What Horses Can Teach Us About Surviving Community Quarantine

Horses know a few things about the experience of being isolated from the larger world, and of having their freedoms involuntarily restricted. In fact, unless a horse is lucky enough to be born wild, this is their permanent life experience.

It might be tempting to say, “Well, since most horses have never known anything different it’s not that bad.” But this isn’t true. Having never known anything different doesn’t make the experience of having few liberties in your life any easier! 

Even horses who are born into captivity show clear signs of being stressed, anxious, frustrated and/or depressed when they don’t have the freedom to go where they want to go and do what they want to do.

There’s only one thing I’ve found that significantly improves my horses’ experience of living in captivity: giving them as much license as possible to make choices and engage in self-care. 

At the end of the day, we all want to feel in control of our lives. This holds true even within a larger context of limitation. There’s so much we can learn from horses in this regard. Here are 10 lessons that are particularly relevant and can help us survive (and possibly even thrive!) during this period of global self-isolation:

1. Stay Present. Horses understand that the only moment that ever truly exists is right now. Whatever happened even just five minutes ago is already nothing but a memory, and cannot be altered. Tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived, and much can still change before then. Living in the present moment as best we can allows us to respond more appropriately to immediate issues and opportunities. It also helps us feel more grateful, connected and grounded.

2. “Worry About Your Own Self”.  Horses are exceptionally good at practicing self-care and taking responsibility for their own needs, actions and decisions. If they have an itch, they find a creative way to scratch it for themselves! Horses do not turn their personal problems into someone else’s responsibility. 

3. Have Each Other’s Backs. Just because horses naturally take ownership of what’s theirs to own, this doesn’t mean they turn their backs on their herd mates – or that they never cooperate! Rather, they look for opportunities that are ‘mutual wins’. Rarely do you see horses engaging in social interactions that are beneficial only to one. And in many instances, the choices they make as individuals are designed to benefit the larger herd community.

4. Respect One Another’s Personal Space. The primary reason horses are able to live in close quarters and maintain a peaceful herd community is because they naturally honor one another’s need for personal space – whether it be physical, mental or emotional. No horse takes it personally when another member of the community moves further away or finds a private spot to hang out for a spell. And they all trust one another to re-engage when ready.

5. Stick Together. As herd animals, horses never forget that their survival depends on being in it together, always. While horses are careful not to micromanage one another’s choices, they do keep close tabs on each other. The horses in a herd make it a priority to get to know one another’s personalities, preferences and quirks. Most of all, they support one another by always sticking together and deeply valuing the comfort and safety of community.

6. Practice Calming Behaviors. Domestic life is stressful for horses, as is life in the wild for a prey animal (just in a different way). In either situation, grazing is one of the primary ways horses calm themselves throughout the day. This head-down body position reduces tension in their backs and necks, and naturally stretches the spine. The gentle rhythmic motion of biting and grinding grass also soothes their nerves and helps keep their focus on the present moment… even as they continuously scan the horizon for potential threats. 

7. Keep Lines of Communication Open. Horses never make assumptions about how their herd mates feel. They are constantly asking questions about personal space requirements, monitoring energetic vibes within the herd and respectfully checking in with one another. Communication only works as a tool for building and maintaining healthy community when everyone is honest and respectful.

8. Stay Connected with the Natural World. Mother Earth is here to support us all. Horses spend the majority of their lives outside in the natural world. They feel connected to the sun, the wind, the rain, the birds and the cycles of the moon, as well as the wide variety of plants, insects and other wildlife in their immediate environment. Living in constant connection with the natural world can keep all of us feeling grounded and supported.

9. Engage in Playful Movement! All living creatures are designed for movement. Horses feel happiest and healthiest when they can engage in free-flowing gentle movement throughout the day, but they also enjoy occasional spontaneous bursts of high-energy group play! This more intense physical activity gets their blood flowing, helps to reduce stress and boosts their immune systems. Individual horses rarely engage in high-energy play by themselves; it’s almost always a group activity. They encourage one another to participate and the sessions are highly creative. Each one is unique and co-created in the moment! 

10. Get Plenty of Rest. Horses only need between 30 minutes and 2 hours of R.E.M. sleep per day, but these healing periods of rest are critical to their overall wellbeing. Within the herd, horses often share periods of communal resting, maybe standing together under the shade of a tree. But they also take turns “standing guard” to make sure every member of the herd gets a chance to lie down, totally relax and benefit from some deep, healing sleep. 

I hope you’ve found these reminders from the horses helpful. During this challenging and worrisome time it’s more important than ever for us to remember that we, as humans, are not alone here on this earth. And we don’t have to come up with all the answers and solutions by ourselves. The natural world provides many models we can look to – both as we cope with this emerging pandemic and also when we are ready to begin rebuilding for a brighter future ahead. 

Kim Hallin is the Founder and Lead Facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique equine-inspired experiential learning program outside of Charleston, SC. You can learn more about her and her work at www.unbridled.guru.

A New Era in the Horse-Human Relationship

I have a passion for looking beyond the surface, questioning the status quo and seeking a deeper understanding. This mindset is not the norm in the horse industry. Which means it’s usually an uphill battle.

Part of what makes questioning the status quo in the horse industry so challenging is that a mammoth chasm has grown between our understanding of what horses evolved to be (peaceful, intuitive, highly intelligent herd animals) and what we prefer to think of them as (supreme athletes and voluntary beasts of burden or entertainment).

In today’s world, the only opportunities most people have to interact with horses involve riding lessons, trail/pony rides, carriage rides, petting zoos, or shows and competitions. Those who own or lease horses often keep them at boarding facilities. Only a very small percentage of humans actually live with horses anymore. And even fewer get to witness or experience horses living in the wild.

The ramification of this knowledge/exposure gap is that our human perception of what is “normal” for horses has gotten royally skewed. I mean skewed to the point that even our basic concept of what a horse is has little resemblance at all to what a horse actually is!

Growing up, the lesson programs and summer camps I participated in felt like a dream come true to me – simply because they provided the only opportunity I had to engage directly with horses. Unfortunately, at the time, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. And because I grew up a suburban kid, no one around me had any direct knowledge of horses. So I never had any reason to question what I was being taught. We all simply assumed that the professionals in the industry knew everything there was to know about horses.

In all likelihood, their knowledge had simply been passed down from their own riding instructors and mentors, whose knowledge was likely passed down from their riding instructors and mentors, and so on. The horse industry is deeply steeped in tradition like that. Equestrians have essentially been doing and teaching similar things, in similar ways, for thousands of years. Never mind the fact that our relationship to horses (namely our dependence on them for locomotion, warfare and power) has changed dramatically in the last 125 years.

While my childhood riding lessons may have satisfied my youthful obsession with horses, they also engrained in me an outdated and very self-serving view of living in relationship with horses.

