I’m at Prescott College (Prescott, AZ), where yesterday we were treated to a taste of the Equine Assisted Mental Health (EAMH) program at a ranch about an hour away from here. EAMH is code for hanging out with horses. We arrived at the ranch and gathered in a circle while the horses migrated toward our end of the pasture, as curious about us as we were about them. Hercules the burro (in front) mingled with them:
When the dozen or so in the herd had gathered, and the humans had discussed how to stay safe, we were invited to enter the pasture. One request: that we allow the horses to initiate physical contact. Here’s Shannon, an EAMH teacher, getting us started:
Right away something happened to the person who was the least excited to be there. Kistie had received negative messages about horses when she was a child—”these horses will bite”—and now she was feeling real fear. As we wandered gingerly into the pasture, a horse spotted her and ambled directly up to her. Kistie continues the story:
I’m panicking, right?—because he came up to me, put his mouth right in my face. I’m thinking, he’s going to bite my face off. But I decide to just chill. Then he started rubbing my shoulder, so then I’m thinking, if I don’t pet him or touch him the right way, is he going to bite my arm off? He backed a few steps away from me, then he started forward toward me again. That’s when I really panicked. But I stood there and told myself, I should breathe now. I don’t have to let panic take control. I just decided to back away, like a frightened horse would. I said, you know, I can just walk away. That was my aha! moment—when I could take back control.
Working with the horses, said our equine teachers, always shows us something. The horses are great mirrors.
We spent about an hour with the horses—what our teachers called the “discovery phase.” We were getting acquainted, seeing what it felt like to be introduced to creatures very different from us or, like Joan, what it felt like to be nuzzled by a huge nose and hot streams of breath.
I loved wandering around the pasture, saying hello to one then another of the horses. I petted and stroked a number of them—after getting permission from them, of course. They seemed peaceful, curious, sometimes affectionate. One or two, after getting their necks rubbed, followed my hand for more, just like our dog.
In a weekend packed with human conversations, it was a treat to hang quietly for a while with horses.