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.

 

 

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.