The five elements and your horse - Part 2 Water
Guest post series by Sam MacLean of Red Dog Ranch
HAPPY NEW YEAR! It is so good to join you again to discuss the second element in the Five Element theory of Chinese Medicine—Water. I am writing this on a cold blustery day during my quiet holiday break and reflecting back to when we began the series this fall with a brief introduction to the spirit of Chinese Medicine and the Five Element Theory. We then explored the Metal Element when nature begins to slow down, the leaves turn brown and drop, days shorten, there is a chill to the air and in preparation for winter, the harvest has been stored away. Fall is the time of “letting go”. If you’d like a refresher on the Five Elements and the essence of Chinese Medicine, I’d encourage you to re-read the first blog post: http://www.insightfulequine.com/the-five-elements-your-horse-part-1-metal/
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*Please note that this post nor any post that you find here at Insightful Equine are intended to provide or replace veterinary advice. If your horse needs medical attention please seek a veterinarian.
Part 2 - The Water Element
As we continue on with the Five Elements and the principle of living according to nature, we enter the phase of Water, which corresponds to the season of Winter. This phase in Chinese Medicine and season of the year is considered to be the most Yin time of year, the darkest, and the coldest time of year when quiet self-reflection yields insights. The Water Element exudes energy that is quiet, introspective, and restful. Nature is now still, and life is dormant. Outside the ground is covered with a blanket of snow, the barren trees creak in the bitter wind, bears hibernate, and squirrels live off their stores of nuts/seeds. Animals naturally adapt to the evolving phases throughout the year and in preparation for winter we can see evidence of this with our horses growing thick coats to protect them from the cold temperatures, wet snow and fierce winds; or the frogs and salamanders who enter a state of hibernation that allows them to survive without further nutrients.
Our natural tendency when it gets dark by 4:30pm is to eat earlier, retire earlier, and sleep longer as the need to recharge is foundational. The power of winter is reflected in nature’s deepest essence: the seeds/roots that are dormant and reserving the essence of the plant until they can sprout forth in the spring. Winter is the time to go within, to do the deep work that builds our internal fortitude so that come spring we have all the strength needed to grow and begin to manifest.
Water is a beautiful way to understand the state of harmony we seek. If you think about a beautiful lake or stream, they may convey any of the following descriptions: flowing, cooling, moist, clear. They also evoke a sense of balance and peacefulness. However, imagine that same stream out of balance… perhaps too much water and thus raging with careening rapids or overflowing its banks and flooding farmland. In the other extreme, a lake depleted due to lack of rain may be putrid with the stench of stale water and decay, or in the bitter cold of winter the lake might be rigid from freezing solid. With heat, water can transform into steam and evaporate; and yet in the other extreme with cold, water becomes ice. Like the classic story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears with the porridge, one was too hot and one was too cold… for our bodies (humans and horses) to be in harmony during winter we need our Water Element to be “just right,” neither too hot, nor too cold.
In Chinese medicine it is the Kidney and Bladder systems that correspond to the Water Element. According to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), the Kidney system (which also includes the Adrenals) is the storehouse for our ancestral Chi (the essential energy/life force that we came into the world with), is in charge of our growth and maturity, filters the body’s fluids, and controls where fluids go in our bodies. The Bladder system then stores and eliminates the fluid waste. When these systems are in harmony every part of the body has just the right amount of fluid; there is a sense of flow, the right amount of energy to do the necessary work and adaptability to deal with issues as they arise. When the Water Element is out of balance, stagnant or deficient, we may have difficulty filtering out impurities (negativity), we may struggle to move around/overcome obstacles, and we may lack a sense of will to move forward.
The emotion of the Water Element is fear. If Water is in harmony, humans and horses will have a strong sense of courage and willpower. But if out of balance, a horse may be spooky or on the other end of the spectrum not have any fear.
