Learning as an Advanced Student of EGE
Early November, 2011 was the 1-year anniversary of my initial certification course in Equine Guided Education (EGE). I had returned to Skyhorse ranch in northern California to take the final 2 weeks of the certification program as an advanced student. Completing the 3 week certification program in 2010 was a great start for me in the world of EGE, but I’d discovered throughout the past year that there is so much more to learn and study about one’s self as a practitioner, about non-verbal communication, and especially about how to handle the myriad of different situations that arise with people, horses and the surrounding environment while doing this work, that I wanted to re-engage and further my learning and abilities.
EGE is more than just working with horses to learn about non-verbal communication and develop a deeper self-awareness, though it is certainly valuable for those and other life and work skills. EGE opens the gate to reconnecting with the world as the animal beings that we are, to the innate power and accuracy of our intuition, and to our sense of purpose in life.
Beyond the intensive work with a group of 9 other students and the herd of horses at Skyhorse, I had the opportunity to build a new bond with my EGE partner, Hallie, who assists on staff at the ranch, and our teacher, and founder of EGE, Ariana. I felt a sense of kinship, of being understood, and of being valued in a whole new way. The animals most directly responsible for getting to the heart of the matter in all of this were actually lambs.
I had a difficult time settling in the first week, as the rest of the class had already been together for a week, and I hadn’t able to take the extra time away from my day job. I wasn’t exactly sure of my role as an ”advanced student,” as I worked to integrate into the class, but felt more comfortable assisting Hallie with barn chores, moving horses and anticipating the needs of the class, the horses and our teacher.
Though it wasn’t available when I first arrived, the guesthouse at the ranch opened up a few days into my stay, so I left the room I was sharing with Hallie, thinking it would be nice to have some more space and to unpack my bag. I went down to the house after class Wednesday night, and it was cavernously empty, dark, and cold, and surrounded on 3 sides by the sheep pasture, which was filled with the relentless and unapologetic reality that is lambing season.
Ewes very often have two lambs, and frequently, within the first 4 days of life, one lamb dies. The vultures hang out hungrily on the fence posts listening to the bleating of the new little beings who have lost their mothers, who may not be strong enough to keep up, or who may have simply been abandoned. This was a sound for which I was not prepared.
After a painfully fitful sleep, I awoke to the frantic maa-maa-ing of a tiny lamb, his dangling umbilical cord still fresh, as close to my front door as he could get in his pasture. No other lambs or ewes were nearby. He was calling out with all his might. I stood there in my nightclothes, tears welling up in my eyes, when I suddenly heard his mother baa-baa-ing from the other side of the house. They were trying to find each other, but couldn’t figure out how to go back around the house to reconnect.
With zero sheep experience, and no clue how dogs can get the job done, I ran out to try to herd that ewe back around to her baby. She was definitely being herded, but never in the right direction. I wasn’t fast enough to get around to the side of her and keep her on track, so she kept shooting off in all directions except the one towards the crying baby. Finally, I figured I would need to bring the lamb to her.
I’ve read that sheep can recognize at least 50 different faces, up to 10 of them human, but I’m not sure I have that skill for recognizing sheep faces. I tried to keep one eye on her while I approached the scared little one. Of course I scared him even more and he tried madly to escape me while I reassured him that I wouldn’t hurt him, tried cajoling him into trusting me, and ultimately, dove in to swoop him up in my arms.
Not entirely sure I had the right ewe, I approached slowly with the little guy, who was now silent, probably somewhat stunned. I placed him on his feet near the presumed mother, who was eyeing me silently along with 2 of her friends and their lambs. Well, the lamb took off like a wobbly rocket towards her and as they all moved away together, I was left panting in my pajamas, hoping for a fairy-tale ending for him.