Looking back I can see very clearly that almost everything I was taught was designed to enhance or fine-tune my ability to control a horse’s movements. Had we been living in times when humans relied on horses to lead a charge into battle, I could see how this approach would be necessary (regardless of how I personally feel about the ethics of using horses in warfare). Likewise, had we been living in an age when my life or livelihood (or those of my family members) literally depended on the use of horses for transportation, farming or hunting, the need to be in control of a horses’ every move would have been paramount.

But we do not live in those times anymore. Not even close. Today, horses are largely dispensable to the human race (except for our ongoing obsession with breeding, training and riding them for sport), and most people have no interest in learning how to ride a horse.

So why is it still considered acceptable to teach horse-lovers (including children) that the primary goals of living in relationship with horses are to ride, control and use them as beasts of burden?

The arguments I consistently hear from within the industry (where almost everyone supports the continuation of these traditions) are:

  1. that horses need to be ridden for exercise, and
  2. that horses need a job to do in order to be happy.

And, of course, if we choose to believe that horses need to be ridden and given a job, then of course we will also believe that we need to be able to control them when riding and training them (so we can stay safe).

But is it really true that horses need to be ridden or given a job to do? About five years ago I decided I wanted to get a definitive answer to this question for myself. The first things I did were to stop riding and start asking (my horses, not horse people!) if they felt that something important was missing from their lives.

The answer I’ve gotten back – through their behaviors and choices as well as the positive changes in their physical and emotional health – is a definitive, collective and resounding “No”.

But it’s what my horses have shown me is true that’s the most striking. Time and again, they demonstrate that when they are afforded full freedom to make their own choices and to be in control of their own bodies, they are much more likely to voluntarily cooperate and socialize. In fact, there are many times when I feel like my horses can literally read my mind because they are that good at anticipating what I’m going to do, ask or think next. Many times, they are already “on board” and eager to help before I even think about asking.

As for formal exercise, this is a complete no-go as far as my herd is concerned. They much prefer to peacefully graze and mosey all day, maybe play just a little, and nap. This is how they evolved to survive – by intentionally preserving their energy for those occasional instances when it’s really needed.

The truth is, horses are one of the most naturally peaceful, calm, communal and cooperative animals on the planet. Forging relationships and working in partnership with them is really easy. We don’t have to use physical force, or tools or become experienced trainers or rely on traditional methods to control them. Horses are instinctively driven (in both a ‘live and let live’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of way) to harmonize with every other living being in their environment.

Control itself is actually what makes horses crazy… either when it’s taken away from them or when it’s exerted over them. In other words, it’s the very mentality and approach I was taught as a child to embrace and embody around horses that actually makes them unsafe to be around.

My sincere hope is that we (as an outgoing generation of industry leaders) can succeed in breaking free from the traditions of the past to find new and creative ways to teach children how to honor and respect the autonomy of horses. If we start today, we just must might live long enough to catch a glimpse of how this new era of voluntary partnership between humans and horses might manifest.

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together, to heal together.

It’s Not What We Do That Matters; It’s Why We Do It.

This is the story of how drinking more water for just three weeks has changed my life because it’s changed my PERSPECTIVE on life.

Like many people, I suspected for a long time (and I mean probably 20 years or more) that I was chronically dehydrated. I’d seen the seemingly ludicrous recommendations on how much water a person should drink every day. I’d also been dealing, for most of my life, with symptoms such as chronic headaches, acne and other skin issues that are known to be associated with dehydration. And then there was the chronic tiredness, foggy headedness and difficulty concentrating…

Over the years, I turned to just about everything (other than drinking the recommended amounts of water, that is) in search of a quick-fix to help me manage these various issues, including:

  • Endless skin-care and cosmetic products
  • Headache medications
  • Diet changes
  • Digestive supplements
  • Exercise
  • Caffein
  • Sugar

Many of these helped, some. At least temporarily. But I now know I was treating symptoms without addressing the underlying cause. So none of it was ever really going to achieve the results I desired.

The truth is, I did actually try (multiple times) to increase my water intake. But, time and again, I was lucky (on a good day) if I could manage to down even 16 ounces of pure water. You see, I’ve never really enjoyed the taste (or lack thereof) of water. But most of all, I simply hated the way that drinking water made me need to pee. All. The. Time.

Fast forward to about four weeks ago when I was perusing the shelves in the alternative health section of a used bookstore. I found myself drawn to a red spine with bold white letters that read: Your Body’s Many Cries for Water.

I pulled the thin paperback book out and saw that it was written by a doctor named Batmanghelidj. At the very top of the colorful cover was this warning:

“YOU ARE NOT SICK, YOU ARE THIRSTY! Don’t treat thirst with medications”.

I admit, I was intrigued, primarily because at that very moment I could feel a headache coming on and I realized that I hadn’t had even one glass of water that day. I looked down at the sticker price on the book and thought, “What the hell, it’s only $4.00”.

I bought the book.

As it turns out, although it’s not exactly riveting reading, there is a lot of compelling information in this book. One case study, in particular, really got my attention. It was the story of a man who was suffering from acute, severe, debilitating pain due to a stomach ulcer. This man had taken three tablets of cimetidine (300 milligrams each) and one full bottle of antacid, none of which had relieved his pain. After confirming that this man’s ulcer had not perforated, Dr. Batmangeheldidj decided to try treating him with water intake.

He explains how he initially handed the man two full glasses of water, which the man did not want to drink. But Dr. B told the man that since all of the other medications he’d tried on his own hadn’t worked, it was time to try “his medication” for this disease. Within fifteen minutes, Dr. B claims the man’s pain had become less severe and that his groaning had stopped. Dr. B then gave the man another full glass of water. In a few more minutes, the man’s pain supposedly disappeared completely and he started taking notice of the people and environment around him again. He sat up and began talking. He even got up and walked around the room. Dr. B said that for 10 hours, this man had suffered terribly from severe pain and had taken the most potent and advanced medicines (at that time) for the treatment of peptic ulcer disease, without any significant relief. And yet, just three glasses of water had produced very obvious and absolute relief in about 20 minutes.

As someone who has a long history of acute digestive pain myself (although not ulcers), this story really struck me. So the next time I started having gut pain, I promptly sat myself down in a comfortable chair in my living room and FORCED myself to drink 32 ounces of water. It seemed like an excessive amount. I feared my stomach might explode or that drinking that much water in a short period of time would make me sick. Neither of these things happened. But two other things DID happen:

  1. After about 20 minutes I really had to pee. (duh).
  2. My gut pain disappeared. Completely.

In fact, I noticed with utter fascination (and delight!) that the pain actually reduced in direct accordance with my water intake. I immediately thought, “If drinking just 32 ounces of water (notice how suddenly it became ‘just 32 ounces‘) can provide significant relief for my stomach pain and discomfort (something that I’ve been living with chronically for most of my life), I’m in!”.

Hook, line and sinker.

Fast forward three weeks to today. I’ve now successfully consumed between 60 and 140 ounces of water per day for three weeks. I’m not going to lie, it was hard at first. It felt like a potentially dangerous amount of water (I even Googled it to make sure it wasn’t!). And I’ve never peed so much in my life (although my body now seems to have adjusted to the increased water intake and it’s not quite so frequent).

