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Embodied Dominance

The older mare is tense as I approach her in the pasture to practice some basic groundwork at liberty. She is grazing, and I notice as I get closer that she is ripping the grass up in fierce bites, while eyeing me with wariness. I pause, still several feet from her. When I take another step I see her ears flatten against her head for a quick and severe warning. “Don’t you dare bother me right now,” she seems to be saying, as she carries on furiously grazing. To a casual observer, it might seem that she is ignoring me, but after six years together, I can feel the signals she is sending me loud and clear. Even before the more overt signal of ear-pinning, I can feel the dominant power she is embodying so clearly that I start to feel my own body want to go into flight mode. My challenge is to find a way to engage in this moment, so that she trusts me and opens up instead of shutting down or threatening to lash out.

In the horse world, as in the human world, there are horses who embody dominance, and there are horses who just utilize dominant actions as a way of trying to make themselves feel better. Dominance is usually perceived as a strength in a group of horses, since they can push other horses around, or eat whichever pile of hay they want when they want it. However, these horses are often craving safety and would love a break from being hyper-vigilant and trying to be “in charge of everything.” I have a feeling it is the same way for people who are hardwired to be dominant.

When people are embodying dominance, if it is healthily integrated, it can be a trait that is cultivated into their overall confidence, and they are able to actively and productively engage and negotiate with others. However, there are times when people are embodying dominance in a habitual and defensive a way, just as my horse does. The characteristics I observe in people who embody dominance are: a rigidity in the body – their posture seems tense, often the tension comes through the eyes which are very “hard,” and/or the jaw is firmly set. They have a way of emitting an energy that makes them feel unapproachable, very much like my mare Taj can be. They will often take actions that make themselves physically unapproachable – they will walk away, not answer their phone/email/text, cut others off from contact for long periods of time. Another thing I have observed is, if forced into a conversation confronting something, they tend to say the opposite of what they are emitting that they feel. Common statements might be “It doesn’t matter,” or “I’m the victim.” If pushed further, they may very well become explosive in their words and interaction.


When I have encountered a person habitually embodying dominance in a position of significant influence over me (teacher, landlord, employer, senior family member) I often become triggered by the perceived threat of ostracism, eviction, termination or more generally, disconnection / abandonment. In response to embodied dominance, when I am not able to assert or express myself, I have experienced various forms of somatic illness, lack of sleep, dissociation when a confrontation does “blow up” and become hostile, and the overwhelming longer term suffering of anxiety from the lack of clarity or closure that this person will allow, even as I try to work through the “issues.”


Right after wishing I could run away or dive into the core of the earth, my conditioned tendency is to react to the embodied dominance by freezing / appeasing. I joke, deflect, and avoid confrontation by trying to smooth everything over in the moment. Then, however, if I seek dialogue or discussion with them later, they are the ones who avoid me. In these instances, I have not been able to build trust.


If I fall into this habit of placation with Taj, she simply continues the dominant behaviors, sometimes escalating them, and by no means exhibiting trust in me nor my authority. If I follow the often historically recommended path of becoming more dominant, exerting my will upon her through the threat of force with tools and tack, she submits temporarily, but does not appear to be relieved of her stress, and reverts to the same behavior the next time. What I am learning and practicing now is the art of passive leadership with horses in order to build trust and depth of relationship. This is the art of knowing where to be, when to be there, how to be when you’re there in order to hold one’s own decisive presence and authority. Slowly, choosing new responses to my defensive, dominant mare is creating more and more space in which she can relax.

What does it mean to be a passive leader around other people? Certainly there is an element of “leading by example,” and that means we must be very aware of what it is we are embodying ourselves and how it impacts others and affects the relationship. There is also an essential element which I believe is the compassionate desire to relate to others, and to alleviate discomfort for all involved. As I look back on my life, it seems there has always been at least one person, in a role that is significant in my daily life, who impacts me in this extremely stressful way. I can trace it all the way back to my great-grandmother, a true matriarch who ruled with a white but iron glove. If I did anything to evoke her disapproval, she needed only to give me a look, and I would feel desperately ashamed.


