– by Jenny Whitman – Bear Creek Stables
What do teenagers and retired racehorses have in common?
Both teenagers and racehorses come into the world surrounded by our hopes and expectations for their futures. In developing to maturity, individual teens and horses use sounds and body language to communicate with and be influenced by others. There is a need across the life span among humans and equines for family structure and inter-individual boundaries to feel safe and secure. Choice of friends and a need for peer leadership and acceptance is also common to both communities. And of course, teens and horses experience loneliness, fear, boredom and anxiety — vices or other habits can arise in both groups to help manage frustration, anxiety and pain. Believe it or not, both groups are familiar with drugs.
How can retired racehorses help teenagers?
Horses are grounded in the natural world. Their survival frequently depends on being fully in-the-moment and responding rapidly to changes in their immediate environment. As herd animals, this requires the elaborate and instantaneous use of non-verbal communication between themselves. Entering into the equine world and gaining an understanding of this herd language can help teenagers bring to a more conscious level the universal body cues that we all practice in the presence of others.
Additionally, like all of us, teenagers need to know that their lives matter. When teens interact with these deceptively vulnerable and sensitive creatures, they may identify with these softer qualities. In the presence of 1200-pound thoroughbreds born and bred to dominate a race track, teens can learn that vulnerability and sensitivity are actually among their own personal strengths. Working with horses can teach them that accepting one’s own nature is fundamental to keeping oneself safe.
The honesty and sincerity of horses provides a window into what abstract concepts like ‘intent’ and ‘centeredness’ really mean. The directness and immediacy of the human-equine relationship is a powerful experience of what it is to have flexible and resilient boundaries in the face of peer pressure.
Racehorses don’t understand or have a need for the value labels of ‘good and bad’ or ‘right and wrong’. They simply respond to what works and what doesn’t work. When communication from their human partners includes fear and anger, horses respond like the prey animals that they are – they attempt to fight or flee. But when our interactions with them are based upon mutual respect, humility, and understanding, horses seek our leadership – they view us as first among equals.
As one young man from Los Gatos High School who was volunteering for Neigh Savers horse rescue at our stables recently exclaimed, “Why does she want to come to me…. she’s wild.” The idea that this inspiring creature from the natural world had a place for him in that world was startling and, quite possibly, life-changing.
Teenagers, like all of us, have a need to be depended upon and truly seen by others. In a lovely example of complementarity, racehorses need a human leader to collaborate with and in whom they can trust. Sometimes it’s just that simple.