To keep myself on track, I decided to keep a log and to turn this effort into a meditative, reflective practice. I focused on actively NOTICING how my whole body was feeling (not just my bladder). I paid attention to all the ways my body was responding to the water intake. And here’s what I discovered:

Whenever I drink at least 16 – 24 ounces of water in a very short period of time (gone are the days when I used to convince myself that sipping equaled “hydrating”), I can actually FEEL my body absorbing the water like liquid gold. Literally, within minutes of consumption, I start to feel different. Better. Lighter. Less stressed. More Awake.

When I’m appropriately hydrated my bodily outputs (urine and feces) both flow much more freely. My urine is always clear and free of odor, never yellow or pungent. The sensation of “needing to pee” feels different for me now than it used to. My bladder gets full more often but the “urgency to go” feels less critical and uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure this is because the lining of my bladder and urethra are no longer inflamed from urine that contains a high concentration of toxins. In other words, my system is now flushing the bad stuff in a much healthier way. I also never feel constipated. I poo more frequently (but hey, no worries, I’m already in the bathroom anyway!), and I literally never have to strain.

My gut pain has reduced to almost zero, and usually when I notice it starting to return it’s on days when I’ve been drinking less water, not more.

I no longer wake up with headaches. Or, on the rare mornings when I do have a wee trace of one, after I down my first-thing-in-the-morning 30 ounces to rehydrate from 6-8 hours of sleeping (and thus not drinking!)… POOF! Headache gone.

I have noticed a SIGNIFICANT increase in my energy levels and a SIGNIFICANT reduction in joint pain, back pain and general body aches.

I’m hungry a lot less often than I used to be. And I’m drinking a lot less of other types of drinks (including those with sugar, alcohol and caffein) because I’m not thirsty, I’m not tired and I’m not crashing energetically. I don’t have a scale in my house but I’m pretty sure I’ve dropped at least a few pounds. Or maybe I’m just less bloated.

My disposition and outlook on life are better. I simply FEEL GOOD in my physical body much more of the time!

I actually think my skin is starting to look and feel better too.

All of this after JUST three weeks of hydrating properly. All of this from changing just one thing. One thing that is, relatively speaking, simple. And it’s free.

So why was I never able to succeed in staying committed to drinking more water before now? Because I was trying to do it for the wrong reasons.

I was looking for a quick fix. The elusive Silver Bullet. Or I was doing it because I thought I should. Because other people said it was important. I was trying to force myself to do it. And usually, I was trying to rehydrate an entire body that was ravaged by long-term drought using sporadic, light sprinkles instead of regular, organ-saturating rains.

In the past, I had resented even trying to drink more water because I saw it as an inconvenience and because it meant letting go of the unhealthy, addictive “comfort strategies” I had grown dependent on to soothe myself through the pain and discomfort that I didn’t even realize was being caused by dehydration.

But here’s the most mind-blowing thing of all:

Making the decision to start drinking more water for the RIGHT reason (because I finally acknowledged it’s what this precious vessel of a body that my soul gets to inhabit in this lifetime NEEDS in order to function as it is designed to) has caused me to become drastically more socially and environmentally conscious.

I’m suddenly deeply (and urgently) concerned about our world’s supply of clean water. I’m overwhelmed at the thought of how many plastic water bottles I alone would need to use (and dispose of) in order to keep myself properly hydrated. I am acutely aware of how different the fresh water that comes straight from the well-pump on my farm tastes than the processed, flourine-filled and/or chlorinated water that pours out of city spigots everywhere. I shudder at the thought of how many people work in jobs where they don’t have the freedom to visit the bathroom (or eliminate outside as nature intended) regularly throughout the day. I now consider these workplaces to be nothing short of hostile and abusive.

This experience also has me thinking about all the other areas of my life where I do (or try to do) things for the wrong reasons. And it’s given me a new litmus test to determine whether or not I’m doing something for the right reason:

Does my doing this cause me to want to do lots of other things right too? If not, I’m probably just doing it because I think I’m supposed to, or for some other superficial reason. And not because I know it actually MATTERS.


Kim Hallin is the owner of Unbridled, LLC in Ravenel, SC. For more information visit www.unbridled.guru

The Healing Power of Presence (with horses)

“The more the dysfunction of the human mind plays itself out on the world stage, clearly visible to everyone in the daily television news reports, the greater the number of people who realize the urgent need for radical change in human consciousness if humanity is not to destroy both itself and the planet.”

These words, written by Eckhart Tolle in 2004, were published in the preface to the paperback edition of his bestselling book, The Power of Now. Fifteen years later, the urgency for radical change in human consciousness has never been greater. And the stakes for NOT achieving a higher collective consciousness have never been higher.

Eckhart Tolle’s books, and the recordings of his talks, have been instrumental for me in my own quest for higher consciousness and greater personal peace, as have the works of many other authors and spiritual guides. But nothing has been more effective for me in terms of connecting with “that intensely alive state” Tolle talks about, “that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking” than spending time in the presence of horses.

Achieving a higher state of consciousness requires rising above the chatter of our analytical brains. These days, the trendy term ‘mindfulness’ is often thrown around to describe this process. I don’t particularly like the term ‘mindfulness’ because, to me, it implies that the mind is full when the goal should actually be to quiet or empty the mind. I prefer descriptors such as ‘being present’ or ‘finding presence’.

Many studies have shown that when we become more present our cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) level lowers. Our heart rate goes down. Our blood pressure reduces. We relax. We gain clarity. Our immune system functions improve. We concentrate better. We have more focus. Our listening skills and memory are vastly improved. We feel less self-conscious. Our anxiety levels decrease. And, perhaps most importantly, we get more enjoyment out of life.

There are many ways to practice becoming more present, such as meditation, yoga, exercise and artistic expression (to name a few). In my personal experience, however, when it comes to learning to embody a state of pure presence… horses are the perfect teachers.

As prey animals, horses are hard-wired to stay in a constant state of awareness of their environment. This means they naturally (without even trying!) model perfect presence. Their physical size means they also have a huge, commanding presence of their own. You simply can’t be near a horse and not pay attention to it. There is something inexplicable about being in the presence of these incredible animals. I love the way Shelley Carr, Director of Equine Soul Connection describes it:

“Horses answer the call of the soul. The faint whisper of a promise that there is something else – something more joyful and more peaceful than our daily existence.”

In terms of practicing presence, the key to benefitting from spending time with horses lies in making a choice to focus on being vs. doing. As soon as we attach a goal to the time we spend with horses, our thinking mind takes over. Our controlling energy builds. We get busy. Anxiety, expectation and stress creep in. And we become distracted from the present moment rather than connected to it.

