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Managing stress with Equine-imity
Managing stress with Equine-imity
Beverley Kane, MD, is adjunct clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford Medical School, the instructor for Medical Tai Chi, and the program director for Stanford Medicine and Horsemanship. Dr. Kane’s private practice is Horsensei Equine-Assisted Learning and Therapy (HEALTH). One of her programs, Equine-imity Somatic Horsemanship, offered through the Stanford Health Improvement Program, teaches “moving meditation” based upon the ancient Chinese practice of qigong (“chee goong”). Equine-imity uses the qigong method of regulating posture, breathing, and muscle tension in partnership with horses. BeWell spoke with Dr. Kane to learn more about how equine-imity can relieve stress and heighten mental and emotional composure.
Can you tell us a little bit about Equine-imity Somatic Horsemanship as a stress management technique?
Equine-imity is a play on “equanimity,” which means mental and emotional composure, especially in stressful circumstances. All stress management techniques have in common the attempt to regulate potentially pathological somatic (bodily) responses to stress. Physiologically, our bodies tend to over-respond to stress. We are wired to perceive life or death threats in minor disturbances. The human nervous system has failed to completely evolve out of the fight, flight, or faint responses from our cave days. A minor event, like a fender-bender, can cause the adrenal glands to respond as if the body is being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger. An exaggerated stress reaction results in overproduction of adrenalin and stress hormones, causing high blood pressure, angina (cardiac-based chest pains), and arrhythmias — including racing heart (tachycardia). Stress also causes increased secretion of stomach acid, headaches, skin rashes, and impaired immunity to viruses and other infections.
Equine-imity is unique in combining the stress-relieving abilities of horses with techniques from medical qigong (“chee-goong”) to regulate posture, breathing, and muscle tension. Qigong is an ancient Chinese practice for maintaining health through circulating qi using the breath. Qi, older spelling chi, has been translated as energy, although it is not a measurable energy like calories, pressure, and volts. Anyone who has done yoga will be familiar with the concept of “prana,” which is qi in Sanskrit. Qigong is similar to tai ji (less accurately spelled tai chi), but more gentle. Archeological evidence suggests that the origins of qigong lie in ancient shamanic dances depicted in the pottery of the Yangshao and Majiayao Cultures of Northern China (5,000-3,000 BCE). In 2005, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, one of 27 agencies that make up the U.S. National Institutes of Health, validated qigong as a modality of energy medicine.
Equine-imity also draws on the growing field of ecotherapy, or nature-based therapy. As part of stress reduction, the class also emphasizes emotional self-regulation and recovery from episodic extremes of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness.
… but you haven’t mentioned the horses yet!
How are the horses incorporated into the process?
Equine-imity group classes and appointments are conducted at a 300-acre ranch 10 minutes from campus. Coming into the ranch is itself an ecotherapeutic experience. Being outdoors on the land is a radical departure from indoor office environments of steel, glass, computers and stale or recirculated air. Equine-imity partners with a herd of 10–14 horses who are gentle and well-socialized, but not overly conditioned to human expectations (like pet cats and dogs).
After touch-in, in which the person can talk about his or her stress in as much or as little detail as s/he cares to, we do our qigong exercises in preparation for going out among the horses. The exercises begin with awareness of what is going on in the body in that moment. Awareness without judgment is the first step. Then we perform simple breathing, grounding, and centering exercises, using principles from medical qigong.
The remainder of the class is devoted to observing, meeting, touching, and breathing with the various horses who volunteer for the relationship on any given day. This will vary from day to day, horse to horse, and person to person. The horses have their own moods and rhythms and most have a sixth sense for whom to relate to and how.
Is there something special about horses that make them an especially useful aid for reducing stress?
Horses are ideal for teaching us how to live in our bodies. They are social creatures who readily and honestly respond to the challenges inherent in forming and sustaining relationships. Their survival as individuals and as a species has depended on their living in a constant state of heightened awareness while not holding on to emotions and tension after the immediate disturbance has subsided. Unlike our family cats and dogs, who evolved as predators and are now highly domesticated, horses evolved as prey animals and remain characteristically feral1 even in the captivity of our barns and pastures.
Two characteristics of horses stand out as contributing to the core teaching of Equine-imity. Most importantly, when a perceived threat, often just a fluttering plastic bag, is removed, horses go back to grazing contentedly. “Back to grazing” — letting go of stress quickly — is a key principle of Equine-imity and discussed at length in the syllabus. One of the qigong techniques we teach, a somatic exercise derived from equine-assisted EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), is specifically designed to help participants go back to grazing.
