In past articles I have talked about how sensitive horses are to our energy, emotion and intention. Their ability to read, understand and respond to our emotions and energy is a large part of what makes them such terrific partners in equine guided learning, coaching and even therapeutic contexts.
In my experience horses provide a safe space. They respond to our energy and emotion without judgement, without taking things personally. That in itself is a great gift. When they mirror our behavior back to us, we often have profound truths revealed to us and sometimes mysteries are revealed.
A few summers ago I was working with a team of executives who had come out for leadership coaching. There were three clients working with a horse in my group. While these individuals were powerful and effective leaders in their professions, they were unfamiliar with horses and were tentatively exploring and modeling behaviors related to onboarding a new team member into their group. One of the gentlemen in the group suddenly became unsteady and looked as though he might faint. As he slowly began to crumple towards the grass, his teammates instinctively reached out and supported him to cushion his ‘fall’ and provide a safe landing. The man was given water, and proper first aid. Thankfully his episode was not serious and he made a quick and complete recovery. The astonishing thing however, was what was happening with his new team member.
As our client sat on the ground and received care, the horse that we had been working with went down to the ground. He literally lay down in the grass, first with his legs tucked underneath him, and then rolling out into a full side lying position. The horse did this in close proximity to his team. He remained still on the ground for several minutes while our human friend was attended to. This is a very unusual and significant occurrence. Horses are at their most vulnerable when they are laying down. They are flight animals and their self-preservation instincts often keep them on their feet to enable them to flee danger. They can even sleep standing. The horse was not ill or overcome. This was not an action caused by any physical distress. This horse chose to lie down at that moment and his decision to do so created a profound shift for everyone.
Why did this horse lay down on the ground with his teammate? I have thought deeply about this event many times. There are many hypotheses to consider. Was it a sympathetic response? Was the horse grounding himself and his team? Was the horse mirroring the behavior for another reason? The absolute truth is unknowable, but the events of that day left a lasting impression on all of us about the horse’s ability to mirror human behavior.