What horses can teach us about mindfulness

A practical guide to the benefits of greater self-awareness and mindfulness in the barn and beyond.

What is mindfulness? I like to think of it as being here, now. In other words, not in the past, not in the future, but in the present moment, aware of the myriad bits of information available through our senses, thoughts, bodily sensations and intuition. Horses happen to be experts on the subject of mindfulness, and we can learn so much about it in their presence.

Horses as a mirror

One way horses can teach us about mindfulness is by modeling the behavior for us. Horses, by their very nature, are mindful. Because they are prey animals, they instinctively keep themselves safe by living in a state of awareness of their environment. This awareness allows them to tend to their needs as they stay alert to potential threats by continually receiving information about, and reacting to, their environment. In striving to be horse-like, we may also benefit from mindfulness by being more conscious of our own needs and staying safe, therefore reducing stress and conserving energy.

Another way horses teach us mindfulness is through their reactions and responses to us in each moment of our interactions. Since we are a part of our horses’ environment, they are continually monitoring and reacting to our feelings, moods, body language and energetic qualities.

If we are mindful of the feedback horses provide to us about ourselves, then they serve as a barometer of our state of being. Remember that any feedback they give us is in real time. This means that as we change something about ourselves, we may immediately see that shift reflected back to us by our horses.

Reaping the benefits of mindfulness

The benefits of mindfulness are innumerable. Incorporating it into your interactions with your horse can be immensely rewarding for your relationship, and is an important skill to carry into other aspects of your life.

Learning to be aware of the feedback you’re getting from your horse and yourself in each moment can help reduce stress for both of you and enable you to make appropriate decisions during your time together. You will be safer, the lines of communication will be more open, and the opportunity for harmony and joyfulness increases.

Mindfulness can improve the quality of the time you spend with your horse by preventing superfluous thoughts, baggage from your day, or concerns about the future from stealing your attention or negatively affecting your interaction. If your thoughts are elsewhere, you may miss important communications from your horse and information from your environment.

Furthermore, if you can be aware of the feedback your horse offers you about your state of being, you’ll become more conscious of the way you show up in your life on the physical, mental, emotional and energetic levels. Being conscious of how you show up means you have more influence and decision-making power over every aspect of yourself.

Another benefit of bringing mindfulness to the time you spend with your horse is that you may realize how your thoughts affect your mood, how your mood affects how you feel, and how you feel is reflected in your body language and the energy you give off. Horses are masters at reading all these non-verbal signals, so if your awareness is in the present moment you can avoid bringing in elements that aren’t necessary, helpful or relevant.

While mindfulness practices positively influence the relationship between you and your horse, they can also be carried into other situations and relationships in your life to create similar benefits. For example, consider the benefits of really listening and being aware of the communication, verbal and nonverbal, coming from yourself and those around you. You’ll be more in control of yourself instead of constantly being in a state of reactivity.

Practicing mindfulness with your horse

What follows is a modified excerpt from my workbook, What Horses Can Teach Us About Mindfulness, a series of guided exercises and prompts designed to encourage you to bring more mindfulness to your equine interactions. It is meant to be used as a whole or in parts. I encourage you to use what serves you at the pace that feels right to you.

This particular set of exercises and prompts includes a basic mindfulness exercise and is tailored to your arrival at the barn, your approach to your horse, and your greeting. However, they can easily be modified to apply to grooming, tacking, groundwork, riding, and the intervals pre- and post-interaction with your horse.

Familiarize yourself with the prompts ahead of time, and have a pen handy as most are best answered in the moment. Repeating this series of exercises over several occasions will help you develop new habits and allow you to start seeing patterns and making connections that may otherwise not be apparent.

A mindfulness exercise: arrival, approach and greeting

As you move through this exercise, be mindful of any apprehension, nervousness, fear, uncertainty or discomfort in yourself or your horse. Keep in mind that horses communicate through changes in body language, posture, positioning, breathing and expressions. Look for even the smallest signals, such as a turn of your horse’s head, a change in his breathing, or a shifting of his weight.

If you sense any negativity, pause to consider the importance of carefully choosing the next best step for both of you. Ignoring or pushing through these warning signs may set you and your horse up for unnecessarily difficult or fearful circumstances.

This is especially true if you are both experiencing these feelings simultaneously. If this is the case, allow yourself to consider alternatives such as being with your horse from a distance.

A few parting tips

Be patient with yourself and your horse. New habits take time to develop. New skills take time to learn and practice. It’s okay to make mistakes…horses don’t judge! Mindfulness has positively and profoundly impacted my life and the lives of those I work with, both human and horse. It can lead to deeper and richer connections, reduced stress, and rewarding experiences at the barn and in all other areas of your life.

Enjoy the journey!