But beyond her opinion of right and wrong and what length my hair should have been, was a world full of possibilities for where to be, when to be there, and how to be while I was there that would lead me to become the being who I truly wanted to be… the being who can embody confidence and commitment, compassion and enthusiasm. We don’t embody only one thing, and neither does my mare.

I walk towards her in the pasture to determine what would be the best activity for both of us this afternoon. She is grazing, and she is taking measured mouthfuls of the short, spring grass. I pause, a few feet from her, and I see her eye on me, watching with a sentiment between wariness and wonder. I take a few steps closer and she lifts her nose toward me, ears forward. I move in closer, scratching the underside of her head. She rests her head on my shoulder and exhales as I scan the woods behind her for what other creatures are out enjoying today.


When Fear Becomes Fascinating

Monday morning was calm and sunny and as beautiful as a winter morning gets. I was walking two of my horses from the field to the barn, one on either side of me, as I had done hundreds of times. Suddenly, Zorro, on my left, was gripped by surprise and panic, which rippled through his body and mine and Daisy’s, the lead ropes acting as power lines, conducting this energy through the three of us in an instant. Within a fraction of a second, all three of us had lost our footing and were on the ground. Daisy regained her ground first, and my brain had not even processed the danger before my own body found its way safely distanced from Zorro’s thrashing hooves and I was upright once again. Struggling with the slippery earth and with the fear flooding his body, Zorro finally hoisted himself up and regained balance – at least physically.

Emotionally, he was still charged with fear and I could feel my mind racing to solve the mystery of its origin. I scanned the area for any sign of something new or someone approaching. I could not detect a cause and, as any reasonable person might do, I chalked it up to a ghost.

As we continued into the barn, with distinctly deeper conscious breathing on my part, Daisy was on high alert, and Zorro was through the roof with worry – the routine of entering the stall and eating his grain mash became a challenge of epic proportion. He actually burst back out of his stall and out the barn door as soon as I unsnapped the lead rope. When he returned from his apparent and fruitless search for the ghost outside, he still carried with him tremendous anxiety, puffing through his nose, cowering at the back of the stall, and finally eating his mash but not finishing it.

He was able to relax at least somewhat that day, eating and drinking as usual later on, but his body carried signs of muscle tension and his reactivity was heightened to every small request or change in the environment. As the days progressed, he let go of that elevated tension and anxiety, but after six days, he is still looking warily around him and tensing up every time we pass the site of the incident. Daisy, on the other hand, never had another worried moment after about twenty minutes, licking her bowl clean, and being returned calmly to a pasture. I find myself still working to more fully relax my entire body upon approaching that location with Zorro, to breathe more deeply, and to provide the comfort and support he desperately wants.

Zorro has been taking me through the paces of what happens to me in my own life when something or someone frightens, worries or triggers me in some way. I find myself wishing I had someone to lead me through my fears, to help me settle myself when something or someone triggers me and I know am letting anxiety get the better of me but I can’t seem to stop it. As much as I will always crave someone to be there to do this for me, I know that when it comes right down to it, I need to get better at doing it for myself.


For whatever reason, there is an instinctive desire in me, and I believe in most people, to help a horse settle and get comfortable when something has unraveled him. The beauty of this is, every time I help a horse through a fearful moment or experience, I am practicing that skill in myself and for myself.

Does this mean I no longer have fear? No. Do I think there will come a day when I no longer have anything trigger my anxiety? No. But can I look at my ability to cope with fear, anxiety, stress and discomfort and recognize that I’ve come a long way since I started working on it with horses? Yes. Absolutely.


The first marked difference in me is that now I am fascinated by fear as opposed to just being “afraid of fear itself.” I focus on observing what a fear reaction does to my own body: how quickly my heart starts racing, my breathing gets shallow, my gut feels queasy. How amazing that a person’s words, spoken or written, can transform my calm and healthily functioning body into an alarmed and not-so-functional basket case! Is this that far off from an apparent ghost unhinging a horse?