Secondly, the horse’s physiology can directly affect the human body. Whereas an anxious human can have a heart rate of up to 100 or more, the resting heart rate of the horse is 40. In exercises called the dan tien (energy center, core) press and the dan tien hug, participants in physical contact with, or even just close proximity to, the horse can entrain to the horse’s lower heart rate. In the dan tien hug, the participant is also taught to breathe with the horse, who naturally breathes into her belly (dan tien, or diaphragmatic, breathing) and not high (forward) in her chest.
What kinds of results can a person expect from practicing the technique?
The American Psychological Association cites data showing that stress costs American businesses almost $300 billion per year from absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs. Thus, there is a great deal to be gained by stress management skills and practices.
Stress reduction interventions have been proven to prevent and alleviate physical and mental illness. Following the 1975 publication of Harvard physician Herbert Benson’s classic, The Relaxation Response, which examined Transcendental Meditation, medical research has established the stress-relieving and disease prevention capabilities of several forms of meditation and relaxation. The 2013 book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, extensively documents research proving the health benefits of tai ji and qigong. Results include lowered blood pressure, decreased cortisol (a stress hormone), and improved scores on mental health measures of anxiety, depression, and cognitive function.
Anecdotally, students who have taken Equine-imity report relief from stress that carries over from the ranch to work and domestic life. They are also able to re-establish balance during times of emotional distress.
Is this technique better for some people than others, or can anyone benefit from it?
Qigong is a moving meditation. It has special appeal for those who have difficulty becoming motionless and clearing their minds as required in traditional forms of sitting meditation. Those with exceptionally active minds and jobs that rely primarily on intellectual skills, as is typical of Stanford and other Silicon Valley employees, often prefer moving meditation. Qigong uses the mind to direct coordinated breathing and muscle activity in smooth, gentle, flowing motions. So rather than still the “monkey mind,” as it’s called in Zen philosophy, the mind is given a more complex motor task to do.
Using the mind-body connection in this way is identical to training an overexcited, restless, or distracted horse. We cannot calm such a large animal by confining him or by trying to pull him to a stop. Instead, we redirect his mind and his energy into a task, such as controlled running in circles or trotting over poles, that provides a focus and a goal. Qigong provides a focus and a goal by using mind and body in disciplined yet fluid movements — just like the horse.
Qigong is also preferred as a gentler, less contorted activity for those who have difficulty with yoga poses and stretches. It is also a good adjunct activity to yoga, Mindfulness Based Stress reduction, and sports.
Should this technique be avoided by people who have a fear of horses, or can it be used to help them get over their fears?
Many people who come to Equine-imity are intimidated by horses or have had a traumatic experience with horses in the past. Even seasoned horse professionals retain a healthy respect for these imposing animals. However, the purpose of Equine-imity is not to get over fear of horses. If a person is afraid to the point of being phobic, the stress reduction benefits of Equine-imity will probably be lost. Now, having said that, we have had a few people who were fearful of horses and who, by approaching the activities gradually, were able to shed their fears by the end of class.
Unfortunately, not everyone will have access to horses. Can similar effects be derived from other animals?
There is a larger, umbrella field of animal-assisted therapy that includes, for instance, bringing cats and dogs into nursing homes. Many animals, even household pets such as hamsters and goldfish, produce a relaxing effect on their human companions. Some people are endeared to snakes and rats. However, cats and dogs are predators, with a different psychology from horses. And they are generally socialized around human schedules, city ordinances like leash laws, and human aesthetics for where and when they are allowed to eat and eliminate. Horses that live in pastures, like the Equine-imity herds, are as close to a feral, natural herd as one can encounter. They relate honestly and on their own terms.
The availability of horses is more universal than one would think. With 9.2 million non-feral horses in the United States, and 45 states with at least 20,000 each, most people (even in New York City) live within 30 minutes of a backyard horse, a horse boarding facility, or an equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy center.
… any final thoughts?
I would like to see us establish a medical qigong program at Stanford, such as has been done at other major medical centers such as the University of Maryland, the Mayo Clinic Health System, and UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Qigong research performed in three major medical centers in Beijing, especially as integrative therapy for various cancers, has also been promising and would justify such an endeavor. Anyone with the skills and interest in creating such a program should contact me: email@example.com or 650-868-3379.
1 There are technically no “wild” horses in the Western Hemisphere. All equines in the New World descended from those introduced by, and escaped, from the 15th and 16th century explorers and missionaries such as Columbus, Cortez, Ponce de Leon, and Coronado. The correct term for these horses is “feral.” The last remaining species of true wild horse is the Przewalkski (sha-vahl’-skee) horse of Mongolia.