Let’s talk about attachment and love…..
A few of the questions I received were asking why it is easier to do things with other people’s horses than your own. And this reminded me of the first person I ever coached with their horse.
This was a long time ago now, and the person came because I was recommended to them by an instructor they respected.
She arrived with her horse, we had planned an afternoon session, an overnight stay and a morning session so she could travel in daylight.
So in the afternoon session I asked her to just play with her horse in the arena, and I would video it – and then we would see where we could start. This was in the days before I had developed my confidence mapping, IDEAS process and other tools I now use in a first session.
I could see a few things were going on between her and her horse – and suggested we take a break for coffee – and watch the short video. As we watched it I asked her to identify things she did well, and challenges…all pretty standard coaching stuff. She came up with some good answers – and then asked me what I thought the real issue was that was blocking her from moving forwards in her relationship with her horse.
Without thinking, I replied “right now, the biggest problem is you see your horse as an extension of yourself instead of a separate being”.
She burst into tears – and we started a long afternoon and evening of very emotional conversation and coaching.
I am delighted to say that was the start of a great journey for that person – -she now runs a horse assisted coaching business in the US working in partnership with her horses to run leadership and team training as well as women’s retreats – wonderful stuff.
However, her situation was not unusual: what I saw on the video was that everything her horse did, she took personally. And because she took it personally, her responses to what her horse did were not responses which made sense to her horse…..and that was the heart of what was making her life with her horse so challenging.
What she had fallen victim to was the quite common confusion of love and attachment.
If we look at Buddhist philosophy attachment is a negative element of some forms of love: attachment is when the love comes with conditions, ownership – and a view of the other (person or animal) as an extension of your ego rather than as a truly separate sentient being with totally unique thoughts and feelings.
When we overidentify with the object of our love, then we CANNOT develop trust with them. If we expect them to be an extension of ourselves, then every time they do NOT act as we want them to, or as we expect or as we would act – which is inevitable because they are not us – we will at some level feel let down, disappointed and sometimes even betrayed. And we will feel unable to trust them, rely on them.
Our unconscious will know that what we think/believe, and what is actually the case – are not congruent and so will add in an element of fear to help keep us safe –
And so this over attachment leads to a challenging relationship with little trust and less confidence.
With other people’s horses, we don’t have this attachment and so it is easier to “see” the horse without the filter or our expectations – and so we can build trust more reliably AND our unconscious believes we are reading things more clearly and so allows us to be more confident with these horses.
However, I use the word OVER-attachment, as I don’t want you to think that attachment is all bad – in fact, attachment is a key part of our emotional development as children AND can play a great part in how we build our relationship with our horses.
John Bowlby was the first person to coin the phrase “attachment”and described it as describing attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life..
The central theme of attachment theory is that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant’s needs establish a sense of security in their children. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.
You can see how important this is on our early development.
Mary Ainsworth took the work further – and described different types of attachment based on her research:
- Securely attached children exhibit distress when separated from caregivers and are happy when their caregiver returns. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child may be upset but he or she feels assured that the parent or caregiver will return.
- When frightened, securely attached children will seek comfort from caregivers. These children know their parent or caregiver will provide comfort and reassurance, so they are comfortable seeking them out in times of need.
- Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This attachment style is considered relatively uncommon, affecting an estimated 7-15% of U.S. children. Research suggests that ambivalent attachment is a result of poor maternal availability. These children cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) to be there when the child is in need.
- Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers. When offered a choice, these children will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research has suggested that this attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.
Is anyone seeing any similarities to our horses here?
I know in my experience, horses who have Secure attachment to their humans are by far the easiest to work with.
However, the great thing about horses though is how much they live in the moment – and how we CAN move them from ambivalent or even avoidant attachment to the healthier secure attachment – if we take on that supportive care giver role, and do it consistently over time.
To provide that secure attachment for our horse, we need to develop the relationship where
– The horse feels secure
– The horse can depend on their human
– The horse may feel concern when apart from their human but feels confident they will return
– The horse will seek comfort and reassurance from their human in times of need
It is easy to see how this relationship will be one of trust and confidence.
However, if we go too far into “over-attachment”, we risk falling into several traps:
– “but you SHOULD feel secure, because I am here to look after you!”
– “why don’t you know you can depend on me?”
– “why don’t you KNOW I’ll be right back, you don’t need to worry!”
– Why don’t you look to ME for support instead of just running off to others?”
And instead of focusing on creating the environment, conditions, skills and knowledge that will ALLOW the healthy, secure attachment to develop in our horse, we end up with a horse we feel we cannot trust as it isn’t doing what we think it SHOULD be doing…..
One place that attachment is talked about a lot is in the area of romantic love. We’ve all heard the saying “if you love someone, set them free”…
Before we can truly trust another being, human or equine, we first have to accept them as they truly are – not an extension of ourselves, a projection of our own egos, hopes, dreams and expectations – but as a totally separate, individual with their own feelings, instincts – and baggage.
So here’s something to think about: we all love our horses – but how healthy is our attachment?
Yours, in confidence