Practicing peace

December 19th, 2017

Horse sense

Dr. Allan Hamilton is a neurosurgeon, medical educator, horse trainer, and author of Lead with Your Heart: Lessons from a Life with Horses. In his writing and in interviews, he shares the wisdom he has learned from working with horses over the years.

In a recent interview on NPR, Hamilton was asked, “Do all horses have horse sense?” He responded, “When people bring me horses with problems to train, I always say, ‘There are no horses with horse problems. There are just horses with people problems.’ My job is to help them with the people problems, but horses are sort of perfect in the sense that they are intimately connected with each other, in communion with each other, and are constantly reaching out and looking for partnership, peace, and tranquility.”

As I listened to this interview, I learned a lot about how to practice peace from Hamilton and how he uses his work with horses in his relationships with patients, medical students, coworkers and family. As we close this season of Advent, we focus on the spirit of peace and consider how we can practice peace in our lives, particularly in the midst of difficult times.

Taking a deep breath

One lesson Hamilton says he has learned from horses is how to separate his emotions from his energy. When we want more energy, we tend to intensify our emotions. He explains that when a rider says to a horse in an excited voice, “Get going, come on, get faster,” the horse wonders, “Why are you mad at me?”

Horses have taught him to use the least amount of energy required to get the job done. They’ve also helped him to discern the different meanings associated with asking for, requesting, demanding and promising something. There’s a wide range of difference between asking someone, “Hey, do you think I can have this on my desk by Tuesday evening?” and threatening or promising, “If you don’t have this on my desk by Tuesday, I’m going to fire you.” He says that using the least amount of energy to get the job done is an indicator that you’re communicating effectively.

Taking a deep breath helps us separate emotion from energy. Pointing out that “breath is the core of our energy,” Hamilton says, “Whenever we’re trying to release energy and get quiet, it has to be through breathing.” When we hold our breath, we get tense, which horses sense. When Hamilton wants to thank a horse for doing what was asked, he remembers three words — pause, pet, breathe. “I want to breathe because when I breathe, my energy gets very low and quiet.” Using his breath to get the horse to calm down, he often sees the horse take a breath in unison with him.

Hamilton encourages his medical students to breathe in order to “exude a sense of calm.” He says that when they get tense, their patients will get tense in return. “Patients are looking at every little body cue for what you’re doing and what you’re saying.” Patients tend to distrust what doctors are saying if their bodies are communicating a different message.

Paying attention

“Applying energy through intention is the direct link between our horses and ourselves,” says Hamilton in Lead with Your Heart. “The horse is uniquely sensitive to the way we transmit energy through our gaze, posture, and gestures.” Hamilton says that horses have taught him to pay attention, and part of paying attention is active listening, which means “lending our energy to the conversation without opinion or interruption. We do not look for ‘holes’ in the dialogue where we can say what we want; we do not wait for the speaker to grab a breath so that we can edge in our own words. All we do is listen with every ounce of our attention.”

In the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary” (verses 41-42). Martha was doing the necessary work of providing hospitality for her friends. While Jesus likely appreciated her efforts, he was also pointing out that she was unable to be fully present with these same friends, including him. Perhaps the “one thing” necessary was the ability to be present, to truly pay attention to the moment.

Letting go

Over the years, Hamilton has also learned a lot from his horses about letting go. In the recent interview, he illustrates the value of letting go by telling a story about his trail horse, Sonny. When Sonny was very young, he had been swept away in a stream. Sonny escaped the stream but had never forgotten his fright. Hamilton explains that any puddle would “freak him out” because standing water “is a very shiny surface and the horse can’t see where his feet are going in that surface.”

Since Sonny is a trail horse, this puddle-phobia was a problem, especially on rainy days. Hamilton worked with Sonny by walking around a puddle while putting himself between the horse and the water. Gradually, Hamilton moved closer to the puddle and stepped into it. Sonny saw that nothing bad happened and eventually put one foot, and then two feet, in the water. Hamilton never said to Sonny, “You have to get in that puddle.” He just concentrated on moving Sonny around and letting go of any need to control the situation. He adds, “Over and over and over again the answer to solving a horse’s problem or a child’s problem or a coworker’s problem is let go.”

The doctor tells another story about when he was riding Sonny in the Rincon Mountains, east of Tucson, when a huge storm came up. “We’re in terrible rocks and I can’t see where I’m going. The weather is horrible. It’s just a very, very dangerous situation. I’m trying to pick my way through these rocks, but I don’t know where I’m going. I just sort of hear this thing — let go.” Hamilton and Sonny kept going a little farther, but the horse was struggling and slipping. Hamilton heard the words again, “Let go.” He took the reins, knotted them and hung them over Sonny’s neck. “I let go, and Sonny starts moving. Don’t ask me how. I don’t understand it . . . . He picks his way around the rocks. We’re going through this storm and we can’t see anything. About an hour later I hear this ‘clump, clump, clump, clump’ and I realize we’re on the wooden bridge that’s 30 yards from the parking lot and that he has gotten me all the way down this mountain just because I was willing to let go and let him use his sense of direction and smell and orientation and get us to where we had to go.”

Practicing peace in difficult times

We live in turbulent times. The evening news, widening political divisions, jobs, financial worries, health concerns and our relationships are just some of the many things that can distract us, disorient us or cause us to be anxious, stressed out and angry. During this season, these frustrations that threaten our sense of peace can be amplified. Practicing peace, ironically, becomes more challenging during this time of year when Christians are called to reflect on the coming of the Prince of Peace. It does us well to remember the passage in Luke where the angels and the heavenly assembly sing, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (2:14).

Through the lessons Hamilton has learned, we see that horses, for one, have something to teach us about how to practice peace and work for change. This desire for change on a personal level is also present in the hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth” with its call to “let it begin with me.” As this season of Advent comes to an end, let us practice peace by taking a deep breath, paying attention and letting go.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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