Hello, it's that time again … me in your ear with a new story, this time straight out of my backyard. OK, let's have a chat about it.
Whenever I facilitate a workshop or speak at conferences, I use a great visual to explain how different humans and animals perceive the world. I utilized the visual as the icon for this podcast episode. Take a look at it. You see a woman taking a walk with her animals. While they are all on the same path, seeing the same things, the woman is distracted by the thoughts in her mind instead of being in the moment, experiencing nature and the company of the animals. The woman is physically there but not present.
It is an excellent reminder that you might be standing, sitting, or walking next to your animal in physical proximity; a leash or lead rope might physically connect you, yet you might not be present and in the moment at all.
Luckily, we have our animals to remind us to come into the present moment.
When we are in our head, darting back and forth in our mind, plotting and planning and regretting parts of our lives, our animals often come up with a quirky or unexpected behavior to call us back into the moment. They nudge us to take a breath. They stay away from us to show us we are not engaged. They walk over our keyboard to get us back into the moment or bark to get our attention. Animals do that because they want us to be at ease. It makes them feel more at ease.
Let's say I am petting Scout, and he shows me he wants his shoulders massaged. I do so but then get sidetracked by something on TV. Suddenly, my hand moves mechanically instead of intentionally. Scout will give me his signature "feep," and reach forward with one paw to touch me and get me back focused on our connection, me massaging him.
Here is another version: my mare Shana likes undivided attention. Shana is the type of horse who has a lot to say. And when I am focused, she can't bring across all she wants to share. Same idea: if I brush her tail and get distracted by looking at something else, a water bucket, for example, and if my mind starts wondering and wandering that I need to check the water level, Shana will turn her head around or even just turn her ears back toward me to get my attention.
When I notice her communicating, I take a deep breath to return to the present moment. That invites her to take a nice deep breath as well.
Shana reminds me to return to the present moment, and she is right; I can only do one thing at the end of the day. So why not stick with brushing her tail and taking care of the water bucket after?
Being in a dialogue this way is a Mindful Connection (r). That is the difference between a connection and a mindful connection. When my mind wanders while brushing the tail, I still have some connection. But being present, noticing Shana's communication signals, and responding to them creates a mindful connection. I see it through Shana's eyes and realize, shoot, I got distracted. Yes, let me be more mindful and stay connected with you.
Of course, it is hard for humans to stay present for long periods. That's just not how we are designed. Our mind takes up most of our time, but as always, being present and tuned in to our senses and body makes life much richer.
The cool part about animals is how often your animal helps you and invites you to be present. You can make it a fun practice to be more and more in the present moment when in their company.
I love that about my animals. They never tire of reminding me to be mindfully connected.
OK, there is another aspect to connecting. My horse Monarch teaches me about connecting every day. Monarch is semi-feral, which means he is not domesticated. Connecting with Monarch more deeply has been my goal, but it is more of a challenge.
Monarch and I met in the North Dakota prairie when I was looking for a healthy horse to join our herd. Monarch and I made this great packt out in the prairie. He was willing to come and be with me and our herd as long as I would not domesticate him. Someone had tried to put some natural horsemanship training on him, and he was dismissed from the class. He didn't want to do that stuff. And I said, no problem, I like to learn from you and through you what it means to be a horse. Not domestically-shaped by humans but a true horse.
Well, we made the deal, and he came. Cutter loved him; the herd is fantastic, and all is well. However, I realized I knew very little about connecting with a feral horse without using all the things I had learned about engaging with horses.
You see what I mean?
He is not used to the many things we do with our horses. He doesn't need bushing; he takes care of his hooves and trims them naturally as the horses in the prairie do. The moment I step into his bubble, I can feel him sucking back as if he pulls his bubble inward.
I suspect he holds his breath. Ever so subtly.