If we simply drop the agenda and turn our focus toward noticing, hearing, sensing, allowing and accepting… that’s when the magic happens. Horses make this process easier because of their enormous presence, their intrinsic beauty and their powerful, calming energy. When we stand beside a horse with no goal other than to simply pay attention, we quickly start to notice:

  • the depth of their soulful eyes that make us feel seen like we’ve never felt seen before
  • the unbelievable gentleness of their touch
  • the softness of their muzzles
  • the way they use their whiskers and lips to investigate
  • how the hairs on our own necks stand up when we feel their soft breath on our skin
  • the mesmerizing sound of their rhythmic breathing and chewing
  • the way the sunlight shimmers magically through their dancing mane and tail hairs
  • the earthy, comforting scent of their skin; and
  • the grounded energy that surrounds them.

Spending time with horses also draws us more deeply into connection with everything else in the environment because horses are acutely aware. When a bird moves in the distance, the horse’s ear will swivel in that direction. If an unusual sound occurs, the horse will lift its heads and take a closer look. When a fly lands on a horse, the horse will twitch its skin, swish its tail or stomp its foot to shoo the insect away.

In other words, when it comes to being present, the horses will do the heavy lifting for us. All we need to do is NOTICE.

Spending time being present with horses is akin to being mentored by the most gifted sages alive. Soon our negative thoughts and feelings start to melt into a calm awareness. We feel more centered and in harmony with the natural world. We begin to experience lightness. We sense peace. Joy returns and we suddenly feel a new kinship with all of life.

How will we know when we have succeeded in surrendering our minds to pure presence? According to Eckhart Tolle, “When you no longer need to ask the question.”

For me, when I spend time with horses…

I no longer need to ask the question.

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together, to heal together.

The Amazon is burning; it’s time to tend your forest!

The Amazon rainforest is burning. And with it, up to 20% of the earth’s oxygen source could go up in toxic smoke. Just like that.

Anyone with common sense who also appreciates life (of any kind) on this planet understands the magnitude of the environmental crisis at hand. Unfortunately, most of us feel completely powerless to do anything meaningful about it.

But what if we look at these wildfires as a reflection of what’s happening in our own personal lives? In other words, what if there is something deeper about this environmental crisis that we, as human beings, desperately need to understand… not only in order to avoid mass extinction on earth, but in order to feel any sense of control and peace in our daily lives again?

Whenever a world event occurs that feels utterly overwhelming to me, I like to play a game where I try to come up with a metaphor that will empower me to take some sort of meaningful action in my own life. Ideally, this action will be designed to improve my own mental, emotional or physical wellbeing. I find that the simple act of taking a meaningful action in response to an event or tragedy I can’t control helps me feel much less overwhelmed. So, what metaphor did I come up with in regard to the Amazon wildfires?

Too many of us are allowing our most precious and indispensable personal gifts to be snuffed out.

The Amazon rainforest, in all of its amazing glory, is not just a gift to Brazil (which is where it physically exists). The Amazon is a life-giving force for the entire planet. We know this because science has confirmed it. But what if the same inter-connectedness is true for the unique and special gifts each and every one of us are born with? Just think how much different our world would be if influential people like Christopher Columbus, Sir Isaac Newton, Picasso, Ann Frank, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Walter Cronkite, Ghandi, Robin Williams, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Brene Brown and countless other leaders across the globe had not tended to the forest of their own unique gifts! In other words, what if these amazing individuals had let themselves become too overwhelmed, distracted, angry or afraid to summon the courage needed to embrace their greatest gifts during times of incredible challenge?

Each one of us, just like every single living organism in the rainforest, is born with the capacity to positively impact the world. Unfortunately, too often, instead of unleashing our internal light to shine brightest when it’s most needed, we hide from our gifts. But when a person’s gifts go unused, their internal light gets dimmed and, eventually, snuffed out. They then become tinder that can be used to fuel the world’s destructive wildfires, which ultimately threaten to suffocate the very soul of humanity. What’s happening in the Amazon now is nothing more than an outward manifestation of the crisis we’re already fueling in our everyday lives.

I honestly don’t know if there’s still time to save our planet. But I choose to believe there is. What I do know is that solving today’s problems will require all of us using all of our gifts. This means making an active decision today to carefully and intentionally tend the internal forest that houses our greatest gifts!

We must clear out the underbrush that’s complicating the landscape of our minds and hearts, so we can see our own, and one another’s, gifts more clearly. Tending the forest also means working collaboratively with others to strategically set and manage controlled burns that will vanquish the invasive weeds and vines of our collective self-doubt, fear and insecurity. It means building fences around our egos (and destructive appetites) to ensure we never lose sight of the forest-of-gifts due to the allure of a neighbor’s fruit-bearing trees. And it means cleaning up the dried twigs and branches of our false-starts, failures and mistakes, so we can use them strategically to fuel the fire of purpose and progress into a colossal blaze of meaningful action and inspiration throughout the world.

The change we so desperately want to see will never start happening until more of us take personal responsibility for tending the part of the forest that houses our specific gifts. I realize that in the face of threats the size of what’s happening in the Amazon, it can seem pointless or irresponsible to turn our attention inward. But to let ourselves get bogged down by fear, sadness, anger or despair will only distract us from the important work of cultivating our own gifts into tangible ideas and creative expressions of love, healing and purpose that might actually lead us all to a better tomorrow.

If what I’ve said here resonates for you, if it inspires you to take one action today to begin tending your own personal forest of gifts, then together we HAVE done something meaningful in response to the Amazon fires. And if you are someone who would like support in exploring your personal forest and tending to your gifts, I invite you to join The Kinship of the Herd. The world needs your light!

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together to heal together.

An Ethological Perspective on the “Magic” of the Horse-Human Relationship

The horse-human relationship has long been mired in a timeless debate between the scientific-mind and the spiritual-heart. At one extreme of this debate we find those who believe that any comparison between humans and horses equates to anthropomorphism. At the other extreme are those who believe horses are actually magical unicorns living here on earth in “plain-clothes” disguise (such as in the physical form of a nondescript bay gelding).

Most of us who live in relationship with horses have, at various times, found ourselves deeply conflicted about how to make sense of the indescribable kinship we feel with these special animals. We wonder: can the connection really be explained, completely, by science? Or are there certain aspects of the relationship that are, in fact, magical?

For me, a whole new level of clarity emerged when I began to look at things from an ethological perspective.

The term ethology was first defined as the study of animals in their natural habitat by Isidore Geoffrey-Saint Hilarie in 1859 (Jaynes, 1969). Today, ethology is typically considered an arm of biology; one that focuses on the evolution of behavior. And, in my opinion, there is one critical area where the evolution of human behavior and the evolution of equine behavior are intricately intertwined. It’s called domestication.

Science Daily (borrowing text from Wikipedia) defines domestication as “a phenomenon whereby a wild biological organism is habituated to survive in the company of human beings”. This text goes on to explain, “Domesticated animals, plants, and other organisms are those whose collective behavior, life cycle, or physiology has been altered as a result of their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations.”

