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What My Horse Whispered: Trust Your Internal Guidance System
Posted by Julie Stass on 01/02/16
Horses are wonderful leadership teachers. They instinctively know the survival of the herd depends on their trust and connection to the lead mare. Picture a herd of wild horses grazing in a field. On the perimeter the lead mare patrols and alerts the herd when it’s time to move on. All of the horses within the herd have one ear pointed toward their lead mare at all times. Each horse is aware of the slightest changes; a flick of the ear, muscle twitches or shifts in the wind. Without the lead mare’s ability to lead them away from danger and toward water and new pastures the herd would perish.
Like horses, humans willingly follow leadership when they trust and have an emotional connection to the leader. Leaders and their followers have an Internal Guidance System (IGS) that functions like their inner lead mare. Our survival, individually and as a group, depends on attending to our IGS. The more we nurture our mind-body-intuition connection (our vulnerable sensitivity that immediately responds to truth) and listen its internal signals the stronger our IGS becomes. To do this, we must learn to regulate our emotions and feed our spiritual life. We can rely on our IGS to give us clarity in confusing situations, help us refocus and lead us in the direction of our best life.
Neglecting our IGS by substituting other’s opinions and allowing our immediate, reactive emotions guide our decisions ultimately blur’s and disables our ability to make sustained, positive changes in our lives. Internally, we become a herd without their lead mare. Not listening to your internal IGS is like a herd disregarding the signals from their lead mare.
Racing thoughts, anger, holding onto past regrets prevents your IGS from functioning properly. Relying only on emotions and rehearsing the old painful stories feed the distorted beliefs about the self and sabotage the IGS. Your emotions take the lead and cause you to wander around, questioning everything, unable to focus or recognize real threats.
I was conducting an Equus workshop with a group from an addiction recovery center. I asked each participant to guide a horse through a simple obstacle course. One of the women had been walking side by side with the horse, moving it forward, her eyes focused on the barrel at the end of the course. The horse hesitated. She got confused, stopped, then turned and faced the horse. The horse responded to her confusion by refusing to move.
Me: What’s happening right now?
Woman: “Well the horse stopped and I’m trying to get it to move forward.”
She and the horse stood still facing each other for about four minutes.
Me: “Where do you want to go?
Woman: “I want to get to the end of the obstacle course but this stupid horse won’t move!”
Me: “ Your horse isn’t stupid. You are asking her to move forward but where are your eyes and body and facing?”
She laughed as she realized that she was physically facing in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go; where she began instead of the finish line.
Me: ” You need to look in the direction you want the horse to go. You are facing where you’ve already been, not where you want to end up. You want to move forward but keep looking back to where you’ve been instead of where you want to end up.”
Woman: Bursting into tears, “That’s why I can’t kick this drug habit, I keep looking in the wrong direction. All I see is my past failure. I’m not moving toward recovery.”
Then she stopped, calmed down, refocused. She turned around, faced the end of the course and walked the horse finish line.
There are similarities between leading horses and leading ourselves toward our best lives. Where we focus determines our next steps. If we, or those in leadership, disconnect from our IGS letting shame and failures dominate, focusing on the past, our sense of direction is lost. We are leaderless.
Individually or we are in the role of parent, teacher, therapist or equestrian, our connection and response to our physical, emotional and intuitive signals determines the effectiveness of our leadership, personally and with others.. Disconnecting from your IGS disables your ability to connect with or lead anyone else
I teach my clients how to connect to their intuitive self by developing their IGS using the three core practices of personal leadership.
Examine your personal truth: Are your passions, values, emotions and actions are aligned?As I asked my client, “Are you focused in the direction you want to go?“Focusing on the past, keeps you in the past. Moving forward takes all of your energy, focused in the direction you want to go.
Listento your heart: Your heart is that part of you that immediately recognizes the truth. Have a clear focus for the day. What do you want to create and how you want to feel at the end of the day? Ask yourself what truths are your emotions and body telling you, right now?
Stay Present: Adjust your actions and thoughts according to the needs of the moment: Your body (not your judgmental, critical, worried mind) is your most trustworthy guide. Be like a horse- a prey animal. Without engaging your analytical mind, the vulnerable part of you becomes more responsive to what is happening in the moment. Connect and trust your physical/emotional responses to direct your next steps. The feeling of lightness and freedom says, “Go.” Constriction and heavy, hesitant feelings say, “Stop, wait, look, reconsider.” Trust yourself and adjust your actions accordingly.
