While there is no debate that something clearly happens when people and horses come together, just what transpires has been described in a multitude of different ways. Some practitioners of equine therapy prefer to characterize the horse as a reflective mirror in which the person can see his/her own behavior carefully mimicked. Still others have alluded to the idea that horses “attune” to the physiological rhythms of people, thereby having a sedative affect on factors such as heart and breath rate. And others, who perhaps are just fond of horses, purport that they respond to people when they are in state of “congruence” and withdraw when they are “incongruent.” Yet for all the intrigue these often elaborate descriptions hold, do they really accurately capture what happens between horses and humans? They are, after all, our descriptions of animal behavior that is not akin to us. And perhaps in attempting to characterize the horse as something that makes sense to us, we have failed to miss the central point that the horse is a herd animal. His very safety depends of maintaining the sanctity of the herd around him, and his behavior, therefore, must make sense from that perspective. To be sure, the only equine behaviors that exist outside of this spectrum are those that we humans have created. Weaving, for one, is a perfect example. Weaving does not exist in a herd because it has no survival basis. It is not until we house a horse in a space that makes sense to us, for a time that we prefer that he begins this repetitious swaying, akin to the self-soothing rocking seen in autistic children.
So when we say that the horse “mirrors” us, we must define this from the basis of a herd animal. That is to ask, what would the survival purpose of mirroring be in a herd? Just how would this behavior preserve the contiguous nature of a herd? Reflecting another, after all, fails to send a direct message. And further, if all horses reflected one another, how would order be upheld?
Yet we do know that horses themselves do attune to one another, much in the same way that any species will attune to its own kind. The idea of intra-species attunement is not even foreign to humans, as it has very eloquently been described by Daniel Goleman, author of “Social Intelligence.” Yet here again, we must ask what would the survival value of the horse, a herd animal, attuning to a human, a non-herd animal, be? Humans, having been comfortably removed from environmental threats, are, from a physiological sense, not better equipped than horses to protect themselves from harm. That is to say that horses will register a threat in the environment, and spook away from it, before a human will even recognize its presence. And horses respond much faster to these things — with a reaction time under two tenths of a second, compared to humans’ 0.5 to 1.5 seconds. So what would be the preservative importance of attuning to a human? From a herd perspective, it would seem against natural instinct.
Congruence, however, is something that horses do share, remaining intrinsically connected to their own physiology. And while moving toward a human when he is in a state of congruence would seem logical, this interpretation assumes that horses behavior ceases there. To be sure, any person who has been around horses has experienced the vast array of behaviors that can occur. What then would be the purpose of each separate action that a horse can take toward a human once coming close? Unfortunately, here, this description seems tremendously rudimentary and short sighted. More than anything, however, it fails to understand equine behavior from an equine perspective.
While certainly what horses offer people is very powerful, and often hard to put words to, we must remember that horses are, after all, horses, and not reflections of ourselves, or our own inchoate understanding of them. It is only then that we may truly comprehend what happens in the space between horses and humans.
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.