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Animal and Human - who is the guide?

KHall3Sometimes on this website we publish articles which have a broader environmental focus than climate change. This is one such piece.

In the first part the author examines the phenomenon of equine-assisted therapy, as an example of a revolutionary attitude to other species, in which they are seen as our therapists, teachers, guides, benefactors – in effect, as figures of authority. He describes the ways this is experienced and considers why it is so powerful therapeutically.

In the second part he argues that this position can neglect the other species’ real needs for humans to be their guides, carers, etc. He examines contemporary unease with this latter position - among some eco-psychologists for instance - and attempt an integration of these apparent polarities. He includes a description of the states of heightened consciousness which can arise as we move into and beyond a more complete, dialogic partnership with other life.

Although his main focus here is on the human relationship with horses, he draws parallels with statements other writers are making about their discoveries with birds and plant life, implying that what is happening with horses has a wider significance.


The Advent of Equine-Assisted Therapy


For every species, it seems, there are individual humans who can feel a profound affinity. Partnerships with crocodiles, tarantulas, bison have all been reported. Mark Cocker (2013) gives eloquent testimony to the heartfelt human connection with birds, as a world-wide, cross cultural and multi-layered phenomenon. Any claim, therefore, that the bond with the horse is in some way unique, is open to challenge. Nevertheless, it can be argued that few other species have stirred the human imagination to the same extent.

The bond between human and equine pervades the spiritual history of mankind. Horses feature prominently in the earliest known cave paintings where they are portrayed with an exactitude and sensitivity which, it seems to me, can only arise from deepest appreciation. Generations of Siberian Shamans reached the otherworld on the back of their spirit horses. Gautama was conducted towards Buddhahood by Kanthaka. Alexander the champion of the European impulse was carried on his conquests by Bucephalus whom he had befriended when the animal seemed untameable to others. Mohammed was conducted on his night journey from Mecca to the Temple Mount at Jerusalem by the steed Buruq. Gawain, when he sought out the Green Knight to embrace and transcend the cycles and seasons of Earth, depended on Gringolet. Christian Rosenkreutz, carrying the secrets of hermetic wisdom, became visible to European culture in the guize of Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider” (according to Rudolf Steiner’s mysterious account). Jesus Christ – exemplifying the humility which is such a prominent feature of his teaching – entered Jerusalem on the horse’s “lesser” cousin, the donkey. But in a curious echo of the Alexander story, it was one which had never been ridden until he chose it.

Of course, alongside this exalted status, humans have simultaneously subjected the other species to enormous cruelty. The death toll of horses in World War One, or the appalling conditions in which horses are transported by lorry to European slaughterhouses, provide two of the innumerable examples. I would like to believe that the respect and appreciation, which I find in the exquisite prehistoric cave paintings, also prevailed at the vast Paleolithic killing sites (Kingsnorth 2013) which archaeology has unearthed; but I have no reason to assume this.

Nevertheless, the world is full of people who in some way feel thrilled and enriched by the existence of this species and revere it. Now, a further chapter has unfolded with the rise of equine-assisted therapy. In this activity, the horse offers a healing to humans which is seen as particularly potent at this time and in this culture of the post-industrial West. I have attempted to survey the methods used in this field, and the writings and the statements of both practitioners and clients, with both sympathy and critical attention, to find out just what this story carries. I have also wondered if it tells us something more generally about relationships between our species and the rest of the living world – and about the differing ways we perceive these matters, and the questions this leaves unanswered.

About ten years ago, I was a recreational horseman who had already explored non-verbal communication with horses at liberty in open space. I had become fascinated by the feelings of exhilaration and mellow fullness this kind of conversation induced in me. I then heard that a colleague in the counselling and therapy community had been to the U.S. to learn “equine-assisted therapy” with Linda Kohanov. Soon after, I chanced to hear of a new and entirely separate organization, the “Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association”. Since then, I have watched this field expand greatly, and I have tried to keep abreast of developments, which have included the founding of several other organizations and a growing number of independent practitioners. In these circles, the horse is frequently regarded as a benefactor of humankind, able to offer psychological healing with skills, attitudes and attributes to rival or outdo any human therapist. Sometimes, these methods are held to be effective in ways which other therapies are not.

