Horses and Mindfulness

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The horse without wings
grazes calmly in the meadow.
She has no need of eternity,
no need of bits or bridles.

What she knows beyond
the good sense of her hooves
no one can tell.

If we call her ship
if we call her nightmare,
if we call her history,
she will not care.

When she wants to
she moves, flicks
at flies with her tail,
curls back her lip
and shows her yellow teeth.

When she wants to
she stands
absolutely still.

(A Brief History of the Horse, Lorna Crozier)


Spending time around horses may have been my gateway into a fascination with presence and somatic/emotional awareness. It wasn’t intentional, and people who work with and study horses have no need to integrate any trendy mindfulness buzz words. But horses require us, more than humans, to be in the present moment in order to connect with them — just as they are.

Equine Experiential Learning facilitator Linda Kohanov explains how one of her horses seems to respond to people’s emotional processes: “Rasa wants people to feel their problems, [which allows them] to listen to the messages behind their feelings, and to stop thinking that their true feelings are the problem.”

Horses are very highly attuned to their nervous system responses, as well as the same system’s status in any nearby beings. Knowing if another animal is experiencing a stress response is key to a horse herd’s collective ability to read their environment. Like most animals, horse don’t separate out their memories, thoughts, and feelings into categories. At least, not in the way that we do. If something — a horse, mountain lion, or plastic bag — is perceived as a threat a horse, it seems that only experience engaging that item without a threatening outcome will cause them to adjust their response. Humans have all kinds of reasons for hiding “negative” emotions: embarrassment, social norms, professional requirements. This is all thanks to our prefrontal cortex — the CEO of our brain. It helps us create those complex rationalizations and reasons for why we should act the way we act.

Horses’ systems are a lot more centered on their very advanced and perceptive nervous system… their goals are all about herd syncronicity and being aware of the “feelings” (through stress responses) of themselves and others, in order to survive as a group. But here’s the catch: many of the complex reasons, explanations, and abstractions that we humans come up with are misaligned with the true sub-conscious perceptions of the world around us that brought us the feeling. In other words: something causes us stress and instead of accurately addressing the cause for what it is in the moment, we “ignore and store” that feeling somewhere in our body and later give it a reason that feels easier for us to process. Perhaps that looks like blaming someone else, or solving a small problem that we feel more in control of. Bringing stress from work (or school) and lashing out at the people we love instead of a superior is one common example of this. A classic experiment on the concept of “misattribution of arousal” (ie. “picking the ‘wrong’ story to explain why you feel the way you do”) explains this well.

With stress responses, that complex reasoning doesn’t actually help us much. If there’s a famine or a wild animal chasing you, focusing on something else doesn’t help much, and our nervous system knows that well. The only way out is through. We much offer our stressful emotions peace in order to experience them from a place of self-compassion. Then we may move through them.

Conveniently for our awareness, horses don’t care about our emotional reasoning. They care about the state of our nervous system, because paying attention to that is what keeps them alive. They don’t care if you’ve told yourself that doing a puzzle makes your stress feel better, they care that the stress is still experienced somewhere in your body, trying to protect you from something. When we “store and ignore” a feeling, our nervous system stays in a stressed state, even though it may be subtle. The state of our nervous system directly connects to our stress level: the thing we are, perhaps, best at brushing off and ignoring (stress? we’re ALWAYS stressed!). But if a nearby animal is stressed, a horse needs to know about so that they can pay attention to and defend themselves from whatever that stressor is. The “problem” that needs to be understood and addressed is what is causing that stress response, not the response itself. Horses respond with connection to people being authentic with those feelings, which enables us to move through them differently.

For these reasons, horses have a lot to teach us about mindful presence. They don’t care much if we think our stress is “good” or “bad,” they want us to be present with it so we can find out what it’s telling, and move through it! Horses can help us reveal our layers of awareness, listen to all our feelings, not just the ones we enjoy, and connect more deeply into what’s happening right… now.


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