The Gift of Relaxing

I see you. I acknowledge how you feel. I am responding to you in a way you will be able to trust.

I watched intently as Elsa stood and waited for the big palomino stallion to make a move. Any move he made was communicating something: one step forward, the turn of his head, the flick of an ear. These are the words of horses. They are masters of using time and space to communicate with movements.

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Elsa was patient and focused. She was not only focused on him; she was consciously focused on the horse, the environment, me, and her own body. She was focused entirely on the present moment. So was the horse. If he turned away, she turned away. If he stepped toward her, she stepped toward him. She matched the pace and intensity of his movements in kind, every time.

At one point, they were on opposite sides of the paddock, and the horse picked up a brisk walk towards her. Matching his pace and confident posture, Elsa walked towards him. At the center of the paddock, instead of meeting “head on,” they passed smoothly and easily, shoulder to shoulder, and kept walking until they had switched places. “Two ships passing in the night,” Elsa said. Or I think she said, as it could have been my own mind musing. Spoken words and energetic communication were starting to blend.

There was the anticipation building as they approached each other, would they stop? Would they touch? Would there be a conflict? Then there was that moment of intensity when they crossed paths, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, and I could feel it from outside the fence where I stood. It dissipated as they moved away from each other, claiming their own space and time. Two ships passing, flashing their lights as if to say “You’re not alone out here in this big ocean,” and then carrying on, perhaps never meeting again but acknowledging their connectedness.

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This stallion had been taught only to fear humans in his five years of life. He failed as a bucking horse at the rodeo because he had more rear than buck. Whatever training methods people had tried on him failed miserably, as he trusted nothing and no one, and could not be “handled.” In his fear and his pain, he would lash out, fight back… he became aggressive and therefore dangerous. And so he was awaiting the slaughter truck when Elsa came along, wanting to show him something different about living.

As I watched her, calmly, patiently waiting and responding, I could feel how much of a gift that was. I could feel myself relaxing into the moment, even the soles of my feet beginning to blend with the ground beneath them. The deer in an adjacent field ambled closer, happily grazing and watching all that transpired, drawn in towards the paddock. The raven called out in a throaty, curious caw from the treetop, his voice containing both announcement of self and acknowledgement of others.

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I spoke with Elsa later on, as we looked out over the fog-kissed Salish Sea, and she seemed at peace with the possibility of any outcome. She was at peace with the possibility of never touching the horse, never riding the horse, or not making any more progress than being in the same space with the horse while he relaxed. There is something very liberating about not being attached to the outcome; something magnetic about offering to meet another being exactly where they are and not rush or push too hard. It is exactly that magnetic feeling of freedom that becomes as riveting as an action-packed moment like galloping bareback in the surf.

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I see you. I acknowledge how you feel. I am responding to you in a way you will be able to trust.

The power in this approach was evident in watching this fearful, tormented stallion luxuriate in the ability to relax. It had taken several days for him to relax to this point. In one instance, his knees began to buckle, and his nose lowered toward the earth, the enticement of deeper sleep pulling at his heavy frame. But he wasn’t ready to relax more deeply around people so close yet. Given time and space, perhaps he will. That gift of relaxation is fundamental to anything else he can accomplish. Once he can relax, he can connect, learn, change, and perhaps enjoy.

 

So can we.

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Beginning Again

The trailer rolled up the driveway in the dark, tires crunching the loose gravel on the surface of the pothole pock-marked pavement. My hearted bumped around in my chest, as I willed myself to remain cool and calm, as if I took in horses sight unseen hauled from other states all the time.

I’d seen a few pictures. She was a chestnut thoroughbred. She’d been a race horse and then a broodmare for the last half of her life. At fifteen, she was well acquainted with a highly competitive lifestyle and with having babies, and so I figured there was a possibility she might need some help learning to relax.

I stepped into the trailer to unload her and mainly all I could think was, “wow, she’s tall!” Probably 17 hands tall. She sighed and walked down the ramp next to me without so much as a tail swish. “good sign,” I thought, “Or maybe she’s too tired to be anxious after more than 10 hours on the road.” I let her go in a large pasture next to a field of four or five horses to be her neighbors for the night. She waltzed off into the darkness and finally I sighed. I still needed help relaxing sometimes.

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The barn where I lived was full, and so the plan was to keep the horse at a friend’s training barn until more fences and shelters were built at my place. In a remarkable twist of fate, my friend also had a fifteen year old chestnut mare… and the two had actually trained together at Pimlico race track as three-year-olds. By the next morning, she was happily grazing in the field with her old friend and some young race horses in training. I began building our relationship with some Freedom Based Training techniques, in order to let her know that I would be listening to her and spending time with her doing what she wanted in addition to asking her to do some things with me that I wanted. The larger goal would be to one day integrate her into my band of three at home to do Equine Guided Coaching. For that, she would need to be open to various people being around her, able to adjust to their various emotional states, responding to their choices interacting with and just being around her, and comfortable enough in her own skin and environment to be a horse offering a horse’s opinion – safely.

I spent the first month standing out in the field at various distances from her, walking around her, gauging where she was most and least comfortable having me. At first, she paid very little attention to me. She would notice me, pause, and return to what she was doing. The young fillies tended to be way more curious about me and they would come up to investigate and try to play this new game, reaching out to me with their soft noses, following me when they could find a flow, and jumping back when I turned suddenly to face them. My horse was more interested in grazing and staying in relatively close proximity to her friend. When I walked too close for her comfort, she would move away, and I would work to find the most comfortable distance and gradually she grew to accept and even enjoy me at close range, stroking or scratching her. There were times when I would lead her somewhere in a halter; sometimes just to take a walk around the farm, and sometimes to do necessary tasks like get her feet trimmed, which I would do where she had a clear view of the other horses she knew well. When I walked her out and away from her friend, however, she started to show her anxious side.

There was a lot of what I call “giraffe necking” – when a horse feels tense and goes on high alert and stretches her head high up on her neck, seemingly doubling her height – and for this horse, that made her REALLY tall. Once, early on, I was putting her in a paddock after the farrier had finished trimming her, and she was opposed to the idea of going anywhere but back in the field with her friend, so she reared up practically on top of me as I tried to get back through the gate.

I guessed this was where the stereotyping about chestnut mares came from. And I continued to hang out with her in the field. Sometimes doing a form of standing meditation. Sometimes exploring what it took to gain her attention. Sometimes asking her to move backward or one step to the side. And always rewarding her with the relief of going to the places I knew she was most comfortable having me, which were 8 – 10 feet off either side.

My friend told me that people were seeing my activities and asking her whether I knew anything about horses and was it okay that I was doing strange things in her field. I had to laugh, because I am sure that is just what this horse thought when I first started. And then there was the day, about a month in, that she showed me it was all making a difference.

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I’d been working on inviting her to come to me when I came in the field with the halter, as opposed to me having to go and make her stop whatever she was doing in order to put the halter on, or bribing her with grain to come to me. I would make sure that wherever we went, I was taking her to do something that involved something easy or pleasant for her, not challenging her with potentially too much too soon, or just going through motions of routine tasks. In this way, I hoped to both build her trust in me and also build an affinity for the halter.

This particular day, she was standing in the run-in shed with her friend and a young filly who had become her protégé. The morning was on its way to becoming another scorching day, and certainly the attitude of everyone present was that the less movement and energy we had to muster, the better.

