“OMG!” she squealed, with that slight American twang favored by today’s Irish teenage girls. “He’s so adorable. I just want to cuddle him!”
Without waiting for permission or direction, she ran towards the big colored cob watching her cautiously from the far corner of the arena.
The horse stood, and observed. As she was within touching distance, he side-stepped elegantly and ambled away.
The determined girl turned on her heel and followed him. For the next ten minutes, my colleague and I witnessed a wonderful dance, as the horse maneuvered his big body to make sure he was just beyond the reach of this eager young woman’s arms.
Eventually, she came back to us, red-faced and sweating from the effort. The horse stood and watched.
“He hates me!” she wailed.
“What makes you think he hates you?”
“He won’t let me near him. I only want to give him a hug. Stupid horse!”
“Did you ask if you could give him a hug?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Can I give him a hug?” She then added a sarcastic “pleease” and threw in a fake smile for good measure.
The horse was still standing and watching.
“Maybe you should ask him?” we suggested, nodding towards the horse.
For the next few minutes she looked from us to the horse and back again. We watched in silence with the horse, as her brain went through the process of moving from thinking we were mad, to recognizing how her earlier attempt to touch the horse did not involve his consent.
“Okay,” she said eventually.
She took a deep breath and walked slowly towards the horse. Then she stopped, and we heard her say, very softly, “Is it okay if I touch you?”
They stood looking at each other. The horse lowered his head and sighed. She took a few steps closer, stopped and said, “I’m sorry I called you stupid.”
The horse came to her and put his head on her shoulder. She gently wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his mane.
And there it was! Real connection with consent and mutual respect.
Consent, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means permission for something to happen; agreement to do something.
In an Equine-assisted Personal Development session, horses are free to connect — or not — with participants. Time and again we see that if there is no respect for the horse and its boundaries, there will be no permission to connect. The horse will do its best to avoid physical contact and will not reciprocate if it is touched without permission.
We live in an age of instant information. In our pockets, we carry access to everything we could possibly need to know at the touch of a button. All we have to do is figure out what is true and what is not. Does my headache mean that I am dehydrated or dying?
Horses also have access to instant information, and it is all 100 percent accurate. That’s because horses have continued to develop skills that we have long lost. We now look outside ourselves to find out what we need to know. We’ve lost touch with our inner resources, our sixth sense, that little whisper that informs and protects us.
Yet, horses have survived and thrived for 60 million years because they trust what their senses are telling them. Deciding — in a split second — whether the rustle in the grass was the wind or a hungry lion was a life-or-death skill.
The horses we work with today do not have to fear being eaten, but they have retained their ability to instantly read situations and people — and react accordingly. That’s what makes Equine-assisted programs so powerful and effective.
And it’s why horses can teach us so much about consent, respect and boundaries.