As for me, there was no way I was going to live there for the next week an a half, alone in the furniture-less house surrounded by sheep strife and struggle, separated from my own herd about a mile up the hill. I realized that unpacking my bag was low priority compared to being close to companions and colleagues. Another room in the ranch house freed up, so I moved in there, relieved and, I thought, ready for anything with my herd around me.
Part of the EGE process includes identifying experiences and stories we have created about those experiences that are shaping our patterns of behavior, our actions and our reactions to the world. One thing that surfaced for me that I hadn’t shared much, if at all, before was the fact that as a child, I truly believed I had been born into the wrong body, that I was a horse trapped in a girl’s form, and that I had rejected my physical body ever since. All my games on the farm where I spent my childhood years featured me being a horse, running, jumping, and playing with the other horses. I ate oats (sweet oats with molasses were my favorite), shared the salt licks in the fields, and even drank water out of an algae-lined bathtub watering trough. When my parents moved us to the city, I shut myself away in my room for days, and when I came out, I found I was every bit as good at pretending to be a well-adjusted, popular, good student and all-around good girl as I had been at pretending to be a horse. But where did all the pretending end? Had it?
Another significant realization was that, throughout my life, integrating and accepting death, be it the death of a barn kitten or the death of my mother, has been extremely challenging for me. Cerebrally, I understand that it happens to every living being. At my core, I had never experienced death in a way that made sense or felt natural or complete. One thing I feel strongly about is that every death deserves an honoring of the life that came before it, and when I don’t feel I’ve truly had the opportunity to fully and ceremoniously honor that life, it haunts me, and gnaws at my heart.
That gnawing, it appears, had become an impetus for a lifelong penchant for rescuing – an ill-advised attempt to help others evade death, strife, or pain of any kind. I used to rescue bugs out of my great-granny’s swimming pool with my cousin, lining them up in the sun-warmed recovery ward that was the diving board. I tried to nurse a sick pigeon back to health in the abandoned dairy section of the barn. When the bird disappeared after 2 days, I assured myself that my care and feeding had given him a new lease on life. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the barn cats mistook that bird for a generously offered feast, but perhaps a new lease in death is something my 8-year-old mind wasn’t yet prepared to ponder.
As it happened, during the last week of my stay at the ranch, I became the primary caregiver for orphaned lambs. Ariana brought the first orphan up to live in the pen in front of the house on Monday. After briefly observing formula preparation and bottle-feeding, I embraced my new charge and became the surrogate mother.
Unlike the lost lamb in the field who tried to run from me, this lamb almost instantly bonded to me, trying to attach himself to my legs and follow me out of the pen, bleating mercilessly when I left him after a feeding, and maa-maa-ing so loudly when he awoke hungry from a nap that I could hear him from the barn a few hundred yards away
My resume of bottle-feeding began at the age of 5 when my father brought home a fawn from the alfalfa field, badly injured by the sickle bar during harvest. He held the fawn’s trembling body in a blood-stained sheet, his tiny hip sliced through to the bone, and I remember being vehemently angry at the sickle bar, angry at the alfalfa, and angry at my father for what had happened to that animal. I was afraid he was going to be “destroyed,” just like the racehorses who broke their legs on the track. But the care with which my father was handling him meant something important to me.
The equine vet came out to the farm on that Sunday evening, and sewed that hip up in a horse stall on a bed of straw. I named him Flag, after the fawn in “The Yearling,” and helped with his bottle feedings. He grew up in the chicken coop, running after me like a puppy, and following me into the house when he was allowed – jumping on beds, nibbling ears and winning hearts left and right.
The second day into caring for this orphaned lamb, Ariana brought up another unlucky orphan from the sheep field. No matter how hard she had tried to get the mother to accept her newborn and let him nurse, the ewe kept walking away. There were those old feelings again: I was angry at the ewe, angry at the field and angry at the universe for making the way of things so hard to bear.
With my newly acquired skills, I set about regular feedings 3 times a day for the 2 lambs. While one nursed the bottle, the other would latch onto my jacket, inspired and hungry. The new addition was even smaller than the first guy, but seemed every bit as eager to live.
