I originally wrote this for TheSageHorse.com Blog following an equine-assisted learning workshop I hosted with a mindfulness trainer, Dave Smith, of Against The Stream Nashville. As I continue the mission of the Sage Horse, it has been apparent that mindfulness practice and partnering with the horse continues to reveal valuable proof of just how effective it is in helping humans to achieve positive growth and healing. Mindfulness, the brain and the horse is a powerful combination with key answers!
Being MINDFUL is to be aware and attentive, showing careful attention. But, to what extent can MINDFULNESS be applied? To an extent that can change lives. Mindfulness practice is an effective tool for stress management and overall wellness that benefits emotional and physical health and relationships. It can be described as attention-based training that helps a person to become more open and aware of the present moment, of their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and it happens without judgement. Mindfulness practice stems from Buddhist tradition, but has found it’s way into Western medicine and psychology as an intervention for healing mental and physical conditions, which can include PTSD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain, anxiety and addiction. It can be effective training for anyone from athletes to CEOs, from patients to prisoners. Mindfulness includes activities like breathing techniques, sitting or walking meditation and mindful eating – actions that quiet and clear the mind and literally re-train the brain to operate more effectively. It builds strength of the mind and creates the ability to make better decisions and alleviate stress. A person can begin to recognize their habitual patterns and learn to respond in new ways.
Dave Smith has been practicing Mindfulness for over 20 years specializing in programs for incarcerated and at-risk youth and adults. He found partnering with The Sage Horse a natural fit and recognizes the horse as a valuable medium to allow someone to experience awareness, intention and trust, all key in learning this valuable practice. During the last workshop with The Sage Horse, Dave pointed out, “What she was doing with the horse clearly shows the difference between attention versus intention.”
He also stresses, it’s a practice you develop over time. “If you’ve spent 43 years being this way and you’ve spent four days meditating, don’t expect change right away…it will show up when you need it.”
One of the leaders in mindfulness practice is Jon Kabat-Zinn, an international best-selling author, scientist and meditation teacher. His mission is to bring mindfulness to mainstream society and much of his research focuses on mind-body healing and the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the brain, immune system and other areas of the body. Kabat-Zinn identifies the key components to mindfulness are attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and sense of self.
Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness isn’t about getting your way or meditating so that you can be better at something. My definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are, so that you can do whatever you can to optimize your potential, whether you are living with chronic pain or having a baby. You can’t control the universe, so mindfulness involves learning to cultivate wisdom and equanimity— not passive resignation—in the face of what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe of the human condition.”
He adds, “Recent studies from Massachusetts General Hospital have shown that eight weeks of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) can actually produce thickening in particular regions of the brain important for learning, memory, executive decision-making and perspective-taking: all important functions to have at optimal levels when you are under stress or experiencing pain. Also, certain regions get thinner like the amygdala, which involves threat and fear circuitry. If the amygdala is getting thinner after you’ve been practicing mindfulness for only eight weeks, I find that pretty amazing.”
We’re in a new age of NEUROSCIENCE and BRAIN PLASTICITY. The brain has the continued ability to change and we have the power to change it. In 2005, the Society for Neuroscience gathered including leading scientists and the Dalai Lama who stated, “The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of experience, so that the connections between neurons may be formed or even brand-new neurons generated.” This points to the important factor of EXPERIENCE on the brain and its greater impact for learning and change.
VS Ramachandran, a preeminent neuroscientist, in his book “The Tell Tale Brain” states, “It is well established that experience modifies the brain by strengthening or weakening the synapses that link neurons together. This modification process is known as learning.” There is research and viable science out there that explains the positive effect of “experiential learning.”
The horse is an animal that exhibits behavior based on the moment and reflects the environment around them. When incorporating horses into mindfulness practice, they are a natural facilitator in helping humans gain self-awareness and to recognize their own responses to the environment. When working with a horse, which could be simply leading or moving the horse, or walking with the horse, the horse becomes a reflection of it’s handler. They are an animal of authentic behavior and the only way to have a harmonious relationship with the horse is to find our own authenticity. The horse becomes a reflection of one’s own intent and level of congruency (how aligned is our mind and body). This is also presents the opportunity for metaphor and where humans relate to their own story.
The horse’s body, because they do not judge or pretend or lie, is an accurate picture of their mind. A head held high is a heightened response to threat and produces adrenaline. A horse with their head held low is relaxed and produces endorphins. Experiences we have with horses creates the opportunity for self awareness that can translate to change of mind and behavior. And, an experiential learning opportunity has a greater and more lasting impact on our brains and mind. When working with horses, you have the ability to see and positively affect their mind muscle and as humans we can do the same for ourselves.
The horse essentially has the ability to wrap all this up in one profound experience. They are an animal that stimulates the human mind and emotions, our creativity and imagination, and discovery of who we are. And, we have the ability to make changes where necessary. Whether for some added peace and stress reduction or if you’re looking for a way to deepen your ability to face challenges or illness, mindfulness is a valuable tool to have in your daily regimen. Let nature and horses create it.
It was six years ago when I started to research more about the human and horse connection. I read books like “Horse Sense and the Human Heart” by two psychotherapists Adele von Rust McCormick and Marlena Deborah McCormick, “Dancing With Your Dark Horse” by Chris Irwin and “The Tao of Equus” by Linda Kohanov. I knew there was something more to the horse and their contribution to humans and society. I knew it had something to do with affecting our mind and the ability for change. It wasn’t until now I could actually start putting it into words. And, with much hope, words will continue to come…