Hunkering Down with the Horses

Dartagnan in the snowThe wind came rolling down the canyon, rustling the pines and then spreading out along the flattened area where the horses would normally be grazing. We had been told a big snow storm was coming, perhaps even a blizzard. I had put hay in the two barns, hoping to encourage the horses to seek shelter in either one. Instead, I watched as the horses moved in a way that looked like they had been assigned places in the pasture. As if choreographed by some voice I could not hear, they turned their hindquarters to the wind. Then, they dropped their heads low, almost reaching the ground. They stood close enough to be companionable but not in a way that any of them touched each other. Then, they waited. There was no anxiety among them. No frantic whinnying. No white-eyed fear. They knew, deep in their bones, what to do. Turn away from the storm, drop their heads to protect their eyes and ears and noses from the wind and snow, and wait it out. The horses knew the storm would end.

I have learned many things from horses during my 20 years of researching the horse-human relationship from within Indigenous worldview, and I will be sharing many of them on this blog. One of the most important things I have learned is to listen to the horses. Listening doesn’t mean just with the ears. It means listening to their entire being, to their herd, to the way they interact with life without projecting anything onto it. I have seen horses react in stressful situations such as evacuating from a wildfire. I have seen them need to be removed from fencing in which they have gotten tangled. I have seen them give birth, and I have seen them die. They have lessons they can teach us for this time of pandemic. The one I write about today is to be quiet, go inward, and know that the storm will end.

Mustangs, horses of the Land, were especially made to weather storms. Their tails have a very low set, which allows it to cover the space between their back legs, keeping them warm. They have smaller ears, meaning there is less surface area to allow heat to escape. They grow thick coats that catch snow and ice on the ends of their fur and keeps their skin warm and dry. These are the tools they have, and they use them successfully because where they live, there are no barns and rarely any trees under which to shelter.

The horses teach us how we can weather the COVID19 storm. The biggest thing they are teaching us, a lesson that many people still are having a hard time listening to, is to hunker down and wait it out. Not to panic but to do the things we know we need to do until the storm is over. The horses don’t see storms as a disruption to their lives. They recognize that storms are a part of life. Illness is a part of our lives. It always has been. We have become complacent due to modern medicine but COVID19 is a wake-up call. We now have the opportunity to adjust our lives when this storm passes so that we learn how to live with and survive the storms of illness.

We have the ability to weather this storm because we can stay in our homes until this storm is over. We can work from home or we can take this time and do the things we always say we are too busy to do. We can read, exercise, talk to friends and family via the Internet, write poetry, learn a musical instrument, and the list goes on. If we are essential and must work outside the home, then we can come back to it as the safe haven that it is. We have the tools to hunker down. We simply need to recognize them and use them.

When the horses hunkered down for that storm in their pasture, they didn’t know how bad it would be or when it would end. They simply knew that no matter how bad it got, it would end. While we know that this pandemic will become a severe storm, a blizzard, we also know that it will end. And when it does, we will be changed, individually and as a herd. What we do with that change is up to us. Hopefully, we will learn from the horses so that we will be prepared for other storms.

 

Fear vs. Anxiety

Sooner or later, it happens.  Maybe you are at the barn and others are about to mount up and ride, or you have been invited by your horse friends to go ride at a clinic or on a trail ride.  You give excuse after excuse so that you don’t have to ride never admitting the real reason.  But you know the truth:  You are afraid to ride.  Perhaps you had a bad fall from your horse or you saw a bad horse accident.  Maybe the fear seems to have come out of nowhere.  All you know is that instead of happily getting on your horse and riding, the voice of fear is speaking to you, and you just want it to be quiet and go away.

fear_dawn_hill_adams_drawingFor many years, individuals have carried around their fear of riding as a dreaded secret in the horse world.  People do not want to admit that they are afraid, whether it is in front of their trainer, their fellow boarders, or their riding friends.  The horse community has a bad reputation for being judgmental of riders who have fear of riding.  The old adage after a fall has always been “get back on the horse so you won’t be afraid next time.”  The truth, though, is that even if a rider does get right back on, she can still experience fear the next time or sometime in the future.  Some riders feel ashamed of their fear because it seems to arise out of thin air.

