If horsemanship is a spiral of learning, the outermost ring would be figuring out how to safely handle horses, learning the physical aids of riding, and how to efficiently balance ourselves on a horse’s back.
Another turn of the spiral, and we learn how to make cues more subtle. We apply them with better balance, timing and feel.
After several revolutions of this spiral, though, is where many riders often get stuck, or plateau. One day, our horse becomes less responsive, and we give bigger cues. We feel stagnant. Or, we have a horse who defies every technique we know.
What ever the reason, the result is the same: at some point in our time with horses, we realize that what we know and what we are doing aren’t evolving the way we spend time with our horse.
However, there is a doorway within every horse. If we are quiet and still, that doorway become a portal through which we can reach the next turn of the spiral.
What is this doorway?
It is the opportunity to connect at a level that underpins the essence of who horses are, and who we are too. It is a tether to communicating at a level that is far older than language. Horses are masters at this language – as is most of nature. We are too, and it only takes a little practice to discover it.
This language, for me, more closely resembles how we feel when we listen to our favorite music, as opposed to when we need to figure out a problem at work.
One way to begin to practice strengthening this sense, is by the use of the thought (and/or intention) of “we.”
When a rider gives a physical cue, and the horse responds, that is a fairly surface way of communicating. It is what is sometimes referred to as “conditioned response.” We give a physical cue, and through systematic training, the horse executes the desired action.
The good stuff, the grit and substance of working with horses, however, spirals much further down.
We are talking about exploring the movement beginning on the inside of us. We are walking, we are trotting; coupled with feeling the rhythm of the gait. Our intention is the bridge to the inside of the horse.
Now the sequence would be: visualizing and feeling “we are trotting,” before we offer the physical cue of a leg.
This change of intention is essentially like using a turn signal to let other drivers know where you are going. Since riding (like driving) can be a non-verbal activity, we have developed signals to let the horse (other drivers) around us know what we intend to do.
Our change of intention does two things.
One, it lets the horse know, before we apply a physical aid, what we would like to do.
Two (and, I feel, more importantly), it creates a sense of togetherness. It’s no longer us doing something to the horse (squeeze of leg, lift of rein, etc), but rather we are now doing the same thing, at the same time.
If we ride using only physical cues (and by the way, this is not a bad thing), horses will operate that way. If we ride seeking to use more subtle aids (such as the change of intention/thought, the use of breath), they will go that way too. The art of horsemanship lies not only in subtlety, but also within the heart and minds of both participants.
The art of horsemanship is a combination of the person’s and the horse’s spiral of learning. There is the potential for the horse’s spiral, and ours, to combine. Oddly enough (or perhaps not), this appears elsewhere in nature, as a DNA helix. I thought it a useful image for what happens when we combine our talents with those of our horse.
Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the power of combined talents, along with the power of potential, from our horse Rusty.
Soon after he was dropped off at our place, we could tell that there was more going on than standard fatigue. Over the next several months, he was aloof, couldn’t be caught, and when he was, submitted to our care or being ridden with an air of defensive resignation that was painful to witness.
After we had traveled with him for a year (during which we had helped him feel better physically by balancing his feet, body and teeth), we turned him out on a 35 acre pasture for the winter. We were hopeful that a human-free, six month rest would recharge him.
It turned out that he had eight months off, before Mark and I loaded him up and hauled him to a series of clinics in California. He was less worried, and catching him was easier, but he still didn’t interact with us much.
Because he was having trouble keeping weight on, I started hanging a hay net in front of him while he was standing tied throughout the day. I found a feed he really liked, and started mixing herbs and supplements that would help his stomach. I noticed he was pretty thin skinned and sensitive to grooming, so I only used rubber currys and soft brushes on him. At first, his work day was about half an hour of riding, with a whole lot of eating. As the weeks went by, our saddle time and his eating time balanced out.
At our last clinic in California, his eyes were bright, and his ears forward. His muzzle, once jammed up and wrinkled, had softened and relaxed.
We were getting to know one another. A horse who I, at first, sought to help because it seemed like he needed it, was quickly becoming a good friend.
