Horses Teach Us How to Connect on a Human Level

I have always loved horses. When I was a young girl I collected plastic Breyer model horses, read books about horses, and even watched television shows that had an equine theme. I think it is their exquisite beauty, their inherent wild nature, and the vulnerable and trusting relationship between horse and rider that is the […]

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Scarlett Lewis riding her horse, Steed
Scarlett Lewis riding her horse, Steed

I have always loved horses. When I was a young girl I collected plastic Breyer model horses, read books about horses, and even watched television shows that had an equine theme. I think it is their exquisite beauty, their inherent wild nature, and the vulnerable and trusting relationship between horse and rider that is the attraction. I purchased my first horse when I was twelve, spending a year cutting lawns, weeding, and babysitting, eventually raising enough money along with my parents’ matching funds to purchase a beautiful golden palomino horse with a flowing white mane and tail. His name was Steed, ironically meaning horse, and he was sold to us by a neighbor who told us he was eight years old. Not yet knowing the adage of ‘buyer beware’ we had the vet come and check out his health the day after the sale. We found out he was more like 28! That’s old for a horse but it turned out to be befitting as he was kind and gentle, having been around the block a time or two, and thus able to navigate a young, inexperienced rider like myself flying through cornfields and along back roads safely. Except for kites, Steed didn’t like those at all, he was perfect! My horse taught me responsibility, patience and many other life lessons.

We communicate with horses similarly to how we communicate with each other, through words, body language, touch, eye contact, and energy. I’ve read every book available by famous horse trainer Monty Roberts and followed his wisdom. He is a ‘horse whisperer’ which means he trains through subtle and gentle communication. He is best known for being able to connect with wild horses and ride them within 30 minutes through his trust and relationship building techniques. This usually takes weeks, if not months, to do.

Monty’s childhood was fraught with tremendous pain and suffering that made him compassionate as well as sensitive to that same fear in others.  As a young boy, he had been savagely beaten by his father. In fact, almost every bone in his body had been broken and he was hospitalized many times. His father was a rancher who used that same violence when he worked with horses. Monty knew there was a better way. He left home early and took a job on a ranch where there were wild horses. He studied how they interacted within their herd and with each other and began learning their language. He began developing gentle methods, rather than force and fear, that quickly established a bond of communication and trust. This eventually translated into the work Monty began doing with troubled youth.

Join-Up is the name of the method that Monty created to help horses partner with people and accomplish ‘harmony in training.’ His teaching style is so profound and effective that Queen Elizabeth and other top horse owners have sought out his expertise and utilized his methods for over five decades.  

Having come from abuse himself, Monty had a tender heart for children who had also experienced violence and trauma. He opened his Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang, California to kids who had been in trouble with the law and used the same approach with them as he used with horses. He built their confidence by giving them responsibility on the farm. This created a mutual bond of trust. He provided them with a safe space to make choices and learn from their mistakes and taught them essential social and emotional life skills such as emotional management, responsible decision making, and goal setting.

The pandemic and subsequent mandate of ‘social distancing’ will have lasting negative repercussions on our children beyond the epidemics that were soaring before we went into quarantine, such as bullying, violence, suicide, substance abuse, and mental illness, including anxiety and depression. Too many children are suffering from disconnection and escalating trauma that translate now into declining attendance and failing grades, and worse. It is essential that we find both healing and transformative ways to connect with children who are suffering.  We need to look beyond our comfort zones and consider other creative options. I suggest we learn from people like Monty Roberts who has both ‘been there’ as well as successfully come out the other side. 

Humans can be either fight or flight animals; because of our make-up, we are constantly deciding whether we are predator or prey, whether flight or confrontation is the most prudent course.” — Monty Roberts. 

Almost fifty percent of kids experience trauma before the age of 18 (Child Mind Institute, Kids Speak Up Report, 2014). There was a groundbreaking nationwide study on childhood trauma called ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) conducted 25 years ago by the CDC and Kaiser. The study found one in five kids were coming to school having experienced at least one traumatic event. Before COVID, that number had increased to between 23% and 44% of kids coming into classrooms having experienced a recent traumatic event (www.acestoohigh.com). We can assume they are higher now. 

We know through neuroscience that when we experience trauma we react from our amygdala where our freeze, fight, or flight response is located. This cuts off access to our prefrontal cortex, our executive functioning part of the brain. This makes academic performance, or sometimes even rational thinking, nearly impossible. The memory of the trauma is stored in the amygdala to help keep us safe from similar events in the future; however, this can become an ongoing trauma response.

Monty recognized that kids and horses react in a similar way to trauma and pain. Both need to feel safe in order to start the healing process and to communicate. When an owner brings a problematic horse to his clinic, Monty will put the horse in a round pen, a circular enclosure, used for training. The horse will run around the outside of the pen, the farthest away from the man in the center because that is what it’s wired to do when in fear. Monty allows the horse to run as if to say, ‘You are safe. I am not going to hurt you or force you to do anything.’ The horse runs because it is afraid, or testing boundaries, being willful and wanting to do its own thing and not follow instruction. However, as the horse continues to run, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable. 

