Why Horses?

Why Horses?

By Bettina Shultz-Jobe, Tim Jobe, Laura McFarland, and Kate Naylor

The following is an excerpt from the Natural Lifemanship Manual.  Our manual is intended to serve as a resource to support students’ learning as they move through our Fundamentals and Intensive trainings. (The suggested citation is at the end of this article)

Additionally, much more is taught about this subject in week 5 of the Fundamentals of NL.  This subject is also covered in this free webinar.


On every website for programs and practitioners utilizing equine assisted services (EAS) you are bound to find a page called, “Why Horses?” And rightly so.  Answering this question is vital to legitimizing our field and building a valid and intentional practice of EAS.

As professionals including sentient beings as partners in healing work, answering the question why” is our ethical obligation, and drives everything we do.

The answers to this question (and there are many) will inform our planning before sessions, our choices within sessions, our processing after sessions, and our care for our horses throughout.

First, why do we call our business Natural Lifemanship?

If you’re a horse person you know that Natural Lifemanship is a play on words from Natural Horsemanship (a horse training approach that has grown in popularity since the 1980’s), but it is also a clear departure from it.

Fundamentally, we teach a different way of thinking about the nature of the horse/human relationship, and we believe that the principles of how we engage with our horses should be the same as with humans and the rest of the world of which we are a part.  When beliefs and underlying principles change, behaviors and techniques are organically transformed.  We don’t have to prescribe techniques, for either humans or horses, when there is a clear and embodied understanding of guiding principles and beliefs.

The emergence of Natural Horsemanship was, thankfully, the beginning of more widespread, humane treatment of horses.  That said, oftentimes, the underlying principles are still steeped in power, domination, and control.  Kinder, gentler control is still control.  Mind control is still control.  Natural Lifemanship began a revolutionary change in the beliefs and principles at the heart of all healthy relationships, including those with horses.

At times, we use similar terms but they often have different meanings and unique logic that governs them.  Sometimes we change the term to reflect the differences, and sometimes we seek to reclaim the word being used.

Through your training with us, you will begin to understand why we say “It’s not about horsemanship, it’s about lifemanship.  AND it’s all about the relationship!”

These principles, which focus on the health of the relationship first and foremost, are not only about horses, and not only about humans – they are guides to relating to the world, and our lives, at large.  This is where the conversation about “why horses” begins.  And so, we call this Natural LIFEmanship.

Our Equines’ welfare depends on how we answer the question “Why Horses?”

Equine assisted services is the fastest growing equine related field in the world, and the truth is, our industry is one of the few that puts the welfare of the equines we work with at the forefront of the conversation.  How we interact with our equines now, the methods we choose and the ideals we put forth, will no doubt influence the rest of the equine industry.

In this way, we have a responsibility to think deeply about this question of “why horses”, and about how we answer this question.  In order to attempt to answer it satisfactorily we want to talk about a few big concepts.  Since our approach is grounded in the sentience, consent, and individuality of horses, new questions arise that may not have been explored before.  First, what is objectification (a common practice we argue has no place in equine assisted services)?  Second, what is a horse, really? And lastly, what is a horse not?

The Subject of Objectification as it Relates to Horses

One way we have looked at equine welfare is through the work of Martha Nussbaum.  Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher and law professor at the University of Chicago and speaks and writes on the subject of objectification, particularly as it relates to feminism.

She, of course, is speaking of humans, but what she expresses aligns with our principles and fits for all living beings, as we see it.  At the core of objectification is power, domination, and control whether we are speaking of humans or animals.

And when we think about trauma, what is underlying the traumatic experience is often power, domination and control.  So we must become incredibly intentional about how we interact with our horses in this work so as to not unintentionally re-enact the trauma that brought so many of our clients to us in the first place.

Let’s look at some of Nussbaum’s tenets of objectification:

  • Instrumentality, treating the other as a tool for his or her purposes.
  • Denial of autonomy, treating the other as lacking in autonomy or self-determination.
  • Fungibility, treating the other as interchangeable with others of the same type – as though each individual is mutually interchangeable.
  • Violability, treating the other as lacking in boundary integrity and violable.  This one is foundational to the concept of consent.
  • Denial of subjectivity, treating the other as though there is no need for concern for their experiences or feelings.
  • Ownership, treating the other as though they can be owned, bought, or sold.

Reading through this list, you probably notice that most of these concepts currently and actively exist in our wider cultural paradigms about equines.  What we must address then is, what does it do to our work when we objectify horses, and how do we objectify as little as possible?

Keep in mind that all of these concepts occur on a spectrum – even Nussbaum doesn’t name a tipping point at which we move into objectification, well, objectively.  It is our aspiration though, to objectify as little as is possible – this requires a deep exploration of our beliefs and practices regarding equines.

Let’s break it down to the other two questions mentioned earlier…

What is a horse?

  • A horse is a living animal, and more specifically, a mammal.
  • A horse is a relational, herd animal.
  • A horse is a sentient being.
  • Each horse is an individual.  If we truly want to have healthy, connected relationships with our horses we must shift our focus from what is good for the horse to what is good for this horse.  Attunement is key, and at the core of the therapeutic work done in NL.

What is a horse not?

  • A horse is not a tool or an instrument. If you find that you are using the horse like a tool, then it’s a good idea to utilize an inanimate object (a machine that mimics the movement of the horse, rocking chairs, swings, etc.). Way less liability and expense! Fewer ethical concerns.
  • A horse is not a mirror or reflection of me. A horse is a living, breathing, sensing, feeling, and thinking being. A horse can certainly respond to me, but this is quite different from mirroring my internal experience in some way.
  • A horse is not a metaphor.  Objects are often powerful metaphors, but when doing therapy, learning, or coaching, a living being should never be a metaphor for another individual.  However, our relational patterns can, indeed, surface in any relationship, including that with a horse.  We can experience triggers by the ways in which another, including the horse, might behave similarly to someone else in our life, but the horse is not a metaphor for that person. The relationship with the horse is a real relationship where patterns emerge, triggers can happen, and conflict resolution is sometimes necessary.
  • The horse is not a deity. A horse is not perfect. Not always present. Not always honest. (etc. etc. etc.) The desire for, or the illusion of, perfection always gets in the way of genuine connection. Deification is still objectification.
  • A horse is not a human. In order to do ethical work in this field we must explore and celebrate similarities AND differences.
  • A horse is not a therapist.

