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  • Sharon Cabana, MA, LMFT

Eau de Equine: Breathing Deep and Staying Grounded

On Sunday mornings, I drive out to the barn before the sun is up. I mix the grain, load up the cart, and make my way around the property to feed and turn out the horses. In the Oregon rainy season, the normally dry sand paddocks turn to mud. In the depths of the January thaw, the mud is like quicksand, slurping at my boots so I am one affectionate nudge from getting a mud facial. Like a barn girl who was raised in the dirt landscaping with my mother, the mud doesn’t bother me. It’s not unusual for me to have muddy streaks across my cheeks or for my breeches and sweatshirt to be covered in splatters. It’s horsey and earthy and part of the work I love.

Sundays are also the day for grocery shopping. Often after working into the early afternoon, I do not want to have to go back out and face the Sunday crowds. Instead, I usually stop on the way home. I never thought about this until one day while I waited in line, the manager came and offered to ring me out. He led me to a register away from the others that were open. At the time, I took this as just good customer service. When it happened again, I was doubly amazed at how the manager was so customer-focused. And then, I heard it.

“Oh my God,” a child’s voice said behind me. “What is that smell?!”

I discreetly sniffed at my clothing. Turns out, the smell was me.

There’s a certain smell to barns. It’s the smell of hay dried by the sun. It’s the leathery smell of tack. It’s the bright smell of trees as they burst open with life in the spring and curl into hibernation in the fall. It’s the smell of grain, sweat and carrots, and that something unique that is simply horse. It’s the smell of place, of home and healing. I love that smell.

It’s also, especially in the midst of an Oregon winter, the smell of manure in the mud. And, as it turns out, it can be pretty rank.

One of the most powerful sources of memory comes from smell. There is a direct connection from our olfactory sensors to the brain. Smells first reach the olfactory bulb and then connect directly to our limbic system. The limbic system is the oldest part of our brains, the part connected to our most primal instincts to survive. The nerves that make up the limbic system spread throughout our bodies, wrapping around our cores. Smell, to put it simply, is the sense that speaks directly to our roots, our centers, and our pasts.

Horses connect directly to this process, mirroring our deepest responses so that we may learn, and heal, from them. They have grown and adapted over thousands of years to be our partners in all ways. They have traveled over the world with us, carrying our burdens and keeping us warm on cold nights. They have shared our triumphs and our failings. When we smell the smell of horse, we are connecting to the legacy of our ancestors and the story of humankind itself. It reminds us that in order to stay grounded in who we are, we have to remember who we were.

So the next time you’re out at the barn-whether that’s to ride, to play, or to heal-take a moment to connect to your center and ground yourself in the roots of an ancient and loving past. Close your eyes, soften your shoulders, and most importantly of all, breathe deep.

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