t was an intensely passionate love affair – as much as a preteen girl could have. It consumed my daily thoughts and nighttime dreams. Each day, my best friend and I would exchange stories as we huddled together in the seat of our school bus, her having the advantage of being part of an actual relationship, me still in a state of wishful yearning for one. I would listen intently as she described what seemed to me to be true love - magical… transcending. At that point in my life, my deep desires were only physically realized through posters, drawings, figurines and books scattered about my bedroom.
Then one day when I was 13, after school and out of the blue, it happened. I watched a truck pull into our farm and as one of the vehicle’s occupants stepped out, I found myself face to face with a very real, living, breathing manifestation of my youthful fantasies. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
Several horse-less decades later, I felt a strong pull to reconnect with the magnificent animal again, but no degree of my younger self’s love and infatuation with horses could have prepared me for the powerful experience I had at a day-long equine therapy retreat. I attended the workshop for a few reasons: I had recently trained to be a nature and forest therapy guide, and was realizing how powerful and healing our connection to the more-than-human world could be; I had some areas in my emotional life that needed attention; and I just wanted to be around horses again, to feel their soft muzzle, to breathe in their “intoxicating” aroma, and to be transported back to the delightful days when I was hit hard with a major case of “equine fever.”
Even just a few hours of pairing up with horses in the equine therapy retreat revealed stunning results. While never riding the horses that day, we were instead guided through a series of exercises to interact and communicate with the animals without any use of gestures, words or noises, reign or rope. During the years when I was riding my own horse, I knew she could sense my emotions, but never to the degree that I witnessed at that equine therapy retreat a few years ago.
Because horses are actually prey animals, they’re incredibly aware, intuitive and sensitive, and the one I was partnered with mirrored my emotional blocks, my moods, my resistances. It is no wonder equine therapy is so effective in helping people who have suffered emotional trauma, are dealing with depression or emotional issues.
With the onset of the coronavirus, you probably have heard about the uptick in pet adoptions by people suddenly seeking the comfort of an animal companion. Connections with animals have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and enhance well-being. It’s now commonly accepted that animals can provide physical, emotional, and even spiritual support for us.
Most animals in Western culture are no longer seen only as a creature needing to have a “job” pulling our plow, serving as a means of transportation for us, or in the case of Lassie, saving little Timmy from falling down another well! Our pets have become, to many of us, a genuine part of our family, whether than implies a single household or the community at large. Humans are animals too, and have coexisted with other non-human species since our collective beginnings. Anyone who has shared a deep gaze with a pet, seeing their love or fear – or having them see ours – knows we communicate non-verbally with each other all the time.
It really isn’t a stretch, then, to extend past the realm of the house pet or domesticated animal and begin to witness a broader inter-species connection we can have with the wilder animal kingdom beyond our home’s walls or backyard. The intelligence, compassion, sensitivity, joy and playfulness of animals in the wild is well documented. We hear stories of whales “thanking” humans after being rescued from the entanglement of fishing nets. We know of the strong familial elephant clans and can witness their sense of deep mourning when a family member dies. Animals have and express emotions and feelings, likes and dislikes. Having empathy for them can make it easier to have empathy for other humans. Caring for the animals we share this planet with heightens our own sense of compassion for all life.
I am still moved by an incredibly strong love of animals – not just horses! And the more I connect mindfully with the beings in the natural world, the more I recognize that how we see and treat other life is really a window into ourselves. Like the horse in the equine therapy session I attended, our relationship with other beings is mirrored back at us. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.” I would expand that further to include the broader plant and animal kingdoms of this planet. Honoring, protecting and loving the life on this beautiful earth is of profound benefit to us all. When we recognize ourselves in the natural world, understanding that what we do to this living earth we do to ourselves, then we will become a kinder, gentler, more loving species.