We all know how secondhand smoke can affect a non-smoker, but how about secondhand stress and its effect on the wellbeing of others?
Yesterday morning as I was waking up to my radio-alarm clock a program came on featuring several people whose lives were made very stressful by working for minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet.
There were a couple of young mothers working two or three part-time jobs. One lamented that she couldn’t afford to buy good food as even a bag of her favourite apples would alone cost $10 for her and each of her kids to have just one.
I felt so sad for her and could relate to the stories I was hearing, as I too, have been “horse poor” most of my life as I built a reputation for training and teaching while struggling to pay expenses on my own horses. It’s not unlike having children to feed and care for as you don’t ever want them to know why their favourite food isn’t forthcoming or that you may have given up on a new pair of shoes for yourself in order for your dependents to have a new pair themselves.
It’s a situation most professional riders can relate to, as can students who have massive amounts of debt to pay off by the time they can even get started in their chosen careers.
The longer I listened to the interviewees on the radio show the more stressed I found myself becoming… and this was before getting out of bed! I started to worry about my own future and how expensive food is becoming and on and on. Not really how I like to start my day since it usually begins with a good raw breakfast, meditation and yogic stretches. I finally had to turn off the radio and try to shake off the effects of the “secondhand stress” I was experiencing.
I’ve learned over the years how to reduce the effects of both mental and physical stress and it doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes study, practice, and more practice, especially if your environment at home and at work is not as supportive as it could be to your peace and wellness.
When Dr. Schoen and I have a conversation about The Compassionate Equestrian and the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we frequently find the mere act of having a good dialogue about our respective backgrounds and stories to be soothing and therapeutic. Dr. Schoen is not only an advocate for meditation, he practices it with a deep conviction and thoroughly understands the transformative power of regular contemplation, even before entering a barn where he’s about to see his veterinary clientele. He knows from experience how it affects not only the horses, who then watch him intently and actually want to be his patients, but also their owners and everyone in the barn who can sense the positive shift in energy when he’s in attendance.
Imagine being in his shoes for a moment, or that of any veterinary practitioner working with your horse or other animals, as he must take on responsibility for the diagnosis and treatment protocol for that animal. Not only that, but he has to explain his findings and treatment to the horse’s owner, the trainer, and perhaps the groom and barn manager, and then also deal with the horse itself.
The emotional stress is potentially enormous, given how horses react when they’re in pain, and also how they may respond to a veterinarian if they’ve been treated roughly by one in the past.
Our Principle #13 states:
“The Principles recommend that one takes a few moments of silence to become heart-centered, allowing for the release of any destructive emotions, prior to working with any horse in any way.”
#14 continues with:
“This allows both the individual and the horse to interact from a place of inner calm, peace, awareness and mindfulness, thereby allowing for the most positive, constructive outcome from all interactions between humans and horses.”
Over the years of working many horses a day, and dealing with all the different personality types that come with the horses at the show barns, I also discovered the value of maintaining that centred calmness and noticed the actual physiological changes that take place in both the heart and mind when one maintains a regular practice of compassion and meditation. That’s not to say I haven’t had many moments where I “lose it” and the ego wants to override thoughts and judgement, but now I know how to come “home”, and am getting better at staying there. In fact, I think it’s possible to spread “secondhand peace” too.
Dr. Schoen says:
“Differentiating self from other promotes suffering, and the trainings in which you see that everyone is suffering and that you’re here to be of benefit to others then those areas in the brain responding to joy and bliss light up. The Buddhists talk about altruism being of benefit to others and that may be a more positive, higher evolutionary form of thinking beyond survival mode.
What this means regarding The Compassionate Equestrian’s perspective is that if we can bring compassion – the awareness of the intelligence – the personalities and awareness of the neurochemistry and neuroscience that horses and all other species have the same mind-traffic and all the same fears and survival mechanisms that we do, then theoretically being more intelligent we have the ability to go beyond that base-level mode of survival instincts and train ourselves to be more compassionate. By spreading that mind-stream in a horse barn, show, or any place where humans and animals interact we set a whole new bar for compassion and it can evolve person-to-person, person-to-horse, barn-by-barn, and so on.”
While the effects of secondhand smoking have been highly documented, it seems like we’re just beginning to understand how secondhand stress can affect us too. By becoming aware of this fact, and how it will also affect our horses when we show up at the barn, it presents us with the opportunity to determine how we will change ourselves to be more conscious of the effects we have on others, and how we can make the world a more compassionate, less stressful place for everyone we encounter.