I didn’t name them, because I didn’t want to get attached. But of course I was attached. The instant I held each of them close and supported their little bodies while they struggled to figure out the artificial nipple, I was attached. I finally started calling the older one Day 3 and the younger one Day 2, figuring I’d rename them each subsequent day and make a handy reference to the chart on the formula bucket as they aged and required more food.
But by the afternoon of the second day, Day 2 showed a sudden change in his energy. He still ate, but tired easily while feeding and didn’t maa-maa with the same force and volume. After his night feeding, he immediately lay down under the lean-to shelter instead of scrambling with Day 3 to get out the gate, glued to my legs.
In the morning, I went out to check on them before mixing up the formula, knowing that I may only need to mix half as much. When only one little voice called out to me, I knew I’d lost the little guy. Knowing that didn’t help ease the blow of walking over to see his still body laid out on the ground, with the living lamb still trying to snuggle up to him for warmth. Why does a death feel so painfully unbearable? I’d known that lamb for a day and a half, only a few hours less than his entire life span. I tried to take solace in the fact that I’d fed him and I’d loved him like a mother.
I wrapped his tiny body in a towel and put him in the garage until I would have an opportunity to bury him. I then set about making breakfast for the lamb with an increasingly urgent voice and appetite.
That day was a “Client Day” at the ranch. As students of EGE, part of our program was to plan, host and lead a full day of activities, open to the public, as an introduction to the work. I had to focus all my attention on the clients and the goals of the day, so I put my grief on hold and immersed myself in getting to know the clients, and working together with the horses and my classmates to create an outstanding day of experiential learning.
The opportunity to bury the lamb came at midday the following day. It was Friday, the last day of our EGE course, and I could no longer stave off the feelings of unresolved grief. I don’t remember ever burying anything, except my paternal grandfather when I attended his funeral in Arlington National Cemetery at the age of 7. Every other being I have lost was shepherded away by the adults around, or buried at a time or place I was unable to attend, or cremated. Scattering ashes or setting an urn of ashes in a mausoleum has its own brand of ceremony, but the physical act of digging a hole in the ground and laying a body to rest is something very different to me.
The burial site was adjacent to the pen in which he had spent his short life. As I struggled to make the hole sufficiently deep and wide, the living lamb anxiously bleated and tried to clamor through the wire fence to be next to me. Twice I had to stop digging and go into his pen to untangle him from where he’d gotten himself stuck in the boards of an old gate, propped up in the corner. I was struck by the tremendously divided feelings of focusing on the life that was lost and the life that was fighting to continue.
I spoke to the living lamb about the fact that I would be there for him and feed him soon. When I finally placed the body of the dead lamb in the ground, I spoke to him about the fact that I would be there for him even as he was entering a place I didn’t know or understand.
Tears began to flow as I piled the dirt on top of his body, entombing him in fresh earth, while the living lamb continued to maa-maa a few feet away. My body was wracked with a full-fledged, all-out cry as I patted down the last shovelfuls of dirt on top of the small grave. I was burying this lamb to give him the respectful send-off he deserved, but I realized that I was burying him for all the other beings I didn’t get to bury. Beyond the physical burial act, there was the true acceptance of their passing that I had never quite been able to manage. I thought I had accepted at least some of the deaths, but in that moment, they all came flooding back to me. The lives that were intertwined with mine, whether for only a few minutes or for 28 years; the lives I had wanted to honor upon their deaths but hadn’t known how.
I stood on top of his grave and looked into the gentle wind. I let myself stand between the living and the dead, speaking to them both at once, letting them know how much I loved and appreciated my time with them. I stood there in my body, my animal body, which speaks to all other animals in a way that I had almost forgotten.
When the conversation was finished, I went and got the old gate from the lamb’s pen, and laid it out over the grave.