Horses are born survivors. That may be why they’re born teachers, too.
Horses are particularly suited for therapy and educational work, said Patricia Pendry, an assistant professor of human development at Washington State University in Pullman who’s working on a study of how horses can help teach children.
As prey animals, Pendry said, horses are highly attuned to their surroundings, with wide fields of vision – a horse can scan its entire surroundings with just a slight movement of its head – and sensitivity to potential threats.
So the people who work with horses have to be careful of their movements. In the case of Pendry’s study, “It requires on the children’s part to be self-aware,” and alert to the animals’ responses to them, she said.
As herd animals, horses are looking for leaders – they need people to assert and maintain their “in-charge” status. Finally, horses use clear body language to provide quick feedback. A swish of a tail can mean a lot.
“If the horse puts their ears back and you don’t get out of the way, you potentially could get hurt,” Pendry said.
Put it all together, and it takes careful thought and precise communication to work with a horse. In Pendry’s study, children learned to apply and remove pressure to get horses to move.
“That’s a tremendous experience for children, who go, ‘Whoa! I just made this 1,000-pound animal move with just my little finger,’ ” Pendry said.
Children learned to make connections between human-horse interactions and human-human ones: You ask nicely – apply certain communication principles – and your horse responds consistently.
“They start to internalize these things,” Pendry said. “It’s so cool.”
People can be oversentimental about animals, Pendry said. At the same time, horses’ interactions with people can be uncanny.
She recalled a horse waiting, “like a rock,” for 45 minutes for a nervous 6-year-old girl to mount him from an elevated table. Every time the child approached him, she’d squeal. The horse waited. Finally, an adult encouraged the girl to press her belly button into the horse’s flank, and he pressed back, as if to reassure or encourage her, Pendry said.
“It just blows you away when you see this,” Pendry said. “It really can be quite moving.”