Mental Health and Horses

I find it so fascinating that the training methods and philosophies used with horses tend to be a reflection of the mental health philosophies carried at the time.

Think back to the frontier days – horses were sacked out, overpowered, and essentially “broken” until they cooperated. Any horse who did not cooperate was sold, euthanized or discarded somehow. That method of training is pretty reflective of the cultural beliefs surrounding “toughness” and the ability to have a stiff upper lip. People were tough, overpowered other people, and essentially shut out basic, healthy parts of the range of human emotion.

Come forward in history a little to the explosion of the natural horsemanship movement – many trainers promoting heavy desensitization techniques, where if a horse was afraid of something, they were essentially bombarded with it til they stopped reacting. The over arching presence of sexism was still common – many trainers were using the analogy of a marriage with horse and rider- with the rider being the husband who leads and the horse being the wife who submits.

I receive emails and messages frequently from folks working with people promoting this type of work who were sexually abused, harrassed or otherwise threatened by their teacher. Allegations of abuse to horses arose, and YouTube videos of secret horse abuse circled. These traumas were kept tight, not discussed, and the horse and human victims carried the shame in silence. An anthropomorphized bore of horses as requiring respect for humans and submission, coupled with the desire for power and lack of acceptance of the full range of emotions of horses and humans – left plenty of harm in its wake.

(Before you freak out about me insulting NH as a whole, I offer the disclaimer that obviously not all clinicians were or are like this, and many are evolving past these frames of mind)

I think society in general is becoming more aware of mental health, acceptance of emotion, and how power dynamics in our society have shaped us. Training philosophies are evolving toward more compassionate beliefs and methods, as we are learning more and more about the horses’ brain. We also know far more now about how humans process trauma, and can begin to laterally apply these concepts to horses. We know that a traumatized person does not thrive with the event or thing that traumatized them being bombarded at them – and we can understand why a horse, too, would be forced to shut down in the face of their fears repeatedly exposed to them.

It’s fascinating to me to watch humanity move forward. There is some amazing work being done on both the forefront’s of mental health and horse training. But the reality becomes more evident to me every day- that we must do the work on ourselves in order to find harmony with other living beings.

One thought on “Mental Health and Horses

  1. This is accurate. Back in 1992 I had my first horse (a wonderful bay QH) and the barn owners invited us to a NH clinic with a local trainer. We were standing there and He took my horse and kicked him really hard in the belly. I was shocked and he said something about ‘teaching him to be aware’. It is my biggest shame that I didn’t leave right then. But I never let him near my horse again. The idea back then was to run horses ragged in the round pen until they caved in. These people also tied up the horses for hours (with their head elevated, not just standing tied where they could empower their head). I left that barn shortly after and it made me wary of all NH trainers. Now I love where it’s going and have come back to it.


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