The Healing Power of Presence (with horses)

“The more the dysfunction of the human mind plays itself out on the world stage, clearly visible to everyone in the daily television news reports, the greater the number of people who realize the urgent need for radical change in human consciousness if humanity is not to destroy both itself and the planet.”

These words, written by Eckhart Tolle in 2004, were published in the preface to the paperback edition of his bestselling book, The Power of Now. Fifteen years later, the urgency for radical change in human consciousness has never been greater. And the stakes for NOT achieving a higher collective consciousness have never been higher.

Eckhart Tolle’s books, and the recordings of his talks, have been instrumental for me in my own quest for higher consciousness and greater personal peace, as have the works of many other authors and spiritual guides. But nothing has been more effective for me in terms of connecting with “that intensely alive state” Tolle talks about, “that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking” than spending time in the presence of horses.

Achieving a higher state of consciousness requires rising above the chatter of our analytical brains. These days, the trendy term ‘mindfulness’ is often thrown around to describe this process. I don’t particularly like the term ‘mindfulness’ because, to me, it implies that the mind is full when the goal should actually be to quiet or empty the mind. I prefer descriptors such as ‘being present’ or ‘finding presence’.

Many studies have shown that when we become more present our cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) level lowers. Our heart rate goes down. Our blood pressure reduces. We relax. We gain clarity. Our immune system functions improve. We concentrate better. We have more focus. Our listening skills and memory are vastly improved. We feel less self-conscious. Our anxiety levels decrease. And, perhaps most importantly, we get more enjoyment out of life.

There are many ways to practice becoming more present, such as meditation, yoga, exercise and artistic expression (to name a few). In my personal experience, however, when it comes to learning to embody a state of pure presence… horses are the perfect teachers.

As prey animals, horses are hard-wired to stay in a constant state of awareness of their environment. This means they naturally (without even trying!) model perfect presence. Their physical size means they also have a huge, commanding presence of their own. You simply can’t be near a horse and not pay attention to it. There is something inexplicable about being in the presence of these incredible animals. I love the way Shelley Carr, Director of Equine Soul Connection describes it:

“Horses answer the call of the soul. The faint whisper of a promise that there is something else – something more joyful and more peaceful than our daily existence.”

In terms of practicing presence, the key to benefitting from spending time with horses lies in making a choice to focus on being vs. doing. As soon as we attach a goal to the time we spend with horses, our thinking mind takes over. Our controlling energy builds. We get busy. Anxiety, expectation and stress creep in. And we become distracted from the present moment rather than connected to it.

If we simply drop the agenda and turn our focus toward noticing, hearing, sensing, allowing and accepting… that’s when the magic happens. Horses make this process easier because of their enormous presence, their intrinsic beauty and their powerful, calming energy. When we stand beside a horse with no goal other than to simply pay attention, we quickly start to notice:

  • the depth of their soulful eyes that make us feel seen like we’ve never felt seen before
  • the unbelievable gentleness of their touch
  • the softness of their muzzles
  • the way they use their whiskers and lips to investigate
  • how the hairs on our own necks stand up when we feel their soft breath on our skin
  • the mesmerizing sound of their rhythmic breathing and chewing
  • the way the sunlight shimmers magically through their dancing mane and tail hairs
  • the earthy, comforting scent of their skin; and
  • the grounded energy that surrounds them.

Spending time with horses also draws us more deeply into connection with everything else in the environment because horses are acutely aware. When a bird moves in the distance, the horse’s ear will swivel in that direction. If an unusual sound occurs, the horse will lift its heads and take a closer look. When a fly lands on a horse, the horse will twitch its skin, swish its tail or stomp its foot to shoo the insect away.

In other words, when it comes to being present, the horses will do the heavy lifting for us. All we need to do is NOTICE.

Spending time being present with horses is akin to being mentored by the most gifted sages alive. Soon our negative thoughts and feelings start to melt into a calm awareness. We feel more centered and in harmony with the natural world. We begin to experience lightness. We sense peace. Joy returns and we suddenly feel a new kinship with all of life.

How will we know when we have succeeded in surrendering our minds to pure presence? According to Eckhart Tolle, “When you no longer need to ask the question.”

For me, when I spend time with horses…

I no longer need to ask the question.

Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together, to heal together.

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