Equine Facilitated Learning
A Natural Way to Improved Mental Health,
Successful Relationships and Balance in One’s Life
by Franklin Levinson
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Horses are like magnets for humans. People of all ages have drawn to the horse because of their beauty, grace, power, majestic stature and the mystery of their noble being. It’s been that way throughout recorded history. In modern times, it has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes the brain wave patterns of humans. We calm down and become more centered and focused in the present when we are with horses. We are transformed in a very positive way when in the presence of horses. It is no wonder that the beneficial effects of positive and appropriate interaction with horses should prove therapeutic to grownups and children alike.
I first discovered Equine Facilitated Learning nearly ten years ago when I began researching, via the Internet, various ways people were interacting with horses. The North America Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), a non-profit, national organization here in the United States, had a new program called the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA). These particular programs sought to focus help not so much for individuals with physical challenges, but rather centered on the emotional and mental health development of children and adults when they were put in the company of horses and guided appropriately through positive interaction. Startling improvement was observed in children with various mental and emotional challenges from A.D.D. to Autism, to anti-social violent behavior. Great improvement was seen ‘across the board’. This interested me a lot as I have always believed that horses can produce positive mental and emotional effects within the humans around them if the interaction was appropriate. So I visited several places offering training in this new field and took their courses.
Upon returning to my ranch on Maui I began The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience, which was an experiential, interactive, hands-on experience of horses for non-horse people (experienced horse people and horse owners were invited as well). The positive effects of this type of successful inter-species communication were immediate and, sometimes, life altering. The confidence and self-esteem of individuals who were able bond and communicate with the horses dramatically improved and the improvement was immediate. People would drop their projections, misconceptions and judgments about the horse and themselves once the communication became conscious, mutual and appropriate.
For children with mental and emotional disorders the positive benefits of the experience with the horses was frequently profound. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder would magically focus on the horse for long periods of time when either grooming or leading the horses. Once they understood how to ask for and receive cooperation from the horse, their self-esteem went sky high. What a wonderful sight it is when I see a shy, withdrawn, fearful child standing tall and confident as they lead a 1200 pound animal through an obstacle course of a series of twists, turns and stops. Autistic children who would come to me mostly withdrawn and very much in their own world, would begin to say new words and attempt to express themselves as rarely seen by their parents and therapists. Given the lead rope of a horse they would proudly lead the horse around the ranch for extended periods of time and not want to give them up. Observers would stand there with mouths a gasp and tears streaming down their faces to see such profound and wonderful response in their children and wards. Once again the horse is easily recognized as a positive force and influence for humans.
Equine Facilitated Learning is gaining popularity across this country and around the world. Prisons have instituted similar programs to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates. Wild horses are given over to some prisons so the prisoners can train and gentle them to get them ready to be adopted out. Techniques are shown the prisoners on how to gently communicate with a fearful horse and develop the trust needed to help the horse accept human contact and interaction. The inmates discover that respect, gentleness, mindfulness, compassion and kindness go a lot farther than brutality, dominance and force. These programs are so successful as to have become the single most effective form of rehabilitation for the penal system today.
At about the same time The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience came about, I began ‘Leading With Quiet Strength’. This is a leadership/teambuilding program developed for corporations seeking to advance the leadership qualities and skills of top executives. There are now a few programs across the country that focus on these goals for the corporate world utilizing guided, successful interaction with horses. In this age of corporate greed, poor management, distrust, and wide spread fraud, a program that teaches responsibility, accountability, respect, trust and mindful interaction was a natural development for Equine Facilitated Learning. My current list of clients includes; AT&T Wireless, GM, Charles Schwab & Associates, Murtiz Group and others. Enlightened leadership is a goal being pursued by many top organizations around the world. Accountability and responsibility are taught through interaction with horses and the feedback is immediate. Success or failure of the interaction and communication is tossed back into the face of the human right away in the response of the horse. If there is a problem, it can be quickly recognized and corrected by the human. Once everything is back on track, the interaction again becomes successful. A horse forgives us our mistakes. If a horse is abused by a human and eventually the human changes their way of dealing with the horse, the horse will forgive the human their mistakes and accept the friendship if it is offered appropriately.
