According to Wikipedia empathy is “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing”. When I think about all the experiences I have had with clients and horses I can’t think of a time empathy wasn’t present.
As a prey animal, horses are very tuned into physical boundaries. They let us know with their body language if we are infringing on their boundaries. A flick of an ear, their head going up, their physical stance are all information to us about their boundaries.
People are respectful around horses due to their size and many people are quite nervous around them, given they are usually 1,000 lbs and up, this is fair.
I have witnessed horses respect people’s boundaries who are nervous around them. Many years ago, my horse Egalie was in the arena with myself and a few friends. A friend’s daughter was there and was very nervous and Egalie sensed that. He walked around receiving pats from everyone but sensing this girl’s nervousness he stayed a significant distance away from her. He did this because he wasn’t invited into her space. When he was about 6’ away from her he stood in the same direction she was, he sensed her nervousness, knowing if we faced her head-on, she would likely become more nervous. She turned to him and put her hand out and he put his head down. She looked at me and I said, “he’d like to come to you but he’s looking for an invite from you”, I suggested she take one step toward him, which she did. I told her to take a deep breath and one more step which she did. With each step his head went lower and he licked his lips. He never moved. When she got within a few feet of him I told her she could back up if she wanted to or move toward him. She smiled and moved toward him. Ever so gently he gave her the lightest nudge on her arm with his nose. The nudge was so soft she would have barely felt it. I invited her to pet his forehead, his head was just below her chest level. They stood for a few minutes enjoying each other’s company, it was beautiful to watch.
Egalie was truly demonstrating the definition of empathy, he understood and felt her fear. While there was no doubt, he felt her fear he did one better and helped her move beyond it with gentleness and respect.
I have witnessed people receive those gentle nudges from horses in just the right moment. People have told me they recall those nudges when they step outside the arena, away from the horses and they receive that same encouragement all over again.
Private appointments are available in Muskoka and Simcoe County.
Sue Dixon, owner of Partnering Horses with Humans, is a Certified Equine Assisted Learning Facilitator through Horse Spirit Connections and Cartier Farms (Dreamwinds), and a Registered Coach through Equestrian Canada. Sue and her beloved horse Egalie were the 2014 champions of the beginner division of the North East Trillium Hunter Jumper Association. Sue has a degree in Sociology from the University of Waterloo.
Sue has 33 years of experience working at a local corporation with leadership in quality and health and safety. Sue’s role with Partnering Horses with Humans is that of facilitator; helping clients find their own wisdom by tapping into the horse’s wisdom. Sue operates her business out of two locations and offers services and workshops to individuals, couples, families, and workplaces.