As the herd depends on their lead mare, depend on your IGS for daily guidance. Aligning your responses and decisions with this internal system will reconnect you with your inner leader who will protect and move you forward.
What My Horse Whispered: If you are troubled, stand by me.
Posted by Julie Stass on 11/15/15
I’ve been having some trouble in one of my closest relationships. I am asking that we work through a problem that stares us in the face daily and is becoming too painful to ignore. I find no consolation in knowing that confronting and resolving this issue will make our relationship deeper, stronger and more intimate. Instead, my emotions flip between wanting to curl up and cry or lashing out in anger. I feel stuck, not sure of my next step. Where do I go from here?
From the time I was ten years old, I’ve known that I could always find emotional peace and safety with my horses. So, today, I drove my troubled self out to be with my horse, Nautic. I brushed him and took him out to graze on the new grass that had sprouted up after our first big rainfall. As I watched and listened to him eating, I experienced the familiar, warm, wonderful magic of being in a horse’s presence: my mind quieted, my heart calmed and I felt peaceful.
Is being in my horse’s presence really magical? A study by the Institute of HeartMath confirmed that bidirectional “healing” occurs when we are near horses. By measuring electromagnetic fields, researchers found that the heart has a larger energy field than the brain. A horse’s heart is five times bigger and stronger than a human’s and directly influences human heart rhythms. Researchers also found that the physiological benefits that occur when interacting with horses included: lowered blood pressure and heart rate, increased levels of neurotransmitters (pain suppressors) and reduced feelings of anger, hostility and anxiety.
Psychologists have identified a similar phenomenon in human-to-human interactions influencing heart rhythm called, entrainment. It’s defined as; the process that activates or provides a timing cue for a biological rhythm. I’ve witnessed entrainment by watching a mother calm her crying infant by gently holding its head against her breast so the baby can hear her heartbeat. The peace and stability of one being seems to override and quiet the fear and distress of another. Although researchers may not say it this way; a calm peaceful presence is stronger and able to neutralize fear and distress.
As Nautic is standing in the sun munching on sweet, green grass, my heart and my breathing respond to his rhythm. I experience gentle physical and emotional healing by simply being near my horse. In this peaceful space I reconnect my body-mind-soul and find clarity. I know what the next steps I need to take as I peacefully face the challenges I have today. My horse’s heart and peaceful presence are bigger and more powerful then my troubled self. As I stand in his wordless, calm presence, I receive amazing grace.
I think about loved ones and my clients and want to be more like my horse when I am around them: having a big, strong peaceful presence and giving them space and time they need to find answers as they regain their balance and emotional footing
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. -Rumi
Chop Wood, Carry Water and Carry On
Posted by Julie Stass on 09/09/15
My Therapist Eats Grass.com: A blog for anyone who has experienced the power of the horse-human connection.
What my horse whispered today: “Chop Wood, Carry Water and Carry On.
My friend, Susan, who is one of my favorite horse people, gave me some awful news a few days ago. The results of her biopsies revealed she has an aggressive form of breast cancer that has metastasized.
I met her at the stable, cried, hugged her and gave her my love. Typical of Susan, she said she was sorry that her news made me upset. She’s sure everything will be okay.
Me: “But you said ‘it has metastasized’.”
She: “I know, but I’ll be fine. Everything will be okay.”
She was scheduled for a double mastectomy the following day.
She had to leave and take her husband to the airport. I turned back and walked toward the barn. Nautic greeted me with his typical nickering. I gave him a treat and began stroking his head. He leaned in, lowered his head and stood really still. I was a sad, tearful mess. The fear and sadness of possibly losing Debra to cancer jolted my soul. I asked myself three questions: How can I help my friend? What can I do right now? Is there a lesson I need to learn from this?
I believe that everything comes to us as a gift, intended to teach and enlighten us. Both the good and the difficult guide us toward our own North Star, helping us find Home. Our journeys are fraught with obstacles, surprises, challenges, defeats and occasional victories with lessons coming in all shapes and sizes: rude people, an injured horse, unrealistic demands you’re trying to please, a sick child, a grim diagnosis, chemotherapy, annoying relatives, traffic, a 17.2 hand Warmblood refusing to take one step closer toward a plastic sack on the trail, a courageous friend. Everything is designed to shine a light on daily, ordinary moments, revealing the Truth we need to hear. By paying attention, letting feelings flow and trusting that there will be enough light to lead us out of the darkness; we eventually, become the authentic, loving creatures we were born to be.
