top of page


Updated: Jun 14

Psychologist and horse lover Sarah Urwin

When the idea of MumsHaynet was first conceived, we tossed a few themes into the sand arena and debated the merits of each one until we had, what we hoped would become, a going concern. But there was one issue the team was unanimous on – any forums would have to be moderated.

It’s no secret that there are lots of opinions flying around social media, and opinions about horses and what we do with them can be particularly forthright.

Like flaming arrows shot into the thatched roofs of differing schools of thought, innocuous posts are regularly set alight by the comments of those who, apparently, know better. Is it any wonder then that there are genuine threads on Reddit that ask, ‘Why are most horse people so mean/rude?’ and 'What's with the crazy horse people?'

For those who want to know, the replies range from a rich person’s sense of entitlement, poor communication skills, the influence of barn owners and trainers, and CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries such as the concussion you might get from falling off your horse.

As those answers are also merely opinion, MumsHaynet decided to delve further into the topic by speaking to Sarah Urwin for her thoughts because, as a psychotherapist experienced in equine-assisted therapy, her opinion might be more credible than most.

“You won’t like my answer,” she warns, though it actually fits with the theme. “There are an awful lot of people in the horse world who carry personal baggage, and by ‘baggage’ I mean they have quite prickly defence systems which can be easily triggered and they may also believe that judging and criticising other people’s equine practices is acceptable, or even desirable.

“Horses can be very attractive to people with personal issues, and I include myself in that, indeed this may be one of the reasons that some people turn to horses in the first place – after all horses can’t answer back.”

'We Need to Respect and Nurture'

According to Sarah, who admits to a largely ‘avoidant attachment style’, horses allow us the space to dream and fantasise about ourselves because they provide a judgement-free zone, which can be comforting. However, this gift can all too easily be taken for granted.

“Working with animals is very helpful for many of the people I work with,” explains Sarah. “Horses and other animals don’t confuse through verbal communication, they don’t answer back, and we can project whatever we like onto them. But it’s important that we try hard to understand what our horses are feeling by noticing their behaviour.

“Horses don’t separate how they feel from how they act, unlike people, and we now have overwhelming evidence that as sentient beings they experience the same primal emotions that we do, so we need to respect and nurture the relationships they offer us, which don’t judge or criticise in the way people do.

“If I had chosen running or cycling with friends as a sport, instead of horses, it would be a different conversation – perhaps about the quality of my Lycra or whether I could get up a hill or not. Whereas, if I’m riding my horse in the countryside with nobody else around, there’s nobody judging me.”

Psychologist and horse lover Sarah Urwin

While it might be easy enough to get away from the white noise of life while riding, many horse owners keep their horses on shared or established livery yards, which means they still have to navigate other people and their opinions.

“You often hear people complaining about their yards. Sadly, you don’t often hear people talking about how great their yard is. This may be because many yards foster a sense of competition, in all aspects of horse care and activity and this can act as a trigger to our defence systems.

“Our reaction may be to think that we are doing a better job than others, or that we know more than others, or to think we are pretty clever people – and possibly smarter than our next-door neighbour who has a horse – and we wonder why they aren’t doing things the same way we are.”

When it comes to forthright opinions there is often an unwillingness to listen to counter arguments, beliefs or opposing views, and it’s a failure of communication that can be unwittingly mirrored in the relationship we have with our horses.

“Horses usually offer unconditional relationships, despite their owners and riders not always understanding enough about their welfare needs,” says Sarah. “This lack of awareness can result in horses being quite badly treated sometimes, although often not deliberately, but nevertheless bad for them.

“This isn’t uncommon. Even in my profession, where you might imagine practitioners have a good level of awareness on equine welfare, it can still be a problem. Practitioners may be drawn to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy because they think they know about horses, but it may also be attractive to them because they are able to ‘get their own fix’ in sessions, addressing their own issues, hence sessions become as much about them as those they are trying to support. Clearly this isn’t ethical.

“For horse-people with personal issues, the unconditional acceptance they receive from their equine partners is wonderful as it provides a sense of belonging with no judgement but at the same time the overall equine environment may sometimes encourage aggressive reactions and behaviour, a lack of tolerance and an unwillingness to engage with others who might not hold the same views. This happens both face-to-face, and as we see increasingly, online.”

Fostering Greater Understanding

For Sarah, there is often “a noticeable lack of self-awareness in the human-horse community.” However, she remains hopeful that the animals that help us with our hang-ups can also model social and environmental interactions that lead us humans to a better way of living and interacting with each other.

“What’s core here, is raising our own awareness, of our thoughts, beliefs, emotional feelings and physical responses, and allowing the horses to help us with that,” she says. “They can teach us to see things differently.

“It might be that we don’t see how we are right now because we are very focussed on controlling our horse and getting it to do what we want, but that’s exactly what we need to see. If we can be open and curious about our own behaviour this can lead to a greater level of understanding and awareness of both ourselves and our horses.

“Our need to control may well be central to this and indicate we need to carefully consider our underlying feelings; fear, anxiety or anger, for example.

“Similarly, for our horses, beneath every equine behaviour there is a feeling. Everything means something to a horse and, ultimately, we need to examine how we communicate and relate to our horses for our relationships with them to be the best they can be.

“This is also true of our relationships with horse-colleagues and friends.”

As an exercise in listening, Sarah recommends reaching for your grooming brushes, and watching what happens.

“Grooming may be a good example to consider,” she says. “As you pick up and use your brushes you might first try to see whether your horse appears to enjoy the sensation of being groomed. Most people are adamant that their horses love being groomed, but recent research suggests this might not always be the case.

"So, slow down and take a moment to check. How tightly is your horse tied up? Can they escape from you? What is their body language telling you? Are they moving around? What might your horse be trying to tell you?

“When we stop or slow down it’s interesting what we notice. Consider the possibility of grooming your horse at liberty to get a clearer picture of whether they enjoy it or not, and what methods are most enjoyable for them.”

Psychologist and horse lover Sarah Urwin

With control playing such a central part in many of our interactions with other people – whether this manifests as a need to control or a feeling of being controlled – it’s a very real possibility that the same behaviours occur in our relationships with horses.

“Some of us ‘horse people’ have got used to blaming our horses – seeing the horse as a naughty toddler but where’s the ‘we’ in this equation?” Sarah asks. “Try to consider the bigger picture, including the impact the immediate environment may be having on the horse, as well as our behaviour, and how all of this together maybe landing with the horse.

“Unless we do this, we can easily end up projecting all the things that just went wrong, onto the horse. This is particularly true if we have specific expectations of our horses and these are not met. We can then dump our resulting disappointment back onto the horse which significantly impacts our horse-human relationships.

“If we can open our eyes to some of these things and understand our own need for control, we can start to change our behaviour, becoming more empathic and compassionate towards our horses, our colleagues and friends, and ultimately to ourselves. If we reverse this order though, that works well too!

Sarah Urwin, Counselling and Therapy Services:

1 Comment

Love it!

bottom of page