California Riding Magazine • April, 2014

Sacred Horse Sense
Let's be the change we seek!

by Chris Irwin

The goal in so many of the Equine Assisted Programs we see emerging in the personal coaching world is to use interactive exercises, or "games" with horses, as an innovative form of experiential therapy or personal development for people. From troubled teens to family counseling, to corporate retreats aimed at empowering teamwork, leadership and communications skills, I like to think of this exciting new movement as a form of "horse sense for human potential." And yet, I am concerned about the well being of the horses that are being "used" in therapeutic practices and I am also disturbed about the general trend or course of direction that EA programs appear to be taking.

What about our ethical consideration for the well-being of the horses? The vast majority of participants or "clients" attracted to an EAP experience are not well versed in the language of horses and they do not know how to be with the horses without causing confusion and/or stressful situations for our four-legged friends.  What is intended as an empowering "feel good" experience for the humans all too often results in exercises of annoyance, confusion, frustration and anger for the horses being "used."

I see a disturbing trend in EAP where the majority of the practices seem to be based in setting both the horse and the human up for failure. The person has no clue how to appropriately approach or be with a horse and it soon becomes clear that the goal is to see how the client reacts to stress, performance anxiety, and, most often, failure. Does the person become frustrated, frightened, angry, do they blame "the stupid horse," do they shut down and withdraw, becoming sullen, do they try to bribe or coerce the horse, and are they willing to ask for help?

All too often the horse is essentially used as a catalyst to provoke human emotions so that the therapists can then make the metaphorical leap from relations with horses to relations with people. "Ah-ha!" says the therapist, "Is this also how you react at home with the kids, or with your spouse, or is this similar to how you deal with conflict and control issues in the workplace?"

Nobody enjoys failure.  We do not need to confuse and stress horses by merely using them as a catalyst.  As people learn to truly adapt our behavior in order to give the horses the change they need to see in humans, then we are also being the change we want to see in our world.  Horses need us to walk our talk of empathy and "do unto others as you would have done unto you."   

I propose that we do not need to subject horses to the assorted dramas that people bring to them. I also suggest that we do not need to try to empower people by first helping them process their reactions to frustration and failure. I believe that EAP can evolve into a practice that more directly involves and aids the horse and also directly benefits the person.  Truly win-win.

When it comes to the personal challenges involved in communicating with horses, people struggle with a myriad of personal issues that rise to the surface during the experience. However, with a focus on recognizing that horses are complicated sentient beings whose respect, focus, trust and willingness can and should be earned by the consistent integrity of our actions, instead of assuming and/or demanding compliance by virtue of being "the dominant species," then the client has stepped into a learning experience that requires developing and maintaining an admirable list of essential life skills.

I believe that the best lessons learned from horses are those that involve our realizing that we need to adapt our predator basis of human behavior to be more aligned and cooperative with the nature of the prey animal in the horse.  We learn to balance essential life skills such as awareness with focus, patience with decisiveness, sensitivity with assertiveness, and boundaries with receptivity, all while building upon a foundation of consistency, clarity, compassion, calm, confidence, and an ability to multi-task.

I do not think we need to use horses to help spoon feed people their personal development. I believe the greatest lesson to be learned from horses is that all healers must first heal themselves. If EAP therapists, counselors, coaches and trainers can first become well grounded in horse sense and horse handling skills, then and only then are we demonstrating and mentoring the actions needed to truly earn respect and trust from both horses and people. The rich reward is that horses want to see the same qualities of character in their leaders that we want to see in ourselves. It's all about being the change we want to see in our horses.

Working in Belgium with a professional Life Coach - Chris has stepped in and intervened during a lunge lesson, teaching his student how to use her body language and contact more user-friendly for the horse. We see here the chestnut mare has a hard eye, has turned her focus away from the woman and is swishing her tail in annoyance. Chris is coaching on how to regain focus and calm from the mare without force.

SUCCESS! Now we see not only a smiling human - but also the body language of a calm, respectful, focused, willing horse. And this is a challenging Alpha chestnut mare in the hands of a novice!

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at