Three lessons horses can teach us about Mental Health

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One of the greatest principles in good horsemanship is working with the horse you have that day because horses have moods and emotions and needs just as humans do. So, at HorseBack UK, we always ask our horses, ‘What do you need from us today?’ That’s something we humans need to apply to ourselves. There are days when it seems nothing will come right. But if we keep trying, if we take the smallest of small steps, we can move on again. There are many lessons we can learn from horses, and here are three that you can practice at home. 

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Honesty

Horses adore honesty. And so does your brain. Denying feelings of anxiety, shame, grief and despair only make them worse. They twist themselves up inside and paralyse you.

So, a lovely thing to do with yourself is to step into difficult emotions. Honestly say, yes, I do 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. 

Movement

When horses get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight, flight and freeze part of the brain, sometimes the best thing you can do for them is invite them to move. Liberty work is great for this: you can 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 humans. We can think our way out of some emotions, but some get stuck in the body, and the rational part of the brain can only do so much. So, if you feel trapped in negative thought loops, particularly those of resentment, or shame, or rage, 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.

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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.

Expectations

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 in keeping the mind in equilibrium.

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. Here’s an extra thought: horses are naturally present in the moment, and they adore it in their humans. There is a great deal of research and data showing the extraordinary power that meditation can have on mental health, and at HorseBack UK we often start courses with meditation for horses and veterans. And it is something you can do yourself. You don’t need a special room or a special time or special equipment. At moments throughout the day, feel all your senses: the air on your face, the smell of the green grass, the sound of your own breathing. All that matters in the world are at that moment. If you can make that a habit, you will start to see changes more quickly than you might imagine. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Hutchison is co-founder of HorseBack UK, a multi-award-winning Scottish charity (registration number SC040765) based near Aboyne, in the Scottish Highlands. HorseBack UK works to improve health and well-being by inspiring recovery, positive change and renewed purpose amongst those who need it most and improving education and employment prospects for those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. 

Using horsemanship, equine-assisted learning, rural skills and the outdoors the charity deliver award-winning projects and personal development programmes that encourage participants to acquire new coping strategies, life skills and lasting resilience whilst gaining nationally recognised awards and qualifications. 

Web: www.horseback.org.uk

Twitter: @HorseBackUK 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HorseBackUK/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/horseback_uk 

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