Riding fear does have a cause, even if you can’t immediately figure it out.  The first thing to determine is if your fear is reality-based or if it is anxiety.  It may all feel the same, but there is a very important difference between the two.  Fear is actually an emotion that benefits us.  When your body senses danger, it engages in physiological responses that help us to take actions for our own safety.  We feel these responses as “butterflies” in our stomach and other sensations.  If you are a beginner rider with an 18-hand, 4-year-old horse who has only had two rides, your fear might be telling you that riding that horse is actually not such a good idea.  This kind of fear is worth taking the time to reflect on and decide if it is telling us ways to stay safe.  If you are a beginner rider with a 14-hand, 20-year-old ex-lesson horse, you may be experiencing anxiety, which is fear that is inappropriate to the situation.

The way to tell the difference between fear and anxiety is to assess the situation.  Really step back and be honest with yourself.  Some questions to consider are:

  1. What is my riding level and what level does this horse require?
  2. How well trained is this horse?
  3. Do I have any physical ailments that might impact my riding?

It is all right, no matter your age or riding level, to decide not to ride a certain horse.  Riding should be fun and safe.  Being honest with yourself and asking important questions like the ones above can keep you safe.  It can also allow you to have fun riding instead of experiencing fear and anxiety.

Next time, we’ll continue our exploration into anxiety and how it impacts our ability to enjoy our horses.  Remember, you can always order my Ride Without Fear DVD or attend a Ride Without Fear Clinic to learn more.

 

 

Cheyenne, Wyoming Clinic on Horse Biomechanics

We have our first scheduled clinic for 2015.  Join Dawn and I in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Friday, June 12 for The Science of Riding with Feel:  Horse Biomechanics Clinic.  The clinic is at a private facility and will run from 9 am to 5 pm.  It begins with a one-hour seminar about horse biomechanics.  The riding portion of the clinic follows.  As of this writing, there is only ONE riding slot left available so register now to grab it!  We have plenty of auditor slots, so if you are unable to ride in the clinic, please feel free to register for one of those slots.

Stay tuned for more clinic announcements!

Get Involved in Horse Biomechanics Book

final-book-cover-mockup-for-web-745x1024Most riders echo the sentiment expressed by this high-level professional dressage trainer, who said, “As a riding teacher, trainer and student of ‘the horse’ I’ve searched high and low to understand how to make the horses job easier for them and applicable for my students. Various training methods suggest ‘putting the horses’ head low’, while other say to bring it up. Some suggest to flex the neck left and right and yet others tell you to just ride the horse ‘forward and straight’. How is a teacher or student to know what is really the right answer?”  “The Science of Riding with Feel:  Horse Biomechanics and You,” written and illustrated by scientist Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. and horsewoman Jo Belasco, Esq. of Understanding the Horse, LLC, provides equestrians of all levels and disciplines with the knowledge to answer these and other pressing questions about the movement of the horse and rider.

“’The Science of Riding with Feel:  Horse Biomechanics and You,’ came about because participants at our biomechanics seminars asked for it,” explains Adams.  “People who love horses and want the best for them attended our clinics and seminars to learn how to help their horses move better.  They told us the information on biomechanics that is out there either didn’t seem to address the kind of riding they did or was too complicated for them to apply to their riding.”  Belasco continues, “A lot of people don’t work with an instructor on a regular basis, so they have to rely on resources such as magazine articles, books and DVDs.  We wanted to give every rider, as well as trainers and instructors, a resource that contained helpful information in a way that they could use on their own with their horse.  I think we are doing that with this book, and also with the accompanying Workbook and videos that we will be putting on the companion website.”

Dawn and Jo Icon copyAdams and Belasco have been collaborating on practical applied horse biomechanics since 2005, working together to help people and their horses have a better experience. They’ve been collaborating on public education projects since 1999, first in the non-profit organization Tapestry Institute and more recently in Understanding the Horse, LLC. Dawn is a professional scientist in biomechanics with a doctorate from UC Berkeley, and she is also a scientific illustrator who is preparing all the book’s original illustrations. Jo is a professional clinician and trainer with a wide range of experiences — in different kinds of riding, with a variety of people, in a number of different types of learning venues including lessons, seminars, clinics, and Expos, using more than one cultural approach to horses and horsemanship.

