If you’re anything like me, you’ve been a little anxious for the last… oh, 8 months or so. Coronavirus, political polarity, social justice issues, hurricanes – it seems like 2020 is pretty intent on keeping us on our toes.
While we can’t control the world around us, we do have the ability (and I would argue the responsibility) to control our response to the madness swirling around us. One great way to do that is to seek wisdom from a pro – i.e. your horse.
Now you might not consider your horse such an anti-anxiety expert – look at the airs above the ground he did when a leaf blew by him out on the trail the other day. What about the time she was terrified because the barn cat jumped at a fly? Surely we don’t want to be freaking out at every little disturbance in the Force, do we?
Here’s the thing. Horses are reacting to those stimuli at the appropriate level for their native understanding. Their first instinct is to get the hell outta Dodge at the first sign of a problem, but they can learn to respond rather than react – and so can you.
Here are a few ways your horse can shine a light on a better response to life.
Not across the country, not even in a different circle, just move your body. Get up and take a walk. Stretch. Flex your muscles, take a couple of deep breaths.
Horses often exhibit this by being calmer when they’re turned out, despite the fact that there’s probably more stimulus that could trigger a reaction in the pasture than in their stall. The secret? Because movement is their body’s default setting, when they’re moving, they feel less “trapped”. They have a certain level of comfort in just knowing they could get out of Dodge if the need arose.
2. Find strength in your herd.
There’s safety in numbers. Horses will be the first ones to tell you that. Their whole social structure is organized around being in a herd. It offers physical protection, social interaction, and opportunities for procreation.
Although we’re predators rather than prey animals, humans are also pack animals. We tend to live in groups for the same reasons as horses do. However, while a community can help us be strong and connected, it can also devolve into herd-mentality, which can lead to things like going to coronavirus parties or turning the Great Dome at MIT into a giant version of R2D2 . While the consequences of the former certainly outweigh those of the latter by about a gazillion percent, the rules of the jungle apply even if the jungle in question is a frat party – those at the shallow end of the gene pool are the weakest link. (If you’re not familiar with the Darwin Awards, you owe it to yourself to read their examples of extreme stupidity, lending credence to the expression, “Stupid kills, just not fast enough…” ) And as a side note, you don’t often see herds of horses out playing pranks, except learning to open gates, and doors, and…. oh, never mind… the point is that horses in a herd often make better decisions than people in a herd.
The bottom line? Have a community that supports you in making wise decisions, whether it’s your family, your friends, or people in a co-working session online with a service like Focusmate.
3. Take a nap in the sun.
What is it about horses sleeping in the sun that’s so endearing? Admit it, you got the warm fuzzies when you looked at the featured image for this post – who can resist a sleepy little foal, especially with its tongue stuck out?
The lesson in this for humans isn’t necessarily to go lie in the middle of a field for a half-hour or so in the afternoon, it’s more along the line of Joseph Campbells’, “Follow your bliss.”
Crazy about those adult coloring books that were all the rage a few years ago? Grab your colored pencils and get coloring! Does grooming your horse for a half-hour or so bring your blood pressure down 20 points? Grab your grooming kit and get to it! Do something that works for you! And if you really do want to grab a nap in the sun, I promise I won’t take any pictures of your tongue peeking out.
In my last post, I mentioned how Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be an extremely useful tool to have in your toolkit. (And If you haven’t already grabbed your copy of The 10-Minute Toolkit, where I give several quick exercises to help you find peace of mind, you can do so HERE.)
I explained how it works to calm your body’s flight, fight, or freeze response when you are facing a perceived threat. (And perceived is an important part of this scenario. Just because your amygdala thinks you’re in danger doesn’t mean you actually are in danger.) This post covers the actual process of Tapping.
So, what is Tapping? Tapping is a practice of gently tapping on specific acupressure meridian points while you work through a challenge you’re facing. Tapping is a multi-situation resource. It works equally well for physical pain, anger, insomnia, and a host of other situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis.
