The Energy of Empathy

The small but sturdy paint mare stood stock still in the cross ties. Her breathing was somewhat shallow, her eyes and ears wary. The girl was brushing her. The brush swept across her flank in a manner that felt methodical and distant. Every day, girls of various ages would halter her, walk her into the cross ties, groom her and tack her up for their riding lessons. Sometimes the girls were happily chatting to her, their words lighthearted and friendly. Sometimes the girls whispered their sadness to her, trusting her with their most sacred feelings. Sometimes, like today, the girls were silent, tense, biting their lips as they powered through the mechanics of what they were there to do.

It was these times that worried the mare. She was an experienced lesson horse, and she knew that when the girls were quiet and tense, there was little chance that they were thinking about what they were doing, or truly considering her or themselves at all. It usually meant that the riding lesson would be a struggle. The mare tried hard to understand what they were asking her to do, and she knew they were trying to understand what the instructor was asking them to do, but it was very often forty-five minutes of feeling their frustration increase, their hands jerk the reins harder on the bit in her mouth, and their kicks to her sides become increasingly more desperate and painful.

She was bracing herself as the girl hoisted the saddle up onto her back. Her nine-year-old fingers were fumbling to get the billets into the buckles to secure the girth when the instructor’s voice boomed through the barn, “You are late and this is no time to dawdle! Get that tack on and get out here now!”

The mare could feel the girl holding her breath, using all her might to tighten the girth. By now the mare had begun to pin her ears, trying to show the girl she was worried and did not feel safe. She began to side-step with her hind feet in some attempt to move away from the girl who felt like she might explode. “Don’t let that mare walk all over you,” the instructor sounded angry now, “Tighten that girth and get to the bridle!”

All the girl’s desperation and anxiety came through in one swing. The riding crop landed with a resounding smack on her hindquarters, and in less than a fraction of a second, the horse defended herself. In an immediate reaction to the perceived attack, she kicked out at the girl, landing a hoof squarely on her thigh and sending her reeling against the barn wall.

Healing happens when we experience somatic empathy. When another person – or another being – is fully present to us and how we are feeling, we experience something more than just being understood on a cognitive level. We experience a resonance and a relief that is beyond words, beyond thinking, and that is truly curative.

Horses live every moment being fully present. When we are interacting with them, or even just near them, they are taking in our somatic cues and the energy of our true feelings. We can opt to try to power through, to force our agenda, to ignore both what they are feeling and what we are feeling. Or, we can take every opportunity with a horse to learn more and more self-awareness, to become adaptable and resilient, and to heal the parts of ourselves that have not been acknowledged, soothed or allowed to release the past tension, grief, anger, fear or frustration they are still holding onto.

The girl is now an adult, returning to horses for a new experience; for healing and for changing old patterns in her life. One day, as she was beginning to brush a horse in the field, she felt something constrict in her chest and her solar plexus, at the same moment the horse pinned his ears and side-stepped away from her.

A memory was welling up in her body. Often we block some or all of the cognitive portion of a traumatic memory; rather than feel the pain of it, it seems easier to try to suppress it, or to make it go away. But the body remembers, and all it takes is a situation that reminds the body just enough of that past experience to bring it back.

With the horses, an opening is created for somatic empathy. Instead of powering through and continuing to try to make the horse accept the brushing, she stood next to him, breathing deeply and regularly, and talked to him about the memory that was emerging.

Her mother had been running late that day, as usual. She snapped at Angie to move faster, to get her riding gear and get into the car. Angie could feel the tension in her mother as she turned the key in the ignition and unclenched her teeth just long enough to take a drag of her cigarette. “Goddam it!” her mother swore as a warning light flickered on in the dashboard. “We’re going to have to stop for gas.” Angie shrank deep into the back seat, hoping that it wasn’t somehow her fault that there wasn’t enough gas in the car.

She was pretty sure it was her fault that her parents yelled at each other all the time. And she knew that she had to try harder not to talk too much around her father. She loved his attention when she started a story and it seemed like he wanted to hear it. But she would always take too long, and he would cut her off and be done with her, sending her to her room.

When she got to the barn, the other girls in her lesson class were already taking their horses and ponies to the mounting block to get on. She held her breath, waiting for her instructor’s angry words, admonishing her for taking too long. Angie loved this horse. She loved all the horses. She wished she could stand and pet them and talk to them and love them for the whole lesson. But she had to learn how to be stronger, be a better boss. “Horses need to know who’s boss,” the instructor would say.

Angie didn’t feel like a boss. She felt like a nervous little girl who was trying hard all the time not to make anyone angrier or more upset than they already were. She was worrying about not being a good boss when she was hurrying to brush the mare. And she was worrying that she wasn’t strong enough to get the girth tight enough… not just because the leather would slip through her small fingers when she tried to pull on it, but because she didn’t want to hurt the horse. It seemed cruel the way she saw the instructor pound her knee into her belly and yank the girth to make it so tight so quickly.