This book is for the horse community, all parts of it, which means horsepeople get to participate in making it the book they need and want.  Adams and Belasco have launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance necessary material for the illustrations and photographs in the book and Workbook.  The project became a Kickstarter Staff Pick within only a few hours of its launch.  For as little as $1, supporters can vote on the breeds of horses and styles of riding and driving they want to see included in the book’s illustrations.  Supporters can receive an autographed advance copy of the book and even combine the book with a series of horse biomechanics video tutorials at different support levels.  At higher levels of support, horsepeople may suggest questions to be answered or additional topics to be addressed in the book during a Skype biomechanics seminar.  A more limited number of supporters and their horses will receive a private session with Adams and Belasco, during which they will learn biomechanics’ exercises, as well as have photographs taken of them and their horse to be included as examples in the book and accompanying Workbook.

To learn more about the book and to participate in the Kickstarter campaign, visit  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/103149890/the-science-of-riding-with-feel  or email Jo Belasco, Esq. directly at jo@understandingthehorse.com .  You can learn more about the book by visiting its website.

 

“The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You” News

final-book-cover-mockup-for-web-745x1024
The mock-up book cover, to be redrawn by Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. before publication.

We are launching a Kickstarter campaign later this week to help us get our book, “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You” published and into your hands. People at our seminars and clinics have asked for a book on horse biomechanics, and Dawn and I have been working hard on one. We have already written more than 60,000 words, but we need YOUR help to complete the project. I will have more information in a few days about how you can support this campaign for as little as $1!

In the meantime, please visit our book website at www.thescienceofridingwithfeel.com and “like” our book Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/thescienceofridingwithfeel .

Please share this information with your horse friends. More information on the Kickstarter campaign coming soon!

WINGS 2014 Conference

We are very happy to announce that Jo Belasco, Esq. will be a presenter at the WINGS Foundation 2014 Soaring to New Heights Conference in Denver, CO, on September 26 and 27, 2014. She will be conducting a presentation entitled, “Itahoba Horse: The Power of Connection for Healing Trauma” on Saturday, September 27 at Denver Health’s Rita Bass Trauma and EMS Education Institute. We do not have the time yet. If you would like to register to attend the conference, please visit the conference page. If you would like to support the Itahoba Horse program that helps WINGS members, please visit the fundraiser page at Tapestry Institute.

Note: Subsequent to the posting of this announcement, the name of the program changed from Itahoba Horse to Horse Ibachakali after lengthy discussion with the Elders and Teachers of the Choctaw Language Program. Both “itahoba” and “ibachakali” mean “connected,” but the latter is more in line with the sense in which we mean it. We are grateful to the continuing efforts on behalf of the speakers in the Choctaw Language Program for helping us use precisely the right terms to convey the concepts manifested in our programs.

Soft Hands

When we think about soft hands, we often think of how our hands influence the horse’s mouth through the reins and bit.  Our minds usually go to being soft and not pulling on the reins.  But I want you to think about it an additional way.

soft_hands1I want you to check next time you ride and see how your hands feel.  Are they gripped around the reins?  Are they practically white-knuckled?  Are they numb?  Are your nails digging into your palms?  Are your fingers touching the reins or are they sticking out in mid-air?  When you lead your horse, how are your hands then?

A horse feels all of this.  If your hands aren’t literally soft, feeling the reins but not gripping them, then your horse will feel the tension.  This can result in the horse bracing on the reins.  Your horse may even exert counter pressure against the pressure he/she feels from your tight and tense hands.

Whenever you lead a horse or lunge a horse or do in-hand work or ride, remember that you want your hands to be soft.  Not limp, mind you.  As I often say, you want your hands to be relaxed but strong.  Remember that your horse feels everything.  If you have tension in your hands, you probably have it elsewhere in your body.  You probably also have tension in your mind, your thoughts and your actions.  And if you have tension in any of these places, you will have tension in your horse.

