Typically, when we think of objectification we think of the overtly negative kind. Women’s bodies as objects for other’s consumption, children as extensions of ourselves, or the Earth as a disposable resource for our own benefit. Yet, a more subtle objectification is alive and well in human nature – that is, the deification of someone or something, the act of putting someone not below us, but above us and on a pedestal.
This can be seen clearly in the equine therapy world, where there seem to be two opposing camps at odds with each other. One believes horses are a useful tool for the healing and growth of humans – the other believes horses to be wise beyond measure, bordering on otherworldly, and having unknowable gifts to offer us.
The “horse as a tool” camp has a long history; throughout their generations, horses alongside human beings have been work animals. They carried warriors into battle, pulled farm equipment, were a mode of transportation, and then more recently, a source of recreation. None of these activities with horses lends itself well to seeing them as sentient beings. To care for them and think about them as we do a human would interfere with the work. And generally speaking, humans also have a long history of seeing animals as fundamentally different from us; they couldn’t possibly share in our experiences, feelings, and needs. Much of horse training reflects these beliefs – domination, power, and control continue to be the go-to for working with horses, no matter their job. For this camp, horses are considered less intelligent than humans, less capable of self-control/self-determination, and certainly in need of our leadership. In equine therapy specifically, this plays out as horses being a facilitator for therapy and not much more. They are an object for practicing leadership skills, setting boundaries, for guiding through obstacles; and when the horse listens and does what he is told, we humans feel strong and confident. Also in the “horse is a tool” camp, there is the horse that isn’t even a horse – he is a representation of my angry father, or my cold mother, or my demanding boss. He doesn’t necessarily have to do anything to make me feel that way, I just feel it because I needed to – and the horse was there to embody those feelings for me. It’s easier to project onto him than onto an inanimate object, like in the empty chair technique commonly used in office therapy – and easier to project onto him than a real person, because a person is inclined to express their own thoughts and feelings that don’t fit for our projection. The horse’s feedback then, his own experience and behaviors are not often taken into consideration – it would give him more dimension than would be helpful in the “horse as a tool” paradigm. He is something of a chess piece moved through a session in order to produce feelings or reactions in the human client. His presence is very useful, but he is not an individual and there is no dual-sided relationship there. The relationship is all on the human’s terms.
In more recent years, thanks to science and some evolution of thought, we are beginning to be reminded that humans are also animals, and perhaps not that different from those who surround us. More consideration for the welfare and internal lives of horses has arisen – a very good thing. However, it seems we are overcorrecting a bit, and now witnessing another camp forming. Or actually, simply growing in prominence – as this camp has been around as long as the first, really, but gaining traction in this new attempt at honoring the horse. This second camp sees horses not as tools or mere utilitarian devices, but as powerful spiritual guides, insightful creatures with gifts for healing. In this camp, horses are mystical, operating on another plane of existence, and here to give us messages that our limited human brains cannot detect for ourselves. They are, in a sense, deities walking among us. Some would say this is a beautiful correction to the idea of horses’ as lesser beings and tools for our use. But, to me, this is simply the other side of the same coin.
If a horse is a tool we use him for our benefit, and often miss the real flesh and blood animal standing in front of us. We see only our desires for him, our own goals, our own path. We control him to practice leadership or we project onto him to provide catharsis, and we worry very little about his own desires and needs. We don’t take in his presence, his behavior, as information on how we can change to be in better relationship with him, this specific horse. We miss that he is perhaps checked out, or stressed out, or confused and irritated – because we just want him to do what we ask, or represent someone he is not. But the flip side is not much better – here’s the thing, if a horse is a sort of a god – a creature capable of telepathy and mystical healing, he is STILL an object. In this camp, much value is placed on the act of just being with horses. It is often argued that simply sitting with them provides healing, growth, and insight. Now, as a horse lover myself I can honestly say there is something lovely about sitting with horses. There is a peacefulness there, and much like meditation, when I am still and peaceful I have clarity of mind. But to say the horse, while grazing and drinking water and pooping on the ground, is sending me messages from others on another plane of existence, is telepathic somehow, is to continue not seeing that horse, for who he is. He is still an object, a representation of my inner world. (Not to mention, feeling peaceful while sitting with horses may feel nice, but it is not therapy. We cannot ethically call this sort of work psychotherapy, we cannot bill insurance, and we certainly cannot be taken seriously by the psychotherapy and medical fields. Feeling peaceful momentarily or experiencing catharsis does not equal therapeutic growth. )
There is a fine line between being spiritual and twisting spirituality to suit ourselves. This treatment of horses crosses that line, frequently. I by no means intend to suggest that a spiritual connection with a horse isn’t possible – on the contrary, I firmly believe it is. But, I have seen time and time again this desire for a spiritual connection taken to an extreme that renders horses one-dimensional, and even more upsetting, continues the destructive paradigm of power and control – the exact paradigm this camp set out to destroy! When the horse is simply a conduit, a reflection of our inner world, or a creature on a pedestal, we still control him. We decide what he tells us and when, we decide what his behavior means to us. We go to him when we need something from him, and think little of how our interactions could be mutually beneficial from his perspective. What disturbs me about the blending of the spiritual with horses is I rarely hear of someone getting a negative message from their horse. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard people speak of communing with horses and receiving the message, “I don’t really want to be around you, will you go away?” – and yet, I see horses respond to people, through their behavior, with this exact message frequently. So what’s happening here? To me, it is the disconnect between reality and human projection. We want to control the information we receive. No one wants to hear that they are a mess and not fun to be around. But, spirituality, when it is done in the search for wholeness, has real darkness to it. There is brutal honesty, grief, and unpleasantness when we dig deep – as well as the good. If your spiritual connection with a horse is all telepathic sunshine and rainbows – it might be worth questioning. It’s scary to release control of both sides of the relationship, but it is also where the real, tangible healing happens – healing that can be carried forward into new relationships.
