Thursday, March 29, 2007

a goddess turns 24

I am an indestructible fortress,
I am an unassailable rock,
I am a precious jewel.

-from an ancient Irish prayer for long life

Salina, our lovely black mare, had her birthday this week. She's a very fancy German Hannoverian and has done a number of things in her 24 years.

She was trained and ridden through third level dressage, made the trip from Germany to the United States, produced a number of fancy babies, and is now my therapy horse.

Salina has one eye due to an injury/infection that occurred many years ago, and she does perfectly well. It is a bit shocking when you first see her blind side, but after you adjust to the lack of an eye, it's hardly noticeable.

Salina is mostly retired from riding due to mild arthritis in both knees. With around-the-clock turn-out, a joint supplement, and good care in general, she does very well - can still be seen galloping on occasion, and can still do flying lead changes in the arena. We ride her occasionally and she is the most responsive, best-trained horse on our farm. I can only imagine what it was like to ride her when she was young!

She came into our herd of three geldings and immediately took charge as the lead mare. Although she concedes herd leader status to Keil Bay, she stands up to him when she wants to. He wasn't quite sure what to make of that at first, but they have worked out a pecking order that suits them both. She is a loyal companion (sometimes too loyal for Keil) and stays by his side much of the time.

She adopted the pony for a month or so when she first arrived - he was not too happy with that but eventually she relented and he's back to independence.

Cody takes a wide berth with her - but occasionally the two of them do hang out together, especially if Keil is busy.

The incredible thing about Salina is her intuitive, reflective quality with people. Most horses have this, but she seems particularly finely tuned to the moods and underlying issues of the humans she meets. If you are angry, she shows you that. If scared, she reflects that. Stubborn, sad, tired, at peace, spirited... she mirrors all these things to her handler.

It's an amazing gift and very useful in a therapy horse. She forces you to get in touch with what you're feeling and how you're generating that into the world around you. For more on equine-assisted psychotherapy, read Linda Kohanov's The Tao of Equus. A wonderful book.

Salina has taught me so much since she came to our farm last May. Happy birthday, sweet girl. We look forward to many more.


I want to add a little about horses and emotions.

Because they're prey animals, horses are wired to pay intimate attention to the other members of their herd as well as everything around them.

They "read" very subtle signals.

So when dealing with people, the most disturbing thing to a horse is if the person is incongruent - they sense very clearly if someone is feeling one way but acting another.

Most of us do try to hide or downplay negative emotions - so we automatically set the horses' "antennae" off if underlying issues/feelings/etc. are present.

When a horse encounters someone deeply angry but not "owning" it, he/she reflects that anger in horse behavior - pinning ears, switching tail, stamping, biting, kicking, etc. If the person is angry but openly so, the horse reacts much differently - there is nothing incongruous to reflect.

The beauty of this in a therapeutic setting is that clients can more easily fool a human therapist. We give more credence to words and even if I as a therapist have a sense that something is not matching up, I don't have the ability to reflect that behaviorally to the client. And the client often doesn't even know what the underlying issue is - which is why they've come for help.

A horse will immediately reflect the underlying emotion to the client - which not only shows the human co-therapist and that client what the issue is, but offers the client a live opportunity to make a change.

Once a client notes a feeling and becomes congruent, the horse knows it and relaxes. That's a direct signal to the client - almost like biofeedback - and incredibly powerful in making this kind of change. Powerful reinforcement.


Jason said...

Fascinating article...

Anonymous said...

Salina, you look so powerful, yet gentle. Happy birthday!

I'm fascinated by your connection with people. I wonder if it's a choice for you to reflect our emotions, or is it your nature regardless of choice? I wonder if you avoid unpleasant emotions in others to protect your own well being.

billie said...

Thanks for the comments - I have added a new section to the post in response.

I'm quite captivated by how this works.

Wenda said...

Fascinating! Thanks.

billie said...

Thank you, Wenda - glad to see you here!