Equine Therapy: Effects of Perfection on Horse-Human Relationships, by Claire Dorotik

Perfectionism drives human performance to elite levels, often achieving unequalled accomplishments. However, the push to be great can also have a deleterious effect on a person’s mood, and certainly, relationships. Often those around the perfectionist feel disregarded, or inadequate. But what if the relationship with the perfectionist involves a horse?

Horses have a unique way of telling us the truth about ourselves, at times revealing parts of our character that were hidden or overlooked. For a perfectionist, a person who spends a great deal of time insuring that character deficits are avoided, this can often be a little disconcerting. On the other hand, the horse’s response to a perfectionist can also be relieving.

When a person imposes this need to be perfect on a horse, the animal often responds with tension. The horse may appear tense, hypervigilant, and essentially on edge, and may resist the handler in a number of ways. The horse may overtly object to the person by balking, acting stubborn, or attempting to flee. On the other hand, the horse may simply shut down, tuning the person out.

However, there will be another response that the horse gives. In a natural environment with a horse, where the horse is loose, and allowed to approach the person in any way he wants, often he will vacillate between protective behavior — circling around the person, nudging him/her gently — and herding behavior — moving the person around the arena.

What the horse’s behavior is reflecting is the underlying inadequacy that every perfectionist experiences. However, where often in human relationships, the expression of inadequacy by a perfectionist is received with question, or even judgement, he/she can struggle with feeling as though it is unacceptable to be anything but perfect, now or ever. Of course, this only perpetuates the fear of failing and anger about the rigidity required to prevent it.

But the horse never questions what is presented to him. Whatever feeling, behavior, or thought surfaces just is, right or wrong. So while the perfectionist may screen his/her inadequacy from others and from himself, and fear the judgement that comes with it, the horse only encourages the expression of it, as a part of the person becoming more whole, more readable to the horse. In this way, what the horse does with a perfectionist really benefits not just the perfectionist, but the horse as well. For a better herd member is more honest, clear, and authentic — all sound human qualities.

Claire Dorotik LMFT

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