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 Health: https://horsesforthesoul.org/programs/soul-health/