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The Horse and The Rider

Let me introduce you to the idea that the human brain uses two radically different ways of thinking, by way of a personal story that happened a few years back.

“My brothers and I arrived at the ranch in the pre-dawn dark of an October long weekend. Four brothers, home for the Thanksgiving holidays with our families. We had arranged with a local rancher friend to use a couple of his horses, along with two horses owned by two of my brothers, to go on a half-day ride across the prairies of southern Alberta.

As we saddled up the horses, there wasn’t a hint of the crimson streaks of dawn or of any warmth in the pre-dawn chill. Opening the corral gates we headed out single file into the nearest pasture leading to the bluffs and coulees along the South Saskatchewan River. All was calm and dark.

The horses were snorting and blowing, bobbing their heads, hitting their stride, and getting used to the fact that, yes, there were riders on their backs and they were heading away from the comfort of the corrals. I was the last in the line of four riders, riding one of the rancher’s horses, a well-muscled gelding with a smooth walk and a mottled tan-grey color. Four to five minutes into the ride, all was not calm but it was still dark.

My horse decided with no warning that it wasn’t about to leave the corral area or have me on his back at this time of day. We went from an easy walk to straight-up bucking in a split second! Three things happened in the first 2 seconds –I pulled back hard on the reins with one hand, my free hand grabbed the saddle horn, and my knees and legs gripped every bit of saddle possible.

Now, I am a recreational rider, not a bronc rider by a long shot. Instinct just took over and luck carried me through. There really were only two outcomes – in a few seconds, I’d either be in the saddle or on the ground. Much to my brothers’ amusement and subsequent laughter, I managed to stay on through the 3-4 bucks and get the horse settled down once again.

As the sun finally broke the horizon, and the prairies took on that awesome pale yellow glow, we were loping across the prairies heading for the river, feeling the smooth rhythm of the powerful animals under our saddles. What a great feeling!

Towards noon, we happened to walk our horses into a small group of rattlesnakes slithering through the tall prairie grass. They were migrating back towards their winter den in the warm noon sunshine. We heard the rattles, stopped the horses, talked soothingly to them, and slowly backed them away. We were calming their instinct to react and possibly bolt or buck. Being experienced range horses, they had encountered rattlesnakes before and easily followed our directions to take another path.”

The metaphor of a horse and a rider can be used to illustrate the relationship between the emotional and rational parts of our brains. The horse represents the emotional, automatic, reactive part of our mind while the rider represents the rational, controlled, processing part. The horse and rider metaphor also illustrates the very real power imbalance between these two parts.

Imagine the emotional and rational parts of our brain moving through the world much like a man on a horse. They are much alive to each other and to their environment, yet communication between them is limited. Both of them interpret information and act upon it in significantly different ways. They have offsetting strengths and weaknesses and need to work in tandem for success.

Five Things You Should Know About Your Emotions (the horse).

1. Emotions provide the energy and drive (the horsepower) to get things done. Think about large projects that you just had to grind through or a parent protecting their child from a dangerous and negative situation, like ongoing bullying.

2. Emotions are reactive, lazy, and skittish. Reactive and automatic responses are emotions in action, sometimes with positive results, sometimes not.

3. Emotions are powerful – whenever they are out of control, they can overpower the rider. Think of the bucking instance in my ride. I could not control the horse. It quit bucking primarily because it wanted to.

4. Emotions, like horses, are trainable and can be directed or guided to do what is asked of them. Think about rethinking a situation where your emotions got the best of you and your response was not exactly what you had planned. You can spend time learning from that situation and creating habits in ways to respond more appropriately. Think back to the story where we encountered the rattlesnakes. The horses had been in that situation before and responded to our guidance readily.

5. The language of the horse is simple: like vs. dislike, pain vs. pleasure, avoidance vs. approach, negative rewards vs. positive rewards, discomfort vs. comfort, or now vs. later.

What About You?

Have you ever experienced the anxiety of an unknown situation? Have you ever reacted spontaneously to a surprise of some type? Have you ever reacted angrily to your family or co-worker for no apparent reason? Ever been cut off in traffic and felt a surge of emotion rising to the surface?

Ever procrastinated on a big project by doing minor, meaningless, less painful tasks? Have you ever felt the unleashed satisfaction of some personal achievement? Ever been sad enough that you lowered your expectations of something or someone without realizing it? Ever felt your happiness, anger, or anxiety from one situation impact unrelated situations?

So now what?

1. The rider’s toolbox includes emotional self-awareness, emotional regulation, and emotional self-management.

2. The first and most important tool is emotional self-awareness – an awareness of the horse in your brain.

Oh, and about that emotional power, . . . . it actually resides in the ‘amygdala,’ the seat of the reactive, emotional part of our brain. Amazingly the amygdala is about the size of an almond. Our total brain weighs approximately 1400 grams and the amygdala weighs a whopping 1.2 grams. Now that’s a lot of emotional horsepower!

- Dana Couillard


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