LCC class aims to improve communication skills by working with horses
By Lauren Kronebusch
Three quarter horses danced around a ring, nipping each other in the butt, chasing and kicking one another, and loudly munching grass and the leaves of a nearby willow tree.
Though they didn’t know it, they were teachers for the day, and the lesson had already begun. Alongside the arena, a line of six women watched the equines carefully. They were students from a Lower Columbia College continuing education class called “How to Talk Horse.”
Over four sessions, retired physician’s assistant Cathy Mahon uses interactions with horses to help students improve their communications skills with humans — and get to know themselves better.
Mahon said horses are “masters of communication.” With a swish of a tail, a sidestep, or a widening of the eye, horses quickly tell handlers how they feel. They have no reservations about telling humans and each other what’s on their mind.
“You want them to interact with you and even bond with you. The idea is that your relationship will be safe and good for both of you. I learned 6 or 7 years ago through liberty training that who I was and what I presented to the horse at any given moment would affect the outcome of our relationship,” Mahon said.
Horses are excellent teachers because they don’t hold grudges, Mahon said. They care first and foremost about whether they can trust you to keep them safe.
“They don’t care who you are, what job you have, what car you drive, your race, creed or religion,” Mahon tells the students.
On Friday, Mahon put her students into three groups. Each talked with, petted and groomed a horse.
In the arena, Ping Chen, a mom and AmeriCorps member from Longview, slowly slid a wire hairbrush along the haunch of her assigned horse, Skip, a friendly, human-loving painted quarter horse. Chen brushed while Skip munched on grass.
Seeming to ignore Chen’s presence, Skip moved slowly about the ring, sipping water from a bucket or sidestepping to avoid other horses.
But when Chen stepped away, Skip twisted his graceful neck to regard her with a curious look.
“He enjoyed being touched. We stepped away, and he immediately approached us,” she observed.
Chen said by working with Skip, she’s learned how important it is to watch for body language cues before approaching and engaging people.
“When we started, (Cathy) told us to just observe” the horses, she said. “We don’t do that (often). We’re not aware of that. We jump in, and we assume (people) will work with us.”
That same lesson changed Mahon’s life. It made her a more attentive, caring physician’s assistant.
“They allowed me to be more self-aware. I really learned what my beliefs were, how my thoughts and behaviors impacted others,” she said. “I felt myself being better about listening and understanding, taking each person as an individual, being more compassionate about their concerns and their fears.”
After her students finished grooming and watching their horses, they rejoined in a circle beneath a nearby willow tree.
Renee Siahpush, an Astoria psychotherapist who uses horses in her practice, got snubbed by Twister, a mustang born in a wild herd.
“He betrayed me. … He took a drink and walked away. Just like every other guy,” she joked with the group.
Mahon asked Siahpush what she would try next time to get Twister’s attention. Siahpush said she’d confront Twister in an arena alone and force him to acknowledge her.
“As soon as we went in, I wanted to take control,” Siahpush admitted.
But does that work in human relationships? Mahon prompted. No, the group chimed.
“What’d we say about these horses? They don’t care who you are. They care that you’ll keep them safe,” she said.
And once that lesson is learned, horse and handler get closer.
Two years ago, Mahon’s Arabian horse Wave bit her.
“I pushed and pushed when I shouldn’t have. I knew exactly why. … I knew that I had pushed him, and he was telling me to stop.”
Now, the two dance to music together in the arena.
“I can be myself,” she said. “I’ve been digging very deep with the horses. It’s like a life journey. It just never ends.”
Her next goal is to host workshops for people in the healthcare system to help improve their communication with patients.