Some qualities that horses and humans share

  • Horses have a mammalian brain and nervous system
  • The nervous system of a horse can engage in fight, flight, freeze, and fawn
  • Attachment, bonding, and relationship are basic needs
  • Horses can embody trauma (i.e. hold onto trauma in their bodies)
  • Horses can check out, submit, appease, and dissociate
  • The horse’s brain, as a prey animal, naturally develops similarly to the traumatized human brain
  • The horse’s brain is plastic (changeable) and use dependent

Why then do we partner with horses?

NL partners with horses because of the reciprocal relationship that is possible. Horses are capable of engaging in healthy, genuine connection, relationship, and partnership.  This relationship can be profoundly deeper than words.

Within this relationship the client and horse are responding to each other which requires full body and brain activation and offers, when done consciously, a complete bottom-up brain experience.  Horses do, indeed, invite us to clearly communicate beyond words with our entire being.  They are beautifully sensitive to our internal states and energy, but this does not mean they are merely a metaphor or a mirror.

Why Do We Ride Horses?

The mounted work in particular can be especially healing – when done systematically there is proprioceptive and vestibular engagement, as well as the use of the other five senses, plus relational connection, and thinking.  This is how we heal and build new neural pathways.

Often in trauma, particularly developmental trauma, we have to go back to repair and rebuild parts of neural pathways that were missed the first time around (in fetal development, infancy, and early childhood), or damaged due to trauma later in life.  From a developmental perspective, the amount of brain activation and development that is occurring when a mother or caregiver holds an infant is critical to laying the foundation of future neural networks.  We can mimic this with mounted work.

We can connect with the one who carries us!

In the womb, and later when a caregiver holds an infant, the two are responding to each other in movement, verbal and non-verbal communication, touch, emotion – it can be a full brain and body experience that is simply not possible when using the horse as a tool.

Can human relationship principles really transfer to horses?

We are often asked if we can really transfer human relationship principles to the horse and vice versa?  The answer to this question can be found as we seek to understand the mammalian brain, body, nervous system, and attachment needs.  This will be discussed at length as you continue to learn with NL.

When we embrace our similarities, we can truly embody what is meant by humane and ethical treatment of both horse and human.

Copyright © by Natural Lifemanship, LLC.  All rights reserved.


Jobe, T., Shultz-Jobe, B., McFarland, L. & Naylor, K. (2021). Natural Lifemanship’s Trauma Informed Equine Assisted Services. Liberty Hill: Natural Lifemanship.




Tim Jobe’s Story of Personal Transformation

Tim Jobe’s Story of Personal Transformation

This week, we opened registration for the NL Intensive. One of the big questions we always get from our community is how the NL Intensive is different from the Fundamentals of NL.


The simple answer: Fundamentals teaches you a new way of thinking about your relationship with horses, people and yourself. The Intensive teaches you a new way of being. 


The Intensive is the point in your learning that represents a complete and total paradigm shift. It’s when the old ways of doing, being and showing up are set aside and the new ways of being take root. 


So, how did we come about this way of teaching and embodying the principles of Natural Lifemanship? It all began with my partner in life and in this business, Tim Jobe, in 1986 at  West Texas Boys Ranch. Here is  a snippet of Tim’s story.



In 1986, Tim  was running a 40,000 cattle ranch when he decided to take a new job. There was a 5,000 acre farming ranch in West Texas that needed an experienced horse trainer to work with not only the horses, but also 75 displaced boys who lived and worked on the property.


“The horses were really well trained, but the boys couldn’t ride them at all,” Tim said. “Pretty soon, I realized it wasn’t the kids’ fault.” 


Growing up, Tim experienced domination, control, and severe abuse in his family of origin. And like all of us, the nature of our earliest relationships extend to our way of thinking and being in our relationships with others, including those with horses.


“These boys didn’t know how to intimidate the horses the way I could,” Tim said. “But I decided that if I was going to be able to get those boys to ride, I had to find another way to interact with my horses – without power, domination and control.  I had to help them learn to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do.”


Change your principles, change your techniques


Working at a boys’ ranch, Tim often went to staff meetings with child psychologists and other specialists.  As he listened to the principles the psychologists used when working with the boys, he started to wonder why we don’t use these same human relationship principles when we work with horses.


“We have these patterns in our brain for what works when training horses,” Tim said. “We can consciously think about what would work better, but our bodies fall into old patterns so easily in practice. We can’t just destroy everything we knew before – we have to use all the techniques we know work, but with different underlying principles and a different body state.” 


“Before starting on this journey, I would ask a horse to do something and just kept increasing the pressure until they did it,” Tim said. “But to do that, they had to quit thinking, quit feeling and just submit to everything I asked them to do.”


“Now, I understand that resistance is just a search for an answer, so when a horse resists, I keep my energy and my intention the same.  I offer more connection.” Tim said. “I don’t want to remove my request because then I teach that the way to get your needs met is to resist.  I have to maintain my request in a way that makes it safe for the horse to continue to search for answers, because if I increase my energy or the pressure they will submit, appease, or increase the resistance.   This is one example of a small change that has made a big difference. . . and took a ton of personal work.” 


Embodying the principles of Natural Lifemanship


This new way of being that Tim pioneered back in 1986 was the foundation for the principles Natural Lifemanship is known for today. Along the way, we have met people like you, who want to live in a world where connection and healthy relationships are seen and felt in everything we do. 


To live in that world, we have to build it. 


