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Apr 16, 2013

Horses as Counselors: A Horse is a Horse…

I was watching television today, flipping mindlessly through the channels, when I happened upon an old favorite.  Remember Mr. Ed and that famous theme song?  

Consider the lyrics:

A horse is a horse
Of course of course
And no one can talk to a horse,
Of course
That is, of course
Unless the horse
Is the famous Mister Ed!

Go right to the source
And ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse
He's always on a steady course
Talk to Mister Ed!

People yakkity-yak a streak
And waste your time of day
But Mister Ed will never speak
Unless he has something to say!

Oh, a horse is a horse
Of course, of course
And this one'll talk 'til his voice is hoarse
You never heard of a talking horse?

Well, listen to this:  “I am Mister Ed.”

That song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in the late 1950s and the lyrics are still quoted today.  What most people remember, however, is the affable palomino gelding named Mr. Ed whose ability to speak was both a blessing and curse to his owner, Wilber Post. 

For those trivia buffs out there, the role of Mr. Ed was played by a Saddlebred/Arabian cross named Bamboo Harvester.  This former show and parade horse landed the role of Mr. Ed when he was twelve years old and in training with Lester Hilton, a protégé of Will Rogers (remember Trigger?).  Lester Hilton was also the trainer of Francis the Talking Mule.

While the show was very entertaining, I am sad to inform you that the voice of Mr. Ed was not actually that of Bamboo Harvester.  That role was played by Rocky Lane for spoken lines and Sheldon Allman when singing was required.   In any event, the lyrics of the theme song really strike a chord with me when I think about being a counselor – and not just because I utilize horses in my practice.   In fact, this specific lyric is very relevant to the counseling profession as a whole:

People yakkity-yak the streak and waste your time of day

But Mr. Ed will never speak unless he has something to say

I am not saying that our day is wasted by clients talking all the time!  In fact, I mean the opposite.  We can easily waste a client’s time and money by saying too much during session.  When it comes down to it, the most important thing a counselor can do for her clients is to listen.  Not just hear what they have to say in order to dish out advice, but to really listen and speak only when there is something relevant and productive to say that will move the client forward in the therapeutic process.

This is an area where horses can be so useful.  They are professional listeners and observers.  Instinct drives them to be aware of their environment.  When they react, it is because something significant has happened.  When I am in an equine-assisted session with a client, I have learned to keep my mouth closed while my ears and eyes are open.  This allows the client to work with the horse on her terms and have an experience that is her own and not tainted by my thoughts and opinions.  But, I am still in observation and documentation mode.  I note significant behavior in the horses, as well as the client, and use that information as a springboard to start discussions when it is appropriate. 

I have noticed this is becoming a habit and I have transferred it to my in-office sessions.  I find myself observing the client’s body language and noting potential disconnects with what the client is talking about.  When it appears that a significant disconnect is present, I bring it to the client’s attention.  In essence, I listen, observe and speak when necessary.  Sometimes the client owns it and starts down the path of authenticity.  Other times, it’s just the seed that will eventually grow into recognition.  Nonetheless, I make an effort to remain aware of the fact that the client’s needs trump my need to “advise” of the direction they should be headed.  So far, it feels like the right thing to do.

All of this wisdom from a sitcom?  You bet!

Go right to the source
And ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse
He's always on a steady course
Talk to Mister Ed!
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

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