I stood for a few minutes outside of the run-in shed, the halter and lead rope draped over my shoulder. I noticed my horse lift her head when I arrived on the scene, and I could see an ear trained on me as I moved across in front of the shed, searching for the least muddy, manurey path to approach. I entered the shed and went to her shoulder. Then I stood and relaxed, joining their group as if I might plan to stand there all day with them. After a few minutes, I beckoned my horse to come with me out of the shed, and I took some careful steps back on the least mucky path out. I felt her immediately. She was with me. She was walking with me, just as certainly as if I’d put the halter on and had the lead rope in my hand. And we walked out into the shady corner of the pasture by the water trough where I paused and she paused to have a drink.

Those few steps together felt like we might as well have won a trophy competing together in a big event. Or, what I imagine that must feel like, anyway. It was exhilarating to know that she was interested, that she was trusting, that she was engaging freely with me. We were communicating and growing together, beginning again as both our worlds were transformed.

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GOD, BOOBS AND TAPES: A Story of Horses Lifting Limits

Cantering inspired everything free and divine about being a horse. I would toss my head back, shake my mane, and take off in a canter through the fields. Often I would run with my eyes closed, just feeling the spirit of my hooves flying over the ground, and when I opened my eyes, my chin still in the air, there would be the broad blue sky on my nose. Nothing and no one could tell me, in those moments, that I wasn’t truly and essentially equine. I would collapse in the grass after a good canter, my chest rising and falling and my heart still leaping and bounding, knowing the taste of bliss. I was six years old.


It was the year 2007 and I was still calling any type of audio playback medium a “tape,” which confirms that I was a child when cassette tapes were the gold standard for playing recorded music at home. To this day, I think the most romantic thing a guy could do is to make me a mix tape, even if it is actually a playlist on a thumb drive.  In 2007, I was the HR Director of a cutting edge motion graphics design and production company in Seattle, so one would think that I would have made the switch at least to saying “CD,” but old habits don’t just die hard, they don’t die at all if there is no effort to adopt new ones.

The prior year, my dear friend, Wanda, formerly the Executive Producer at the company, had officially ditched everything to do with film and graphics production, to become a Spiritual Psychologist and Hypnotherapist. I was not entirely sure what that was, but I tried to be supportive. She had relocated to Santa Monica, so on my many business trips to Los Angeles, I would visit her and learn about her new career. Inevitably, she would insist that I listen to the latest, greatest, spiritually awakening, positive-energy-generating, dream-fulfillment-promising tape – or more accurately, compact disc. In actual fact, I had an adverse physical reaction to the mere suggestion of listening to such audio recordings. It was nausea inducing. I was filled with absolute revulsion and a certainty that all of these so-called gurus and wellbeing experts were finding ever so slightly new ways to get rich off of people’s unflagging desire to find happiness.

I recall one balmy autumn evening on Santa Monica Boulevard, on our way to dinner with friends, Wanda convinced me to listen “just for a minute” to one of these CDs. As I was captive in her car, a man’s voice slithered from the speakers. He pontificated about the power of manifesting what you want… and when he used the word “God,” I could tolerate no more. I resorted to demanding that we shut off this torture device or I would vomit on the dashboard.

Wanda was able to laugh, put on some music and change the subject, as usual. She was used to people calling her “Woo-Woo Wanda” and either dismissing or openly mocking what she was pursuing as a life path. It did not deter her. She had found something that resonated with her whole being, and she was completely committed.

My resistance was total and complete. I was committed to avoiding any possibility that spirituality might be worth exploring. I was committed to refusing to listen to any type of recorded talk, as I judged the speakers to be fraudulent at best, and brainwashing manipulators at worst. Yet I thought of myself as an open-minded, accepting, well-adjusted person.

 

I believed I was open and accepting of everything and everyone, including myself, but I could not utter the words “my boobs” together in a sentence. I felt the same physical nausea rise up in me at the thought of saying anything out loud about any of my body parts, worst of all, those that were exclusively female. I tried to cut myself off from my body as completely as I possibly could, as the shame over it was too much to bear. I knew I was a product of a society that glorified physical perfection in the female body, and I knew that physical perfection was unrealistic and propagated by a media with access to ever improving methods of creating illusions out of what once upon a time were actual photographs, but I could not escape the mental indoctrination that had so completely embedded itself in my head.

As a sixteen-year-old girl, I remember the thrill of being invited to a party hosted by some of the most popular, older boys in the “in crowd.” My excitement rapidly morphed into dread and panic when I was next told that there would be a bathroom scale by the front door, and any girl weighing more than 140 pounds would not be allowed inside.

An active athlete in high school sports, I weighed 138 pounds at the time, and I was certain that it was so close to the cut-off that I would be ridiculed and deemed too fat to date, even if I got into the party.

After the mid-seventies, when I stopped believing I might someday wake up and be a horse instead of a human girl, I don’t remember an age when I did not think I was too fat, so early on and so completely was I convinced that I should be thinner, and somehow better than whatever I was. My mind was all I had ever been taught to rely upon in order to make good choices and succeed in life, yet it tortured me with its recordings of the voices and the opinions of others, telling me to be better, to do more, to weigh less.

It was in this state of complete absence of health and wellbeing that I reached the height of my corporate career. Every day it became more difficult to drag myself out of bed and into the office I saw as a prison. I had everything I thought I needed to be happy: a good salary, benefits, creative workplace, husband, dogs, cute house with fireplace, big yard, friends to invite over for barbeques. But I was miserable and I hated myself.

Then I began thinking and dreaming of horses, almost constantly.

It had been twenty-five years since my family moved into Baltimore city from the horse farm where I lived as a child, and some twenty years since I last convinced a friend to come out and ride my cousin’s horses with me. How could it be that I was suddenly obsessed with horses all over again, just as I had been when I was six years old and behaving as one of them every day after school?

After months of Googling therapeutic work with horses, starting to ride with a friend and getting back into basic horse care,  I quit my seemingly great full-time job as an HR Director and dedicated my life to working with horses in a way that would improve people’s lives and increase appreciation for horses. I was fairly certain it would at least improve my own level of joy and satisfaction on a day-to-day basis, considering my relative lack of affinity for sitting at a desk in front of a computer and my somewhat surprising preference for shoveling manure. I knew I needed immersion, rigorous practice and training.

There are a myriad of options (and acronyms) for working with horses in a non-competitive, non-traditional manner that ultimately benefits people. Before I arrived at the decision to train in Equine Guided Education (EGE), I explored therapeutic riding as well as various options for equine-based therapeutic work with specific populations, such as the so-called “disabled” community, children from underserved communities, and the community of people striving to overcome addiction.  What I reaffirmed for myself was that anyone can benefit from spending quality time with horses, and EGE is a modality that emphasizes bringing the mind, body, and spirit into focus and alignment, no matter who you are or where you come from.

What is particularly noteworthy about that description of the work is that I was willing to try it even though it plainly stated it was about the body and the spirit. What mattered to me was that it was about connecting with horses to find ways to live a better life. A piece of me was hoping there might be some way I could finally understand spirit. I was not ready to admit how much I was suffering and struggling, but I could certainly see a multitude of people around me wrestling with feelings of dissatisfaction, helplessness and hopelessness, and I was willing to try to help them.

When I was a child and feeling cut off from the world with no friends close enough to the farm to play with, the horses were my friends. I would sit and eat clover with them in the field and tell them all my woes and all my hopes, and they would swish their tails and listen. I felt like I belonged; I was a member of a special group. The horses taught me that there was such a thing as complete acceptance of who I was in the world. Somewhere through the many years since, I had forgotten that.

