Horse Lesson

I am always amazed at how nature presents us with just the right environment to help us learn how to deal with troubling situations in our lives.  I am currently working with some young people who are leaving home for the first time to go to university. There is anxiety, nervousness, doubt, and a for some a constant stomach-churning sensation which gets in the way of eating, sleeping and generally feeling ok.

Today I am working with someone who has high hopes of getting a university place. Her expected grades are particularly good, but she worries she hasn’t done enough. Her family are very excited for her, but she worries about how they will be when she leaves. She has an excellent place at a university but worries that she won’t be able to find her way round the campus or make friends.

These are very real feelings leading to very real anxiety symptoms. I describe for her the natural processes within the body that respond to these worries. The flight fight responses that our bodies have developed over thousands of years to protect us from harm. Only now it’s not a sabre-toothed tiger but an unfamiliar situation that is the scary thing and our minds thinking in worst case scenario terms which is keeping the body in constant hyper-alert state.

As we walk, I notice I have had my head down for most of this conversation and we are suddenly at the stile we usually cross mid-way through the session. However today, there, in the way of our crossing, is a fierce looking mare protecting her young offspring. She stands in our way and is not going to let anyone cross that stile and get in the way of her baby.

I laugh and say out loud – what are we going to do now? But I notice something else. I am starting to feel very anxious. What do I do? I should have taken more care and not led us into this situation – I could have turned off onto a different path had I looked ahead. My feelings and sensations of panic are starting to feel very real. So, I take a risk and decide to share these feeling with my client. I tell her exactly what is happening in my mind and my body in response to this situation. I let her know that my heart is racing, my breathing feels shallow and my legs feel weak. I tell her what my mind is thinking that I am worried about crossing the stile. That I could be putting us both in danger? What if one of us gets injured, do we have phones? What if, what if.

We are now both worried. So, we practice the breathing technique we talked of earlier. We talk of the things we could do in this situation. We examine the facts. We calm down and wait. Then we make a decision to cross the stile. We talk gently to the horse and her baby and let her know that we won’t let any harm come to her baby – or us! It worked. We walked calmly passed the horses.

For the rest of the session we talked about the situation and what we had both learned from it. How to notice and acknowledge the feelings of fear, how to kick-start the calming down responses in our bodies, and how to deal with fearful situations. It was a memorable session for us both and we often referred to it in subsequent sessions as the horse lesson. So, I am no longer surprised by what confronts us on our outdoor therapy sessions. I use every moment, everything nature has to offer and am very grateful for it when working with clients outdoors.