The principles of Equine Facilitated Learning are basic and easy to understand. The horse is the perfect mirror of the human that is with it (horses do not lie). The horse is looking to have feelings of safety and peace always. This is because the horse is a ‘prey’ animal always looking over its shoulder for the ‘predator’. If the human is trying to control the animal for whatever reason, this produces fear within the horse. If the human is unconscious around the horse, this makes the horse fearful as well. If the human is disrespectful of the horse (inappropriate touching, movements, sounds, thoughts or feelings), this produces fear with the horse too. When the human begins to make conscious and appropriate requests, rather than demands, of the horse cooperation begins to happen. When a human waits for and notices responses of the horse to the human’s communication, that is showing acknowledgement and respect for the horse. Trust and respect are earned with horses in much the same way as with people. The ‘golden rule’ applies to horses. However, with the added aspect of great guidance and leadership coming forward from the human. It is the human’s responsibility to approach the horse as a great parent approaches a child. Along with the love, compassion, patience and consistency of a great parent, comes confident, skillful, knowledgeable guidance and leadership.
In the wild the horse gets its sense of peace and safety from the herd leader. Unfortunately for the domesticated horse, there usually is no great human leader filling that role of the herd leader. Relationships between domesticated horses are somewhat aborated, as stables and barns are an un-natural environment for horses. There are no humans making appropriate requests that the horse can follow and comply with. Horses miss this good leadership. What normally is the case are humans making unconscious, inappropriate demands, trying to control this big beast through dominance, punishment and restraint and abusing the animal through ignorance and misconception. Compliance is frequently done through bribing with food or inducing fear. A child, even one with mental or emotional disorders, given a little insight into joining appropriately with a horse, becomes the natural leader the horse is looking for. Peace abounds and cooperation and compliance come forth from the horse when the communication from the human is kind and appropriate. Actually, children can become successful with a horse quicker and easier than with many adults. This is because children are frequently less judgmental and more open to ‘heart to heart’ forms of communication than adults who seek ‘to control’ much of the time.
Simple, clear, conscious requests are what the horse is looking for. Stop, go, backup and turn this way or that, are examples of simple requests that a human can make of a horse, clearly and consciously. When the horse complies a thank you in the form of a “Good Boy”, is all that is needed. Horses understand acknowledgement. They know that they are being respected and acknowledged when praise is offered. I am not talking about fawning over a horse because it is compliant. Overdone praise becomes shallow and meaningless. A simple “Good Boy (or Girl)” is all that is required. There is a balance to be struck. We humans seem to have a tendency to either over do or under do something. Being out of balance has become our way of being in the world. There is a natural balance to a horse’s being. There is to ours as well but we do not see or feel it because of our need to ‘control’. This puts us out of balance a lot in our lives. We are either too much or too little. Or, at least it seems that way. Appropriate, successful interaction with horses can lead us back to that natural balance because to be successful with a horse that balance has to be present in the communication. Equine Facilitated Learning supports natural balance coming forward in all those participating. A natural balance begins to appear when there is consideration, thoughtfulness, awareness and kindness present in the interaction. ‘Balance’ is another great lesson and attribute taught by Equine Facilitated Learning.
When I teach the gentle horse training techniques through my ‘Way of the Horse/Training Thru Trust’ seminars I am constantly using Equine Facilitated Learning. Children coming to me for emotional or mental health development experience this Equine Facilitated Learning too. CEO’s coming for leadership/teambuilding improvement, experience Equine Facilitated Learning as well. The benefits of this type of simple, yet successful interaction with horses is immediate, profound and wide reaching. It is part of my personal mission to bring Equine Facilitated Learning to other parts of the world to benefit as many people (and horses) as possible.
Read a news story
about Franklin's Equine Facilitated Learning techniques
as demonstrated in the U.K. (May, 2004)