This life lesson blog is a fictional re-creation of real life experiences with my students designed to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.


Each time the student walked toward the horse, the little bay mare turned and left him to join the rest of the herd.  More than six feet in height with the presence of someone much taller, Carl strode out to the pasture, head held high, chest out, arms close to his sides. The rigidity of his movement was apparently disconcerting to Freda, whom he had come to catch, halter and lead back to the barn. Her lack of interest in joining him was pretty obvious as she alternated walking and trotting in the opposite direction. Watching him as I walked just a few steps behind and to the left, Carl suddenly stopped, giving me the opportunity to ask in a soft, inquisitive tone, “Are you breathing?” The answer was, not surprisingly, “Yes of course I am!” I rephrased the question. “Where do you feel your breathing most, in your chest or in your belly?” Now he was looking at me a little puzzled. “What’s the difference?”



“Well, I said, let’s just see. Put your hand just below your belly button. Close your eyes, take a deep breath in through your nose while raising your shoulders to your ears.” He hesitated, a bit uneasy about closing his eyes while standing in the middle of the herd. Raising his shoulders with a deep inhale, I continued, “Now exhale through your mouth slowly while allowing your shoulders to drop, continuing the release of air until there’s no more in your lungs.” He was able to follow my directions easily and as I paused for a moment I could see him struggling to push every last bit of breath out. Of course, I didn’t have to tell him what to do next-his own physiology would take over. With his hand on his abdomen, his diaphragm automatically lowered, his belly expanded outward under his palm and fingers, followed by a softening of his whole body. He repeated this pattern several times.


I heard the words, just as he opened his eyes: “I see what you mean”, followed by a look of surprise on his face as he noticed the mare standing just 3 feet away and looking straight at him. “Where did she come from?” Carl asked, now smiling with delight as if he’d just reunited with an old friend.



“She was waiting for you to make her feel safe, so she could join you,” I said.  I explained to Carl that breathing that takes place mainly at the chest level is shallow-each inhale/exhale is short and barely effective. There is just enough breath to keep the body alive and acts as a temporary survival technique that the body uses when it’s stressed. Freda was not comfortable being with someone who was stressed, but perfectly happy to join him once he let go of the tension in his breathing and then in his body.



Carl had come to Life Lessons with Horses after sharing with a friend how much he enjoyed spending summers as a kid at his grandmother’s farm. The horses there had helped him feel at peace during a difficult time in his life as his parents were divorcing after 10 years of marriage. His grandmother explained that horses never lie and will respond willingly when you are being honest with them. She told him “they are experts at reading your body language”.  Carl had been lied to as a young boy, as each parent tried to gain his trust and turn him against the other. Now he was going through his own divorce and the friend suggested he spend time with the horses by taking a life lesson with me.


“I didn’t realize how much stress I’ve been under until this very moment,” he shared. Then he asked, “Can shallow breathing make you tired or irritable?” I explained that shallow breathing is the RESULT of stress,and ongoing stress without relief is exhausting to the mind and body. I asked Carl what he had discovered during the short breathing exercise. “I was impressed at how quickly the horse responded to the change in my breathing” He then expressed an interest in taking it a step further. “I’ve always felt calmer around horses, ever since I was kid,” he started. “Do you think that I could learn to adjust my breathing when I’m not with the horse?” I shared with him how the IDEA of being with the horse or something that reminded him of the horses could be a cue to practice his breathing when he was not with them.  I told him that I have small stuffed horses that I give to my “Meditation with Horses” students. Just holding the soft animal in their hands brings back the sense of peace they felt being in a live horse’s presence. Carl was excited at the possibility of finding even a small measure of relief from the emotional pressure he had been feeling and expressed his gratitude at having found it in a simple exercise with the horse. We agreed to meet again in two weeks for another Life Lessons with Horses. In the meantime, the plan was to take his “little Freda” home and practice what “big Freda” had taught him. It all starts with breathing!