When the yelling started, she felt hot tears behind her eyes. She was trying so hard to be good, to be on time, but she was way behind and now the horse was stepping away from her, making the job of tacking up even harder. She knew she had to show her she was the boss. She bit her lip even harder and tried to emulate the instructor… or maybe what her father would do, be tough… and she picked up the riding crop and whacked the horse with it to make her behave.

The hot tears that she held back over forty years ago came back. They leaked out of her eyes on behalf of her love for that mare, her shame over hitting her. And for her fear of disappointing her parents and her instructors, but not knowing how to be true to herself back then, how to love herself the way she loved others. My gelding sighed deeply, yawned, and cocked one of his hind feet – settling in to relax next to Angie for as long as she needed him.

Somatic empathy happens without physical contact. It is simply one body feeling something that another body is experiencing. A person may want physical contact, and the horse may accept that, but touching is not necessary for the horse and the human to be connected in somatic experience. In this time of limited physical contact, of social distancing and self-isolation, I find it intriguing and helpful to explore the way in which matter and energy are interchangeable. How far apart can two bodies be and still experience what is happening in the other? If horses are any indicator, it’s a lot farther than six feet.

Training & Trusting


He almost always whinnies as soon as he sees me come into view. Sometimes it is an acknowledgement, a greeting. Sometimes an expectant call for attention or food. The fact is, Zorro is very externally focused and keenly observant. He wants to know everything that is going on around him and he wants to control how it affects him as much as possible. It’s familiar to me, this desire to control the impact things might have on me. Perhaps it’s one reason I relate to this quirky yet fiercely committed little horse.



Seven years ago in November, I decided to foster a horse for a rescue in the Bay Area of California. I had recently moved to a ranch in a small town outside of Petaluma, where I was working and continuing my education in Equine Guided Coaching. The rescue had run out of room for the horses they were being called to help, and this particular horse had been picked up by animal control because he had been left living tied to a tree.


The horse was small, fine boned gelding, all black with an almost moon-shaped star on his forehead and one short, white sock. Several people had come to try him out with interest to adopt, as he was good looking and curious. But although he was easy to tack up, he was difficult to ride. He would freeze suddenly, spook easily and chomped terribly at the bit.


They estimated that he was about ten years old, but his personality was much more like a two-year-old. He was easy to engage and interested in everyone. He was playful and social with the other horses in the field, and was often the self-designated look-out, standing watch over other horses while they slept. He had a kind eye and I could not resist volunteering to care for him and work on his riding to help make him more adoptable. And so it was that I became the foster human for Zorro.


It was no surprise that Zorro became anxious when left standing, tied to a post. I spent a lot of time just loving on him while he stood tied, and gradually walking away for longer distances and longer lengths of time. He seemed to enjoy it when I spoke aloud to him, especially when praising him for all of his strength and courage… a tactic I used frequently when riding as well. This horse wanted so much to understand what was being asked of him, and he thrived on praise. The problem was, he often did not understand. He would very easily get confused and overwhelmed, and when he did, he was reactive.


There were times when I’d ask him to trot and if my balance was the slightest bit off, he would suddenly plant all four feet in a jarring halt. Sometimes I didn’t know what it was that was disconcerting for him, only that he was suddenly uncomfortable with a request to continue, and he would reach around and bite at my foot. What did not work at all was for me to become impatient, or to ask over again in the same way. It became a mission of mine to understand Zorro’s point of view; to spend more time observing and information-gathering than on trying to “do” more.


I did not, and do not consider myself a horse trainer, but I do know that horses are being trained every day by whatever it is we do consistently around them. We train the people around us as well… often not realizing how we’ve been teaching people to respond to us until it’s too late and suddenly we are wondering why our friends and family assume we will do all the planning and care-taking and we don’t need any help!


With as much time as possible visiting him in the field, hanging out and watching, we started to know each other as friendly cohabitants of this ranch. With a soft rubber bit, and the softest possible hands on the reins, his bit-chomping dissipated. With patient practice of the simplest tasks, and copious praise for even the smallest of successes together, he began to relax more under saddle, which also greatly diminished his tendency to spook and lurch and gallop off in any direction. Just as much as I was working on his riding, I was working on my own. Zorro’s high sensitivity levels meant that I needed to be aware of any tension in my own body, and know how to release it. I needed to slow down and re-master the basics with more balance and flow than I’d ever had. Perhaps most importantly, I needed to trust in myself and my ability to figure out the best way forward for the sake of the horse. Zorro was not going to trust me nor any request I made of him if I did not have complete trust and confidence in myself.


