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Is It Really Personal?

The Eponaquest approach to equine facilitated learning has been described as the work of ‘personal development’ and ‘leadership development’. Linda Kohanov, originator of Eponaquest, has also called it ‘advanced human development’. In a recent workshop that I held, we used the word ‘self-discovery’ to describe the work with the horses. All of these descriptions seem to point to a very personal journey of growth and discovery. I have understood the EFL work as an intimate journey to know oneself better. But I read something recently that has made me rethink my understanding of this personal work.

Terry Real is a psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy and he often works with very complex and deeply rooted issues between partners. His new book, Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, builds on his premise that as long as it is about you and me, the relationship is based on two individuals trying to get what they need from the other. (I am intrigued by his assertion that ‘we always marry our unfinished business.’) Us, on the other hand, reflects an understanding of working together, rowing in the same direction, towards a common goal or state. Real also writes about the research that shows that the human brain is relational:

Interpersonal neurobiology is the study of how our brains and central nervous system form through our relationships in childhood and how relationships impact our neurobiology as intimate adults. What we’re finding out is that the mind exists in a social context. Partners in close relationship co-regulate each other’s nervous systems, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and immune responsiveness. Secure relationships lead to increased immunity and less disease, to say nothing of lower scores in depression, anxiety, and higher reported general well-being. Insecure relationships stress you out and can make you ill.

I already knew this, both the neuroscience and as lived experience, because I see how the horses can co-regulate the human in the roundpen if the person is scared or stressed. There is a resonance field created between the horse and the human that allows for deep connection. I have seen over and over again how the horse’s presence has allowed new sensations, emotions, and understandings to emerge in the human during a session. This, I understood, is the work of personal development.

But something Real wrote has me thinking somewhat differently about this work as intimate and personal. He writes “. . . personal growth is personal growth, not collective growth – as if we could truly realize ourselves as individuals in a social context that denies that right to so many. In these ways, individualistic narratives . . . steer us away from collective concerns and collective action. . . the culture of individualism minimizes social inequality and places one’s central concern with oneself, thereby both justifying and serving the status quo.” Real is making the argument that our Western culture has evolved around this idea of ‘rugged individualism’ and that it promotes the ‘you and me’ dichotomy at the expense of an ‘us’, a common good. He quotes Thomas Paine, who wrote “public good is not a term opposed to the good of individuals. On the contrary, it is the good of every individual collected. It is the good of all.”

Did the Enlightenment get it wrong and there is really no such thing as individualism? If our mind exists in a social context and one physical brain can influence another by means of mirror neurons and immune response, is there really such a thing as ‘personal development’? We are hearing much these days about ‘interdependence’, as climate change, supply change issues, and food shortages show us how much we depend upon one another. As Real writes, “The world of us, of interdependence, rests on a foundation of collaboration – collaboration with nature, with one another, with the inspiration that sometimes passes through us.” He surmises that “even something that sounds as individualistic as working on one’s self-esteem turns out to be social.”

So, what does this mean for how I understand the concept of equine facilitated learning, and the descriptions of it as personal development and self-discovery? I am now thinking that it is much bigger than the individual who comes to see me and my horses. When we open ourselves to the work of self-discovery, we are opening ourselves to the betterment of all our relationships, as well. I see this as a vast ripple effect where, instead of just helping one person work through their traumas or their existential questions, there is potential for exponential healing when the individual takes their new experience and understanding home, into their relationships.

Terry Real ends his book by saying “The idea of the individual is a construct of landed white men. As we learn more about how social our brains are, it becomes clear that the ideal of a freestanding individual is a myth. Our brains act in consort with one another not separately, individually.”

Perhaps that is why the work with the horses can be so profound, so full of discovery. The person is not doing the work individually, but in collaboration with the horse. And, as we say, ‘the horse leads the way.’ What we learn about ourselves in the roundpen with the horse translates into all our relationships and connections with others. Like the ripple in the pond, it affects every ripple it comes into contact with. And that gives me hope for humanity – if we are willing to do our own work.

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