by Cathy Steiner
Many horses offer healing and comfort, often in surprising ways. As equine-assisted coaches, Paula Karen and I partner with horses to help people heal and grow. We host a monthly group for caregivers who take care of others, whether on a personal or professional level. In the group, called Self-care According to Horses, we explore lessons based on the ways horses look after themselves and relieve stress. Our co-coaching horses also help participants process their experiences in caregiving. Not only does the person working directly with the horse benefit from the experience, the participants watching the work derive “borrowed benefits” or their own growth through observing.
Even when they appear to be completely distracted, the horses manage to give us guidance. A perfect example was a group session with Max, a large warmblood. He is generally very sweet and interactive, and always has something to say. It was a beautiful day in June following a few stormy days of rain and wind. Tree branches had been knocked down all over the property, including in the round pen where we do our work. The leaves were still fresh, offering tasty snacks for the horses.
We brought Max into the round pen to work with one of the participants. While we talked with the woman, Max remained focused on the leaves and branches on the ground, seeming oblivious to what the humans were doing. As we reached a heart-felt aspect of the participant’s caregiving story, Max stopped eating and came over to check in before returning to his leaves. He did this several times at key moments, only to go straight back to munching near the fence. His “fly-by” interactions, as Paula calls them, were always at poignant moments and always brief. He was aware and interested in connecting when there were emotions involved. This interaction was very helpful and validating for the participant as she worked through her feelings.
We completed that particular piece of work and asked the group what their takeaways were from observing the session. One woman noted that seeing Max enjoy eating leaves showed the positive that can come, along with the negative, from a storm. With tears in her eyes, she said that Max’s interactions were particularly meaningful for her because they reminded her of her son who is wheelchair-bound. Although it may appear to those who do not know him that he is living in his own world because he is nonverbal, her son is very aware of everything going on around him all the time. Like Max, he is able to momentarily connect with her in purposeful ways. Seeing this behavior in the horse reminded her that, despite the storms in her son’s life, he is still aware of his surroundings and wants to love and be loved. She then told us her son’s name is also Max.