How horses can heal: Exploring the relationship between horse and human

by Deborah Coddington / 14 January, 2019
Photography by Jane Ussher

The relationship between human and horse is even deeper than that between owner and faithful dog, writes Deborah Coddington. In this extract from her book The New Zealand Horse – exquisitely photographed by Jane Ussher – she explores the role of these remarkable animals as healers.

According to Greek myth, in the horse Poseidon created the world’s most beautiful animal. Yet many people, sometimes including those who work with horses, are justifiably afraid of these creatures – they are powerful and mercurial, just like their mythical creator. They can be vicious, dangerous and unpredictable: a kick from their hind hooves or a pounding from their forelegs can be lethal.

But it is worth remembering that horses are prey animals: for millions of years they have been killed by predators. To protect themselves, horses developed panoramic, near-360° vision. But they have a blind spot directly behind them (and also, because their eyes are so far apart, directly in front of them). That is why horses instinctively have a tendency to kick out when they’re startled suddenly from behind. This is one of their defence mechanisms – another is flight.

Horses regard people who hurt or abuse them as predators, and a frightened horse is an aggressive horse, behaving the one way it can as a domesticated animal without the wilds to run away to and hide in: it fights back. A horse never forgets past abuse. It can, with careful handling, be retrained out of the damage caused, but sometimes not. It turns out, though, that humans and horses can work through trauma together.

American animal scientist Dr Temple Grandin, who revolutionised the care of agricultural animals, in particular cows, cattle and pigs, has written extensively on the positive effect horses can have on the mental wellbeing of humans. And vice versa. Grandin, a person with autism, was sent as a teenager to a school for the “emotionally disturbed”, as she describes it, with a bunch of horses who were also “emotionally disturbed”. High school was hard, she recalled, but the animals saved her: “I wish more kids could ride horses today. People and animals are supposed to be together. We spent quite a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or a cat. Horses are especially good for teenagers.”

Grandin describes a comparison between two sets of teenage psychiatric patients in Massachusetts. One group rides horses, the other group does not. They both have the same problems to the same degree of severity, yet the horse-riding group improves faster than the non-riding set. She attributes this to more than merely the taking on of responsibility and care for a horse: “Riding a horse isn’t [just] a person sitting in a saddle telling the horse what to do by yanking on the reins. Real riding is a lot like ballroom dancing or maybe figure skating in pairs. It’s a relationship… Horses are super-sensitive to their riders’ needs even without being asked. School horses… will actually stop trotting when they feel their rider start to lose his balance… The horse makes sure nobody gets hurt.”


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In 1963 Jim Balfour, a Central Hawke’s Bay Pony Club instructor and Dannevirke Hunt Club host from Pōrangahau, started New Zealand’s first Riding for the Disabled in Waipukurau. It was centred in the town because up on the top of what was known as “San Hill” (an abbreviation of sanatorium – the hospital was originally built for recuperating World War I soldiers and later became a tuberculosis sanatorium) was a major residential home: Pukeora Home for the Disabled.

Ponies and horses were borrowed, instructors from the pony club volunteered their skills, and various parents in the district assisted. Tom Atchison, also from Pōrangahau, became the first president, and this first branch of the Riding for the Disabled, or RDA as it is now known, was affiliated to the Pony Club.

Today, there are 55 RDA groups across New Zealand, assisting around 3000 people a year, with no government funding, using special horses – quiet but responsive, completely trustworthy, patient to the end, and totally bombproof. These horses and ponies give happiness to people often trapped in a world without physical exercise and with huge personal challenges – as Pamela Cohen discovered when her son Eliot first started riding at the Wellington RDA in 2010. He was then aged 10. He has autism and was attending a special school that took the pupils to RDA.

Eliot had always been skittish around dogs and cats, but one time at a camp for autistic children Pamela noticed he was completely at ease in a paddock with horses: “The first time I watched him ride and saw his comfort, it was awesome. I loved the way RDA was so specific about the riding. It wasn’t just taking disabled children for rides. It was serious.

“Eliot, because he doesn’t speak, had to tap the pony’s neck three times to communicate to the pony he was ready to move off. He had to mount by himself and that took about 15 excruciating minutes. They were very safety conscious, there were always two adult coaches present, but he had to focus and do it properly. They were very respectful.”

Over two years Eliot developed a close bond with three horses – Bex, Bilbo and Carrot – adjusting his riding to their different gaits and rhythms. He had to call his horse over to him with his own way of communicating, and the horses would listen and respond to him. Pamela says her boy was so happy to realise that if he gave his horse the right commands then he was no longer in a powerless and passive situation.

“Just before he stopped going to RDA in 2013 Eliot and two other kids did this dressage competition, with all the correct clothes and gear, like a proper professional dressage day. Daniel, Eliot’s younger brother, helped him get ready, cleaned his boots and everything, and Eliot did so well, he won first prize for best horse and rider combination. He was so happy.”