In order to do this work with horses, the first thing I had to face was my body. Acknowledging that I actually had one was a major step. Learning to use my body again, without shame and with complete confidence to move and direct a horse was hard enough… and to learn to do that in front of groups of people was a monumental challenge. For a couple of years I was doing “just enough to get by,” still holding back a certain amount of my own energy and potential to avoid exposure, to avoid fully “being seen.” The first time I can remember being completely, unabashedly in my body was in front of a class when I was on staff at the ranch providing the EGE certification courses.

There were five horses loose in the arena, and the class of about twelve students was standing just outside along one rail. I had stepped into the arena in order to face them and debrief the exercise we were doing observing the herd. Suddenly, the energy in the horses skyrocketed, and they began galloping and bucking, crossing from corner to corner, passing inches away from me in the middle.

My heart was beating a hole through my chest and I had to consciously tell myself to breathe. I could see twenty-four very wide human eyes staring back at me from the rail. I opened my mouth to begin a sentence, and the two geldings circled back around and galloped straight at me. I lifted my right arm, extending it in their direction and took one step back, as they swerved and passed in front of me in a cloud of sand and dust. I asked the group how they were feeling. “Afraid” was the almost unanimous response. One woman specified, “ I was afraid until I saw you move your body, and then I knew you were okay.”

In that moment, I realized the power and the value of my own body. I was grateful for my arms and my legs, my lungs and my heart. I was standing on my two feet, arms at my sides, facing a group of people and I was proud of my body, boobs and all. The horses dropped down into a relaxed and curious state, the two geldings positioning themselves within an arm’s length of me. I talked about how horses survive by constantly sensing their surroundings and responding with their bodies. They acknowledge increases and decreases in energy, without judging the change, but simply responding to it. Their behavior was alerting us to a change in the environment, which could have been something in me, perhaps some underestimated anxiety about being a new facilitator teaching this part of the class. It could have been an emotion or a judgment in someone else or in multiple people. It could have been a mountain lion prowling in the distance, or a shift in the wind. Once the energy decreased, the horses relaxed. If we open our senses and pay attention to the present moment, we can gather and process more information by sensing the environment, the horses and each other with our bodies than we could ever gather and process with our minds.

Around that same time, I started spending a lot of time kneeling around horses. Just relaxing and being with horses, not asking them to do anything or go anywhere, often leads to the horses standing and dozing. The more time I spent with horses in this manner, whether in an arena, a round pen or a field, the more I experienced that they would often relax enough to go into a deeper phase of sleep, lying down completely, sometimes making noises, even whinnying. For me, the impact of a thousand pound animal lying down near me evokes tremendous reverence. I would instinctively drop to my knees and allow myself to be with the horse in the sleep or sleep-like state. Whatever the horse was experiencing would have a powerful effect on me. I could only imagine that the sort of trance-like, mind-expanding, nirvana-related state I was experiencing was akin to what successful meditative practice must induce, though I have never successfully meditated – at least, not without a horse.

During these experiences, I often connected with people far away – even dead – in a way that made me feel a sense of closeness, as if I had just sat with them and had a long and wonderful conversation. In the past, when pressed for an answer, I described my spiritual beliefs as “a belief in the connection among beings, alive and dead,” and I had a particular reverence for ancestors. Now, in sunshine and in moonlight, I found myself going to the Church of the Horses, actually experiencing what was really only a philosophy I held out hope for existing. Something in this experience liberated me from my judgment of the word “God.” I still don’t embrace the term “God” exactly as the concept was taught to me, but I no longer recoil at the term, and in fact, I can feel love and appreciation for what the word means when I hear it and see it used.

Judgment is one of the heaviest weights and largest obstacles we can carry around with us. We judge and we fear being judged. Judgment is a uniquely human construct. Horses, responding to us in every moment without judgment, without grudges, without agendas, show us a kind of freedom most of us lose after early childhood. This freedom is living in a place of acceptance: acceptance of self and of others, acceptance of the highs and the lows and the paradoxical nature of our human existence.


A few years ago, I purchased a multiple CD audiobook by Caroline Myss called Sacred Contracts. Before I sent it to Wanda, I listened to the entire thing and never felt sick. God was mentioned more than once. I am able to talk about my boobs and every other part of my body, though some are easier than others. My demonstration for new riders on how to find one’s own seat bones is particularly noteworthy.

Somehow, in a mysterious way that was no coincidence, horses found their way back into my life to once again make me a part of something special with them. At a time when I had closed myself off from so much of life, they galloped at me until I was moved to accept my spirit, body and mind. Since 2007, I have radically changed my life and I have had the great pleasure of working with horses and people from all over the world in a way that improves their lives and increases their appreciation for horses. The gift that I see time and time again, for others and for myself, is that horses free us from self-imposed limits. The energy that we expend in fear or dread can be released and re-channeled into acceptance, wonder and joy. It is in these moments of openness and flow that we realize what living unlimited means for each of us.

 

For further exploration of Living Unlimited, consider the new course dedicated to Soul Healthhttps://horsesforthesoul.org/programs/soul-health/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Can Be Different

There she was, her chestnut-and-white patched coat glistening in the sun. She was shorter and wider than most of the horses in her eventing class, but she was fit and fancy and held herself like she owned the place. She was 14.3 hands and could jump 3’6” like it was nothing. Onlookers stopped their conversations to watch this little paint mare float over the rails and tear around the course making the tightest of turns and sprinting the straightaways. She was a sensational performer by anyone’s definition.

When Daphne brought the mare into the old carriage barn for the first time, she was taken aback by the sudden shift in Taj’s demeanor. Gone was the regal, bright-eyed pride she saw in the field and on the jump course. In its place was a mood of sour resentment, ears flattened back, upper lip curled, and the whites of her eyes flashing as the horse glared at her.

Taj had been living in the front pasture of this picturesque old farm for two years, since her first young owner had lost interest in horses and moved on to cheerleading. Her stunning looks punctuated the elegant, tree-lined estate as visitors were greeted by the breathtaking, pastoral scene. Daphne had no reason to think Taj was unhappy in any way, but clearly there was something wrong as they entered the stall and this suddenly angry, defensive horse began immediately cribbing on the edge of the stall door to try to alleviate her stress.

Fortunately for Taj, Daphne was curious and willing to listen to her and to trace back through her first eight years of life to understand the pain and the anxiety.

Taj wasn’t born worried or defensive. Her breeder recalled that she was one of sweetest foals she’d ever had the pleasure of bringing up, and that when she started her under saddle, Taj never even bucked. She took to riding eagerly, was willing and attentive to her rider. But life’s experiences started to shape her in a different way.

She was first sold to a young girl and kept in a show barn where the atmosphere was thick with the high pressure focus on performance and results. The barn owner was strict and demanding, and many girls ended up in tears in the barn aisle when they failed to meet expectations in some way. Taj’s trainer worked hard to maximize her potential as a jumper, determined to make her a star. Her life was a strict routine of training and showing, and she spent all the hours in between inside a stall in that show barn. In the neighboring stall was a large, dark bay mare who had grown so bitter that she would lunge out to try and bite passers-by. Taj’s sweet, curious nature was drowning in the shadow side of the show barn.

Taj was prized for her abilities, but lacked any true connection in her life. Without time and space to bond with other horses, and without a real opportunity to bond with any humans, she was essentially suffering from profound loneliness. In addition, no one was listening when she tried to pull away from the barn door and ask for time outside. No one was listening when she pinned her ears and stomped her feet to explain that the saddle wasn’t wide enough for her broad back, and pinched her terribly as she struggled to keep performing despite the pain.

