I did not want to write about the HSPs and Horses Workshops until I experienced a few of them. Now there have been three. The first two were one-day workshops, and the last one, in June, was two days, which we decided worked better for HSPs. At the bottom are some eloquent words from the participants. However, I would like to say something about the workshops, too.
Here’s my memory of the June weekend. At 9:15 or so, when the participants arrive, the morning is cool. The corrals are sunny and quiet with six waiting horses. Inside the circle of Douglas fir and Bay trees, where we will talk and have lunch, it is still chilly. But hot tea and sweet treats (including something gluten free) are waiting.
Our HS Extravert, Monica Zimmerman, Equine Specialist with EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning, the foundation of our basic approach) drives up with the participants. She has put at ease the nervous HSPs in her van. (The facility is quite isolated, up a narrow road that does not allow much parking.) And we start to get to know each other during registration.
Alane Freund (certified EAGALA Therapist) and I are the introverts, but not with a small group of HSPs. We are passionate about these workshops. We are both therapists, but as I have said before, this is not therapy. Still, it is about personal growth, which HSPs love to be involved in, and introverted HSPs can relish. Further, this is a chance for me to be with other HSPs in an intimate, casual way where I can be myself totally, even while answering any and all questions about high sensitivity in the course of two days.
The Herd: Horses, Participants, and Maybe Someday You
Naturally our first participants were mostly horse lovers, whether they had had any experience with equines or not. That was great. But I want to say something about why I think the workshops might be good for HSPs who have never been very interested in horses.
First, the horses. As a participant in these workshops, you’re never riding the horses, which means they are not, at least for the weekend, being dominated by humans. These particular horses are also not kept in stalls, when in fact they need to walk or run for miles every day. These Heart and Mind Equine trained horses, even more than most, have been cared for “holistically.” They have large pastures where they can behave like horses, and are never struck. Above all, they have been doing EAGALA work for years, working face to face with humans who want or need to connect with them, all of which means they have been free to develop their own personalities and reactions.
Second, the participants. Just as the horses’ personalities have been free to become quite diverse, our human participants are of course very diverse, too. All HSPs are NOT the same. The herd of animals and people are highly respectful of that. Indeed, often workshop participants identify with a particular horse. Many of them have been rescued from difficult circumstances and during part of the last day we have sometimes told their histories. On occasion a horse has a history much like that of the person who felt some kinship with it.
The Entire Herd Is Highly Sensitive
Whatever their personality, all the horses and all of these people are highly sensitive (although some are even more so than others). For horses, sensitivity is required for survival. As you watch them, you begin to see how much it is an advantage for you, too. They show all four of DOES (the four aspects of being highly sensitive): Depth of processing, being easily Overstimulated, more Emotionally responsive, and sensitive to Subtle stimuli.
How do they show these? Although they can react quickly due to a subtle cue of threat or opportunity, as HSPs can, you can often see them processing the situation before they make a move. They can be very slow to decide what they want to do next, like we can be.
That they are easily overstimulated becomes obvious during the course of the workshop. We humans, with our feelings and actions, do bring them to a point when they clearly need (and get) down time.
Their emotional responsiveness and empathy means they can react quickly when one of them senses danger or an opportunity. But this responsiveness also gets applied in a more subtle way all the time, for example in these workshops.
Their sensitivity to subtle stimuli is even more intense than ours. Their sight, hearing, sense of touch, and no doubt their sense of taste and smell, are all finely tuned for their life in the wild (and some of these horses grew to adulthood in the wild).
Horses as Teachers
Of all of their traits, their emotional responsiveness and true empathy is what impresses us all the most. They sense what you’re feeling, whether you want them to or not, and respond with pure authenticity. Sometimes they mirror you, so that if you are confused, they are as well. If you’re relaxed, they are as well. Sometimes they are annoyed when you are not your authentic yourself, just as we can be by others who are faking it, and you can tell they are annoyed. They do not really know human politeness or shame. Yet they forgive and forget quickly if they sense you have changed.
They particularly do not like us when we are doing one thing and feeling another. To feel safe, horses need a clear leader. If we try to direct them but are ambiguous, they get nervous or might even drive us off. When we know what we want and are honest about it, they often choose to let us lead. And they show great empathy, especially when we are distressed. They are uncanny in knowing what the issue is. It makes you think they are operating on another dimension.
Sometimes we have a discussion right in the corral. One or more horses might join us, coming into our circle, provided our conversation is lively and honest. If we start intellectualizing, I have seen them turn their back ends to us!
A funny example happened when a group got tangled up while doing an activity. They just could not figure out how to accomplish it, which is always okay because we emphasize that there is no right way to do anything in the workshop, including getting it done in a certain amount of time or even doing it at all. But the humans were tense, having difficulty deciding whose suggestion to follow. We had put two other horses in a separate corral and as the workshop members struggled, all the time being super nice and polite yet clearly also miffed, these other two horses became more and more agitated (something we had never seen before), sensing the confused state of the humans.
Since many HSPs have taught ourselves to hide our feelings, it is good for us to have them brought to the surface by these creatures who miss nothing and hide nothing themselves.
Horses as Healers
In one workshop we had someone very afraid of horses. When we invited people to go into the corral with the horses (but getting close to them is not obligatory), she went in very tentatively and stood near the fence. One of the mares came up to her and very gently touched her. No one doubted that she’d come to reassure this woman.
In another case, someone had come to the workshop to “make up with” horses after years of avoiding them because someone very dear to her was permanently paralyzed in a riding accident. When she entered the corral, one of the horses came to her immediately and just stood gently in front of her. I feel fresh tears in my eyes, remembering that moment.
Finally, we are always experimenting with activities, and in one I had us stand in a circle and think about what for us was a sanctuary when overstimulated, and then we reflected on that, or imagined it vividly, or meditated on it. I wanted to see what the horses would do. Well, the horses meditated themselves. Alane and Monica, who have been at many EAGALA training workshops as well as knowing their herd well, had never seen horses standing so still. Furthermore there were six horses, and each one mirrored another horse, so that pairs were standing in exactly the same way. Not only were they demonstrating the profound relaxation of the entire herd, horses and humans, but I felt they were adding to it.
What Do We Actually Do?
I don’t want to reveal all of that, especially because we will always be tinkering with the agenda. In fact, I think it will always be changing, according to the herd of horses and people on that day. But participants do work on observing carefully and sensing who, when, and how to approach any horse they wish to meet close up. They learn to recognize when any of the herd is overstimulated, and practice setting boundaries, the need for which becomes clear when you are around thousand-pound animals, even when they are being friendly. We focus on the horses’ sensitivity to nature and use that to develop ours even further. Sometimes we do activities bringing the entire herd together, horses and people, but other times participants are more on their own with a particular horse.
There is also time for journaling and reflecting, sometimes with particular experiences to reconsider. We found that the two-day workshop was especially useful for providing time to reflect overnight. (And in 2019 we started stretching the two days include two overnights for more rest and recuperation during the workshop—starting one evening and ending midday on the third day.)
Why so much reflection? Because it often takes time to realize what happened in you and between you and a horse. It is simply remarkable to me how much one learns from interacting with these animals. I do not wish to raise expectations too high, however, because we three don’t feel very much in charge, except to set up situations for interaction and then to observe, while also looking out for anything that might become unsafe. The horses really decide what happens, all in response to you.