Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are you asking too much?

This week, with the suicide of comedian Robin Williams a headline in every paper and on every news show, clinical depression is at the top of the concern charts.  Well it should be.  It's not the only mental illness we face, but it certainly is one that destroys lives.

So when this blog post popped up on Horse Collaborative, I couldn't help but address the topic.  Is your horse your therapist?

There's no doubt that interacting with animals of many species has been shown to reduce stress levels in humans.  Biophilia Theory strives to explain the connection.  We are in many ways focused on interactions to help us, get us over a rough patch, or flat-out cure us of our ills.

But is it too much to ask?

If there's one thing we all know about horses, it's that they are very emotional creatures.  There are horse owners who swear their animals can read their minds.  I'm not an adherent of that concept.  I get that horses, being pack animals, prey animals, and very visually tuned in to body language will naturally respond to that slower walk, hunched shoulder, or glum expression in ways that make it appear that they have a direct line to our emotional state.  And in a way, they do.  As pack/prey animals, it's in their best survival interests to read other animals quickly and with accuracy.  A misread can be fatal.  They're really good at it.
Share moments of joy, and learn to
find them amid the bad stuff falling
around you.  That's how your horse can
best help you.

Other animals are good at it for different reasons.  Predators--dogs, cats, and whatever else you care to keep around you--also need to be able to get a quick read on the emotional state of the pack members.  In their case, it's more an interest in keeping their position in the hierarchy and not aggravating the higher-ups who might see fit to attack and drive them away.  Many predators are not solitary hunters and depend on the cooperative nature of the pack, pride, or other social grouping for their livelihoods.

Keeping in mind that horses are very sensitive to our emotional state, is it wise to expect them to make the leap to understanding on a human level what we're feeling and try to ease our suffering?  Probably not.  It's very wise to take advantage of the calming effect of being around horses when we're in need of that, but it's a wise horseman who understands that his bad mood, depression, anxiety, upset, crankiness, psychotic break or other mental aberration, long-term or momentary, can have a negative effect on the very animals he's counting on for his support.

A recent study has made clear that a horse can derive negative emotions from his interactions with humans.  So in the interest of doing what's best for our animals as well as ourselves, it behooves us to try to avoid interacting with them when we're in the throes of an episode of extreme emotional distress that might lead to our being less than sensitive toward our horse's needs.

Yes, human mental illness is a heart-breaking, family-busting, sometimes fatal plague that we humans have to bear.  And it's worth the effort to reduce our stress in any way we can.  But even at those most terrible times, we need to remember that the effects of our actions when we're around our horses can be very long-lasting.  Horses have great memories (just crinkle a piece of cellophane anywhere within earshot and see how quickly they remember that cookies come in plastic bags), and it's not fair to them to burden them with the memory of our often unpleasant behavior towards them when we're simply not fit for them to be around.

Professional treatment will always trump do-it-yourself therapy.  So if you feel out of control, find help.  And if being around your horse can be of help without endangering your future interactions with him, then that's great.  But if a bystander or friend comments that you're awfully overwrought and your hose is tap-dancing in the barn as a result, listen and heed and back away.  You can return another day with the remnants of your sadness and emotionality, and he'll still be there to help you deal with the leftovers.

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