Awareness Horsemanship Part 3: Emotions and Body Tension

Here is what we have learned so far:

  • Intention is used to clearly state what we want
  • Energy Shapes help focus our intent and set our boundaries
  • Mindfulness allows us to become aware of thoughts, feelings and stay in the moment
  • Body Awareness helps us see our horse’s position in relationship to us

Now let’s take a look at how our emotions and body tension affect our performance with our equine partner.

Tool #5: Take Care of Emotions

Horses are empathic, which means that they feel other’s emotions as if they were their own. If we feel anger, our horse becomes fearful because an angry predator is dangerous. If we are afraid, for whatever reason, our horse becomes fearful, as well. When working with horses, we need to find a way to control our emotions in order to be successful.

Humans spend a majority of time on the left, analytical side of their brain and in the frontal lobes that remember the past and plan for the future. In most people, the left brain hemisphere is slightly larger than the right because it is used much more often.

Horses are right brain centered.  That is where feelings and emotions sit. For a horse, their emotional state is the most important thing. Being prey animals, they are constantly on the lookout for “predators” and fearful, unless they have a leader that takes that burden from them. Horses are only receptive to teaching and training when they are not in fear.

Combining left-brain and right-brain in ourselves creates a coherent brain which combines analytical thinking with the awareness of emotions and intuitive input. This is the ideal way to be around horses. In order to reach this state we need to practice spending time in the right brain hemisphere – the emotional side.

Certain behaviors or situations in the horse can trigger an emotional response in us. Like anger, fear or frustration. These responses are automatic and very quick, and usually go back to a situation one has experienced earlier in life. A majority of emotional triggers are created before a person turns six. These triggers are activated by the way important adults like parents or teachers interact with the child. Every child reacts differently to a given situation, and what is no problem at all for one child can have a devastating result in another.

Adults have these triggers, also known as emotional wounds. Underlying these emotional wounds are beliefs about life and oneself that are not true.  That is why they are also called “false beliefs”. They include beliefs such as:  “I am not good enough”, “I will never amount to anything”, “I am loved only when I am perfect,” etc. Horses are masters in finding their person’s emotional triggers, just as children or siblings are. In finding them they are asking us to release the trigger and heal the underlying wound.

There are three ways to deal with negative emotions:

• suppress them

• express them

• acknowledge and stay with them until resolved.

When you suppress an emotion, it doesn’t go away, but gets “bottled up” and stored in your body’s cells. Every time this emotion comes up and gets suppressed, you add another layer. Every time that happens the emotional reaction gets bigger. If the stack gets too high, it can manifest itself as illness in the body.

When an emotion gets expressed, it is released immediately. However, the underlying problem (emotional wound, false belief) is still there and will come up again when triggered. Expressing an emotion usually happens as an automatic reaction to a certain trigger. It is healthy for the body, but not so good for the social environment – nobody likes a person that explodes all the time.

The third way is to release the emotion and heal the underlying problem at the same time, without upsetting your social surroundings. It is not the easiest way though. Emotions look big and scary once we put our awareness on them.  However, when we stay aware with them and observe and feel them, they shrink quickly, usually leaving a feeling of peace, love, or an insight. Using this technique does not add to the layers of old emotions.  It works to reduce them. When the underlying problem is healed, the trigger is released and does not come up again in a similar situation.  With practice, this method can help us deal positively with our anger and fear.

If you are with your horse and big, negative emotions come up, it is a good idea to secure the horse and remove yourself from the situation until equilibrium is restored. Grounding is an exercise that can quickly calm and center you. 

EXERCISE: Grounding Yourself

Stand up, take a deep breath in and out, than imagine roots growing out of your feet. Let them grow deep and wide, rooting you securely to the earth. At the same time let the emotions drain into the ground. Have one or two roots grow all the way down to the core, connecting you to earth’s center. Now check in and see how you feel. Are you quieter now? Or is there still some emotion present? If still present, locate the emotion in your body, with your intention put it into a ball and lower it to the ground. If practiced a few times, grounding can be achieved within seconds.