A critical step to working through fear has been to be able to step outside of myself and observe the process of how fear takes hold and what happens to me. Observing its behavior, where it is manifesting in the body, and experimenting with what actions make fear subside are very much akin to working with horses. It is a process that takes patience and persistence. If I can get past the initial grip which seems to shut down all creative ability, I can work with myself just like I would with a frightened or worried horse.


This evening, for the first time, Zorro asked to be led out to the big field first, all by himself. He shied away ever-so-slightly from some new ice blocks on the ground, recently removed from frozen water buckets, but he didn’t flinch in the trigger zone. What we can do for horses, we can do for ourselves, of that I am convinced.

Getting Productive With Horses

It’s a Sunday. It’s a Sunday after a long holiday weekend and I am predictably launching myself into a day of what is intended to be productive enough to atone for all that I did not accomplish over the course of the last three days. I’ve spent the early morning hours replying to Friday’s business emails, scrubbing the toilet, reorganizing a drawer, addressing invitations and ultimately growing older rapidly while on hold with an internet service company. Now it’s time to get productive with the horses.


After tidying the tack room, filling water buckets and feeding the barn cat, I bring the horses into the barn for their grain and supplements. They don’t seem particularly remarkable in mood, not straying from their typical behavior in any way. The two mares get a bit pushy on the way through the barn door and wind up changing the typical order of things, but then they all eat and drink merrily as usual. I set about grooming and practicing the fine art of tick removal, about which the horses are quite pleased, since that is accompanied by a thorough, customized neck scratching, unparalleled by anything they can find to rub up against in the barn or field.


Nearly methodically, I gather all three horses from their stalls and walk them around to the flat, sunny pasture behind the barn. I find myself forcing my mind to stay present with them, and not allow it to wander back to how frustrated I am with the internet service company who failed to send me a sim card last week, and who clearly has not hired enough customer service representatives to answer the phones.


The horses safely in the pasture, happily greeting the goats in the neighboring paddock, I pause only to warm my face in the sun while reviewing my mental checklist of chores. I glance at the time and it’s nearing 1:00 pm, but I imagine I can still make it to town to return an ill-fitting horse blanket and purchase a sorely-needed drill so I can check yet more tasks off of the list. First I grab the pitchfork and muck bucket to squeeze in a quick clean up in the area near the gate where manure accumulates with ever-amazing alacrity.


No sooner do I step inside the gate, mucking tools in hand, than my younger mare, Daisy, steps toward me and promptly lies down at my feet, literally blocking my way. It has been nearly twelve weeks since we left Petaluma, California and journeyed east together to make our home in Maryland. It was common practice for the horses and me to lie down together in our arena out west, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to lie down with a horse here.



Or was it? What had I been overlooking? For Daisy to make such a definitive and emphatic invitation, I realized that perhaps she recognized the need for an intervention. The muck bucket and pitchfork are immediately cast aside and I get down and lay with her in the midday sun of late autumn. Zorro is standing watch over the two of us while Taj stands watch over the goats, one of whom is also lying down.


I let my breath begin to synchronize with Daisy’s. She is breathing heavily, deeply, slowly. I start to feel the earth and the tufts of soft, dying grass beneath me. A vulture floats by overhead, teetering ever so slightly side to side. What have I been overlooking? Exactly this opportunity.


With the transcontinental trip, the search for a home together, the adjustments we are all making to this climate and community, I had neglected my work and my practice with the horses as I fell into the rut of organizing my time by checklists, of working on my business through planning and restructuring, by prioritizing everything from light bulbs to life insurance in order to try to get settled. Here, now, is my smart and sensitive horse, reminding me of the fundamental premise in my own life’s work: to stay present to what is here, now, and find spirit and well-being in connection to it.


Taj soon decides to join us on the welcoming ground, both goats napping in the adjacent paddock now, and Zorro alternating between casually patrolling the perimeter and standing guard, half dozing. The simplicity of animals at peace with each other and their surroundings washes over me like a salve for the endless busyness that creeps into life in the guise of “things that need to be done.”


I’ll get to those. Eventually.

For now, now is much more necessary.