Horses are herd animals and they gather together to protect each other from predators who approach from the outside of their community. Lead mares drive young horses to the outskirts of the herd to punish negative behavior. The horse instinctively knows it is dangerous to not be a part of the herd and begins to reconsider his choice to misbehave. A young horse will indicate he wants to return to the herd by acquiescent behavior such as or lowering his head, in essence saying, “I’m sorry, I get it now that I need to behave to be a productive part of our herd, please let me back in.” The horse eventually makes a choice to connect and requests permission to ‘Join-Up’ with the human in the center who represents the herd and safety. He comes to this conclusion by instinct, an inner knowledge that he needs safety and connection. We humans have that same instinct. 

One of the goals in human-to-human Join-Up, then, is to create, through communication and behavior, situations where the satisfaction of cooperation outweighs the negative reaction to unnatural conditions.” — Monty Roberts

Through his work, Monty uses body language and a deep understanding of primal communication to create a circumstance that leads to a willing partnership based on mutual respect and trust. We can use this approach to enable connection and belonging with our children, even our most challenging ones. Our children ultimately want to be connected with us despite actions that might indicate otherwise. It is the fear center in their brain that is dictating their behavior, just as it is in the horses who run. Eventually, as with a horse, our children will respond to positive reinforcement and love. We can look for signs from a child seeking connection and be ready to provide them with this without punishing previous bad behavior. When you understand why the child acted that way, most likely out of fear, it helps us respond with compassion. Monty doesn’t chastise a horse when it makes the choice to run. Rather, Monte rewards positive behavior. We can do this with children by focusing on their strengths, attributes, and positive choices, rather than his or her challenging behavior. 

You must understand that we as horsemen can do very little to teach the horse. What we can do is to create an environment in which he can learn.” — Monty Roberts. 

Most likely, we know kids won’t remember the specific lessons they were taught but they will remember how we made them feel. I can personally validate this statement, can you? Students who are in panic mode are not in a state of mind to learn, similar to horses. It is possible, however, to help them feel safe, seen, and understood. This will initiate their ability to learn. With patience, we can look for a cue from a child to connect in a positive way. First, we can establish trust through our own vulnerability. Lessening our reactivity and refusing to allow ourselves to focus our energy and attention on negative behavior but lavishing recognition on good behavior can help.  

We can practice this by showing our gratitude for little things our children do, focusing on what they get right. We can forgive transgressions in ourselves, as well. We can step outside the busyness of our lives to be present with our children and show them, literally, that we care.

The greatest strength a person can achieve is gentleness.” — Monty Roberts

Many children receive the most attention and energy only when they act out. When they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing they are left alone. Children will do anything for our love and connection, even if they must act out to get it. I have come to know that there are only two kinds of people in this world: good people and good people in pain. Negative behavior is most often driven by pain and to understand this is to be able to thoughtfully respond with compassion. Monty recognizes this is the same in horses.  The only way to ‘Join-Up’ is by being present and choosing love in our thoughtful response. 

Monty encourages kids to work with horses in the Join-Up process as well. The child becomes the leader as they stand in the center of the circle and the horse moves around them. In this way, the child gets to establish communication and connection with the horse who is afraid, or acting out, and initially running away. As the horse circles the child, both are sending and receiving signals. The child gets to be the one asking for trust and respect and the horse is the one considering. When a horse begins to calm down, it begins to communicate. It will lock an ear on the child, or begin lowering its head which is a sign of compliance. When the young leader determines the horse is ready to join up, the child will change body position to a vulnerable stance and welcome the horse to come to his or her side. When the horse walks to the center by the child it has achieved ‘Join-Up.’ It is necessary to transmit calmness and security to a horse so it will mirror it back. Horses don’t judge by differences or appearance; horses look for and can sense when someone is confident and in control of their emotions. They are in the moment at all times. 

In my own life, working with horses has helped me with my emotional regulation and self esteem. When you are working with a horse you need to be present, with your focus on the horse and making a connection at all times. This enables you to lose yourself in the experience, let go of the outside world and everything going on, and gives your body and mind a break from the issues you are facing. Horses are very aware of human energy and emotions and instinctively react if you’re feeling off.  Studies have been done on the ability of horses to provide therapeutic healing for individuals that show a horse can help cultivate trust, respect, affection, empathy, confidence, responsibility, communication skills, and self-control to name a few of the benefits (Eugenio Quiroz Rothe, Beatriz Jimenez Vega, Rafael Mazo Torres, Silvia Maria Campos Soler, Rosa Maria Molina. “From Kids and Horses: Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy for Children.”  International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 5(2). 2005.) Some of my most effective therapy has been with horses.

Just like horses, our children are looking for role models they can trust and who make them feel safe. When we respond in anger we have lost control of our emotions and this reduces a child’s confidence and trust in us. We can provide that trust, as well as safety and love, by being present and meeting them where they are. We can be the safe space. That means being consistent in our emotions and always being ready to ‘Join-Up.’ Just like horses sense our feelings, emotions, and needs, and rely on us to provide them with safety, children do as well. Monty definitely informed my parenting and enabled me to be a safe haven for my children where they were lavished with love and always welcomed to be their authentic selves, including the freedom they needed to flourish. 

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