When prospective adopters began calling about Zorro after he’d made progress, it seemed no one was a good enough fit. I found something “wrong” with all of them. I couldn’t let this horse go off to just any home, after all. A few different friends had to help me accept the truth: I had fallen for this horse and he had fallen for me. On Valentine’s Day of 2014, I officially adopted my third horse.



As the weather gets colder, and the grass gets sparser, Zorro knows that when I come out of the house, it often means I will bring hay out to the pasture. He waits by the fence and whinnies in anticipation as soon as he sees me emerge from the door. There are flood lights on outside the house during the night. Even if the sun is up in the morning by the time I am ready to go out, he is watching those lights. Just before I step out the door, I switch off the lights. Zorro’s welcome whinny now comes as soon as I switch off the lights, and before I step out the door.


Images of present-day Zorro at work in Equine Guided Coaching. He helps others foster the confidence and trust he helped me train in myself.







Magic and Horses

The things that I remember the most clearly about my childhood are my relationship with animals and my relationship with magic. We had no neighbors close by, so I spent a lot of time playing by myself. I played with the horses in the field, I drank from the stream and licked the salt blocks with them. I tried to eat grass but found only green clover to be palatable. When I wasn’t playing horse, I was playing duck or dog or deer. I was enamored with all the wildlife that was ever-present on a farm. If I had to be indoors, I was up in my room holding seances and practicing the ESP and clairvoyance skills I wanted so badly to have. If I couldn’t be a horse, I thought maybe I could be a good witch.

My favorite book was called No Such Thing as a Witch, by Ruth Chew. Two children lived next door to an eccentric lady whose house was filled with all kinds of animals. She would bake magic fudge… one piece made you love animals, two pieces made you able to talk to animals, three pieces made you start acting like an animal, and four pieces made you turn into an animal altogether! I spent years sampling every piece of fudge I could get my hands on, always hoping it would be magic.


It wasn’t until many years later that I recognized the connection between horses and magic. In 2010, during my Equine Guided Education certification class, I was in the round pen in “inquiry” with a horse – this is an exercise in equine guided work where a person has an opportunity to explore a question or an unresolved feeling or issue in their life. When a person begins to talk about something and feel into it on a deeper level, the energy of the related emotion will arise and the horse picks up on that energy and responds to the emotions. It is in these responses that we are able to gain feedback that can help us gain clarity, as well as make choices and changes to move through the issue or question.

It already seems like magic, right? You don’t even need to eat magic fudge, and somehow, there you are, talking to a horse about your problems and the horse is answering you.



On this particular occasion, the horse inside the round pen was calmly and consistently listening and slowly inching around the space, moving to the next best bite of short, nubby grass. I was talking about my fear of leaving my husband… I was so afraid that he would not be okay without me. Our marriage had not been working for several  years; I wanted to move to California and he did not, I wanted an almost entirely different life and he did not, yet I was still putting his happiness and well-being in front of my own at every turn and I couldn’t see how I could change that pattern. I didn’t want to hurt him. I was crying, feeling the pain of being stuck.

The horse began to reach her muzzle underneath the fence panels, eating the sparse grass outside of the pen. The facilitator, Ariana Strozzi, asked me what I thought the horse was trying to tell me. “Look outside. Stretch outside of my current thinking…” is what came to me. Then she directed me to look around. There was a small, mostly white, paint mare standing stock still about twenty yards outside of the round pen. “She’s been there the whole time,” Ariana noted. She went on to explain that horses sense shifts in energy up to miles away, and that the distance was nothing to that horse… she could easily be picking up on something and working to help me find resolution and balance.

I started to focus on this little mare named Lottie. Even though I was in a round pen in front of some fifteen people watching, I forgot about everyone else and found myself listening to Lottie. I could hear my mother’s voice. She said, “Ashley, I am here for you. I will always be here for you. And you’ve got to take care of yourself. Even if you can’t believe it right now, he will be fine. You can do this. You are stronger than you think.”


My mother had died in 1998. I had only felt her presence briefly twice, soon after her death, and seen her a few times in dreams. But I heard her voice. Now, whether this horse actually channeled my mother or not is unimportant. What was important was the strength it gave me to move forward and start to see new possibilities about my situation. For the first time, I could see how I was assuming that he was not capable of moving on, being safe and secure, finding happiness without me. Not only was I holding myself back from what I really wanted and cared about, I was holding him back as well.


Merriam-Webster defines magic as: an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source. Everything outside of that which seems logical, reasonable or provable by science could then be magic… and if the world is full of magic, then I wanted to experience more.

Not only did I get divorced, move to California and remain good friends with my ex-husband, but he soon after found lasting love with a new partner and is very much fine without me. And I chose to dedicate my life to bringing more magic to people through horses.

