WHAT CAN WORKING WITH HORSES OFFER THAT OTHER ACTIVITIES CAN’T?
Experiential learning is ‘learning by doing’ – a process of bringing about behavioural change which includes participation in a concrete, practical experience. The experience provides raw data to reflect on; based on this reflection, new ways of behaving can be planned and practised in further experiences.
There are many different types of activity which can be used to provide the ‘experience’ element of experiential learning, but working with horses adds a dimension which is hard to replicate.
Horses are prey animals which, in the wild, defend themselves from predators by living in herds. In order for an individual animal to survive, it has to be accepted into the herd, and play its part in keeping the herd healthy and intact. Horses have therefore evolved to be extremely sensitive to their surroundings and to those around them. They communicate through sounds, movements, gestures and facial expressions; in addition, they can detect and identify pheromones, chemical scent indicators which provide information about the hormones being generated by bodies around them. Horses are wired to pick up even slight changes in the external behaviour and internal state of those around them, and because these changes can be life-threatening, indicating the presence of predators, they react to them immediately.
Because of their status as prey animals living in herds, horses have a number of characteristics which allow them to provide feedback which is truly unique, and which is almost impossible to get from other people.
- They react immediatelyto any changes in their environment, no matter how subtle, so you have an instant observable response to changes in your thoughts and emotions.
- They make no effort to hide or alter their reactions – their communication is 100% congruent. What the horse is feeling is exactly reflected in how it behaves, so you get completely honest feedback in the moment.
- They don’t have hidden personal agendas – because they can only survive as a herd, each individual has the safety and wellbeing of the herd as its core purpose. Their behaviour at any given moment is a pure response to the actual situation, unadulterated by the need to maintain a position, save face, undermine or support others, or any other type of individual agenda.
- They don’t suffer from first-impression bias in the same way that humans do. Their reaction can change from one minute to the next if something in the person or people around them – emotions, focus, confidence – changes. This gives you the opportunity to try out different attitudes, feelings and behaviours and get authentic responses to each one, within the space of a single exercise.
Having access to this immediate, authentic and agenda-free feedback on our non-verbal communication is a unique experience for most people. It forces us to look at ourselves first when dealing with others, and think about how our own attitudes and behaviours are affecting a situation. This allows us to take responsibility for our own inner state, and make changes in ourselves rather than trying to get others to change.
“They say princes learn no art truly but the art of horsemanship. The reason is the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.” Ben Jonson