EXERCISE: Grounding Your Horse

Put your hands on your horse’s withers and then imagine roots growing out of the horse’s hooves. Feel energy going through your hands and grounding through your horse’s feet. This exercise has a calming effect on both human and horse.

Grounding is a great way to calm yourself, but it won’t heal your emotional wounds. These can be healed after you have cooled down, in the safety of your home or with the help of a facilitator.

If you are a sensitive person, you might take on your horse’s emotion. Ground these just as you would your own.

Tool #5: Release Body Tension

Emotions that are not expressed end up being stored in the body and can be seen or felt as body tension. Horses, being the mirrors that they are, hold tension if we hold tension. Since body tension impedes free movement, you need to be as loose as you can when around horses, especially when riding. Tension is often held in the neck and shoulder area (pulled up shoulders, pulled forward head), the chest area (collapsed chest), the belly (tightened belly muscles), and in the hips (no swinging movement). It helps your relationship and performance with your horse when you release the built up tension that it can feel.

Check in with your body to see if there is any tension in it. If so, put your attention on the part that is tense and tell the muscles to release. Sometimes it helps to touch the tense muscle or have a friend touch it. You can feel the release when you ask for it. You can also release tension with the following exercise.

EXERCISE: Tense & Release

Stand straight and take a deep breath. Pull your shoulders up in a shrug as tight and as far as you can.  Let them go and see how that feels. Are your shoulders achy? Can you feel the muscles that connect your neck to your shoulders? Is there any tingling or pain? Now do the same with your chest.  Pull your chest muscles tight and let go. Can you feel your chest expanding a little? Does it make breathing easier? Now do the same with your belly muscles and your buttocks.

Taking it to the ring

Now it is time to take our tool box to the pasture, the arena or the round pen.  Here is the step-by-step process for you to use:

  1. Hold a picture of what you want your horse to do in your mind
  2. Use the energy shape to request that picture
  3. Only if the horse doesn’t react, reinforce with body language.

Always keep in mind that our goal is to get into harmony with our horse. So don’t fret if things don’t work right away. Embrace your mistakes! Only from mistakes can you learn, and horses are very forgiving creatures. In fact, you can look at your horse for guidance. He will let you know when you are doing it correctly.  You will be able to tell by his contentment and the smile in his eyes.

Karen Wegehenkel, author of the upcoming book Awareness Horsemanship, is a longtime horsewoman and student of “healing hands” Energy Work. She has successfully applied human energy work to her equine relationships. Karen can be reached at: horse@wegehenkel.com

Editor Jim Hutchins is director of education at NWNHC near Seattle Wash. The Center specializes in teaching horse women and men a more holistic approach to their relationship with the horse. Learn more at: www.nwnhc.com

Awareness Horsemanship Part 2: Mindfulness and Body Awareness

Awareness Horsemanship is a way of being with and training our horses that takes into consideration not just the physical techniques but understanding and utilizing the energy both inside and outside of the horse and human. In the last issue, we learned how to become more aware of our energy and how to use our Intention and Energy Shapes to speak to our horses.  This issue we are going to discover how we can be more sensitive to the horses perceptions and the consequences of our actions.

Tool #3: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the third tool in the Awareness Horsemanship toolbox. To be mindful is to stay in the moment observing the inner and outer world without judging. It is a great tool to develop awareness of your energy and everything else that goes on in and around.

To become more effective using our energy around horses, we need to develop our Awareness. Energy awareness is the conscious knowledge of whatever goes on in and around your body and mind. A big percentage of the day (some say as high as 95%) is spent habitually reacting to stimuli without being conscious about it.

For example, you might be thinking about your work when you are driving there in the morning, without paying much attention to the road, and probably without wondering afterwards how you managed to get there. But, when you learned to drive, it was overwhelming to do so many things at once. Once it’s a habit, you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore. That frees up the brain to think about something else.

