The Wisdom of the Herd

Until you get quiet, you can’t know what your heart needs to confess…peace cannot happen without the discipline of self examination”

Rebekah Lyons, Rhythms of Renewal

Earlier this fall I was asked to give a talk about my work with horses to a local Unitarian Congregation. Having heard of the Unitarians, I was confident that this group was a safe space to share my perspective, and as a first speaking engagement, would be an opportunity to get my “feet wet” and step into the spotlight, something I’ve been resisting in this work, and is not exactly helpful when starting a business venture!

In preparing for the talk, I thought about the many things I have learned over the past three years with horses, mine, and of course, Mena and the Freedom Herd. I wrote and re-wrote the talk, and in the end, as I was standing in the bathroom this morning getting ready, my laptop next to me, a new talk emerged. I wrote, stopped, curled a strand of hair, and then returned to writing. Before I knew it, I was ready – both in that I was dressed and my hair & make up were done, and, at long last I had words before me that I was ready to share powerfully with an audience.

I could feel the nervous energy arise in my body–the butterflies in my stomach, the tingles in my arms and legs, and then, I noticed the thoughts floating through my mind “I am anxious, and, I am also excited.” Two perspectives, and I could choose. I chose excited, and hopped into the car ready to go. On the way I decided to practice the Heartmath Heart Focused Breathing technique I would share as part of my talk – as I took deep breaths, I imagined sending and receiving love through my heart to the people I was about to meet, and imagined receiving love back. I felt grounded, and ready.

As I arrived at the venue, I felt welcomed, and, unexpectedly, overcome with the feeling of being in a church setting for the first time in three years, since I stopped attending mass with my grandmother (Nonna). Tears started to well up in my eyes, and before I began, as I stood at the front, I took a moment to acknowledge this for the audience, a moment of vulnerability, but also of connection. And then I began…

A Talk Prepared for the Unitarian Congregation

Every new year’s eve, for as long as I can remember – I would make the same promise to myself “this year, I’m going to thrive, and not just survive.”

Can anyone relate? 

The truth was, I actually had no idea what “thrive” meant or looked like. I was living a life focused on surviving as a result of childhood trauma – trapped in my mind and keeping myself safe – which meant keeping things the way they always were, because that is safe to the part of the brain (the limbic system) that stores our emotional memories. 

To thrive is to risk, to step outside of one’s “comfort zone” and into possibility.

2019 was different. After several years of personal development work that I embarked upon thanks to some observant friends who shared that there actually was a way to get out of survival mode. The catch, was that it would require getting really clear on what I was trying to survive, bringing the thoughts to the surface, and being willing to transform them. 

Ultimately, I believe this work saved my life. 

How? Because I was, for the first time, able to consider that every thought that entered my mind wasn’t the truth. That pain in my face, didn’t mean I was dying, it was pain in my face. That my thoughts about my mom were just thoughts, and no more the truth of who she is, than her thoughts about me, being the truth of who I am. That if I could think I was unworthy of living, I could also choose to think that I was.

This concept freed up for me, space to create a meaningful life driven by purpose. If I could notice my thoughts and become aware of them, rather than allow them to guide me regardless of their validity, I could choose different thoughts that could inform different actions. As a result of this – I was able to take a risk and apply for a job I really wanted, without pre-rejecting myself! I became the Administrator of my children’s school – and was able to take the next steps towards making the difference I wanted to in life. 

Now, the weird part in all of this, was that I had already read tons of books on the subject, I had written an entire thesis on how humans filter the world through their previous life experiences in childhood, and the impacts of this on the children in their lives. Ironic huh.

The difference was that reading and research, and knowing, are very different than experiencing. The “knowing” part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is not available when we are triggered by our thoughts and/or emotions. Emotion, by its latin origins, means “to move.” Emotions move us into action – thoughts, stories, perspectives, whether true or not, inform our emotions, and move us accordingly.

