Horses to Educate Emotionally from Childhood

Horses to Educate Emotionally from Childhood

Evidence shows that a good dose of empathy, active listening and emotional self-regulation in children favours their personal and academic development, while at the same time fosters an atmosphere of well-being, flexibility and mutual respect in their environment.

Good Grounds for Effective Education

It seems that at last, early childhood education is giving a place of relevance to emotional, social and creative intelligence, alongside the other classic subjects that, over generations, have shaped the school curricula that most of us have grown up with.

We adults today, as we have gone through life and its trials and tribulations, have realised that it was not all about accumulating knowledge, getting brilliant marks in different subjects and fattening our CVs with various courses and master's degrees. At the most critical moments, wether personally and professionally, we had little use for formulas, theorems, knowing the list of the Goths by heart... However, it would have been of great help to us to manage the situations we faced with more serenity, to recognise the emotions that arose, our own and those of others, and to have a basic kit of social skills and relational aptitudes, which could have been used without hesitation to minimise the tantrums and the leaks of precious energy, which undoubtedly could have been put to much better use in other aspects.

What We Mean by Emotional Intelligence

It was Daniel Goleman who popularised this concept through his work Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995. In it, he investigates and delves into everything concerning the effects, consequences and practical benefits of using emotions properly and all the information that is revealed through them. Due to the great repercussion of his work, he is considered by many to be the father of the emotional intelligence as it is known today.

It is a term that we hear more and more frequently in any conversation or in the media, it often appears in the fields of psychology, pedagogy or human resources, and it is starting to be used in advertising and marketing as well. Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional management, puts the focus of our attention on a human dimension that until a few years ago, not only lacked relevance, but at certain times in history and especially in certain social circles, tended to be ignored or concealed, as excessive expressiveness was frowned upon and behavioural containment of feelings and self-control was preferred. It is not difficult to deduce that we are referring to emotions.

In the past, IQ was the ultimate measure of a person's ability to shine, to succeed personally and professionally, and therefore to be happy and achieve a fulfilling life. However it was often found that in many individuals, a high IQ went hand in hand with bland life experiences, poor self-fulfilment, low sociability and even loneliness and depression. Therefore, it was deduced that there were other factors, previously ignored, that determined a successful and fulfilling life, which had more to do with attitude and coping with life circumstances than with a set of technical skills, methods or intellectual resources.

In order to talk about emotional intelligence or emotional management, it is essential to first delve into the world of emotions, to know what they are and to understand how they work.

What Is an Emotion

According to the Real Academia Española, emotion is an intense and temporary alteration of mood, pleasant or painful, which is accompanied by a certain somatic commotion. It comes from the Latin emotio which refers to "what moves you". We could also say that it is the way in which we respond to an external or internal stimulus (memories and thoughts for instance), on a psychic, physiological, behavioural and psychological level. It is said that emotions are energy in motion that in one way or another, whether subtly or strongly manifested ,everything we experience in life involves some kind of emotion.

The natural duration of an emotion is measured in seconds. This means that all the hormonal, enzymatic, neuronal and biological changes in general that our body registers as a consequence of an emotion occur in a limited, brief and real space of time. Therefore, everything that prolongs and feeds these effects in ourselves is the product of a deliberate intervention of our thoughts and a repetitive mental rumination. This would lead us to talk about feelings, which differ from emotions in being somehow more complex, rooted and affected by the thinking mind. If these feelings become chronified and we come to identify with them for long periods, modifying even our personality, we would enter into moods.

How do Emotions Arise?

Antes hicimos referencia a cómo las emociones primarias contribuyeron a la supervivencia del hombre de las cavernas. Se trataba de unas emociones básicas que ante una situación crítica motivaban al individuo a huir, luchar o paralizarse. De cualquier manera, lo que se activaba y se sigue activando en esos casos, es una parte del cerebro común a la mayoría de los animales mamíferos que se llama sistema límbico, poniendo en marcha un circuito rápido y eficaz a través de an organic response in which spontaneous chemical, endocrine and neural changes are triggered to adapt to the potential danger.

The limbic system en sí no es una región concreta del cerebro, sino una serie de conjuntos neuronales que se comportan de una determinada manera y que son de especial interés a la hora de entender el comportamiento humano, sus reacciones y sus estados de ánimo. Conformando el sistema límbico existen distintas partes que desempeñan papeles primordiales y bien diferenciados entre ellos:

  1. Hypothalamus: It is one of the areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation due to its connection with the pituitary gland and the endocrine system, and therefore with the release of all kinds of hormones.
  2. Hippocampus: It has a great relevance in mental processes linked to memory, both in the retrieval of memories and in the memorisation of experiences and abstract information.
  3. Amygdala: It is responsible for the learned emotional response that certain shocking events provoke in us, hence its importance in emotional learning.
  4. Orbitofrontal cortex: This is where "emotional" commands originate and are directed to frontal lobe areas responsible for planning and strategising. They therefore play an important role in mitigating "irrational impulses" coming from the limbic system and selecting only those signals that will serve to properly define the objectives of actions with medium to long-term goals.
Image of the brain and its parts

The Mission of Emotions

All emotions have a purpose. They arise so that we become aware of a situation that concerns us, understand how it impacts us, and take action or make a decision accordingly. This applies to both expansive and contractive emotions, which are those we like and dislike, respectively. I deliberately choose not to categorise them into good and bad since, being carriers of adaptive messages intended to make us feel good, they are all necessary and therefore positive.