Mindfulness Comes Home

T'ealc
T’ealc in northern New Mexico, 2007/2008.

For the last year and a half, I have been practicing and researching mindfulness.  I teach it to fearful riders as way to help them have joy with horses again, and I also teach it to all horse people as a way to have a better connection with their horse.  I didn’t realize the powerful impact it was having on me until last week.

I experienced the importance of my practice of mindfulness in connection with a medical emergency concerning of my dogs. I found T’ealc when he was 5 weeks old, and he would have been 10 this month. He was always happy. A big dog with a big heart and an amazingly big presence even when he was simply laying quietly in a room. When he got sick in the early morning hours last week, the emergency vet said he was hemorrhaging because of a tumor on his spleen.  She said there was a high chance that the tumor was cancerous, and that T’ealc probably had cancer throughout his entire body. I had to make the difficult decision of letting him pass on. It was the best thing for him.

For me, it was heartbreaking. Within three hours of him first appearing sick, he was gone. I have had animals my entire life, and I am 45, but he was a once-in-a-lifetime dog. One of those dogs that just has something special that makes the two of you best buddies. The shock was immense and intense. How would I go on without him? I thought I had a few more years with him. I was preparing for my older Collie, who is almost 13 and has hip problems, to pass on this year, but not him.

I went through it by breathing. By coming back to my breath. By thinking about impermanence and listening to Thich Nhat Hanh speak about death. I sat on my cushion, and I just took one breath at a time. Sometimes, that’s all I could do as the tears welled up and spilled over, and I thought I would never stop crying. I didn’t know that a person could have so many tears.

T'ealc
T’ealc in Sowbelly Canyon, 2006/2007.

I have lost animals before, and very close friends have lost animals in tragic ways, and always, in those cases, the pain seemed overwhelming. While I will miss T’ealc every day, the pain was different this time. When I felt it, I thought of all the Pema Chodron talks I’ve heard and the books and articles I’ve read, and I moved into the pain. Before, I would brace myself against that wave of hurt, not wanting to feel it, and when it hit, it was like being cut by a knife. But not this time. Oh, it hurt. But then it subsided. Like a wave washing over me instead of a knife stabbing me.

So it is that T’ealc gave me a gift as he passed on; the gift of seeing how mindfulness and meditation could have a positive and centering impact on my life in ways I had never imagined.

It is my hope that by learning mindfulness, the fearful riders and the other horse people who attend my seminars and clinics, anyone who buys my DVD, and the people who read this blog can find an end to some of their suffering. I know that mindfulness, and for me meditation as well, helped with the suffering I felt when T’ealc passed on.

 

Inheriting Fear and Anxiety

LascauxhorsewithplantsWhat if some of the fear and anxiety you have when riding comes from fear and anxiety suffered by your grandparents?  Many of the riders I work with state that they don’t know why they are fearful, just that they are.  Recent research suggests that some forms of fear and anxiety may result from experiences our ancestors had that cause them to be anxious or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent study at Emory University showed that fear of a certain smell was passed down from male mice to two subsequent generations of mice.  In this study, researchers caused male mice to become fearful to the smell of cherry blossoms by giving mild shocks to their feet when they released the smell into their cages.  Researchers then bred those mice.  When that next generation of mice first smelled cherry blossoms, they became fearful and anxious, even though they had never had any kind of negative experience to that smell.  The effect lasted through one more generation of mice.  According to the Washington Post, researchers found that those mice actually had “more cherry-blossom-detecting neurons in their noses and more brain space devoted to cherry-blossom-smelling.”

While studies on mice may not be easily translatable to humans, there is similar evidence resulting from human studies.  For instance, studies on humans have shown that a generational effect may result from traumatic events, such as children being more likely to suffer from PTSD if their mothers were also PTSD sufferers due to a trauma.

