I often receive a bewildered look from others when I share that I teach Equine Facilitated Learning. I’ve been asked if I am a “horse whisperer.” As this field of spending time with horses in ways other than riding or using them for sport is relatively new, Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) gets lumped into a “woo-woo” category. I love being with horses, but I do not call myself a “horse whisperer.” I find that putting words to this pivotal work can be challenging as it is a modality that places the horse as a potential healer for humans. EFL is a gently guided experience in which humans learn how being present with horses can open profound learning opportunities from the horses themselves. EFL incorporates a series of self-awareness exercises designed to bring both deepening understanding and healing to those participating.
How Equine Facilitated Learning Was Born
Linda Kohanov birthed the awareness that it was possible for humans to have a relationship with horses outside of riding or using them for pleasure. In her bestseller book The Tao of Equus, she shares the nature of her unconventional relationship with her horses. Linda started the movement that ultimately popularized Equine Facilitated Learning.
What’s an Equine Facilitate Learning Session Like?
Most EFL sessions are held on the ground around horses rather than participants sitting or riding on the back of a horse. (Some EFL instructors, who are trained in riding, do incorporate riding within their sessions.) I start my workshops by helping clients tune into their bodies before spending time with the horses. Once they connect through awareness to their breath and body, the next step is engaging with the horses through presence. In modern day society we are taught to operate from our minds and forget the presence of our bodies, which is why connecting to the horses can be so powerful.
The exercises range from reflective to active ones. The reflective exercises tend to be more passive and revolve around quietly tuning into the layers of subtle awareness within the client and the horse. The active exercises are leadership based and have the client engage in exercises such as leading a horse or doing round pen work (having the horse walk and trot), which can be incredibly empowering. Other topics we focus on with the EFL exercises are boundaries, the message behind emotions (Emotional Message Chart), and the authentic/conditioned self.
I am often astounded when teaching this work as I witness radical change taking place for participants with the horses. In my own experience, as well as from observing that of others, a few days spent engaging in EFL with the horses can surpass other forms of therapy and healing modalities.
It is a profound honor to hold space for people as they dive into the depths of their emotions with the horses. As a facilitator, I stand back and let the magic unfold between the horses and humans. The horses do the work, while I support people to open to the transformation that happens naturally in the presence of horses.
EFL on Boundaries & Emotions
Boundaries help create a safe container to operate in within ALL of our relationships: friends, family, co-workers and in the everyday world. Having and exercising clear boundaries is an essential teaching of the horses. I have seen how incredibly empowering it is for my clients to learn they can hold their ground with a 1,500-pound horse. Exercising boundaries with a large horse has been great practice for me in standing in my truth in the world!
Equine Facilitated Learning also teaches emotional fluidity through the use of the Emotional Message Chart. This intelligent method teaches that emotions are moving through us and that it is possible to gain the message within a particular emotion without getting swept up in its current. For example, when I become angry with someone I can look for the message behind the anger—perhaps that my boundaries are being crossed—and change something in response. It is also a choice to stay stuck in anger and resentment for hours, weeks, months, or possibly even years. The Emotional Message Chart assists participants to be empowered by their emotions rather than become lost in them.
Embodying the Authentic Self
“The authentic self is you that is being fully present to your own inner receptivity and guidance in this moment.” -Linda Kohanov & Carol Rousch
The authentic/conditioned self work of EFL revolves around finding what the true self wants and desires as opposed to what the conditioned (or false) self is. It is the voice free of the wishes of the programmed mind. It is liberated, open to experiences and trusting in the wonder of each moment. The conditioned or false self is the voice that is influenced by society, family, and religious upbringing. It is the voice that uses the terms “should,” “you always,” “you never,” “I know,” and “I can’t.” The conditioned self is limited by belief systems and what one thinks s/he should do.
Horses are a great example of embodying the authentic self as they truly are present in the glorious abundance of each moment. As Linda Kohanov says, “Horses use emotions as information to engage surprisingly agile responses to environmental stimuli and relationship challenges.” These beautiful beasts teach us to feel the emotion in its purest form. They show us this when they get the message behind the emotion, change something in response to that message, and then go back to grazing. They have the innate ability to let go of the emotion and return to living in the present moment.
Ode to the Horse
It is said that civilization was built on the back of a horse. Six thousand years ago horses became domesticated and changed the trajectory of the human race. It is due to the assistance of the equine species that the human race has thrived. We can thank the horse for the development of agriculture and transportation during wars, as well as the ability to travel long distances. The term “horsepower” is still associated with how powerful an engine is.
Horses are magical creatures that have been present in the myths and stories of humankind since the beginning of history. As horses are not generally depended on for transportation now, there is a growing cultural awareness for how horses can help our fragmented psyches heal. The fields of equine therapy and Equine Facilitated Learning are slowly gaining recognition. Horses are now stepping forward as healers. It’s about time, as I believe the human race needs the assistance of horses in our collective healing. I have seen how they teach us to act from our hearts, to listen to the wisdom of our bodies and to embody grace and presence as our natural way of being.
It is an honor to teach equine facilitated learning with horses and humans. EFL is profoundly transformational and is deeply rewarding. I am exponentially grateful to Linda for pioneering this work and all the gifts it has given me and those I have worked with!