SPOTLIGHT ON: Getting Hygge with Horses – Blending the Danish Art of Taking Pleasure in the Simple Things with Horse Wisdom to Live a More Mindful Life
Since moving to Luxembourg, I have become much more aware of the changing seasons. That’s partly because the differences between the seasons are much more vivid in this beautifully forested land than they were in London, my previous home. It’s partly because the beautiful countryside here encourages me and my family outdoors more often. And, it’s partly because my life here revolves around animals: our family dog and the small herd of equines who I share the care of with my friend and business partner Kylie.
I must admit, I approach this time of year with mixed feelings. While I can revel in the emerging golds and fire bright oranges of the autumn leaves, a part of my heart begins to sink at the thought that winter is approaching. Instead of being in the present moment, in my head I begin to time travel, worrying about the cold weather to come, remembering the challenges of the previous winter, working outside in temperatures of minus 10. This is where applying the lessons the horses have taught me comes in useful. I remind myself to breathe… slowly… in… out… repeat… returning to my body and the present moment.
So, what has all this got to do with the Danish art of Hygge? And how can horses teach us to live more mindfully? Stick with me and I will explain. First to Hygge, commonly understood as the concept of cosiness; finding contentment from taking pleasures in the simple things of life such as curling up in front of the fire with a mug of hot chocolate or wrapping up in warm cosy, hat, scarf and gloves to enjoy a walk with friends on a frosty day. Hygge is the perfect counterpart to the freezing winter weather and dark nights.
Perhaps Hygge is one of the secrets to why the Danish consistently rate in the top 3 nations in the United Nations World Happiness Report (rating 3rd in 2018, 2nd in 2017 and top in 2016)? Interestingly, the word Hygge itself has its origins in the Norwegian language, meaning ‘well-being’. It also has links to the English to the English word ‘hug’, associated with an Old Norse term, ‘hygga’, which means “to comfort”. It makes intuitive sense that focussing on the simple pleasures in life would bring happiness.
The art of noticing, staying with a sensation or feeling, exploring it, maybe basking in it like a warm bath; or maybe just paying attention without judgement is a skill. Indeed, the art of being present and aware is a skill that is encouraged and taught in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. It is also key to modern day mindfulness. In the words of Jon Kabat Zinn: “Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is also about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.” Mindfulness gives us a gateway to managing our attention and awareness, offering us tools to “be here, now” (Kababt-Zinn) for each moment of our lives.
There’s a common misconception that Mindfulness means meditation. It can do, but, more importantly it’s about being present in the every-day acts: fully aware as we do the washing up, brush our child’s hair or walk in the forest. Really being embodied and aware of our physical experience.
According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman – authors of Mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world – “if there’s one thing that we need to learn in order to bring peace and ‘ease of being’ back into our lives in the midst of a frantic world is how to ‘come home to this [physical] part of ourselves that we have ignored for far too long.”
This became acutely real for me when Kylie, my partner at HERD, and I began our training to become Equine Facilitated Learning Practitioners. I distinctly remember being introduced to the practice of doing a body scan before beginning to work with horses and suddenly being aware of my own beating heart. This sudden connection with my own heartbeat was powerful and grounding. It also made me realise how often I was operating from an out of body and ungrounded place, too caught up in the world of thoughts to be fully present in the reality unfolding for me right now.
Horses are Zen masters of living in the present moment. They do not waste time ruminating about yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. As animals who live in a herd, they are also intensely ‘tuned in’ or aware of the emotions and energy of the other beings around them. They are a walking embodiment of interconnectedness.
Horses are also non-judgmental beings. They respond to us in the moment and take us as we are. They respond to congruence and move away from incongruence. In this respect they are our models and teachers – they offer us feedback in the here and now. Horses can help us identify when we are not fully aware and present and how that manifests for us.
The slower biorhythm of the horse also means spending time with a calm horse can also support us in calming ourselves and activating the parasympathetic nervous system or the ‘rest and digest reflex’. Likewise, if we are anxious and breathing rapidly, the horse will be aware of that and respond. In this way, breathing can be our tool to calm and ground both ourselves and our equine companions.
Our latest group programme at HERD is a seasonal offering, Hygge with Horses. In a half-day session, we will practice the art of being present. We will develop the skills of noticing, paying attention and awareness through simple breathing and body-based awareness meditations. There will also be opportunity to soak up some horse wisdom by spending time in nature with our gentle herd of equines.
Hygge: “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”, The Oxford English Dictionary
Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to things as they are.” Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn
Equine Facilitated Learning: “EFL uses equine-facilitated activities as a tool for self-development and education, with a focus on the present moment. Skills include non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, relationship skills, confidence and resilience.”, LEAP
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Last update: Friday, 12th October, 2018