Mustangs and veterans working together towards mutual healing.
Mustangs and veterans are forces of nature – people and horses of strong will and beliefs. They are survivors with much in common. Thanks to the Fearless Victory Project at the Medicine Horse Program in Boulder, Colorado, mustangs and veterans work together towards healing.
Both veterans and mustangs have been pulled from their homes and families and shipped to exotic places. Both have faced the unknown, and suffered culture shock as they entered foreign lands with different languages. They both fall under the auspices of the American government. And many have faced trauma.
When the veterans first met our mustangs, they said the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress they experienced were the same in the horses – hypervigilance, and fear of touch and contact. A first touch would sometimes send a wild horse racing away. Mama, an older mare bound for slaughter on the auction circuit, was so wild that a simple look would send her running for the hills. It was just too much pressure. The veterans spent many days sitting outside her stall, allowing Mama to become accustomed to the smell, sound and presence of humans.
It took weeks of simply being with Mama, feeding her and talking to her before she would tolerate a touch. She was wary, quick on her feet and clever with her heels. To be with her, the veterans had to ground themselves, be quiet and still, and invoke all the techniques they learned in their own mindfulness practice. In mindfulness training, the veterans spent ten to 30 minutes or more simply sitting, with their awareness focused on their breath. They learned to take control of their autonomic Mustangs and veterans work together towards mutual healing. nervous system, to control their breath and heart rate and quiet their minds. Before we worked with the horses, we always worked on ourselves first.
This awareness of staying in the moment is critical when working with any horse, but in particular with mustangs whose sense of survival is so close to the surface. The veterans learn not only horsemanship skills but also coping skills that they can carry back to their own lives, when “the runaway horse brain” kicks in and panic comes to the forefront. In Tibetan Buddhism, the mind is often compared to a horse. A calm mind is like a well-seated rider. Through mindfulness practice, the veterans learn to control their minds by forming a mind/breath connection, similar to the connection a great rider forms with a horse.
We often did sitting meditation in the pen with the mustangs. When we first entered the pen, the horses scattered. But when we sat, slowed down and began to meditate, the horses became interested. They formed a second circle around our chairs, their heads hanging, and their breath quiet and slow. As herd animals, they are tuned not only to our body language but also our breathing and heart rates. As ours slowed, so did theirs.
As the mustangs began to tame and came to the veterans seeking attention and affection, the latter saw the change. The veterans realized that if these wild horses could control their panic and anxiety and overcome the trauma they suffered, so could they. As one veteran said, “If Mama can do it, so can we.” This reciprocal healing is a cornerstone of the Medicine Horse Program.
“The mind is often compared to a horseman and the breath to the horse. A wild and untamed horse is difficult for the rider; a very good and well-trained horse is quite useful. If both rider and horse are extremely welltrained and skilled, an excellent combination has been made.” – Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen
Kathryn Johnson is executive director of Medicine Horse Program, one of the largest equine assisted psychotherapy facilities in the world. Over a thousand people pass through the gates of Medicine Horse Program every year. Kathryn is an educator who has taught from pre-school through college as well as a horse trainer specializing in dressage, hunter/jumper and more recently rescue horses.