There is a story about a man who went to his teacher and asked: What must I do to find enlightenment?
The teacher answered, “Chop wood and carry water.”
Several years later the man returned to his teacher and asked: “I haven’t achieved enlightenment, what must I do?”
The teacher answered; “Chop wood and carry water.”
The man went away and many years later returned to his teacher and said: “Master, I have achieved enlightenment. Now, what should I do?”
The teacher replied; “Chop wood and carry water.”
Her life has been turned upside down. My life remains pretty much the same. What changes is my commitment to stop wasting time and energy fearing the possibility of bad or scary news. Almost everything in my life will take on a new shade of grace, because Susan’s journey has gifted me with a new perspective.
The answers to the three questions I had when she told me about her cancer have become clear: Be still; patiently wait, watch and listen. As my friend embarks on her new adventure with breast cancer, I will stand by her offering my love and support as she faces days of feeling awful, more surgeries, chemotherapy and doctor visits. Selfishly, I’m hoping that being in the presence of raw courage will shed some light and teach me more about confronting my fears.
Fearful, troubling situations are part of life. In fact, if your life stops encountering scary, fretful or anxious moments, you’re probably dead. For me, the essence of living my best life means accepting the daily challenges that are right in front of me; the big scary fears, the everyday annoyances, and allowing all of them to teach me the lessons I need to learn. Great or small, it means being still, facing whatever is terrifying me and promising myself that I won’t run away. Most likely, I will need to reach out for a hand to hold, or grab some mane and hold on tight. I’ll let fear be my teacher and let my courage grow. I’ll live life a bit more enlightened and brave as I continue to chop wood and carry water.
P.S. One of the ways I can support Susan is to offer Equine Days for breast cancer patients, survivors and their families. Like my friend, we want others to experience the powerful healing and strength that comes with being in the presence of horses. I’m already finding funding sources willing to help me provide this gift to honor my friend. Knowing Susan, she’ll probably insist that I use her horses and her arena; her way of chopping wood and carrying water
What My Horse Whispered: How Old Are You Today?
Posted by Julie Stass on 04/14/15
I turned 64 yesterday. My mother, a vibrant 83 years young, sent me a birthday card that read: “no matter what, don’t act your age.” She reminded me to follow that advice during our phone conversation later that day. What is acting your age? Is it true we get better as we age? If I didn’t know how old I was, how old would I be?
I hope I grow old like my horse, Nautic. He is a gorgeous, grey Dutch Warmblood, sleek, muscular and elegant. He lives in bliss, running around a huge pasture with several mares chasing after him. No one believes that Nautic is 25 years old; that’s about 75 in human years. Only when you look at his teeth can you tell his chronological age. Nautic doesn’t know how old he is. His brain doesn’t work that way. His life is an expression of how he feels. If he had suffered neglect, been abusively trained or had poor nutrition he’d look and behave differently. He appears to be timeless, enduring the years with grace, flexibility and vibrancy.
Our chronological age tells the world how long we have been on Earth. Our energy, how we express who we are in body, mind and spirit shows how we have been experiencing life. People who consciously care for their minds, bodies and spirits develop a timeless affect as they grow older. Conversely, neglecting the daily condition of our mind, bodies and spirits results in a withered soul-friends, relatives and clients with an exhausted and disappointed-with-life expression on their face. They move like they’ve been carrying a heavy burden for way too long. Somewhere along life’s path, they got trapped in a past trauma, old limiting beliefs or shame: lovely beings whose authentic selves are buried under layers of “I’m not enough,”“I don’t get enough love,” “the world is a dangerous place.” They look and act much older than their chronological years.
I’m not sure how 64 year olds are supposed to behave. At the very least, I expect to have developed a high enough level of emotional and spiritual balance and wisdom that keeps me from repeating the same mistakes. I want my friends and the world to experience me as a timeless, loving woman. Yet, sometimes, under stress, I react to problems with the same defensive anger I had when I was eight years old. My spiritual balance and wisdom get hijacked. I’m out of ideas and insist things go my way. No longer in the flow of being timeless, I feel crotchety and old. My soul begins to shrink. How can my 64 year old self get my inner eight year old to step back and let the wiser, adult Me come forward? How can I move through the world with an open, loving heart? How do I quickly self-correct? I found some of the answers to these questions reading Deepak Chopra’s concept of the three levels of awareness: Constricted, Expanded and Pure Awareness.
