What horses can teach us about breathing mindfully

Standard

We have recently added a new coping strategy to our Connect with Horses personal empowerment workshops.  As with equine-assisted experiential learning, equine-guided meditation and equine-led walking meditation, it is an activity that participants practice in the presence of our horses.

A lot has been written about how horses use breathing to connect and to communicate. Horses tend to breathe slower and deeper when they need to either calm themselves or another herd member. The question arose: “Could we possibly connect and communicate with horses by regulating our breathing?”

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Not only can we calm a distressed horse by breathing slowly and deeply, but we can also be calmed ourselves by paying attention to a horse’s breathing pattern and speed when the horse is at ease and at rest. The effect is most powerful in the presence of our herd.

Before we can benefit from such an experience, we must first become aware of our own breathing, an automatic process most of us pay very little attention to on a day-to-day basis. Take a minute or two now and observe how quickly or slowly you are breathing. Is your breathing low (you are breathing from your belly), or high (you are breathing from your chest)? Is there a pause between your in-breath and your out-breath? Do you breathe through your mouth or through your nose? It will be easier to determine your breathing speed and pattern if you put one hand on your chest and the other hand under your bellybutton. This way you can feel which part of your body mostly moves up and down every time you inhale and exhale. Become aware of your breathing in a non-judgemental way – there is no right or wrong way to do this exercise, it is merely about observing what is happening naturally.

This is probably one of the best mindfulness exercises I know, while doing it you are 100% present in the current moment.

This is how our workshop participants start each mindfully breathing exercise with our horses. I first ask them to become aware of their own breathing, without trying to regulate it in any way. They may be breathing slightly faster than normal – if they have never been in the presence of a herd, it is perfectly normal to feel somewhat anxious.

When we are anxious, we change the way we breathe, without realising. Both our breathing rate and pattern change. Instead of taking deep breaths, into our lower lungs, we start to breathe superficially. We take quick, shallow breaths, into our upper lungs only. It feels as if we cannot breathe and we say that we cannot “catch our breath.” This expression is not entirely accurate, because we manage perfectly well to breathe in, even if only in short, sharp breaths. The problem is that we do not breathe out properly, we also breathe out in short gasps. This can lead to a condition called hyperventilation.

When we breathe, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Fast, shallow breathing can cause the carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream to drop too low. This, in turn, can cause quite a few uncomfortable and alarming symptoms. You may

  • Have palpitations – your heart feels as if it is racing – and tightness in your chest or chest pain. This is why panic attacks are often confused with heart attacks.
  • Feel lightheaded, weak, faint, dizzy and unable to think straight
  • Have tingling or numbness in your fingertips or around your mouth
  • Experience a sense of terror, or impending doom or death
  • Have a dry mouth and feel sweaty, hot and bothered or you may have chills
  • Feel nauseous and have abdominal pain or bloating
  • Feel as if you are losing control

If this should happen, you can avoid a full-blown panic attack by mindfully doing breathing exercises. Below are some breathing exercises which will help you avoid hyperventilation. It is important that you breathe in and out at a steady rate.

Exercise 1: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Imagine your lungs are divided into three parts. Breathe in gently through your nose. First, imagine the lowest part of your lungs filling with air. Next, imagine the middle part of your lungs filling with air and then your lungs filling with air right to the top. Relax your shoulders. Gently and slowly exhale fully and completely. Repeat the exercise three or four times.

Exercise 2: Take a deep, full breath. Exhale slowly, fully and completely. Inhale again and count from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Pause for 4 seconds. Exhale slowly while counting from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Pause for 4 seconds. Repeat the exercise three or four times. This is also called square breathing.

Exercise 3: Resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. Keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. Start by exhaling completely through your mouth. Next, close your mouth, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head. Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath. Exhale from your mouth for eight seconds. This is called 4-7-8 breathing. Repeat at least 4 times. The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most critical part of this practice.

Once our workshop participants are fully conscious of their own breathing rhythm and depth, I ask them to pay attention to the horses’ breathing speeds and patterns. This accomplished, I encourage them again to notice their own breathing, to find out if there has been a change. They often report that their own breathing slows and becomes deeper as they concentrate on the horses’ breathing. They also say that they gradually start to feel more and more relaxed. Many report a profound feeling of connection, with the horses and with each other.

Whenever you feel anxious, I recommend you do one of the breathing exercises above. My personal favourite is square breathing. It will help you to relax and can also help you fall asleep. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, do the exercise of your choice at least twice a day. If you would like to experience the profoundly calming effect breathing with horses can have, join us for a personal empowerment workshop here in the south of France!

For more information, send an e-mail to welcome2 gascony[at]gmail.com.