TCM views the body-mind-spirit holistically. When any element is out of balance it will always be reflected in the body, mind/emotions and spirit, never just the physical body. This means that if Water is out of balance in your horse he/she may struggle with low back issues, arthritis, hearing loss, difficulty in winter or even EPM and the imbalance will also be reflected mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
As guardian/caretaker of your horse(s) what can you do to support more harmony during the Water phase of winter?
- Eat* and treat according to the season. Much like the fall, ensure that your horse gets adequate warming foods. Use warming whole food treats that reflect what is seasonally appropriate: including pumpkin/winter squash, adding cinnamon or ginger to your horse’s grain. If your horse continues to graze on pasture over winter, it is also important to be careful about high levels of sugar that can still be stored in grass.
- Warming foods. Replace your cold feed with a warming mash just by adding warm water.
- Adequate water. Ensure that your horse(s) have plenty of clean/fresh water that is not too cold/frozen.
- Importance of salt. Make high quality loose salt available to your horse. Horse’s tongues are different from cows so salt blocks are not as effective for them.
- Warmth and shelter. Ensure that your horse has adequate shelter when they need to get out of the cold wind, freezing rain or heavy snow. Some horses (due to age and/or medical issues, etc.) may benefit by being blanketed. On the other hand, ensure that your horse has adequate time to cool down after heavy work/training.
- Increase rest and recovery time. Winter is a great time to ease up on your horse’s work-load. If a lighter training schedule is not possible, try to incorporate more down-time for your horse and/or schedule more bodywork to aid in recovery. If you want try some effective acupressure points with your horse, please visit my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9FLLWEPNGY7KWq2s54Dqzg?view_as=subscriber
- Just be with your horse. Spend time with your horse and not ask anything of him/her. Just hang out. Don’t do ground work or training. Just be in the stillness together. This does not have to be long and just your intention of being present with your horse(s), breathing with them in the quiet will benefit your connection.
- If you see patterns of disharmony related to the Water Element like weakness/pain in the hind-end, joint stiffness/pain, unusual levels of water consumption (too much/too little), edema, head-shaking, EPM symptoms, etc. please contact your veterinarian*. After a diagnosis, and with your vet’s approval, reach out to an equine acupressure practitioner or equine acupuncturist so that an integrative care approach can support your horse going forward.
What can you do to support more harmony within yourself during the Water phase of winter?
Finally, there is so much benefit to us humans if we balance our own Water Element this winter. The Water’s quiet introspection may seem a bit counter to our western lifestyle with the unquenchable thirst for more, better and bigger but that striving also tends to come with a caffeine addiction, poor diet, lack of sleep and often times a bit of the winter blues or worse, adrenal fatigue. Consider taking a few easy steps in the direction of harmony this winter:
- Eat and drink according to the season. Dump the ice and smoothies! Now is the time for warming teas and room temperature water. Switch out your cold/raw salads for roasted vegetables and warming soups and stews.
- Rest and recover. Go to bed a little earlier and get up a little later. If that’s not possible take more time in the evening to recover from a stressful day at work by snuggling by the fire, reading your favorite book, writing in a journal, etc.
- Practice a mantra. My teachers from Elemental Acupressure taught us that the mantra for the Water Element is “gentleness”. So the next time you are stressed or find yourself being overly negative or are just exhausted by life, try repeating this mantra: “I am gentle and compassionate toward all beings, including myself.”
I wish for you a restful and gentle winter; and look forward to returning in a few months as the new light of spring emerges. Remember that building up your reserves now will help you spring into action as the year progresses. If you have questions or would like more information on TCM or the Water Element, please send me an email. If I can help your horse(s) this winter (or any time of year) please reach out.
The next part in our series will arrive in spring with the Element of Wood. So, until then…
Be in harmony,
*Please consult your veterinarian prior to making changes to your horse’s diet and/or incorporating integrative care into your horse’s health care.
Between Heaven and Earth, Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, Ballantine Books, NY, 1991.
Wood Becomes Water, Gail Reichstein. Kodansha USA, Inc., 1998.
Elemental Acupressure https://www.elementalacupressure.com
Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute https://www.animalacupressure.com