Lessons from a horse about life as we know it right now.
Updated: Mar 10
This past week my anxiety was at an all time high as I was trying to process all of the COVID-19 information. How will this impact my family, my business, our economy...you name it. The weight of it all came crashing down like a ton of bricks on my chest. That’s when my amazing wife, Gabby, suggested I go ride my horse.
I went out to ride & was honestly being lazy & not really that smart. We have an indoor arena that serves as a run-in for part of our herd. I did not want to take the time to put away all of the horses, so I simply shut the gate & decided I would ride in the midst of the herd. I told my horse Gabe, you can manage this, right?!
I put the bareback saddle pad on Gabe and we started to ride. Gabe was doing quite well given the circumstances. Let me give you some insight into the herd dynamics.
Horses have a “pecking order” (a leadership structure for the herd). Gabe is on the lower end of that pecking order, if not the lowest. This means that Gabe is often “bossed around” by the other horses. I was attempting to weave in and out of the herd. The other horses began to pin their ears (a form of communication to other horses that they are upset) and Gabe a started to panic a bit. He started to have trouble listening to me & would require a lot more out of me. He did not need me to take over, but needed me to be more present & regulated. No time to be lazy Michael, your partner needs you to help him regulate right now.
Quick snap shot of some neuroscience. Our brain stem is wired for survival—fight, flight or freeze. The more you activate a particular part of your brain, the easier it is to use. The more I live in that state of “survival” the easier it is for me to act impulsively vs. thinking rationally. Stay with me, you’ll see how this all connects. A horses’ brain is very similar to our brain. Their brain stem is responsible for survival and horses do have an emotional part (limbic system) & the ability for higher level thinking.
Horses are prey animals which makes accessing the “survival part” of their brain quite easy for them. And in the moment of stress, Gabe went to his best survival skills (fight, flight or freeze). He started to fight back with me on his back. He started to charge at his buddy, Bogie & then stopped himself. His thinking part of his brain overrode the survival part. Then he started to run away as Libby pinned her ears and charged at him. Then he stopped. His higher level thinking took over. I did not experience Gabe attempting his “freeze” response, but I am sure it was there at times. Gabe moved in and out of his neocortex (high level thinking) and his brain stem (survival). This continued happening for my 30 minute ride. That’s when it dawned on me. My horse, Gabe, was doing exactly what we are doing right now in the midst of COVID-19.
In this time of stress, our survival part of our brain is in overdrive. It’s easy to kick into gear and impulse buy (or hoard items) out of fear, we are quick to fight with others (online or in person) and some of us have gone to the freeze response. Numb & quite checked out from everything going on. We are all experiencing this in different ways & our brain is accessing the survival responses that have helped us survive up to this point. This is normal, this is your brain & body doing what it was created to do. I could not get mad at Gabe for his survival instincts. He needed me to help him regulate, then he was able to relate to his herd & then he could reason. (Bruce D Perry, MD, PhD. Senior Fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy)
So what can we learn from Gabe?
*One, Gabe worked hard to stay calm in this midst of chaos. Eventually, Gabe settled into a corner of the arena where the other horses left him alone. He was practicing physical distancing (let’s begin to use that instead of social distancing—thank you Dr Bruce D. Perry). His space allowed him to engage in regulating activity—moving his feet.
Tip for us: Take time to go for a walk, run, play the piano, do some yoga, play the imaginary drums, whatever you can do to engage both sides of your body.
*From time to time we would venture over to the herd and then return to his corner to ride. He experienced the stress & returned to a calm corner. This is therapeutic dosing. For us that is limiting our exposure to the stress right now.
Tip for us: Spend a few minutes in the morning watching the news and/or social media & give yourself a break from it, then come back later in the evening).
*Gabe and I worked on the relationships with the herd through detachment. He spent time away from the herd, but was still connected. Just because we are physically separated right now, does not mean we cannot continue to work on our relationships. Practice physical distancing over social distancing. When it is not safe to be in close proximity with another, for whatever reason, detachment is an excellent way to work on that relationship. (Thank you Natural Lifemanship for teaching me this). Think of this like working with a wild mustang. Sometimes it’s not safe to have a wild horse right next to you, but the goal is to eventually have the relationship safe enough for both parties to be able to work on the relationship through attachment (where you are both sharing the same space). Practice detachment.
Tip for us : call or text to check-in. Send a message or even a card to let them know you are thinking of them.
Remember the goal is still connection, just with distance. As we do this, we begin to strengthen our attachment. We will experienced improved relationships when we return to sharing the same space. Thank you Gabe for allowing me to see first hand how all of this plays out in our lives right now.
So my advice, keep on, keeping on. We can do this, one step at a time. Give yourself and others grace as we venture through this thing called life. We are in this together.