What is it about horses that we find so compelling? What do horses have to offer us that is unique and healing?
Interacting with horses creates an environment which is sensory rich, non-verbal and present centered. Engagement with a horse is a mindful, right brain activity which allows for the exploration of feelings and emotions in the moment in an a grounded, truth based experience. Being in the presence of a horse encourages people to focus on mindfulness, self-awareness, and connection to relationships and the natural world. The horse offers no judgment about who we are, what we have experienced, or what we are feeling.
Equine Facilitated Mindfulness
Horses are highly sensitive animals who naturally intuit the emotional states of those around them. In the wild, horses live in tight knit social groups called herds, and for their survival they depend on their ability to attune with their herd mates’ emotional and energetic states as they continually scan their environment for danger. Horses do this by effortlessly tuning in to tiny and subtle changes in body posture, muscle tone and tension, breathing and heart rates, energy levels and shifts in attention. This instinctive ability to recognize and synchronize emotional reactions makes it possible for horses to relate to humans on a level which is often surprising and revealing. Horses live and relate to others completely in the present. They are not capable of dwelling on the past or feeling anxiety about their future. They are therefore the ideal model and mentor for those who wish to be mindful and self-aware, as horses continually call us back to the present moment as they engage with us. A person who mentally drifts into thoughts about the past or future will lose the connection and attunement of the horse, whose body language will clearly and undeniably express the disconnection.
Staying present involves all of our senses. Just like the horse, we can use tuning into our sensory systems to achieve self-awareness and increase our ability to be mindful. A careful body scan allows us to feel the different sensations of living in our bodies, helping us to focus on how we feel in each given moment. As we become accustomed to the sensations and physical feelings of our bodies it will be easier to begin identifying changes in sensation patterns which may hold special or important messages for us. For example we will more easily recognize a tight jaw as a sign of stress. As we learn about our bodies and our breath we can use loving-kindness to appreciate all our bodies do for us, regardless of physical health or strength. During a body scan we can acknowledge that we are complete. There is nothing about us that needs to change or be different in any way. We only want to notice how we feel.
We can use our sensory systems to explore outside of our bodies as well, which will also lead us toward a more present centered life. Horses naturally engage in constant sensory exploration of the world around them and respond to sensory stimuli with full attention in each moment. Warm sun on their broad backs will fully engage them in a peaceful, dozing sunbath, focusing on nothing but the pleasurable sensation of warmth and the solid earth beneath their feet. But the moment a herd mate alerts to an unknown rustling in near-by bushes the sun bath is OVER and full attention is focused through all the senses; sight, sound, smell and the delicate feel of energy, to determine the level of threat and the need to flee. If the stimulus is deemed harmless, a return to sun bathing will commence with no lingering anxiety. This cycle of moment to moment awareness of the environment frees the horse from worry, second guessing, regret or self-doubt.
How is it possible that horses are not plagued by the human experiences of worry, regret, and self-doubt? Horses are blessed with a highly developed right hemisphere of their brain which has no words or verbal language. As humans we carry around inside our heads a “self” which is separate and distinct from all other “selves.” This self is full of verbal language and is talking to us all the time! We experience this running self-monologue almost non-stop as our left brain processes and interprets our daily life experience and judges it against our history, expectations, fears and dreams. Horses have only deep silence in their heads free of any words whatsoever. Allan Hamilton, M.D., author of Zen Horse, Zen Mind writes, “The reason the horse can become such a gifted teacher for us is because he does not need an inner voice. He doesn’t think in words at all. He feels. He experiences the simple energy of his emotional state of being.” A mindful meditation activity with horses can be a path by which we learn to quiet our left brain and honor and engage the deep wisdom of our wordless right brain. We can begin to experience what our right brain has to offer us: contact with pure emotion, present sensation, intuition, and most importantly connection with the rhythms of life all around us and within us. As much as our left brain creates the “me,” the right brain connects us to the eternal energy of being, creating access to the “we” of our relationship to everything and everyone around us. Without the interference of words the illusion of separateness falls away and we are left to discover that in every moment we are everything and we have everything. Horses effortlessly know this all the time. Gaze deeply into the huge brown eyes of a horse. She will connect with you and connect to you all that there is in this moment.