Can your horse read your mind? I’m sure most readers would say, “yes, at least to a certain extent.” Some may even assert their horses are more responsive to their inner world than their human intimates are! But to what degree and in what way do horses perceive our thoughts and emotions, and how can positive thinking effect their behavior?

Horses and subtle energy
As a lifelong horsewoman, and a former instructor/ trainer now turned mental health therapist, I specialize in a fascinating field known as “equine-facilitated psychotherapy and learning” or EFP/L. Horses are very effective therapy animals, largely because of their innate tendency to readily respond to the feelings, thoughts and images carried by their humans. In addition to clients seeking to enhance their own mental health through working with horses, I’m often called upon by horse caretakers who want to share a deeper understanding with their equine partners. In some cases, there has been an accident or unwanted behavior, and the rider feels fear and is unsure how to proceed.

In my experience, it is a given that horses frequently pick up and act on the subtle dynamics of emotional and mental energy. Constructive communication with horses requires us to be present and attentive, and to become conscious of what psychologists call “automatic thoughts” – the pattern of hidden assumptions and beliefs that underlie our so-called logic. Horsemanship is a matter of aligning your inner world with your actions, a quality known as congruence that allows us to be in full communication with another.

A client I will call “Betty” made a dramatic change with her horse “Magic” simply by learning to be more present. Betty had become frightened after a series of mishaps with Magic, the most frequent during a ride with her husband in which she broke her wrist. I found Betty to be an intelligent, outgoing woman with several years of experience with horses. Magic was an eight-year-old quarter horse that had recently been in professional training. In the paddock, I asked for a brief history. Betty discussed at length Magic’s training and background, and her desired goals, all of which were well within her reach with this horse, except for the fear that now blocked her progress.

The “two” selves phenomenon
The human cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that allows us to examine the past and carry it forward to plan for the future. Betty was clearly good at approaching her horsemanship in a logical, well-planned manner that made perfect sense to me as a fellow human! Meanwhile, however, I could sense Magic becoming impatient. She nibbled at her lead rope, then nuzzled Betty’s pockets. Betty brushed her off without missing a beat in her narrative. Betty continued to talk as she tacked up and prepared to ride. Magic’s impatience continued to hum in the background. Time for me to intervene!

“Betty, how do you feel right now?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” she said.

I explained that, as humans, we all have two selves. One might be called the “experiencer” – the physical body, navigating the world in the moment by a wealth of rich and mysterious sensations, including the visceral experience of immediate impressions and nonrational knowing. The other is our rational self that at its most unconscious level can be called the inner judge or critic. At the most conscious level this is the self that acts out of logical reason. Let’s call this part of our mind “the commentator”.

True connection with a horse can only be made in the now by the immediate, highly subjective “experiencer”. With some coaching, Betty was able to stop her inner (and outer) logical “commentator” and tune in to the quieter level of immediate experience. Magic’s low level impatience seemed to evaporate when she began to do this.

Affect contagion Betty prepared to ride once she was more tuned in to Magic’s world of present moment experience. Betty noted that even though the horse was calm, she was alert and noticed everything. In fact, Magic’s innate character seemed to be similar to Betty’s in that she was intelligent, curious and strong-willed when she wanted to investigate something. She also had a tendency to startle easily, which was often a “trigger” for Betty’s own fear.

Most riders recognize intuitively that emotions are contagious. Psychologists have coined the term “affect contagion” to describe how people pick up the emotions of others at a visceral and often unrecognized level, especially when they are in close proximity. Horses do this even more keenly than we do. Betty was aware that her own fear might be infecting Magic, but what could she do about it?

Energy management and positive thinking
Over the course of a few sessions, Betty learned mind-body techniques that helped her find her inner courage and maintain the wisdom available to her moment by moment if she could stay in the experience. Betty tamed her abstract and rational “commentator”, training it instead to become a conscious and compassionate coach for her “experiencer”. She learned an energy technique called grounding, which helped her stay calm and present even in situations when Magic startled. This reversed the cycle of affect contagion, allowing Betty to calm her horse by calming herself. Then the real magic happened, pun intended!

Betty realized that her automatic thoughts tended toward the negative – “awfulizing” as it is sometimes called. She also realized that in most cases she could plug in positive thinking instead, and that Magic seemed to catch the positive picture each time. Our work concluded with several riding sessions in which Betty successfully sent Magic pictures of all sorts of things, from proper bending through corners and canter departs in the arena, to successfully navigating potential “startle spots” on the trail. Magic seemed to find the new game very engaging, and was much more focused and responsive to Betty overall.

Horses pick up positive thinking from humans quite easily when sufficient clarity and calmness has been established. But they can also pick up our “awfulizing” pictures, often to our detriment! Harmony begins in the mind’s eye. Our own self-awareness turns out to be our greatest asset when it comes to communicating with our equine partners.

Leigh Shambo is a clinical therapist and educator whose first career was training horses and riders. After a serious riding accident in 1988, Leigh discovered that horses are exceptionally responsive to the psychological and spiritual stages of healing. Her interest led her to a second career as a mental health therapist. Recognized for her ability to facilitate horse work in ways that inspire human growth and healing, Leigh is regularly invited to teach at equestrian facilities throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, in addition to her therapy practice at her farm in Chehalis, Washington.