Horses as Teachers

The mission of Sheriff Horsemanship is to develop people through experiential horsemanship programs in a faith-based outdoor environment, all for the glory of God. Without the power of our equine partnerships, this mission would be impossible.

There are nearly as many terms for this style of teaching and learning as there are breeds of horses, from “equine-assisted psychotherapy” to “therapeutic riding” to “equine-assisted life coaching.” In fact, while I was researching for my thesis in Outdoor and Adventure Leadership, I identified 16 distinct terms used to describe the activity or program that occurs when horses are used as tools and partners to help people, whether it be emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Simply put, I am passionate about using horses as a tool to develop people. But if we’re speaking technically, my term of choice is “equine-assisted learning.” Why is this? Because it is defined as an “experiential learning approach that promotes the development of life skills for educational, professional, and personal goals through equine-assisted activities.”[1] 

This definition emphasizes the experiential style of teaching and learning that participants engage in. Through both ground and mounted experiences with horses, people can come to understand themselves and the world around them in new ways. From a Christian perspective, this style of teaching includes allowing ourselves to become conduits through which the Holy Spirit can work in and through the lives of our program participants as they see themselves in horsemanship. 

God has equipped horses with an incredible balance of courage and grace; courage to enter into a willing partnership with a human (which is a predator in their flight-response mind) and grace to forgive the mistakes we’re guaranteed to make while working with and caring for them. Horses are also not bound by human constraints such as schedules or time limits – they simply exist and need (and require) us to do what’s best for them in every single moment. Horses reflect back onto their human exactly what we are in that moment (if we’re impatient, they will be impatient; if we’re anxious, they will experience anxiety.) In this way, horses require us to first “set the standard” for attitude, behavior, and action (calm, collected, firm if needed, but full of grace), and their attitudes, behaviors, and actions will follow. 

Horses are individuals, with distinct preferences, dislikes, habits (both positive and negative), personalities, and skills. To think that every horse will react the same way, every single time you interact with them, is to betray the created being of the horse. They demand our attention and our care, because they cannot attend to their needs on their own as domesticated livestock. God has left humanity with a commandment to steward his creation (Gen 1:28-30) and meeting the needs of His animals with exceptional care allows us to honor Him with the entirety of our actions, not just our words[2].  

Learning the mind of the horse is a lifelong pursuit; one that I am honored to be involved in. Even textbook-length publications cannot fully capture all of the variables, theories, and ideas that encompass horsemanship. However, below are a few core understandings that Sheriff Horsemanship is based on, and that drive my own personal philosophy and theology behind equine-assisted learning and equestrian ministry.

  • The safety of the human must come first, always. Horses are flight animals by nature, and although we can teach them how to handle their reactive emotions, they are still large, strong animals that must be handled carefully and safely.  
  • By using tried-and-true tools, methods, and cues, we can enter into a trusting partnership with horses and accomplish much more than either human or horse could accomplish on its own.
  • Being a student of the small moments is crucial. Horses don’t understand long-term goals, and it’s our job to lovingly (yet firmly, when needed) guide them through a learning experience. 
  • The nature of working with horses cannot be scripted, just as our walk with Christ cannot be clearly laid out ahead of us. 
  • True horsemanship a process of trust, mutual understanding, willingness to follow, and the courage to grow beyond comfort zones (for both human and equine.) 

Keeping all of this in mind, we cannot betray the process of equine-assisted learning by forcing outcomes, pushing for goal accomplishment, or wrecking relationships of trust that take time to build. If a horse becomes injured, sick, or otherwise unwell, the utmost care and respect must be taken for the horse’s benefit as a unique creature of God. 

The relationship between human-horse can mirror the relationship between human-Trinity, if only we allow ourselves to engage in the process. 

Some may call this “magic.” Others, “horse whispering.” We simply call it the mystery of devoting ourselves to these creatures and allowing them to reflect back to us our true nature as students, leaders, and followers of Christ. 

[1] Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, “EAAT Definitions,” PATH International, 2020,

[2] Joel Salatin, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs (Lebanon, IN: FaithWords, 2015).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s