I was at the third of a series of horseless workshops I was running in Shropshire recently, and the host, Sue, asked me to say a bit more about something I had mentioned when chatting to her one evening – she said the concept had stayed with her and been helpful, and she thought it would provoke some thought and discussion in the group.
The comment I had made was about there being a difference between adrenalin-based learning and enjoyment, and endorphin based learning and enjoyment.
Adrenalin is the “fight or flight” hormone: when we feel stressed, frightened, anxious or excited – it’s adrenalin that floods through our body causing us to feel that intense flush of tension – our airways open and our smoother muscles get ready to run or act — the lining of our arterioles actually contracts and changes our blood flow to our muscles….
We feel this when we have a “near miss” when driving, or in a scary situation – when we bungee jump (for those of you who actually do that – my limit is a zipwire!)
Interestingly, we feel this when we are excited too
Even more interestingly, Adrenalin, unlike most other neuro-transmitters in the body, does not regulate itself – with most chemicals as they fill the body, systems act to reduce them again and restore the balance. Since adrenalin is a “survival” chemical – giving us that extra strength to run or fight, there is no such system in place for this, so the “buzz” lasts a long time….
Ever heard the phrase “adrenalin junkie”? thrill seeker? People who do things because of the “buzz” they get from doing them?
There are a lot of those around horses.
People who get back from a hack and dismount saying “Phew! I survived!” and are on an adrenalin high of living through the experience.
People who get a kick from winning and achieving – and get off their horse after a schooling session feeling they have “beaten the horse”, they “won the argument” and “overcame the opposition” – they “got him to do what I wanted”.
People who get a kick out of controlling the horse and winning the arguments….
Their cheeks are flushed, they are warm, excited and thrilled to have won, overcome and achieved.
And while this buzz, this adrenalin high can be a great thing to experience – when we bungee jump, skydive – or even just survive a driving mistake – -it can be a great feeling….
“An adrenaline junkie is somebody who appears to be addicted to endogenous adrenalin. The “high” is caused by self-inducing a fight-or-flight response by intentionally engaging in stressful or risky behavior, which causes a release of epinephrine by the adrenal gland. Adrenaline junkies appear to favor stressful activities for the release of epinephrine as a stress response. “
However, there is another set of chemicals in our body that also produces a great feeling – after stressful events – endorphins are also released during the fight-or-flight response to such activities.
Endorphins belong to the opiate family – they give us that lovely relaxed feeling of wellbeing that we get AFTER the stress is over, when our body is flooded with good feelings….
An Endorphin rush is qualitatively different to an adrenalin rush – the latter leaves you sharp, on edge, ready to run or fight, a “bring it on!” or “Make my day” kind of feeling.
The former, leaves you glowing, bathing in sunlight, warm and fuzzy whilst still thinking clearly – a very pleasant feeling. There is a reason why opiates are generally addictive when they are drugs….
Think about when you are with your horse.
If you have any form of confidence issue, the chances are that you are operating on adrenalin for at least part of the time.
The flight or fight response is triggered, you feel tense, sharp, on edge. Super aware of everything – and ready to react at the slightest thing. Hair trigger. And direct line…predator level focus.
It’s not very enjoyable to feel like that around your horse, is it?
And what most of us do, is bottle it all up, push it down inside and pretend it’s not there.
The thing is, it IS there. And it is a genuine chemical response to our fear or anxiety. Denying it doesn’t change a thing. We still have a body full of adrenalin, and will be thinking and moving in ways that will NOT help our relationship with our horse – and so we will end up becoming even MORE unconfident.
When we are full of adrenalin – -or even have just a slight layer sitting there – our heart rate increases, gets even FASTER than our horse’s, our movements will be sharper, our hands will be quicker to grip, our bodies will be faster to tense – and we lose the ability to have that slow relaxed approach that works so well with our horses.
It’s not all in our mind – -it’s a by product of a chemical in our body. All part of our evolutionary development……
What happens in the Endorphin state?
When we are in the Endorphin state, we feel alive, energised – but in a different way. Time slows, we feel warm, connected, and our whole body moves in a more fluid way. Our heart rate might speed up – but it can slow down as well. Endorphins are released with the stress of physical exercise, but ALSO when we relax and meditate…..
In horses, when they relax and lower their head, endorphins are released……
So what does someone in an Endorphin state with a horse look and sound like?
Ever have that feeling of being “in the moment”? when time stretches forever and yet it seems just a moment since you started – and you are amazed at how much time has actually passed since you have been with your horse?
Ever felt that “sigh” of relaxation when something finally clicks into place?
Coming back from a hack, sliding off reluctantly – and hugging your horse…..
Think about how THIS state affects how you are when you are with your horse…..
When people are in the adrenalin state, they will be tight, aggressive, fearful and focused on control and “winning”
When people are in the Endorphin state they will be relaxed, open, calm, and focused on being in the moment and accepting what happens
Which one is better for confidence?
And almost everything we do with our horse can be done in either state? Think about it: we can go to the beach for the thrill or the gallop, the danger of not knowing if we will stay on, if our horse will go in the water, for the massive rush we will get and remember when we tell the story later about how scared we really were and how we overcame it….
Or we can go to the beach and glory in how relaxed we both are, how our horse looks to us for confidence and guidance – and how we can softly canter in the waves on a loose rein…..
