Mindfulness and meditation are becoming more popular, but what exactly does it look like and how does it help? Both are the idea of training your mind to focus on the present moment and turn down the dial to the endless chatter that your brain tends to produce. This certainly doesn’t happen on your first try; think of it as a muscle you build with conditioning over time!
Nothing will challenge your ability to remain in the present more than a horse; as the leader of their herd, they are constantly assessing your demeanor and attention. We start every interaction with the animals by grooming; not only for it’s practical reasons and respect for the horse, but it helps to calm our monkey brain. Trust me, if you are nervous or scared as your hands are touching a 1000 pound prey animal, they will quickly let you know don’t want to be anywhere near you! The horse’s body language and behavior during grooming will tell me a lot about how the rest of the hour is going to go and whether I can help someone become more grounded and relaxed through deep breathing or other mindfulness strategies.
Grooming can also be extremely telling and helpful for someone who has experienced trauma. Our brain and body work wonders to keep us safe when there is a perceived threat to our safety by activating what is called the Sympathetic Nervous System. If we are hiking and come across a bear on the trail, we aren’t going to spend too much time thinking, but rather reacting. Our body is going to shunt blood away from our brain and core body and send it into our limbs so that we can either flee or fight our attacker. After the threat has passed, our body regulates back into the Parasympathetic Nervous System, otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, where higher-order cognition and normal bodily functioning returns.
For someone with PTSD or Anxiety, they can often feel ‘stuck’ or easily activated into the Sympathetic Nervous System, or the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode. Inability to focus, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping, irritability; sounds exhausting! Mindfulness and deep breathing especially can help kickstart the Parasympathetic Nervous System; even better when you have a horse providing direct biofeedback to you as you learn. One of my favorite things to when someone is nervous or agitated around a horse is to have them take a step back and start taking a few deep breaths. Almost like clockwork, the horse will take a huge sigh with you after a few breaths; yes they really are that sensitive!
As someone learns to self-regulate with cues from the horse, they can then take these strategies into their everyday life with more awareness of when they are activated and what they can do to become more grounded.