Up to this point, we had been working on him being able to carry himself with his head down, and doing a relaxed walk and trot. I had also been asking him to respond to the internal cues I was offering, instead of having to use a lot of leg or rein cues. He was opening up, and our time together was not only easy, but peaceful. I had a sense that Rusty was almost ready to show me who he was. Almost.
On the last day of the clinic, Rusty was feeling settled at the halt, walk and trot. Once we were in the trot, I thought about cantering with him, and offered a change of rhythm in myself first (going from the two beat of a trot, to the three beat of the canter). He tensed a little bit at this, and rushed through his trot. I breathed more deeply and switched from a sitting trot to a relaxed posting trot. We did this for another lap, and I asked for the three beat again, this time using a bigger exhale, and a tiny bit of leg against his side. He rolled into an easy canter, with the kind of energy that makes a lap around an arena a short trip. He never got faster, but the canter got more powerful. It was as though he had rediscovered how to use his body. It even felt like he was enjoying it.
We cantered for another couple of laps before we changed to the four beat of a walk. When we stopped, although he was breathing hard, he was quiet and there wasn’t much pressure on the reins.
I dismounted, patted him on the neck, then sat down so we could both digest what just happened. When I was seated, Rusty walked slowly over to me, and stood napping with his head over my lap.
As I sat with the sun warming my back, it hadn’t escaped me that I needed the help too. And like good friends do, Rusty had offered his help. He had shown me what it is like to break through an internal barrier – and what life felt like when once unburdened by the drag of past hardships.
We walk, we trot we canter. We can focus on the doing-ness (walk, trot canter, etc), or we can focus on the we-ness.
Either way, our horses will do just about anything we ask – their nature allows for this. But a horse doing something with just their bodies is a far cry from a horse doing something from their heart.
The same could be said of us.
I see Mark’s face, telling me to wake up. The ground is warm and so is the air, and I wonder how it was that I went to sleep last night and woke up fully dressed in the middle of the afternoon. On the ground.
I ask what happened, and am told that my horse, Bree, flipped over backward and landed on me, crushing my right leg underneath her, and then stepping on my right thigh in her panic to get up.
After that, the memories are snapshots: I’m in our truck, being driven to the hospital. I’m sitting up in the back seat because lying down makes me nauseated. I’m looking at email on my phone, making sure I know the names of the people I see, making sure I can still read.
At the hospital and after the drugs, I’m in and out of consciousness. I know Mark is with me. I know when I am being scanned, because the tables are cold and hard. At one point I start crying and shaking. I’m offered a blanket, but I know this is the shock finally coming home to roost. The shaking and trembling ebb and flow, then disappear.
Snapshot: a young male doctor telling me I have a small bleed in my brain and I’m staying over night in the hospital. Then a sedative through my IV line knocks me out again.
Once out of the hospital, it’s three months before I can walk without a cane. It’s another year before the pain in my right thigh has receded to a manageable level. Two-and-a-half years later, I’m physically stabilized and used to the quirks of my right leg which – thanks to localized nerve damage – occasionally goes rogue.
Although I was able to move almost immediately after getting out of the hospital (often getting up in the middle of the night to pace back and forth), sustained movement – the kind that made me breathe deeply – wasn’t possible for months.
During those months, I knew what I needed to do. But knowing what you need to do, and being able (and even more difficult, willing) to do it are two different beasts. If I wanted to ride again, my commitment to healing had to be at least as great as my commitment to horses.
Since my accident, I’ve discovered that the way I get back to feeling less fearful of horses, is to do most of the work away from horses. In the months after the accident, it became clear to me that the paradox of loving horses since I was in diapers, while simultaneously feeling a fear around them that bordered on overwhelming, was one I couldn’t navigate by myself. My days of rabid independence were over.
Living with paradox is not something we are good at. Horses absolutely don’t tolerate it, and are far more honest in their expression of this intolerance than we are. One of the many lessons I am grateful to have learned from horses is just this: either do one thing or do the other.
If I wanted to feel afraid and avoid the work that would alleviate that, then I needed to choose that.
However, if I wanted to reduce the feelings of fear and find out how far down the road to confidence I could get, I could do that too.
