How is it, we ask, that simply being around horses transforms us and enables us to access hitherto unknown feelings, emotions, memories and insights?
After a decade practising in the field of Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), where people learn about themselves and their behaviour patterns through interactions with horses, it is a question that still alludes a definitive answer. Yet on re-reading one of my favourite author’s books, Dancing in the Flames by Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, I glimpsed another layer of possible explanation to the healing that takes place around horses.
In this fantastic book the authors suggest that metaphor is crucial to real transformation taking place, and that metaphor resides in the “subtle body”; the energy that holds spirit and matter together. It is through the process of transforming the metaphor’s energy that real change occurs in us. Dream-work is one way of doing this. Yet it seems that being around and engaging with horses can also transport us into the realm of the subtle body energy-field where we then access images, memories and feelings that we are blind to in our normal daily lives.
“Soul is a different reality to body. It is eternal. It hears with eternal ears, sees with eternal eyes, smells with eternal nose - its Presence resonates with that other dimension. Therefore, it speaks in imagery, the only way it can communicate eternal truths.”1
Many people I’ve facilitated in the work with horses and myself included seem to start to access ancient memories, wisdom and knowledge that simply didn’t fly out of their mouths previously. Tears fall and we can’t put a name to them, sometimes described as spiritual, they feel ancestral; so ancestral even prehistoric on occasions. I have no doubt personally that I have at times tapped into my cave ancestors’ memories of their relationship with the land, elements and yes, the horses. Visiting the prehistoric caves in France I was transported back to a time I just knew and felt; I could feel it in my body and soul. And tears I couldn’t name fall and surge within me just on sight of the cave paintings of horses.
Often people who’ve experienced trauma can’t speak about their experience, yet when face to face with a horse, their tears finally fall and their concrete wall built of their PTSD symptoms starts to crumble as they meet with an animal who needs no words and reason, just being-ness and feeling to exist and feel okay. For the first time for many wounded-souls, they feel safe enough to evaporate their walls and reach in to a deeper state of connection to themselves and another being. The soul is at play in these moments, helping the body and mind reconnect to its eternal memories, rather than just the traumatic ones that replays and stops them being able to feel and move freely.
One of the most important and helpful “tools” to come out of the wonderful Eponaquest model of EFL is the Body Scan. When we start to use this ourselves and with our clients, we find that the body speaks in imagery and metaphor too, which is why it’s important to be prepared for this as a facilitator and be well practiced in using the scan yourself so you can help your client through providing a container to catch these metaphors as they start to emerge and float up into consciousness. The body it seems doesn’t speak in logic and reason like the mind, but rather images, feelings, sensations, memories, music, song lyrics, colour and smell. Just like an artist or poet, what emerges can seem illogical, confusing and intangible at first glance.
Many clients struggle with this new form of unfamiliar language and are tempted to dismiss it as nonsense, irrational and even crazy. Sometimes I pre-empt this before we start especially with very nervous people, sensing that their False Self, or Inner-Critic plays a large and often destructive role in their relationship with themselves. I help prepare this part of them by suggesting that no matter how crazy they may feel their body’s information is, this is a safe space for it to emerge and I won’t be judging them in any way. The reason I do this is that if the rigid, fearful false-self is in full control, the body won’t feel safe enough to relax and release its valuable information. I also advise clients whenfirst doing the Body Scan to make a deal with their body: to just release one piece of information at a time so as not to overwhelm them, and also because we can only deal with one thing at a time fully. If we let our body flood us with masses of images, feelings and colours, we risk losing the richness that is contained in just one metaphor.
It is through holding each metaphor safely and tending to it like a new shoot that the person can begin to make sense of it and make some connection to their inner patterns, or outer life. I have found that learning to harness the Body Scan can lead to greater wisdom arising and that we begin to walk through life from a more centred, grounded place; one that is actively seeking consciousness.
Even if we simply focus on breathing into our belly first before we open our mouths something very different tends to come out. Instead of the automatic, unconscious repeated clichés and clipped phrases, instead we hear a more grounded, soulful and thoughtful wisdom. And we know that we can intuitively trust this person more as they are more present with themselves and therefore with us also. This is also why the horses tend to switch off or disengage when around people who talk automatically without this somatic (body) connection.
Again, simply breathing into your body can increase your presence and then the horses can relate to you better; it is like you are more fully there instead of partially and that to them feels much safe. As a temporary member of their herd, if you aren’t really paying to attention to everything and you can’t when talking non-stop in an automatic - unconscious way, then you are a hazard to their safety and they prefer to move away from you. This is why Equine Facilitated interventions work so well: the horses instinctively move to where they feel safest and most comfortable at all times, and when a large loose animal walks away from you; you can’t deny or ignore that reaction.
“A body that has never been listened to, has never been acknowledged for the courageous pack horse it has been, never been treated as the temple of the Holy Spirit, that body is essentially unconscious. Its messages are not part of the whole person. It carries the unconscious conflicts, because the ego is not strong enough to deal consciously with them.” 2
In Dancing in the Flames, Woodman and Dickson discuss the subtle body. In our work with the horses we can learn to access this invisible part of ourselves and start to work consciously with it in our relationships, first with the horses and then with other people and the world.
Learning to feel energy fields of people and horses is a fantastic way to attune yourself to your subtle body and bring more self-awareness to your own personal boundaries and habits in your relationships. Horses seem to inhabit this place naturally, so being around them can enable us to become more familiar and comfortable with it too. This benefits our interactions with our horses, ourselves and each other.
We can also learn to harness better self-care through working with our subtle body, taking better care of ourselves energetically and physically. The more we do this, the more information will filter up into our conscious mind and the better we get to know ourselves.
© Angela Dunning, 14 October, 2015
1, Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness; Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, p.186, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996
2, Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness; Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, p.193, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996
Body-work, soul-work, metaphor, imagery, consciousness, trauma, emotions, horses, equine facilitated psychotherapy and learning, energy, ego, false-self, horses, body-scan, Eponaquest, somatic.
Photographs copyright Angela Dunning