The methods of EAT are usually a variation on the following: the horses are loose in an open space, so that their freedom to offer powerful response is considerable. Clients are asked to consider that the horses are aware of them and offering them feedback even before they enter the paddock or focus on them. They are asked to become aware of their own bodies, current emotions and pre-occupations, and to be prepared for the horse to offer insight into these at any moment. They are supported by a human guide in entering the horse’s space and in approaching them, noting any reaction from the horse. Here people often register fear, nervousness, longing, sadness. Horses may offer close or playful contact, may suddenly withdraw, may ignore the newcomer, or become suddenly soft and drowsy. Humans may experience rejection or acceptance powerfully, may be re-assured - or propelled into unease and pain familiar from their past. From this point onwards the client is supported by the facilitator in understanding their own unwitting attitudes and gestures and then trying out alternatives – for instance an aggressive person may be asked to soften their body posture – and the changes in the horse’s response to this is often immediate and profoundly validating. The tasks can then become more and more sophisticated. Eventually it is possible for a partnership, a dance of skill, poise and connection to arise – with a horse running, springing, stopping and turning in unison with the human. This can feel “as good as it gets”, a golden moment of life smiling on someone to whom it might hitherto have only shown a scowl.

This has earned much media and public attention, such as Tracey McVeigh’s Guardian article of 25th Feb 2012, “Not Just Horsing Around…psychologists put their faith in equine therapies”, and a proliferation of television and radio items. With this coverage comes a growing volume of personal testimonies as to the far-reaching effects of these methods. These are striking for their qualities of gratitude and appreciation for the other species. Here are four varied examples; first, from a survivor of childhood abuse:

”Many people, like myself, experience abuse, many turning to self-harm, drugs or alcohol. I turned to a horse…the relationship with horses can heal the wounds of trauma…”(1)

Secondly, a young man who struggled through childhood and adolescence with autism and the social exclusion this entailed:

“I was suicidal, hysterical, upset and depressed with the bullying and hate in my life, particularly that aimed at me for having a so-called disability……..As soon as my hand touched Oscar’s mane, I felt all the hurt and pain wash away to be replaced by love and friendship and hope for the future.”(Avent, 2011)

A woman who had felt she was “poisonous to relationships” describes her encounter with a horse during a therapy session;

“I felt I was sinking into the safety of her deeply seeing, softly breathing, alive self…and I felt repaired.”(2)

Lastly, a counsellor who participated in a weekend workshop:

“One woman is crying as she describes the quality of communication between Maud and me. Something about the way I directed Maud without being controlling moves me greatly…..I leave with the memory, in my body, of what it feels like to be really present with the horses, to hold my ground, to be directive and to feel nourished by their spiritual presence.”(Banning, 2012)

As people in such examples attempt to describe exactly what it is that horses offer, the recurring perceptions seem to include benevolent strength, acceptance and lack of falseness:

“I found horses the only consistency in my life. They had power yet didn’t have to use it. Being comfortable in their skins, what you saw was what you got. Through the relationship with horses I learnt that power and muscle doesn’t mean violence, or physical skin to skin touch doesn’t mean pain…These were messages I couldn’t learn through traditional therapeutic methods.” (3)

These experiences seem to be heightened by the element of risk. A horse can say “yes” or “no” to a human with the full force of half a ton of physical power and ten million years of sharply honed instinct. The animal can flee a human, or harm him in ways leaving no room for uncertainty about the intention; so when they offer willing co-operation, or show pleasure in someone’s company, this carries greatly heightened impact and meaning. And if you’re someone to whom life has repeatedly offered a series of “no’s” – of rebuffs, of betrayals, of disappointments, then the horse’s “yes” has even more meaning. As Lizzie Spender has written:

“A horse is no household pet, their size alone can imbue an edge of danger, and so there is the challenge of reaching an understanding with an animal that is powerful enough to trample you to death……..Horses are enormously strong, yet capable of infinite gentleness….They pick up instantly on moods and states of mind: fear, unhappiness, happiness, impatience, confidence or lack of confidence….Then there is the joy of riding a good horse; to be transformed from a plodding human, forever earthbound, to a creature that can fly……..” (Spender, 2005,133)


