Humans are endlessly fascinated by horses.
We can see them as beautiful, handsome and noble. We can see them as large and spirited. They can be dainty and graceful. They can be fiery, scary and unpredictable. Their size can be intimidating. Or we can see them as boring and uninteresting creatures.
We can look at horses and come up with all sorts of judgements about them. But what if we thought about horses as sentient beings? Beings with consciousness, with the capacity to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. If horses had the opportunity to influence their lives by making choices, what would they choose?
Would they choose the life of a trained horse who responds to human commands and is told when to eat and where to sleep? We can’t say for sure and this is certainly being studied in detail.
What we do know is that horses that live in the wild – feral horses – behave quite differently to horses that are managed by humans.
Here are three things we can learn about ourselves from horses:
1. We all find ourselves in autopilot when under stress
As prey animals, we consider horses to be “flighty” and “skittish” with a well-developed fight-or-flight response. But a lot of this perception of their temperament comes from the way horses have been bred and managed by humans. (There are more than 300 breeds of horse in the world today, developed for many different uses.) Horses that are confined without sufficient companionship, exercise and stimulation will often develop stress behaviours such as wood chewing, wall kicking, rocking back and forth, amongst others. These are considered to be bad habits.
We humans have our own bad habits.
Especially when under stress. We bite our nails, smoke, drink too much alcohol, don’t sleep enough, and exercise too little or too much. When experiencing excess-stress, we revert to the behaviours that feel like they are helping us cope with challenging situations, but do not necessarily solve the problem.
A horse observed in the wild is far less reactive. A horse in the wild does not startle as easily and often reacts with curiosity to something strange. Horses tend to hesitate briefly to work out why they are frightened and will then flee if something is truly life-threatening (or stay and fight to protect their young).
Horses managed by humans are rarely in life-threatening situations but can react as if they are. The same is true for humans – our minds and bodies still react to stressful events as if we’ve just encountered a lion on the savannah.
Neither horses nor humans have evolved physiologically to cope with present-day conditions.
2. It’s easy for us to socialise when we’re feeling safe and happy
Horses are herd animals and their social dynamics are very important to their physical and psychological wellbeing. In feral herds, horses strive for cohesion and collaboration. This happens both between individuals and within the group as a whole. Besides for the safety and survival element, horses in a herd form family bonds, they groom each other and they mourn change and loss. Horses in a herd communicate well, manage conflict well, are open to feedback from their companions, are mindful and are quickly able to restore a peaceful balance in their community. These horses not only survive, but they thrive.
We, humans, are also herd (or pack) animals. We are designed to pick up on social cues and coordinate and align our behaviour with those around us. When we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, we tend to react defensively to what feels like criticism from others and are irritable with our loved ones. Our relationships at home and at work can feel tricky. We avoid others, rather than approach them.
When we’re relaxed and not feeling overwhelmed by life’s demands, we get along really well with the people around us and we are considerate of the needs of others while being really good at looking after our own needs.
3. We all want to have agency in our lives
Agency is the ability of autonomous beings to take action, make plans, influence our own lives, make informed and voluntary decisions, and assume responsibility for our behaviour. This is essential for us to feel in control of our lives, even when there is uncertainty around.
Horses that are managed by humans often have very little agency. They have no choice about how to be or where to be or what to do and when. These horses only have agency when they kick out and react to a situation. But then they have no choice but to return to being controlled and managed by their caretakers. Horses in feral herds choose the actions that influence their lives.
We know this to be true for both horses and humans:
Being free to choose increases mental, emotional and physical wellness, and helps us to cope better with excess-stress.
Learning to be gentler with ourselves
By learning to be gentler with ourselves (and all beings), we can find ease in our lives so that we become less flighty and skittish.
To help ease ourselves out of autopilot when under stress, we can learn mindfulness techniques to help us accept our more challenging experiences and increase our capacity to deal with them.
This, in turn, helps us deepen our connections with others, enhancing our experience of being part of our communities (or herds).
If we can begin to experience ourselves as beings with agency, who have choices, power and a voice, there are endlessly exciting possibilities. Just imagine how much more manageable and enjoyable life could feel.
We can pay more attention to ourselves and our needs, with compassion. We can slow ourselves down and more actively choose how we feel and how we are with others.
And, typically for humans, this is easier said than done… so if you would like to learn more about mindfulness, compassion and how we can change our emotions, keep in touch for more insights.
MSc Psychotherapy, Diploma Psychotherapeutic Counselling
I am a UK-trained psychotherapist, originally from South Africa and now living in Sweden. I’ve worked in various ways to support people’s emotional wellbeing including play therapy with children in schools, adult therapy (including individual, couples and groups), and managing a therapeutic community for adults with mental health diagnoses. I’m excited to be developing programmes with NISAD.