LottieLooks Back_8802_6x4


The next opportunities to join in the magic of equine guided work are:

September 14th in Woodside, CA

October 5th in Sparks, MD

Details and Registration: SUSTAIN THE CHANGE 1-DAY PROGRAM


To Love a Horse

Like any other day, I opened my eyes and re-oriented myself to the world around me. I felt my breath come and go in regular intervals, and my body was still heavy with sleep. My brain quickly processed the tiny room, the duffle bag of clothes, and the anticipatory twinge in my gut, and I realized that I was in a cabin in Valley Ford, California, ready for the first day of my advanced Equine Guided Education training… and to meet the horse I had been asked to assess for a new equine guided program in Washington state, where I lived.

I had seen the horse from a distance four months prior, on my last trip down to the ranch to film a few days of the July equine guided training course. I remembered being curious about her, but feeling like she was off-limits somehow, as she wasn’t a part of the training. She had kept to herself, mostly, at the outskirts of the herd. No one had said much about her, just that she had been dropped off at the ranch by a family member. That happened sometimes, as I understood it, that friends or family who couldn’t or didn’t want to keep a horse any longer would bring the animal to these 200 acres of rolling pastureland and assume one more horse wouldn’t matter much to the owner, and that the horse would have a happy life roaming about with a herd and no pressure to perform in any way for people. But this horse was not taking to this sort of life. She had been dropping weight and cribbing more. She was not bonding with any of the other horses, and the ranch owner had no extra time to spend with her. It had become clear that the horse needed a new home, and an interested party had asked me to take a look at her while I was there training.

I was told that she would be in a stall so that she could have extra hay and alfalfa to try to put some weight on her. I took a deep breath, trying to draw in courage and wisdom, as this was the first time I’d done any horse assessing and, honestly, I had some performance anxiety. She was standing in the corner of the stall, her chestnut-and-white painted head held low. As I approached, I saw her ears twitch backward. I paused, wondering if the timing was wrong; perhaps she wanted to be left alone to sleep. As I stood there, waiting for a sign, she raised her head up and her ears twitched forward. As I slowly slid the stall door open, her ears laid backward again, and I could see the wariness in her eye. I paused in the stall doorway. As I stood there, I began to wonder about who she was. I wanted to know her story, and what was underneath her mix of uneasiness and curiosity. In the next moment, she took a step in my direction. Something shifted in her eye and she extended her nose towards me and the door. She was asking me to take her out.


Despite my warning that this horse needed a lot of work and care to be ready for a program of any kind, the program director had her shipped to Washington based on my feeling that she had potential. Three days after the horse arrived, despite my life being in the midst of change and upheaval, I adopted her when the director was injured in an accident and could not move forward with her program.

What followed was a love story that spanned eight years, a life together on both coasts, and a transformation for both of us that led to a deeper understanding of connection, trust, and the underestimated value of forgiveness and trying again. As I came to understand Taj’s story of love and loss, of habits and defenses built up over time to protect herself from further pain of being misunderstood or abandoned, I began to understand my own story better. I was leaving my marriage, my job, my home and starting my life over again in every way. I recognized that I was keeping people, particularly men, at a safe distance with my own version of ear pinning and threats of kicking them because I didn’t know how to trust.

I set about learning to open up, to listen better, to be patient, to keep trying. When Taj finally welcomed me into her stall without even a hint of an ear pin, I celebrated the breakthrough in our relationship like we had just won a trophy in a world class competition. Breakthroughs didn’t come without setbacks; she put me through the wringer as I tried to understand and get closer to her, biting me and kicking me when I was too focused on myself to be listening to her needs or concerns. I’m sure people wondered why I would want to keep a horse who crushed one of my fingers with her teeth, cribbed with a vengeance and went sour at the sight of a saddle. Where Taj excelled was in showing up for people when they needed it most, myself included.


When she began working in Equine Guided Coaching, her demeanor really shifted. Realizing that people were seeking out her opinions and her help, she wanted to open up, engage and shine. Taj had uncanny timing with her interventions, sometimes lying down at a person’s feet when they were struggling to get in touch with a deep feeling or sense of clarity. She would put on her scariest mean face at false pretense and walk away from meaningless chatter. Life truly is too short for anything less than authenticity, accepting others for who they are, and acting with purpose. Once I really embraced that, she became a partner like no other, often wrapping her head around me, over my shoulder in the most loving of embraces.

She shed her tendency to lash out after that first year together, and never injured anyone else. I trusted her to let me know early on when a person was becoming too overwhelming or unsettling for her, and she trusted me to move them out of her space and help them find a different approach or way of being around her. Both horses and humans place tremendous value on finding someone who is never going to stop trying, never going to give up on them.


