If you were to look up “terrible dater” in a dictionary, you’d probably see a picture of me. That is, until I met a tall, dark and handsome guy named Joe.
Bear with me for a second, because Joe is definitely a horse — but that’s only because I have absolutely no business starting a relationship with a human male at this time.
Why, you ask? I have what I like to call a “checkered dating history,” which is a euphemism for the sad truth that I’m a train wreck when it comes to men. I’m the type of woman who chats with 60-year-olds at a bar, because I think I somehow owe them a conversation when they buy me a drink. I’m the type of woman who gets engaged to a dude who literally stole my identity, because I’m scared to be alone. I’m the type of woman who allows a grown man to take me on a first date to his mom’s house, because I don’t want to offend him. For real. That happened.
In other words, I have very poor relationship boundaries, and my dating life will remain a disaster until I figure out how to grow some. And that’s exactly where Joe comes in.
Photo credit: Kristie Marie Photography
Learning how to date with the help of a horse
Joe is my therapy horse, which I still find humorous to put in writing. I always thought that equine therapy was for children with special needs and developmentally-delayed adults, so it was a little humbling when I made the call to Diamond LK Counseling for my first session of equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP).
My therapist, Lisa Kruse, is a licensed professional counselor with specific training in EAP. “Equine therapy is special because horses are afraid of humans but also strive to have a relationship with us,” Kruse says. “It works well for women with relationship issues because horses can sense authenticity, and will respond to a woman’s behavior like a man, except with more purity and simplicity.” The simplicity of a horse’s response allows a woman to learn how her actions either improve or damage her relationship with the horse — and then take her new experiences into dating and marriage.
A glimpse at Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
OK, so that sounds great in theory. But what does it look like in practice?
I stand in the middle of a stable with Joe, who weighs 1,800 pounds and could smash me into the wall if he wanted to. His size is a reminder of his danger, and the danger inherent in the building of any relationship. I’m scared to death, but I put on a powerful persona because I mistakenly believe it will protect me from harm. Instead, Joe nudges toward me and tries to bite at my knees.
From across the stable, my therapist encourages me to try authenticity with Joe, instead of acting like I’m unafraid. I think to myself, I don’t know what to do with you, but I know I don’t want you to hurt me and I want you to back away. In an instant, Joe’s demeanor changes. He backs away from me, but looks at me and then closes his eyes to rest. He falls asleep just three feet from me, and I feel the tension leave my neck and shoulders as I burst into tears.
So this is what it feels like for a creature to respect my personhood and my wishes, I think. Slowly but surely, my horse is teaching me that my feelings and my wishes matter, in a way they never have with the men I’ve dated. Maybe there’s hope for me, after all.