For primitive men, life unfolded in a hostile environment, constantly on the lookout for threats: it was necessary to seek food and shelter, protect one's own kind and avoid predators. Basic emotions were the quick response mechanisms that effectively alerted them and brought them to safety, enabling them to survive and endure as a species over millions of years.

Today, our lifestyle is very different. We live much more protected from the environment and its dangers. We do not need to put our lives at risk to get food or to take care of our loved ones, and yet emotions still play a fundamental role in the way we relate to situations, to others and to ourselves. In the past, our physical integrity was at stake, and although now the greatest dangers to us are mostly psychological, they still threaten our stability, health and balance.

Types of Emotions

There is a lot of documentation, research and experts who in the last decades have delved into this exciting field of emotions, therefore, different ways of grouping them and various classifications can be found. In a very synthetic way, it can be said that the whole core of this field is based on the primal emotions which are those that are considered innate and universal, with a specific and unique physiological response, and which are expressed in the same way whatever the geographical context. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman in 1979, there are six primary or so-called basic emotions: Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. These would be some of its characteristics:

  • They appear suddenly and are short-lived.
  • They are clearly reflected in facial expression.
  • They are with us from birth and throughout life.
  • They provoke involuntary reactions in the body.
  • They serve as an adaptive method.

The secondary emotions are more complex and are derived from the primary ones. They begin to appear from the age of two and a half to three years, as a product of a certain neuronal maturity, socialisation and the development of the individual's cognitive capacities. We would be talking, for example, of guilt, jealousy, frustration, shame, envy, euphoria, boredom, embarrassment, hatred, etc. Mientras que las primarias son mucho más fugaces y responden a un estímulo, las secundarias pueden durar más generalmente debido a pensamientos y constructos mentales que las alimentan. Estas emociones están muy determinadas por el contexto cultural y social donde se dan.

Children and Their Emotional World

Emotions are not exclusive to adults. On the contrary, from a very young age we begin to experience them and become familiar with the different states they provoke in us. In fact, children go through many different emotions throughout the day as it is the way they respond to the infinite amount of stimuli and new events that appear in their lives. As they integrate motor autonomy and verbal language into their development and become more socially active, the opportunities and contexts that test their emotional melting pot multiply.

One of the scenarios we often observe among children is that they are overwhelmed by emotions as they provoke bodily and physiological changes and sensations that they are not familiar with or do not understand. Sometimes it happens that they feel that their environment censors their expression (especially those that are more uncomfortable or less politically correct), so children and also adolescents are often overwhelmed by all that energy that comes from inside them and they do not know how to channel it. This poor channelling can lead to conflictual, explosive behaviour and behavioural disorders in general.

In many cases, emotions are perceived by them as something negative because they have not been taught to recognise them, to name them, or to discern one from the other, and above all, because they do not know what they are for. Moreover, there is another "uncomfortable" nuance that accompanies emotions and that justifies the desire to hide them, and that is that they make us vulnerable or sensitive to others, revealing our fears, our weaknesses and exposing us as beings who can be hurt.

Teenager grabbing a horse's face

Where Emotional Education Begins

A proper emotional education should be started at an early age. Undoubtedly, the more time that has been invested in getting to know oneself and the inner world of others from childhood, the greater the degree of emotional management in adulthood will certainly be. This way, the bases for quality communication and balanced and satisfactory interpersonal relationships will be gradually developed. Among the many aspects to be emphasised that promote an ideal emotional growth in the individual, we highlight below those that we consider to be the most decisive:

  • Teach them to identify emotions and name them accordingly: This will help them to understand what is happening to them at any given moment, to be comfortable with the transient states that arise and to distinguish between them.
  • Giving space for the expression of emotion: Allowing the spontaneous course of each of them without censoring any and without questioning their origin in any case. By inviting to reflect on it naturally and not to be ashamed of whatever one feels.
  • Educating in empathy: It is not only important that they recognise their emotions and how they feel, but that they learn to respect and understand how others feel, becoming more tolerant and compassionate.
  • Teaching them to regulate their emotions: Providing them with simple tools and exercises that facilitate the healthy management of this energy and the return to their state of balance. For example, through small breathing exercises, Mindfulness and Heart Coherence techniques.
  • Promoting healthy communication: Offering dialogue and mutual listening as a means of expressing needs assertively without the necessity for tantrums, explosions or frustration.