When our relationship with horses and people are built on trust, mutual respect, attunement and connection, the healing principles can transfer seamlessly to healthy human relationships with yourself and your clients. 


On Thursday, March 9th, Tim Jobe will be in conversation with Kate Naylor about his discovery nearly 40 years ago, the transformation that took root for him during that season, and the personal journey he took to  truly embody the principles of Natural Lifemanship – a journey he’s still on today. We hope you’ll join us for that conversation


If you’re ready to join us on your own journey of personal transformation – and build the world we want to live in – join us for the NL Intensive

The Three Kinds of Grief

The Three Kinds of Grief

For Annie 

Outside my window, I hear Abilene take three deep horse breaths. She is sunning her mud-caked body at the very spot where Annie stood 48 hours ago experiencing the discomfort of the unknown ailment to which she succumbed hours later. The story of that day replays vividly in my mind, although that is not the story I wish to tell right now. She died in the trailer on the way to the vet, and this story begins once Tim and I brought her body back to my place to rest in the trailer overnight so that Abilene could say her goodbyes.


The night Annie passed we got a good amount of rain. Abilene stayed with Annie’s body at the trailer for much of the night it seems. My housemate and I went out several times to check on her throughout the night, and she was always by the trailer. Sometimes poking her nose in and sniffing Annie, sometimes standing a few feet away attentively looking at her still body. Sometimes when we would walk up in the pitch black night, she would quickly come up to us only to turn away and return to the trailer once recognizing that we were not Annie.


That night the pain and shock of Annie’s passing was all consuming. It surrounded me even as it swallowed me from within. It poured forth from my body as though the very ground of being opened up beneath me and gravity took care of the rest. I now rest on a subterranean ledge quite a bit further down, getting my bearings. I’m so thankful for Abilene – for her presence in this space we share.


Grief, I’m noticing, has different textures. There is the resounding, thunderous experience of loss – immediate, vibratory – much like being suspended in the hollow of a drum as it’s forcefully struck. All that exists is the vibration, and it plays you through and through. In this texture of grief my body experiences only the loss – the pain of separation – the awareness of absence. Nothing else exists. This was my immediate experience. There was no way to talk or even think in the clamor. There were some escape hatches I could see in the haze of the moment – the illusory promise of distractions of various sorts – but I fell for none of them. Didn’t want to be distracted because this now is my experience of Annie. Even an experience of her acute and sudden absence, painful and overwhelming as it is, is better than no experience. This is grief number one. Raw, immediate, kinetic.


And then there is the pain of memory. It has a different quality and it lives in a different place. It’s less like a sound and vibration, and more like a storyboard. It is a string of images – snapshots tied to my heart, which tugs them like kites as it softens and constricts, softens and constricts. Images of Annie and the memory of her warm, sweet breath, her head on my shoulder, her neck stretching up so that I could scratch under her chin, her asking for butt rubs, her curiosity and gentleness and sometimes impatience, especially at mealtime. These images swell up in waves of moans and tears – stuck in the throat and then bubbling out of the silence. This is the pain of the past. The pain of remembering. The pain of the stories we compose and relive, again and again. I am deeply thankful that Abilene, at least I assume, does not have to experience this kind of grief. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the first kind she experiences, but I guess I don’t really know.


Finally, there’s a third kind – closely related to the second. It’s future grief. Future grief is like past grief but instead of being triggered by memories or images of what was, it is prompted by the discovery and the rediscovery of what-will-no-longer-be, or variably, of what-could-have-been had past events unfolded differently. Expectations and hopes do not come with expiration dates. And yet, they expire. Just like that. Hope has an open quality and when it expires due to loss, it produces a grief for the un-lived future. This is experienced in the eyes and the face, wrinkling with tension as though straining toward a distant horizon in which one finds no trace or shadow of the departed.


I guess future grief is the most lonely kind of grief. Past grief isn’t lonely because I will always have the memories of the time and space and connection Annie and I actually, physically shared. There is a fullness there. Present grief is more fluid. The vibration of loss is not always present. It gives way to other connections in the here and now. The thunderous, wordless kind of loss – the grief of the present – overtakes you but flows right on past so long as you don’t resist it or avoid it. Thankfully, the present is the present.


One must make a conscious choice to stay with the grief of the present and to honor the grief of the past – the grief of the “what is” transfiguring into the “what was”. It is worthy of enshrining. Annie lives in a golden place within my heart. This is that enduring sense of connection with detachment. She is not physically here but she lives very much alive within me. I will treasure this. Visit this place daily. Allow the waves of this type of grief to swell and crash in my heart without resistance. I think the best offering we can place on this altar is gratitude.


Gratitude is protective against the rages of the one kind of grief we must choose to let go – and that is the grief of the future. This kind of grief can keep us stuck. We cannot fully live without hope. Nor can we live fully if we dwell in a world of what-ifs. Hopelessness is a kind of suicide. Of course, we experience it at times but we mustn’t enshrine it, or revisit it too often, I think. It’s like a riptide or quicksand. If we find ourselves in it, we’ve gotta get out. Friends, present connections, mindfulness of the present, and meaningful, intentional gratitude – these keep us from drowning and perishing in the grief of the un-lived future.


I’m thankful for my wonderful, supportive friends, both two-legged and four-legged. I’m thankful for the Christmas break and the time to digest and metabolize this trauma. I’m thankful for dear, sweet, resilient Abilene, who is already teaching me so much about what it means to “surthrive”. And I’m so, so very thankful for Annie, who blessed me in countless ways with her beautiful presence in my life for over a year, over two actually. I am where I am because of her.

The Three Kinds of Grief Video


I’ve been spending a lot of time with Abilene the past couple days. This evening just before sunset I found her in the front standing on the exact spot where the trailer had been parked. She saw me coming and walked toward me. I sat with her under the cedar tree where she and Annie liked to sleep. We silently stayed there, gazing out toward that spot and taking in all that remains. I wonder if Abilene sensed Annie’s presence as I did, ever so lightly.


