Horses have a lot of stress. They are always on high alert and they are highly reactive to their world. Movement over there. A strange object over there. A noise from somewhere. All these things grab their attention and cause stress. God made them that way so that they survive and don’t get clobbered by tigers.
It’s the horse’s two-legged friend’s job to help the horse with all their emotions and all this stress if we want to do anything together with the horse.
Imagine that we have two horses, Beauty and Ginger.
With Beauty, we use the technique called sacking out, or desensitization. We put a rope and halter on Beauty so that he can’t run away from us and we bring all sorts of terrifying things over to him. We bring blankets and ropes, pool noodles, flags, and plastic bags right up to him and even though he is trying to escape from us, we rub him all over with these scary objects.
Beauty freaks out. Understandably.
But after enough time of fighting and trying to run away, Beauty gives up and stands still, defeated, sweaty, and breathing hard. At that point, we say, “Good boy, Beauty!” and we take all the stuff away from him.
Our goal is that next time we put Beauty in a scary situation, he’ll know that he should just stand still.
Now, with Ginger on the other hand, we want her to get used to a blanket for example, so in a big open space, we slowly and gently approach her with the blanket. We pay very, very close attention to Ginger. The moment Ginger looks a bit tense, we stop, take a step back, and wait for Ginger to become calm and curious again. Then when she is calm, we approach slowly again, ready to wait if she needs us to.
Eventually, Ginger is so calm and curious that she sniffs the blanket and lets us rub her with it and put it up on her back.
The goal is that the next time we put Ginger in a scary situation, she’ll know that she can trust us and stay calm and curious.
What’s the more effective way of working with horses? I hope we all agree it’s the second approach.
With Beauty, we were trying to increase his tolerance to stress. We were loading him up with stressor after stressor, and trying to get him used to his negative emotions.
The trouble is that what happens is he’ll explode. Not literally. And maybe not today. But one day, this horse will just have enough and all his anxiety and fear and frustration that he was swallowing as a means to escape the stressors will erupt out of him.
Do you load more and more on your plate, hoping that you just get used to all the pressure? Do you take on one thing and then the next as a way to increase your tolerance to stress? Do you eventually have enough and explode with anger and frustration? Or do you eventually have enough and implode with depression and despair?
That’s what happens when we try to increase our tolerance to stress.
The stress management skills that we teach DO NOT increase your tolerance to stress and stressful emotions.
Actually, they decrease your tolerance to stress.
I know that sounds crazy and counter intuitive, but let’s ask Ginger how she’s doing, shall we?
Ginger’s confidence will increase; she will be able to tolerate more and more stimulus with healthy emotions such as curiosity and self-efficacy.
Because we had a very low tolerance to stress. As soon as we saw Ginger experiencing a stressful emotion, we stopped and waited. The stressful emotion healed and transformed into a positive one, and then we carried on. We payed such close attention to Ginger, we didn’t bulldoze, and we listened to what she needed.
The payoffs with Ginger are huge. One day, this horse would calmly walk through fire if we asked her to. This is because decreasing our tolerance of stressful emotions increases her tolerance of challenging situations.
Instead of trying to increase your tolerance to stress, decrease your tolerance to stress.
Become more aware of those stressful emotions. Pay more attention to the gut feelings. Pause. Breathe through your heart. Become calm and curious, and then move on. You’ll end up way farther ahead than if you bulldozed through your day.
When you decrease your tolerance to stress (stressful emotions), you increase your tolerance to life’s challenges.
PS. Horses are a font of wisdom and are very wiling to share. If you’re open to it, they teach you something unique in every experience you have with them. Find out what they have to teach you with The Equine Experience!
Here’s to conquering stress.
The Stress Experts
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