What Daphne saw in her was a reflection of what she saw in herself: through the darkness of suffering, the flicker of curiosity about whether life could be different.

 

There I was in my corner office, perched in my Aeron chair, complete with lumbar support. Over the past four years, I had clamored my way up the corporate ladder from Office Manager all the way to HR Director, which gave me a seat at the table of the company leaders. I was married, had three dogs and lived in a newly renovated, two-thousand-square-foot house with a big yard in a nice suburb of Seattle. I had painted myself into the picture of success that was perfectly inside the lines of the paint-by-numbers life canvas handed down to me. I had been trying for a while to make myself believe that I was a success, that my life was a success, that I should and could be happy.

The truth was, I was miserable. I dreaded getting out of bed every morning. It hurt my back to sit in my Aeron chair all day in my office, despite the added lumbar support. I was about thirty pounds overweight. I could barely focus during meetings, and I could focus even less when trying to draft company policies and procedures.  I loved my husband and we had made it through some sickness and some health, but the two of us were plodding along on some path towards an American dream with no soul.

It had no soul, I later learned, because I was completely out of touch with my soul. Surrounded by people both at work and socially, I was isolated in my misery. I had learned to cope with stress and distress at an early age by making everything look fine, by being bubbly, upbeat and optimistic. I could play that role very well, hosting dinner parties at home and office parties at work. Underneath the friendly, buoyant veneer, I was drowning the emptiness of living without any connection to my soul’s longing.

It took several radical life changes to get me reacquainted with my soul. I quit my corporate job, twice. I starting from the ground up re-learning about horses after two decades of being away from them. I stopped eating anything with four legs because I didn’t feel right eating something I could never bring myself to kill. I got divorced. I sold everything I could. I packed up what I could fit in my truck and moved to California with my horses. I held onto a soul-felt belief that there was more to life than the paint-by-numbers version I had been living.

 

Taj’s story and mine began to weave together more than seven years ago. Since then, we have moved to seven different “homes,” from Washington to California and across the country to Maryland.

Taj has learned that she can trust me, that she no longer needs to “shut down” to escape the tension, the dissatisfaction, the potential pain of fully living. From following me into a trailer to cantering through an open field, we have worked through layers of her deeply ingrained behavioral patterns that made some very basic activities extremely challenging. Her new career in equine guided work feeds her desire to connect and to contribute her opinion without any fear of being “wrong” or being stifled. She continues to open up more and more; not without moments of frustration, hesitation and withdrawal, as nothing about changing one’s life is linear progress.

As for me, I have learned that I am able to trust my own soul. My life, my role in work and in family looks much different than the picture I used to imagine, and it may look different to what others still expect. The fear of being “wrong” or being stifled still creeps in and makes me want to shut down. It is an ongoing challenge to rise to the calling of things that seem so far from the traditional, the conventional, the easily defined. When I falter, it is because I am acting out of alignment with my soul. I am most able to feel my own truth, and my soul’s calling when I ask a horse to help me access it. This truth is the underpinning of equine guided coaching and the underlying gift the horses have to offer.

 

It is in the spirit of this journey through disconnection, isolation and despair to find our own truth and meaning that my good friend and colleague, Hallie Bigliardi, and I have developed a “Soul Health Intensive” program, which we are launching this May. Borrowing from the 16th century poet and mystic, St. John of the Cross, we can transform our perspective of “the dark of night” into “the luck of night.”

These “dark nights of the soul” that we experience are uncomfortable; they are the vice grips of struggling with work, finances, relationships and health. We feel disconnected and alone in our suffering through a crisis of spirit and meaning, or in our hesitance at the pursuit of sacred goals, and it is exactly then that we need to reach out, reach for the learning and the change.

Find out more about our program here: SOUL HEALTH – Spring 2018

 

 

Conversations With Taj: Yes. Sometimes.

The sun went down and drew the curtain closed on a simple day. Sometimes the simplest days are the most powerful. I’ve spent the winter in conversations with Taj, making every effort to listen and to understand what I can do to add more joy to her life, and to find an answer to the question, “Can you enjoy riding?”

Finally, I feel like I lived into some answers.

When I’m having a conversation with Taj, sometimes I doubt what I am hearing. On the one hand, I doubt it if she says something I don’t want to hear, like all the times she has pinned her ears and stomped her feet in response to me putting a saddle on her back. Was she just over-reacting? Testing me? Responding out of habit and not realizing riding wasn’t going to be so painful any more? Maybe her nasty-faced-teeth-gnashing doesn’t really mean “no…?” I’ve  come up with plenty of reasons why what looked like “No. That makes me angry and miserable. Leave me alone,” might not mean what I thought it meant.

On the other hand, I may doubt if she says something I do want to hear, like all the times when I’ve climbed aboard while she’s grazing and she stands calmly and contented. Or when she has followed me right up to the saddle on the fence without a moment’s hesitation nor the bat of an ear. Then, I figure, it must be a fluke. She must be distracted. She’s testing me. I must have missed something.

These conversations with Taj have been an intensive foray into the intersection of intuition and confidence. There’s no manual on how to talk to a horse, so intuition plays a huge role in interpreting body language and movements. And confidence, well, without feeling confidence about what my intuition was telling me, I wound up flip-flopping and wishy-washy in my end of the conversation, which no horse (nor human) can tolerate for long. Best to just walk away from those waffling conversations, is what the horse determines time and again.

On this particular day, I decided to take her trail riding. We have been on plenty of walks through the woods together, both of us on foot, so I know she enjoys being out on the trails. I also know that she enjoys being in the company of Daisy and Zorro, and today, I had two friends coming to ride with me. And as I reviewed everything we’d been doing to prepare to make this an acceptable, if not enjoyable experience, I had to shake my head and almost laugh at the prospect of even wondering if I’d done enough.

I have spent hours being with her, patiently hanging out and watching the world around us while she does whatever it is she wants to do… usually that is grazing, but sometimes dozing or dreaming, and I even brought myself to relax around her while she was cribbing. All this was an effort to join her in her world, and spend time with her on her terms. It is a way to build the friendship. As Elsa Sinclair puts forth in Freedom Based Training, it is one way of “putting money in the bank” of the relationship.

I have increased the amount of equine guided work she’s doing – work I know she enjoys. Even when it has been dastardly cold and horrible outside, I created an online group for people to at least be able to send life inquiries I can ask of the horses. Taj has been an eager participant whether it is a group of people coming in person or me filming a session of myself asking for insight on someone’s behalf. One thing is for sure: Taj likes to give her opinion.

I have slowly re-introduced saddling and mounting as if she was learning the process for the first time at age twenty-three. I have checked and rechecked for any physical pain issues that might be exacerbated by riding. And finally, I went digging through her past, finding and speaking to almost all of her former trainers and owners. What this brought me was, more than anything, affirmation of what I suspected about her behavior being a result of past experiences and some “emotional baggage.” What it also brought me was the only saddle she’s ever had that actually fit her well. Ten years ago, when she broke her leg and was given away, the saddle didn’t stay with her, and it was a key element in her ever having been able to relax and accept saddling and mounting. I happened to speak to the former owner who had that saddle… I got in touch with her in January… two days after she had sold the saddle.

Fate would have it that the saddle didn’t fit for the person who bought it, so I was able to contact her and buy it back for Taj. Therefore, on this day, I would be asking her to ride on a trail she enjoyed, in the company of her “herd mates,” and with her very own, comfortable saddle. I felt confident that I was setting her up to have a good experience.