The process of Tapping starts with identifying your problem and assigning it a number from 0 – 10 on the Subjective Units of Distress (SUD) scale. So if you’re just a little worried, you might rate your SUDs at a three. If you’re heading for complete melt-down, you might register a nine or ten.
Once you’ve assigned your situation a number, you will begin the Tapping sequence. I’ve included a video below of Nick Ortner, author of The Tapping Solution”, as he gives a brief overview of the Tapping process. (It’s much easier to understand via a video rather than in text).
After you’ve done a few rounds of Tapping, do a check-in regarding your level of anxiety. Are you registering above a two or three on the SUD scale? If so, do a few more rounds, noticing any decrease in your physical tension. When you start to notice a decrease in negative emotion, you can switch to more positive statements as you repeat the tapping sequence. “I am becoming more trusting of my instructor”, “I’m calmer and looking forward to my ride”.
After you’ve gone through your positive statements a few times, check your SUD level one more time. You should have a significant reduction in your stress level.
Here are a few examples of “Setup Statements” for anxiety around horse-related situations.
Even though I’m frustrated that I have a hard time doing posting trot, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I’m scared of mounting, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I’m feeling angry that I can’t catch my horse, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Once you go through the process a few times, you’ll find it easier to come up with your own Setup Statements and Tapping phrases. Tapping can bring about positive results in as little as five or ten minutes, and it’s completely portable, making it especially useful at the barn.
Have you tried Tapping? How did it go for you? Do you have other stress-busting techniques you’d like to share? If so, please leave a comment below.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about mindfulness and self-awareness and given you some tools to explore. This week, I’m going one step further – possibly one step further into woo-woo land then you might be willing to go – but again, please give this a try before you just roll your eyes and give it a miss. The new tool? Tapping – also known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
Tapping was “discovered” in 1980 by Roger Callahan. Callahan, a psychologist, had some knowledge of acupuncture meridians. He discovered that tapping your fingers on different points of the meridian could have some pretty amazing results. (If you’d like to read some research on meridians, check out this paper on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website). The NIH also provides substantial research findings on Tapping being successfully used for health issues such as anxiety and depression. I know – woopty doo. What does this have to do with your Horsey Life? A lot my friend, a lot.
In this post and this post, I discuss some exercises you can do to de-stress from a long day before you head out to hang out with your horse. (I’ve been told that wine is also an option.) But what if you’re dealing with more than the “It’s been a long and crappy week and it’s only Monday” kind of stress? What if you’re dealing with genuine fear or other emotional roadblocks? Number one – I’ve been there, heck, everyone I know who’s involved with horses has been there at one time or another, so no self-recriminations allowed. Denying an emotion or feeling does not make it go away.
The elephant in the room
Honestly, fear isn’t that socially acceptable. There are lots of peppy phrases like, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, and, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” and a favorite: “FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real”. Yay. I’m sure those quotes and phrases made you feel 100% ready to tackle whatever you fear and get on with your life… or not.
While these lofty quotes can be inspiring, they’re missing a critical element: the HOW. How do you “Face the fear and do it anyway”? How do we convince ourselves that the fear we’re experiencing is just… the fear itself. (Awfully chicken and egg, if you ask me). What about the fear that you’re going to fall off? The fear you’re going to do something wrong with your horse? The fear that the vet bills are 250% more than you budgeted? Those are only feared because… we’re just afraid of fear??? I think not!
Let’s back up a step and have a quick biology lesson. Our fear responses were developed to save our butts long, long ago… (I really want to add, “in a galaxy far, far away”, but I’ll resist.) Saber-toothed tiger entering from the right? Run like hell to the left. Survival of the fittest was the day-to-day reality.
Fast forward a few millennia. Last time I checked, the only Saber-Toothed Tigers around now are just various collections of bones. Not very threatening. But in an effort to keep us safe, our amygdala takes any perceived threat and prepares your body for the running-like-hell part of the situation.
