Leveling the Playing Field: A Place in the Herd

800px US Army 52806 Horse therapy gallops toward helpful transitions - Leveling the Playing Field: A Place in the Herd

I live in a Central Ohio suburb. It’s the kind of place where kids play on the street in front of their homes while dogs lie on front porches watching the world go by and the neighbors all know each other by name. On a summer evening, the smell of steaks cooking on outdoor grills and freshly cut grass waft through the air. The white picket fences, traditional mailboxes, and manicured lawns that surround me are a symbol of privilege and a testament to achieving the American Dream. It’s the Hollywood version of suburban America that I grew up watching in movies and TV shows in England.

I imagine that it would be possible to live a whole lifetime in this bubble and exist within a 10-minute driving radius from this community. Everything I need and everyone I know in the area live within that distance. So I could go to work, walk my dog around the neighborhood, visit friends in the area, do my grocery shopping, and go to the gym all without acknowledging that there is a bigger, wider, different world beyond these suburban streets.

While a part of me feels like I belong in this homogenous bubble, I also know that I don’t. I know what it is like to be different. I know what it means to not look, sound, and feel the same as those around me. I’m so familiar and sensitive to issues of diversity it’s like I embody them on a cellular level. I work with disadvantaged youths and those with cognitive, emotional, and physical challenges. I am passionate about social equality, human and civil rights, and have been exposed to enough injustice to know that my privileged world within the white picket fences is not representative of the world at large. But I wonder how I might feel about diversity issues if I hadn’t had those experiences? I wonder what it might be like to not be aware of my privileges? How easy would it be to turn a blind eye to those that don’t have them?

Often, discussions about diversity lead to confrontations and feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal. Well-intentioned friends and colleagues can step onto a minefield of microaggressions, unknowingly participating in the reinforcement of race, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status stereotypes. We place each other into an “us” or “them” dichotomy and lose sight of our connections with each other. These experiences make it difficult to continue to engage in these discussions, however important they may be. As therapists, teachers, parents, and leaders in our communities, how can we learn to model inclusiveness in order to keep the dialogue alive?

As an equine assisted therapist, I bring clients to the barn to conduct therapy sessions with a herd of horses. Naturally, I spend a lot of time, both professionally and personally, with these majestic animals observing their behaviors and how they interact with each other. I’ve worked with different breeds of horses in different countries, different facilities, and different riding disciplines. I currently board my horse at a facility with a diverse range of horses that include off-the-track thoroughbreds, dressage, showjumping, and three-day-eventing horses through to Western reining, cutting, trail horses, and regular riding school and 4-H ponies, as well as therapeutic riding horses. Some of the horses come with distinguished bloodlines and heavy price tags, others are show champions with multiple trophies, or have never competed, or were rescued from slaughter. The beauty of all this diversity is that while we might associate the three-day-eventer horse with his rich, Ivy-League educated, corporate lawyer owner and the therapeutic riding horse with the non-profit organization run by volunteers, when the horses are grazing in the fields with one another, none of that is relevant to the horses.

When people tell me that horses are a great example of how to work with diversity because they are completely non-judgmental and don’t see differences, I become wary. When we assume that being non-judgmental automatically results in equality, we are missing the point. There’s also a danger in thinking that being non-judgmental means that we don’t have to engage in the conversation.

The aim of becoming more competent in working with diversity is not in assuming that everyone is the same, but in acknowledging and addressing differences whilst staying connected within the relationship.

That’s what horses are great models for.

As herd animals, horses rely on each other for survival. The social system within a herd is a highly developed one with defined codes of behavior and customs. While the herd is hierarchical, respect is not gained through size or strength of muscle, nor through the number of winning trophies achieved or pedigree breeding and physical attributes. Their monetary value and accolades are inconsequential in the herd because they do not contribute to the survival of the herd. Respect within the herd is manifested in the ability to lead others to safety while modeling clear boundaries and maintaining harmony. Relationships are formed where every member plays a vital role to ensure cohesion, safety, and harmony within the herd. When differences present themselves through changes in the herd as members come and go or in conflicts with each other, horses respond by addressing the differences in an inclusive way with the benefit of the whole herd in mind. The momentary discomfort in addressing the difference is outweighed by maintaining the relationships between members and thus ensuring the safety of the herd.

As existential therapists, we value the practice of discovering our blind spots in order to broaden our perspectives. By owning our limitations we can deepen our relationships with clients. Talking about diversity challenges us to sit with discomfort and raises our awareness about what we take for granted. It’s about examining our assumptions and exploring how we can all take responsibility for addressing differences, create a more inclusive society, and find ways of leveling the playing field. By staying connected in the difficult dialogues, perhaps we can each find our place in the herd in a more harmonious way.

— Veronica Lac

Today’s guest contributor, Veronica Lac, MA, LPC, is studying for her PhD in psychology (Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal specialization) at Saybrook University. She is a British Chinese Gestalt psychotherapist currently living in Columbus, OH, and working as an equine-assisted therapist with clients suffering from eating disorders.

Read more stories by Veronica Lac

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