Confidantes and Confidence: Horses and Girls

There is a precious moment that exists when a girl feels a horse with her, really with her, with that horse’s magnificent trust and curiosity flooding her body. It may last a few seconds or it may last a whole morning practicing together, but it is the magic of that connection that nurtures not only a love of horses, but a love of ourselves.


What is it that fuels the powerful effect that horses have had on the lives and characters of so many girls throughout the ages? Is it that horses are kind-hearted and willing to trust, thereby becoming a dependable ally in a tumultuous life? Or is it that horses are strong-willed, powerful and free-spirited, thereby presenting a challenge for us to learn and grow from as we make our way in the world?


Part of the magic and marvel of learning from horses is realizing that both are true: horses are naturally curious and open, cautious but willing to trust and wanting to connect, and they are natural leaders of themselves, consistently doing whatever they need to find comfort and safety, which can sometimes be at odds with what we humans want or expect.


Where we really begin to learn is in the effort to change our own behavior in order to gain more time in connection with horses. That heart-swelling feeling that arises when we walk, run, or even rest truly together is well within our grasp when we, too are open and curious. The mistake we humans make sometimes is to react to the powerful, free-spirited nature of the horse by becoming frustrated and trying to force or dominate it.


Force and domination may appear to garner results, but what is missing, with a horse or with other human beings, is true connection. We crave that closeness, that intimacy, that sense of being valued that comes with connection. Horses are the ultimate confidantes, allowing us to reveal all our thoughts and feelings without judgment. We are never “not enough” in their view.


In order to continue to experience the serenity and the exhilaration of such connection, we learn to practice being patient. We learn to listen more. We learn to be creative in our responses. We learn the skills we need to relate to and connect with anyone and everyone in this world. We learn the feeling of confidence. Horses are much better able to forgive our missteps and to be the “bigger person.”


Inside so many women still lives a girl who wonders whether she is good enough, strong enough, smart enough, brave enough to keep moving forward towards what she wants in life. It is in those moments, with the heart and mind of a horse trained on her, that she is living the courage, the strength and the excellence that is uniquely her own.

Pallet Palace


Fate would have it that, while I was living in Italy this year, the horses decided to dismantle the t-posts and hotwire round pen I had constructed in their field. It did cross my mind that this demonstration was a kind of political statement, coming from them. It wasn’t too difficult a feat since I never hooked up a battery to the hotwire, rendering it something akin to a lot of yarn and three bored cats. When I returned, I found a ring of mostly cockeyed t-posts barely visible amidst the field of horseweed that had grown up around them – cockeyed because the dismantling process apparently included removing everything, but lacking hands, the horses succeeded in only bending the metal posts in various directions.

I immediately set about the daunting task of pulling all the weeds in a 40-foot diameter circle and pondering how to best reconstruct the round pen without actually purchasing anything. My attention kept being drawn back to the four stacks of discarded wooden pallets just outside the fence line. I imagined that wooden pallets might make an aesthetically pleasing structure, and if I placed them over t-posts, they might be fairly durable. What I did not imagine was exactly how heavy pallets actually are to carry.


My stamina allowed me to put up one per day of the required eight to create the basic octagonal frame. Early on, I came up with a novel idea, only partially inspired by the weight of the pallets and the exhausting task of pounding t-posts: why not leave the round pen open between pallets, creating the idea of the round pen without making it something the horse was forced to stay inside? In this way, I could experiment with inviting the horses to be in the round pen with me, to keep their interest enough to stay and even to free lunge. Practicing one’s connection and energetic commitment would be taken to another level when the horse could opt out.

Today, my friend, Mike, volunteered to help me put up the final two pallets. I was ecstatic to behold the completed Stonehenge-like pallet structure. When Mike first heard my description of the structure, he suggested I call it “Woodhenge.” When he saw how excited I was to stand in the completed circle of cast-off pallets and bent old t-posts, he dubbed it “Pallet Palace.”