Perceived threat. “I’m going to be 5 minutes late to work” and “That ambulance was heading in the general direction of my house.” are the only things your poor amygdala has to work with these days, so it makes the most of what it’s got. Seemingly insignificant incidents can kick our good old reptile brain into overdrive. But having muscles prepare for flight, in part, by taking oxygen away from our fore-brain, usually doesn’t help our modern-day situations. Critical thinking skills go out the window, fill up the tank with cortisol, and boom – you’re a wreck.
Now instead of being late for work, substitute going for a ride on a windy day when your horse is a bit spooky. Or your instructor mentioning doing some jumping or riding in the big, open field this week. To lower your flight response and significantly improve your chances of having a lovely ride, you need a way to break that connection between the trigger (it’s windy) and the fear (I’m gonna die!). And Tapping, or EFT, is just the tool to do the job.
Next week, we’ll get into the actual tapping, and I’ll have some tapping meditations you can try for various situations. In the meantime, if you’d like an overview of the actual tapping process, check out THIS page and THIS page.
Questions or comments? Drop them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear from you! Prefer email? You’ll find me at email@example.com.
If you’ve read any of my posts or grabbed a free copy of my 10-Minute Toolkit, you know I’m all about awareness. (And if you haven’t gotten your 10-Minute Toolkit yet, you can do so HERE.)
Awareness means experiencing life as it happens. Too often we get caught up in our to-do list, the news, pressures at work, and now, stressing over the changes the coronavirus has wreaked in our lives. I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to go and feed my horses, do a brief health check, do fly spray, do fly masks, do their water and be on my way. The only trouble with all of this doing is that I’m often on autopilot.
Ever had one of those moments where you can’t remember if you shut off the stove before you left the house? That’s a classic example of “unawareness”. And to be honest, being “unaware” is like putting blinders on. We miss experiencing our life right now because we’re caught up in what we did, what we have to do, and when, where, and how we’re going to do it.
On the flip side, awareness can mean you notice birds singing when you wake up, how good food tastes, and just how much your horse loves having his belly scratched. Awareness at the barn translates into a more enjoyable time for you and your horse.
Awareness can take some practice, but the rewards you reap will add up exponentially, both in the barn and beyond. There are apps and alarms and reminders we can use (more on that in a later post), but there are plenty of low-tech/no-tech ways for you to become more aware of what’s going on in your Horsey Life.
Yup. I said it. Before you close your browser and carry on with your (unaware) day, hear me out. Meditation can be as simple as stopping and breathing in and out 2 or 3 times while paying attention to your breath. You don’t have to go to an ashram, sit in lotus position, or even do some fancy breathing exercise – just breathe normally and focus on where you feel your breath. In your nose, as you inhale? Does your chest rise and fall? Notice that and you’ve taken your first step toward becoming more aware.
To carry that exercise directly to your Horsey Life, stand next to your horse and watch him breathe. (If you’re in the habit of tracking his Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration (TPR), you’ll be able to do this easily. If not, there are a few ways to watch his breath, just as there are for watching your own breath. You can watch his nostrils, or you can watch his rib cage rise and fall. You don’t have to count anything (so no need to use your high-tech watch’s timer feature).
Once you’ve got this down, go a little deeper with your observation. Instead of just noticing when he breathes in and out, notice his expression, his ears, how he’s standing. Take in the whole picture. I find it helpful to look at my horses like I need to describe them to someone – size and color, sure, but also general temperament, favorite spot(s) to be scratched, and any goofy habits – like being a water hog, (more on that in another post).
So take a few breaths, head out to the barn, and pay special attention to your horse. You’ll both enjoy it.
To wrap up the series, I’m going to share the most important step – the 1 Step to Rule Them All.
This is the foundation on which all of your interactions with your horse should be built. Yes, your horse should respect your personal space, not barge through the gate, or squash you against the wall of his stall; but, again, this isn’t about him, it’s about you.
