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Learning From the Horse - March 19

Where is your mind right now? 

Are you present as you read this?  Are you still and focused, are you experiencing this moment? Or are you skim reading as you plan what you need to do later?
Are you thinking about tomorrow? Are you thinking about last week? Did your phone just buzz and distract you? 

The practice of mindfulness – described by Professor Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre – is living in your body and not your head – waking to the sights sound smells and tastes of the present moment – experiencing and being aware of your senses as they process information.

Meditation to centre and reconnect with yourself, to experience the world moment by moment, is a concept which has been around since the 5th century, practised most notedly by Buddhist monks but also replicated in many other cultures. More recently, in the last 10 years, practicing mindfulness, which is what meditation seeks to achieve, has become a buzzword for coping with the anxiety of modern life.  Even the NHS website now has a page on mindfulness, siting it as an important tool to improve mental wellbeing.

Picture yourself as a caveman, your primary focus is survival.  Your food must be caught or foraged for.  Life is dangerous, the natural environment and the creatures within it could cause your demise at any moment. You must produce as many children as possible to give a higher percentage chance of the survival of your species. You have to have your wits about you. Life is immediate, and without that focus on the immediate, early man would surely not have survived and flourished to become the super species we are today. You could sigh gratefully, life is so much easier now.

But modern man is not without his struggle.  The immediacy our internet culture demands causes us to feel constant pressure.  Men and Women feel pressure to be strong, to be good, to be right, to achieve so much, and don’t forget to look good doing it, and don’t forget to make it look easy too. We torture ourselves with thoughts of the past, we occupy ourselves with thoughts of the future. We lose connection with ourselves in the desperation we feel to connect to others and present a certain image of ourselves.

And what of the horse? Have you ever noticed how your horse behaves with you when you are preoccupied? Have you ever come away from a ride or a session with your horse where you have felt frustrated at both your performances, and concluded it was because you had “something on your mind”?

Horses only have now. They have memories, they have immediate desires, but they don’t spend hours mulling over that conversation they had last week. They don’t worry about what you might think of them. They don’t create convoluted expectations for themselves, or for you.

In any given situation they will respond with fight or flight.  Their behaviour rationales are very simple, will it hurt me, has it hurt me before, can I run away from it?  In a split second they deem a situation safe enough to stay, or dangerous enough to act.  Action burns energy, so must only be taken if necessary. Their desires are as simple as companionship (safer in a herd), safety (is where I am right now safe), and sustenance (I must consume fibre, and for domestic horse, I must secure food from this human).

Those drivers don’t leave a whole lot of room for working nicely in the arena, being ridden, being given a task which is only for our human benefit. So how on earth can we implore them to meet our needs and succumb to our whims?  Their inherent generosity can only go so far, so how can we tap in to their desires?

It is a given that you are going to feed them, but how can we ensure they understand that life is safer with us, are we creating the safe place they need, and the companionship that makes them feel ultimately secure?

By being in the moment with them. 

You cant convince your horse you are keeping them safe if your face is in your phone and your brain is thinking about last week, or next week, because all they have is the now.

When your mind drifts on a hack and your horse flirts sideways because a pheasant flies up from the hedge, you are dragged back into the moment.  When I am working with the feet of a nervous horse, trying to make it feel safe, not rush it, keep myself safe, give it the patience it needs, I cannot have my head or my body anywhere else. I am as present as I get.

When people talk about equine therapy you automatically think of a counsellor and a kind horse and a person with problems.  But what if, merely by your interactions with horses, you are practicing mindfulness and, as the NHS suggests, improving your own mental health?

Here’s to now, and the animals who give us a chance to be there.