Written by Aviva Stafford

Today, one of the children I teach had a slight scare on the pony he was riding. He was walking back to the yard area after a constructive riding session and wasn’t really paying much attention to steering. The pony, acutely aware of this potential to move freely where he pleased, was sidestepping closer and closer to the grass, when the rider in question’s foot managed to twang against the fence. The pony startled and jumped to the side, before resuming his usual snail-paced stroll. The rider, however, was somewhat shaken up and in contrast to his usually empathetic nature towards all animals, began to exclaim loudly how the pony had made him ride into the fence and that it was all his fault! This response was in-tune with how he is ‘known’ to react to others at school and in his peer group generally. This was interesting to observe and actually, something I love about facilitating equine sessions is that everything doesn’t always go ‘right’. I think these situations can be of the most value in fact, because they give us the chance to evaluate our responses and perhaps apply them to ‘real life’. “Do you think blaming him will help the situation?” I asked. The rider continued to point out in pained tones how the pony was in the wrong. “But what can we do right here, right now to make the situation better?” I persisted. He thought for a moment. I offered some suggestions. “What about staying calm and speaking in low tones so as not to cause the pony any more panic? How about picking up the reins so you can steer him away from the fence and keep him away from it?” Once he had recovered enough, I was able to go on to gently explain that actually, the pony had just acted according to his instincts; that it’s the rider’s responsibility to communicate with the horse and ‘lead’ them in a way that keeps both horse and rider safe. By looking at it from a different perspective this young rider was able to see that the conclusion he originally jumped to about it being the other person’s (or in this case, horse’s) fault was not entirely accurate, and in fact, quite far from the truth.

Perspective changes everything and I hope that this rider’s little incident and the way we assessed it might help him begin to think differently about how he reacts in social situations too. Of course, it’s hard to override emotions that strive to take over in the moment, but we learn to develop positive traits faster through experiential learning and are more inclined to accept learning them when we are in an environment we enjoy… like being around horses for this particular boy. Horses may not be for everyone, but the empathy he feels for them is obvious … like when I explained at one point that he had been accidentally pulling the reins back and squeezing the pony to go forwards which was confusing it, his face dropped and he immediately leant down to give it a hug saying “I’m so sorry!” We can even apply horse training principles back to ‘real life’ (which is why ground work can be a particularly useful aspect of equine assisted learning sessions). Take my horse, Roux himself for instance. He used to be absolutely terrified of having his hooves touched! It took hours and hours of desensitisation for him to allow them to be handled and over a year for him to get to a place where he could stand happy and relaxed while they were trimmed down by a noisy metal rasp. What always strikes me was that nothing changed but Roux’s perspective. I picked his feet up the same way then as I do now, and the rasp looks the same as it did back when he was petrified of it, but the way he interprets the situation has changed. I read once that the way we react (or look at) a situation has the power to change the situation itself and I know this to be true… sometimes to the extreme. The power of perception is vast and that is one of the key things we are trying to help our riders understand… to open up their perspectives, think empathetically and understand how the horse (and other people!) might actually be interpreting the situation entirely differently. Even something as simple as allowing the horse to smell the brush we are about to use to groom his coat with helps us think about the fact that even though we may have the best of intentions, he had been slightly worried. Our children are able to think about why this might be and change the way they approach the horse accordingly. Horses are different from us, but we are all different from each other too. Learning to understand and accommodate perspectives that completely differ from our own may be one of the most valuable life lessons there is to learn and horses are incredible at teaching us this in a way we can understand.

Here’s a little film about empathy


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