Like any other day, I opened my eyes and re-oriented myself to the world around me. My body was still heavy with sleep as I felt my breath draw in and catch in my chest. There was a piercing twinge in my gut as I realized I was waking up to a world without Taj in it.

The evening prior, I had come home to turn my horses out when the sun had begun to soften its fiery glare and the biting bugs and flies had begun to dissipate. I was speaking aloud to all the horses, asking how their day had been, when I opened the door to Taj’s stall and stopped in my tracks. She was covered in her bedding, the dry shavings sticking to her sweaty body like sprinkles on a doughnut. The stall looked like a tornado had touched down in it. What had happened? She had been her healthy, hungry self when I had brought her in around 11:00am that morning.

I hosed her off with cool water and grabbed the halter for her friend, Bobbi, to turn them out together in the small paddock so I could monitor her behavior. But on the way to the paddock, Taj dropped to the ground at the end of the lead line, struggling to roll off the pain she was feeling. My mind began racing and my body went into autopilot mode in order to turn the other horses out with Bobbi, keep Taj in the barnyard, give her banamine for the pain, and call the vet who, to our good fortune, lived only two miles away and answered his phone.

No matter what I did to keep Taj moving or get her comfortable, she kept dropping to the ground. She even landed herself on the pavement of the driveway, scraping her face and forelegs into a bloody mess. Dr. Harrison administered more pain and muscle relaxant medication upon his arrival. He tried to do a rectal exam, but her system was so tightly clamped down that he could not feel very far inside. He recommended I take her to New Bolton large animal hospital for surgery, as the most likely scenario was that she had twisted part of her intestine and that would be her best fighting chance.

To put a twenty-five-year-old horse through an hour and a half trailer ride to a strange place and then through a difficult surgery that might have had a fifty percent chance of saving her seemed cruel. Instead, he left me with an extra muscle relaxant injection and told me to call him in a couple of hours. There was a small chance that if the medications could ease her pain and relax her body, she could roll herself in a way that would reposition the intestine back to where it should be.

All I could do was wait and be with her through the struggle. I rubbed the base of her ears, which can sometimes help relax a horse with gut pain. I slathered lavender and peppermint oils on her belly and her coronet bands, and held the bottles near her nose so she could breathe in the healing scents she had always enjoyed. There were minutes here and there while she rested on the ground, and I could hug her and she would look at me with gratitude in her eye, as if to say, “thank you for being here. Thank you for loving me.”

After a couple of hours with no significant change in her level of discomfort, I could not bear to see her writhing around on the ground any longer. I knew the next call I was making to Dr. Harrison meant I was ending her life. But she made one of the most difficult decisions relatively easy for me. If there is one thing we can definitively offer our animals, it is the relief from suffering a slow and painful death.

I held her head steady and kissed her between the eyes as the barbituates flooded her body. Her knees buckled and she went down quickly and easily, and with the second injection of euthasol, she was gone in moments.


I still find myself scanning the field for her, waiting for her low, throaty nicker to greet me as I approach. When I pause, I can still see her and hear her, and feel the intensity of her embrace. With her presence in my body’s memory, I step forward into the day, renewing my commitment to purpose, to love, to never give up.



Recipes for Living: Accepting Discomfort

It’s early morning and the horses are huddled together in the corner of their field. The sky suddenly releases a downpour of late spring rain, yet they stay still, their stoic bodies pelted by the watery onslaught, but they are comforted in their closeness.

There is a shelter at the other end of the field, but they are electing to stand in the torrent of rain. A few minutes pass and the steady pouring lightens up to more of a drizzle. The horses begin to move slightly; one scratching her side with her teeth, one foraging in the sparse grass in front of the gate, one rolling his head at the end of his outstretched neck, one licking her lips and tasting the fresh drops.

By the time the sun begins to pierce the thick cloud cover, and the rain stops entirely, they have ambled down the hill and gathered in the shade of the shelter.



I ask myself, what do I perceive as too uncomfortable to stand in? What fear of discomfort has me running for shelter instead of tasting the essence of something new? And I challenge myself to remember this morning as I brave being uncomfortable with newfound curiosity.


Recipe for Accepting Discomfort

  1. Can I learn from this feeling? What is it revealing to me? Is there a way to be inspired from this experience?
  2. Stand in the discomfort. Feel it. Notice whether it is more or less miserable than I anticipated. Surrender to this part of my experience as a living being.
  3. Notice what changes in how I feel in mind, body and soul.




On Being Ready

What was I thinking?  I wasn’t ready to have a horse. My life wasn’t on track the way I’d planned. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my career, my marriage wasn’t holding up well… but this horse I’d tried so hard not to fall for wound up forty-five minutes from where I lived, suddenly needing a new home just days after being transported over 800 miles… so I said “yes.”