In a nutshell: Constricted awareness is the authentic self being blocked by unresolved anger, sadness, anxious thoughts and behavior, depression, defensiveness, raging and all of the other negative emotions. Your emotional and spiritual flow stops. These emotions are experienced in our bodies as physically and emotionally constricting, blocked, congested, feeling heavy and hard to breathe. We feel sadness in a different part of our body than anger or fear. For me, when I feel old shame or fearful thoughts my inner eight year old surfaces. I feel her in the center of my chest: hard, heavy and squeezing the air out of me. She’s mad, secretive, harsh, critical, judgmental, holding back emotion and affection, very slow to trust and expecting disappointment. There is no problem solving happening, just fearful defensive thoughts. In this constricted state, my authentic self pulls into its shell, like a tortoise pulling its head and appendages into its protective armor. The spiritual flow of authenticity is shut off.
Expanded awareness is the collection of positive emotions: happiness, gratitude, joy, love, compassion, understanding, empathy. These emotions lead us to creative solutions, open us up (expand) to find answers, listen to our intuition, knowing what to do in the moment. Your body feels, moves and looks lighter. Your spirit expands as you take deep breaths and releases negative tension as you exhale. It’s who I am after meditation and prayer, when I’m with my grandson or resting in my husband’s arms. Fear is gone. You face life with calm courage; the Bible calls it,“Greeting trails as friends.” Your soul is restored, energized and full. You reach out to the world. I am timeless spiritual energy.
Pure awareness is being in a state of love, bliss, open, and vulnerable. My grandson is the epitome of Pure awareness. At two and half he greets every day with joyful anticipation, arms wide open, knowing he is fully loved and protected from harm. He hasn’t, yet, been socialized to worry about what other’s think, or whether he is good enough or lovable. Everyday, his focus is to play and receive all of the love and gifts coming his way. I have had moments in a state of pure awareness; when I was praying and experienced total healing from chronic pain; when I fell in love with my husband, Frank, and during a conversation I had with my Dad two days before he died. I am reminded all the time that this state is only achieved when I am utterly vulnerable, childlike. I become timeless.
I move between the three awareness levels all day long. When I get hijacked or stuck in Constricted Awareness, I self correct by feeling the negative emotions that surface and let them lead me to my expanded self. Being able to quickly redirect my inner third grader happens when I acknowledge the old pain. Being angry and lashing out is how I survived my childhood social environment. It kept overly demanding adults away. Defensive, negative energy helped me get through some very rough scary times. Now, 56 years later, those defenses aren’t working for me. Using childish defenses blocks my ability to receive love from others, prevents me from finding creative solutions because I keep seeing “problems” as attacks on my soul. I want to grow up and stop suppressing and ignoring my negative feelings. I want to move from constricted awareness and expand my emotional life, breathe, love and open the door to the power of my spiritual energy.
Spiritual flow of energy teaches that my anger is signaling me to set a boundary or repair some past wound in my emotional life. My sadness tells me a memory or old pain needs to be released. Negative emotions are not bad things. They are important teachers. But, holding on to them, letting them dominate my life, shuts off the message they are trying to give me. I can feel my negative emotions because as an adult, I can handle them. Sometimes my emotions are overwhelming; I sob, scream, rant, collapse and surrender. I allow both my old, suppressed grief and recent pain surface. I have no control over what comes up. My tears release the emotional pain and cleanse my soul. Unblocking my feelings, allowing them to be expressed moves me into expanded awareness. I take a deep breath, exhale, feel lighter, freer and start to live again.
Pure awareness is reserved for animals, children under three years old and adults. Only adults have the experience and courage necessary to do the emotional work required to repair the damage suffered from the negative socialization that began in preschool. I crave Pure awareness. It is bliss. The more trusting and vulnerable I become, the easier it is for my inner eight year old to settle down; no longer needing to jump up and slay the emotional demons that only grown ups can handle. She can rest, her vulnerability is protected. Her grown up has summoned the power of her spiritual energy and is in charge now, acting her age. I can rest in the freedom of knowing I’m lovable, worthy and enough. Like Nautic, free to run and play in the world as the authentic, loving being I am becoming.
