Learning from horses

2008-08-26 00:00

The horses eye the man suspiciously, immediately aware of his pent-up anger. They remain on the periphery until the man starts to talk about his real feelings regarding his life and his friendships. Only then do they come closer.

Only when he acknowledges his fears and disappointments does the filly, Isra, approach. She wraps her body around his, asking for a scratch — a sure sign of affection and acceptance.

This is a turning point for a young man whose apparent unresolved anger is finding a gentle outlet. Experienced social worker and therapist Liesl Jewitt looks on and listens, aware of what is happening between man and animals.

As they walk away, Isra yawns several times. Horses only yawn to release stress and tension. “She took on some of his tension, and then released it,” explains Jewitt. “Unexpressed fear and uncontrollable expressions of anger are often stable mates — horses teach us that there is release in expressing these feelings in healthy ways, rather than keeping them bottled up.”

This is just one example of Equine Assisted Personal Development (EAPD) at Mizpah Farm Retreat, a place of sanctuary and “hopeful anticipation”. Nestled between two rivers in the Karkloof Valley, the retreat creates a space for introspection, reflection, action, participation and discussion to enrich lives and relationships.

Jewitt is able to combine her social worker background with her therapeutic horsemanship to assist people to find the qualities that horses know are hiding deep inside them. Not only is she a highly qualified therapist (with a masters in play therapy) but she also has her Bronze Level Horse Trainer Certificate and EAPD Advanced Course.

She earned this with Chris Irwin, specialist horse trainer in Canada, and her time there enlightened her about his philosophy, “Ask not what your horse can do for you; ask what you can do for your horse.”

Irwin allows the horse to be the teacher. He reckons that horses know what they want in a leader and it is these very same character traits that we actually want to see in ourselves. Jewitt can now see how people grow and start to reach out for their greatest potential, healing themselves along the way.

Horses are like people in that they too are social animals. But horses differ from people in that people are natural predators and horses are prey. Horses are therefore wary of people, who need to work hard at gaining their trust and confidence.

“EAPD is about the lessons there are for humans through the interactions with the horses, rather than any physical lessons or even horsemanship,” says Jewitt. EAPD focuses on the emotional content of the interaction, rather than the physical. Being physically close to horses encourages a person to develop awareness and insight about his or her innermost feelings and thoughts.

“We do all the normal things people do with horses — groom, pick out hooves, lead, feed and stroke. Well, all the normal things except ride. This part of the work doesn’t include riding,” explains Jewitt.

Take the first self-care awareness workshop she held for women recently. At the start, the horses eyed the participants from the far corner — with as much distance between them as is possible within the enclosure.

Jewitt invited the women to close their eyes and bring their awareness to their breath and their bodies. When they opened their eyes, the horses were within touching distance.

“I briefly demonstrated how to enter the horses’ space with respectful body language and how to halter the horse without force — even experienced horse people may never have learnt these concepts,” says Jewitt.

“I invited the group in pairs to halter a horse of their choice and take it for a walk around the enclosure. Using horse wisdom, we were led to a discussion on boundaries, mutual respect and relationships. How people handle the horses is how they handle themselves in the world — in all their interactions and relationships.”

According to Jewitt, the different horse personalities require adjustments, just like people, but there is no judgment, hidden agendas or demands from the horses. The horses read people, even their deepest feelings and thoughts, providing a mirror on life as well as relationships.

Says Jewitt: “The horses help ground us, encouraging emotional awareness and honesty. Their wisdom opens our hearts. They ask only that we remain real, have empathy for ourselves and others. The humans gain an opportunity to develop greater awareness and insight into their issues, selves and relationships, while the horses gain humans who have more empathy and love for themselves and the world.”

Jewitt believes that self-care constitutes an ability to care for yourself holistically and in a way that meets your needs and still meets the needs of others. Workshops and therapeutic sessions are available throughout the year for individuals, children and families. Booking is essential. Phone Liesl at 033 330 3408 or 083 362 6057 or e-mail liso@polka.co.za

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