But not both.
So I chose to see if I could get close to confidence again. No healing modality was ruled out. Acupuncture, Craniosacral, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, massage therapy, Reiki, castor oil packs, lasers, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, essential oils, physical therapy, loving and generous support from family and friends, swimming, regular check-in’s with my doctor, diet and supplementation were all on my play list. This exploration was integral to regaining function of my right leg, as well as in helping my brain heal.
Six months later in physical therapy, jogging slowly on a treadmill for the first time, I realized I had more work to do when intense fear washed over me, and I started shaking. I grabbed the handrails at the side, the sweat of my palms slicking the metal, and kept jogging. I breathed as best I could. After several minutes, I felt calmer than I had in months.
After that, I walked briskly or ran every day. It was never very far, but I could wring out enough speed to make it effective. The movement reset my breathing. It shifted from shallow and fast to deep and regular. For hours afterward, I felt calm and internally balanced.
Before this accident, I had come off of horses. A lot. The first thing I always did was get right back on and ride through it. Except, it turns out, I was never “through it.” Years later, this accident broke the dam I’d built against fear. The resulting flood changed my interior landscape, and I had to figure out how to channel the water, rather than fight to dam it up. My old strategies weren’t going to work, which meant that I had to.
Movement, and deep breathing, turned out to be a life raft that buoyed me during the flood. All the other therapies I pursued were arrayed around moving and breathing.
Let me say at this point that I don’t believe everyone has to follow the same map, since there are many many ways to heal. What I am suggesting, and what I’ve learned is that if you observe a few basic principles, you will, at the very least, feel better.
It’s a simple recipe, but certainly not an easy one. Moving after we heal from being hurt, and digging around in the dark corners of our own mind is not the definition of fun, but it has a payoff that will surprise you with its richness.
I like to think of it this way. Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: it needs work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble.”
We could replace “a creative mind” with “a fearful mind” and still have an accurate metaphor. I’ve learned the hard way that if we don’t look at fear, and have a plan to address it, it will cause an outrageous amount of trouble. The trouble fear creates is sneaky, a chameleon. It shows up as impatience (with other people, for example, and certainly with ourselves), it shows up as despondence, it shows up as giving up easily. It changes color as it makes its way from inside of you into the world, and is as varied as each of us are.
While we may think we are suffering from too much fear, what we are in fact suffering from, is an inability to channel it. We are afraid of fear itself, preferring to shove it under the cognitive rug, and hope that it goes away. This isn’t a character flaw – it’s an evolutionary design that has kept humans alive for millennia.
If we don’t give our fear a job, if we can’t find ways to engage its message to remain safe and alive, it will run wild in our inner house like a bored border collie. Fear will exercise itself, and anyone who’s experienced this knows that’s not good news.
The inherent vitality of movement and using your body in different ways (hence the transformative power of yoga, qi gong, dancing, etc), is a cornerstone to reducing anxiety and fear. If you doubt this, I invite you to do an experiment. The next time you feel afraid, or anxious, as soon as you can, walk. Go up and down stairs. Jump rope (personally, I haven’t done this since I was a kid, but I’m thinking it’s time to change that). Lift weights. Wave your arms. Do a dance. Something! Move in some way, for as long as you need to, and then see how you feel.
Movement is vital to feeling alive and experiencing ourselves in new ways. Ways that anchor and reconnect us not only to ourselves, but to all of life.
With some movement and deep breathing, along with help from skilled and compassionate people, it’s possible to start feeling better. One of those compassionate people, by the way, is yourself. Because, after all, we aren’t broken vessels to be repaired, but rather treasure maps to be explored.
I believe breathing is magical.
Because it’s the only bodily function that can either run on its own, or we can consciously influence it. If we don’t pay attention to the breath when we are anxious, it will often keep us in a place of feeling afraid and overwhelmed.
If we’re thoughtful, and focus on the quality of breath (inhalations and exhalations) that is long, slow and deep, we can help ourselves feel (and be) calmer. Slower. Less frantic.
