Most of us have experienced, observed, or heard how an imbalance in either the horse or the rider can affect the other. It's clear that an imbalance in the body does not provide the best balance, stability, and strength. The pressure does not distribute evenly, and it affects the body. I know that many saddle makers are aware of this: that the saddle is not skewed because of a skewed horse or rider. So here it makes sense that one party's crooked body affects the other and causes an imbalance. But is the same true for our psyche and mental wellbeing?
In my view, that's a resounding YES from here. However, this article is written solely based on my own observations and experiences. Both my experiences through my work as a therapist for people and horses, but also based on my own experience of owning a horse.
Kathrine Dybdahl runs the company Dybdahl Body & Mind. Kathrine is a qualified physiotherapist and horse physiotherapist. She subsequently combined craniosacral therapy and a range of other educations and courses to be able to help both animals and people get rid of everything we can't always see with the
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I've previously written an article about how the nervous system controls our mental state. This includes how the nervous system can become stressed by physical injury, viruses, nerve blockages, or environmental changes (changes in paddock, diet, transport, riding). A stressed nervous system means that your horse changes its behaviour, and may resort to more flight, fight and freeze states.
But I see another reason why the horse's nervous system can react, and that is our human mental state. Why? Our nervous systems "talk" to each other. You may have experienced walking into a room and being able to feel that the atmosphere is sad or angry. Or you have been able to sense from your best friend that something is wrong without them telling you anything yet.
Yes, of course there's also body language which we interpret. But those who are closest to us, we have an ability to sense to a greater degree. Sense how they are feeling. Yes, some can even feel others' pain and emotions as if they were their own.
Horses are the same way. In my eyes, horses are incredibly perceptive, and can react before we ourselves are conscious of our feelings and moods. Horses always have their antennas out, and we don't always register what we're emitting. Think of it a bit like a radio. Perhaps most of us humans can only sense and register what corresponds to 3 channels on a radio, whereas horses can take all channels and both FM and AM.
I've treated horses that have danced around in the stable because they had so much unrest in their bodies. But by focusing on the owner with grounding exercises or by treating the owner first, the horse calmed down.
Horses sense our feelings and thoughts. I've seen horses have the same ailments over and over again, every time I've come to treat them. Only to find out that the ailments originate from the owner, who has back pain or is stressed at work. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are inextricably connected with our horses.
But how smart is it from the horse's perspective to take on all the baggage we carry around? Yes, rationally you can certainly think that it doesn't make sense. It's really quite foolish for the horse to shoulder all the chaos I'm dealing with. Indeed, you can say that, and you can choose not to believe in it, and not to deal with it. But the answer to why it happens, I believe, is related to the connection we have. Most of us have a strong bond with our horses. We use horses as our retreat, and we lean on them when we're stressed or upset to recover.
The horse's antennae are so open that they take everything in. Everything from our joy to sadness. Our nervous systems are intertwined. The same is said about young children and their mothers. In the early years, they are connected to their mother via the nervous system. I've seen infants with stomach problems, but once the mother's worries were addressed and the stress released, the child's stomach issues disappeared too.
Without getting too abstract and whipping out the incense sticks, I also believe that horses are here to some extent to help us. Help us to look inwards at ourselves. Take responsibility for our issues. Who knows; perhaps they are trying to help us by taking on some of the pain? I don't have the answer, so I can only guess.
I know that for many, time with their horse is a sanctuary. A place where they can relax, be present, and enjoy time together. I've used my own horse in this way, and I have some fantastic memories from that time. But I've learned and observed that if the owner consistently brings their own imbalances, the horse can become overloaded.
The horse's nervous system can't handle any more imbalance. Would you willingly seek out people who are constantly stressed, angry, and sad? We can end up throwing the horse's nervous system off balance. And that can mean that the horse changes its behaviour or incurs a physical injury, because the nerves to that area are affected.
Unfortunately, I've seen a pony with a mentally ill owner who wasn't in treatment or medicated. She always visited the horse when she was feeling down. Her pony, perhaps already not the most resilient, found that the owner's imbalances led it to withdraw into itself. It shut down to protect itself. It's incredibly sad, and some would argue it's due to other reasons, but this is my view on it. However, I treated the pony with a new owner, and together we made it happy again and restored its trust and joy in people.
Do I see the same thing the other way around? Yes, I also see owners becoming unwell because their horses are imbalanced. It doesn't happen as often, since few people are so open on the radio channels.
I know this article can provoke some. Questions like "But should I not have a horse because I have anxiety?" or "I'm on sick leave and have a lot of pain - should I not have a horse?". And yes, of course, you should! Because you and your horse can help each other. But what I want to convey with this article is that the horse should not solely serve as therapy.
Your horse should not bear the full responsibility of being your healer. It also requires work on your part, and the responsibility for your wellness should not rest solely on the horse's shoulders. There are many therapists out there who are ready to help both you and your horse.
Try to figure out what feels right for you, or perhaps a combination of things that involves both you and your horse. What I often do is to treat both parties, sometimes simultaneously, because the imbalance in one leads to imbalance in the other.
Remember, it's about taking care of yourself as much as it is about looking after your horse. Finding the right balance and harmony is key to a healthy relationship with your equine partner. It is always worth seeking professional help when needed, for both your and your horse's wellbeing.