What we can learn from horses about dealing with fear…


Both horses and humans have built-in flight responses for reacting to stress, but humans have a lot to learn from horses about managing flight, fear, and the stresses of everyday life. Have you ever seen a group of horses in a field get spooked? Perhaps it started with a scary sound, or even something as simple as a branch cracking in a tree 20 meters away from the fence. Whatever it was, they were convinced that there was something to be stressed about and, no kidding, horses are easily stressed! So are humans.

Sometimes we get spooked and stressed over really minor things, such as getting an invitation to a work meeting, having to take an exam, or having an uncomfortable conversation with our spouse. You remember that branch near the horse pasture? It’s highly unlikely that it cracked under the feet of a vicious predator. I’m sure you would know that even if the horses didn’t. As for that work meeting or exam, you might not know it at the time, but it’s probably not going to rip you to shreds, either. Yet, the fear response is triggered just the same. Spooked horses might take off in a frantic gallop across their pasture, cortisone and adrenaline running through their bodies like crazy. Anxious humans might wring their hands, talk too much, or not at all, overeat, or stop eating, sleep badly, and plague themselves with imagined scenarios about what might be going to happen in that upcoming meeting or exam, which might be days, or even weeks, away.

While humans would continue to worry, to the detriment of their physical and mental health, horses would have long since released their fear. They would have stopped running because they’ve burned up a good bit of that fear and turned their heads back to check for danger. They’ve snorted out a lot of noisy air from their nostrils back at whatever scared them and listened intently and not heard anything else scary. And then, they’ve let go.

Suddenly, they’re back in the present again. Grazing, softly nose-blowing, swishing their tails at flies, taking calm steps through the grass. Breathing peacefully. They’re not afraid anymore. They’ve pushed through their fear. Meanwhile, humans would still be tormenting themselves with everything that could possibly go wrong, giving in to their fear and, sometimes, letting it take over their lives completely. Honestly, how on earth did we ever survive as a species, accumulating all that fear from the past and anticipating everything that might happen in the future?

Horses could never have survived that way. Just like us, they’re hardwired to have a flight instinct, but unlike us, they’ve evolved to let that fear go. If they hadn’t, they would have destroyed themselves long ago, worn down with chronic stress, fatigue, ulcers, and lack of nutrients from refusing to eat or drink. Horses have evolved to deal with fear by pushing through it and living in the present. Clearly, humans haven’t.

While horses only deal with the fear of things in their environment, humans tend to make things worse. We’re afraid not just of what’s coming at us, but also the projected stories in our minds. We have survived as a species because we have so many other skills that we have developed to protect our survival instincts. However, our fear and stress management skills are often so poor that it’s astonishing how we, as individuals, survive from one day to the next.

We can learn a lot from how horses handle fear. When our instincts warn us that there’s something to be afraid of, we can overcome that fear by pushing through it, just like horses do. Instead of being afraid, we could transform that response into another emotion, such as excitement and do something with it to burn up that energy with physical exercise, for example. Then, later, we can look back at whatever scared us, let it go and return to the present moment. Get back to doing whatever we’re good at doing and, particularly, whatever keeps us peaceful. We can remind ourselves that, for now, in the present time, we’re fine. So, the next time, we hear another branch crack, we should know how to move away from that instinctive response, but until that moment arrives, we can remain calm, knowing that in the present moment, we are well and have nothing to fear.

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