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.

 

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.

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.