The degree to which they can immediately reflect and respond to human mood, attitude - and changes in these - is noted with awe. They often seem to show the human’s unowned anger, fear, sorrow or resentment. When the human reclaims these feelings, allows them and moves beyond them, the horse frequently offers calm and co-operation. When humans whose boundaries have been violated, learn to assert their boundaries, horses show respect and acceptance. They reward clear intention, attention and enthusiasm with agility, grace and power. Something about that moment of willingness to respond, the horse’s recognition of the human’s well-meaning and vulnerable desire, is cathartic. After a demo session a colleague contacted me:

“The time we spent with the horses was more powerful than I had realized at the has taken me to a place very close to tears. Now I feel their openness, their willingness to be met and my own resistance at the time. I thought you should have this feedback together with my profound thanks.” (4)

This response can be direct, timely and accurate, but the aspect that gives it particular power seems to be that it comes from a non-human source. This gives it an air of miracle. In one example, a client had been talking about a painful history of “not being seen”. Invited to go into the horse paddock, she stood by the horse who was grazing, for some time. She then told the therapist, rather shyly, “Really, I want him to lift up his head and look at me...”. The therapist suggested she simply let herself wish for that. In the next moment the horse raised his head from the grass, looked at her face, and rubbed her gently with his head. She expressed surprise and wonder. But in addition to this, woman and horse then repeated the exact sequence again. A quality of heightened and tender awareness pervaded the remainder of the session.

This example of poignant response from another creature can be compared with others in non-equine contexts. Mark Cocker (2013) offers one:

“...a mother..lost her 22-year-old daughter in a car accident. Weeks after the funeral, ‘something’ told her to go through the french windows at the other side of the house and there, sitting on the patio, was a kingfisher that she picked up and stroked before the bird finally flew away. That moment of intimacy was, its author confessed, ‘a mystifying solace to me over the years.’”

The regularity with which such events are now being witnessed with horses suggests that they can become an even more widely recognized aspect of our exchange with the living world. One thing which seems to be crucial is the vividity and lack of subterfuge with which horses display emotions, moods and intentions - their total authenticity. They have no shame in demonstrating deep, mellow relaxation - in the lowering of the eyelids, the drooping of the head, the stillness of the legs; or intense alarm - in the sudden lunge away from a perceived threat (or towards it with teeth bared). In the presence of this, humans’ reservations also begin to dissolve, and tears and laughter, terror and joy flow more freely. When we see that the most terrifying horse can become co-operative, the most compliant horse can be panicked by us, we also see the potency of human attitude and mind/body communication.

If there is an underlying unease in our society which is caused by lack of connection to the natural world - for instance the Nature-Deficit Disorder described by Louv (2005) - then this work is an antidote. Social psychologist Peter Kahn and colleagues (2013, 55-76) attempted to classify the types of transaction with nature which are crucial to humans’ well-being. The events reported in equine therapy testimonies correspond to many of these. The horse’s undiluted instincts and vigorous physicality restores a sense of earthiness and natural rhythm for which many have been searching for their whole life without knowing this to be the case. A whole missing dimension of existence can be regained.

At the same time, many of the relational phenomena which form the bedrock of the psychotherapy process seem to be magnified or are accelerated in equine-assisted process; transference – in which old and restrictive relationship patterns arise in a current relationship and become conscious; corrective emotional experience – in which warmth and approval which have been lacking hitherto are at last received; catharsis – in which repressed emotions are released; the I-Thou encounter – in which there is a mutual and pure recognition between two beings. These are steps on the way to self acceptance and towards increased scope for individual choice of behaviour, an opening of new horizons for those whose horizons have been felt to be limited.

Neuropsychology and biochemistry are beginning to be brought into the picture. In his work with autistic children Rupert Isaacson, author of the widely-acclaimed book “The Horse Boy”, indicated that the motion of the human body on horseback (or for some people indeed, the sheer presence of a horse) triggers the release of oxytocin in the body which enables the learning receptors in the brain to open. Franklin Levinson, a horse trainer from the U.S. says “It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centred and focussed…..Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of a herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd.”(McVeigh, 2012)

Although “robust academic evaluations” had hitherto been “remarkably absent from the emerging literature base” in this field, in 2012 Rosie Meek, Professor of Criminological Psychology at Teeside University, attempted to apply them to a project with inmates at HMP/YOI Portland, and came up with a clear affirmation of “the potential psychological, cognitive, and behavioural impact.” The programme focussed on “young men who have a history of conflict with staff and/or other prisoners; and those who may be especially vulnerable or at-risk of victimisation and/or self harm…” Its aim was to “teach psychological and emotional self-control through an intensive course with two specially trained horses.” Her conclusions quote Franklin Levinson: “individuals learn that respect and compassion yield more rewarding experiences and co-operation with the horse than dominance and aggression. Indeed, the remarkable success of EAT programmes has led to claims that they represent one of the more effective rehabilitation techniques within the penal system today” (Meek, 2012).

