Friendship has four legs

Silva and Bambi. Not exactly uncomfortable with one another. (c) 2015 B. Heuschkel
Silva and Bambi. Not exactly uncomfortable with one another. (c) 2015 B. Heuschkel

A trending topic in the media these months is the use of animal therapy, specifically the use of horses to teach social skills and the art of living in the ‘here and now’ state of the horse mind instead of allowing stress, fears, and problems to weigh the mind down until everything seems unbearable.

I’ve been in on the receiving end of various forms of therapy over time myself and I can tell you this: The best ones have four legs.

As a kid I had a lot of issues to deal with. I suffered constant stomach aches and nightmares due to stress, and I had very poor social skills, always making me the odd kid out. I spent hours mulling on each and every word people said to me, searching for hidden meanings, wondering what they really meant and what they were really thinking. I was quite paranoid, really.

The Arabian crossbreed we had back then was quite straightforward. He was opinionated, very much so, but you were never ever left in doubt as to his opinions. He’d bolt, rear, buck, or initiate a full-on full body contact nuzzle-fest, depending on his mood. Any action of mine warranted a prompt response from him, good or bad. He lived in the present, as horses do — and as I needed to get much better at.

I wouldn’t advocate using spirited Arabians for therapy horses, but I think that the now of horse thought is crucial for people to learn. Horses do not carry grudges. They aren’t capable of a whole lot of cognitive processing. They have a pretty short attention span, but once they’ve learned something, they almost never forget.

Horses force you to be on your best behaviour, also towards yourself. They are ridiculously good at reading body language and moods. If you’re having negative thoughts about yourself, the horse will pick up on it and stress. It doesn’t understand why you’re unhappy — but it understands that the individual in charge (you) is stressed and unhappy, and that’s generally bad news for the herd following (the horse). The horse will be just as unhappy as you are, and as horses are flight animals, that can get quite… lively.

Horses have taught me to take my negativity and my fears and put them on a shelf out of reach in order to exist in the present. They’ve made me look at my priorities and do some rearranging — because surely enjoying the sunshine and the togetherness is far more important than mulling over something somebody said last week and what they possibly meant. They’ve taught me that learning is a continuing process, and that just as I have something to teach to some horses, other horses have a lot to teach to me.

Friendship has four legs because once you learn to let go and love a horse, you can start to let go and learn to love yourself.