Emma Hutchison is the co-founder of HorseBack UK. This multi-award-winning Scottish charity is based near Aboyne, in the Scottish Highlands. HorseBack UK works to improve health and well-being. It does this by inspiring recovery, positive change and renewed purpose amongst those who need it most. As well as improving the education and employment prospects for those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. HorseBack UK uses horsemanship, equine-assisted learning, rural skills and the outdoors. Delivering award-winning projects and personal development programmes to encourage participants to acquire new coping strategies. As well as learning life skills and lasting resilience whilst also gaining nationally recognised awards and qualifications. In this post, Emma Hutchison shares with us 6 mental health lessons you can practice at home with a little help from horses.
6 Mental Health Lessons From Horses For Home
From Quick Draw McGraw to the Wonky Donkey, horses have been part of childhood for a long time. They are wonderful creatures and horses can teach us so much as we grow towards adulthood. At HorseBack UK horses are an integral part of our programmes. Working with both veterans and disadvantaged youth. But if you don’t have access to an actual real-life horse, can you still benefit from what they can teach us?
The answer is yes!
Here are 6 lessons horses can teach us that you can practice at home – without a real horse in sight.
1. Practice New Mental Habits
Working well with a horse is not a matter of going through a checklist and then patting yourself on the back. It takes daily dedication, like doing arpeggios on a piano. Horses love steadiness and consistency. They really value the stuff you do with them every single day.
It’s exactly the same with your mental health. It’s easy to get stuck in negative stories. Telling yourself that you are not good enough. That everything is going to end in disaster. Or that you are never going to come out of the darkness into the light. A beautiful daily practice is to learn to turn those stories around.
Find one of your good things, and write that down. Look for the silver lining in the clouds. Simply tell yourself that you are enough. Do it again and again. Slow and steady every day, until your brain believes it.
Those small shifts in perspective, repeated over and over again, can have huge results. This is the same process that 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.
2. Be Honest
Horses adore honesty. And so does your brain. Denying your feelings of anxiety, shame, grief and despair will only make them worse. These feelings can twist themselves up inside and paralyse you.
A lovely thing to do with yourself is to step into your difficult emotions. Honestly say, yes, I do feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, or hopeless. Take some time to 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 or you can take them to a mental health professional.
The more you feel these feelings and release them, the less power they have over you. Know them, name them and face them. Then you can let them go. The more you practice this, the better you will get at it.
Horses can get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight, flight and freeze part of the brain. During this time sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to invite them to move. Liberty work is great for this. Offering 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 can get stuck in our bodies. The rational part of our brain can only do so much. If you feel like you are trapped in negative thought loops, particularly those of resentment, 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.
By moving, you are literally resetting your body. The nervous system can then move on 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.
4. Be Present
Research and data show the extraordinary power that meditation can have on mental health. Meditation is hard and doing it well maybe a life’s work. But you can start very simply by practising being present and in the moment. Horses do this naturally, so they can model it for us, and they adore it in their humans.
To meditate you don’t need a special room, a special time or special equipment. At moments throughout the day, catch your racing mind, and bring it gently back to the present. 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 is that moment.
At HorseBack UK we often start our courses with meditation for horses and veterans. It is based on the profound but simple idea of being present and on the moment. If you can make that a habit, you will start to see changes more quickly than you might imagine.
5. Managing Expectations
Having false or unrealistic expectations are one of the enemies of good mental health. Constantly lashing yourself for failing to meet goals or for not being the person you expect yourself to be. Or for not being able to change your life through a sheer act of will, will make you live with constant disappointment. The not-good-enough voices will always be present.
We’ve learned from our horses to monitor our expectations. We can’t expect the horses to be brilliant just because we want them to be. We understand that everyone can have an off day. So, we ask enough, but never too much. 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 have to keep the mind in equilibrium.
6. 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. Just because your dazzling steed could do perfect transitions last week, that might not apply this week. Just like humans do, horses also have moods, emotions and needs. So, at HorseBack, we always ask our horses, ‘What do you need from us today?’
You can do the same with yourself. Your anxiety, low mood, or your difficulty in connecting with others might have improved. You are getting that lovely sense of the light at the end of the tunnel. Then the very next day, you feel that all that progress has disappeared and you are back in the black pit.
At those points, it’s easy to feel like you want to give up. Just as one might want to give up when a horse regresses. But if you say, ‘Well, I’m working with the person I am today,’ then you can take a gentler, more hopeful approach.
Use small steps to move forward again. Remind yourself that you don’t have to tell yourself the end-of-everything story. It’s always worth making the effort, building the helpful mental habits and doing your daily practices. You would do that for your horse, so you can do it for yourself.
All humans are flawed. We all get things wrong. There will be days when it seems nothing will come right. But keep trying and hold on to hope. If you take the smallest of small steps, you can move on again. 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. We can take 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.