Most experts agree that the domestication process for horses began about 5,500 years ago. According to the Huffington Post, a team of researchers that compared equine DNA from 16,000-43,000 years ago with DNA of the modern horse detected “a general pattern showing that domestication leads to increased levels of inbreeding and accumulation of excessive deleterious mutations in modern horses.”

Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has identified three main routes to domestication. The following summaries are taken directly from an essay entitled “How Domestication Changes Species Including the Human“, by Jacob Mikanowski published by Aeon:

The ‘directed’ pathway is the most straightforward. It happens when humans deliberately set out to amplify some desired trait in a species, for example, breeding donkeys to be good for transport, or minks to have luxuriant fur.

The ‘prey’ pathway, meanwhile, happens when humans take animals they previously hunted in the wild, and begin managing them in herds, either by creating environments that suit them, or capturing and confining them. Goats, sheep and cattle all fit into this paradigm, as do, somewhat more unexpectedly, horses, which were raised for meat well before anyone figured out you could ride them as well.

Finally there is the ‘commensal’ pathway, in which animals are drawn to humans by attractive food sources – especially trash, but also crops, mice and other pests. Through long interaction, they essentially domesticate themselves. Cats seem to have come into our lives this way, lured by the grain-eating rodents that accompanied the earliest farmers in the Middle East some 12,000 years ago. The descendants of these Middle Eastern cats then spread to Egypt and across the Mediterranean, before expanding their range to northern Europe and the rest of the world by jumping on ships.

Mikanowski goes on to explain that, regardless of the route taken to get there, domestication comes at a cost to the animals involved. For example, most tame mammals have brains that are noticeably punier than those of their wild relatives. “Brains of domestic pigs are 35 per cent smaller than those of boars, for example, while dogs’ brains are around 30 per cent smaller than those of wolves”, he writes. “However, it isn’t clear whether this shrinkage translates into lower intelligence. Much of the reduction appears to occur in parts of the brain related to motor control and sensory processes, such as vision and smell. And it was probably advantageous for domestic animals to have reduced sensory acuity. In the wild it paid to be skittish, while under human management, those individuals who could handle stress with equanimity did best.”

Most humans regard domestication as a form of progress because it moves humans from living in opposition to nature to harnessing it for our benefit. Anthropologist Tim Ingold disagrees, and so do I. 

In The Perception of the Environment (2000), he notes that foraging peoples generally regarded animals as their equals. He argues that hunting did not originate as a form of violence so much as it was seen as a ‘willing sacrifice’ on the part of the animal because early hunters depended on trust-building in order to get close enough to make a kill. “Pastoralists, on the other hand, tend to regard animals as servants, to be mastered and controlled. Domestication doesn’t entail making wild animals tame,” Ingold says. “Instead, it means replacing a relationship founded on trust with one based on domination.”

Mikanowski explains that when humans start treating animals as subordinates, it becomes easier to do the same thing to one another. Fast forward to today. How many instances can you think of where humans treat one another as subordinates? It happens in families. It happens in marriages. It happens in the workplace. It even happens within the coaching dynamic of competitive sports. I’m not naive enough to think that humans never treated one another as subordinates prior to domestication, but there were certainly far fewer structures (literal and figurative) in place to support or reinforce that type of behavior in relationships. Human society today, however, is based primarily on a system of organized subordination.

And, ironically, I believe it is this shared experience of subordination that also creates the sense of “magic” so many of us feel in the horse-human relationship. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, when horses and humans look deeply into one another’s eyes, when we feel the power and grace of being synchronized in thought and action, when we step outside of the physical and emotional structures that hold us each captive in our daily domestic lives… we immediately recognize our shared experience, not only of being domesticated but also of being free. When humans and horses afford one another the opportunity to learn (or remember) how to build a relationship based on mutual trust and how to communicate authentically across species, we connect with inherent and sacred parts of ourselves that are slowly being snuffed out by domestication.

Horses have earned a uniquely special and honored place as comrades and partners to humans throughout our shared history. I believe this unique relationship has only been possible because horses, like humans, have an uncanny (and possibly unparalleled) ability to adapt their behavior to the environment and surrounding challenges that they face. Both horses and humans are also deeply social animals. Communal cooperation has always been necessary for self-preservation in both species. Intelligence, language, social attachment and altruism are essential parts of both equine and human nature because each of these has served a purpose in our individual and collective struggles to survive (Miller, 2001).

Today, domestic horses spend much of their lives confined physically in paddocks, barns and stalls.

We humans spend much of our own lives physically confined in buildings, offices, vehicles and cubicles. Not to mention all the ways both species live in mental and emotional isolation.

In their natural (feral) environment, horses spent 15-17 hours per day grazing and they walked an average of 20-30 miles per day (most of this done incrementally while grazing but also while traveling to water sources). Meanwhile, early humans who were responsible for hunting and/or gathering also traveled many miles per day. And while those humans who were more involved with care-taking activities may have traveled less, they were still intimately connected with, and dependent upon, the natural world around them. Too many of today’s humans and horses rarely have the opportunity to make meaningful physical or emotional connections with the natural world, or to work cooperatively with one another for survival. This disconnect with our very natures comes at a tremendous cost, physically and emotionally, for both species.

But when horses and humans are able to make a heart-connection with one another, our collective unconscious experience arises and finds its way to the surface again. And we remember. We remember what it feels like to connect, to trust, to see, to be seen, to know, to share and to be… free.

And yes, it feels like magic.

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together to experience relationship in liberation from the mindset of subordination.

Should EAL/EAP be designed to benefit the human or the horse?

I’m excited to see this question being asked more often, at least within certain sectors of the equine-facilitated industry. It’s a question that has been at the center of my own heart from the beginning. In fact, this question is precisely what led me into the world of Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL), and it’s what continues to drive my passion for diving deeper into this amazing work. For me though, the question has turned into an unequivocal statement of belief: EAL/EAP should be designed to equally benefit the human AND the horse.

In fact, I now believe that well-designed, ethical approaches to EAL could lead the entire equine industry into a new age of enlightenment around the healing power of the horse-human relationship. More and more studies are helping us understand that, as highly sensitive, sentient beings, horses operate much like empaths. In other words, they are highly sensitive to the emotional states of others.

Several professors and students at the University of Tokyo recently conducted a study that suggests horses respond to human facial expressions and voices in an integrated way, meaning horses will often become confused, hesitant and/or even stressed when a person’s voice and facial expression are not congruent, emotionally speaking. In my own work with horses and humans, I see very consistent evidence that the horses become skeptical and hesitant to interact whenever they sense that a person’s outward behavior or body language is not in alignment with his/her inner emotions. In fact, the horses are often significantly more aware of this type of incongruity than the humans themselves! (I have a strong theory about why this is true too, but I’ll save that for another blog post).

When we give horses the freedom to respond authentically to our energy and emotions, coupled with respect for the feedback they offer us, we open the door to some incredible opportunities for healing and growth – both within ourselves and for the horses.

