Monday morning was calm and sunny and as beautiful as a winter morning gets. I was walking two of my horses from the field to the barn, one on either side of me, as I had done hundreds of times. Suddenly, Zorro, on my left, was gripped by surprise and panic, which rippled through his body and mine and Daisy’s, the lead ropes acting as power lines, conducting this energy through the three of us in an instant. Within a fraction of a second, all three of us had lost our footing and were on the ground. Daisy regained her ground first, and my brain had not even processed the danger before my own body found its way safely distanced from Zorro’s thrashing hooves and I was upright once again. Struggling with the slippery earth and with the fear flooding his body, Zorro finally hoisted himself up and regained balance – at least physically.
Emotionally, he was still charged with fear and I could feel my mind racing to solve the mystery of its origin. I scanned the area for any sign of something new or someone approaching. I could not detect a cause and, as any reasonable person might do, I chalked it up to a ghost.
As we continued into the barn, with distinctly deeper conscious breathing on my part, Daisy was on high alert, and Zorro was through the roof with worry – the routine of entering the stall and eating his grain mash became a challenge of epic proportion. He actually burst back out of his stall and out the barn door as soon as I unsnapped the lead rope. When he returned from his apparent and fruitless search for the ghost outside, he still carried with him tremendous anxiety, puffing through his nose, cowering at the back of the stall, and finally eating his mash but not finishing it.
He was able to relax at least somewhat that day, eating and drinking as usual later on, but his body carried signs of muscle tension and his reactivity was heightened to every small request or change in the environment. As the days progressed, he let go of that elevated tension and anxiety, but after six days, he is still looking warily around him and tensing up every time we pass the site of the incident. Daisy, on the other hand, never had another worried moment after about twenty minutes, licking her bowl clean, and being returned calmly to a pasture. I find myself still working to more fully relax my entire body upon approaching that location with Zorro, to breathe more deeply, and to provide the comfort and support he desperately wants.
Zorro has been taking me through the paces of what happens to me in my own life when something or someone frightens, worries or triggers me in some way. I find myself wishing I had someone to lead me through my fears, to help me settle myself when something or someone triggers me and I know am letting anxiety get the better of me but I can’t seem to stop it. As much as I will always crave someone to be there to do this for me, I know that when it comes right down to it, I need to get better at doing it for myself.
For whatever reason, there is an instinctive desire in me, and I believe in most people, to help a horse settle and get comfortable when something has unraveled him. The beauty of this is, every time I help a horse through a fearful moment or experience, I am practicing that skill in myself and for myself.
Does this mean I no longer have fear? No. Do I think there will come a day when I no longer have anything trigger my anxiety? No. But can I look at my ability to cope with fear, anxiety, stress and discomfort and recognize that I’ve come a long way since I started working on it with horses? Yes. Absolutely.
The first marked difference in me is that now I am fascinated by fear as opposed to just being “afraid of fear itself.” I focus on observing what a fear reaction does to my own body: how quickly my heart starts racing, my breathing gets shallow, my gut feels queasy. How amazing that a person’s words, spoken or written, can transform my calm and healthily functioning body into an alarmed and not-so-functional basket case! Is this that far off from an apparent ghost unhinging a horse?
A critical step to working through fear has been to be able to step outside of myself and observe the process of how fear takes hold and what happens to me. Observing its behavior, where it is manifesting in the body, and experimenting with what actions make fear subside are very much akin to working with horses. It is a process that takes patience and persistence. If I can get past the initial grip which seems to shut down all creative ability, I can work with myself just like I would with a frightened or worried horse.
This evening, for the first time, Zorro asked to be led out to the big field first, all by himself. He shied away ever-so-slightly from some new ice blocks on the ground, recently removed from frozen water buckets, but he didn’t flinch in the trigger zone. What we can do for horses, we can do for ourselves, of that I am convinced.