Mental health – how can we help ourselves?
Emma Hutchison, HorseBack UK, discusses how the exercises we do with horses, can also help us improve our own mental health
Horses are wonderful creatures and can teach us so much. At HorseBack UK they are an integral part of our programmes with both veterans and disadvantaged youth. But, if you don’t have access to a horse, can you still benefit from what they can teach us?
The answer is yes! Here are 6 lessons horses can teach us that you can practice at home – without a real horse in sight.
1. Practice new mental habits
Working well with a horse is not a matter of going through a check-list and then patting yourself on the back. It is a daily dedication, like doing arpeggios on a piano. Horses love steadiness and consistency, so they really value the stuff you do every single day.
It’s exactly the same with your mental health. If you get stuck in negative stories, as the gremlins in your head tell you that you are not good enough, that everything is going to end in disaster, that you will never come out of the darkness into the light, then a beautiful daily practice is to learn to turn those stories around.
Find your one good thing, and write that down. Seek for the silver lining in the clouds. Simply tell yourself that you are enough. Do it again and again. Slow and steady every day, until your brain believes it.
Small shifts in perspective, done over and over again, can have huge results. (Again, this is exactly what you do with a horse.) You don’t have to turn your old, negative stories upside down; you just need to learn to tweak them a little bit. Acknowledge the sadness, the darkness, the pain, and then see if you can find one hopeful thing and focus on that.
2. Be honest
Horses adore honesty. And so does your brain. Denying feelings of anxiety, shame, grief and despair only makes them worse. They twist themselves up inside and paralyse you.
So, a lovely thing to do with yourself is to step into difficult emotions. Honestly say - yes, I do feel vulnerable, or overwhelmed, or hopeless. Sit with those feelings instead of fighting them. Then, see what you can do with them. You can write them down. You can share them with a trusted friend. You can take them to a mental health professional.
The more these feelings are felt and released, the less power they have over you. Know them, name them, face them - and then let them go. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.
When horses get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight, flight and freeze part of the brain, sometimes the best thing you can do for them is invite them to move. Liberty work is great for this - you can offer your horse a chance to dance all those jangled emotions out on the ground, until they come back to a place of stillness and peace.
It’s not so different with humans. We can think our way out of some emotions, but some get stuck in the body, and the rational part of the brain can only do so much. So, if you feel trapped in negative thought loops, particularly those of resentment, or shame, or rage, try dancing them out. Shake them out of your arms; stomp them out of your feet. (One of the HorseBack UK team likes going into the kitchen and doing 1979 pogo dancing when she’s got a real jangle on.)
You are literally resetting your body when you do this. The nervous system can then move from its threat state to its rest and relax state.
Move it out, dance it out, breathe it out. You may even want to holler it out.
This is another practice that pays huge dividends if you do it regularly. Getting stuck is a horrible feeling, so let your body help you to find freedom again.
4. Be present
There is a whole boatload of research and data which shows the extraordinary power that meditation can have on mental health.
Meditation is hard and doing it well may be a life’s work. But you can start very simply by practicing being present, in the moment. Horses do this naturally, so they model it for us humans. They also adore it in their humans.
You don’t need a special room or a special time or special equipment. At moments throughout the day, catch your racing monkey mind, and bring it gently back to the present. Feel all your senses: the air on your face, the smell of the green grass, the sound of your own breathing. All that matters in the world is in this moment.
At HorseBack UK we often start courses with a meditation for horses and veterans. And it is based on this profound but simple idea of being present. If you can make that a habit, you will start to see changes more quickly than you might imagine.
5. Managing expectations
False or unrealistic expectations are one of the enemies of good mental health. If you are constantly lashing yourself for failing to meet goals, for not being the person you expect yourself to be, for not being able to change your life through a sheer act of will, you will live with constant disappointment. The 'Not Good Enough' voices will have a field day.
We’ve learned from our horses to monitor our expectations. We don’t march in expecting the horses to be brilliant just because we want them to be. We understand that everyone has an off day. So, we ask enough, but never too much, and if there’s a bit of a bog or a muddle, we just take a breath and start again.
You can do the same with yourself. Give yourself small, achievable missions. Understand that mistakes and setbacks will come. Be forgiving. Always be prepared to start again, at the beginning.
Expectation management doesn’t sound glamorous or life-changing, but it’s one of the most potent tools we know in keeping the mind in equilibrium.
6. Work with the person you are that day
One of the greatest principles in good horsemanship is working with the horse you have that day. Just because your dazzling steed could do perfect transitions last week, it does not mean that applies this week. Horses have moods and emotions and needs just as humans do. So, at HorseBack, we always ask our horses, ‘What do you need from us today?’
You can do the same with your own dear self. Your anxiety, or your low mood, or your difficulty in connecting with others might have improved, and you are getting that lovely sense of the light at the end of the tunnel, and then - wham - the very next day, you feel that all that progress has disappeared and you are back in the black pit.
It’s easy then to feel like you want to give up, just as one might want to give up when a horse regresses.
But if you say, ‘Well, I’m working with the person I am today,’ then you can take a gentler, more hopeful approach.
Use small steps to move forward again. Remind yourself that you don’t have to tell yourself the 'End of Everything' story. It is still worth making the effort, building the helpful mental habits, doing your daily practices. You would do that for your horse, so you can do it for yourself.
All of us humans are flawed; we all get things wrong. There are days when it seems nothing will come right. But, if you keep trying, if you hold on to hope, if you take the smallest of small steps, you can move on again, and rediscover your rhythm, and remember that one setback does not define you. Today might be a bad day, but tomorrow can be better. Tomorrow – literally and metaphorically – can always be better.
By using horses as our inspiration and taking the lessons that they can teach us every day, we can help shift our mental position and create a better happier life for ourselves and those around us.