By now, you’re probably all wondering what this has to do with horses? In June of 2020, after months of lockdowns and adjusting to the “new normal” those old familiar thought patterns were starting to take over again. I saw an opportunity to be in nature, with horses, in the form of a Wisdom Circle on the Summer Solstice – and decided to take a leap. I attended this workshop with holding the question “am I meant to bring horses into my life to aid in what I believed to be my purpose: supporting children, families, caregivers and educators in creating healthy, attuned relationships that generate joy, connection and are a safe space for self-expression. At the end of my session with the Freedom Herd, I was clear – horses are the perfect partners for this work, and since then, I have made every effort to learn and grow my equine facilitated experience.

Horses, are by nature, highly sensitive. They can feel a fly land on their back, and they can feel the energy of predators and react accordingly. They are attuned and co-regulated when in a herd. When the lead herd member senses danger, the whole herd will react in a spit second, this is the limbic system at work, manifesting itself to keep the horses safe, from a cougar, or a plastic bag, regardless of the actual risk. When the lead herd member goes back to grazing, the rest of the herd follow suit, and they release the moment of stress. They come back to a resting state. They don’t keep thinking about that plastic bag and whether or not it’s coming back to get them.

Human brains are different, we don’t do this. Something feels unsafe, be it a smell, a person, or a place – and we react, but then we store this memory and go back to it over and over again. Each time we replay it, it makes our world a bit smaller until we are locked in the tiny box we have created for ourselves that feels safe. This, in some instances, can look like being inaccessible to our family and friends – that we may be physically present, but mentally, in our own world.

This is where horses can support our learning, and demonstrate another path. When we are in the presence of a horse, whether on their own individually, or with a herd, the safe place to be is not in our mind. When we are in our mind, yet physically present with a horse, the horse senses this as danger. They feel your absent energy. They are all about honesty, for themselves, and those who work with them. For them, congruence is the most important thing. For humans, we can say “how are you today” to our neighbour, colleague, friend – and not only do we rarely get a truthful response, many times, don’t even want one. 

This is not the case for horses. They don’t need us to be happy, confident, or the boss. They ask us to have our insides match our outsides. They ask that our intention is clear, and aligned with our body language. 

Horses have clear body language. When they want to communicate to someone to step out of their space – they pin their ears back tight to their head. If their request is not heard, they escalate, and with stretch out their neck, and move to bite. Once the herd is established, the body language becomes more subtle. 

Think of it this way – the first time we say “no” to someone, for example, a colleague, friend or child, it may be a weak no. The next step for us can go one of two ways. If we say no and mean no, we are congruent, and the no, is clear, and most often accepted at face value. If we say “no” but a part of us is unsure, or feels unsafe, or is thinking “I don’t want to be a bad mom and have my children hate me” the “no” isn’t’ a no. It’s incongruent. Children, like horses, are all about honestly in communication. Is our no a no, or is it an invitation to determine who is the leader in this herd, family or classroom? If our no is a clear no, then the next time we say it, it is heard, and can be subtle – like a glance. If the no is unclear, we might be entering a battlefield. Where every time we say no, it is heard as a challenge. 

I would like to introduce you to my herd to demonstrate this concept: 

What do you see here? (A few moments were taken to share).

From my filters, I see a child goofing around at the table, and mum letting him know that he needs to settle down. The child (in this case, our mini Teddy) leaves to self-regulate by rolling around, and then returns to try again. He is persistent, and in the end, takes his place at the bale, and everyone eats nicely together.

So that all sounds pretty simple right? Say what you mean? But in my experience, humans don’t always know what it is that they are reacting to, we don’t always see or recognize the filter through which we are seeing those around us. Again, the horses step in to assist us with the development of awareness. When we enter a field with horses, we step into “horse time.”

If you have a background of experiences with traditional horsemanship, there may be a resistance to just “being” with them. Consider that this is also a thought that informs our actions. I need to be “doing something” or “entertaining” or…the list goes on and on. 

