Taking the Reins
Horse Sense
for Challenging Times
By Linda Kohanov



Stress on the job and at home, fueled by recent financial upheaval and political change, leads to raw nerves, short tempers, and spinning minds. Yet in challenging times, when fear, anger and frustration run amok, a healthy dose of horse sense can help you stay centered, turning a crisis into opportunity.

What exactly is horse sense? The expression, dating back to the 1800s, refers to sound practical wisdom, a combination of common sense and gumption. But there's an element of intuition involved, as in "She's got too much horse sense to believe his story." For this reason, it's often thought of as a practical yet mysterious gift certain lucky people possess from birth.

You can develop horse sense later in life, most efficiently, as it turns out, through actually working with horses. In fact, it was a spirited mare who first taught me to stand up for myself. I was in my 30s at the time, dealing with an aggressive, yet secretive supervisor. As I learned to motivate and set boundaries with a 1,000-pound being, my 200-pound boss suddenly seemed less intimidating. I not only found that I could effectively challenge unreasonable demands, but I was able to gain greater cooperation and respect as a result. And so I began to explore how other people could benefit from what I was learning at the barn.

Recent studies on "emotional intelligence" help solve the mystery behind horse sense. As it turns out, only ten percent of human communication is verbal. Yet we've virtually become mesmerized by words as our social and educational systems teach us to ignore the nonverbal dimensions of life. How many times have you seen a parent listlessly tell a child to "clean your room or else," with absolutely no result? How many times have you asked for space in a relationship and had someone become more invasive? Understanding what we are saying to each other is icing on the cake compared with everything else we're communicating.

People with horse sense pay attention to that "other 90 percent," that dimension of nonverbal intelligence. They "listen to their gut" when making decisions and really "put their heart into it" once they commit to action. These expressions turn out to be apt descriptions of intelligence centers in the body. Physiologists now know that sixty percent of the heart's cells are neural. In fact, there are more neural cells in the gut than in the entire spinal column.

As a result, both areas can act independently of the brain in gathering information and adapting to the environment. "Gut feelings" are real, as both the intestinal track and heart have been shown to generate neuropeptides, molecules carrying emotional information. Your body is a magnificent turner, receiver, and amplifier for all kinds of information. It's also sentient in that it feels, learns and has definite opinions that sometimes contradict the brain. Think of your body as the horse that your mind rides around on. Like any horse, you can form a mutually-respectful partnership with it, or you can rein it in and spur it on, refusing to listen to it, only to have it throw you during stressful situations and head for the hills when you need its cooperation most.

When we're taught to focus on what an authority figure is saying, suppressing gut feelings and wildly-fluttering hearts, intuitive wisdom and natural warning systems are muzzled, allowing others to corral us for any number of purposes against our better judgment.

Imagine if a supervisor asked you to complete a project with only ten percent of the information available to you, if schools were only committed to teaching ten percent of what you need to successful in life. And yet that is precisely what is happening as we overemphasize the spoken and written word in business, education and relationship.

Developing that "other 90 percent," however, is challenging precisely because it is nonverbal; you can not sit around talking about it or study it over the internet. It must be learned experientially, which is why horses are proving to be great teachers of leadership, parenting, and relationship skills in the field of equine-facilitated human development. However, I can share a key piece of horse sense that will help you deal more effectively with stress.

Horses use emotion as information. Rather than suppressing uncomfortable feelings or outlandishly expressing them, these powerful animals follow a simple four-point method any human is smart enough to learn:

1.) They feel the emotion in its purest form.

2.) They get the message behind the emotion.

3.) They change something in response.

4.) They go back to grazing. If they're afraid, they move to safety and enjoy the grass on the other side of the field. They don't spend the afternoon complaining that they had to run from a predator, and they don't stay up all night fretting about why God invented lions in the first place.

Same with anger: Horses use this momentarily uncomfortable rise in emotional energy to help them set boundaries. A stallion may get a little feisty and try to push his mares around. If they're not in the mood for his shenanigans, they'll pin their ears and warn him to back off. If he doesn't listen, they'll become more emphatic, kicking out and squealing if necessary.

Yet when he finally gives them space, they'll relax, joining him later for a nap under a favorite tree. These horses don't need hours of counseling to work out their resentment and disappointment. Both offender and offended get the message behind the anger, change something in response, let the emotion go, and resume their enjoyment of life.

Over time, through observing horses and doing plenty of follow-up research, I came to realize there are very predictable, quite rational messages behind "troublesome" emotions like fear, anger, frustration, sadness, grief, and even depression, information that I shared for the first time in the 2003 book Riding between the Worlds. For lack of more space in this article, I would like to offer a simple distinction that helps people navigate uncertainty in challenging times.

There are actually two kinds of fear. It's important, and ultimately empowering, to discern between an external threat in the environment, which is fear as nature's warning system, and the kind of fear I now distinguish as Œvulnerability,' which is an internal threat, a challenge to your self image, belief system, or comfortable habits.

The two feel the same, and most people will treat them the same, but fear and vulnerability each call for a different response. With an external threat, you need to move to safety. With vulnerability, you realize you're not in actual danger, but that circumstances are asking you to change and expand out of your comfort zone.

Problems occur when people overreact as if their life is being threatened in response to the latter, and fail to realize their life is being threatened in the former. Take the current financial crisis. Some of us are facing the very real fear of having our homes taken away from us. Others are dealing with the vulnerability of having to change the ways we do business in this country, of having to step into the unknown and try something new.

Humans sometimes don't run when they should, and they often go into flight-or-fight mode when there's no real danger. It's as if we are more reactive and fearful of change than of an actual physical threat. Much social strife is caused at home, at work, and between countries, by our inability to recognize the difference between fear and vulnerability. Horses, on the other hand, are highly adaptable to changing conditions. If a lion threatens them, they run, then immediately go back to grazing. When change is on the horizon, they relax into it and adapt. If water and grass become scarce, they move on to greener pastures with their family groups.

There's a real sense of adventure in the herd when they move on, not resentment. Horses show incredible endurance migrating over vast distances precisely because they know how to enjoy, and be nourished by, the journey. In the late 1990s Linda, a freelance writer, music critic, and radio announcer began investigating how and why horses were so talented at teaching emotional fitness, nonverbal communication, and leadership skills.  

She chronicled her initial findings in the 2001 book, The Tao of Equus: A Woman's Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse. It became a bestseller, leading to two more, well-received titles: Riding between the Worlds: Expanding Our Potential through the Way of the Horse and Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self Discovery.  

Linda is founder of the Epona International Study and Equine Development Center in Sonoita, AZ. For more information, visit: www.taoofequus.com or call (520) 455-5908.


Return to the May/June Index page