As we discussed earlier in this series, you need to learn to understand everything you can about your horse. Starting with the basics, like the fact that he’s a prey animal whose response to threat is flight. The fact that his eyes are set on the side of his head so he’s able to see nearly 360° in case a predator approaches from behind. That’s why a horse immediately puts his head up and slightly angled if he perceives a threat – it gives him a better field of view. (In case you didn’t know that, I figured I’d add that in here.)
Horses have evolved over millions of years as prey animals. Despite the fact that your horse has probably never had to run from a pack of wolves or a mountain lion, he’s programmed to run from any perceived threat.
A perceived threat to him might be a garbage can or flapping flag to you.
Because you understand that a garbage can is not a predator, it falls on you to understand and respect the fact that he’s not “being an idiot”, or “doing it on purpose”. Respect of your horse’s innate horsiness will make everyone’s life easier. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with him to help him understand that sometimes a garbage can is just a garbage can (sorry Freud), it does mean you shouldn’t punish him for a response developed eons ago.
On a side note – if you start to get tense when your horse does, he’ll sense that fear and be ready to get the hell out of Dodge at a moment’s notice. He doesn’t realize he’s the source of your fear, he just knows fear = run.
Learn as much as you can about your horse’s behavior, about horses’ behavior in general. Understand and respect the why behind the what. You owe it to your horse – and yourself.
Hope you’ve found the first 3 posts in this series helpful! Today’s step is:
To set the stage, let’s start with what “openness” is in this context.
In an article on PsychologyToday.com, Ingrid Clayton, Ph.D., states that to” be open” means the following:
“For starters, I think it means that we refrain from shutting down possibilities before they’ve had a chance to breathe… ‘No’ feels like a safe choice. There’s nothing to risk and I stay in my comfort zone.” Ingrid Clayton, Ph.D.
Sound familiar? Some examples in your Horsey Life might be:
You’ve always ridden hunt seat, but your friend suggests you try balanced seat or dressage to help improve your balance.
You typically buy one brand of fly spray or shampoo, but someone tells you about a brand you’ve never tried.
You’ve always ridden the same horse at your lesson barn and your instructor wants you to ride a different one
You always ride in a ring and a friend invites you on a trail ride
All of these scenarios offer some risk (as does getting out of bed in the morning)’ however, staying safe has its own risks – ie burnout or boredom – for you and your horse.
I’m definitely not suggesting that you should decide to go out cantering in a field if you’re not yet established enough in the canter for it to be safe, but there’s a difference between being safe and being stuck. Being safe is realizing that any activity with horses carries some inherent risk and preparing accordingly – i.e.wearing a helmet, not riding alone, letting someone know where you’re going when you go out on a trail ride, (and when you expect to be back). Staying stuck is letting the degree of risk escalate to the point where nothing new feels safe.
As humans, we’re evolutionarily programmed to avoid risk; running when a saber-toothed tiger approached was a matter of life and death. Fortunately, most experiences with horses don’t involve that level of risk. Taking small steps outside our comfort zones is how we grow, as a rider, and as a person.
The benefits of being open to new experiences don’t just affect you, they’re also beneficial to your horse. As a dressage rider/trainer/instructor, I understand the importance of geometry and precision. I know how to plot a perfect 20-meter circle, I know how to ride into corners and make transactions at the letter rather than somewhere in the vicinity of the letter. I also know drilling on the same thing day after day after day can be about as stimulating as watching grass grow. If you’ve ever watched (or scribed for) 32 Training Level rides, you know the depths of hell that unprepared riders can drag you into (a rant for a different post ;-).
If you’re bored stiff watching the rides, imagine how bored the horses are having to drill on them day in and day out. Your horse needs some variety in his work for both physical and mental health. Trail riding can offer fresh perspectives. Trying out a different discipline (i.e. hunt seat, saddle seat, stock seat), can be fun and help you learn how your position affects the horse.
Don’t let “no” become your default setting. View each new opportunity as a bridge to a broader experience. You don’t grow as a rider (or a human) by being afraid to cross the bridge into a new experience. It’s time to be open.