She stood quietly at the tie ring by the barn, waiting peacefully while we started with the other horses first. When the saddle went onto her back, she gave only a half-hearted ear pin, and then went back to dozing in the afternoon sun. By the time I was buckling up the girth, she was so relaxed I might as well have been performing a world class equine massage. There was a second, half-hearted ear pin at the mounting block, but any shadow of discontent faded away as soon as we were ambling up the lane.

We trekked through familiar, clear paths, and paths littered with limbs that were new to her. We listened to the birds, ecstatic that the winter wind storm was over, and breathed the scent of wet pine. We traveled up steep hills and across level fields, feeling relaxed yet vibrantly alert and ready for whatever would be next. Taj was quite happy to follow or to lead, and in fact, as we headed into the last stand of woods towards home, she resisted… she actually seemed to be saying she wanted to stay out longer.

It was a simple day and I only really had one thing on my to do list. I didn’t care if I failed to return nine emails and two phone calls, never showered and ate crackers for dinner. I entered the ride promising Taj and myself that if she was truly averse to it or uncomfortable, I would turn back, even if I was just at the mounting block. All I had on the to do list this day was to enjoy the ride, both my horse and myself. I didn’t tell her what to do, and I didn’t just ask her either. There is a middle ground. There is a confident invitation. There is a contagious “let’s go!” that is generated when we feel confident about ourselves, our intuitions and our goals, and I believe that’s what she responded to today. I don’t have the expectation that every try will be this enjoyable, or that she’s transformed into an ears-forward, enthusiastic horse who is mostly loving life. I’m pretty sure I don’t even live up to that standard.

But can Taj enjoy more in life and in riding?

Today, she answered me with, “Yes. Sometimes.”

 

 

 

 

Conversations With Taj: Voices

One of the farm cats has taken to sitting on top of the fence posts from which I hang the hay bags for the horses. He waits to see exactly which post I am going to choose, and runs to it, sits squarely on top of it, making the job of crossing the straps over and around it inordinately difficult. At 11:00 pm, I do not find this a particularly fun game. Neither does Taj. The cat was sitting there as she started eating from the bag below, twitching his tail, watching to see where I might go next, and Taj, behind him, started pinning her ears at him as if to say, “Get out of my space.” The cat completely ignored her, so she proceeded to lunge at him, biting at the air behind him in a menacing threat. I think the cat would have sat there assuming he could call her bluff, but my own reaction was to move away, drawing the cat with me to pull him from harm’s way.

I tried calling Taj’s bluff a few years ago. It wasn’t a bluff. I have the x-rays of a crushed fingertip to show for it. Taj’s ear pinning, teeth gnashing and foot stomping at anyone she believes will interrupt her or make her do something she doesn’t want to do is a habit. It is not a physical habit that means nothing, it is a habit of over-reacting to a perceived threat. No matter what another’s intentions are, if we perceive what they are doing as a threat, we are going to want to defend ourselves.

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to work with trainer Bruce Anderson, who was in town for the Maryland stop on the Equus Film Festival. Bruce has helped countless horses with challenging behavioral “problems,” though, as he says, the behavior is a problem for the horse only because it is a problem for humans. Most frequently, these “problems” were created by humans to begin with. We have this in common with horses: we are triggered by the perceived threat of painful or uncomfortable consequences we experienced in our past. In order to avoid or defend against these unwanted situations, we develop habitual ways of defending ourselves.

One of my habits is to overreact to perceived dominance or control by others, particularly when someone raises his or her voice, talks over me, and generally makes me feel as if my own voice is being taken away. I can trace this back through my life to childhood, as I was raised in a “children should be seen and not heard” environment, and many adults rarely listened, assuming what I had to say was insignificant. The origin of the habit is not as important as what I do with the awareness of its existence now. Is it serving me to expend energy getting defensive?

Bruce’s approach was to apply whatever amount of pressure was required by the horse to identify and work through the unwanted behavior. Stipulating that the things which trigger a horse’s “problems” are created by pressure from the past, he aims to apply only enough pressure for the horse to be able to recognize and work through his or her own reactivity and begin to create a new experience. Though he had a rope as a tool, most of the pressure Bruce put on the horse was from volume and tone of voice and body language, asking her to move in one direction or another at a certain speed, and increasing the pressure when she did not comply. He used this same strategy to let her know that pinning her ears or gnashing her teeth was not an acceptable response to any request, including the introduction of a saddle.

My initial reaction was: But this is only training the horse not to pin her ears – it is taking away her voice, the only voice she has being her body language.

Not only that, his loud voice, the constant barrage of questions he aimed at me which had specific answers I didn’t know nor understand, and his talking over me triggered that awful, desperate feeling of having no voice for myself as well. At first, I fought. Just like Taj, I responded with the human equivalent of ear-pinning, raising my own voice and refusing to comply. I was defensive, I did not trust him, I felt the overwhelming discomfort of everything I ever experienced with people who are domineering and controlling.  I felt a lot like Taj must feel when she gets defensive. That realization made me want to change, made me want to find the possibility in the experience for both of us.

I watched Taj quickly stop her conditioned reaction of ear pinning, and stay engaged in all kinds of requests from Bruce, including the request to follow him blindfolded. Was it fear operating in her or was it trust? My aim is to build trust and enjoyment for Taj in her life, not to scare her into submission…

My former husband, Kevin, helped me look at this question in a new light. He said, “Don’t think of it as fear. Think of it as exhaustion. She is tired of making her own boundaries. She is tired of feeling like she has to be in charge.”

I tried this on myself for size. Is there a part of me, when I react to those loud, controlling voices in my life, that is tired of feeling like I have to take the control back? I asked myself, what does it matter if someone is taking over the conversation, needing to be heard more, needing to be right? Does that really hurt me? Does it actually take away my voice? Or is it a perceived threat, created by the pressure from the past?

Perhaps, just perhaps, learning to accept and even to comply with dominant, dictatorial voices will actually be liberating. I will not have to fight for my voice if I know no one can really take it from me. There are, after all, so many people I know and meet who care, share and listen. If that possibility exists for me, and if I can be made aware that I am wasting energy on a habit of overreacting and I can change it, then I am optimistic that Taj can, too. Perhaps, as Bruce said, it is not a matter of Taj trusting him, it is a matter of her trusting herself.

I created a video of a session with Taj in which there are moments of intense pressure and moments of lovely ease and flow. I am still not comfortable watching the parts where I am rising up with a loud voice and dominant energetic pressure to get her to stop focusing on her habitual reaction to the saddle. Deep down, or maybe not even so far from the surface, I am someone who wants to be kind and gentle all the time. I want to be nice. It seems so hard to believe that a horse would suddenly be happier when I am “not nice.”

When push comes to shove, and we are forced to face the pressure of things we would rather avoid, the feeling we get when we “survive” the incident is everything from relieved to empowered. In many cases, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it would be when we started getting defensive and reactive. And there is the additional value in surrendering, in giving up control and trusting one’s self to survive the situation. I may even be able to trust that the cat can take care of himself.

 

 

Personal Note: This is one of the hardest posts I’ve ever made. I’ve intentionally set the thumbnail for the video on one of the hardest moments we had. I’m realizing how deeply difficult it is to really face Taj’s demons and my own. This is a work in progress, as life always is.