Other researchers have supported the claim that this work greatly benefits clients suffering from PTS and those struggling with addictions. Leigh Shambo’s 2008 study with a group of six women with histories of abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder concluded that they all had less anxiety and depression after a ten week horse programme, and this was further supported by data collected four months after treatment finished (Shambo, 2008, 120-125) A similar study by Randy H. Zasloff (2009) of ten clients produced similar results based on qualitative interviews. In both studies the failure of other therapies previous to Equine was reported (ibid, 127-130).


Other Stories

So the emergent story is one in which another creature, who could be dangerously hostile or indifferent, generously displays relational skills and profound empathic responses to humans in a way which heals to an extent which fellow humans alone do not. However, other voices in the equestrian world have asked the question, what do horses ask of us, and what deprivations do they suffer, which we might be required to make good? Without asking this question we may risk infantilizing ourselves, rather as if the animal’s only purpose was for our benefit, thereby remaining deaf to our co-inhabitants on the planet. Could the answers also illuminate another question frequently asked today: if we are to cease the ecological abuses we have been perpetrating for much of recent history, then what posture must we assume towards other life?

I assume that horses in their “natural” state lived with an intensity far removed from the condition of most of their descendants, who are cared for by humans. They were born into large herds in which they could play, fight, socialize as they chose. They could migrate, form various bonds with others of their kind, mate and give birth, achieve status and role within the herd. When mating, competing, or engaging in other social interactions, or evading, fleeing and fighting predators, they could reach a pitch of arousal, alertness, strength, nimbleness. Of course, they were also subject to the vagaries of weather, season and shortages of food. They were pursued, killed and eaten, so that old age, sickness or injury meant being abandoned and quickly hunted down As far as I can tell, life was relatively short and frequently exhausting.

The involvement with humans has meant that the situation of many horses in the civilized world is more secure and in a way, softer. They are protected from predators and fed consistently and regularly. For some people, the main answer to the question of what horses ask of us is this: a life in green open spaces, freely moving among a group of their own kind; some might add that their coats should be fully grown in the winter and their feet free of the constriction of metal shoes. But even in this scenario, mating, birthing, confronting threats, vying with each other and bonding with each other is strictly limited. For most of the horse population, the first three activities are non-existent. So they never reach those high points of arousal and energy and are in this sense, less than they were. If we choose, we can assume the task of replacing that lost edge with a refinement of grace, strength and response through interaction and activities which we offer the horse. This can be seen in the work of some sports competitors, some practitioners of classical equitation or some unclassifiable but extraordinary horse communicators like Klaus Hempfling ( It can be seen in moments when a rider asks something challenging of a horse and the latter responds readily with accuracy, poise and power. This often entails the state known in equitation as “collection”. Without human intervention this state is assumed at times of high arousal, such as when the possibility of mating arises. It is literally uplifting (the back is raised and movement elevated), it stimulates the highest energy and awareness. It seems beautiful, stirring, heavenly.

Although what we often see in the dressage ring is a substitute version, some rare humans can evoke the genuine article in a horse without strain and without any mechanical equipment. Through profound understanding and communication they bring the horse to a completion, which fulfils human and horse together. It challenges any notion that they might be better off without us, and has quite a different quality to that of a horse following humdrum and repetitive routines of domesticity. When I see them moving at liberty in collection they seem to me to be even more contented than when they’re just peacefully grazing in the field. That is, I concede, my perception. But if it’s accurate, we are actually replacing through partnership what we have taken away through domestication. This is ironic and in a way, absurd, because, having made the horse’s life safer, we now seek to enhance it through challenge. But perhaps it nevertheless represents our most honourable and conscious contribution to the welfare of these fellow living beings. Perhaps it is what they ask of us.

