Taming the “Wild Horse” of the Mind

“Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.” – Aesop

Mindfulness involves allowing yourself to fully open up to the present moment – all of it – with curiosity, acceptance, and nonjudgmental awareness.  This is a simple concept that can be incredibly difficult to harness.  The mind is generally filled with incessant “chatter” about our desires, fears, hopes, and mundane observations.  Even when you feel as if you “aren’t thinking about anything,” you may notice that when you truly turn your focus inward toward the mind, there is a somewhat startling flurry of thoughts present.

Much of this mental chatter serves to take you away from the present moment and towards ruminations on the past or thoughts of the future.  The mind has the capacity to serve your best interest and be your most trusted ally just as it has the capacity to become your own worst enemy, seemingly “luring” you into self-destructive behaviors.  Imagine the mind as a wild horse that roams free on the plains, unencumbered by rules and constraints.  When the mind is wild in this way, it follows its passions and does as it pleases.  If your mind feels like a wild horse in this respect, you may have the experience of feeling that you are at the mercy of your thoughts or urges… that you are not really “in control” of your behaviors.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mindfulness is a tool that allows you to begin to harness the wild nature of the mind and regain the deep-seated sense of equanimity that you are capable of experiencing.  Imagine how difficult and how much practice must be devoted to taming a truly wild horse.  You must first set your intention on taming that horse and create a realistic plan of action.  Recognize the many years that this wild horse has been allowed to run wild.  Realize that such an endeavor takes patience, commitment, and above all else: practice.

It is not uncommon for people to feel ruled by their passions, at the whim of their emotions, and at the mercy of their deepest fears.  When the mind is allowed to run wild, it makes a great deal of sense to live in fear of what it may be capable of doing.  You can begin to take your power back by recognizing that you (and only you) are capable of making real changes in how you allow your mind to impact your life.  Once you make the firm decision that you are no longer willing to submit yourself to your mind’s every whim, every demand, and every “need,” you are ready to start taking true action toward changing your relationship with your mind.

Start to notice your thoughts more.  When you have an anxiety-provoking thought about a dreaded outcome or worry over something you have done in the past, begin to say to yourself, “I notice myself having that familiar thought that makes me anxious.”  When you step outside of your thoughts and choose to become less fused with them, you begin to recognize that the true you is the observer of those thoughts… you are not the thoughts themselves.  You have the power to change your patterns and habits of ingrained thinking.  When you begin to change your patterns of thinking, you will gradually notice your feelings and behaviors changing as well.

Notice how your mind may have a tendency to run wild with thoughts that take you away from being fully present to your life in this moment.  Direct compassion towards your very human experience of feeling nervous, afraid, joyous, guilty, ashamed, angry, etc.  Be kind towards yourself as you notice how wild your mind can be as it chatters away.  Begin to notice how you often “suddenly” feel different when particular thoughts seem to “pop” into your mind.  Notice how automatic this process can be.  Begin to allow your mindful awareness of this process create a new experience that is marked by insight and understanding.

As you begin to notice the chatter of your wild mind more and more, you can slowly become more calm and focused in the present moment.  Ultimately, you can reach the point where you will notice yourself having a thought or an urge to take action in some way and this mindful awareness will allow you enough space to have a deliberate and conscious response.  When you notice your thoughts more clearly and are less fused to them, you will begin to see that it is up to you what you want to “do” with those thoughts.

Awareness of thoughts with mindfulness allows you to decide:

  • How valid or based in reality is this thought?
  • Is this thought providing me with useful information?
  • What are the “pros” and “cons” of taking action on this thought?
  • What would it be like to accept my experience of this thought and then let it go?
  • How can I respond to this thought, rather than react to this thought?

Taming the wild horse of the mind through practicing mindfulness can result in engaging with your life and your important relationships in whole new ways.  When you become more responsive to the present moment and aware of your thoughts, do not be surprised when other people in your life begin to notice real differences. Many people experience beginning to feel “more present” in the moment and “less reactive.” Remember to be patient during this process of transformation through the knowledge that genuine and lasting change takes time.

Mindfulness is a way to regain the ability to trust yourself to do what is in your best interest.  The chattering mind often does not know what is “best” any more than a child who would like to eat candy for breakfast knows what is “best.”  It is up to you to gain the tools necessary to make choices that move you closer to your goals, avoid self-sabotaging behaviors, and allow you to be aware of your own “part” in your relationships with others.

Mindfulness creates a newfound sense of self-awareness that allows you to see reality as it truly is, not as you “wish” to see it.  The more that you avoid real or imagined pain, the more you ultimately prolong your suffering. Once you start to see things more clearly and fully, the practice of mindfulness becomes a natural way of being. What is one small step towards taming the wild horse of your mind that you are willing to take today?  Start to look at your mind with gentle curiosity and allow yourself to notice all that you find.

Featured image: facing the music by snappybex / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on November 3, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I love the analogy of the mind as a wild horse! Though, I must admit that I find the idea of taming a wild horse to be intimidating… still, I know that, with a little work and perseverance, it is possible.

    In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the allegory of a chariot pulled by two winged horses to describe the human soul. In the dialogue, Socrates says, “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.”

    This allegory is complex, (Socrates is using it to argue that romantic love is a reflection of love of the Platonic forms, and is thus a “divine madness”), but this post reminded me of it. In the allegory, the charioteer is not unlike the “true you” in your analogy, the you that is the observer of your thoughts.

    • Mary Ross on November 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      This added so much! Thank you,James.

    • Laura on November 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

      James – I’m glad you enjoyed the analogy of the mind as a wild horse! I, too, find the thought of taming a truly wild horse to be quite intimidating. Like you, I recognize that it is possible, but takes practice, effort, and patience. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Plato’s allegory of a chariot pulled by two winged horses. I can certainly see the relationship between the charioteer in this allegory to the “true you” that I discuss here. This allegory inspires lots of thoughts that I have about choice, mindfulness, and self-management, as well. I imagine the job of the charioteer to require great mindfulness, temperance, and patience. When I consider the charioteer as the “true you,” it almost feels as though the true self is tragically divided against itself, what with the noble horse and the “less than noble” horse. I wonder what is the best way to navigate such a chariot… does one allow both horses equal pull? Is that necessary for true moderation? Or does one need to overly restrain one horse while given the other the lead? Thank for your comment.

  2. Mary Ross on November 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    This is so helpful. Thank you!

    I love “Check the Facts!” Being less reactive, as you say, has been extremely beneficial. So glad you can remind us to be mindful in new ways with your ideas and research each day.

    The title and photo today is terrific. Very memorable!

  3. Elise on November 4, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Yes, great article Laura! I once read that same analogy used for choosing out to react in a situation where the horses would represent different “moods”. In any given circumstance you can choose which horse to get on whether it be the sad horse, the fear horse, the passive horse, the happy horse etc. This article really helps bring it home about how we really are in control of our thoughts if we choose to be and not the other way around. Thanks Laura for another great article 🙂

    • Laura on November 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

      Elise – I’m glad you enjoyed this article! I like the idea of the horses representing different “moods.” As the observer of those moods, you then have the choice about which mood you will act upon. While we do not have conscious and direct control over our feelings (although they can be indirectly accessed and changed through practice), we certainly have control over our thoughts and behaviors. I find it helpful to remember that each moment provides us with a choice of what thoughts to allow to dictate our experience (if any) and which we choose not to engage with (to defuse from). Thank you for your comment!

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