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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

Horses and Humans Research Foundation Interview with Nahshon Cook

I recently had the privilege of participating in an online interview arranged by the Horses and Humans Research Foundation with Nahshon Cook.  Although Nahshon’s official title is “horse trainer,” and he conducts clinics and workshops to this end, throughout the conversation it became clear that he wears many more distinctive and creative hats than this designation implies.  Nahshon’s style of speaking has a lyrical, almost mesmerizing flow, reminding one of poetry, which as it turns out, Nahshon also writes.  His award winning poems have been featured in various publications including Spiritual Directions International, the Houston Literary Review, Post Poetry Magazine and the Origami Poetry Project to name a few.  He has also authored several books, including Horses See Us As We Are, Being with Horses, and Communion. Nahshon was first exposed to horses as a teen through an inner city riding program in Denver, Colorado. His natural affinity and talent led him to begin both teaching people to ride and training horses within a year.


In a quiet and humble manner, Nahshon suggests that we have essentially been going about interacting with horses in a way that completely disregards their potential.  We approach horses with the intent to “train” them, to change their behavior and bend them to our will, to do our bidding, which even if this is done employing kind and humane methods, misses their capacity to participate in and help guide the process from a sentient place of being, thinking and feeling.


“The horse has the answer to the question we’ve been asking,” Nahshon suggests in his thoughtful way.  Instead of trying to figure out “what to do next” from the limited perspective of our own human brain when working with a horse, he emphasizes the importance of the pause, the liminal space for noticing what is happening between horse and human in an embodied rather than just a cognitive way.  He notes, “the horse is asking:  are you safe for me to give my best effort?  You are not going to take away my best effort without my permission.”


In this statement I hear: am I worthy of what I am asking my horse to do in this moment?  Have I earned his trust?  Am I predictable and safe, and honoring his right to feel and be safe with me in this space?  My horse will only trust me as much as I trust myself.  Am I trustworthy? For myself? For others?


Nahshon discussed several of the abused and broken horses he has helped rehabilitate in body and spirit over the years.  He laments that, “When a horse is a means to an end, we are no longer operating in a safe or even ethical manner.”  He continues, “when horses feel special, they begin to heal.”  Each party in the relationship, both horse and human, have to believe they are worthy of being loved.  True connection requires safety, trust and belonging.  Taking love for granted becomes untrustworthy and reduces the horse to an object or tool. If we distance our heart from our horse, we can treat the horse in an uncaring manner, justified by what we believe is “the higher end” we are working towards in the show ring or arena.  Then our horse begins to protect himself as well, which shows up as resistance.  If we react to this resistance with more control, we create a vicious cycle of self protection on both sides.


What part of the question is the horse protecting himself from? How far can we go into the question before one or both of us begins to feel unsafe? Nahshon posits that we only make progress if both of our hearts feel safe in the presence of the other.  Am I offering my horse a forever home, or will he be up for auction to the highest bidder? This lack of belonging impedes trust and safety. So do perfectionism and performance. Can I practice being in the presence of my horse without expectations as I ask my question, truly believing there is no right or wrong answer, but only information in his response?


Nahshon laments that many people have become afraid of their horses because their relationship is based on who is control, and when they lose control of their horse they fear losing points in the show ring at best and being physically harmed at worst.  Compliance is not the same as cooperation.  Compliance comes from the brain stem as a fear response. If it is not safe to say “no,” then “yes” is a self-protective default rather than truly a choice the horse is making from a place of mindful presence.  If the horse is too afraid to think for himself because he might be punished, he shuts down and can no longer give his best effort joyfully and freely.  Nahshon says his mission is to help people be better for horses instead of trying to change horses for people.


He asks his clients what would be different about their experience if they started trusting that things could go right instead of hoping that things don’t go wrong.  He encourages them to slow down and be open to what is happening in each moment instead of focusing on a task and bulldozing past the signs being offered by the horse about the interaction taking place in the present moment.  Nahshon ask people to consider, “How does your horse feel about what is happening right now?  What is he telling you about that?”  Love and safety must lead the work.  You have to be attuned and present in order to lead in that way.


He concludes, “I love horses enough to not be afraid of life.  You have to drop your mask so that the horse can see you,” which only happens when you honestly see and show your true self to them.


Then he adds with a smile, “when you work with your horse, find something to celebrate.  There is always something to celebrate.”


Thank you, Nahshon, for leading by example and inspiring us to practice the vulnerability and courage we are asking of our horses.  You are making the world a better place for both horses and humans.




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