ACA Blog

Feb 21, 2013

Horses as Counselors: Communication

Horses communicate primarily through the use of body language, eye contact, voice and smell. As we learned last time, observing the horse can often provide clues about his emotional state and temperament. This week, we will discuss how understanding horse communication may help counselors communicate with clients on a deeper level.

 

The best way I can think of to illustrate this concept is though a case study. The names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Roberta & Emmitt
Roberta and her husband Emmitt sought counseling to address marriage difficulties. During their first session of traditional couple’s counseling, Roberta indicated that she was hoping to find out if they could resolve their issues and continue building a life together. Emmitt stated that he did not see how counseling could help, but he attended the session because he had no choice. Roberta’s main complaint was that she felt isolated in the marriage because Emmitt did not want to spend time with her. Emmitt had no response to her position. Throughout the session, he appeared very withdrawn and rarely engaged in the conversation. Roberta, however, was very aggressive and often answered questions that were directed toward her husband. This dynamic continued for a few sessions and the couple eventually agreed to give equine-assisted counseling a try.

Two horses were used during the first equine-assisted session. One was a big grey Thoroughbred gelding. The other was a smaller chestnut Quarter Horse mare. The horses were turned loose in a large indoor arena. The couple was instructed to take a few minutes to observe the horses and note anything interesting about them and how they interacted. During this time, the chestnut was very active, nipping at the grey’s cheek and neck and chasing him back and forth across the arena. Roberta watched for a few seconds and began to list the physical characteristics of each horse, such as size, height and color. Emmitt remained silent, but appeared to be watching the grey with some interest.

The couple was then asked to introduce themselves to the horses and spend a bit of time getting to know each one. Both horses faced the couple as they entered the arena. Roberta walked straight toward the chestnut, holding her hands in front of her and cooing as if she were talking to a child. As Roberta approached, the mare stiffened and raised her head high in the air and held ears held forward. When Roberta was just within reach, the horse took several steps backwards and snorted loudly. Roberta was unaffected and continued to move toward the horse.

Emmitt watched his wife for a while and then shook his head as he walked toward the grey. As the man approached, the grey stood still, watching him with soft eyes and a relaxed expression. He held his ears out to the side and was resting his left hind foot. Emmitt never looked the horse directly in the eyes but slowly reached out and stroked the horse’s neck. He eventually leaned his body against the horse’s right shoulder and wrapped his left arm over the horse’s back. The grey turned his head toward Emmitt and touched his muzzle to the man’s shoulder.

In the meantime, the chestnut had taken flight and was trotting in large circles. Roberta was persistent in her attempts to coerce her into submission with a continuous stream of sweet-talk that turned more demanding with every circuit they made around the arena. Emmitt appeared to be oblivious to what his wife was doing, but suddenly exclaimed in a very loud voice: “I used to run like that too, but it doesn’t work!”

His wife glared in his direction and continued the chase. When asked what he had meant by his statement, Emmitt said the chestnut was reacting to his wife the way he used to react when she would badger him about things. He said he eventually got tired of running in circles so he just stopped reacting. He then turned to the grey and opined that the horse had obviously come to the same conclusion about the mare.

Now we have something to talk about!
Emmitt’s statement represented a significant turning point in the counseling process. Until that point, he had remained silent during sessions while Roberta aired her grievances. Interacting with the horses, however, prompted Emmitt to identify a metaphor that helped him acknowledge his true feelings about his relationship with his wife. As the counseling process continued, Roberta was able to reflect on her own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. She was eventually able to see how the horses’ reactions reflected her demeanor and resembled the way Emmitt had reacted to her in the past. By working with horses, the couple learned how to communicate with each other in a healthy manner.

So, exactly what did the horses do in this case?
Both horses used body language to express themselves. In this case, the chestnut mare gave strong signs of anxiety as Roberta approached. The stiffened posture, high head carriage and forward ears all signify that the horse was in a state of alertness. Something about Roberta’s body language, even subtle signs we may not have been able to pick up directly, triggered the reaction in the mare. On the other end of the spectrum, the grey gelding remained in a relaxed state as Emmitt approached. The horse had soft eyes, his ears were held to each side and he was resting a hind foot. The horse did not perceive Emmitt as a threat. All of this information is useful when helping clients identify issues and discover ways to navigate their way through problems.

Should the counselor interpret this information for the clients?
As this couple’s story unfolded, I have no doubt you recognized significant behaviors in the horses and couldn’t resist creating “the rest of the story” for yourself. This is a big temptation in any type of counseling session, especially equine-assisted counseling, and must be resisted. It is vital that the client be the one to identify what is significant and to assign meaning to horse behaviors. The whole point of the process is to encourage clients to use the horses’ behaviors to create metaphors for their own issues. If the counselor started providing their perspective, it would be the counselor’s view and not a reflection of the client’s world. To keep the process moving forward, however, making generic observations about horse behaviors or noting a client’s reaction to certain horses is not off limits as long as it doesn’t lead a client in a certain direction. In the end, the counselor must ensure that the client remains the main character in his own story.

Interested in learning more about equine communication?
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association: www.eagala.org
Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), International: www.pathintn.org


Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit www.lisakrystosek.com.

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