I know which one I prefer
Ok, so it’s all very well saying we are better off in an endorphin state, but how on earth do we GET there?
There are a few ideas that will help us:
1. Never do anything when you are over a 5
We have talked before about scoring your unconfidence – anything below 5 means you are confident enough to do it safely, without any doubt although you might have to think a bit. Antyhign ABOVE a 5 brings stress, tension – -and so encourages the adrenalin state. If you KNOW you are going to stay below a five, how much easier is it to relax and be open to the endorphin state instead?
Watch your horse breath and allow yourself to synchronise with him or her. Breathing together creates harmony and is a great way to start the relaxation that leads to endorphins
Timing your breathing to match your horse will also slow you down, and connect you more with the moment you are in. Paying attention to the breathing will take your mind away from other things, and your focus will become almost a meditation…..
3. Heart rate
First, realise that a horse’s heart rate at rest is 25-40 beats per minute (bpm)
Ours? Is 75-100
However, we can CHANGE our heart rate. When we stand with our horse, just near them or just touching them, and match our breathing to theirs, then our heart rate WILL lower. Learn to listen to it. Hear your heart. Listen to your heart sharing with you how you really feel, no lies, no disguises. Make sure you are in your comfort zone. Your breathing matches. Your heart rate lowers – you will feel good.
Now you are in your comfort zone, you are breathing in harmony and your heart rate is steady – -NOW you can touch your horse.
Touch as if your horse is the most precious friend you have. Touch softly, or firmly – just touch with your palm, cupped and gentle and “put your heart in your hand”. Your only aim is to connect.
Doing these four things will make a huge difference to your confidence, your state of mind – an dyour horse’s state of mind. Your horse may be indifferent at first – not realising you are trying to connect – but keep doing it and they will soon notice that you are making the effort to be in harmony with them – -and they will connect with you.
And why does this matter? This connection?
One of the biggest differences between our horses and ourselves is our focus on time – where we exist. Although physically we both live in the here and now, only the horse lives there mentally and emotionally. We humans have a tendency to either live in the past, or in the future. Our mental and emotional state is based in the past or in the future.
When we do this, we are instantly disconnected from our horse. And we are not living in reality. Of course being aware of the past can give us valuable insights, and thinking of the future can help us make good choices – but to be able to be in the moment is the most important thing –
Especially if you want to connect with your horse.
Following the four steps above will help you slow down, be in the moment and connect – and then, once you have that state, everything you do with your horse will be able to be accomplished in this warm, present, accepting, connected state.
How wonderful will that be?
What all these add up to is the art of being MINDFUL.
This reminds me of one of my favourite writers/philosophers: Montaigne.
Michel de Montaigne (born 1533) was a French essayist in the Renaissance. In fact, he developed a unique essay style, much discussed at the time and admired later – where he directly engaged his personal experiences into his thinking about life, the universe and everything.
He is particularly famous for one essay which contains what became a motto of his “What do I know?”
He was famously sceptical of everything – explored how people thought and lived and while not seeing himself as a philosopher, ended up being viewed as one of the most influential thinkers of the time. His influence can, for example, be seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays….and he was a renowned negotiator of conciliations between warring factions..
Here are some tidbits from his thinking. Remember this is before 1600…I think some of them will sound familiar:
– Peace of mind, tranquillity and enjoying life is the important thing
– There are things that are outside our sphere of influence, outside our power – -and in order to enjoy life, we need to learn to detach ourselves from those things, mentally and emotionally….
– There is always a balance in our choices between expediency, and morality: we do things because they are expedient, or because they are morally right…or a mix of the two, and that mix is where our choice lies….
– Knowledge is not definitive, stable, reliable – we have no certain foundation for knowledge, we can’t even know if we know things…and if we can’t know, then we have to suspend judgement…..what do I know?
– To understand a behaviour, you need to understand the whole cultural system…the presumption that we are right and others are wrong is not valid when this perspective is taken
You can see why I am particularly taken with this man and his essays.
My favourite story of Montaigne’s is one where he tells the story of an Ancient greek philosopher talking to a king.
The philosopher asks: What are you going to do now?
King: “I’m going to conquer Italy”
Philosopher: “What are you going to do after that?”
King: “I‘m going to conquer Africa”
Philosopher: “What are you going to do after that?”
King: “I’m going to conquer the world!”
Philosopher: “And what are you going to do after that?”
King: “….I’m going to sit down, have glass of wine and relax….”
To which the philosopher replies, “Why don’t you just sit down NOW and have a glass of wine and relax?”
Montaigne’s view was why go on doing all those things that are about becoming important if all that really matters is sitting down having a glass of wine relaxing and being at peace with yourself?
And so to Montaigne, the whole enterprise of life is one of learning how to live with yourself, and you can only do that if you learn to escape from some of these anxieties and vanities that drive you….
Sometimes we are so focused on what we need to do to become important – -we forget why we got into all this horse stuff in the first place. What it is we truly enjoy about our horses.
Being with them.
Horses give us the ability to be in the moment. If that is what life is really about, then horses are offering us a tremendous gift.
When we accept this gift, of being in the moment – -of being with ourselves and our horse in this moment in time that is eternity — then we are connected. Then we are mindful, triggering our endorphins…..
Then we are confident.
So, how are you going to become an “endorphin junkie”?
Yours, in confidence