Riding Out the Storm!
Desert Horse by Sue Steiner
I just spent a good part of yesterday and today listening to reports on SuperStorm Sandy. My heart goes out to those hit hard by this storm. Weathering storms of all kinds goes best when you are prepared. How in the world do you prepare for calamity? I will leave the hurricane preparedness advice to the weather experts but use this as a time to talk about riding out the emotional storms in life.
Trauma survivors or stressed out people often spent a big chunk of life waiting for the next disaster to strike. People raised in chaos and abuse learn to never really feel ‘safe’ inside. Deep inside they know things are always calmest before the storm so they are continually preparing for the worst to happen. In a life of chaos this is necessary but what happens as this goes on long term is your body and mind wear out always trying to prepare for the worst. Our equine friends help us to see how this trauma response can be redirected so as not to always live life on the edge.
One of the reasons why horses are so helpful in EAP (equine-assisted therapy) is they only deal with what is in front of them. I know sometimes we horse people like to think our horses hold grudges and plot how to manipulate us in our horseback riding efforts but that is not how a horse thinks. It’s easier on our ego to think like that so in our minds WE aren’t to blame. In EAP and EAL sessions we do not ride so that is not even relevant to this discussion other than to say we need to own what WE bring to the horse relationship. Horses as a rule deal with the here and now. They are greatly influenced by instinct and herd dynamics. They have a need to feel safe within a group which enables us, as people, to learn how our behavior, thoughts, actions affect group dynamics and relationships. This is the gold nuggets in EAP work. Horses pick up on our emotions, body language and intentions and react in an honest, non-threatening way.
Last night when the storm was really beginning to pick up I went to the barn to check on my horses. My horses usually are out in the pasture 24/7 weather permitting. We have run in sheds so they usually are fine to be out but with the high winds I didn’t want fences to go down and end up with loose horses! In the barn there was all kinds of banging and flapping going on. The horses were stressed obviously by the winds and racket. One of the things I am looking forward to doing as soon as I can is letting them out so they can run off their stress!! Horses learn to not hold on to stress (that living in the moment thing again) and shake it off with physical movement. It allows the nervous system to readjust and let go of the tension and stress. This morning as the winds die down my horses are fine. I can see they are ready to be turned out but they have let go of the past bad night and are ready to get on with today.
I compare that to the way untrained or unresolved trauma survivors live in their bodies. Many are trained to hold it all in- to not show emotions on the outside and stuff it away in some dark recess of their being. What happens then is the nervous system never really gets to ‘release’ the stress. By holding on to it it can wreck havoc on a person’s emotions, perceptions, health and quality of life. I met a sweet elderly woman not long ago who is struggling with some dementia and poor health. Her mind is stuck much of the time in a very stressful period of her life from several years ago. In essence what she does is continually relive the worst time in her life. I really feel for her and can see how difficult this is for her.