Horses have also proven to be more successful in restoring the mental and physical well-being of some troubled humans than official programmes run by government departments. A District Court Judge in New Plymouth, Lynne Harrison, has been trying to introduce Horses Helping Humans, an international organisation that is similar to Riding for the Disabled but works with the emotionally and psychologically impaired. Judge Harrison became interested when she was shown the programme in Australia and saw how it had rehabilitated convicted criminals and prevented them returning to crime.

By the 1950s, horses in Europe and Great Britain had been recognised by surgeons and therapists as invaluable in helping to rehabilitate people who were both physically and mentally disabled. Instead of making these injured or damaged patients repeat dull exercises in a hospital or medical setting, putting them on a safe, quiet horse or pony enabled them to steadily regain their self-confidence, balance, co-ordination and posture. What is more, they looked forward to the challenge of being mobile and independent, and building a relationship with an animal that responded to their wishes.

A groom with one of the polo horses at a Clevedon stable.

A groom with one of the polo horses at a Clevedon stable.

Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal. They have excellent eyesight both day and night, and good senses of smell and hearing. Horses can sleep lying down or standing up due to a “stay apparatus” in their legs that stops them from falling over, and when horses are together they never all lie down at once so one horse can keep watch for predators. This is why a horse kept on its own will suffer stress from lack of sleep. Horses are tough and strong yet their skin is so sensitive they can feel a tiny insect landing anywhere on their bodies. Their markings are unique – no two horses have the same facial blazes, stars or strips, and we still do not really know if they use these markings to identify each other.

Horses are completely open and honest with their emotions, unlike humans, and they won’t fake what they’re feeling. Look into a horse’s eyes – dark, liquid, expressive – and it is possible to start to understand what it might be going to do. If the eyes are bulging and showing the whites then he is frightened and angry – probably his head is up, nostrils flared as well. Look at his ears, too – are they pricked, on the lookout for danger? If his ears are flattened back against his neck and his eyes have a mean, determined look, watch out: he’s not scared, just aggressive – he may kick or bite. But if those eyes are dreamy, and the ears are casually flickering to each side of his head, waving around in the breeze, then he is relaxed and happy, and probably has his head down, ready to nuzzle in to someone for some comfort.

Horses are so much heavier and stronger than humans, they could easily kill us, run away and escape when we try to catch them, or buck when we climb into the saddle to go for a ride. So why don’t they? We are their predators, so our sitting on top of them is as unnatural as having a cat sitting on the back of a dog and riding it, or vice versa. Why do they graciously allow us to ride them, dominating them, pulling their heads to right and left, then to a halt? Even when humans are cruel to them they submit when they could just as easily rear up and smash their abusers with their front hooves, sever a man’s jugular with their teeth and kill him in retaliation.

A domesticated horse is loyal no matter what. The term “breaking in” is now outdated, as it indicates breaking a horse’s spirit, the worst thing one can do. Some prefer to say “gentling” a horse or “whispering”, but really it is just gaining their trust while remaining the dominant partner, exactly as if the horse were still in a band of its own kind. Chris Irwin, one of America’s most successful horse trainers, has written extensively about building good relationships with horses and about what they can teach us about using empathy and patience to communicate. But he cautions: “You don’t want to ever lose track of the essential fact that one of you is going to be the boss, and that it’s going to take some show of assertiveness to boss around 1000 pounds of frightened animal. In the horse whispering world of Hollywood and of fiction, a lot of sincere people think if they just understand how the horse thinks, and talk quietly enough, all you have to do is go work the round pen for 20 minutes and you’ve got a best friend for life.” It does not always work that way, he says: you have to establish “emotional authority”, and “assertiveness – measured appropriately… is as much a part of handling horses as is empathy”.

A child takes part in the Hokianga Treks 4 Kids club.

A child takes part in the Hokianga Treks 4 Kids club.

Horses – real, imaginary, musical and fictional – touch all New Zealanders at some stage of their lives. They continue to enchant us when we grow up. Regardless of whether we own and ride horses, we flock to see them at an event: the police horses on Ponsonby Rd joining the Pride Parade, the Erewhon Clydesdales pulling a covered wagon, show ponies at the Wanaka A&P show groomed to a mirror shine, manes and tails braided, with tiny tots in the saddle proudly displaying the ribbons they’ve won.

Aotearoa New Zealand will never say farewell to horses; they cantered into our history in 1814 and they won’t be herded out. Not only are they useful to us, but they are also more than just farm animals or stock. We take them on adventures and to competitions, we confide in them, we immortalise them in artworks, we remember them in war, we cast them in movies. The relationship between owner and horse is even deeper than that between owner and faithful dog because horses allow us to ride them. We have built our nation on their backs.    

Extracted from The New Zealand Horse by Deborah Coddington and Jane Ussher (Massey University Press, $90).


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