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations With Taj: Soul Health

 

In the midst of a “cyclone bomb,” as meteorologists deemed it, contrary to what I expected in such harsh conditions, Taj’s ill health improved. Winds were gusting between 20-30mph and daytime highs were in the teens, which, with that wind chill, felt like less than zero, and at night, your nose hairs would instantly freeze. I was feeding the horses six times a day and always put hay in slow-feed nets around 10:00-11:00pm. I thanked my lucky stars that I had a water heating device in the water trough, which had been moved to the top of the pasture closest to my house so I could plug it in. This weather was the worst of the Maryland winter so far.

This tough, California paint mare had grown a thick, soft winter coat, and only the delicate skin around her eyes seemed slightly frostbitten. For more than a month she had been miserable with chronic runny gut problems. She had taken to glowering at me with her deep brown eyes, as she stood cribbing on the water trough, presumably bored and lashing out a bit at me about her discomfort, her unhappiness with the lack of grass and the lack of interesting things to do.

TajRoundpen011018_F

At this same time, when no one on the whole east coast wanted to be outside, I decided to try taking the Equine Guided experience online, and started with inviting a small group of friends to send questions for which I could ask the horses’ insight. At first, Taj hesitated to get fully involved. But with the second inquiry, she demonstrated that she was very interested and wanted to engage in the process of finding new perspective and giving advice.

In the 48 hours that I brought those questions to the field, Taj’s extreme frustrated attitude and digestive issues both improved dramatically. Having tried a lower protein feed, a hind gut medicinal powder, and an anti-parasitic over the last few weeks, all to no significant avail, I also began giving her an herbal supplement I’d used to help her gut in the past. It had ceased having any helpful effect, but perhaps reintroducing that was an additional, physical boost to her gut health. However, I am certain that addressing her physical issues alone would not have been sufficient. Despite the harsh winter conditions, this horse began to heal and thrive again when her entire health was addressed: body, mind and spirit.

It is for the sake of improving overall well being, for humans and for horses, that I do equine guided work. There is an unmistakable “magic” about gaining insight from a horse. Even the fact that the horses show interest in us and our inquiries sends signals to the human heart that result in feelings of hope and joy. When I pull out a slip of paper inscribed with the words of someone’s heartfelt question, they are drawn in. The horses listen as I read the words, evaluating the energy of the inquiry I’ve brought to them. One or more of them then step up to help me explore possible ways to approach the challenge.

TajListeningToQuestion_F

I do my best to step into the shoes of the person inquiring, and to experience the horse’s responses as if the question were my own. Undoubtedly, there is some part of the question or the struggle that is familiar to me; the human experience is rich and varied, but the essence of our challenges and our quests for more joy in life tends to be woven with unbreakable, common threads.

My mare, Taj, who had been shut down and averse to doing almost anything but eating and cribbing for several weeks, opened up and wanted to engage again. Witnessing this shift in her re-introduced the magic of this work to me.

I call it “work,” for lack of a better term. I call it “magic” for lack of a better term. In fact, there’s not much about what I do with horses that can be described easily in words. I’ve often felt that people have to take a leap of faith and just try it to understand it for themselves. It is my hope that the online “Advice from the Field” forum will provide more people with an easily accessible window into the potential for self-discovery, possibility and change that horses can offer. In the process, horses like Taj who have struggled through multiple owners, trainers, competitive demands and injuries, both physical and emotional, find something they can enjoy in a life where enjoyment has seemed so hard to come by.

I’ve had people see how “easy” my horses’ lives seem, and make comments like: “How could they possibly have stress?” or “What on earth could they have to complain about?” It strikes the same chord in me when people assess other people’s lives as “easy,” and therefore make judgments about the difficulty or validity of their problems. None of us knows what kind of challenges or pain anyone else may be grappling with at any given moment. Many people, and horses, put on a brave face and a tough exterior, not wanting to appear vulnerable. Yet it is precisely the willingness to be vulnerable that opens up pathways for compassion, empathy, connection and trust.

TajRoundPen_MyFeet_F

In my current conversations with Taj, I am searching for ways to earn her trust in situations where she is particularly triggered and defensive, such as putting on a saddle or asking her to stop cribbing. It usually boils down to acceptance and patience. I need to show up, meet her wherever she is, and continue to gently make suggestions. There is not a lot of room for an agenda in this scenario. There is a need to make for room for outcomes different from what we originally envisioned – to let ourselves be surprised by what can be created in the space we open with our efforts.

There is also room for goals and for dreams. In my view, the goals I set are the specific changes I want to make or activities I want to be able to do together. The dreams are the heart-and-soul-felt visions and desires I have for our experiences and broad accomplishments together. In the most recent inquiry I took to the horses, Taj jumped at the opportunity to help. At its core, the question was about how to stay true to one’s dreams. Life throws at us a barrage of distractions, derailments and stumbling blocks. How do we stay the course, through it all?

As I stood with Taj in the round pen, my hand lightly near her heart, I realized that she embodies my dream of reaching thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of people and horses around the world, engaging them in a new way of seeing and being with horses… and a new way of seeing and being with each other. Horses are a gateway to the soul. The health of one’s spirit is an essential piece of the quest for feeling good. So how do we stay the course? First, we must be sure to identify our dreams, our true heartfelt longings and callings. Second, we must cultivate confidence in believing we can live those dreams – the confidence that we are strong enough, smart enough, good enough to live into what we long for and what we are called to do.

And then, we keep showing up for our lives, meeting each moment wherever we are, continuing to gently make suggestions.

Here is the video for the “How to be true to your dreams” session in Advice from the Field:

If you are interested in joining the “Advice from the Field” group online to try the virtual equine guided experience, please click the Visit Group button on this page: https://www.facebook.com/horsesforthesoul/

 

Conversations with Taj: Moods Swing

Listening to my horse these days frequently results in hearing, “I’m not in the mood.” Two of my three horses are actually quite consistent with their curious moods, and yet I find myself hell-bent on “figuring out” the one horse with the intense mood swings, much of the time swinging on the unhappy, shut down end of the spectrum. A sizable percentage of my closest relationships have been with people who are prone to mood swings. I have spent a significant portion of my life adapting to the predictably unpredictable moods that accompany addiction, borderline personality and bipolar disorder. So it was no enormous surprise when I found myself frustrated at the prospect of feeling beholden to the moods of a horse.

I went into this winter project with Taj a month ago, thinking that in two or three months, surely I would have some significant insights about what truly makes her happy and whether or not she could break free of her negative associations with saddling and mounting to actually enjoy riding. Even when I find some successes, some moments of enjoyment from Taj, there is no consistency, no telling whether she will dread something today that she seemed to enjoy yesterday. In the Freedom Based Training process, we must learn to work with the mood of the horse, whatever that may be, because learning and healing can’t happen when stress and tension are too high. Turns out that the first month was just enough time to show me that I needed to slow down, back up and rethink my process.

When I look out at this beautiful paint mare, still stunning in her older age at twenty-three, I see a proud and determined being. She is not one to hold back her feelings, and if someone doesn’t “hear” her first warning that she doesn’t like something, she will most definitely reiterate her feelings and opinions with a sense of urgency. On the one hand, she makes it easy to understand her signals. On the other hand, because she responds with disapproval and discomfort to so many things, she makes it hard to believe that she’s not over-reacting.

Is over-reacting a trait that even exists in the horse world? The “over” part of the equation seems to be in the eye of the human beholder. I have been accused of over-reacting in my life, and, I must admit, it makes me feel even more reactive. To be called a “Drama Queen” feels like one of the worst insults someone could hurl at me. Especially now, in my forties, after years of studying emotion, energy and reaction versus response… it feels like an undermining of all the “work on myself” I’ve done. I have a friend who tells me, when I get triggered by something, “You still have energy on it, Honey.” Even that throws me into a tailspin – I don’t want to have that energy or those feelings.