Theodore Roszack (1993) saw the Deep Ecologists like Arne Naess as rejecting the notion that humans were in any way “above” or apart from the eco-system “whether as master or steward.”(ibid: 234). Any residue of the old story that we were appointed by God over other life was seen as human self-aggrandizement. With a capacity for ecological folly as great as our ingenuity and intelligence, we had lost any claim to superiority over other life forms.

Exemplifying this position, Alan Bleakley (2013) writes of “the anthropocentrism rife in the ecology movement, characterized by the idea of “stewardship” of the earth”. He goes on, “It is not us who will save the animal, but the animal will save us”. But others, ardently and honestly seeking a position from which to respond to crises like that afflicting bees worldwide, have arrived at concepts like “Guardianship”. Jessie Jowers, one of the founders of a charity called the Bee Guardian Foundation, described this, in conversation, as quite different from any kind of rulership. It recognizes that we do have immense power, our decisions affecting the well-being of innumerable other species. It calls on us to express that power in attuned and reciprocal dialogue with those species, and assumes these things are possible. My earlier evocation of consummate horsemanship carries echoes of this position.

The unease and confusion this dilemma can provoke for humans today is exemplified by the account feminist author Jenny Diski gives of her foray into horsemanship. She wrote a frank and very contemporary investigation of the human relationship with animals (Diski, 2010). In it, she gives voice to the widespread human reaction against domination of other species, and she finds herself feeling this particularly, after her visits to a local riding school. After a couple of attempts at riding, during which she witnesses a minor accident and experiences a lot of helplessness on horseback, she reaches the conclusion that: “I had no desire at all to give this or any animal instructions. I didn’t want to be in charge of a horse, to dominate it, even in the most benign way....I had no taste for being a ‘master’......It was why I had never had a dog....They (horses) are essentially slaves” (ibid, 274-275).

But actually, if we read her account carefully, we find that she does seem to have glimpses of something other than domination and submission. She concedes that she and the horse “were supposed to have a relationship. Maddy (the horse) knew this and was explaining it to me: I am not a machine that you knee as if you were putting me into gear, I am a responsive creature that you have a dialogue with.”(ibid, my italics throughout) She also realizes that the horse often reflects what the human unwittingly presents. She recounts the anecdote of the rider who was “tense and erratic in the handling of the horse, his mind not on the animal, really” and whose horse, therefore, had “stopped paying attention to the rider just as his rider had stopped paying attention to him and went out of control, refusing to follow his instructions”. She concludes that “the relationship and movements between human and animal can become so subtle as to be invisible to the onlooker. To be in control of a horse, it’s necessary to be able to communicate with it, and to enable it to communicate with you. I can see the fascination of that, but I still don’t want to be in control.” (ibid, 277) Paradoxically, she also dislikes the opposite, writing that she has “been on a ship in a storm in the Bay of Biscay and felt more in control” (ibid, 278). The distinction between control and dialogue doesn’t seem to be significant to her and she concludes by withdrawing from the engagement. She doesn’t want to be in charge or out of control or engaged in subtle dialogue.

In responding to this, I would claim that although I have learnt how to claim authority with a horse, I have also learnt that this can only be done up to a point, at which I meet the unassailable authority of the other. In this, it’s just like all other relationships. The horse is essentially a partner and we have conversations. I can state categorically that there are times when the horse disputes with me and then I have to change, that at these times the horse is a deft teacher of self-awareness and wellness. To give an example, I sometimes ask a horse, from the ground, to bring his neck and back into a state of roundness and rock backwards onto the hindquarters (this is to increase balance and suppleness). When I ask patiently and softly the horse usually does this. But one day I was in a brusque and impatient mood – although I wasn’t aware of that till afterwards. So my body tone was stiff and the message in my hands was curt and unyielding. And the horse simply reared up on his hindquarters – a clear statement of “no”. And I realized what I’d been doing. I breathed and softened and eased up, and asked again. This time the horse performed the exercise with calm attention. To me, this is not about control. It is about how to ask in a way, and at a time, which enables the other to answer “yes”.