However, habituation with horses can be dangerous, especially when you are starting young ones. Even with a trained horse, constant awareness is essential. Horses are always in their bodies, they don’t know anything else. They are watching your every move, what you are thinking, what you are feeling. To become a better horse(wo)man, you should practice staying in the moment. To train better awareness in yourself you can meditate regularly (and many people do), but it’s not necessary. There is a better tool which can be practiced anytime anywhere, for a few seconds at a time to all day, it’s called Mindfulness  Practice. All you have to do is stay in the present moment and observe, without judgment. Observe your inner world as well as the outer one. Acknowledge any thoughts and feelings but without holding on to them. Do it as long and as often as you want.

EXERCISE:  Practicing Mindfulness:

Try this exercise to help develop mindfulness:

At dinnertime, look at your food in detail, smell it, feel its heat, but DO NOT JUDGE – judging means labeling something as good or bad. When you pick up your food with your fork, feel the weight in your hand, look at the steam, feel the anticipation in your mouth. What thoughts go through your mind? Are there any emotions? Mindfulness looks at both the inner world (thoughts and feelings) and the outer world (sights, noises, smells etc). Put the food into your mouth and taste it, smell it, feel it in your mouth, against your teeth, and in your throat when you swallow.

When your find your mind wandering, just bring it back to the present moment and keep observing. Your mind will wander eventually, but will stay focused for longer with training.

Bring your mindfulness practice to you horse time. Pay attention to everything you do, and everything the horse does. Ask yourself how you feel in certain situations. Observe the thoughts and emotions that come up. Get into your horse’s body and mind. Is what you are asking easily understood? Is the horse physically and mentally capable of doing it? If you get resistance, is it yours or your horse’s?

When working with your horse, reeber to not just do the rote task, but think about what you are doing, how you are doing it and how your horse is feeling about it.  By doing this, you will become more in tune with the horses view of your actions.

Tool #4: Body Awareness

Horses are body centered, which means that they are acutely aware how their body is standing in relation to yours. Since people are mind centered, they are mostly not aware where their feet are or where their belly button is pointing, what their shoulders are doing, and if the body is standing tall or slumping over. These things are important to a horse, and he will pay attention to them, acting accordingly. Ever been stepped on by a horse? Do you really think that was an accident?

Even though horses are body centered, they are tuned in to the way our thoughts feel and will respond to them, which is why we need to become aware of our thoughts as well – or better the underlying patterns and feelings, the chatter that the mind does all day. In many people this chatter is humiliating and demeaning. Now if you ask your horse to jump over a big log while your mind tells you that you are not good enough for anything, the horse gets two conflicting statements and might refuse the jump. When you are aware of that chatter, you can look for a thought that feels right and ask for the jump with every fiber of your body and mind, joyfully expecting the horse to follow you, which makes you trustworthy in your horse’s eyes. This is the kind of asking he wants, and he will be there with you and for you one hundred percent.

Coming Up:

In the next issue we will discover how we can be more aware of our emotions and how to manage them to create harmony and peacefulness in our horses and ourselves.

Part 1: Understanding And Directing Your Energy With Your Horse

During lessons, clinics and seminars I have often heard teachers talk about bringing up your energy to get the horse to move, but I never heard any of these teachers tell their students how exactly to do that. This is where Awareness Horsemanship comes in. My objective is to give you some easy-to-use tools to help  you use your innate energy to effectively and lightly communicate with your horse.

Horses are extremely sensitive, subtle and gentle beings. Yet most of the time that we want them to do something for us, we ask in a big and harsh way, using the same force we use with the humans around us, which for a horse is like screaming and shouting all the time. I want to show you another way, which will have your horse breathe a sigh of relief, improve your relationship, and have your horse happily do what you ask, with seemingly invisible aids.

For a human, it’s much easier and more straightforward to get the horse to perform with force rather than subtleness. Negative reinforcement is what people call it. It means: “if you move just like this, I promise to stop hurting you for a moment or two.” It expects the horse to learn our language. But is that really the best way? If we dare to choose a different approach, horses can teach us great things: to become more aware of ourselves; to become quiet inside; and to become assertive without being threatening. We can do all of this without the use of force and with an energy awareness and respectful partnership that creates a solid base for training and competing.

