How Horses Help Us To KNOW Ourselves

December 8, 2011 by  

How Horses Help Us To KNOW Ourselves

 Efficacy of EFL supported by the latest brain research by Kathleen Barry Ingram

Co-founder of The Epona Approach

Describing the work with horses as co-facilitators in human development is not an easy task.  Simply stated the horses really do help us to know ourselves.

I can’t tell you how often I have witnessed a client coming out of a quiet session with a horse and heard them say: “It was magic! I felt like myself for the first time. My heart just opened and these tears came flowing out—but they felt free, open —you know not jammed up in my throat”.  I could go on and on about what people felt in the presence of the horse and what other people witnessed, but I think you get the point. Guess what, it is not magic but is a process scientists now can actually name which happens only in relationship.  What the client and others felt, saw, and experienced is the limbic connection of two beings. Relationship does affect the revision of these pathways in the brain through the processes of limbic resonance, limbic regulation and limbic revision or restructuring. 

The book, A General Theory of Love is an excellent source for much of the research on this subject.  Some of the information contained in this book about how a therapist’s relationship with a client is the determining factor in long term healing; this can be applied to how and why equine facilitated learning works.

[P. 192] “A General Theory of Love

 Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.

Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiological rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change each others’ brains through limbic revision—what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.

  1. 1.       “The first part of emotional healing is being limbically known [limbic resonance]—–having someone with a keen ear catch your melodic essence…………..a precise seer’s light can still split the night, illuminate treasures long lost, and dissolve many fearsome figures into shadows and dust. (pg. 170)  “

Limbic regulation happens through relationship.  “But people do not learn emotional modulation as they do geometry or the names of state capitals. These concepts are stored in the neocortical brain. People and animals absorb the skill from living in the presence of an adept external modulator [the horses with congruent and authentic facilitators], and they learn it implicitly.”[1]

Research on how we learn and how much we retain supports what the horses have been teaching us all along. Implicit Knowing which comes from actual experience supports experiential learning, in this case the work with horses. Explicit knowledge, while necessary and important, is not experienced directly but rather through study, education and the experiences of others.

I can’t begin to tell you how passionate I have become about some of the newest brain and body research and information coming from very reliable and dedicated scientists and clinicians. Most of my professional life, I have practiced as a clinician whether I am conducting a session as a psychotherapist, coach, mentor or teacher.  The many “miracles” I have been a part of fills me with awe and hope for the ability of people to learn new things, change, and have better lives. The work that I do with the horses has transferred to everything I do and teach since these brilliant beings are so good at helping people come back to their true selves.

The 3 brain theory: Brain in the head; brain in the heart; and brain in the gut supports the work with horses who have a much larger heart field and gut than humans.  In fact, too much thinking and remembering can take us out of the moment without enough brain activity for feeling and experiencing.  We now know that intelligence is distributed throughout the body.  When you have a direct experience it does not go directly to the brain in the head.  The first place it goes is to the neurological networks of the intestinal tract (brain in the gut) and the heart (brain in the heart).  If we do not feel our values and or goals, we cannot live them.  The brain in the heart actually seeks out new experiences and is open to new possibilities which will intuitively matter to you in your life and work. The brain in your gut “reads” what others feel and measures the coherence and congruence of the other’s feeling state and checks it against its own inner state of coherent values, beliefs, and passions.  This is why horses, as prey animals, are so good at measuring the inner state of people, checking them out for any incongruence, and responding from their guts and hearts and not from the brain in the head where language can distort and deny what is actually happening.

The book, The Brain That Changes Itself [2] has some of the best information on the neuroplasticity of the brain.  Neuroplasticity of the brain is the term used to describe the capacity of our brain for creation of new neural connections and for growing new neurons in response to experience.  In the process of experiential learning with the horses, the experience itself, which is very new for most people, i.e., being with a horse without doing anything can actually assist the client in forming and developing new neural connections.  I often give a simple explanation like this:  The horses help the humans to see, feel, and believe in the possibility that the old super highway way of being and responding to a familiar person, stimulus, thought or action can be replaced by a new path—much like the road less traveled.

In Daniel Siegel’s latest book, Mindsight, he eloquently and factually supports the efficacy of experience in relationship to help people grow and change.  He believes that most people come into the world with the brain potential to develop mindsight, but the neural circuits that underlie it need experiences to develop properly[3].  He describes mindsight as our seventh sense and tells a story of a ninety-two year old man who was able to overcome a painful childhood to emerge as what he calls a mindsight maven.  Siegel believes, as do I, that it is never to late to stimulate the growth of neural fibers that enable mindsight to flourish.  His concept of “feeling felt” is what most people and horses desire to live exciting and meaningful lives.

In equine facilitated learning this sense of feeling felt is necessary whether we are working on the ground or riding the horse.  The sense of feel that many individuals describe in natural horsemanship is this implicit way of knowing another being.  The explicit learning and knowledge we receive from our teachers and the horses, although very necessary, is not enough to really make the changes our clients and students are seeking.

Equine facilitated learning can and does transform the client’s limbic brain which takes much more repetition than does the “quick fix” of most brief therapies which address only the neocortical brain.  The neocortical brain can rapidly change didactic information but without the whole body, the brain in the heart and the gut; only ones’ thoughts and information change.  This, in my opinion, is why so many people “understand” why they might do “such and such” differently and still go about life unconsciously without full engagement and lasting results.  When all 3 brains are in agreement and the person is living from a conscious place, life becomes a symphony with each day bringing new challenges, joys and sorrows.

The horses and good facilitators both with listening hearts can really help people be open to the possibilities of change and with limbic revision guide them towards the probability of a new life.  One of the consistent ways of doing this is what I call holding the sacred space of possibility. This is a space, nestled between two heart beats, where two beings breathing together co-create the possibility for lasting and sustainable change.

Kathleen Barry Ingram, MA

© June 2011

Kathleen continues to teach internationally in training programs in the UK, Canada and the United States.
For more information on Kathleen and her mentorship programs contact her at




[1] “General Theory of Love” Lewis, Amini and Lannon

[2] “The Brain that Changes Itself” Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontier of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.

[3] “Mindsight” The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.


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