There is another underlying paradox in this position: if we truly achieve some kind of Guardianship, it is because we are appointed to it, elected even, by the other creature(s), having earned it. This occurs when we are also able and willing to play the other roles of pupil, servant or partner of other life – when we put ourselves in the child role more than the parental one. The lesson of horsemanship is that the horse gives his most gracious moments to the person who knows exactly how to ask, who understands most fully what he is asking, and who most appreciates the response; who asks in a way which flows into the horse’s own inclinations and potential.

In this scenario we have the power to complete the picture, to consummate the process. Hempfling states: “The person at the horse’s side has the possibility to ‘finalize’ this act of creation, to perfect it (Hempfling,2010.132)……The human being awakens the spiritual in the horse, and by doing this, he confirms and releases the spiritual being within himself.” (ibid.133) This may suggest the special status for humans renounced by Deep Ecology. But instead, it may offer a reconciliation of the polarity between anthropocentrism on the one hand, and complete lack of engagement on the other.

The paradox is highlighted even more acutely by horsemanship author Dr. Deb Bennett (2014), writing about mounted horsemanship exercises:

“The rider is 100% responsible for all outcomes; there is no such thing as 'resistance' coming from the horse......The rider has to see the world as the horse sees it....."

The rider has to be as much “present” as the horse, or more so; this can only happen when the performance is not the primary objective, but maintaining inner equanimity is.”

If I reword this in order to apply it to other contexts, it would become something like “When a conflict with nature arises, we don’t blame the other, we reappraise and change what the human is doing. Empathy is the basis for all transactions. It is not the outcome that’s top priority - the quality of consciousness and of relationship, which the human embodies, this is the top priority”. Such attitudes inspire me to hope that this model of horsemanship contains the makings of a new relationship to other-than-human life.

But if we stay with Dr. Bennett, my project then seems to run into difficulties, because her next “primary lesson” is:
“The rider has to be firm enough so that the horse realizes that you mean to govern and guide him.”

Moreover, I had in fact omitted from the earlier quote her stated priority “to teach, guide and protect the animal at all times”.

So this could be an all-too-familiar case of anthropocentrism and colonization. But I doubt it, if her earlier points are truly embodied at the same time. If they are, what we end up with is not a controller and controlled, it is more like two dancing partners. During interaction with a horse at the most sensitive levels of horsemanship something happens which goes beyond dichotomies of dominion/ subjugation and disengagement. When it happens, the two dancers are active and calm, responsive and free. Many horsemen and women have experienced this and struggled to put it into words. Some use the phrase “following the feel” to refer to a state in which the horse instantly and effortlessly picks up human intention and responds to it. For both parties, this is intensely rewarding, and the horse participating in this needs neither threats nor rewards.

Horses have a language based on claiming and yielding space. It can be observed or learned, particularly when it is being enacted through the movement of feet - one horse moving their feet in response to another, moving away from or into a space. At other times the signals are virtually imperceptible to an onlooker. If both parties are claiming and yielding, then meeting happens in the dynamic tension. If only one party is doing either the claiming or the yielding, there is no meeting, only conquest. Carolyn Resnick’s (2005) description of the “waterhole ritual” she witnessed among feral mustangs, which involves two horses alternately pursuing and fleeing from each other, is a graphic example. The flux between claiming and yielding veers towards dance, and indeed the way male and female sometimes partner each other in flamenco, with alternating advance and retreat, can be seen as a sort of human dramatization of this kind of language.

This often produces meeting and partnership at a very tender and intimate level. In my view, it leads towards a relational state beyond it, in which neither claiming nor yielding are taking place. Real togetherness replaces them: each wants what the other wants. This can be felt between horse and human on foot, or horse and rider. It can also be felt between human and human in sexual play, in sport, or in shared creative endeavour of other kinds, such as musical duos. Often we have to go through the potentially more confrontational stage of claiming and yielding space, to get to it. Knowledge and recognition of each other has to come first. But we are talking here of a closeness with other life which might include the claiming and yielding of space and power, but which reaches a condition beyond the limitations of either.