It does not work to simply reject feelings. Not one’s own nor anyone else’s.

One day this week, I found that Taj would not even let me stand on her left side. She was triggered by my approach on the left any time I moved forward of her hindquarters. She had been standing and cribbing on the water trough for most of the morning – a common occurrence now that the shreds of dead grass left in the pasture are frosted over for most hours of the day and night. If she can’t be eating, Taj is usually cribbing.

It rips at my heart the same way it did to see someone addicted to cocaine go back and get high and lose yet another job, or to see someone repeatedly drinking so much that he can no longer carry on a new or coherent conversation after 5:00pm. Cribbing is a somewhat elusive habit, in that humans can’t quite figure out if it is internal pain causing the activity, or if it is a “vice” the horse picked up in response to old stress and it now causes internal pain. A horse who cribs will place her front teeth over a hard surface, such as a fence board, stall door, or the edge of a water trough, and pull back, arching her neck and gulping air. Somewhere along the line, the horse figured out that in doing this, she releases a flood of endorphins which makes everything feel better for the moment. But then the horse wants to feel better every moment. In Taj’s case, she will now elect to crib almost any time she is not eating, sleeping or being engaged in an activity. I’ve seen her habit lessen when she is feeling good and when there is plentiful grazing available, but I have not seen it disappear completely.

The problem, other than the destruction of fence boards as well as the complete erosion of her front teeth, is that this gulping of air may be having an adverse effect on her gut. There is a higher incidence of colic and ulcers in horses who crib vs. those who don’t. Taj’s recent intestinal distress has made me wonder even more about how cribbing affects her gut. When I see Taj standing and cribbing while the other horses are snoozing, foraging or generally ambling about the pasture, I feel the pang of sorrow and longing that comes with seeing someone who appears to be stuck in a rut of her own pain. The next thing I feel is my habitual urge to want to make it better for her. Haven’t I learned this lesson enough times in my human relationships?

Any time I approach her while she’s cribbing, she will pin her ears and even throw a teeth gnash in my direction if she feels that I am going to try to make her stop. The effort I am making now is to let go of the emotional attachment I have to wishing she would stop, because I realized that underneath of it is a judgment. As surely as she can feel my hand on her chest, she can feel the energy of judgment, and she has a reaction to it. I might as well just be shouting, “You Drama Queen!” at her.

I’ve begun to actively meet her exactly where she is. If she’s cribbing on the water trough, I’ll pull on the side of the tub, trying to stretch my spine and create a sense of release or relief. I’ll reiterate my acceptance of her in that moment, regardless of her mood. And I’ll do away with the agenda I might have lurking in my mind; it may be an agenda with the best of intentions to make her feel better, but ultimately, she is not going to abandon her habits until she chooses from within for herself.

In this video clip, the powerful impact that intention plays in the gesture of an arm affirms for me that I need to hone my energetic clarity when asking her for anything. I want to better balance joining her in the things she chooses with asking her to join me in what I choose. And last but not least, here’s an opportunity for me to shift from a place of feeling beholden to her mood into a place of identifying with her mood until it shifts.

It might be a mistake to think that we are ever NOT beholden to the moods of others – unless we don’t mind bulldozing our way through conversations, invitations, negotiations and anything else involved in a relationship. When we choose how to interact with anyone at any time, we are also choosing whether to and how to account for the other’s mood or emotional state. If we can show others acceptance of whatever feelings are present for them, that is one step towards decreasing stress and tension, paving the way for a new possible mood to emerge.

 

Interested in reading more about Freedom Based Training and working with a horse’s moods? Elsa Sinclair discusses this topic in detail here: https://equineclarity.org/2017/12/26/surfing-the-emotional-waves/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations with Taj: Two Steps, Forward and Back

Two steps forward, one step back. Apparently, this saying originated from a story about a frog trying to climb out of a well, making his progress slow and torturous. The effort to bring more enjoyment into Taj’s life can feel a lot like trying to crawl out of a well.

For more than a week, she has been stricken with this unique and particularly unseemly form of intestinal distress. Without embellishing in graphic detail, the mess this gastric problem creates has been too awful for me not to wash her up every day. Any other time of year, this would not be an issue. This past week, we had freezing and sub-freezing temperatures here in Maryland, creating a less-than-pleasant bathing experience. I called a friend, lamenting that I didn’t think I could clean the mess in that weather, and that her tail had become a heavy, brown icicle. My friend consoled me, saying “We can only do the best we can do.” Little did she know that she was actually giving me motivation to see what the best I could do would be.

My hot and cold wash stall is a hose connected to a laundry sink, run up through the basement to a tree in the back yard. But when daytime highs were around 20 degrees with winds at about 20 miles per hour, I elected to go for a sponge bath and a hair dryer running from an outlet in the garage. Imagine the look on Taj’s face when I backed her up to the garage door and did a full blow out of her tail. Conditioner included. Accompanied by a bucket of hay.

What I am learning about Taj is that she can enjoy new things. That is, if they are interesting enough to her or involve food. If I can provide opportunities to do things that hold her interest, and give her a chance to eat, I am ahead of the curve. If she thinks I am going to take her away from her food, or away from her familiar comforts to do something mundane and uninteresting, I can pretty much forget about my plan. Read: no tacking up and practicing walk-trot-canter circles.

I continue to wonder: Can I make riding interesting for her – so interesting that she shifts out of having a mounting block trigger old pain, stress or fear? This question encompasses more than just riding. My goal is to help Taj enjoy life more in general. I figure I need to make it interesting for her. I am currently taking her on walks, much like one would take a dog on a walk. In fact, I have been walking Taj and my dog at the same time. At first, she pinned her ears and was downright disapproving of this unruly pup, but she seems to be warming up as long as he doesn’t get too close. Currently, when we are walking through a grassy field, her drive to eat is much stronger than her interest to “explore the possibly interesting” on a walk. When we are on a trail devoid of grass, however, she is a pleasant, contented walking companion.

This week, with the help of some flax seed meal, a lower protein feed and some hind gut ulcer supplements, her gastric distress has begun to subside. With that discomfort decreasing, her capacity to be open and interested in taking walks has increased. Taj has always been very reactive to physical discomfort. A former owner told me that she knew better than to try and ride her at all when she was in season – a “time of month” for her that predictably brings on severe cramps and irritability. I, too, learned this quickly about her. Taj’s aversion to the saddle has always increased dramatically when she is in season.

That said, her aversion to the prospect of riding seems to be present, sometimes to a large degree, even when there is no evidence of physical pain, leading me to believe that she assumes there will be discomfort or there is still “emotional baggage.” The challenge is to determine where her physical discomfort ends and her emotional discomfort, or fear of discomfort, begins… and then, how to work with it to make life better.

Taking this one step further, practicing Freedom Based Training with her has shown me that she demonstrates an aversion to almost any interruption and request to move, unless I spend a significant amount of time easing her into the prospect, gaining her trust and earning her curiosity, or unless I use dominance, which can be as simple as bringing out a halter and lead. If I enter her pasture with a halter, put it on her, and ask her to stop what she’s doing, back up, move her front end and move her hind end in both directions, her resistance might be barely discernible, nothing more than the absence of any enthusiasm or real connection. She is a horse who has been trained thoroughly, and she understands cues on the ground and in the saddle. And she has little to no intrinsic interest in doing any of what she’s been trained.