Thank you sweet girl. I miss you so much. My heart is yours. May you run free in the green pasture of my heart, always.


Interested in learning more from Laura?


Laura shared this blog at the start of our 2021 conference in a workshop called The Somatic Experience of Grief and Love.  Check out the conference replays here.  


She will also be teaching an upcoming workshop called Where Feet May Fail:  Finding Connection in the Dark Night of the Soul.  


The conference replays act as a stepping stone into ongoing workshops and powerful conversations centered around life, love, loss, and death. They will equip you with the tools for finding light in the darkest of times. 


Join us as we journey through conversations centered around love and loss (of all kinds), and participate in “Grief, Love, and Life”, a series of experiential workshops that will take place throughout the rest of the year. 


Each workshop is designed to build upon your foundational experience from the recorded conversations.  Learn more here!  We look forward to walking this path with you!



What If Our Equine Partner Does Not Consent to the Session?

What If Our Equine Partner Does Not Consent to the Session?


By Kathleen Choe and Tanner Jobe

Recently, Tanner and I had an experience in an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session where we had planned to do trauma processing with our client using Equine Connected Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EC-EMDR) which is essentially EMDR while mounted on a horse, where the movement of the horse provides Dual Attention Stimulus as well as relational connection for the client.  The problem was, our equine therapy partner, Gretta, was having a great deal of trouble with connection that day.  Prior to the start of the session, Tanner spent an hour in the pasture with her, asking her to connect, which she eventually did while at liberty, but when he asked her to halter with connection, she alternated between dissociating and submitting, or resisting by pulling her head away or walking off.  


When the client arrived, I went to greet her at the cabin where we begin our sessions with a check in, leaving Tanner in the pasture with Gretta, assuming he would arrive at the round pen shortly with Gretta in tow.  After half an hour of talking with the client about her transfers of learning from the previous session and what our therapeutic goals were for the current one, I noticed that Tanner and Gretta still had not appeared.  I knew the client was eager to do trauma processing that day and had come prepared with a particular memory she had targeted to work on.  I stepped out of the cabin and called to Tanner, asking him if he would be bringing Gretta soon (as in, now!).  He called back that we would have to come to the pasture. I immediately felt both awkward and annoyed, awkward towards the client, who was ready to go with the mounted work we had planned on doing, and annoyed with Tanner for not just settling for an ear flick or eye ball’s worth of connection so that he could halter Gretta in good conscience and cooperate with our agenda for today’s session.


As we walked to the pasture, I found myself nervously re-summarizing to the client the importance of the principles of choice and mutual partnership in building relationships, including for the horse, principles we had introduced and then affirmed repeatedly throughout the course of the therapy thus far, explaining the damage that would be done to our relationship with Gretta if we forced her to submit to being haltered and led to the round pen instead of asking for her cooperation in participating in the session.  I was saying all the “right words” consistent with the principles of Natural Lifemanship, but inwardly I was struggling with concern for failing the client’s expectations and not meeting the client’s needs.  My professional values of delivering a quality product and following through on commitment clashed with what I viewed as Tanner’s puritanical insistence that we wait for Gretta to choose to cooperate.  As we walked through the gate into the pasture it began to rain.  Tanner was standing next to Gretta holding out the halter calmly and patiently.  Gretta looked tense with a determined set to her jaw. Surveying the scene, I was tense and angry, inwardly hissing at Tanner to just put the damn halter on and be done with it!  Gretta’s nose was centimeters away from the noseband. So close!


I took a deep breath and decided to let Tanner explain to the client why she wasn’t going to be doing mounted trauma processing that day.  As the rain slid down my already chilly neck, I morosely pictured this client terminating future sessions and walking away from EAP in frustration.


Tanner asked the client how Gretta seemed to be feeling about being haltered today.  (“Not that bad,” I thought).  The client observed that Gretta seemed anxious every time Tanner offered the halter to her.  


“What would happen if I just put it on anyway?” he asked her.  (“Nothing!” I screamed inside.  “She would just stand there and let you do it!”)


The client thought a moment, then said, “She would probably let you do it, but it wouldn’t feel good to her on the inside.”


“How would it affect our relationship then?” Tanner continued. 


“She would feel used,” the client responded.  Then she continued, “I do that.  I just want a certain outcome so I get impatient and push forward no matter what the other person is showing me they feel about it.”


Standing there in the rain, watching my client fully grasp what was happening between Gretta and Tanner, and applying it to her own life and style of relating, I felt the fallacy of my product-oriented, outcome-focused style of therapy come crashing down around me.  


Yes, Tanner could have simply buckled the halter on Gretta and she probably would have followed him out of the pasture to the round pen, let us put on a bareback pad and then the client on her back, and walked around in circles behind Tanner while the client processed her traumatic memory.  The client might even have felt some relief from the toxic emotions embedded in her experience.  However, in approaching the session this way, sticking to our plan despite the clear feedback from a vital member of the therapy team, we would have violated the basic tenets of the Natural Lifemanship model of EAP:  building an attuned, connected relationship is the goal of any interaction, and that this is the kind of good, healthy relationship that is the vehicle for healing and change.  Gretta would have become a glorified rocking chair, a vehicle for carrying the client, reduced to a tool.  Objectifying and instrumentalizing Gretta in this way would have modeled for the client that is o.k. to sometimes “use” others in the service of our recovery, that there are situations where the “higher good” of the outcome justifies the means employed to get there.


Not only Gretta’s welfare would have been compromised, however.  The client’s potential for true, deeper healing would have been affected as well.  Without the relational connection between the client and the one who carries her, the limbic system would not be engaged in a manner that promotes re-wiring of the faulty neural pathways wired around the trauma to grow new neuronal pathways of trust and growth.  Gretta would have been left without even a connection to her horse professional, much less her rider.  Her pathways for dissociation and compliance would be strengthened, making it much harder for her to trust offers of choice and connection in the future, and the client’s pathways for being controlled by or controlling others would unhappily be strengthened as well.