Horses are happy to be grazing. They don’t NEED us to do anything. They give us permission to slow down. To identify and release those thoughts, and invite us to be present, and join their calm. They allow us to join their state of coherence – their heart and mind in alignment. 

I would like everyone to take a moment, and I invite you to take your right hand and place it on your chest, where your heart resides. Now, if this feels safe for you, soften your gaze, for some, you may feel you want to rest your eyes completely. Now, slowly and gently draw in a breath, and imagine that you are breathing in the love of those around you in the room into your heart space. For a moment, pause and feel this love in your heart. Now, release your breath, slowly and gently, returning that love to those around you. Let’s do this two more times. 

This is how we begin any time with the herd of horses. We ground ourselves, and align with the energy and heart of the herd. Imagine, for a moment, what our daily lives would look like if before we went into a classroom, we practiced this? Before we left the car after work and went into the house, we practice this? How might the experience and relationships shift and change if we sent our loving energy and believed that we were receiving it in return, before we entered into the space?

When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt”that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”

Dr. Daniel Siegel

Next, we meander. Horses, again, are prey animals, and one way we can tell prey animals from predators is that their eyes are placed on the side of their head. Horses know we are not horses. They are well aware of our predatory nature – often more so than we would recognize in ourselves. To approach a horse head on, in a direct way – is to send a message of confrontation or attack. Canadian Developmental Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, would say the same thing about human relationships. Particularly when highly sensitive children are involved. Horses, art, and stories allow children to safely work through their thoughts and emotions, “one step removed.” It’s no longer about them not getting along with their siblings, it’s about two ponies who are having a hard time sharing their hay. Horses provide us with the grace needed to share our thoughts out loud, without having them be about us personally. This is ideal for people for whom sharing their own experience would be too much. Our interpretation of horse behaviour comes from our own experiences, filters and stories. Considering an alternate perspective for those stories, is easier when it is not about us, but about the horses – however, the practice of multiple perspectives is a transferable skill.

Then, we are asked to be patient. Another muscle that requires stretching in a world of instant dopamine hits through social media, netflix and same day deliveries. When we are patient, soft, and open. When our minds, and hearts are in coherence, we invite others in. The horses will often heed this invitation, and wander over to introduce themselves. They are curious, and when we are present, we do not pose a risk to them. In this, we also have an opportunity to practice our presence, and ask for what we want. Is the horse coming too close? Are we placing ourselves in an unsafe place? How does this feel – and what action can we take (ie. stepping away, stepping forward). This too can help us learn where we end and others begin, and vice versa. This can also give us the opportunity to practice embodying a “no.” 

Last but not least, horses are said to be able to travel “between worlds” and carry messages back for us. I know that this concept may not resonate – but I want to share a story about my experience of loss, and how horses supported my healing. 

As I shared at the start, I lost my Nonna last year, April 6, 2021. I was taking care of the Freedom Herd for 3 weeks while Mena was away. That day I headed out to a feed store in Caledon, and when I arrived, I got a text from my mom saying that my Nonna had taken her last breath. I held it together at the store, and surprisingly, on the way back to the farm. When I arrived, and opened the back door of the barn, looking toward the paddock, the first things I saw was Dream and Anya, the leaders of the herd, laying down side by side. This was a truly remarkable sight, as in my experience, they had always taken turns resting, while the other was on guard. This to me, was instantly a message sent from the spirit realm, this was Nonna and Nonno, together at last in their final resting place. They were safe, and showing my that they would still be here, watching over me too.

Ultimately, what we learn in the paddock, we can take home with us. We have a body experience, we have taken the “knowing” and put it into “being.” We have engaged and invited the wisdom of the herd into our hearts, and allow ourselves to be transformed. We have a felt experience of

The essential joy of being with horses…that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom.”

Sharon Ralls Lemon

Leave a Reply