Saturday, February 22, 2014

Horses and Self-Regulating Emotions


 Horses have the gift, as herd animals, to sense and react to the emotions and intentions of whatever group they are a part of.   This attribute makes our interactions with them particularly useful in learning how to self-regulate emotions.   Horses, generally speaking, do not hold on to emotions so we can learn by their body language, posture, breathing how they bring themselves back to a sense of calm.  For instance after a scare they react and respond to the threat with tense muscles, flared nostrils, high head, rapid breathing and springing to action if necessary.  When the threat is gone their body language and posture changes, their heads, lower, their breathing slows and deepens, their muscles relax.  In the wild, horses would not survive if they did not learn how to release this tension.  It takes tremendous energy to respond to a threat so they learn to conserve the energy by letting it go when it is not necessary.

People, especially traumatized people, have their nervous system constantly set on high alert which makes it difficult to regulate emotions.  It is exhausting to our bodies to have our heads spinning, thoughts racing and body tensed for long periods of time.  Added to this is the reality that many traumatized people have been taught to shut down their emotions so emotions spins out of control completely out of their awareness until it explodes (or implodes) into some destructive force.


The skill of regulating emotions can be taught by observing and being around horses.  Horses are honest with their emotions and bodies if they also have not been traumatized or over regulated and allowed to 'be' horses.

As someone who has a trauma history and suffered from anxiety for years, I have experienced this gift from my horses.  Some of the learning came about naturally.  Horses are sensitive creatures, as am I, so I observed them observing me and we connected and learned together.  Some of it has been taught thru riding green horses and my own sense of self-preservation (tight muscles + anxious mind = anxious horse!).  Some of my learning came together while at a Natural Lifemanship clinic while working as an equine specialist.  I also connected some of the dots in my horses and healing journey by way of Somatic Experiencing (developed by Peter Levine).   I am taking my training journey to another level this next week at Eastern Mennonite University,  Center for Justice and Peacebuilding  STAR Program Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience Training.

I will write more on this subject soon with tips on how to learn more so stop by again or sign up for updates.

But before I go, the barn is calling.  The sun is out and I want some horse therapy!  :)

Happy Trails!

Sue









Sunday, February 9, 2014

Control; Who Has it, Who Wants it and How Do I Get More?




I have a bit of a love/hate thing going on with control.  I like to have it but hate to lose it.  I don't like being controlled but find it hard to see that characteristic in myself.  It's not that I never get controlling, but I might be more inclined to describe it differently in myself.  Attention to detail, meticulous, high standards are some nicer characteristics to 'controlling' people.  The downside can be narrow mindedness,  inflexible and as an extreme abusive or ruthless.    

I had to remind myself though that some aspects of control are good for us.  Maybe like in many things in life the answer is in balance.  I heard on NPR just this evening about a study that shows a correlation between a child at the age of 4 that shows more self control in resisting the urge to eat a forbidden cookie to later in life success.  The kids who show more self control also had higher SAT scores and more success at college.  As they look further into the same people's lives they found the kids who lasted longer resisting the temptation of the cookie had better jobs and enjoyed better health.   The kids who could not resist the urge and showed poor self control were not surprisingly more likely to have a criminal record, poor job and school performance and even more likely to be homeless.

Without some control I must admit we would have chaos.  We would spin out of control!  Control in a more positive light brings about order, refinement and movement in the right direction.   Two of my favorite things would be non-existent without control.  Fine motor control is needed in creating art.  Riding horses without gross motor control of the rider and control of the horse would be difficult if not downright dangerous.   Since I like to do both of those things then I must accept and maybe even welcome some aspects of control.
Horses and art have taught me the value of refined control.  A common complaint by people learning to paint with watercolor is that it is hard to control. Watercolor painting tends to have a bit of a mind of its own, not unlike horses.  To 'tame' it you have to loosen up your idea of control and allow the watercolor space to do its thing.  When it does it is awesome and beautiful.