I called Laura (the director of education and research for NL) after the session, expressing concern about how the client might have perceived the experience, and her potential disappointment and frustration that she wasn’t able to process her trauma target that day.  I shared my fears that I was compromising my professional responsibilities and explained that even when I’m having a bad day I have to show up for the client and attend to their needs, no matter how or what I’m feeling, despite the hard things that may be going on in my personal life.  The therapeutic relationship is somewhat one-sided between counselor and client in that the counselor does not ask the client to meet her needs in the same way one might in a personal relationship.  Laura pointed out that I have a choice about whether to conduct sessions when my personal life is in crisis, and that if I choose to meet with a client I’m deciding to put aside my personal struggles to attend to theirs.  If our equine therapy partners are not able to make these choices in the same manner then how are we being congruent with our inherent belief that they are equal members of a team based on mutual partnership and cooperation? (In other words, Laura agreed with Tanner!)


In processing the session afterwards, Tanner and I discussed the importance of having alternative methods of trauma processing to offer the client should the equine partner not be able to participate in mounted work in a relationally connected manner on any given day, rather than trying to stick to the original plan, which would ultimately be at the expense of both client and horse.  We could have the client walk beside the horse, perhaps touching her side as they walk together, or do traditional EMDR using eye movements or tappers, or employ other somatic interventions like drumming to provide the Dual Attention Stimulus and grounding involved in effective processing.  Introducing these concepts at the beginning of the therapy process so the client understands that the course of the session will be dependent on what is actually happening relationally in the present rather than being defined by a pre-determined agenda will be key to developing a shared understanding of how Equine Assisted Psychotherapy true to the Natural Lifemanship model actually works.


Tanner’s Point of View


I had been working with Kathleen as her equine professional in therapy sessions for a couple of months. The person she had been partnering with previously went on maternity leave so I was filling in for sessions that were already in progress – basically, entering the process of therapy at some point other than the beginning.  This provided many initial challenges. First, Kathleen had already built rapport and established a therapeutic relationship with the client and I was replacing someone who had also done the same. Second, I was working with Kathleen in therapy for the first time ever. We already had a relationship as NL trainers and had worked together in that capacity but had never actually worked together in therapy sessions.  Third, I was working at an equine facility I had never visited before and was partnering with horses I had never met prior to these therapy sessions. Another part of that challenge was that I was only doing two sessions on Tuesday mornings at this facility and balancing that with a mountain of other responsibilities for Natural Lifemanship. I really did not have the time I would have preferred to meet and build relationships with the horses we would be partnering with in therapy sessions. (I know others can relate to this!) I would have to build these relationships as therapy sessions progressed and do so in a way that did not disrupt the process for the client. Furthermore, I had very little knowledge about the relationship patterns that the horses had developed from their interactions with various people on a daily basis and if those people were aligned with me and NL philosophically.  I just wasn’t sure what the horses were learning about relationships outside of their interactions with me. I did not “own” these horses and I did not care for them daily, and I knew it was not reasonable for me to expect those who did to suddenly change their interactions based on my philosophy.  Again, I know others can relate. Nonetheless, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so with all of these things in mind I began the process of working with Kathleen as part of the therapy team with the intention to take it as it comes and simply do my best to adapt and learn. 


The transition into sessions went fairly smoothly and soon I was starting to learn about our client as well as the horses involved in our sessions. I was told that Gretta was the horse they had been partnering with for mounted work and went out to get her for one of our first sessions. I immediately noticed that Gretta was uncomfortable with my presence. She was tense in the ears, face, and eyes. When I said hello and asked her to engage, she maintained the tension and did her best to ignore my request for minimal attention. I found that I could walk right up to her and she was not threatening but she also would not really engage with me. I could touch her and she did not seem to change, respond, or react. She did not clearly say yes or no. She would even let me halter her.  She did pull her head away slightly but not emphatically. It seemed as though she did not want anything to do with me but also did not expend any energy to get away from me. In my error, not knowing Gretta at all and only operating off of information from others and my own assumptions from that information, I put her halter on and led her out of the paddock. Throughout that morning’s interactions I learned a lot about Gretta. She disconnected and tried to eat grass at every opportunity. She was touchy around her girth and even grooming there caused her to pin her ears and nip at me. Tightening the girth of the bareback pad resulted in her attempting to bite me. Nonetheless, I gently did my best to push through all of these standard processes that a horse goes through in preparation for mounted work and started to lead her to the round pen. Leading her further away from the paddocks and barn to a round pen that was a little more remote, I noticed her anxiety increase significantly. She walked fast and out in front of me attempting to drag me along. Her head shot down to feverishly eat grass at every opportunity (one of her attempts to regulate). Her head would shoot up and ears and eyes harden as she looked at the round pen by the therapy cabin where we were to do our work for the morning. I stayed calm and continued to ask her to be aware of me and to walk without stepping on me as we moved to the round pen. When we entered the round pen, I removed the lead rope from her halter and she immediately trotted away investigating the round pen with an anxious energy. When I put a little pressure on her back hip and asked that she engage with me she appeared agitated and maybe even a bit angry. She pinned her ears and bucked and kicked and galloped around the pen. I did what I know to do and kept the pressure the same while staying calm and relational until she was able to connect and attach (follow me while calm, present, and connected). Then I asked her to detach (move way) and received the same anxious, aggressive response. I helped her calm down and engage through detachment and then asked her to reattach.  When she was able to detach while remaining connected I reattached the lead rope and mounted. I wanted to make sure she was safe to ride. She proved to be ok but she was clearly still full of anxiety. However, the client had arrived and was waiting with Kathleen outside of the pen so that we could start her session. I decided this had to be good enough and we proceeded with the therapy session. We had the client mount and we started moving in a circle with me leading Gretta. At one point I remember the sun umbrella on the deck of the cabin suddenly falling over and spooking Gretta. She jumped sideways and almost lost our client but I was able to get her to stop. Gretta was obviously anxious and on edge the entire session – as we got to a certain section of the pen she would worry about something that was out in the trees. She would speed up and at times trot ahead of me as we passed this section of the pen. It was a stressful session for me as I had to do a lot of work trying to make sure Gretta was not going to hurt our client. I did not like having to manage all of that. I knew Gretta and I had a lot of work to do moving forward.