Horses are animals, mammals, similar to us in some ways and different in others. They have their own desires, their own needs, and their own priorities. We, over the centuries, have domesticated them and insisted they live alongside us. The least we could do is learn about their communication, their behavior and do our best to see each of them as an individual. Whether we see the horse as a tool or an otherworldly being – what ultimately suffers is the therapy, and the horse’s welfare. (Keep an eye out for blogs on those topics later).
Until proven otherwise, what we currently know is horses communicate through body language – the combinations of tension and relaxation, ear position, movement, and more. In a therapy session, when a horse leaves us to go drink water – is he telling us that our soul is thirsty and it’s time to take better care of ourselves, or is he rejecting our attempts at connection just like our mother…or is he simply an animal that needs to quench his own, literal, thirst? Which one is based in his reality, and which one is something we decided based on what we wanted to hear/feel/see in the moment? Not to mention, what does this do to the therapeutic growth of the client – to ignore a simple behavioral choice and pile countless meanings on it instead? To interpret behaviors as more than their face value? To expect telepathy? Have you ever experienced that real desire for your spouse to read your mind? To just know you wanted or needed something without having to ask…and for those of you who have been with a partner for a long time – how often does this telepathy occur? For my clients, this sort of thing is often what landed them in relational difficulties in the first place – mind-reading, meaning-laden interpretations of behavior, projection. These are road blocks to true connection – love based on reality, intimacy, authenticity. I, for one, do not want to recreate these unhealthy patterns in my therapy sessions, and therefore, cannot try to control the horse, dismiss the horse, or deify the horse.
The thing that makes me the saddest about these two camps, besides the possible damage done to clients and horses – is that both are missing out on the very real relationship that is possible. I can’t have a connected, nourishing, and challenging relationship with an object like I can with a sentient being. And in therapy, a lack of real relationship restricts significant opportunities for lasting healing. This is different from the cognitive shift that can happen when I see my mother in the horse’s behavior, or lead a horse through an obstacle course, or hear wisdom from within when I sit quietly watching horses graze. None of these activities require the horse to be a sentient being, a unique individual – this same work is being done with furniture in an office, or drawings, or solitary contemplation. And while, of course, these activities with horses can be beneficial, it is difficult for these benefits to last. For lasting change, our brains and bodies have to practice a new way of being – insight alone is not enough. Consider how many people you have met who know the right things to do, and simply can’t do them consistently (myself included!). The beauty of the horse as a sentient being, a partner in therapy, is that I can build a real two-sided relationship with him. I can try to engage, ask things of him, have him ask things of me; I can make mistakes and see the horse’s negative response, and then I can repair those mistakes and see the horse’s positive response. It’s harder, and it’s more vulnerable. There are moments when I will be greatly humbled, and moments when I don’t get what I want. But, it’s also real. With time, I can learn his preferences and he mine – and we can navigate the difficulties of boundary setting, intimacy, listening, and asking. I can learn, deep in my bones, how to be in a healthy partnership where we both heal, and then I can practice it each time we are together. And when I do that, I can go back to my human relationships with new ways of being, not just thoughts. My human relationships transform – and isn’t that the ultimate goal of therapy with horses? To heal not just in session, but out in the world too? But none of that is possible if this specific horse, with his specific temperament, isn’t truly seen for who he really is. Not for what he represents and not for what he can do for me.
Some folks may assume I mean that these two camps aren’t ever doing good work, or that there is malice in these approaches. Neither is fully true. Good work can be done, and it is human nature, not evil, to try to control others and our experience. My argument, though, is that there is a third way. A way in which horses are neither less than or better than, but animals just like us; full of foibles and bad habits and grace and healing – and in this third way are both the human and horse honored for their real, flesh and blood contribution. My argument is for letting go of controlling the other, so we can see what is really there, right in front of us.