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"Falling Off a Horse With Mindfulness" by Deborah Schoeberlein

31 March 2010

A few weeks ago, I fell off a horse--a horse named Sadie. And, OK, what happened was more like flying off than falling--until I hit the dirt. That was more like crashing. My body hurt. Sadie was upset. My companions were concerned. But my mind was calm and focused throughout the event, and I truly believe that practicing mindfulness broke my fall.

Here’s what happened: as horses sometimes do, Sadie spooked, and I had no idea why. There wasn’t time to wonder, because in the next instant all I noticed was that I was moving rapidly toward the horse’s neck. I saw her eyes roll and felt her fear pass through my body like an energy wave. Next, I rocked backwards, but was still aware of staying in the saddle. And then I wasn’t in the saddle anymore, and witnessed my body popping off, airborne, over the mare’s left shoulder. 

There wasn’t any fear, then and there, just that sensation of moving through space. Then a thought: “Hmm, falling through the air is pretty comfortable.” Hitting the ground wasn’t, but even as I landed, I noticed the sensation of impact. And then I lay there, aware of the dirt in my ears and nose, and focused on locating my body parts one by one. Sadie approached and gently nuzzled my arm.

Practicing mindfulness--paying attention to what’s happening while it’s happening--equipped me to remain present through the entire experience. My mindfulness was as much of as surprise as Sadie’s bucking. I couldn't consciously plan on maintaining mindfulness when she spooked, just as I couldn’t predict her outburst. But perhaps all those years of training (in the safety of my home, sitting solidly on a cushion) eased my mental shift into witnessing and experiencing simultaneously. 

So that’s how I fell off Sadie the first time. A few days later she spooked again and I fell off for a second time. Again, I watched as I fell, noticed as I crashed, and even maintained awareness as I felt my helmet break on impact. 

Since then, Sadie’s been resting, my bruises are mostly healed, and I’ve been musing over what I learned and what I’d like to share. Falling off Sadie helped me:

  • Gain a little confidence that my mind could stay present and calm even while my body was launching through the air and hitting the ground.
  • See how maintaining mindfulness kept me in the actual experience, without awareness of past or future, and consequently without fear of injury or anger toward Sadie.
  • Feel how the clear focus of attention to “being in my body” parlayed into a kind of physical softness that cushioned the fall, protecting me from worse injury.
  • Sense Sadie’s terror as she spooked, and her concern when she examined me, flat on my back, in the dirt.

We were in those experiences together, Sadie and I. We weren’t alone. And, yet, in those instances and within my consciousness, there really wasn’t a specific horse or rider. There were simply events and sensations…awareness and attention. Mindfulness.

Deborah Schoeberlein has more than twenty years’ experience teaching fifth- through twelfth-grade students, developing curricular materials, providing professional development for teachers, and pursuing freelance journalism. Author of the book Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, she is a recognized leader in developing the field of contemplative education and has published widely on HIV prevention and other health issues. Currently, she directs a multi-site school-based health center for kindergarten- through twelfth- grade students and their teachers.


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