I believe this may have to do with mirror neurons, the brain mechanism that some scientists believe helps us empathize with others' feelings. These neurons fire when we watch people act in a way we can envision acting ourselves; it's thought that they also allow us to vicariously experience the sensation people feel as they take that action. Scientists are still learning why and how information passes through mirror neurons, but I've often wondered whether they don't also help us intuit the thoughts others think or the emotions they feel. If it does, then it may be possible—given the highly social nature of horses—that they would be sensitive to this phenomenon as well. Perhaps this is why, for thousands of years, riders from Alexander the Great to the Lone Ranger have felt an uncanny understanding for, and from, their mounts.
Ernie is now chewing vigorously on Avery's hair. She laughs nervously.
"Does that feel good to you?" asks Koelle.
"It's all right," says Avery, though her body has gone rigid.
"Really?" Koelle says. "It's all right to have horse teeth in your hair?"
"He means well."
"And he deserves to know what you really feel. Tell him what you want and need. We teach people how to treat us. Communicate."
Avery pushes gingerly at Ernie's muzzle. "No, no," she says weakly. But even to me, sitting several yards away, it's clear that her body language is saying, "Do whatever you want, just don't stop liking me." Ernie shoves her ear with his nose.
"Make your message stronger," says Koelle. "Stand up straight. Get big and loud. Use what you need when you need it. How would you set a boundary with your kids or your employees?"
Clearly not knowing what else to do, Avery draws on the desperate anger she uses when she's exhausted, backed to the wall. "No!" she shouts, pushing both hands into Ernie's face. He reacts as you might if your favorite Aunt Millicent pulled a gun on you. Leaping backward and spinning, he tears around the pen. Avery tries to slow him down by running at him, waving her hands. Ernie spins, spraying dirt, and takes off in the opposite direction, his hooves like thunder on the ground.
"Help!" Avery shouts.
Koelle has already stepped into the pen. She puts a hand on Avery's shoulder, breathing deeply and slowly. Immediately, Avery seems calmer. Koelle drops her eyes and gently raises her free hand, and Ernie slows to a trot, then a walk. Avery stares in disbelief.
"So," says Koelle. "When you set a boundary, is that pretty much how your kids and employees react, too?"
Avery bursts out laughing. "Pretty much!"
"We call that the exploding-doormat effect," I interject. "You hold in your unhappiness until it's intolerable, then you blow up."
"That's what my mom always did," Avery says. "I didn't realize I was doing it, too."
"You do what you were trained to do," says Koelle.
Next: How a 1,200-pound creature changed my whole life