Catharsis: Inside the Round Pen

The sun seared my tear stained face, my mouth sticky in its coat of dust, my body exhausted to near numbness, and still the big bay horse roared at me, insisting I was not yet finished, I had not gotten all the way through the heart of the matter.

I had been in the round pen with him for well over an hour, dredging up grief, strife, fear and every angle of inner turmoil I could ever have imagined. Still, he was not releasing me.

I had almost called it off. My good friend and EGE facilitator, Hallie, had brought me out to the horses this afternoon to further explore some personal issues we’d been discussing, but I had a flight to catch in about 2 hours and the horse I chose to work with had bolted just before we reached the round pen and run all the way back to his paddock. One thing about Hallie: she is the most calmly determined person I know. I’m not sure if she said anything in words at all, but somehow my attempt to bow out, or at least bow out of working with Buddy, had led to the three of us turning right around and trekking back out to the round pen.

Buddy. The irony of his name revealed itself in the first 5 minutes of entering the round pen with him. The steady, centered horse I’d met napping in the warm California dust became a frenzy of flying hooves, mane and tail, with 1200 pounds of excited, if not panicked, heart and muscle in between. The urgency of his cries ripped through me and I was suddenly swept into a state of interconnectedness with a horse like I had never known. This angst, this pain that he was writhing in and screaming about was my own.

The gift of a round pen experience is the time and space to find your own clarity. An honest, non-judgmental horse reflects what is really going on inside of you, and an impartial, supportive facilitator helps you recognize the relevance of the body language of the horse and anything else in the environment that transpires to lead you into self-awareness and understanding. The challenge is, in order to fully receive that gift, you must let go of your logic, your linear thinking, your ego, and any shred of self-consciousness that holds you hostage to what you “should” be thinking or doing. You are there to bare your soul, and to experience the freedom that comes with doing that.

I had been through the wringer already by the time my flight was taking off at 3:42, some 25 miles away. I need to stop taking responsibility for others and their feelings. Heck, I need to stop thinking I know what their feelings are going to be. I need to start loving and caring for myself, for if I don’t, how will all that I want to do in this world ever happen? Each time I recognized one of these issues, Buddy would stop bellowing, he would stop careening around the pen, sending our adrenaline levels skyward, and he would either defecate, or urinate, or sigh deeply and relax. But when Hallie would ask him if we were finished, he would start up again.

Buddy would belt out an explosive call, sometimes inciting response whinnies from his herd in the distance. He would rush to the fence of the round pen, and press his neck and chest into it, bowing it outward, striking at the lower boards with his hooves. I would be again reduced to tears, wanting to end the pain and frustration, for him, for me, for us both. So I would search for the relevance in the moment, allowing whatever was emerging to surface, then speak the truth of it out loud. Sometimes I spoke to him, sometimes to myself, sometimes to the world at large.

I explored my fragile marriage, a strained friendship, my mother’s death and her belongings in my garage I haven’t been able to throw away. I admitted that I was angry with myself for having anxiety over missing my flight, but that I couldn’t get rid of the pressure to make the flight. I finally resigned myself to miss the flight, to give myself the opportunity to complete this experience, no matter how long it took, since Hallie was not going anywhere, and Buddy was unrelenting. I felt a deep gratitude that these two beings cared enough about me that they didn’t care how long it took.

In one of those moments in which I had spoken up about something that needed acknowledgement, and Buddy had calmed down and begun grazing through the fence boards, I had the urge to ask him to follow me around the round pen, to walk with me in my declaration that I matter, that I am important. But I was afraid to try. I was afraid that he wouldn’t believe me, that I didn’t believe myself, and that he would not follow. I wanted to lead, but I was afraid of failure.

And so it continued. At one point, in the scorching July heat, I knelt down in the middle of the round pen and just cried. I didn’t have any room for self consciousness left; I didn’t have the energy to fight it. So I let myself sit there and bawl. And that big, beautiful horse strode over to me, lay down in the dirt, and rolled. He rolled with luxurious abandon, as if to say, “Let it go, let it out, do whatever you need to do.”

So there we still were, what seemed like, and probably was, hours later… in a moment of calm, which seemed to indicate that we had brought up enough pain, and discovered enough truth, and that we could relax and be finished. Suddenly, gunshots pierced the hazy, hot quiet. Buddy was off and at it again, hollering, calling out in as urgent a voice as ever. “But this can’t be about ME,” I pleaded to Hallie. “These are some gunshots, and yeah I have anxiety over the fact that some killing might be going on, and he’s upset too, but that’s not part of my relevant issue!”

“Well,” she said calmly, “None of the other horses in the paddocks are acting like this.” DAMN IT! She had a point. This was still something to do with me. “What do you feel like this is about?” she asked.

I felt like it was a test. I felt like I had come through all kinds of crap and cried and ached and been downright miserable, but that I had finally reached a place of calm and centeredness, and now this was happening to challenge me to bring myself and this horse back to peace. He was criss-crossing the round pen, rushing through the center, inches from wherever I was standing, so that I could not stand still, I had to turn and shift and maintain presence, or be run over by a very frustrated, very anxious, and very large animal.

I thought about the last issue we had uncovered: needing to accept my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was as if I hadn’t ever accepted that I was human – an animal with a body who is subject to defecating and urinating and needs and fear and trauma and death and mistakes. I accepted that in everyone else, but not in myself. If Buddy was scared or vulnerable or did something “wrong,” would I still love and respect him? No question.

He’d seen me naked: every weakness, every regret, every conflicted corner of my psyche. But he had never stopped pausing to acknowledge me; to touch his muzzle to my face when I stood next to him at the fence, or to turn from the far side of the ring to look at me in the moments he stood still. He still trusted in me, that I would figure it out, that I would know what to do.

I have always found relief and release in just walking, and suddenly I knew that was the way through this. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself, and that in doing so, I would take care of him.

“I can lead through this.” That was my silent declaration. And with no halter and no rope, I went to this horse who had been charging across the round pen, and I asked him to follow me.  There was no worrying about whether I would succeed or fail, only the conviction that I knew we could get through this.

I couldn’t see the horse behind me, but I could sure feel him. I felt his every solid step and his head bobbing slightly with the quick and steady pace around the whole perimeter and then back to Hallie at the gate.


One comment

  1. The poet Dylan Thomas wrote:
    “The fences of the light are down,
    All but the briskest riders thrown,
    And worlds hang on the trees.”

    The poet T.S. Eliot wrote:
    “Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

    The poet William Butler Years wrote his own epitaph:
    “On limestone quarried near the spot
    By his command these words are cut:
    Cast a cold eye
    On life, on death.
    Horseman, pass by!”

    And yours truly wrote in the William & Mary Review (Spring 1965):
    “Shall I fall star-like
    In the blue-grey deep? Or sit
    On the pier in Napoli, watching
    The oil slick dance on the surface
    From day to day, like an old man
    Who rediscovers the delicate contours
    Of warm breasts in the anxious dusk
    Of his own private nightmare?”


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