I can find further illumination of these zones of mind in a context which, initially, might seem very different. Herbalist Nathan Hughes describes the conditions which enable him to find a profoundly personal exchange with the plants he uses for healing. He asks “What would it be like to approach a plant slowly? How would it feel to ask permission to come closer? What would it mean to honour and respect the invisible, yet felt, boundary between yourself and the plant? How would it feel to approach with humility and a simple request in our hearts; ‘I am honoured to meet you and would very much like to know you better’.” (Hughes, 2014,18)

Hughes balances two opposing principles in another dynamic tension. One, that complete respect for the beinghood of the other is essential for dialogue to emerge and for us to perceive the essence of the other. The other principle is that what we perceive, even when we have such respect, directly reflects our own character and identity. “We live in a hall of mirrors. But, deep within each mirror is an image of the true plant” (ibid, 37). As we balance these, “we can start to reclaim a plant led and directly experienced approach to finding the medicine of our local plants.” These attitudes create the same preconditions as those for the kind of horsemanship Dr. Bennett is advocating. It leads ultimately to a place of intimate encounter. To convey the quality of such meeting, Hughes quotes Rumi:

“Don’t fear this melting away of boundaries between lovers.......When we don’t hold to our images and expectations of the other, our beloved can be like the moon, fresh every day, new every time he or she melts into us.!” (ibid.)

In similar vein, Margot Lasher (2008) coins the term “thirdness” to describe the state she reaches with dogs, when there is total co-operation which is free from any sense of one overpowering the other.




The experience that seems to underlie the statements made by clients or participants in EAT is that the other-than-human world responds to our suffering and our need. This reconnects us with the childhood assumption that other creatures understand and sympathize with us; this assumption is one which many of us lose, reluctantly, as we move towards adulthood and rationality. This is a substantial loss, leaving us more alone in a more meaningless world.

The reconnection which some people achieve later in life includes the sense that the other recognizes our affinity and empathy. This goes beyond the position routinely voiced in conservationist and green circles, which acknowledges our dependence on the other-than-human world, but regards it as unresponsive to us, so it becomes up to us to save it (from extinction, exploitation, devastation, etc.). That position omits the degree of mutual knowing and recognizing, which lies at the heart of many individuals’ experience in EAT or activities akin to it. This, I submit, is why it offers an added dimension to environmental and psychological enquiry. It implies that other life can be very aware of us, and can join with us in the adventure of healing.

In the testimonies of the EAT participants the horse appeared as the guide and teacher. In those of the skilled equestrians like Bennett and Hempfling, it seemed at times to be the other way round. Both testimonies are accurate in their context, both positions are incomplete. The horsemanship adepts would also acknowledge that horses have been their benefactors many times over. Therapy clients who embarked on more permanent and sustained partnerships with horses would have to address more of the latters’ needs. In the end, if we honour all aspects of our relationship with this creature, we hold to both versions and neither, because we move beyond the limits of either. Perhaps there are lessons here as we attempt to find a new way of being with the other-than-human world more widely.

At a recent conference on the relationship with animals in Bio-Dynamic agriculture, Ueli Hurter (2015) asked the question “What is ‘dignity of life’ for an animal?” His answer was; “The human being is higher than the animal and needs to be its guide; the human being is equal to ‘brother animal’ and the human being is also lower than the animal since the latter possesses specialized skills. Without these mankind could not live as it does on the earth.” While I am far from agreeing with every nuance of this statement I do recognize it as an example of someone managing to hold simultaneous truths which seem to be in opposition. This may be what is needed as we seek to liberate our thinking in order to face the challenges ahead. Holding simultaneous positions which seem contradictory, and dancing nimbly between those positions, might be one of the conditions with which we need to become more comfortable.

Kelvin Hall. 26.4.16


Avent, Charlie (2011) in video produced by himself while at Ruskin Mill FEC, Nailsworth, Glos., in 2010
Banning, Nicola, (2012)” My Therapist is a Horse”, Therapy Today March 2012, BACP
Bennett, Deb, Ph.D. (March/April 2014) “The Education of an ‘Educated’ Rider”, Eclectic Horseman, Elbert, California
Bleakley, Alan, (2013) “Hillmananimal: Honouring James Hillman’s Animalising Imagination”, The Psychotherapist Issue 54 Summer 2013 London UKCP.
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1) Personal testimony used with permission
2) Notes written after a session by a client in EAP, offered to me during my research and used with permission.
3) As in 1)
4) Message from colleague after informal horse demo.

Photographs by Clare Spelling