I’m continually amazed at how horses are so “knowing” in the way they help people. Each person brings to a session something different and each horse is unique – the combination evoking entirely diverse experiences.
Sometimes an individual knows what they want to work on when they meet with me while other times they don’t. And yet, horses seem to know intuitively what needs to surface. And how they address it is fascinating, altering their behavior and response to the individual’s specific need. For instance, let’s look at how a horse might help bring increased awareness to an underlying fear. But first, a bit about fear.
Fear is the body’s way of taking care of itself. It brings focused awareness of something that is a threat to our physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being. It’s a protective mechanism inside us to prepare for whatever is coming or needs to change. When we dishonor our fear, as many of us are taught in childhood when told, “be brave”, we learn to ignore our survival instincts.
When fear is present in an individual, a horse senses it and responds accordingly. And so it was with a man I’ll refer to as ‘Jeremy’.
With his tall stature and big bone structure, Jeremy could look intimidating to some although he had a very gentle nature. For his round pen session he chose to work with a black gelding – a horse that wasn’t large yet had a strong presence about him. Once thought to be an un-trainable and unsafe horse, he had settled down and become quite reliable as a teacher for humans within equine experiential learning.
As the session progressed, Jeremy described the constricted sensations in his chest and felt immobile. He came to the realization that the horse aroused a fear in him that evoked memories of his father. His father was unpredictable and would lash out at him physically. It was that same apprehension and fear that the horse stirred in Jeremy.
Jeremy’s recognition of his fear helped explain the uncharacteristic behavior the gelding displayed when he first entered the round pen, licking Jeremy’s jacket sleeve up and down as if he were a dog, again and again. He seemed to sense Jeremy’s fear immediately and responded in a most unusual way almost as if to calm him.
Throughout the session, the black gelding continued to amaze those of us that knew him. Typically a horse that doesn’t move around a lot during a session, on this day he paced, marching by Jeremy at a brisk walk before continuing to the other side of the round pen, and then striding by him again – over and over. The gelding would stay rather close, sometimes walking in front of and sometimes walking behind Jeremy. And then the gelding would stand at a distance, cock his leg as if to relax, and wait.
As the horse continued to pace, Jeremy became less tense. By listening to and acknowledging his fear, he realized that his way through it was to breathe deeply into his belly. As the tension continued to subside and Jeremy relaxed further, the horse responded by standing near him, each time coming closer and staying for longer periods of time until Jeremy declared with confidence, “You know, I’m not really afraid of him any longer”. Acknowledging his fear and its origins helped him move towards it and then through it, identifying what needed to change to move him to a position of feeling safe. Through the session’s coaching, he learned how his breathing and grounding could transform his anxiety into a calming state.
As if sensing the shift, the black gelding swung himself in front of Jeremy and put his nose on his heart as if extending his own heart energy and compassion out to the broad-shouldered man. In an almost mystical way the gelding seemed to know just what was needed to address Jeremy’s fear.
It’s important to remember that our body is like a sixth sense. It’s there for us when we take the time to listen and tune into it, as Jeremy did. When we feel in imminent danger and we allow our fear to flow properly, our body will give us signs that send out an alert. It’s up to us to ask ourselves whether the fear is real or perceived and the appropriate actions that are needed to move us to safety. Of course, the actions that are necessary vary by circumstances. It just so happens that Jeremy’s situation led him to a gentle and all-knowing black gelding with a kind heart who patiently and ingeniously moved Jeremy to a place of safety within his own mind, body and emotions.