“In pure awareness the universe is your playground.” Deepak Chopra
Posted by Julie Stass on 03/13/15
Be very careful about what you ask for in life. Spending a weekend with a horse whisperer and a herd of horses, became an adventure that irreversibly changed the focus and direction of my life.
Up until that weekend, my life was predictable. I did what I thought was expected of me. Being a responsible adult meant putting away childish things and disconnecting from essentially anything that made me feel alive. By silencing my authentic, essential self, I exchanged playfulness for a perpetual emotional state of confusion and apathy. Nothing really made me happy. It felt like there was a piece of my soul missing. I traded what I loved for the approval of my parents and the ominous “everybody”.
Over the next 30 years I had a few enlightened moments. I spent hours reading dozens of self help books. In one of Martha Beck’s books she wrote about her encounters with a horse whisperer and the freedom she found doing that work. I thought, “That would be so cool if I could do that!” Several weeks later I discovered an opportunity to spend a weekend session at the ranch where Martha and the horse whisperer. My husband thought it would be a great Christmas present. A month later, I left for Arizona, ready for an adventure and not expecting a total transformation.
On the first day of the workshop, I felt some old negative feelings surface; grumpy, resistant, defensive and curious. The second day, while I was standing in the middle of a huge arena, coaxing a small, stubborn buckskin mare into the corral, I felt an enormous emotional shift; like a gigantic genie had jumped out of the bottle. My dormant essential self had come up for air, saying loud and clear, "Hey, I'm out, I'm not going away and I want to play!”
I felt a deep, peaceful calmness, free, released and clear. In that moment, nothing existed except me and the horse. I knew what to do in that moment with the challenge the horse was presenting. I focused on my breath and watched the mare's nostrils moving in and out. We were breathing in sync. Taking one more gentle breath, I moved into a sacred, wordless mind space, relaxing and trusting myself. My heart and breath and the horse were connected. I gently motioned toward the corral with my hand, made a kissing sound with my lips, and the mare and I willingly moved in the desired direction. The mare went into the corral and I, relaxed deeply into my intuitive self.
The entire process from shifting to alignment took less than 90 seconds. The original assignment, to get three horses into the corral, seemed like an impossible task. Experiencing Oneness with the horse made it an effortless, joyful event. The best part was that I had reconnected to the True Self I thought I had lost decades ago.
I have not been the same since. Almost every day, I stop and let myself drop into the same connected oneness of my mind, body and emotions that I experienced on that hot afternoon in Arizona. When my heart and mind align and connect, I am free. I know what to do next. Life in that moment makes sense.
Today, I give others the opportunity to connect to their powerful wise selves by working with horses. Over the last three years, I have witnessed horses helping humans ease into their vulnerability. Successfully communicating wordlessly to a 1000 pound horse, requires that you connect, first, to your primal self and then to the horse. In that connecting moment, nothing else exists. The mind-heart connection to each other leads to a state of oneness that guides and helps you know what to do next. I promise, you never lose the physical and emotional impact of that moment, ever! That connection in that moment, sets you free to be your powerful, wonderful self.
Horses are healing beings. In his book, Radical Knowing, Christian de Quincey discusses the three brains in humans; the gut, the heart and the brain. As prey animals, horses have a similar system. They respond first from their gut, then their heart and finally their small brains. When we listen to all three of our brains (starting with our gut), we accurately address what needs to be done with each challenging moment. We have Oneness with our essential, true nature. There is no second guessing, over thinking or comparison to others. We are leading with our primal wisdom, our true nature. Participating in equine facilitated learning is one of the best ways to make the mind-body-intuition connection. Horses lead the way to our transformation.
Try this: Equine Facilitated Self-Coaching Exercise #1 For those of you who claim you always feel better after spending time with a horse.
Go into a pasture, or corral or round pen where it’s quiet: just you and a horse.
Sit down or stand still, focus on the exhale of your breath.
Do not look at, invite or approach the horse in any way.
(Read a book, drink some water, have a picnic. Your lack of any demand on the horse is your invitation to connect.)
If/When the horse approaches you, maintain an arms length of space between you and the horse.
Watch the horse’s nostrils and sync your breathing with the horse’s