Horses know a few things about the experience of being isolated from the larger world, and of having their freedoms involuntarily restricted. In fact, unless a horse is lucky enough to be born wild, this is their permanent life experience.
It might be tempting to say, “Well, since most horses have never known anything different it’s not that bad.” But this isn’t true. Having never known anything different doesn’t make the experience of having few liberties in your life any easier!
Even horses who are born into captivity show clear signs of being stressed, anxious, frustrated and/or depressed when they don’t have the freedom to go where they want to go and do what they want to do.
There’s only one thing I’ve found that significantly improves my horses’ experience of living in captivity: giving them as much license as possible to make choices and engage in self-care.
At the end of the day, we all want to feel in control of our lives. This holds true even within a larger context of limitation. There’s so much we can learn from horses in this regard. Here are 10 lessons that are particularly relevant and can help us survive (and possibly even thrive!) during this period of global self-isolation:
1. Stay Present. Horses understand that the only moment that ever truly exists is right now. Whatever happened even just five minutes ago is already nothing but a memory, and cannot be altered. Tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived, and much can still change before then. Living in the present moment as best we can allows us to respond more appropriately to immediate issues and opportunities. It also helps us feel more grateful, connected and grounded.
2. “Worry About Your Own Self”. Horses are exceptionally good at practicing self-care and taking responsibility for their own needs, actions and decisions. If they have an itch, they find a creative way to scratch it for themselves! Horses do not turn their personal problems into someone else’s responsibility.
3. Have Each Other’s Backs. Just because horses naturally take ownership of what’s theirs to own, this doesn’t mean they turn their backs on their herd mates – or that they never cooperate! Rather, they look for opportunities that are ‘mutual wins’. Rarely do you see horses engaging in social interactions that are beneficial only to one. And in many instances, the choices they make as individuals are designed to benefit the larger herd community.
4. Respect One Another’s Personal Space. The primary reason horses are able to live in close quarters and maintain a peaceful herd community is because they naturally honor one another’s need for personal space – whether it be physical, mental or emotional. No horse takes it personally when another member of the community moves further away or finds a private spot to hang out for a spell. And they all trust one another to re-engage when ready.
5. Stick Together. As herd animals, horses never forget that their survival depends on being in it together, always. While horses are careful not to micromanage one another’s choices, they do keep close tabs on each other. The horses in a herd make it a priority to get to know one another’s personalities, preferences and quirks. Most of all, they support one another by always sticking together and deeply valuing the comfort and safety of community.
6. Practice Calming Behaviors. Domestic life is stressful for horses, as is life in the wild for a prey animal (just in a different way). In either situation, grazing is one of the primary ways horses calm themselves throughout the day. This head-down body position reduces tension in their backs and necks, and naturally stretches the spine. The gentle rhythmic motion of biting and grinding grass also soothes their nerves and helps keep their focus on the present moment… even as they continuously scan the horizon for potential threats.
7. Keep Lines of Communication Open. Horses never make assumptions about how their herd mates feel. They are constantly asking questions about personal space requirements, monitoring energetic vibes within the herd and respectfully checking in with one another. Communication only works as a tool for building and maintaining healthy community when everyone is honest and respectful.
8. Stay Connected with the Natural World. Mother Earth is here to support us all. Horses spend the majority of their lives outside in the natural world. They feel connected to the sun, the wind, the rain, the birds and the cycles of the moon, as well as the wide variety of plants, insects and other wildlife in their immediate environment. Living in constant connection with the natural world can keep all of us feeling grounded and supported.
9. Engage in Playful Movement! All living creatures are designed for movement. Horses feel happiest and healthiest when they can engage in free-flowing gentle movement throughout the day, but they also enjoy occasional spontaneous bursts of high-energy group play! This more intense physical activity gets their blood flowing, helps to reduce stress and boosts their immune systems. Individual horses rarely engage in high-energy play by themselves; it’s almost always a group activity. They encourage one another to participate and the sessions are highly creative. Each one is unique and co-created in the moment!
10. Get Plenty of Rest. Horses only need between 30 minutes and 2 hours of R.E.M. sleep per day, but these healing periods of rest are critical to their overall wellbeing. Within the herd, horses often share periods of communal resting, maybe standing together under the shade of a tree. But they also take turns “standing guard” to make sure every member of the herd gets a chance to lie down, totally relax and benefit from some deep, healing sleep.
I hope you’ve found these reminders from the horses helpful. During this challenging and worrisome time it’s more important than ever for us to remember that we, as humans, are not alone here on this earth. And we don’t have to come up with all the answers and solutions by ourselves. The natural world provides many models we can look to – both as we cope with this emerging pandemic and also when we are ready to begin rebuilding for a brighter future ahead.
Kim Hallin is the Founder and Lead Facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique equine-inspired experiential learning program outside of Charleston, SC. You can learn more about her and her work at www.unbridled.guru.