What is “energy work”? I use this term generally with everything that has to do with consciously using energy to reach a goal. Everybody is using energy at all the time. In fact, you have an unlimited amount of energy at your disposal. However, most of us use it without being conscious of it. Energy used consciously can have any shape or form to be used for any purpose.  It is only limited by your imagination.

Exercise: Feeling The Energy Field

Deep breath in and out, then become aware of your body’s energy field by slowly moving your hands together. Start with holding them about 4 feet apart. When your hands get closer, there might be areas when you feel something: pressure or resistance, heat or cold, a tingle, a texture, or even a taste, smell or emotion. Most people can feel something at a distance of about three feet, 6 inches, and 1-5 inches. That’s about where the first three aura layers end. Explore how you perceive your field.

Tool #1: Intention

So how does one use this Energy? It is done with intention. “Intention” is an aim that guides action, it can be as simple as ‘I want my horse to walk from A to B’ or as precise as ‘after 5 trot steps stop and back up 2 steps’. Intention is the way to reach a goal.  Always have a goal in mind!

Just being present with a goal will improve your relationship with your horse. These goals can be big or small, and even arise spontaneously. Picture the goal as you want the horse to perform it, but stay flexible during execution. Set the stage, than get out of the way, creating space for the horse to do what you have asked. Use intention to get focused and stay focused on your goal.

Tool #2: Energy Shapes

To better use our energy for our advantage, we need to become aware of it. Awareness is to be conscious of something perceived – a feeling, a thought, an inspiration etc. The majority of sensory input –what comes in from your various senses – is perceived by the brain as unimportant and filtered out, thus we are unaware of it. Only the tiniest part of information, what the brain deems immediately important for your situation, is made conscious and put into context, so it makes sense for you. All the other millions of bits of information are discarded.

By doing the exercise above you should have experienced that you have energy around you. But how can it be shaped? There are three different shapes you can use regularly around your horse: the energy arrow, the soft energy field, and the hard energy sphere.

The Energy Arrow is strongly focused to one point. It is demanding attention and immediate action. The focal point can be right in front of my nose, or out a mile, wherever you need it to be. You can use it to ask your horse for movement in the arena or round pen. It works for both groundwork and riding. Stand or sit straight, with your intention bring your energy up to your chest and project it outward and forward onto the focal point. The more movement you want, the higher and stronger the energy arrow needs to be. All you need to form your arrow is your intention.

The Soft Energy Field is unfocused, non-directional. Imagine it as a soft friendly cloud of energy around you. Use it to approach your horse in the pasture, or when you want it to come to you during liberty work. Let your solar plexus soften, release any body tension through your hands and feet, your gaze is down about 5 – 10 feet in front of you and soft. To make it even friendlier (i.e. to approach a very skiddish horse), point your chest away from the horse and, with intention, lower your energy into the ground. You can imagine putting any unhelpful thoughts or emotions in a ball and dropping it down into the ground.

The Hard Energy Sphere is a protective bubble that is hard on the outside. It is used to reinforce personal space. Imagine a clear shiny bubble around you, like a glass sphere. It is impenetrable. Stand straight, like you do when creating the energy arrow. Start with a small bubble around your body, than with your intention make it as big as you want it to be. You can harden or soften it with your intention as needed. You only have to keep it going if your horse keeps coming into your space. Hopefully he will learn quickly to leave your space, in which case you can soften it up or drop it completely.

Use any of these shapes with your intention, keeping a clear picture of what you want in mind, and before you start using your body. Once you have asked your horse to do something with your energy, you will need to follow up with your body if there is no reaction to the energy change. Your horse needs to know that you mean what you say so he can trust you.

Next Month:

We will discover Tool #3 in the Awareness Horsemanship Tool Box… Mindfulness.