I made a lot of mistakes that first session and I took note of what I needed to improve and I started showing up at least an hour early for our sessions so that I could spend the appropriate amount of time connecting with Gretta and making sure I got true consent from her every step of the way before asking her to carry our client. I started really making sure Gretta was present when I made a request and that I was attuned to the emotions she felt around each request that I made. Typically, I would show up with the halter to bring her in and we would spend around 30 minutes in the paddock simply getting to the place in which she could look at me calmly, without anxiety, and then follow me at liberty while being fully present. I would offer the halter and wait for her to give me a clear yes and then proceed through the process of grooming and saddling and mounting with the same attuned concern for our relationship and her willful participation in the session. Her overall anxiety was starting to go down and things were improving steadily though she still seemed to be generally grumpy (and maybe even a little pissed) about being asked to do anything.  It seemed to me that she typically felt lots of strong feelings in her daily life and just pushed them down and held them in – appeased, submitted, and dissociated. (Check out these two blogs to better understand dissociation with horses:  When Dissociation Looks Like Cooperation or Six Signs Your Horse May be Dissociating or Submitting Rather than Choosing to Connect) When I would ask her to truly communicate with me how she felt about doing the things I was asking, it seemed I was the target of pent up aggression that she felt much of the time when I was not with her. Every morning an hour before session Gretta and I would work on this. It did not at all feel fair to me. I had no way of knowing if these outbursts towards me were a symptom of her daily life or a symptom of our relationship. What I did know, is that no matter what, I would have to be committed to doing the work to help her be less aggressive and more connected and I would have to do it slowly in that one hour before sessions on Tuesday mornings because that is all the time I could afford to spend with her.  I would have to be happy taking improvements slowly as they came in hopes that the one hour I spent with Gretta each week, or every other week, would be enough to affect real change in her pattern of relating.  Sound familiar? So I was committed to the relationship with Gretta and this is where we return to the morning that Kathleen arrives to discover me still asking Gretta to consent to the halter. (Can Animals Consent? – check out this blog on the subject)  


It was a cold rainy day. The paddock had big sloppy hoof-shaped mud holes stomped out of it in the places where the horses preferred to gather around the round bale. It was not pleasurable to be out in the light mist trying to catch a horse for a therapy session that might not happen if it started raining any harder. So feeling some stress of my own I set out following Gretta through the mud and rain as she resisted basic engagement with me as usual.  I stayed committed to our relationship – it seemed as though Gretta was begging me to take control of her – I refused.


 At some point, Kathleen showed up and checked in on us. She watched for a bit and then had to return to the cabin to meet our client when she showed up. When the client arrived, she and Kathleen noticed me in virtually the same place with Gretta trying to resist and then comply but never really connecting with me. It started raining a little bit harder and Gretta was smart enough to move underneath the shed in the paddock. She would connect a little and follow me, then disconnect and resist and return to the shed where she would then reconnect with me. She seemed to be smart enough to want to continue this process out of the rain. I was happy to oblige. So. . . we were under the shed and were staying pretty connected and had progressed to working on accepting the halter. Gretta would get stark still and then try to check out (dissociate).  I would ask her to reconnect and offer the halter and she would pull her head away showing tension in her ears and eyes and muzzle. I was acutely aware that our client had arrived and that I clearly did not have a horse prepared for mounted work. I expected Kathleen would have some other options and would arrive with the client to help her become a part of this process and that we would follow Gretta’s lead today. I was aware of my frustration and was consciously releasing the tension it caused in my body as I worked through this process with Gretta. Kathleen eventually emerged from the cabin asking if we were going to be ready soon. I was frustrated with this question as I thought it was pretty obvious that I could not give any definite answers to that question. Kathleen was polite but I could tell there was some tension and anxiety that accompanied the question. I suggested that she bring the client out so she could be a part of the process.  Okay, so I basically suggested that Kathleen change the clinical plan for the session because the horse had not consented to participate.  


It was not a comfortable feeling but I was not willing to accept compliance from Gretta, our client’s therapy partner. I was also keenly aware that I did not want to be responsible for the safety of a client on a horse who was anxious and had not consented to the halter and had certainly not consented to being ridden. The beauty of the situation is that both Kathleen and I were feeling some stress, pressure and anxiety, but were both able to regulate, relate, and reason so the session turned out to be beneficial for both horse and client.   Remember, if it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either, and true healing cannot happen at the expense of another.  This work is about connection and relationship – for the client AND horse.    

In a perfect world, after that first session with Gretta, I would have set aside loads of time for us to work on lots and lots of stuff before she resumed mounted work in therapy sessions.  We all did our best in the moment and tried to adapt and change and grow. We continue down that path. 

Tanner and Kathleen are both NL trainers and will be teaching at the 2019 NL Conference.  Check it out!

My Horse is NOT My Therapist

My Horse is NOT My Therapist

You’ve all seen them; those kitschy t-shirts, hats, and signs that proclaim, “My horse is my therapist.” I openly admit, I’ve contemplated buying one of those before or making a sign of my own with this endearing saying for the barn or my home. I liked it. It hit home for me. I felt it concisely and cleverly conveyed the feeling of appreciation and gratitude I feel for what not only my horse has done for me, but for what hundreds of horses I’ve worked with have done for me and so many others. To be frank, I didn’t actually think about it too much. I felt something about it, my left brain filtered it into the “good” category and I moved on from there. I never bought a shirt or hat or made a sign, but it remained in that “good” category in my brain until recently.

