• vslachman


A while ago, my friend Anita was working with Dorian. She turned to me and with that knowing look said "Horses are so much like their owners." At the time, Dorian was being more than a little stubborn (you can see more about that here).

I've been thinking about that for a couple of years now. I think Anita was subtly try to tell me something . . . :) something about my nature, maybe?

Many people have noted that horses and their owners are drawn to each other because they have some sort of wavelength or identity that's common to them both (and I suspect that's true of many human/animal connections). Some have said horses and their owners share "issues," and I've found that to be true, as well. Linda Kohanov, a celebrated equine-assisted therapist, calls this "emotional resonance."

And yes, they do literally "mirror" us.

Who is that handsome boy?

Here's what psychotherapist Patricia Elliott Rothchild has to say:

"Horses are apex healers for humans. . . Horses are well endowed with mirror neurons, which cause them to experience and reflect the emotional state of those in their territories." Patricia Elliott Rothchild

I've found that true with Dorian: so often his behavior seems specifically designed to get me to pay attention to an issue I need to work on. Or work out. Kohanov has noted she finds this in her practice over and over.

Dorian and his buddy Zipper. Horses are always authentic with each other.

Take the story Kohanov tells of Rocky, an Arabian gelding adopted by a highly compassionate woman. He'd been called psychotic and after exploding during a vet checkup, it was recommended he be put down. Kohanov was called in, entered Rocky's stall while his owner stood outside.

The healing began for both the owner and the horse when the therapist said to owner Nancy that, though Rocky knew that she cared about him, she perhaps was expecting him to let go of all his past trauma immediately.

Kohanov (not knowing her client's story at the time) said it was similar to if Nancy had been raped as a teenager, later married, and her husband expected her to get over her trauma immediately and have a normal relations with him.

Nancy replied that Kohanov had "just told [her] her life's story" (The Tao of Equus 147).

Being aware and honest with herself and Rocky, and allowing the gelding to take his time learning to trust again were both key to their progress and healing.

That sweet gelding was certainly responding to his own needs and past trauma, but also to Nancy's. I know Dorian--as is true for all horses--has a clear sense of himself and his needs as well as a phenomenally clear sense of who I am and what I need.

Goofball. I guess he figured I needed a laugh :)

So how do we bring our genuine, authentic selves to our interactions with our horses, and with everyone for that matter? I've been thinking about who that person is a lot lately.

Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, noted that we have two "selves"--the "True self" and the "False self." He didn't disparage the false self, but described it as strategic and functional--it can protect us.

In situations out in the world or in our families, for example, we cover who we really are with a false self in order to succeed or be safe. Women, of course, understand this completely. Winnicott felt this only becomes a problem when the false self takes up more room in our lives that is useful.

I think the appeal, especially to women, of a relationship with a horse has a lot to do with how they demand our true selves and how infrequently, sometimes, that self is welcomed in the world.

For me, I've been exploring how I can build on that "true self" outside my life with Dorian.

In sync riding: Trotting poles and no stumbling! Authenticity works :)

One thing I've been wanting to do better is ride bareback. I have done it before, but I never "got" it--never felt I understood physically how to ride naturally and comfortably without a saddle.

Then one day, with a little help from a friend, I did "get it." Dorian and I trotted round and round in the indoor arena using only a bareback pad and bitless bridle.

What's interesting about this is that the night before I'd only gotten three hours of sleep. I was totally exhausted. And not at all in the best mood, which is . . . an understatement. But I went to the barn because I wanted to be sure Dorian was ok and I wanted to feed him.

Clearly, Dorian is all about food! ALL about food. :)

I thought, "Oh, well, we'll just try a few moments without the saddle . . ." I was literally too tired to saddle him up. So on went his withers gel pad and then I plopped on the bareback pad and away we went.

Dorian's gel pad. He has very high withers and needs the padding to be comfy.

Was I the least bit tired? Nope. Was I in a horrible mood, once we got going? Just the opposite!

Ready to go.

So what happened?

I think I just responded to Dorian's insistence that I enter his space with authenticity--my "true self." When I don't, as I've learned so well over time, Dorian mirrors back to me how incongruent I'm being and just heads for the hills.

"I believe that horses and humans have a connection that draws us to each other. I believe, in their own way, they know we need them . . ." McLain Ward's acceptance speech for the 2018 USEF Equestrian of the Year award.

The false self, in that case, I think, was giving in to the suggestion of negativity and exhaustion, but more importantly to the stress that seemed to produce it. As many of you know, I'm single and have been for a really long time. I'm happy, too. But once in a while, the cultural "What's wrong with you, you're not in a relationship?" gets to me. All that ruminating. All that feeling like a failure . . . it's pretty tedious so I'm glad it doesn't come up too often. But I had a small stretch there where it really weighed on me.

The real me--the "true self" was at peace and at liberty to be happy. I'd just lost sight of that for a time. Dorian, as usual, because he demands authenticity brought that forward in me. I didn't want him to flee the scene mentally or physically, so I let that stuff go and was in the moment with him.

And we had a really great time. It was progressive, too.

Alert and relaxed--a good combo. A good model for me, too.

Why I think I have to subscribe to negativity, in whatever form it takes, is beyond me. Cultural pressures do make us adopt a "false" self at times and I have to stay alert to make sure my response isn't at odds with and doesn't overcome who I really am.

We never have to give in to things that undermine us, in whatever form it takes. Our "Dorian" in whatever form that takes, is always available to provide just the opportunity we need to discard the "false"-self-in-overdrive in all its forms, and live out from our truth.

That, anyway, is my take-away.

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