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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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When Horses Have Choices

 

Amy arrived for her first riding session on a mostly cloudy December morning. The day before, I had mentioned the forecast showed it would be a beautiful day, and we both noted it was slightly cooler and cloudier than we had expected. I was feeling slightly unsettled. There were some reasons I could think of right away when she asked me what was unsettling, but even as I shared them, I felt there might be something else, something more difficult to pinpoint.

Since Amy had been coming for equine guided sessions for most of the year, she knew very well that a person’s inner state and emotions have a significant impact on the horse, and that acknowledging the truth about how you’re feeling is crucial to being in alignment and building trust. Today we planned to do a simple riding session, in part to give her a different experience from the one she had as a child in riding lessons. Her instructor was gruff and demanding, the experience was all about controlling the horse, making the horse do whatever she asked. One time, the instructor was yelling into the barn at her to hurry up, to just cinch up the girth on Bluebell quickly and get outside. When Amy did as she was told, hurriedly drawing up the girth around the horse’s body as tightly as possible, the horse spun and kicked her to the ground.

I’ve spoken to many people who have troubling memories of the riding lessons they had as children. They were usually taught only the mechanics of how to ride, and very little about understanding or caring for the horses. Most have a story like Amy’s, in which they were kicked, stepped on, or bucked off the horse, and that is the thing they remember most. I was lucky to have been taught about horses and riding by my cousin, Mary, and what I remember most is that she taught me to always thank the horse.

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So on this particular day, I wanted to build on everything Amy had been practicing in listening to and communicating with horses through the equine guided work, which included basic ground work, and carry it into tacking up and riding. In light of the fact that I was feeling unsettled, I thought it best that we start with hand walking the horses around the fields and through the woods, and letting them graze in the long grass while we spent some time just being with them while they enjoyed themselves. Winter pastures get eaten down and beaten down to a muddy pulp, and so grazing in the open fields is, quite literally, a field day for them.

We also used the walking and grazing time as a time to practice conscious breathing and staying in stride with our horses. These simple acts began to dissipate my uneasy feelings. I remained curious about what was nagging at me and why, but I felt much more present and centered. As we stood in the open green, we noted that the sun had begun to dominate the clouds, and was delightfully warming our faces.

I felt we were all ready to go down to the makeshift arena and tack up. In order to work on connecting and partnership with the horses, I have begun grooming and tacking them up while they are at liberty. This may take longer, but it gives them an opportunity to express their opinions, and it makes this aspect of getting ready more of a two-way conversation instead of the monologue of holding the horse still with a rope and insisting they accept the tack and our agenda.

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One key factor here is that Taj, the horse Amy was going to ride, has a deep-rooted dislike of the saddle being put on. It takes a great deal of patience and building of trust to tack her up with only the slightest pin of an ear. At its worst, putting the saddle on her results in foot stomping, kicking and gnashing of teeth. I’ve made sure to rule out physical pain as the reason for her behavior, and once a person is mounted and riding her respectfully, she is absolutely fine, sound and no longer worried.

To say the least, this experience of tacking up a horse was different from the one Amy had with Bluebell so many years ago. We broke everything down into small steps. We would groom one part of the body, then step away to simply be with the horse as she foraged around in the bits of remaining grass in the area. We put the saddle pad on and then just rubbed her neck a while where she enjoys a good scratch. When the saddle finally went on, there was very little reactivity, and we tightened the girth slowly, one hole at a time, with breaks to relax together in between.

By now, the sun was beaming, and we were ready to put the tack on Daisy. I began with the saddle pad, just as with Taj. As I turned to go back for the saddle, Taj, now in the center of the arena, began buckling her knees, lowering herself to the ground to roll. I leapt toward her, and sprung the girth, pulling the saddle away from her just as she rolled onto her back. Amy was laughing heartily by now. Well, Taj wanted to change the conversation and the schedule, so she did. Just as Taj got up, Daisy dropped to the ground behind us. She only had the saddle pad on, which she promptly rolled onto in the mud. Then, she let out a hefty sigh and settled in for a sleep.

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We went back over to Taj, and began again, small step by small step. This time, Amy was doing more herself, watching and waiting for Taj to show her she was ready for whatever was next. She did give us a harder time about the saddle going on the second time, so we went even more slowly with the girth. It gave me pause to see her reacting more vehemently, but I reminded myself that she was, in fact, free to walk away from us and the saddle at any time.

We backed away, still being with her and feeling connected to her, but giving her some time to settle with the saddle on again. Her head was low, her eyes and ears relaxed… she was really quite relaxed all over. In fact, she was suddenly so relaxed that I felt she was drifting off to sleep as well. Glancing over at Daisy, sprawled out in REM sleep across the arena, I then went back to Taj and took the tack off, draping it back over the fence.

 

We all spent at least twenty minutes just relaxing, soaking in the sun, and feeling completely settled together. I realized that I’d been carrying in my mind the idea of giving “a riding lesson,” and that was actually unsettling, because I don’t know if and when it’s going to be appropriate for someone to get on. I used that time to reflect on what really matters to me about the work I do with horses: practicing right alongside clients how to engage with respect and gratitude, to give and take, to lead and follow. I thanked the horses profusely for that day and every day we have together. We never did ride that day. Amy remarked, “That was just the perfect amount for me to do for the first time.” And I realized that Taj probably knew that all along.

 

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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