What to Do with Emotions

And how can we optimise these inner revolutions, what is the wisest way to proceed and deal with our emotional world, how should we act in order to regain our stability as soon as possible?

It is normal for these questions and many others to arise, as each of us can surely recall various situations in our lives in which our emotions were triggered and dragged us down, leading us along a tortuous path that we would have liked to avoid, had we known how to do so. Moreover, it is very likely that the consequences or results of those episodes that hijacked us were not the ones we most wanted or the most favourable for the given situation. With hindsight, one realises that it was not worth it to "get like that". How many times have we said this to ourselves and to others!

What is certainly not advisable, although it seems to be a widespread practice, is to ignore and repress them. We said that emotions are physiological responses and moving energy, which is why they need to find their way and their internal and external manifestation. So, no matter how much we try to hide them, or put them in a drawer, we only contribute to them becoming more dense and emphatic, to their magnification and to them finding their own way out when we least expect it and in the most abrupt way. Worst of all, when the burst finally occurs, the degree of entrenchment is such that we are not even able to see and understand when they come from and what caused them. This renders it extremely difficult for us to know and understand ourselves, and to be able to better regulate our emotions on future occasions.

Something extremely important is acceptance: of ourselves as we are and of our emotions, as well as those of the people around us. The moment we accept them, we allow them to express themselves naturally without feeling uncomfortable or guilty about it. The emotions that burst into us ask to be attended to, observed and identified in order to comprehend what is provoking them and what they want to convey to us. The simple act of paying attention to an emotion, feeling it and breathing it in, gradually diminishes its intensity and transforms it into something different and more manageable. When we act in this way, it is much easier to assertively communicate what we need to feel better and it makes it possible to convey our needs evenly, so that they are also listened to, respected and, where possible, satisfied by the other party.

Being familiar with our emotions helps us to detect them at an early stage and almost anticipate to them, thus allowing us to take steps to regulate them and prevent them from escalating to higher levels by dragging us behind them, or simply to distance ourselves, wait intelligently for them to subside and choose a more appropriate moment to take action or make a decision.

How Horses Help Us with Our Emotions

As we previously mentioned in other articles, horses as prey animals, have developed certain mechanisms that allow them to track the environment at different levels, detecting danger or security, in order to be able to get to safety. One of these advanced resources is the limbic system of the brain which, as we have already explained, plays a decisive role in the management of emotions, both in animals and humans.

So when we enter the vital space of a horse with our body, an exchange of information begins to take place between the two beings, consisting of waves and vibrations emitted by the vital organs. This emanation of energy varies according to our state of mind, our mood, whether we are restless or calm, whether we are stressed or worried, if on the other hand we are happy or in love, or if there is something that causes suffering.... Likewise, they will immediately detect our lack of coherence, which for them is a synonym of mistrust or a sign that reads "something is not right", and so a horse will most likely prefer to stay away from what for him is a source of confusion and uneasiness.

Something that distinguishes us from animals is that although we too are constantly receiving information from other living beings in subtle ways, we are not used to being able to read it, sense it or process it as they do because our analytical mind is trained to decipher a series of more explicit, logical and measurable codes and has largely lost its fluency with non-verbal language, intuition, less objective observation at deeper levels, as well as connection with nature in general.

Therefore, when interacting with horses we will be forced to change our language and adapt it to what they can understand, as long as we aim for connection and not separation. The horse will require us to constantly review what we feel, what we think and what we execute through physical or verbal actions, in order to align heart, mind and body, so that we are congruent. Words take a secondary place and our gestures, our posture, our whole body expression take centre stage: which is a reflection of what we intimately feel, even if we don't know how to put it into words, which often happens to us.

Another possible effect of horses on people on an emotional level has to do with the heart and its electromagnetic field. That of the horse, due to its size and the intensity of its waves, has the capacity to exert a notable influence on that of humans, which is much smaller and less powerful, and the usual result is an unblocking of emotions. This is the reason why it often happens that when a participant in a session of coaching with horses, has been interacting with the equine for a while, as soon as he lowers his defences and allows openness and genuine contact with the animal, will be taken by surprise by emotions that come easily to the surface.

Horses with their behaviour, will give us clues about what we are feeling, they will point at where we need to look, they will expose us when we are not honest with ourselves, they will show us ways to know ourselves more thoroughly, without judging us.

Laura García de Castro is a consultant in Transpersonal Mindfulness with a specialty in Integral Health and Development from the University Miguel de Cervantes. She is also certified in Horse Coaching by Equilibri.

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