Despite several big worries that have been gnawing their way through my psyche today, that hot bath feeling of peace visited me. A part of my brain, the part that seems to ignite with anxiety at the smallest spark, jumped up and said, “What’s that?!”
“What’s what?” I answered myself.
“That feeling! What is it? Should we do something about it?”
I realized as we drove to the barn to check on our horses and do the day’s chores, that the feeling that had my anxiety brain so excited was the feeling of calm. Contentment. Peace.
It’s funny to realize that sometimes we worry about not being worried. I mean, even if our lives are in order, what is going on in our world can be a source of daily worry. Especially these crazy days.
The other funny thing is that I think we sometimes do this with horses. We will be working with them, or riding along, noticing the sounds of their hooves on the earth or how they prick their ears forward and sideways and forward again and all of a sudden we think,
“What was that?!”
“Did she just lean to the left? Is her shoulder falling to the inside?”
I don’t know if this is judgement or a busy brain or our fear of feeling peaceful – like who are we to feel that way when there is so much going on, and so much is wrong in the world? All of a sudden, that misstep or moment of unbalance on our horse’s part throws us out of feeling something straight into a judgement that we can’t have that. No, can’t have the misstep, the tug on the reins, the shortening of a stride. Before we know it we can get caught up in chasing the problem instead of being part of a solution.
Whatever the origin is, I know that riding with a brain that is assessing, planning and judging is a sure way to feeling dissatisfied. We miss half of the experience of being with our horses when we ride with only our brains engaged.
Thinking is what brains are designed to do. Judging stands at the other end of the spectrum of thinking. As Carl Jung says, “Thinking is difficult. That’s why people judge.” As we get older, it’s easier to dismiss the body as a means to carrying the magnificent brain around. During the course of a day, I find it far easier to clutch onto judgment like a jelly doughnut after eating a salad: we know the salad is better for us but oh, is that doughnut a heavenly rush or what?
Go to any horse show or clinic, and if you sit amongst a crowd of people, you’ll likely hear murmurings and sighs and the certainty of voices that tells us that the speaker in the bleachers knows more than the horse and rider in the arena.
I’d like to say that the ability to judge, assess or discern is a normal evolutionary gift that got us where we are today; without the ability to remember life-threatening events and make a snap judgement if they arise again, humans would have died out a long time ago. Besides our brains, we have nothing to compete with in the animal kingdom. Strip us down to a pair of shorts and a tank top and we can’t run very far, can’t keep warm or stay cool without the help of either fire or a shade tree, can’t defend ourselves with teeth, speed, claws or antlers.
Judgement, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s when we use it to blanket ourselves from life that it can get in the way. Judgement as a defense against anything we find threatening is probably natural, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. Tornadoes are natural too.
One of the thousands of reasons so many of us find being around animals restful is because they don’t judge us. The accept us as we are in any given moment. Being around horses, especially horses who are in a calm and restful state, can bring us to their level. If we allow our brains to slow down along with our heart rate, we can begin to inhabit a place of relaxed alertness that is so effective when working with our horse.
Anytime our mind tightens, our body will follow. In fact, I often wonder what happens first: did our horse’s body become momentarily unbalanced and then we felt that and our brain jumped into the fray? Whatever the order of events, a tense mind and body won’t yield relaxation in our horse, whether we are on the ground or riding. The art of being with horses is the ability to maintain as much relaxation in ourselves as possible no matter what our horse is up to. Hence the popularity of breathing, and weaving other body awareness disciplines into horsemanship.
As those practices teach us more about mindfulness, the power of deep breathing, and ourselves, we can access those feelings when we are with our horses. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve practiced the work of Byron Katie (who has a very interesting process for dealing with judgements), breathwork and meditation, Buddhism, improved my diet, explored the martial art of Aikido, and increased my exercise. All of these avenues have helped not only lower my overall anxiety, but given me constructive ways to deal with the judgement voice that crops up in my head. As this voice has calmed down, I find I can hear horses at a level I couldn’t before. I feel centered and able to be a better instructor as well as live with myself and others with more ease.
I’ve come to realize that we are evolving from our heads into our bodies. From there it’s a natural step into our hearts. From brains to bodies to feelings, I believe we are growing in a way that lets us understand horses and ourselves without the thick veil of judgement. That particular veil can cloud a rich and nourishing experience of life. Connecting this triune places us in our centers. Judgement quiets down, and peace finds us more often.