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Lessons From a Horse

Posted on 05 Sep | 4 comments
Lessons From a Horse

It was a Tuesday afternoon, the kind of perfect, rare Michigan weather that makes you happy to be alive and experiencing the world. An avid horsewoman, I could think of no better way to spend the day then with my family and my horses. I set out with three family members on a ride through the trails adjacent to our barn. I remember looking down at my reins, getting the feel of how much pressure I should use to stop the horse. Instantly, I was rushed into the present moment as the world exploded in gold, and an intense fire erupted out from my right leg. Had I been attacked by bees? No, bees didn’t feel like this. Nothing in my life had felt like this. I screamed out, “Your horse broke my leg!” as I somehow realized what had happened. The pain was unrelenting, unlike anything I had ever experienced. The intensity did not fade. It felt as if the point of impact stretched out indefinitely. I was broken, torn to pieces. It was the closest thing I could imagine to being in Hell.

My accident was a physical ordeal that left me with an appreciation for how much I took my body and my ablism for granted, but I can’t say that I was traumatized in any way. As I began to read more about accidents and the nature of trauma, I found that my experience was not the norm. More then 52% of orthopedic patients with broken bones suffer from PTSD and worsen over time (Starr, 2004). I was left to wonder why I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t.

Human beings are instinctual animals. When a human perceives danger, we respond in one of three ways, by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Because we are, in a sense, pack animals, we are biologically attuned to detect body responses in others that signify danger. When we observe another person narrow their eyes, tense their muscles, and prepare to fight or flee, we are able to feel what they are feeling and react in a split second. If a horse senses danger, he will run, and the herd will follow him without investigation or question. The horse that is slow to react is the one that is left behind, possibly to perish. Evolutionarily speaking, those of us humans that are still here are, like horses, descendents of ancestors that had the fastest and most accurate ability to detect fear and respond to it (Levine, pp. 39-45).

During my accident, I was able to discharge the energy reaction of my fight-or-flight response. Initially, I felt trapped on the horse, knowing that if I broke down and allowed myself to process that energy, it would negatively affect the horse and put us both in danger. I had to keep the energy contained until I was on solid ground, and not in control of the horse/human partnership. When a horse detects that the human is not engaged and present, they will take over and make decisions about what is a threat, and usually react to most things by running away, very quickly.

When I was lowered to the ground, I was given some space to process the energy in my body. I began to rock back and forth, clutching my leg, screaming out with a power that I had never felt so intensely before. It was more than a yell of pain or anguish; it was a force moving out of my body. I shook uncontrollably. Somewhere in my mind, a quiet voice observed that this was a good thing, that I was processing the trauma. Had I fought the intensity, been told to calm down, been strapped down or medicated, the energy would have remained in my body, and I would have been stuck in that state of physical hyperawareness (Levine, pp. 54-59).

I have found a new appreciation for the capacity of the body to grow, change, and heal. As I write this, my broken bone is healing, and in the end will grow together to be even stronger and more resilient then it was before. It may be scary to realize that many of the primal, instinctual responses our bodies have are working without the input of our frontal lobes, but it’s also amazing to realize the innate power that we have within ourselves. We have evolved to be survivors, not victims. We are automatically attuned towards growth.

Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Starr, A. (2004) Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder After Orthopedic Trauma. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, 86, 1115-1121.

-- Katie Darling

Today's guest contributor, Katie Darling, is a doctoral student at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology.

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Comments and Discussions

Very well written article.

Very well written article. Concise and to the point. I am particularly intrigued by our relationships with our animals. They are so amazingly instintual. We can learn so much from them. I wonder if in sensing there was something wrong, the horse may have had a different response (than the one you presumed), and instead been available to help you some how. And therefore instead of protecting it (or yourself) from its response, its response may have been an aid in getting you to safety.

I'm not sure what exactly happened to break your leg, but you said, "Your horse broke my leg." So maybe this was not your horse. I wonder if you had had a stronger relationship with the horse, if he/she may have carefully taken care of you, rather than sensing danger and running away. I have had instances where my pet cat sensed my pain and was there for me, even taken her warm little body and laying upon the location of the pain to bring soothing, or hypnotising me lightly with her soft purr. I am also very interested by the need to emotionally process trauma. I think that it is not done near enough.

This was a well written and

This was a well written and thought provoking article. We are all indeed programmed for survival, and I wonder if we are predisposed to choose a particular survival mechanism as a species. Horses hooves give them an advantage to flee, wolves have teeth and claws designed to fight, and a camouflaged moth might survive by staying still. Does morphology lead to behavior? Did the natural selection of hooves select for a group that survived by running? Or does behavior drive selection - the horses who chose to run survived and eventually evolved better hooves. An interesting question is whether reaction and physical form co-evolve, or whether one drives the other. It is fascinating that, as you mentioned in the article, reaction transcends species. Your choice to remain calm despite excruciating pain prevented the horse from sensing danger and triggering a flight response. It is a wonderful lesson for you to present that our reactions have consequences, and we can choose to use those energies for personal growth and positivity for those around us.

Thank you! Despite that day

Thank you! Despite that day seeming like it was the end of the world, I'm very grateful for all of the wonderful changes and lessons that happened because of it. Through the healing process I had to learn to rely on the help of others, and was pleasantly surprised when so many family members and friends stepped in to help. It really showed me who was there for me, and who wasn't. I also learned to slow down and give myself permission to heal. Finally, I gained a great respect for the mobility I took for granted, and the ability to exercise. I once thought of exercise as a pain in the ass but I now think of it as a privilege.

That was an amazing article

That was an amazing article Katie! It was "real" and struck me deeply. It also showed the power of just letting things be (i.e. energy leaving your body through pain, etc.) I do hope you get invited to write again. I would certainly read it.

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