Genetics is a complicated science, so no one is suggesting that a child will definitely be impacted by environmental influences upon a parent, grandparent or other ancestor.  These studies are puzzle pieces that can help us better understand fear, anxiety and PTSD.  They also encourage scientists to delve further into the impact our DNA has on these issues.  Interestingly, a recent study on mindfulness and gene expression shows us a way to address the issue of these studies’ findings and the fear and anxiety some people experience around horses.

Mindfulness MattersA recent study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain and France showed the impact that mindfulness may have on gene expression.  After only 8-hours of mindfulness practice, experienced meditators showed reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes.  The study’s author, Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. founder of The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, stated, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.”  It appears from this study that mindfulness can actually suppress gene expression in some instances, and more studies are needed to further explore this finding.

If some studies show that we may inherit traits of fear and anxiety through our genetic makeup from our ancestors, and other studies show that mindfulness can suppress gene expression, then there is the possibility that mindfulness could be a vehicle to suppress the gene expression of inherited fear and anxiety.  The effect that mindfulness has on fearful riders speaks to this possibility.  All the riders I work with find that mindfulness helps them with their fear, even when there is no discernible reason for them to have that fear.

Even if we can’t pinpoint where our fear and anxiety arises from, even if it’s from an event that occurred a generation or more before our birth and having nothing to do with horses, being mindful appears to be a way to help with the fear and anxiety that we are experiencing now.  I, for one, am excited to see more studies done to see what impact mindfulness has on calming and centering us and helping us to enjoy our horses, and indeed our entire lives, more.

 

Plan Lightly

Rhiannon shaking
Shake off the things that didn’t help you grow in 2013 and get ready for the things coming into your life in 2014.

With New Years Day having just arrived, many people are making resolutions and plans for 2014.  Resolutions and plans such as “I will ride more often this year,” or “ I will be able to do a flying lead change by the end of the year,” abound.  Most people are probably experiencing the same emotions they did last year at this time, when they realized that they hadn’t kept their resolutions or reached their goals from the previous year.  As we make resolutions and plans anew, we tend to berate ourselves for resolutions we didn’t keep last year, plans unfulfilled.  We feel guilt over these situations, but, as we have probably done for more years than we care to remember, we gamely go at it again once January 1 rolls around.

There is another way to look at making resolutions and plans, and it’s something you can use in many facets of your life, including the things you do with horses.  It’s what I call “plan lightly.”  When we work with our horses, we strive to be as light with them as possible.  We have feel of our horse, but we do not yank on the horse or pull or have tight contact.  We have just enough feel for communication but not so much that we are tightly grasping our horse in any way.

We may have in our minds that we are going to go and do something specific with our horse today.  Perhaps it’s the day we’ve planned that our horse will take that right-lead canter from the walk, with no trot stops in between gaits.  If we have been working on that for weeks or months, we may have really built ourselves up to this being the day it happens.  But what if it doesn’t?  If we build a goal up so that it must happen by or at a certain time, then if it doesn’t, we suffer terribly.  We may blame the horse.  We may blame ourselves.  We may blame both the horse and ourselves.  To stop the blame game, which doesn’t help us reach our goal anyway, we need to hold that goal lightly in our minds.

cisco_windy_copyright
Face the New Year knowing you can hold your plans lightly.

We can hold our resolutions and plans the way we should hold the reins when riding, lightly, with feel. We hold our plan like that, so that we can step towards it but so that we can also move and change as it, or circumstances surrounding it, change.  One of the most important things we can keep in mind is that we do not know what the future holds, and while most of us think that whatever we plan is the best possible thing that could happen and in the time frame we want it to, that may not be true.  As it is unfolding, you may think that your plan isn’t working, but in the end, the unexpected things that happen may land you at a place even more spectacular than what you had wanted in the first place.

No matter what your plans for 2014 may be – to move, to change careers, to get that flying lead change, to adopt and gentle that wild Mustang you have always dreamed about – hold that plan lightly.  If you do so, you will find that when 2015 rolls around, you won’t beat yourself up about not meeting your goal if isn’t exactly how you had planned it.  Rather, you will look back and enjoy the time you spent working toward it, perhaps even marveling in how it changed and became more than you could have imagined when you started.