If I enter her pasture and just ask her to stop what she’s doing and take any backwards or lateral steps, she typically pins her ears and walks away, or begrudgingly moves with a foot stomp and disapproving tail swish. If I enter her pasture and use some finesse, moving around her, scanning the environment, scratching her neck or the top of her tail now and then, she starts to warm up to the idea of doing something together. She starts to feel that interacting with me could be an experience at least as pleasant as standing around foraging in the dead grass. This approach, one of building on natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation, is an underpinning of Freedom Based Training. Without tools, without any dominance or consequences for saying “no,” what a horse chooses to do with you when you ask directly corresponds to the amount of enjoyment they believe they will get out of it.

 

From a more traditional perspective, one might believe that this horse is just stubborn, ornery, or “misbehaving because she gets away with it.” Could I use dominance and force her to lunge and ride for the sake of at least keeping her physically fit? Yes, and I’ve tried that. What doesn’t change with that approach is her emotional fitness, and I am a firm believer that she and all the rest of us need both. I am using this freedom based work as a foundation for our relationship, as well as a way to expand her capacity for enjoyment. The more time she can spend enjoying different things, the less time she spends in any form of worry, fear, or stress. What I am learning is how to work with the moods, with the fear and with the stress. If I look at these things as information about what choices to make around and with the horse, I feel like they are helping me make progress towards enjoyment.

Whereas the frog in the well would make two steps forward and one step back, or in the worst of times, one step forward and two steps back, I am focusing on the two steps. In my elementary study of aikido, I learned a fundamental practice called “Two-Step.” Essentially, a person takes two steps forward and two steps back, arriving back at the start. The elegance of it is, each step is in a semi-circle, so the person is turning, seeing and feeling all around, and gaining from the rounded-out perspective.

In creating this short video of a walk with Taj, I realized how much more like a Two-Step this journey towards enjoyment with Taj actually is.

A Walk in the Woods with Taj  (click to see video)

 

Conversations with Taj: Should I Stop or Should I Go (For It)?

Ten days ago, I began a dedicated conversation with Taj about whether or not she could enjoy riding again. The sight of a saddle, the act of stepping up on a mounting block next to her – these things trigger a response in her that, at its most extreme appears to be fear and loathing, and at best, is an expression of discomfort.

For six years, I have tried various approaches to saddling and mounting, as well as varied and “fun” trail and other riding experiences in an effort to give her a new and acceptable, if not enjoyable, experience around riding. There are better days and worse days, and to date, I have not been able to consistently change her negative opinion about the prospect of a rider getting on. Once a rider is on, she does not communicate that she is in pain or distress; she seems to be perfectly fine, as long as I do not ask her to do flat work in an arena. She also balks at the transition from a trot to a canter, likely due to a lack of strength and balance in her hind end.

 

My approach now is to slowly, regularly be with her on the mounting block in the paddock, in the field, in the barnyard – sometimes getting on bareback, sometimes just standing in meditation there with her, sometimes while she is eating her mash, sometimes while grooming her. Taj tends to be focused on herself and her immediate desires – and she does not appreciate interruption. What she really dislikes, is the threat of being interrupted and forced to do something other than what she’s chosen to do. I can relate. I’m pretty sure my former husband can attest to that.

Part of my process is to learn how to change her focus away from herself in a way that promotes curiosity, so that she enjoys the transition to looking at something in the environment or to engaging with me. It reminds me of trying to “get myself out of a funk.” It is when I am self-focused and dwelling on anticipated pain or hardship that I am the least accessible, the least open to a new idea and the most miserable.

 

The better she is feeling overall, but especially physically, on any given day, the easier this effort is to change her focus to something new. For the past week, she has been stricken with a bout of intestinal distress, causing intermittent liquid discharge from her bowels. After an initial three days of willingness to engage, ease in mounting, and much reduced ear pinning, the last seven days have been riddled with displays of aggravation and aversion to me just carrying the mounting block over to her. I have chosen not to get on, sensing her physical discomfort.

 

I decided to add the practice of free lunging, as I’d seen her trotting and cantering in the field when I threw hay to the horses, so I figured her tummy trouble couldn’t be too bad. Taj has historically been averse to lunging on a line, and more open, at least on occasion, to free lunging with a flag. In order to build strength and endurance, I have found some success in free lunging with Taj in an arena. Some days, and I imagine these are days when she is feeling ill or sore, she is very difficult to start. Such was the case yesterday.

 

I was initially surprised at Taj’s refusal to stop grazing and move. Just the previous day, I had asked her to trot around the area and introduced a ground pole. She actually moved into a more extended trot and seemed interested in going over the ground pole. Knowing that she had once loved jumping, I wanted to give her the opportunity to try it out. My plan was to continue to build her fitness through free lunging, hiking together, and trail riding, if she proved willing, and I wanted to start with a tiny six-inch jump to see whether she was interested and inclined.  She seemed absolutely inclined, and moved over it twice with ease. I did not want to do too much too soon, so although she seemed eager to go around again, I brought the exercise to a close.

 

Yesterday, when I asked her to stop grazing and move around me in the arena, it took several minutes to get her to even walk forward. She refused repeatedly, would take a few steps forward when I insisted, and then stop and graze again. I forced the issue, by waving the flag vigorously in front of her nose to block the grazing, and then toward her hind end to propel her forward. When she broke into a trot, it was stiff, awkward, and short-stepped. She looked like she was sore and uncomfortable and as she rounded the turn toward the 6-inch jump, I lowered the flag and thought, “oh no, don’t jump that,” to which she responded by slowing to a walk, stepping over the rail, and then picking up her trot again afterwards.

 

This horse seemed to know what was okay for her to do. I wanted her to keep moving, to see if once she was warmed up, her trot would become easier and smoother. She went around again with very little insistence from me, and once again, walked over the rail, and began trotting again afterwards. The trot did improve as she loosened up, but not to the point where either of us felt it was safe to jump. She had used some muscles the previous day that she hadn’t used in quite a long time, and needed some time to let them adjust. It’s not much different at all from how sore a person feels after riding, even for a short time, after months or years of not riding.

 

Free lunging with Taj is a lot like riding with her, in that she may be really resistant to getting started, but once she gets going, she seems to be willing and at ease, except if something in particular is bothering her, physically or emotionally. If she feels her hind end is weak or sore, she will often refuse to transition to a canter. If she feels insecure about leaving the other horses’ sight, she will balk and often stop.

 

I believe that the more I listen to her and acknowledge that she has feelings about what we are doing, the more she will trust me and be willing to shift focus and, eventually, her assumed feelings and habitual reactions. The difficulty arises when I have to push her beyond her comfort zone in order to progress. Push too little, and nothing changes. Push too much, and she can react with hostility, making me feel like I might be eroding trust rather than building it. There also feels like a fine line between her taking a stand against something because she doesn’t want to be bothered or interrupted or because she is truly concerned or afraid of some form of pain. It is in this space that the conversation becomes more layered and requires more listening skill and more intuition.

 

Yesterday, when I stepped on the mounting block placed next to her bowl of mash, she pinned her ears and clarified she did not want to be bothered. Today, she was completely at ease with me stepping up on the mounting block placed next to her mash. She was so comfortable, in fact, that I went ahead and got on. Finding that she was still perfectly comfortable and slurping away at the mash, I lay down and breathed deeply for a few moments. Perhaps the intestinal distress is diminishing. Perhaps my timing and her mood were both better today. What I knew in those moments was, there was more in the column of indicators to keep going for it than in the column of signs to stop trying.