Initially, Monarch didn't care for any human interaction. Sometimes, he just stood with me and the other horses in a group, resting, enjoying the sun. Sometimes, when I dish out some treats or pick an apple off the tree and bring it to the horses, Monarch would come into my bubble to get a snack. But I could always tell I would never be able to buy his trust with a snack. You know what I mean? He'll never give me his heart or trust by just offering him a treat.
It's one thing to say, "I take a wild horse, use my horsewoman skills, and teach or train the horse to be domestic. "That path is laid out, and many have done it.
In my case, I said I was not teaching him all that, and so whenever I stood next to Monarch, I would automatically want to do something I knew how to do … take a brush, invite him to wear a halter, walk next to him, reach out and pet him, and he would say "ehhhhhh" no thank you.
What do you do when there is nothing to do? When he doesn't care that you think you are the best scratcher and could help him itch his tail.
What do you do when you see he is leery about the new wheelbarrow and you want to introduce it to him, and he says, "EHHHHHH, no, thank you?"
See, aside from me throwing some food and water in the pasture, Monarch did not need me. Our domestic horses always want something from us, even if they are tired of their job, then they like you to leave them alone. Haha. But a horse who didn't need or want ANYTHING, was a brand-new feeling for me. Feel it out for a moment. Name one being in your orbit who doesn't need you. Does not need you. At all.
And boy, was I seeking the connection. Wishing for Monarch to need something so I could show him I was there and we could bond over his need.
How is that for an insight?
How much is that about me and my needs to be needed?
Now, over the years, Monarch and I have learned a lot from and through each other. And I am very aware that he is very connected to my energy. He might not always be connected to me as I imagined, but nevertheless, he is connected with me. I know what kind of energy I carry, depending on how close he comes into my space. He might stay away if I bring too much heady stuff into the pasture. He might also stay away if I arrive with too much focus on getting something done. Other times, he is curious and wants to be around me and the other horses.
Occasionally, I could brush the dock of his tail or shoulder.
And I approached him, Cutter, and the pile of hay they were eating from and grabbed an armful to bring to another area for Shana to eat without Monarch leaving the scene.
Each of those moments was a momentary invitation to be in the same space. But that invite always depended on the day, the mood, and the circumstances. It was not anchored in a relationship. It wasn't reliable or predictable.
And then came the day I resigned from my job at a gallery, where I had worked for five years, two days/week. I loved the job so much, but I realized that lately, I was stuffing 36 hours into 24-hour days. It was time to slow down and focus on my work, partner, and furry family.
The following day, I walked into the pasture, and as usual, Shana and Cutter approached me to get scratched. Shana lifted her head, indicating she wanted me to rub her neck up and down from behind the ears to the shoulder. And Cutter, as so often, gave me his butt, and I scratched the dock of his tail.
Then I walked over to Monarch and offered him my hand. He sniffed it, and then I placed it behind his shoulder. Next, I stroked his back but realized that for the very first time, Monarch had not changed the moment our bodies touched. I noticed what he didn't do. He didn't suck his energy back. He didn't seem to hold his breath. He didn't appear to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. He stayed soft. He stayed unchanged. My touch did not require him to shift his energy.
That was a whole new way of connecting.
What had changed?
You see how much my mind had gotten in the way of connecting with Monarch?
Being so busy, like I said, squeezing 36 hours in a 24-hour day occupied so much space in my mind, simply organizing my life. When I let go of some of the things that occupied my mind, I was available on a level I had not been before.
I was able to connect with my horse mindfully.
I invite you to stalk yourself. Like I do.
Where are you getting in your own way of connecting with your animals?
Is your mind so occupied that a true, a meaningful, a mindful connection is hard to find?
What can you do to connect deeply?
It starts with a breath.
And repeat again.
Once you're in the now, you can rely on your animals to point you in the right direction. They might feep or paw you like Scout. They might walk away or hold their breath like Monarch. The one thing you can count on is that they will always be honest in guiding you to being present and at ease. They will show you how to connect mindfully!