Another ground-breaking study showed that horses not only recognize human emotions (this particular study focused on their ability to recognize emotions based on facial expressions but I believe that’s just one of many indicators they use), but that horses also remember their previous experiences with certain individuals. As an experienced horse trainer, I know all too well that it’s challenging to find a horse in today’s domestic world that does not have some level of emotional trauma from its past experiences with humans. And given how little choice most horses have in any of their interactions with humans, it’s not difficult to understand why this is true.

But here’s the rub. It’s just as challenging to find a human being in today’s domestic world who does not have some level of emotional trauma from our own experiences with other humans. The truth is, horses and humans alike suffer emotional trauma from domestic life. Horses are just more likely to be honest about it.

Let’s look at this discussion from a slightly different angle now. Most people agree that humans are among the most highly evolved species on the planet. If this is true, wouldn’t it make sense that humans are also capable of perceiving the emotional states of animals, especially horses that have been proven to share many of the same facial expressions we do? Now that’s a study I would be really interested in seeing!

But I’m pretty sure I already know the answer because every day in my work at Unbridled I see evidence that humans (even those who have never spent time with horses before) ARE capable of very accurately perceiving how horses feel. Ironically, I’ve found that this can actually be much more challenging for humans who have previously been “trained” to handle and relate to horses in more traditional ways. Which leads me to perhaps the most compelling question of all:

What does it do to humans when we are required to ignore or dismiss our own higher sensitivities about how a horse is feeling in order to accomplish an activity or task, regardless of whether this is being done in the name of “good therapeutic/coaching practice” or “good horse training/handling”?

If what I’ve said and asked here resonates with you (or even if this conversation simply intrigues you), I invite you to visit my website to share your thoughts or join my mailing list. I’m excited to be at the forefront of exploring and unleashing the full potential of “empathy and choice-based” relationship-building between horses and humans, not just within the EAL/EAP sector but hopefully for the benefit of the entire equine industry!

Kim Hallin is a pioneer in the art of “observation and empathy based equine-inspired learning”. She lives on a small farm outside of Charleston, South Carolina with her healing herd of five horses and one charming pig.

What Would YOU Call It?

My fellow horse-lovers, we’ve been duped. Misled. Brainwashed. Deceived.

The established horse industry would like us to believe that “common practices” in equine management are based on the best interests and safety of our beloved horses. But is this really true?

YOU be the judge.

For just a moment, I ask you to try to forget everything you’ve been told or taught about the “proper” or “accepted” way to keep horses. I also ask you to try to forget your own personal and professional stakes that are tied to the horse industry as it currently operates.

Instead, let’s all just look at things from a purely COMMON SENSE perspective, as rational human beings… and of course, as animal lovers.

Most of us have felt conflicted, at some point in our lives, about they way zoo animals are confined in enclosures. But when it comes to zoos, at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that accredited zoos are highly regulated to ensure minimal standards of care for captive animals. In fact, anyone who wants to do a simple Internet search can find The Zoological Association of America (ZAA)’s Animal Care & Enclosure Standards, which are intended to provide for a safe and healthy environment for both animals and people. The standards contained in this document are VERY specific, including the size of enclosures that are acceptable for various types of animals, the cleanliness and safety of the facilities, the types of fencing that must be used, and safety precautions that must be followed whenever there is direct public contact with the animals, etc. Whether you personally agree with these minimum standards or not, they are, at least, enforceable.

By comparison, the closest thing to any formal document regarding “standards of care” for horses in the equine industry is the American Association of Equine Practitioner (AAEP)’s “Principles of Equine Welfare” which is, essentially, a short list of very non-specific and entirely un-enforceable ideals (which appears not to have been updated since 2006). Furthermore, there is no overall accrediting body overseeing the care and treatment of domestic horses in the United States.

Much of the “confusion” and “indecision” about the proper ways to keep and care for horses is born out of the legal debate around whether horses should be categorized as “livestock” or “companion animals”. In the United States, the laws governing care and treatment for companion animals is vastly different from the laws governing care and treatment for livestock.

In his article, Brief Summary of Horse Laws, Craig Smith explains, “Horses occupy a unique place in American law, as well as our society at large. They are used as beasts of burden on farms, displayed for their beauty at competitive shows, and treated as family members by many families around the country. Because of the variety of roles horses play in our society, the law’s treatment of them covers a wide range of often competing goals. Some laws treat them as livestock, while others describe them as precious national symbols and extend significant protections to them.”

For the most part, humans entrenched in the horse industry fight hard to maintain the designation of horses as livestock. These articles by Katherine Blocksdorf and The Utah Farm Bureau Federation clearly outline some of the key reasons why. If you look carefully at these arguments, you will see that they are based entirely on HUMAN interests, not on the interests or welfare of the horses themselves.

While not an enforceable law or ordinance, The Animal Welfare Institute’s Basic Guidelines for Operating an Equine Rescue or Retirement Facility specifies that “a stall measuring 10½’ x 10½’ is the recommended minimum for the average 1,200 lb. horse.” Meanwhile, the ZAA’s guidelines related to enclosures for equids (e.g., zebras, asses) and large non-cusorial bovids (e.g., wild cattle, African buffalo, bison) require, at minimum, “for one or two animals, a paddock enclosing 1,250 square feet, 6 feet high. For each additional animal, increase paddock by 25 percent of the original footage.”

Sadly, many horse stalls don’t even have windows or adequate ventilation.

Why is it that the zoological association feels that a single zebra averaging less than 900 pounds needs a paddock of at least 1250 square feet to live in while the Animal Welfare Institute feels a horse averaging 1200 pounds needs only a 110 square foot stall?

Now let’s look at this issue from a slightly different perspective. Most dog lovers believe it is inhumane to keep dogs (even though dogs are smaller, more highly domesticated animals than horses) locked up in small kennels, tied to trees or staked on short tethers. In fact, there are many state laws and/or local ordinances that regulate this. For example, according to the Cumberland County SPCA and Animal Shelter the local ordinance there reads: “If your dog will be outside on a chain or cable you need to make sure to have the proper length. The chain or cable needs to be three (3) times the length of your dog from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. So if your dog is 3 feet from nose to tail you will need a chain that is 9 feet long.”

Meanwhile, an average horse is about 8 feet long. If we were to apply the (still very restrictive!) “3x” rule to horses, the minimum size for a stall or other contained area for a horse would be 24×24 feet or 576 square feet. Yet if you look for information about recommended stall sizes for horses you will consistently find this information:

A 12×12 horse stall size is considered “ideal” for a 1000+ pound horse.

An average (15h) horse can be “comfortable” in a 10×12 or even a 10×10 stall.

Miniature horses or ponies can be “comfortable” in an 8×10, or smaller, stall.

Not only are these recommended enclosure sizes completely ludicrous by pretty much ANY rational measure, the use of the word “comfortable” in the descriptions is clear evidence of the brainwashing I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Only someone whose brain and eyes aren’t functioning properly would blindly accept these standards as “ideal” without questioning them seriously. And yet, generally speaking, horse lovers readily accept (and advocate for) this lifestyle for their horses.

We humans instinctively know that animals need companionship.

