changed over the years and have become gentler and more humane, however the underlying principles still reflect the assumption that horses need to be led or dominated by human beings. In Natural Lifemanship, every principle we use in building a relationship with a horse must be equally sound when applied to human relationships. Because of this, the assumptions underlying Natural Lifemanship are fundamentally different to those at the foundation of Natural Horsemanship. For example, we would never say that human beings fundamentally need to be led or dominated by other human beings. Natural Horsemanship is based on the idea that every horse needs a leader and that horse handlers ought to interact with horses the way horses interact in herds. The underlying assumption is that horses by nature have a very underdeveloped neocortex, and are incapable of thinking for themselves. Natural Lifemanship operates from a very different belief system. We believe that horses are capable of thinking for themselves if we interact with them in ways that specifically build the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking (the neocortex). Everything we do is aimed at reorganizing the brain so that the horse is capable of self regulation and is capable of doing “we” thinking instead of “me” thinking. This is exactly the same principle we apply to our work with human beings. To promote this kind of growth and cortical development in horses and in other humans, we first must be able to control ourselves. The changes people must make within themselves to be able to apply Natural Lifemanship principles transfer to many life situations.
Knowledge cannot be pushed into a brain, it has to be pulled in.
Whether we are working with clients using TF-EAP or training adults, Natural Lifemanship believes that true change comes about only when people willingly adopt new ways of being. This involves so much more than learning new information in an objective sort of way. New knowledge can be learnt, but it will only produce true change when it is also experienced, and typically experienced over a period of time, trial and error. Weekly counseling sessions using TF-EAP often result in significant improvement toward therapy goals within a period of 3 to 6 months, or roughly 12-24 sessions. Sometimes change occurs much faster, and for some it may take longer. The feedback we get from those attending our trainings is that a major paradigm shift typically occurs upon hearing and experiencing Natural Lifemanship for the very first time. Embodying the principles, however, takes practice and guidance. This is why many who attend our trainings follow up with consultations and those who are serious about establishing a TF-EAP practice undertake the process to become certified in our model.
You can always control the chaos inside you regardless of what is going on around you.
If there is a single outcome to which Natural Lifemanship aspires, it is to empower young people and adults, alike, to live by this principle: While we cannot control our external circumstances or the actions of others, we can always manage how we respond internally and externally to adversity (given that we’ve sufficiently developed that ability). As infants and children, we begin to develop this ability through the relationship with our caregivers. As older youth and adults, we continually develop it through practice, which is greatly facilitated by supportive relationships with others. This is the cornerstone of resilience. Natural Lifemanship aims to promote the attuned and connected relationships that lead to such resilience.
Connection with self. Connection with others. A life filled with connected relationships the way it was intended.
We call this Natural Lifemanship.
- Maurstad, A., Davis, D., and Cowles, S. (2013). Co-being and intra-action in horse-human relationships: a multi-species ethnography of be(com)ing human and be(com)ing horse. Social Anthropology, 21(3), 322-335.