Although we can’t feel it, slow and deep breathing facilitates the movement of our internal organs. When we breathe deeply, our diaphragm (the muscular partition that separates our hearts and lungs from our stomach and guts) rises and falls. As it rises and falls, it either creates space, or fills space. Since we have organs both above and below this space, those organs move to accommodate the diaphragm’s movement.
If you’ve watched the ocean, you’ll notice that the waves roll in and out at a certain rhythm. This rhythm may alter if there’s been a storm (or a storm is on the way), but the waves always come in and go out again. Every minute, every day, every week, every month. Waves rise and fall, advance and retreat. If we quiet our minds and bring our attention to the water’s pattern, we might find that our breathing gradually synchronizes with the rhythm of the waves.
Here’s more magic: you don’t need to go to the ocean to feel as though you’re on the beach. A breath that first expands your ribcage, and then fills your chest, has the potential to induce the same sense of calm. (Here’s where you’re thinking I might mention those colorful umbrella drinks, aren’t you?) When your internal organs are moving, when your diaphragm is doing it’s job of rising and falling like ocean swells, your body will relax. You will feel less anxious, and your thoughts will slow down.
Let’s try this: put your right hand under your collar bones and your left hand over the bottom left of your ribcage.
Take a breath. Which hand moved? Did your right hand rise and fall and your left hand remain still? If so, the way you are breathing is the way you breathe when you’re close to or in an anxiety / fear state. By extension, this means that when you go out to your horse where fear and/or anxiety may arise, it’s going to feel more intense because your body has been set up for tension by this breathing pattern.
Now move your right hand down so it is opposite your left, bracketing your ribcage. Can you breathe deeply enough to cause both hands to move? This is the type of breathing that sets us up to feel calmer and more relaxed. It’s the way we need to breathe most of the day, because when we get to our horse (where we are going to feel more nervous), we want to give our body a way to turn off the alarm system. Breathing slowly and deeply is key to this.
Another way to think about breathing effectively, is filling your lungs with air the way you would fill a glass with water. When we pour water into the glass, it doesn’t start at the top and hover there. It flows to the bottom of the glass and fills up to the top. So it is with air and our lungs: we are designed so that the air goes to the bottom first (ribcage breaths), and inflates our chest last.
Feeling better in general is great motivation to become more mindful about how you breathe. Another highly motivating reason is that for horses, the holding of their breath signals their body to go into alarm. This is so the other senses (smell, hearing and sight) can all be intensified, to let them know if there is danger or not. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer my horse to feel as though we are walking in a park, not being chased by lions.
What kind of effect must it have on them, when we show up and we aren’t breathing? I have seen countless times that even quiet horses will startle easier and move with tension if the person around or on them isn’t breathing deeply. Conversely, I have also seen how reclaiming our innately nourishing deep breath can also help a horse calm down.
Breathing is free. You can do it anytime, anywhere, and almost no one will notice. There’s nothing to sign up for, no equipment to buy, and it won’t make you more susceptible to spam, internet viruses or phishing scams. The benefits are far reaching, and no matter how many times you forget it to do it, you can always reconnect and breathe more deeply, right now. Your nervous system, and your horse, will thank you.
Below is a link to Donna Farhi’s website and her excellent book on breathing. There are other good books too, if you care to search around.
In the next blog we will chat about movement. When movement is coupled with breathing deeply, it can help you process and release a tremendous amount of fear.
Until then, as an experiment, pick a day. It doesn’t matter which one (though I am a big fan of the day we have staring us in the face), and explore how much breathing you can do.
You might be surprised. Who knows? It might possibly even be magical.
It’s raining today. Clouds mumble thunder, but it looks like they also have snow on their mind. It is, in other words, a perfect day for writing.
Writing, to my surprise, is rubbing elbows with fear this morning. The act of dissecting fear and regaining the confidence to ride ignites the same sensations of cold hands, shallow breathing, and a brick wall of procrastination that has lasted half the morning.
It used to be the same with riding. A sunny warm day would appear. As soon as the thought about going for a ride became conscious, my hands got cold, my breathing sped up and I would find reasons to not get out with my horse.