We feel upset and angry when we see dogs or cats or rabbits or hamsters (or even zoo animals) that are forced to live in isolation. All living beings need regular interaction and/or physical contact with others to be healthy, vibrant and happy. Even in the human world, the worst punishment (aside from death and active torture) we can enact on others is forced isolation.

And yet, as horse owners, not only do we ALLOW our horses to be subjected to overly restrictive and isolated living conditions, we actually pay MORE for our horses to have the “privilege” of being kept in stalls or to have their own “private” paddock vs. requiring boarding facilities to provide them the freedom they deserve to live in minimally-adequate sized turn-out areas, with companions.

So, now that I’ve prompted you to momentarily step outside of your “institutionally brainwashed way of thinking” about horse-keeping, what would YOU call our industry’s accepted standards regarding how horses are kept?

I’m not going to tell you what I call it. But I will tell you this:

We can do better. We should already be doing better. And, our horses deserve better from us.

If you agree, there are ways horse owners can help instigate change, even without the power of a regulating body behind us. All we need is the power of choice because in the horse-industry, money talks:

  1. Only choose to do business with boarding facilities that offer horses the type of living environment they deserve (i.e. pasture board with FREELY accessible shelter, adequate companionship and NO extended confinement in stalls or other isolated spaces unless medically necessary).
  2. Opt to build run-in shelters on your own property rather than a barn with stalls.
  3. Choose to speak up. Have the courage to talk openly about why stall confinement is not an appropriate living condition for horses. Every time you stay silent you contribute to the continuation and spread of mis-information (i.e. brainwashing).
  4. Choose to listen to your own inner guidance and common sense. Don’t believe it when people try to tell you that a few hours of “turnout” or “forced exercise” counter-balances the physical and emotional damage your horse is suffering during all those other hours of stall confinement.
  5. If you believe your horse “likes” to be in his stall, choose to ask yourself why. Is this the only place he/she gets fed meals or treats or “good hay”? Is this the only place he/she can escape the elements or bugs? Is this the only place he/she has access to clean/cool water?

It’s time for those of us who love horses to start behaving like rational, responsible adults when it comes to horse-keeping. The horse is one of the most amazing, magnificent, forgiving and harmonious beings alive. If this weren’t true, we’d never be in this predicament.

Just because we have the power to legally categorize (and treat) horses as livestock while expecting them to behave like companion animals… doesn’t mean we should.

Shame on us.

It’s Time For a New Horse-Racing Tradition!

I’m not going to lie. I hate the horse-racing industry. But I also hate how hateful and judgmental the debate about horse racing causes many people to become.

On the one hand, I’d be relieved beyond belief if I woke up tomorrow to news that the Kentucky Derby was cancelled and the horse racing industry was being shut down forever. On the other hand, it would mean that thousands of horses and thousands of employees in the industry would find themselves suddenly displaced and facing grave new dangers. The truth is, shutting down the horse racing industry in one fell swoop would be a devastating decision; one with incredibly complex consequences that none of us are prepared to deal with effectively. It would also do nothing to address the very real problems in other sectors of the horse industry.

On this eve of the annual Run for the Roses, I’m acutely aware that for many horse lovers like me, the decision of whether or not to watch (or attend or bet on) The Kentucky Derby can be a difficult one. This is because, whether we admit it (even to ourselves) or not, at some level, most of us feel torn.

Let me explain. I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. But I grew up a suburban kid with no direct access to horses except for ten magical days of summer camp each year. The rest of the year, I collected Breyer model horses. I learned how to draw and paint horses. I read every book about horses I could get my hands on. I named my bike Midnight and pretended we were galloping down the streets of my neighborhood together.

For kids like me, The Kentucky Derby (and the entire Triple Crown series) was a precious gift. Every spring, I anticipated and then devoured the pre-race information printed in the sports section of my local paper, including stories and photographs of the horses and graphics of the silks each jockey would be wearing. There was no such thing as the Internet or Equestrian TV or the Total Horse Channel back then. The only opportunities I had to watch REAL horses in “live time” were when the big races or international show jumping competitions got aired on one of the three primary network television stations.

As a child, I didn’t understand that there is a dark underbelly to the equine industry. And even if I’d known, I don’t think I would have cared. I just loved watching the horses. There wasn’t anything on television that I got more excited about than the Triple Crown. I was seven years old when Seattle Slew won the Crown in 1977. And then Affirmed did it again in 1978.

Spectacular Bid (Bob Coglianese Photo)

In 1979, my heart broke into a million pieces (along with every other horse lover’s in the nation) when the amazing grey colt, Spectacular Bid, fell short on his magnificent quest to make it three Crowns in a row. But then the very next year my wounded heart got healed as I cheered the mighty filly, Genuine Risk, to victory in The Kentucky Derby. then I watched her give all the boys a run for their money in both the Preakness and the Belmont. What a role model that feisty red-headed filly was for young girls like me!

You get the picture. Horse racing was a life-line for me, just as it was for many other young girls and boys who had no other access to horses. I honestly can’t imagine my childhood without it. To this day, my heart is emotionally hard-wired to pitter patter in excitement as I watch the pre-race shows. And I know I’m always going to feel tears running down my face as the most amazing creatures on earth somehow find yet another gear turning into the homestretch and racing headlong toward the finish-line.

But as an adult who is now also an experienced horse woman and who has seen first-hand the ugliness of the horse-industry (which is, in no way, limited to horse racing alone!), I have many other emotions as well. I cringe at the unbelievable physical and emotional demands these animals are burdened with at such a young age. I find myself needing to turn away when I see their tongues lolling and mouths sawing during the pre-race parade.

I shake my head when I see the metal shoes holding their cracked and split hooves together, knowing that selective breeding for speed and stamina has resulted in the horrible deterioration of the hoof structure among Thoroughbreds. I’m disgusted by the equipment that’s deemed acceptable for controlling the stressed-out, scared horses and that’s used to keep them focused on the job at hand. I know that many of the horses have probably been drugged to mask pain, if not today, then on other days. And, of course, I follow the devastating statistics about the number of equine deaths at U.S. tracks.

So, what are we horse lovers to do tomorrow in the face of these challenges? Do we simply turn off the TV and naively hope that if enough people choose not to watch or support horse racing, the industry will shut itself down or self-monitor? Do we say hateful things (in person or on social media) about those who are involved in, or support, the industry? I say no. I don’t want you to do either of those things. I actually want you to watch the races tomorrow. I want you to NOTICE what is happening – good and bad. I want you to learn more about the industry. But I also want you to do something else. I want you to help me start a NEW tradition related to horse racing:

Every time we watch a horse race (or any other competitive horse event), either on television or in person, and we see something that makes us cringe… let’s vow to take a deliberate POSITIVE action toward creating a better future for horses. There are lots of options to choose from: you can make a donation to an equine rescue group or an equine-assisted therapy/learning program that is providing homes for horses that are no longer viable competitively; you can take a course or seminar about the humane treatment, training and management of horses; you can lobby for positive change in the horse industry. Or, you can simply support a small business like mine: Unbridled, LLC.

