What happens when a self-conscious teenager learns how to collaborate with a horse?
The magic begins when a teen walks up to a horse. Here is an intelligent, powerful, and relational creature - yet one with no words. It doesn't care about your status among your friends or how well-chosen your words are. Yet it is keenly sensing your body language and presence. Because it so large - ten times your size - its responses are like a giant amplifier of your non-verbal communication. In the way it ignores or follows your requests, you'll see what message you've been sending all along.
This post is inspired in large part by Alena Clancy, a longtime educator and equine therapist in California. As I heard her stories of kids transforming through interaction with horses, and of the lessons that can be taken for everyday parenting and teaching, I realized that I need to expand my sense of what is possible.
Alena's career began on a ranch in California where wild horses were trained. When she later received an unexpected opportunity to lead a local preschool, the work went so well that parents assumed she had advanced degrees in early childhood education. She didn't. It was her experience with horses, learning to work with what she calls instinctual mammalian needs (a topic for a future blog post), which equipped her so well to work with kids. Later she developed this work for pre-teens and teens, particularly girls facing problems of anxiety and depression, but also with others, including kids on the autism spectrum.
As Alena frames it, "horses reflect back to us what we're putting out there" - and we can see it because they're so much bigger, and because their responses don't have the subtle shadings of language. If you nervously or half-heartedly try to get them to walk next to you and follow your lead, they probably won't. If you ask them to do something without really meaning it, asking it while your body language says something else, they'll ignore the words and follow the body language. Conversely, when you learn how to be a safe and clear collaborator to a horse and suddenly they are willing to follow your lead without coercion, this huge animal which has far more physical power than you, the confidence and clarity it offers can be life-changing.
Why is this important? Because for so many adolescents, there is profound confusion about how to relate with peers. And the wounds cut deep when peer relationships go wrong. Often the problem begins with the murky world of nonverbal communication; adolescents may not see how their subtle behaviors are pushing friends away, or leading to teasing, or causing their words to be ignored. With a horse, they learn to see their nonverbal communication, receiving powerful and immediate feedback. They learn how to speak with presence. They do this without the baggage of their past mistakes - the horse doesn't know about your social embarrassments or what your family situation is. It "pulls you into the present," giving clear feedback on whether you're really centered, whether you're expressing yourself clearly, whether what you really want is aligned with what you're saying. Can you imagine more valuable feedback than that, at any age?
I'll add one last reason why I think this works so well. As I wrote about in a previous entry on kids and power, many adolescents experience a profound lack of awe. They naturally lose awe for parents at this age. They may not have teachers who model the authenticity or real-world capabilities which inspires them. They may not have the chance to experience awe in nature, with mountains and oceans and endless forests. As adolescents feel ever more powerful, they can become troubled if they don't sense a greater power around them, one which inspires their awe. Horses do this. Their power and sensitivity is so great; the opportunity to relate with such a being, to first fail but then learn to collaborate with it, would inspire awe in nearly anyone.
I offer my thanks and gratitude to Alena Clancy for inspiring and informing this post. There are few things more exciting to me than realizing that possibilities and potential exists which I had never noticed before. That's what happened for me in learning from Alena, in seeing documentaries like Buck, and in speaking with others who have horses in their lives. The potential is here for teens (and adults for that matter) to learn how to become centered by interacting with a massive animal which chooses to help us. That's awe-inspiring in my book.