Emma Hutchinson describes the mental health lessons that working with horses can pass on.
Movement is magical
If a horse gets stuck in the sympathetic nervous system (that’s the fight, flight and freeze part of the brain), sometimes the best thing you can do for it is offer your horse a chance to dance all those jangled emotions out on the ground, until they come back to a place of stillness and peace.
It’s not so different with people. If you feel trapped in negative thought loops, try dancing them out. Shake them out of your arms. Stomp them out of your feet. One of the HorseBack UK team likes going into the kitchen and doing 1979 pogo dancing when she’s got a real jangle on.
You are literally resetting your body when you do this. The nervous system can then move from its threat state to its rest and relax state.
Move it out, dance it out, breathe it out. You may even want to holler it out. This is another practice that pays huge dividends if you do it regularly. Getting stuck is a horrible feeling, so let your body help you to find freedom again.
Practice new mental habits
Working well with a horse is not a matter of going through a check-list and then patting yourself on the back. It is a daily dedication. Horses love steadiness and consistency, so they really value the stuff you do every single day.
It’s exactly the same with your mental health. If you get stuck in negative stories, a beautiful daily practice is to learn to turn those stories around. Focus on the thing you do really well. Tell yourself that you are enough. Do it again and again. Slow and steady every day, until your brain believes it.
Small shifts in perspective, done over and over again, can have huge results; this is exactly what you do with a horse. You don’t have to turn your old, negative stories upside down, you just need to learn to tweak them a little bit. Acknowledge the sadness, the darkness, the pain, and then see if you can find one hopeful thing and focus on that.
Be brave, be honest
Horses adore honesty. Your brain does too. Don’t deny feelings of anxiety, shame, grief and despair because you’ll only make them worse. Instead, step into difficult emotions. Be honest if you feel vulnerable, or overwhelmed, or hopeless. Sit with those feelings instead of fighting them. Then, see what you can do with them. You can write them down. You can share them with a trusted friend. You can take them to a mental health professional.
The more these feelings are felt and released, the less power they have over you. Know them, name them, face them … and then let them go. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.
False or unrealistic expectations are one of the enemies of good mental health. If you are constantly lashing yourself for failing to meet goals, for not being the person you expect yourself to be, for not being able to change your life through a sheer act of will, you will live with constant disappointment. The not-good-enough voices will have a field day.
We’ve learned from our horses to monitor our expectations. We don’t march in expecting the horses to be brilliant just because we want them to be. We understand that everyone has an off day. So, we ask enough, but never too much, and if there’s a bit of a bog or a muddle, we just take a breath and start again.
You can do the same with yourself. Give yourself small, achievable missions. Understand that mistakes and setbacks will come. Be forgiving. Always be prepared to start again from the beginning.
Expectation management doesn’t sound glamorous or life-changing, but it’s one of the most potent tools we know for keeping the mind in equilibrium.
Work with the person you are that day
One of the greatest principles in good horsemanship is working with the horse you have that day. Horses have moods and emotions just as humans do. So, at HorseBack, we always ask our horses, ‘What do you need from us today?’ You can do the same with yourself.
All humans are flawed. We all get things wrong. There are days when it seems nothing will come right. But if you keep trying, if you hold on to hope, if you take the smallest of small steps, you can move on again, and rediscover your rhythm, and remember that one setback does not define you. Today might be a bad day, but tomorrow can be better.
By using horses as our inspiration and taking the lessons that they can teach us every day, we can help shift our mental position and create a better, happier life for ourselves and those around us.
Emma Hutchison is co-founder of HorseBack UK, a multi-award-winning Scottish charity
(registration number SC040765) based near Aboyne, in the Scottish Highlands.