This is my attempt to turn a speech into an essay, so please forgive me my loose interpretation of many rules of grammar. I gave this speech Feb 25th at the French Creek Equestrian Association's Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet. Fay Seltzer asked me to write it up for the blog, so here it is.
Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?
When French Creek Equestrian Association’s president Fay Seltzer asked me to speak at this year’s annual meeting and awards banquet, she asked for a “husband friendly topic.” After mulling this over for a bit, observing husbands at our recent schooling show, and batting the topic around with my husband, I came to the conclusion that the question every husband ponders is “what is it about horses that make my wife so happy?” The “happy wife, happy life” thing only scratches the surface.
As a professional horseperson, I often wonder what motivates my students. I see their over-booked lives. I see the sacrifices they make, both financially and time-wise, to be at the barn. I see how they struggle with fear and frustration to achieve their goals. I gear my business to helping them get satisfaction from the horses they love. And I (well, my husband, actually) wonder why.
From a psychology standpoint, the horse-human relationship has not been studied much. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy utilizes horses as mimics of human emotions to help with anxiety, PTSD, depression, anger management, and the list goes on. EAP has been a breakthrough for people who don’t respond to traditional “talk therapies.”
According to Dr Gardner, in an interview for The Guardian, “One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent. People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues revolve around.”
Although EAP is a far cry from the way most of us enjoy our horses, Dr Garner may be on to part of the “addiction” to horses. Later in the article, he goes on to say, "It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centered and focused when we are with horses," he says. "Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd."
In our often over-scheduled life, a place of calm is often worth the price.
Taking this a bit further, I find many horse people are what I’ll call “friendly introverts.” They meet the introvert checklist, as Dr. Susan Whitbourne wrote for Psychology Today, a few of which are:
1. You enjoy having time to yourself
2. Your best thinking occurs when you’re by yourself
3. You don’t initiate small talk with salespeople or others with whom you have casual contact.
4. You often wear headphones when you’re in a public situation.
5. You prefer not to engage with people who seem angry or upset.
I think most of these apply to horse people, especially dressage riders, particularly the last one. The article goes on to describe studies documenting introverts “re-directing” from high-emotion situations—redirecting their eyes in mild cases and physically leaving extreme emotional settings.
This ties in so easily to a common horse training technique – when a horse becomes tense or afraid, trainers often change the topic, wait for the horse’s emotions to settle, and then return to the scary/tense thing. As introverts, this behavior is hard-wired into us, and we get rewarded for being who we naturally are.
A student of mine takes it a bit further, and describes how her horse helps her bridge the gap between her strong introvert personality and casual interaction. She said:
“When I talk about my pony to non-horse people, I talk about his personality. I tell stories where I interpret his attitude as if he were speaking to me. I like to tell stories about how patient and stoic he is. I talk about how fun it is when he runs around with the youngsters in the pasture. I tell stories about the times when all the other horses are running around and he looks up, decides it’s crazy to expend so much energy, and then goes back to eating. I talk about how fuzzy he is in winter. And then I show them pictures like he’s my baby.My friends notice that I tend to get more animated when I’m talking about Karison.”
Talking about Karison helps Cheryle bridge the gap of uncomfortable small talk so common in introverts, thereby making her more at ease.
Getting back to the barn aisle, stable life helps us horse people keep connections with friends and family that share our interest. Just as a Star Wars buff finds his “herd” at Comic Con, we find our herd at the barn, at the show, at the paper chase, or at the hunt.
In the English language, the word loneliness doesn’t have an opposite. Light has its opposite in dark; anger has its opposite in joy. But loneliness doesn’t have a word that describes it’s opposite. Maybe belonging is that opposite. The barn creates that for us.
I overhear conversations in my barn, and they so closely resemble what Stanford Assistant professor Gregory Walton calls “belonging intervention.” The three principles of “belonging intervention” are:
You are not alone.
And it gets better
Walton studied “belonging intervention” in minority groups of college freshman. In his work, the “test groups” were counseled in the above three key ideas. That counseling impacted their academic performance and, surprisingly to Walton, their health. The impact lasted through not only college, but until the end of the study, three years college.
I overhear conversation that lines up with “belonging intervention” in my barn aisle regularly. Every time a rider is going through a difficult training stage, or a nagging lameness, or struggling to balance barn life and “real life,” I hear other boarders telling them they are not alone, listening to them, helping them, and reminding them that it gets better. That shared empathy, that community, that belonging—churches offer it, social clubs offer it, and barns offer it.
And when it’s going well, does it get any better than a great ride?
We often talk about a great ride as being “in the zone,” which psychologists refer to as “flow state.”
Flow state - also known as “the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Situations that can have flow often have these two characteristics:
High but achievable technical skill
Flow is an actual brain-chemistry state, when the norepinephrine (brain chemical of alertness) and dopamine (brain chemical of interest) balance to make that magic mental cocktail, where we are totally in the moment.
Pulling from Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi’s web site (he is, incidentally the author of the book entitled, Flow), several elements are involved in achieving flow.
· There are clear goals every step of the way.
· There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
· There is a balance between challenges and skills.
· Action and awareness are merged.
· Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
· There is no worry of failure.
· Self-consciousness disappears.
· The sense of time becomes distorted.
· The activity becomes an end in itself.
The best part is that this wonderful state can be created so easily in the barn. A quick Google search will find a “cookbook” of how to create flow, and a few of those steps are pretty much built into horseback riding:
1. Rituals to begin event. In our world, those rituals include grooming and tacking.
2. Be mindful (aware, but non-judgmental) about your thoughts. This state is easily created in the early stages of the ride as you plan the workout.
3. Being aware of your emotional state and modulating it as needed. Every horse person does this – it’s windy, my youngster looks frisky, am I ok with that or should we lunge first?
4. Cadence training (focusing on a sound or song) or targeting to help narrow focus. Just listen to a horse trot, and you can’t miss the cadence.
So whether it’s the sense of calm, the sense of connection, or just the mental “high” of a good ride, we all have the addiction. Sorry husbands.