I’ve discovered that when I communicate with horses (nonverbally, of course), they give me one of two answers to a request to engage with them. They will say, “Cathy, I see you, I hear you, I understand what you’re doing and I’m willing to join you” (emotionally, mentally or physically) OR “Cathy, that’s not working, try something different.” In other words, what I’m doing, saying or thinking is working or it’s not working for the horse! It’s that simple, and it’s the same in our own lives. Each interaction, each situation, each decision we make is either working or it’s not working and we have a choice, when it’s not working to TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT until it does!
So, how the heck does it all become so complicated? Why do we continue to engage in thoughts and situations that are not working and even more distressing, why do we continue to do it when we see that it is draining us mentally, emotionally and physically?
TEACHER TO THE RESCUE
The horses, once again, can help us with the answers and show us how to listen to our own bodies’ messages. Horses represent the primitive responses of our brain and body. They see the world as a series of potential threats to their safety and well being. Each moment of the day is the only moment for them and when the body sends a message about that moment, the horse will respond immediately.
See, horses don’t lie. They don’t pretend that what they’re feeling isn’t real. They don’t rationalize or tell themselves a story about what the feeling MIGHT mean. Instead, each moment is an opportunity to learn about their environment and to live in a healthy, balanced and peaceful state-to not just survive, but to THRIVE.
For example, a horse that has spent many days out on the trails with his partner, the human, learns that being away from his pasture or stable is normal and riding in a trailer becomes second nature. They associate environmental cues and behavior with what works for them and what doesn’t . Horses may become distressed by seeing the overalls or jumpsuit of a vet because they associate it with the discomfort of an exam or the pain of a shot. They may run in fear at the sound of a whip cracking whether or not it is directed at them, simply because of how it was used on them in the past. But those responses can quickly be changed if the horse is allowed to feel a different sensation when presented with similar cues. A human in overalls or jumpsuit now feeds and grooms, nurtures and cares for the horse with no subsequent distress or pain. The stick and string or whip is used to rub and caress them, or as a tool for the human to direct their movements with a gentle, assertive posture. They learn that their is no fear, no reason to run because what they are now FEELING is a sense of safety. Because the human is now looking out for their best interest, the horse’s response is, “I’m willing to join you.”
THE HUMAN BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR
But, this is not my way of saying, horses don’t use more complex brain function to adjust their response and subsequent behavior. We are a long way from really knowing how a horse brain works. After all, our understanding of the HUMAN brain and how it affects behavior is still a great mystery. My experience as a health care provider taught me that no matter how much we know about the structure and function of the brain, in the end, we must address each person as an individual and help them become more aware and attuned to their beliefs and attitudes in order to change a behavior.
What I believe distinguishes our responses from the horses is the layers and layers of reasoning and rational thoughts that we have created to protect us from recognizing what the body already knows. Unlike the horse whose responses and their source appear to be pretty close to the surface, humans are able to intertwine stories and experiences together with complex multiple environmental cues until it’s difficult to recognize exactly what the triggering event was or where in time it occurred. But, there is a way to gain that information and restore the balance, if we are willing to tap into the body’s own “storage” system.
THE HORSE SHOWS US THE WAY
Our response to every situation in life comes to us through our emotions-fear, anger, joy, love, surprise, sadness, disgust, admiration and more.The word emotion comes from the Latin word emovere-to move out. Emotions give shape and direction to whatever we do (from The Body Keeps the Score) and show up in body language and facial expressions. It just so happens that the horse is BRILLIANT at reading body language. Their life, their very survival as a species depends on it. So when they read your emotions and respond with “I’m willing to join you (it’s working) or “That’s not working, try something else” you are able to not only feel, but SEE where your emotions are taking you. This allows you to then change what you are doing in REAL TIME! Not an hour from now or days and months from now, when your body is broken down and you’ve been ill from the drain to your immune system, or the alcohol you’ve used to numb your emotions has now pickled your liver, or the anxiety and stress of your job has led to the breakup of your relationships. You can learn to change your behavior now and see the response of the horse when he says, “I’m willing to join you”. Horses allow you to learn by doing and recognize the behavior that works, that gives you a sense of peace in your mind and body, literally releasing the tension immediately!
TAKING THE LIFE LESSONS WITH YOU
While it is immensely helpful to feel and see how your emotions affect behavior through the interaction with horses, it will only have a lasting impact on your own life if you are able to recognize the change in your body away from their immediate feedback. This means paying attention and being more self aware, starting with the calm, peaceful moments. What does a slow, calm breath really feel like, muscles relaxed? Keep that as your baseline and learn to recognize a change- Is what I’m thinking or doing working (peace and calm with deep breaths) or is it not working (tightness, tension in the body or facial expression, heart racing, breathing shallow) Being able to WATCH AND WITNESS what is happening allows you to choose the feelings that you wish to experience.
It takes lots and lots of practice to recognize the subtle changes in our body, especially if we’ve been out of touch with it for years and years, ignoring it’s message until it sends us to the doctor or simply to our bed for an extended rest. It takes time to get past all of the layers of protection that our mind has created to keep us from experiencing what our body knows to be true. But once we are willing to let go of that protection, to really experience our emotions, good and bad, it is only a quick jump to the most precious of all experiences-joy, love, creativity and peace in our life, not as a mere incidental moment but in equal measure to the challenges we recognize as just part of living and learning. The horses know, it doesn’t have to go any deeper than that!
Are you up to the task? Can you do the hard work and find the balance. Are you willing to tap into your greatest resource, the body, that will guide you towards positive change? No worries, the horses will teach you! And just so you know-It’s simple, but it’s not easy!