When I paint with watercolors I work more with the water then I do with the paint.  I make different shaped puddles of water on the paper and dip my brush with the paint into the water and let it do its thing as they interact.  The paint colors mix in the water and creates beauty and interest as it dries.  The secret I have found is to work or control the water and let the paint do its thing.  Trying to paint with watercolors without taking into consideration how the paint reacts to the water will lead you to frustration and probably a bit of a mess.  Watercolor loses its unique qualities if this isn't taken into account.

Horses are also known for having a mind of their own.  As a living, breathing creature they have their own personality, natural tendencies and opinions and are shy about letting you know.  Beware the person who doesn't listen to what the horse is telling you.

Clearly established boundaries provide guidance and safety for the horse as they find those boundaries by movement or feel.   Tighten, restrict and overly control a frightened horse's movement with a heavy hand and you are on your way to a big mess.  Its not hard to imagine that situation spiraling out of control.  Allowing the horse to interact in a way he can process information as they seek safety, boundaries and guidance from his handler will refine the horse's movements and response.  That is the basis of horsemanship.  Good horsemanship creates happy horses and beautiful movement.   The right movement of water and paint on the paper creates a beautiful image.

Horses blossom when allowed freedom to be who they are within boundaries.  An understanding of horse nature with the right amount of control and finesse sets the stage for the right things to happen in the riding ring.  Just like the different colors interact on the paper to make something delightful so too are horses under the right circumstances in skilled hands.  The control needed to work with what some perceive as 'uncontrollable' is not control as much as it is knowing the components, setting the stage, creating an atmosphere of respect and allowing the interaction to create its own beauty.  

I am sure everyone reading this has had experiences of someone wanting to exert too much control over you. Whether desire for more control came from a parent, a co-worker, a spouse, friend or even in a larger sense as in government restrictions or law enforcement it is uncomfortable when it is out of balance with respect, good intention and clear boundaries.   When this balance gets out of whack conflict erupts.  Pressure increases and movement is restricted.  Conflict  escalates and chaos is not far behind.

Conflict does not have to spiral downward.  Areas of conflict, with the right mindset and dynamics, can be great for opening up new opportunities and possibilities.

How does one get the mindset in which conflict can be viewed as an opportunity for growth, rather than a way to exert more power and control over others?   That question has been on my mind and in my heart for quite while now.   I am not a brute force person.  Maybe horses and art have given me a taste of being open to possibilities.  Regardless of why I am seeking this mindset, there are ways to learn conflict resolution skills. Our violent world is in desperate need of being able to see conflict as an avenue for transformation.  

In my hunger for seeking just and peaceful interactions over difficult subjects I came across an ancient custom that is very much about setting the stage for movement and transformation.  When something is transformed it is changed from the inside out and continues to grow and change.  I am referring to something called a Circle Process and is my new favorite thing!





 Circle Processes  can be used as a tool to set the stage for meaningful discussion about heated topics or areas of conflict.  The circle keeper's role is to help set the stage by preparing a safe space for people to freely talk about a conflict.  This sets the group in a good position to become more open to building relationships and finding ways to resolve and transform their differences.  The circle keeper does not control the outcome or the discussion but works on evening out power differences so all feel they have a voice.   The circle keeper facilitates the process and must be open and sensitive to the needs of the group as a whole.  Its about helping the group determine boundaries, intentions and goals and allowing them to interact in a safe, open way.   The essence of the Circle Process is to allow people to feel respected and heard.  That combination of ingredients can provide the freedom for people to interact, react and create positive change.

Just like the horses and watercolors, when these conditions come about it can create beautiful movement.  

In the photo above, a small child's wading pool was used recently in our church's MYF Circle Process.  A centerpiece is often included to give a visual of the groups purpose in having a circle process.  The participants in the MYF group wrote on colored paper values they felt important in their life.  They dropped the paper into the water, in the center of the circle, as a representation of what they wanted to bring to the process.   This was just part of what is done to help set the stage for meaningful communication.

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I am preparing for the first of 3 week long, intensive training sessions at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.  The program I've enrolled in is called STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience   My hope is to become a certified STAR trainer and conflict resolution skills trainer and mediator.   I am also playing around with the idea of how to use Equine- Assisted Learning in teaching conflict resolution.