Do Horses Really Mirror People?

Claire Dorotik M.A.

In the world of equine facilitated psychotherapy, the fascination of working with an extremely large and often frightening animal, especially in a way that offers insight, and possibly healing, has held an exclusive allure for those who have come to know of this powerful therapy. Not unlike the almost magnetic draw that a great racehorse can bring to even those not familiar with horses, the art of healing through horses offers an often imperceptible gift, housed in a mysterious package. And while people lucky enough to have experienced the strange feeling of wellness, calm, and centeredness that a horse can bring have struggled for words to describe this feeling, practitioners of equine therapy have put many labels on just what it is horses can do for people. Certainly these terms have allowed some insight for people for whom horses are foreign; however, they have also struggled to accurately describe just what happens between a human and a horse. Possibly the most rudimentary of these descriptions of horse healing is that horses actually mirror people. Almost a given in the world of equine facilitated psychotherapy, the concept that horses mirror people has become so popular that it is now quite difficult to find any description of horse healing that doesn’t include this term. Yet, is there any documented research behind this idea? And if not, where did the idea really generate?

The truth is the real masters of equine language, often dubbed “horse whisperers,” never use this term. Instead, having spent years in the field watching horses interacting with their own kind, they have found that they do not mirror each other. Quite the contrary, the messages they do send are incredibly calculated, and imbued with concrete intention and meaning. A dominant mare, for example, cannot reprimand an obnoxious colt by mirroring him. He approaches too much, too strongly, and without regard for the hierarchy of the herd. So what does she do? She pushes him away, away from her, away from the herd, away from safety. You didn’t respect the order of the herd, so now you have to live without it. This is not mirroring, this is clear messaging. And it is not until the young colt repents, head lowered, lips licking and chewing in a sign of submission, that she will let him back in. Again, this is not mirroring. She pushed him away; now he must crawl back with proverbial tail between legs. This is all very clear, very intentional, and very necessary. For without this form of communication, the order of the herd and the safety that the herd represents could not be maintained. After all, is everyone is mirroring everyone else who makes the rules? Conceivably, there would be no rules, no structure, and no safety. And for the horse, a herd animal, whose safety depends on preserving the very structure that maintains the herd, this would be against natural instinct.

So why is it then that practitioners of equine therapy, those who proclaim to know just how it is a horse heals, and who vulnerable patients, unfamiliar with horses and looking to these practitioners for a sense of hope and clarity in their often bereft condition, insist that horses mirror people? Is this simply easier than attempting the daunting task of explaining a language that, after all, is foreign to us all? Or is this a need to make the horse, an animal, like any other animal, clear intention, like us? Humans do have a way of interpreting the many mysteries of the world through the horribly tendentious lens our senses allow. Yet how incomplete, how restrictive this view has actually been, having, after all, offered only a version of the world around us as flat. How wrong we would have been to accept that interpretation, exclusive to our inchoate perception. Yet why must we adhere to these same tendencies when interpreting the language of the horse, especially to those who know no better? Don’t we as equine practitioners have a duty to understand these incredible creatures as unlike ourselves? We, we must remember, come to them for healing. Not the other way around.

Claire Dorotik, M.A., has written for numerous equine publications, including Horsetrader, Ride, and Flying Changes magazines, and is the author of ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond, now available on Amazon Kindle.

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