What can we learn from a horse about self-awareness?

Horses galloping across a green pasture filled with wildflowers…horses rearing and dancing in the mist on a mountain top – horses performing amazing movements at the Spanish Riding School.

Horses cause us to envision a world filled with beauty and grace – and for many of us as children, they were enchanted creatures that possessed some sort of intangible magic.  Getting past this child-like approach to these warm-blooded prey animals is difficult, especially when trying to explain how they are able to help humans become better at relationships.  Horses have the ability to develop better leaders, enhance marriages, heal past traumas and help us be better parents.

Let me break it down into manageable pieces.  First and foremost horses function in the here an now; they live in the present moment.  Now, this does not mean that they don’t retain information, or have memories like a steel trap, because they do.  What this means is that they do not worry about the future, or dwell in the past.  Sound like something you’d like to learn?

Well, a horse can teach you to be present, to get out of your head and into your body.  A living, breathing mindfulness model.   When we step into the round pen and begin working with a horse, the first thing we do is request that the horse connect to us, which is a difficult concept to explain.  Connection isn’t a rope attached to halter…it is an energy connection.  And, unless we are present, the horse will not be able to “see” us.  They are hard-wired to be in healthy relationships, and will choose that over food every day.  However, if the person in the round pen is not present, then they will ignore and even resist, that request for connection.

So, how do you know when you are present?  I would say it is a sense of clarity, self-awareness, focus or even joy and gratitude.  Getting to that place can be very difficult for us humans.  Everyday we are bombarded with not only constant verbal messages from our peers, friends, family and supervisors via those handy cell phones, but a steady stream of media messages, long commutes in traffic, demanding children upon return from work, community commitments, church, school and home.  Whew!  So many things to remember, so many things to manage, so many things…

As a result of all of these pressures, we are always in the higher functioning part of our brain. Desperately trying to remember everything we are supposed to do, everyone we are supposed to call, every item on our grocery list, and whether or not we ever called the travel agent to confirm our vacation plans!  As a result, those closest to us don’t feel like we even notice they are there, our peers feel separated from us, and we have trouble being creative and doubt our intuition.

Here’s where the horses come in.  In order to become more self-aware, or present, we must learn to recognize what is happening inside of our hearts and guts; acknowledge our emotions and then do what horses do. They recognize an emotion, realize what caused it and its importance, purposely deal with what caused the emotion, and then go back to grazing.  We can do this too!  Stop, breathe, close your eyes, listen to the sounds around you, do a body scan.  Now, what do you feel? Do you feel a tightness in your chest?  Is your jaw clenched?  Is your breathing shallow?  Does worrying about whatever it is that is causing these physical symptoms actually help resolve the issue?  If not, then why not let it go?  Slow your heart rate, breathe deeply, soften your eyes, concentrate on the area around your heart and soften. Cry, scream, laugh, rage.  Recognize that there is something besides the intellectual part of you that is dying to come out.

Back to the horse.  Now there you are, in the round pen, crying.  Suddenly a soft muzzle touches you on your arm, and you turn to see warm brown eyes full of curiosity and an unconditional desire to be with you.  Slowly you extend a hand to your horses shoulder, and feel the soft coat.  That touch releases oxytocin into your system and suddenly you are feeling even more!  Wait, the horse stepped back, why?  Okay, so stop again, breathe again, allow the excitement of connecting with your horse to fill up your heart, and stop asking why with your mind.  Then guess what, the muzzle reappears, another step forward, and that opportunity to caress the shoulder of the 1200 lb animal is there once again.

Once we are able to identify and control the ability to be present, then we can start practicing with these gracious and forgiving creatures in a non-judgmental atmosphere.  That is what is so powerful about this work with horses.  Humans simply have forgotten what it feels like to be present, and the horses remind us of the opportunity to once again explore the world with our hearts and not just our minds.

Having had the opportunity to work with clients, family and friends, I have been overwhelmed many times with emotion, as I witness light shining within someone, where before it was dark.  Then once the light grew from a flicker to a beacon, life change followed in every situation.  Healthy boundaries are established, self-confidence returns, creativity and intuition flow once again, and relationships are healed and grow deeper and more meaningful.  Who knew that these beautiful creatures could not only delight us with their beauty, but also with their spirit!