By Leeanne Seaver
Throughout history, the bond between horses and humans has made civilization possible, but this bond is about more than just survival, according to William Reed, author of The Pulse of Hope. “The design of a horse invites the man to ride, and ride he must. Human survival has depended on this relationship. I’ve wondered what the horse gets out of all this, but have to admit there seems to be some reciprocity. The horse wants to explore a trail together, to listen to you talk about your joys and concerns. But you must first earn his trust. And you must deserve a horse’s faith in you. Horses give assurance, and we provide reassurance. Fluency in one another’s language creates a bond of faith and trust . . . this is a very mystical healing journey a horse and human can take together.”
Winston Churchill agreed. “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man,” he once said. For Vicksburg horsewoman Sue Harper-Grieger , this connection has been lifelong. “I have never known not loving horses and everything to do with them from earliest childhood to the present.”
A passion for all things equine is powerful for many people, but even for those born without the horse-loving gene, the bond between humans and horses seems special, even spiritual, at times. It’s that feeling that comes from nature—good in a deeply intuitive way that’s hard to describe. “With horses, you can experience a sense of the divine without the need to label what you’re feeling,” says Tasha Federinko, a certified instructor of Advanced Therapeutic Riding. Federinko works with troubled teens at the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta. She’ll tell you that in her work, “I see very angry people finding peace. I see closed people opening up. It’s a very healing thing.” However hard it is to define, there is an acknowledged “equine theology” that has amassed a large following, and for good reason. Even without words, communication with horses conveys something profoundly important to the human soul.
For Andrea Carlin, who has been riding since she was eight years old, being with horses helps her feel good about herself. “Andy,” now 22, is mentally disabled. School was difficult and much of life itself continues to be a challenge for her. When she learned to ride at the Cheff Center, she had an entirely positive experience. Her mother, Kymm Carlin, says, “Andy is a totally different kid around horses. She has so much confidence. She’s been taught to groom, saddle, ride, and care for horses. Unlike other aspects of her life, with horses, there’s just no fear at all for Andy. If you’re familiar with children with special needs, you know they don’t like change or things out of their norm, but whenever Andy has been presented with something new or different that has to do with horses, she’s fine with it.”
A case in point: once Andy was assigned a huge horse she’d never ridden for a trail ride.
Kymm prepared herself for the worst—a big panicky scene—but it was just the opposite. “I watched my daughter get on that horse and ride without a bit of anxiety. It was just the best thing in the world. She reacts differently with horses than anywhere else. She is happiest on a horse.”
The Cheff Center’s program director, Tamara Homnick, RN, says the objective is to focus on what individuals can accomplish, not on what they cannot. They serve riders of all ages who have physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities. Equine-assisted therapy and therapeutic riding (known as “hippotherapy”) is not new; in fact, “Its earliest recorded mention (was) in the ancient Greek writings of Hippocrates. However, hippotherapy as a formalized discipline was not developed until the 1960s, when it began to be used in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy,” according to Wikipedia. Homnick emphasizes, “There are so many ways people partner with horses and riding for mental health, speech, physical therapy and more.”
Both Federinko and Homnick will tell you that just like people, horses have distinct personalities. Some of them have a special gift for working with humans. “These horses will seek out people in need,” Federinko says. “On a scientific level, horses are herd animals. If they’ve accepted a human being into the ‘herd,’ they’ll take care of that person. Some horses just have a bigger heart than others. I’ve seen horses seek out the students in need and make that connection—we call those the babysitter horses.”
Perhaps some horses have a divine calling in equine theology. If so, their sense of purpose seems tied to helping humans who need a “horse doctor,” whether or not they know it. “I sincerely believe that causing a horse —a flight animal—to trust you, is therapeutic,” says Monty Roberts, an internationally renowned horse trainer whose techniques inspired the movie The Horse Whisperer (See montyroberts.com). “When you get it right within yourself, the horses will tell you. And they won’t tell you obliquely; they’ll tell you directly.”
Author and equine therapist Linda Kohanov experienced her own spiritual awakening through working with her black mare, Rasa. The experience prompted her to study the scientific and metaphysical aspects of the human-horse bond. Her book, The Tao of Equus, describes how horses seem to sense human emotion and gauge their interactions accordingly. Kohanov feels that horses have a lot to teach humanity. Tamara Homnick puts it this way, “Whatever your belief system is, or even if you’re a non-believer, there is something that transcends traditional notions of ‘God’ that has been described as ‘equine theology.’” Whatever that is, it’s hopeful, healing, personal, timeless and universal. And miraculously, it works.