Sylvia lay in the dirt in the grips of agonizing pain, her swollen sides heaving with each breath, slowly giving up on her fight to live. An eight-year-old thoroughbred mare, and a former racehorse, she was retired to live and work in the horse experience program at Montebelli. This particular afternoon, just two hours before a group of clients was due to arrive for a session with the horses, Sylvia was colicking. Her intestines were either twisted or so impacted that the blockage was creating unfathomable stomach pain, and in severe cases like hers, 8 out of 10 instances result in death.
The only chance Sylvia had for survival was if we could keep her body moving enough to cause movement through her intestines and to reduce her pain. As cruel as it may have appeared, my partner and I had to force her to continue moving – walking, trotting, cantering – no matter how much she wanted to stop, while intermittently administering pain medication, until she could stop and stand without lying down and giving up. We were used to seeing this horse full of life and energy; she was always one to play games in the paddock, teasing and frolicking with both humans and horses alike. Suddenly she was unrecognizably ill, her spirit largely sapped away by the pain.
For two hours, the three of us ran; my partner, Tommaso, and I each covering one end of a paddock, and as she would slow down, we would chase her and move her on. The other horses ran with her, somehow lending their solidarity and support. All of us were sweating and exhausted, but not enough manure had passed out of her to keep her from continued colic.
When the group of clients from the Coming Back to Center somatic workshop arrived, we had no choice but to abandon the original plan for the afternoon’s exercises with horses. We could not leave this horse. We explained the circumstances and invited the group to observe. While Tommaso continued the constant pressure to keep the mare moving, I talked to the group about the dual nature of horses: at once they are powerful, majestic and creatures embodying strength, and they are creatures for whom a seemingly minor illness or injury can quickly become life threatening. This duality of strength and fragility is a paradox we all live with. All of our gifts and strengths can become challenges and weaknesses when we don’t embrace the 360 degree view of them, honoring the strength and accepting the vulnerability.
Periodically, Tommaso would let up on the pressure, and we would all watch intently as Sylvia would come to a halt, and then lie down. When she lay down and showed clear signs of continued stomach pain and distress, rubbing against the earth or splaying out her neck and head on the ground in resignation, we would have to immediately get her up again, and get her moving. This was excruciating to watch; witnessing her torment and her inability to keep fighting on her own touched the chords in us humans that echoed the pain of grief and the fear of death in our own lives.
As Sylvia would pass by the fence line where the group was standing, many people reached out with their arms to her, and all of them began to reach out with their hearts. There was a clear desire to give support, to assist in some way, to give this horse the additional will she needed to survive. We invited the group to enter the paddock. Nineteen people poured in through the gate, some of them running from where they stood as soon as I opened it. When they were all inside, they stood in a large huddle near the edge of the paddock. Tommaso released the pressure on her from the opposite end of the paddock, and she slowed to a walk. She walked directly toward the large group. She then walked in amongst the group, to the very center – amidst throngs of hands and arms stroking her body, amidst many words of encouragement to her, and amidst many tears springing from familiar, shared pain and struggle.
For the first time that afternoon, Sylvia did not try to lie down. She stood still, soaking in the love, the compassion and the care. People began to speak up and share their personal stories of loss, of illness, of grief, of fear and conflict in the face of the paradox of both fighting to live and accepting death. Horses often bring out the emotions and issues we may be ignoring or avoiding to some extent. Their willingness to connect with us, to respond to us without judgment is a gift that can free us to see parts of ourselves and our lives in a new way.
As the workshop session came to a close, Sylvia’s struggle was far from over. There was still at least an hour more of forced movement, more injections of medication, and then a long night in a stall being monitored. Some participants came to the stables late at night to be with her and to massage her belly. One of Montebelli’s owners spent hours with her in the dark. Tommaso would not leave her until he saw her lie down and get back up again on her own.
By morning we felt like she had a decent chance to make it. The vet came that day, and removed the last of the blockage, which was, fortunately, close enough to the end of the intestine to remove manually. Sylvia was exhausted and her body was flooded with toxins from the impaction, the odor of which was noticeable on her skin. The day after that, Sylvia could barely walk. The soreness from all the exertion was then compounded by abscesses that formed in her front feet. For two more weeks, she hobbled in pain in and out of her stall as we cleaned, disinfected and bandaged her hooves.
Gradually, she began to walk with sure steps again. We had been answering emailed inquiries of concern from the workshop participants throughout her entire recovery. We remained positive, we held out the belief that she would fully recover, but it wasn’t until the morning I released her into the largest paddock and watched her lead four other horses in a full gallop around the perimeter that I could let myself cry for joy.
It is not always possible to save or even help other beings, and those other beings must want to save or help themselves. Sylvia’s desire to save herself had dwindled to being tenuous at best, and what we witnessed in her turnaround and recovery is a testament to the power of conscious energy being given in abundance, as well as readily received by one in need.