Taj was riddled with ticks, underweight and unhappy when she arrived in Snohomish County, Washington that December, 2011. At first she seemed a bit shut down, but as she opened up, she enthusiastically kicked me, bit me and put me through the emotional wringer as I struggled to understand what she needed. People saw her behavior and her often grumpy expressions and assumed she must have been abused.


I didn’t know what her life had been like. I only knew that for some truly inexplicable reason, I knew she was meant for me. I had met her in Sonoma County, California the month prior, when I had been asked to assess her for a youth program in Washington. I went into that assessment trying to put up a steel wall around my heart. “I will not like this horse,” I told myself. “I will only see what this horse is like and I will give a professional opinion. I will not like this horse,” I repeated over and over again.

My wall-building efforts were ineffective. I loved the horse almost immediately, pinned ears, distrusting demeanor, cribbing habit, stocked up hind legs and all. I could tell she wanted to connect, she wanted a person. She was left by her last owner to roam this 200-acre ranch with a herd of some sixteen other horses. I’m sure the owner thought it would be a happy life, an easy retirement. But Taj didn’t want retirement; she had plenty she still wanted to contribute to others, so to her, this retirement felt like abandonment. She began to crib more and eat less. She isolated herself from the herd in many ways, not bonding with anyone. When I met her, she was being kept in a stall much of the time and fed alfalfa to try to fatten her up.

I recommended against shipping her to Washington for the youth program – primarily because I knew she needed a lot of attention and extra care to get her healthy and happy first. “But do you think she has potential if she gets the care she needs?” The program director asked. “With extra time and effort, yes,” I replied, feeling my heart bounce in my chest as I realized she might somehow stay in my life.


And so it was that Taj was shipped up to Washington. In a bizarre twist of fate, three days later, the program director had a serious accident and had to postpone her plans and re-home her horses… which is how I got Taj even though I wasn’t ready.

For all the difficult and painful moments we had, there were other moments of unmistakable connection, of appreciation, of gratitude for each other. She had her ears pinned a lot, and she didn’t trust much, but there was a light in her eye that kept searching for something different, something better, something more.


In March of 2012, I received an email from a woman named Darlene, who’d been looking for Taj to make sure she was all right. Darlene had been forced to part with Taj when she had gone away to college, and had lost track of her over the past two years. She wanted to make sure I knew a few key things about Taj’s physical health, and she wrote, “I don’t know where to start with the story of Taj. Other than her outer beauty, she has incredible talent. However, her sassy attitude gets in the way sometimes.” She also said she just wanted to know how and where she was, and that if at all possible, she’d like to see her again someday.

The email from Darlene brought tears to my eyes. I could feel the love and concern pouring through the words on the screen. If this horse had been abused, it certainly wasn’t by this person. What on earth was Taj’s story really like?

I got on the phone with Darlene just as soon as I could. She was happy to share every detail she could recall about Taj, and about the people who owned her before and after she did, as she had traced Taj’s path through life as much as she could. From what she could tell, young girls had always been Taj’s owners, and she had had fairly rigorous training for competitive jumping and  eventing. She would bond deeply with her girl, and then life would throw her a curve ball, and she would have to move on and begin again.

We became long distance friends, and I would write Darlene with questions like, “What do you do when she has PMS pain so bad that she looks like she’s going to break the fence leaning into it it?” Darlene would always crack up at the things that hadn’t changed, and she’d share with me remedies that had worked for her in the past.


As the months passed, Taj relaxed into her life with me and her new “sister,” a young quarter horse named Daisy. The lashing out at me subsided, and she seemed to enjoy Daisy’s company, though she made it very clear that she was in charge of the both of them, often suddenly lunging at Daisy when she invaded Taj’s personal space. Taj has never had a problem speaking her mind or setting her boundaries.

By September of 2012, Taj, Daisy and I were a tightly bound trio, and that’s when I left my job, my marriage, my house and the state of Washington, bound for California with the mares in the trailer, and whatever belongings I could fit in the Ford F350. Darlene met us at our new home just north of Petaluma within a week or so of our arrival – she could hardly wait to see Taj again.



Darlene and I entered the paddock together, and Taj strode right up to us. My heart skipped a beat, as some part of me suddenly panicked, “What if she wants to be with Darlene and not me?” I held my breath. That mare, in her very purposeful way, reached her nose out to both of us and proceeded to let out a deep sigh, then lay down at our feet. The tears flowed freely, and Darlene left me with a bag of carrots and a bag of Skittles – apparently an old favorite of Taj’s – and her most heartfelt blessings for my life with Taj.


