I’m traveling away from home for three days of people-filled events. It’s going to be a shock to my system since on most days I see more ponies than people. I’m quite comfortable with this ratio of people to pony time. And I heard a radio program recently that suggested why this ratio might be so comfortable for me. (1) The program discussed the parasympathetic nervous system, which was described as ‘rest and digest’ and as an antidote to the sympathetic nervous system that is described as ‘fight or flight.’ My ponies embody for me a ‘rest and digest’ approach to life, and people, to varying degrees these days, seem to prefer constant stimulation that borders on ‘fight or flight.’
This trip is one of only a few in the past ten years into which I haven’t somehow incorporated a pony-related event. As I was putting my computer into its traveling case this morning, I realized it would have to be my proxy for ponies this time. On it are all my photographs and videos of my friends, and I figured I could pull them up to access that ‘rest and digest’ frame of mind in what I anticipate will be an emotionally challenging few days. At the last minute I also grabbed a Parelli Natural Horsemanship Savvy Club DVD. I rarely take time to watch them, but I figured being stationary for a couple of hours on an airplane might provide me with an opportunity. Lo and behold, the one I brought was a terrific demonstration of ‘rest and digest’ being an antidote to ‘fight or flight.’
The video showed Pat Parelli working with a young Thoroughbred racehorse that had been deemed untrainable. For a racehorse the Thoroughbred had more whoa than go; no one had ever figured out how to motivate him. The video was eighty minutes, long enough to completely capture my attention and focus me on the moment-to-moment changes that this master horseman was able to elicit. It was the next best thing to being with my ponies, for it in turn elicited in me a ‘rest and digest’ frame of mind. I’m sure my occasional chuckles were noted by my seat mates. I’m bummed I ran my battery out of juice before the second leg of my journey or I would have watched another video!
There were many parallels between the points made on the radio program about the parasympathetic nervous system and my study of natural horsemanship. For instance, “If the body is upset, the mind can’t think clearly.” In horsemanship, this equates to getting a horse to use his brain rather than his feet, to use the thinking part of his brain rather than the reactive one. How you do this varies with the horse’s personality, and it seemed to me that the reason the Thoroughbred on the video was deemed untrainable was because he had a different personality than most racehorses so he needed different motivation. It was fascinating to watch Parelli be quietly persistent about good ground manners with the horse who’d been allowed to get away with crowding into his handlers. Some of Parelli’s work was done mounted on his twenty-year-old mare Magic, and she occasionally assisted in teaching the younger horse respect for her space, too! Slowly, over the course of their time together, Parelli and Magic were able to get the young horse to quit reacting and to think about what was being asked of him and then to get him to do things voluntarily that he’d previously refused to do.
The radio program also said that the brain has a “negativity bias, which is like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” (2) It’s therefore important to develop practices in one’s life that undermine the brain’s tendency to go negative. I have definitely found that interacting with my ponies, even if it’s just hanging out time rather than working or training, helps in this department.
As my three days away from my ponies unfolds, I will have to put some thought into how to hold onto the ‘rest and digest’ frame of mind that my ponies elicit in me. I know it’s about retraining my brain to respond differently to stimuli, including people. I know my ponies will benefit if I can be successful, too. For, as the radio program said, “If you can change your brain, you can change your life.” (3)
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011