Friday, October 26, 2012

Equine Encounter: Life Lessons from Jasper the Horse

At Travaasa Austin, I participated in their "Equine Encounter" activity.  At first, I was a little doubtful-- all I knew was that you'd be "communicating" with horses (you didn't even get to ride them!) and that supposedly that was going to help you become a more centered person.  I love animals, and believe we can learn a lot through our interactions with them, but still, this activity sounded a little hokey.  Regardless, I joined my mom and dad and two other women as the two Cowboys led us on.

Yes, cowboys.  Full on boots-jeans-cowboy hat kind of cowboys.  The kind you'd expect to find in Texas.  They grew up on ranches (Keith them grew up in Montana, that's how you know he's a "pure-bred" cowboy) and have been interacting with horses their whole lives, including riding those "buckin' broncs" in rodeos and being kicked off a few (many?) times.  What I did not expect was to find that The Cowboys were some of the most laid-back people I'd ever met.  Jodi, especially, was so mellow and grounded.  He seemed to take everything as it is, offering advice and wisdom when he could.  I dunno, I guess in the movies they always make cowboys look really aggressive and overly dominant.  These men were dominant, but in an approachable way that made me respect them even more.

We were each assigned our own horse.  Meet Jasper:

Jasper with Keith (Jasper's head is blocking Keith) and Jodi.

Lesson 1: Walk with a purpose. 

The first thing we had to do was just walk our horse around by holding their guide rope.  We tried it on our own and then again after The Cowboys offered some advice.  The first time I tried to walk around with Jasper, it felt a little bit like he was walking me.  I walked without a purpose, and Jasper sensed that.  Our first lesson from The Cowboys is that if you don't walk with a purpose, nobody else will either.  The horses expect leadership, and if you don't show them that, they will take the lead themselves.

Lesson 2: You must enter your body to achieve oneness.

Next, we spent a long time brushing our horses.  This was our time to really connect with the horse's energy level.  After a while of brushing Jasper, I started to enter a trance-like state.  It was relaxing, and I felt that I had a purpose to what I was doing, that I was a meaningful part of this horse's life.  My purpose was to give Jasper the attention and caress that he deserved.  Keith told us that he once heard someone say that in order to achieve oneness, you must leave your mind and enter your body.  We are all one, part of something greater, but our minds are what make us individuals.  In order to be in tune with the collective oneness of the world, we must allow ourselves to leave our minds and get in touch with our surroundings.  This happened as I brushed Jasper.

Lesson 3: Stay "Level-headed" and "Take a load off."

It was amazing to see Jasper's energy level reflect mine as he eased into a relaxed state.  The Cowboys taught us that when horses are relaxed, their heads drop so they are level with the ground (rather than upright), allowing their vertebrae to expand (no longer crushed from their back sagging) and endorphins to rush through their body.  This is where the phrase "level-headed" comes from.

Jodi noticed that Jasper shifted the weight of his hind limbs and "popped" a leg (curled one of his feet under).  Horses are naturally aware of their surroundings and their main defense mechanism is to run and be quick on their feet.  Unless they are very relaxed, the horses will have their feet firmly planted in the ground so they can take off sprinting at any moment.  The fact that Jasper felt that he could take a load off a leg meant that he was making himself vulnerable, and we only let ourselves become vulnerable when we are very comfortable.  This is where the phrase "taking a load off" comes from.

Lesson 4: Make your intention known.

Finally, we each had a turn with just us and our horse in the center of a ring.  We were taught to show the horse that we are the leader.  We used a whip-- no, NOT a whip to smack the horses.  This was simply an "extension of our arm" to allow us to "convey our energy" to the horse.  We just raised it up and down or occasionally let it hit the ground but NEVER the animal; we used it as a communication tool.  We had the horse walk around the ring at varying tempos (slow walk to a trot) and stop and turn around.  And to do this, we never touched the horse; we did it all through our body language.  It was pretty amazing that we could get the horse to do exactly what we wanted by just being clear about our intentions.  Honestly, it felt a little bit like bending a spoon with my mind; I simply had to "become" my intention and Jasper would respond.  It was easy to see when we weren't clear, however.  The horse would stop or wander aimlessly if you did not give it your full attention with a deliberate intention.  The Cowboys said that these horses responded in this way not because they were trained but because this is how leadership is shown in their natural environment as well.  Apparently, you could take a wild horse and (once you've gotten him to trust you and calm down) lead him in this same way and expect the same type of favorable response.

The Cowboys would tell us about each horse and his/her personality as it was brought into the ring.  Jasper was the sensitive horse ("Red" was the mellow hippie horse that like to hang out in the flowers, another one was the dominant horse of the group that was going to rebel and test any new handler, etc.).  The way The Cowboys described Jasper reminded me of our German Shepherd, Dre, back home.  Jasper has always been a bit fearful and requires the handler to be very calm and stable in order for him to respond; if you're jittery, Jasper will be too.  This means that when interacting with him, you need to be especially aware of your body language because Jasper will read into every move you make.  That's not pressure or anything...

Once we established with the horse that we were competent enough leaders worth trusting, we stopped, put down the whip, and if we had established a close connection with our animal, the horse would come right up to us and follow us around (like a little puppy) without us needing to touch him; this was the real test.  Jasper did this on the first try!  It was amazing to know that I had made that type of connection with Jasper and that he felt the connection and trust also.  I would not have established this type of connection had I not been in tune with my body and how my actions were affecting him, been clear and deliberate in my intentions, and reached an energy state compatible with his.

In the end, the two hours I spent with Jasper were wonderful.  I think the world would be a better place if everyone spent 2 hours learning to get in tune with their surroundings by working with horses.  I felt like I learned a lot that I can apply to not just horses but also the people I interact with daily.  

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