Four years later, almost to the day, Darlene again drove several hours to see us. We were about to move again, this time from Petaluma across country to my home state of Maryland. I was a mess. Emotionally and physically, I was falling apart and so was Taj. She had developed chronic diarrhea, and my own digestive system was completely dysfunctional. Despite visits from a chiropractor and a massage therapist, she was not moving well, and she was more reactive than usual at the sight of a saddle. She was in pain, especially in her sacroiliac joints. I was experiencing so much low back pain that I couldn’t even lift the boxes I was packing. I was having my own flare-up of a past sacroiliac problem that led to my whole lower back seizing up.

How on earth was I going to pick up our life and make this move?

When Darlene arrived, I blurted out that I was afraid the trip would be too much for Taj. I was scared that I would put her in worse pain and be stuck somewhere in the middle of the country with a horse who could no longer travel. Darlene listened and spent some quality time with Taj. She was saying good-by but before she left, she said, “I want you to know that I support whatever decision you make. Also know that if you decide Taj is not well enough for the trip, she has a home with me – be it temporary, until she’s well enough to travel east, or permanent if that’s what you want for her. She will always be loved and cared for.”


That night I went to bed with thoughts swirling. I got back up somewhere around midnight and went out to stand with Taj as she foraged around in the field. “What do you want?” I asked Taj, wishing she could speak, or at least wishing she could send me some kind of clear message to help me decide. She just kept on nosing about in the weeds, and lifting her head every so often to check in with me and look around the moonlit field.

I returned to my bed, sleeping off and on until sunrise. When I focused my eyes on the small room around me that had been my “tiny house” home these last few years, with the horses right outside, I felt a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’d been living. I was doing the work that I felt called to do with the horses, and I’d witnessed Taj evolve from a horse that was unpredictable, sometimes dangerous and often shut down into an outstanding equine guide and engaged teacher of life lessons. She was proud and she was thriving in the work.

What if everything I was seeing in her was a manifestation of the fear and the worry in me? She and I lived in very close quarters and our lives were now intertwined. I was as scared for myself as I was for Taj. Picking up and moving didn’t seem to be getting easier.

All I knew for sure was that the equine guided work had changed us both, and that if I left her in California, I’d be taking away something that had given her a chance to contribute value and to thrive again… just as it had for me.


So that was it… I made myself some coffee and sent Darlene a message that Taj was going to make the trip to Maryland. Within a day I received some special oil blends in the mail, just in time for our departure. One was a rub for soothing physical pain, and one was a blend for soothing emotional/mental anxiousness and turmoil. I slathered that stuff all over myself and remembered that I needed to save some for Taj…

We were as ready as we’d ever be for the next chapter.



Darlene has been visiting us in Maryland and we’ve been building a body of work based on blending the healing properties of oils & horses. She’ll be with us in April to celebrate Taj’s 25th birthday and to co-host a special event April 13th to introduce our horses & oils work here at the farm. Details for April 13th HERE.

DarleneApplies Oil_9886


On Skin and Heart

“Just hit her with it!” the woman insisted. The girl clutched the riding crop in her right hand, her fingers unwilling to unfurl from the rein gathered around it. “I don’t want to hit her!” was all the girl could think and feel. She was frozen, holding her breath, afraid to disobey, but unable to obey.

“You’ll never get that horse to do what you want if you don’t take charge!”

The girl’s eyes burned trying to hold back the tears. She bit down on her lower lip. She wanted so badly to be a good rider and a strong person. She forced her hand to release the rein and raise the crop in the air. She closed her eyes and thumped the horse with it somewhere behind her. Still the horse was walking, not trotting.

“She couldn’t even feel that!” Yelled the woman. “Whack her like you mean it!”

The shame of not being able to make the horse trot began to overtake the girl’s aversion to hurting her. This time she channeled all her shame and frustration into her right arm, and she hit the horse with a resounding smack that shocked them both, the horse lurching forward into a trot.

“Don’t worry,” the woman had told her, “the horse has such thick skin you can’t hurt her.”



The girl grew up feeling uncomfortable using force to be dominant, but it was the only way she’d been shown to be strong, to be successful, to get what she wanted. Yet there was a horror she felt at herself, just as she felt hitting her own beloved horse, which crept into her mind and clouded her heart every time she tried to stand up for herself, be strong, be dominant. She would make requests in a “nice” way, but people walked all over her. She hated when others told her, “Oh, you’re too nice!” but she couldn’t figure out any middle ground… how to be clear and direct, eliciting action or support without either demanding or pandering.

As she reached adulthood, she started to think that the only way to get what she wanted was to become someone she hated. To do things incongruent with what she felt was right. Most people in positions of authority around her were forceful and demanding, and the only way she knew how to cope with them was to acquiesce, to please, or to appease. She could never be as forcefully dominant as they were, she could never “win” nor get what she wanted or needed. She wished she could grow a skin thick enough to render her insensitive. Instead, she learned to dissociate. In order to cope with untenable situations, she would separate from her physical body. It was as if she was somewhere floating above that body, and the mind operating the body now belonged to someone else. 


