Much has been written about horses and spirituality

Shelley and Pip

Their ability to connect us to the unknowable, the universe, God and that somehow, being in the presence of a horse, is in itself, transformative.

There are many spiritual qualities associated with horses, but one of the most impactful, for me, is the ability of horses to keep us in the Now – “that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking” Eckhart Tolle.

How do we know we are in this space?  We feel joy, ease, lightness, and acceptance.

We all want to feel joy, ease and lightness when we’re with our horses, but free of thinking?  Will that not be dangerous?  If I don’t think, will my horse lack leadership and just take over?  How should I be with my horse if I am not thinking?

Horses might answer that they just want to “be” with you.  They want to enjoy “being” whether that’s just hanging out in the field, doing a dressage test or hacking out.

It is easy to fall in to the trap (as I have done) of assuming that the Zen like, “being” quality is something you share with your horse in quiet moments before you get on with the daily tasks of grooming, tacking up, riding etc and then we wonder why everything seems to fall apart.  That spiritual connection often transforms in to a “fight”, where we want one thing and our horse seems to want something else.

I’m not saying we can or should avoid situations where we appear to want different things from our horse, however we can take the lessons from those precious moments of connection and let the horse guide us in the art staying present, even through the more challenging moments.

So how do horses manifest the Power of Now and what can we do to share that?

The most obvious answer is that horses are prey animals and all herd prey animals needs to be in a constant state of awareness of their environment and other herd members in order to avoid being eaten.  Although horses have been living with humans in a domesticated environment for hundreds of years, most horse owners have experiences demonstrating that this heightened awareness and flight instinct is not so far from the surface.

Many of our equine friends require reassurance about the tiger in the long grass (the neighbour’s ginger tom), the poisonous snake (rope on the ground) or the unidentified horse eating monsters (ranging in size from plastic bags to skips)!

A couple of years ago I spent some time riding in southern Africa.  Although the biggest predators were separated from us by fences most of the time, the horses lived with other prey animals, in earshot of the roar of the lions at sundown and the whoop of the hyenas at night.

It was interesting to note that on the whole, these horses were not much more fearful and spooky than our horses. In fact, my experience is that the environmental and herd awareness of horses has hardly altered since horses lived on the plains in Africa.  So how can this instinct that can cause spookiness and upset to some riders, also be a gift?  What are horses trying to teach us about the importance of staying present?

My exploration of this issue has been strongly influenced by two factors.

One, the written works of Linda Kohanov “The Tao of Equus”, “Riding Between the Worlds” and “Way of the Horse” and my subsequent training with Epona Equestrian Services in Arizona.

Two, falling off three times in two years after 20 years without a fall. Two of my falls were due to my mare spooking when I was riding without a saddle, and one was a very clear message from a friend’s mare that I was not paying attention to how she was feeling.

Some would say (and indeed have said) that the answer to staying on would be to ride using a saddle. Fair point.   However, me and my bruised bum both know that each incident arose from my lack of presence. That if I had truly been “in the moment” with these lovely 4 legged teachers, my bum and my ego would be considerably less bruised.

There are many spiritual disciplines that advocate practices that bring us in to the Now.

One of the more well known is the Buddhist technique of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself” – Wikipedia.

Although you can go to many teachers or courses to study mindfulness, Kohanov tells us that “you may very well have an experienced teacher munching hay in your own back yard”.

Horses, as highly social, nomadic prey animals, embody many of the attitudes and skills that some humans spend their lives searching for.  One of the pluses of being “in the moment” is the ability to act quickly in the face of danger, and sometimes more importantly, to be able to let it go and go back to grazing.  After all, horses do not stay up at night with “ceaseless internal dialogues about how cruel it is that God invented lions” (Kohanov).

Recently I have been coming to the conclusion that the biggest obstacle to being in the Now, or perhaps more accurately, what pulls us out of the Now, is our lack of acceptance of “what is”.

I am not denigrating humanity’s capacity for intellect, reasoning and analysis – all useful skills and not completely without merit when it comes to our relationships with horses. However, it is not our analytical brains that provide us with the moments of harmony, unity, magic and peace with our horses that most of us strive for.

After all, for those of us hooked on horses, it was some taste of these feelings, however fleeting, that attracted us and kept us going.  Why else would we go through the emotional, physical and monetary expenditure of having horses?  It is the call of the soul, the faint whisper of a promise that there is something else – something more joyful and more peaceful than our daily existence.  In some ways, it is the memory of these experiences that stop us accepting our current reality and that is because many of our daily experiences with horses are a million miles away from the dream.

So many people spend the majority of their time with horses experiencing so called “negative” emotions such as fear, frustration and anger. Indeed many riders are unaware of their feelings at all and their minds are busy with thoughts of the past or the future.  This lack of awareness and acceptance of where we are in each moment with our horse is what keeps us from taking a step closer to our dreams of harmony.

My quest is to discover useful ways for me and for my teaching that bring us more of what our hearts truly want with our horses and less of what our bums don’t want. How can we stay connected to our bodies, our hearts and our horses whilst getting on with our daily lives, or riding in a competition?

These are some things that I have found the most useful.

  1. Body awareness  – just noticing how my body is feeling and mostly not trying to fix it. This doesn’t mean that if I have a bad back then I don’t go to the Osteopath, but when I’m with my horse, and especially if I’m going to be on my horse, then I try and become aware of how my body is feeling.  I do this for two main reasons; First, body awareness is a great tool to access our emotions, and as a teacher of Equine Facilitated Learning, I am all too aware of how much our emotions affect our interactions with horses. Secondly, as a body worker with experience of both human and equine bodies, I know that one affects the other. How can we ask our horse to be light on the forehand if we’re not aware of our tight shoulders?
  2. Mind awareness – by this I mean just being aware of my thoughts, especially if they go off in to a fearful future or painful past.  My mare is a great teacher of mindfulness, as if my mind wonders off when I’m riding, she’ll invariably spook.  The kind of “contact” she wants in order to feel safe when being ridden is not just physical.
  3. Acceptance of what is – this is possibly the hardest one.  After all, if we tune in to our bodies we might find that some part is uncomfortable and that there is also a difficult emotion attached to that physical discomfort. We can wish it wasn’t there and ignore it because it wasn’t we had planned for our horse time today and then complain when we have a bad session with our horse.  Alternatively, we can acknowledge what we feel and accept that this is how it feels today. Ironically, it is this acceptance that allows the space for change without  having to “do” something.

Without acceptance, there can be no connection, because our mind is always somewhere else, wishing things were different.  It is by being with our horses, in each moment, that we can feel the magic of that connection. Mark Rashid in “Whole Heart, Whole Horse” says that the biggest goal he hears people trying to accomplish with their horsemanship is connection.

Some call this partnership, some call it harmony.

“Whatever we call it, is my belief that making a true connection with the horse becomes very difficult, if not downright impossible, if we aren’t first connected in some way with ourselves. We also need to keep in mind that the connection we’re talking about here isn’t missing in us. For most, it has just been misplaced and simply needs to be rediscovered.” Mark Rashid

This article by Shelley was published in Natural Horsemanship Magazine