I’m doing my best to advocate for horses (and the people who love them!) and I’m working hard every day to pave the way for a NEW approach to making a living with horses – one that is as good for the horses as it is for the humans!

In fact, to help you get started with this new tradition, I’m going to make it super easy for you to take one positive action RIGHT NOW (that’s also really fun)! My newest online learning experience called Change is the Only Constant launched on May 1st. I’m extending the deadline to enroll to this Sunday so you can take advantage of the pilot price (just $99!).

Obviously, this is a self-serving suggestion. But it’s so much bigger than that! I’m happy to be the one working hard and doing the heavy lifting to create a viable new heart-centered model for businesses in the horse industry of the future. I owe it to all the amazing horses that have touched my life in large and small ways, many of whom paid heavier prices than they needed to. But I can’t succeed without the enthusiastic support of other horse lovers like you.

So, will you do more this weekend than just attend a Kentucky Derby party, watch the race or wish for change? Will you join the dynamic discussion I’m leading about what WE can learn from horses about becoming better humans? Click here now!

It’s Time to Take The Blinders Off!

Spending time with horses is good for people.

Spending time in the horse industry is an entirely different story.

The horse industry is nothing less than toxic. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say there is no industry better equipped to turn perfectly good humans into full-fledged narcissists than the horse industry. And as for horses? Well, the horse industry does everything it can to remind them that their “proper” place in the emotional food-chain of human society is that of prey.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not going to mince my words here. There’s simply too much at stake. We need a revolution in the horse industry, and not just for the sake of the horses. The mentality that has dominated the horse industry for generations breeds the exact kind of human leaders (and followers) that are driving our country (and world) to the brink of disaster. Call me melodramatic if you want. My response?

It’s time to take the blinders off.

You’re not seeing the whole picture.

The horse industry attracts thousands of wonderful, good-hearted people into its fold every year. People who love horses. People who admire and respect horses. People who genuinely want to learn more about horses and how to have meaningful relationships with them. And the horses stand ready to love, mentor, teach and heal!

Sadly, the toxic mentality that is rampant in the horse industry quickly swallows these kind people up, devours their good intentions and preys on their vulnerability. Humans of all ages come into the horse industry full of light and hope and love… and soon become jaded, frustrated, insecure, broken, anxious, and ultimately, hard-hearted. I’ve personally seen it happen hundreds of times, at least. It happened to me too.

The good news is, horses still have the potential to save us from this toxic cycle. But first we have to get out of the way and let them lead for a while. Additionally, enough of us must find the courage to recognize and speak the truth on their behalf, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people within the existing industry.

I recently saw an article entitled “Ten Reasons Your Teenager Daughter Should Own a Horse”. The author’s list reminded me what the horse industry looks like to those who still have blinders on:

  1. It will keep your teenage daughter out of trouble.
  2. It will teach your teenage daughter about money.
  3. It builds responsibility.
  4. It builds self-confidence.
  5. It will help your daughter meet new friends.
  6. The barn offers a good variety of role models of all ages.
  7. It will keep your teenage daughter humble.
  8. It will keep her fit and physically active.
  9. It will help your daughter become a creative, active teacher.
  10. It will teach her brain to learn new things.

While it’s possible your teenage daughter (or son) might reap some of these benefits while spending time at a traditional lesson or show barn, I’m far more worried about the long-term emotional and physical damage he/she is likely to receive as a result of the narcissistic mentality that’s rampant among humans in these settings. Let me explain…

Sander van der Linden, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. He determined that there are two types of narcissists: grandiose and vulnerable. In my experience, the horse industry (generally speaking) is a virtual breeding ground for both. As with anything in life, there are certainly exceptions (and thankfully a slowly growing number of them are gaining success in the horse industry). But the average person will need to work really hard to find them!

As Dr. van der Linden’s labels suggest, the grandiose narcissist is more outspoken, while the vulnerable narcissist is more introverted. Both, however, are deeply insecure and become addicted to the quest for positive affirmations and accomplishments. As with all personality disorders, the severity of the symptoms can fall anywhere along a broad spectrum.

Below are some of the characteristics Dr. van der Linden says define a grandiose narcissist. You tell me whether this list “fits the bill” on any equestrians (or instructors/trainers/parents of said equestrians!) that you know?

People who are easily angered or frustrated when others (including horses) don’t give them the full attention or admiration they consider to be their birthright.

People who exhibit a lack of empathy toward others (including horses) and are unable or unwilling to recognize or understand the needs and feelings of those others.

People who fantasize or obsess about control, power, success and having the “perfect” partner (or student or child).

People who feel superior over others (including horses or students) and focus on the flaws of those others.

People who expect to be recognized by others (including the horse or their students or their peers) as superior even without achievements, knowledge or skills that would warrant such a title.

People who set boundless ambitions for themselves (or their horse or their students or their child) and fantasize about being the best.

People who have a sense of entitlement and expect others (or the horse) to fulfill their requests or instructions without question.

People who often get angry or impatient when others (including the horse or their students or their child) don’t live up to their expectations.

People who manipulate or take advantage of others (including horses) simply because they know they can.

People who tend to dominate conversations and don’t listen to what others (including horses) have to say.

Meanwhile, the vulnerable narcissists, according to Dr. van der Linden, constantly question whether or not they are as special, powerful or superior as they think they should be and therefore become addicted to seeking positive affirmations from others (human or equine). In the horse industry I often see how these vulnerable narcissists become victims of the grandiose narcissists and many spend irrational amounts of money seeking the magic “system”, “method”, “tool” or “teacher” that they believe is going to unlock the elusive perfection or status they crave.

While I’m sure it could be said that MANY competitive sports or hobbies have their fair share of people with this mentality, the horse industry is far worse for one simple reason:

Success, as it’s currently defined in the industry, is based on using living, breathing, peaceful, sentient prey animals as tools or pawns in achieving that success, for no possible purposes other than ego or financial gain.

No other sport, activity or industry does this so blatantly while still being considered an almost universally “wholesome” activity.

But here’s the real kicker:

As long as we humans consider it generally acceptable to disregard the horse’s experience and feelings on the road to “success” in the horse-industry, we are missing a monumental opportunity to capitalize on the unique and countless opportunities horses provide to actually teach empathy (which is the direct opposite of – and counter to – narcissism).

To everyone out there who claims to love horses, I want to extend a challenge. If there were a different model for “success” in the horse industry, one that focuses primarily on teaching humans to be more empathetic vs. more narcissistic, would you embrace it? What if it means un-learning everything you’ve been taught to believe is important in your relationship with horses? What if it means re-envisioning YOUR OWN business within the horse industry? What if it means risking the loss of current clients or students and making a decision to nurture and welcome new ones? What if it means making an investment of time and money to learn how to become a completely new kind of role model for the next generation of horse lovers?

Most of all, what if it means becoming the human your horse already knows you have the potential to be?

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