Emotional Barometers

Newfarm ValenciaOne of the stories I tell in my new book My Name is Madie is about Madie’s owner Frank dealing with coyotes threatening his livestock.  I won’t spoil the whole story, but I will say that Madie picked up on Frank’s concern for his animals and expressed her own concern for Frank’s safety.  (Click here for more information about the book.)

This story came to mind last night when a client contact me about some out-of-character behavior on the part of one of their ponies.  My client very astutely understood that the pony was giving them feedback; my job was to ask questions to help my client discover what that feedback was.

I first used the term ‘emotional barometers’ in reference to my Australian Shepherd Sadie.  My husband and I co-own a small company, and Sadie is remarkable at detecting when our conversations shift from personal to business.  Now we have a second Aussie, and William is starting to insert himself into business conversations, too.  I don’t know yet whether he’s mimicking Sadie or being an emotional barometer himself.

I can’t think of a time when a pony has tried to protect me from impending danger.  There are, on the other hand, several examples of Sadie protecting me.  A few weeks ago she got between me and a charging cow moose, for instance.  I also know not to let her be around other female dogs since she can be aggressive.  Yet I’ve been told that when I’m not around she is completely different, not unlike the behavior my client described about their pony.

While I haven’t experienced a pony trying to protect me from impending danger, I have had equines act as emotional barometers (to see for instance my blog post “Solace”, click here).  Equines as emotional barometers is of course one of the things that makes equine-assisted therapy possible.  Or as Linda Kohanov puts it, “[That] horses mirror the ‘feeling behind the façade’ is one of the key principles of equine-facilitated psychotherapy.” (1)

One of many stories Kohanov tells is about Rocky and his new owner Nancy, just after Rocky hurt himself in reaction to a veterinary exam.  “’Has something particularly disturbing happened to you?’ I asked Nancy.  ‘Other than what happened to Rocky, are you upset about something in your life?’  ‘Well…,’ she said, ‘I lost my job last week.’  ‘Have you been trying to act happy around Rocky when you’re actually feeling sad, angry, trapped?’  ‘Yeah,’ she replied tentatively, not quite understanding why I was asking such personal questions about her when Rocky was the one whose life was on the line.  Rocky lowered his head and licked his lips, a sign I had come to read in my own horses as indicating the release of some previously unacknowledged emotion.  In this case, Rocky’s comfort level seemed directly tied to Nancy’s hidden feelings.” (2)

Kohanov continues, “I’ve seen even the gentlest gelding become noticeably agitated when his handler wears a mask of confidence to hide anxiety…  A secure, well-cared for animal will often relax the moment his owner simply acknowledges a hidden feeling – even if it’s still there.  Let me say it again:  the emotion doesn’t have to change in order for the horse to show at least some improvement.  The handler just has to make it conscious.  When the mask is removed, an animal that was agitated seconds before will sigh, lick his lips, or show some other visible sign of release…” (3)

It can be very frustrating to have emotional barometers in our lives.  When Sadie inserts herself into a business meeting, it can actually increase the emotional charge of the conversation because it feels like interference.  On the other hand, emotional barometers can be viewed as incredible gifts – providing an opportunity to see the greater truth in a situation than we’re otherwise able to see.  It’s hard to argue with that kind of honesty.

  1. Kohanov, Linda.  Riding Between the Worlds:  Expanding Our Potential Through the Way of the Horse.  Novato, California:  New World Publishing, 2003, p. xiii
  2. Kohanov, p. xi
  3. Kohanov, p. xiii

© Jenifer Morrissey 2013


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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