I haven’t noticed the saying pop up anywhere in a long time, but just a few days ago, I heard someone say it in passing. I didn’t notice any kind of new thought or feeling about it as I heard it, but I noticed a sensation in my gut. Since I’ve been working diligently the last few months to become more connected and in tune with my body, I was immediately able to recognize that sensation as a warning signal. This particular signal usually means something feels unsafe, incongruent, or off in some way. I was busy with something else that needed my attention at that moment, so I simply took note of my body’s response and set it aside for later reflection.

What about that saying would cause a visceral response from me? Once I had a moment to reflect, it took probably .22 seconds for me to find the answer. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. See, when I open the door for the higher regions of my brain to listen to and connect with the signals coming in from the lower regions and my body, it literally takes my brain that long to process the information. Well, no one has scanned MY brain and measured it, but neuroscience says that’s about how long it takes in a human brain, so I think it’s a pretty fair estimate to say that’s how long it took mine to come up with the answer. And it’s a simple yet complex answer.

The simple part- my horse is NOT my therapist. My therapist is my therapist. My horse is my horse. (Hmmm…I like that saying. Could this be the next NL t-shirt?) The complex part- I feel good when I am around my horse, which can actually be very therapeutic for me. But that doesn’t make it therapy. Seriously, have you ever been to therapy? I have and I can say when I get in the weeds and start doing the hard work on myself, it does NOT feel good. Let’s say it doesn’t always feel good when I’m working with my horse because I do have to work on myself in the process. It can still feel like therapy when I am with my horse, which can feel like my horse is conducting therapy on me. But she’s not. She’s just being a horse interacting with a human. Just like my dog is being a dog interacting with a human when we are together. Just like my dad is being a human interacting with his daughter, and my brother is being a nuisance..err.. I mean, human interacting with his sister, and the cashier at the grocery store is being a human interacting with a customer. And since I have come to learn to see horses as beings just as capable of making requests and choices for healthy relationship as humans, I just can’t tolerate that saying. It makes me sick to my stomach because for me it is the same as saying my dad is my therapist. Say it out loud and tell me that doesn’t make you cringe. And what about my brother is my therapist? Sound good to you? Now try this one- my cashier is my therapist. Ok, so that one makes me giggle a little, but only because it sounds so absurd!

Being steeped in horsemanship and traditional horse training methods, I understand how this saying came about as we humans have a long history of projecting onto and objectifying animals. I see how it could be argued that giving your horse therapeutic powers even though he never completed high school, is an enormous leap from how horses have been treated historically by humans. That’s probably why it got filtered into the “good” category in my brain years ago. But making your horse your therapist is still objectifying, it’s still projecting, it’s still using your horse. So, let’s take the next leap in our development as human beings and figure out how to interact with horses as what they actually are…horses. To learn more about how we do this at Natural Lifemanship, visit the Start Training link or view our online videos and content.

Can Animals Consent?

Can Animals Consent?

July 1, 2021: It has come to our attention that this blog post is being misused on Twitter to justify animal abuse.
Please see the official statement from the author that is available here.


Can Animals Consent? By Sarah Schlote

This interesting question, which came out of a post I shared on Facebook (here and here) about a yoga on horseback video that went viral recently, elicits differing opinions. Some claim that consent is a human construct linked to morality, and therefore cannot apply to animals philosophically or legally (calling it anthropomorphism). Others claim that since all mammals share a similar neurobiology, responses to safety, danger and life threat, experience emotions, are sentient and perceptive — and that since both human and non-human animals can express “yes” and “no”, aversion, attraction, fight, flee, freeze, fawn, collapse, submit, and make informed choices — they can indeed “consent” or not (in their own way). This second group suggests that to deny animals the ability to consent is anthropocentric and can be a way to justify the exploitation of non-human animals for the benefit of people. 

This article certainly will not resolve this debate, and its goal is not to malign or shame any particular horsemanship discipline, method, or equine-assisted intervention approach. Rather, I hope to invite curiosity and offer a different lens in a spirit of gentle openness and non-judgment about ideas that, while controversial, are nonetheless important to reflect upon.

The word consent means to permit or allow.  Barbara Rector, one of the pioneers in the field of equine-assisted practice, understood the notion of consent in relationship with horses. Her exercise, Con Su Permiso, which means “with your permission” in Spanish, speaks to the idea that animals can communicate consent or permission through their body language and that healthy relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect. Words are not the only way to express when something is a “no” or a “yes”, and Barbara is not the only person championing the idea that horses (and, indeed, mammals in general) can express permission or objection through their body language, of course. But, even so, this idea is not consistently applied in the field of animal or equine-assisted interventions.

A common statement heard in the industry is that the horses are always free to move away if they ultimately do not want to take part in something. However, what is the interpretation if they do not move away? Is it always because they are choosing to stay willingly and without coercion? One might not move away but show other signs of “not wanting to be involved” that are often missed or dismissed. Does that mean that someone (human or animal) who goes into submission, freeze, or collapse in the face of something they don’t want to do or experience is consenting? Shutting down technically is “allowing” something to happen on some level, but only because the other options (fighting back, fleeing) might not be possible or might lead to greater harm, punishment, pain or death. Equating “going along with” to “consent” is a very murky and dangerous proposition. There’s a distinction between being in the lower parts of one’s brain, dominated by survival physiology and reacting out of self-protection (instinctual), and being integrated and able to express conscious choice freely from one’s neocortex, when regulated and connected to self and other. And even this is not a clean dichotomy, but more of a continuum. Regardless, can consent happen when someone – human or animal – is hijacked by fear, terror, or primal subcortical self-protective responses in the face of coercion, control, threat, or helplessness? Can healthy relationships exist under those conditions? And how can there be connection in relationship without consent? Even the polyvagal theory proposed by neuroscientist Stephen Porges proposes that the capacity for social engagement and connected relationships decreases the more the nervous system is activated in sympathetic charge or in a dorsal shutdown.

Evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff states, “over the years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. If a scientist says that an animal is happy, no one questions it, but if a scientist says that an animal is unhappy, then charges of anthropomorphism are immediately raised. This ‘anthropomorphic double-talk’ seems mostly aimed at letting humans feel better about themselves” (2009). This phenomenon also occurs when people use “human” concepts like “addictions” and “neglect” when referring to other mammals, instead of sterile words like “stable vices” and “deprivation” which minimize and deny that non-human animals also sense and cope with pain and distress in ways that are remarkably like our own. The same also happens when discussing other animal emotions, in spite of the evidence from the field of affective neuroscience, or even when wanting to use the word “trauma” in relation to non-human animals, a leap many are still reluctant to make. The same can be said for extending the idea of consent to non-human animals as well. This does not mean that there are no differences between humans and non-human mammals, for indeed there are. But all too often a false dichotomy between us and them is created that seems to promote the status quo, rather than face the cognitive dissonance or discomfort that comes when recognizing the impact of one’s actions on others.

The following quote aligns particularly well with this trauma-informed perspective:

“Like many vulnerable humans, animals are capable, though often deprived, of making informed decisions about their lives. Animals can express assent and dissent, but we rarely respect their personal sovereignty in ways that acknowledge their aptitude for making choices. Play and cooperation among animals are examples of how animals can express consent with one another, but we don’t speak the languages of other animals, and they typically don’t speak ours. Even when they express dissent to us, their feelings are often ignored. The ways animals are exploited in research, entertainment, food and clothing production, and other areas of human society clearly defy their sovereignty – much like human exploitation does, suggesting that something much deeper is at work here. In addition to the physical violence animals suffer through, they also suffer from fear, anxiety, and depression – like we do – when their personal sovereignty is violated.” –Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH

If saying the word “consent” is still too politically laden, too controversial or too far of a mental leap to make, then using “assent and dissent” still conveys the underlying point. Anecdotally and the research shows that mammals – including humans and equines – are capable of choice and expressing their preferences and opinions. This does not mean that learning to tolerate things that are uncomfortable or doing things we or other animals don’t want to do does not have value. There is a need to be able to do so in life, to compromise, to do what needs to get done (even if unpleasant), such as having to do certain tasks or jobs to pay the bills, following through on commitments or requirements (work ethic), or using distraction in order to cope with an uncomfortable or painful medical procedure, for instance.  But there is a far cry between getting a horse to comply with a medical practice that might benefit its own health and wellbeing in the long run, and getting a horse or other animal to comply or submit to an activity that seeks to provide some benefit to someone else at its own expense (or, at worst, causes harm to the animal).

While this issue is difficult to resolve at a macro level (such as using animals in medical testing or other industries that benefit humans – a conversation that is beyond the scope of this article), it is much easier to tackle at a micro level, such as in the field of equine-assisted practice, where partnership with a horse should be the foundation for growth and healing. If the healing, growth or enlightenment of one member of a relationship comes at the expense of another whose “no” is not being respected, what message is this conveying? How “healing” is an interaction if the needs of only one are being acknowledged or respected in the process? Doing so comes at the risk of reinforcing an unfortunate win-lose re-enactment that, ultimately, benefits neither and, at worst, is retraumatizing… something that may be all too familiar for either the horse or the human. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing® (SE™), uses the term “renegotiation to refer to the reworking of a traumatic experience in contrast to the reliving of it” (In An Unspoken Voice, 2010, p.23). Reliving, or re-enacting, is repeating a familiar situation or dynamic without resolution. Renegotiating is experiencing a different outcome or experiencing oneself differently in a familiar situation, completing what did not get a chance to biologically complete (such as a self-protective response – the traditional definition of renegotiation within SE™) or repairing or restoring what was ruptured, such as relational trust and attunement. For instance, if one of the goals is for humans to connect with animals in a deeper way, how is this possible if the animal’s needs are disregarded in the process and they are tuned out, shut down, frustrated or merely tolerating the interaction? If one of the goals for humans is congruence, assertiveness and greater agency around voicing needs and boundaries, what is being modeled if the equines’ voice and boundaries are disregarded in the process?

It is important to acknowledge and balance the needs of both members of a relationship – even an inter-species one – especially when the relationship is purported to be the vehicle for healing. And, again, compromise and doing things we might not want to do from time to time are also necessary. But there is a difference between getting there through dominance, fear, submission, coercion, and shutdown, and getting there through mutual respect, choice, compromise, responsiveness to signs of “yes” and “no”, and connection. Offering animals choice does not inherently mean that humans have to relinquish theirs – or vice versa. Rather, it is about really hearing what is being communicated and negotiating from there in a way that honours both voices. Even if this is not always achievable for various valid reasons, aiming for win-win scenarios in human and inter-species relationships to the degree that is possible is nonetheless a worthwhile intention.

Even if equine-assisted practices are typically for human benefit, this does not mean that such programs cannot also seek to benefit the animals in some way. At the very minimum, the interaction will be neutral for the animals, and ideally both would gain from the interaction – the ethical concepts of “do no harm” and “do good” apply equally to the human client and the equines involved. The same can be said for the principles of trauma-informed care. Safety, choice, voice, empowerment, trust, collaboration, compassion – and, yes, even “consent” as defined in this article – can be applied to all those taking part, whether two or four legged, to the degree that is reasonably possible. Since these principles are foundational components of human therapy and of animal rehabilitation programs, extending them to equine-assisted practice also makes sense. After all, “a good principle is a good principle, regardless of where it is applied.”

*The word horse in this article was used to lighten the text. The points raised in this post can apply to other equines and mammals as well.  Images in this article are by David Karaiskos Photography.

More information can be found at  www.equusoma.com, www.healingrefuge.com, www.traumatrainings.com, www.traumainformedyoga.ca.