The horse learned to shut down early on. She knew the thickest skin was the one that was grown around her whole being, not just her body. She would go as far as pinning her ears and swishing her tail in protest when the girl would put the ill-fitting saddle on, but the woman in charge was always nearby. She had a bite that was as bad as her bark. The easiest way to avoid the most suffering was to try to do what she was told, and often the instructions were confusing and she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do.

She knew the girl was afraid, too. She wasn’t sure why. When they were alone together in the barn, the girl would start to breathe more deeply. She would take the tack off and brush her and cry and cry, all the way back to the stall. It was in these moments together that the horse would relax and let go of the pain and the fear, too.

When the girl wasn’t there to cry and help let go of the discomfort, during the long hours in the stall, the horse learned to crib. Alone, in a box without the ability to move, she figured out that if she bit down on the edge of the stall door and gulped down air, she felt instantly better. Any pain in her gut and any feelings of anxiety – even from the horses around her – would dissipate. She could channel her focus elsewhere and feel just a little bit better.




Taj is entering her 25th year on this earth, and she is a horse who has known suffering on many levels, though she was never, to my knowledge, intentionally abused. Her pain developed largely unnoticed, while people were doing the best they could with what they knew. Sometimes they didn’t realize that an ill-fitting saddle was causing pain. Confinement in a stall for long hours in a stressful barn was the only readily available option, and it was standard for show horses, so why would anyone think it was causing her pain? Sometimes training methods that work for some horses simply have a negative impact on others. The result is a horse who finds her own ways to cope and to survive.

This mare has been owned and loved by girls throughout her life. A young girl can love passionately and dearly, and at the same time, a young girl is not in control of very much in her life nor her horse’s life. In Taj’s case, that love was commingled with pain: the pain of trying to live up to someone else’s expectations and feeling like a failure, the pain of not fitting in or being comfortable elsewhere in life and seeking refuge in a horse, and, what happened repeatedly to Taj, the pain of having to give up a beloved horse when parents or life changes dictated it.

To this day, Taj is guarded, wary and defensive when people enter her stall, approach her too quickly, or put a saddle on her back. She is notorious for her “mean face” with ears pinned back, glowering eyes and teeth gnashing. But she never lost her ability to connect. When there is an effort to listen and to build trust, Taj responds. She can and does offer the most genuine and emotional horse hugs and kisses of any horse I’ve ever known… to those who earn her trust.



And what of the girl? What happens for all the girls who experience childhood and young adulthood riddled with training that asks them to be someone other than who they are? To act in ways counter to their own hearts in order to “be strong.” Particularly in the realms of leadership, assertiveness and integrity, girls become women who often struggle with the way they have been taught to succeed and to value themselves.

I meet many of those former girls through my work, but I also meet them at the store, on the street, at a party, in a café… wherever I go. Women everywhere were raised by parents and teachers and extended family and coaches who were just doing the best they could with what they knew. And now we are all learning more. We are learning more options, more ideas, more than we knew before. It’s giving us a new kind of strength, and new ways to be in our own skin – as thick or as thin as that skin may be.



I sat in a field with Taj this weekend. Temperatures were in the low thirties, but the sun was out, taking the edge off the cold. I watched the environment while she grazed; a practice from Freedom Based Training, and a practice she quite enjoys. I believe she enjoys it because she is a horse who feels she has to be in charge all the time. She feels she has to monitor everything, make all the decisions… basically do everything herself, including opening gates and telling the other horses where to stand before exiting the field. When I watch the environment and make a point of moving and responding to any changes, she feels like she can take a break. If the cat gets too close to her, I move him away. If something makes a rustling noise in the thicket, I pay attention. If one of the other horses calls out to us, I reply. I create a safe space for her and she can relax.

What Taj has done throughout her life for the girls who loved her, and now for those who are seeking insight through our work, is provide a safe space for them to relax and be who they really are. I’ve always felt that doing equine guided work gave her back something she’d lost. At first, I thought it was the ability to express herself, and though that is a part of it, it’s not the whole picture. I see her thrive when people relax around her, when they let go, and release the pent up tension within. Taj has a way of magnifying the process of letting go and the feeling of relaxing.


She is a powerful presence, a strong mare. There is no mistaking what she means when she is asking you to stay with her or to back off. She bears the behavioral marks of one who was both loved and wounded. She learned what she was supposed to do by others’ standards, and yet she maintained her sense of self. Despite the hardships, the heartaches, the confusion and the coping, she still seeks out love. It’s not her thick skin, but rather her big heart that makes her a survivor and an inspiration.