In this next series of blogs, we will be taking a comprehensive look at how to navigate your way through the maze of trauma and fear after a horse accident. We will thread together brain anatomy, breathing, movement, and different therapies you might find helpful.
I am not a therapist, but after being asked by many horse people about feeling good about riding after a horse accident, it became clear that outlining the process I’ve gone through may be helpful. While not all the answers are here, and some may not fit for you, my hope is that the information will provide the spark you need to start finding your own way back to riding with joy.
Moving toward confidence from fear with horses is about a lot of help. It’s also letting go of any notion that this is an A to B, straight-line, beginning-middle-end process. Most of life’s trips are like driving in the dark: we can only see as far as the high beams shine. And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes the high beams don’t work. Perhaps we only have the fog lights to guide us.
Healing from a horse related trauma, and regaining confidence, is like a maze. With the fog lights on. In this maze, we can only see a short distance in front of us, and the map is created by the very act of finding our way out. We can get curious and keep following the threads, away from the terror and fear Minotaur, or we can stay where we are. The choice is ours.
Often in this journey, either the brain or the body is ignored. However, when they are woven together and given equal importance and focus, that is the alchemical transformation of leaden fear into the gold of confidence. Books and exercises, along with confidence building clinics are all extremely helpful. However, if they aren’t including the combination of body and brain, it’s been my experience that we are only going to progress so far in our way to riding with less fear.
I say less fear, and not fearless because it is clear to me that after an accident, there remains a bit of fear when we do decide to ride again. We will chat more about this later, and how fear and riding do not cancel each other out.
For now, let’s take a look at the first part of our map, which is the human brain.
One theory that has been helpful for me is the Triune Brain theory.
It’s largely not used by brain professionals, but I have found in it an elegant simplicity to explain why thinking your way out of trauma is often unsuccessful. Peter Levine, psychologist and founder of Somatic Experiencing work, refers to this theory, so I would like to share it here.
It’s based on the idea that the brain evolved in three different stages.
The first and oldest part of the brain is called the Reptilian brain, and is mostly concerned with basic functions such as regulation of heartbeat and breathing, as well as the fight or flight states.
The Paleomammalian (or Limbic) brain evolved next, and is also home to the limbic system. The functions of this system arose early in mammal’s evolution and are responsible not only for emotion, but the motivation to reproduce and raise offspring.
The last part of our brains to evolve, this theory suggests, is the Neomammalian (or Neocortex). This is where more advanced functions such as planning, impulse control, abstraction and perception reside.
Here’s the key: we cannot use one part of our brains (the Neocortex, the newly evolved brain) to talk, reason, plan or manipulate another part (the reptilian brain, the oldest in our evolution) out of fear and terror. It’s almost as though the brain is Europe. One continent, different languages.
I have a question for you: when you remember a horse accident, does your breathing stay long slow and deep, or does it get shallow? Stop? Does your heart rate increase? All of these things are your survival systems coming online. The brain cannot tell the difference between something actually happening, and something that you are remembering or visualizing happening. Once the brain goes on alert, the body is quick to follow.
This is what I mean about one part of the brain not convincing the other part. When there is a choice between survival and thinking, survival will win. And much like horses, if we are fearful we cannot be curious, and curiosity will help fear dissipate.
Our brains and bodies are intimately connected, woven together of gazillions of parts, big and small, to form this one unique expression of a human being.
And this amazing brain (and it’s partner the body) can be both the screwdriver, and the loose screw.
I raise my hand first when it comes to admitting there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know, is the most unhelpful thing you can do to try and resolve the fear you are feeling as a result of a horse accident, is sit on a horse, with your racing heart and your Lamaze panting breathing, and try to reason your way out of fear.
It’s the easiest way I know to feel like a failure, feel weak and cowardly and give credence to those internal voices that snicker “you’ll never ride again.”
It doesn’t work – I wish I could tell you it did. In Part Two, we will be chatting about what does work.
We will next take a look at the power of breathing coupled with movement. If you’d like to nose around on Peter Levine’s website (click on his name earlier in the article), you’ll find some pretty useful information there. And you’ll be ahead of the game, once we get into the next section of mapping our way out of the maze.