After Mike left, I walked out toward Pallet Palace to admire it, and to see if the horses would even take interest. Standing in the center, feeling the sun on my right cheek and the December breeze on my left, I realized I must be facing somewhat North. Within three minutes, all three horses had entered the circle, one on each side of me close to the perimeter, and Taj standing just in front of me. I dropped to the ground to sit and enjoy the moment. Taj dropped to the ground almost immediately, facing me and letting out a deep sigh. She drifted off into a dream, conjuring for me feelings of peace, comfort and safety. The four of us stayed in those same spots together inside that circle for at least twenty minutes. Ravens called to us with their confident voices. Vultures soared overhead, circling in an upward spiral until they were two black specks in the white sun. By this time I was lying on my back, soaking in the feeling of being sure.


Embodying YES and NO, a Practice to Start Young

It is my belief that basic horsemanship skills are inextricably linked to taking responsibility for what we do and how we show up in every moment with every horse. Basic “humanship” depends on that same self-awareness and self-responsibility. Learning to successfully communicate with a horse translates into the experiential learning of life skills. Social skills, authenticity, clarity, confidence… students can’t learn these things from books, but they can learn them from horses.


One particularly shy young girl of about 11 or 12 was struggling with how to ask the horse with clarity and authority to move forward and to stop. Because she had come to us in Montebelli stables for riding sessions, we had done our best to help her use her body and her breath to relax and center herself, and to understand how to give direction to the horse with her energy, not with her muscle…

After two sessions, it was apparent that the 500-kilo former racehorse was still calling the shots most of the time while she was riding. For the third session, we decided to do something different. Her mother obliged, as we explained that sometimes a totally different interaction with a horse can help people have breakthroughs in their riding. (It can also help them have breakthroughs in all kinds of areas of their lives.) One interesting fact to note: The girl spoke no Italian and very little English, so her mother had been translating at the stables the whole time. In today’s session, I explained that we wouldn’t need translation, as it was going to be all about body language.

The basic idea was to walk into a paddock with three horses at liberty, and to make ourselves open and inviting enough for them to come to us. At first, she was unsure of the instructions, of herself, of pretty much the whole activity. We spent some very long minutes trying to relax into the unknowingness and the uncertainty she was feeling. When she finally stopped looking back at me to see if she was doing everything right, she began to focus on the horses in the middle of the paddock. Her strides began to take on more weight and conviction. I could see her chest rise and fall with deep breaths, and her arms were slightly raised away from her hips, palms forward.

The horses one by one took notice, at first just pausing between bites of hay. Then they raised their heads. Two horses turned their heads toward her. She stopped and stood, continuing to look to them, holding herself as if she was welcoming them to come to her for a hug. I stood a short distance behind her, allowing her energy to be the focal point as much as possible. In only a few seconds, two horses started walking towards her. The joy on her face was beaming. As they arrived, she began stroking their heads and necks, and they eagerly moved in even closer for more attention. She started to giggle a bit as one horse nudged her torso with his head. In that moment, however, she was taken off balance. Though there was no immediate danger, I reminded her about the practice of staying balanced and centered. She got her feet back evenly and squarely beneath her shoulders, and faced into the horses again.

She continued to say,”Yes, come in!” The horses kept pushing on her. Though she was not distressed, she was concerned, realizing how easily she might be overpowered, and it was time for the lesson to shift. Without any words, I showed her how to make her body like a mountain, and to send her energy from her center, supported by her arms coming up and forward to say “No more!” and the horses immediately backed off. As I backed away, the horses began to turn towards her, and when one horse’s head started to come close in to her body, she practiced one of the strongest “No!” stances I’ve seen. In fact, she continued to back them further away, and they seemed visibly surprised at this radical change. We practiced being inviting, accepting and then setting limits.

We thanked all the horses for their work, and as we walked back toward her mother, I could see that witnessing this experience had brought up some emotion in her. I, too, felt the emotion stirring around the tremendous importance of young girls safely, quickly and obviously learning to embody their boundaries, and learning the power of their own bodies’ energy.

Sylvia Update: No Coincidences

Nearly one year ago, our little mare, Sylvia, survived a severe colic episode, stunning us with her determination and strong spirit. The care and support of colleagues and clients present at Montebelli for one of the Coming Back to Center workshops played a significant role in helping her bear the extreme intestinal pain and to not give up. For more than 24 hours, her life was at stake, and behind every push to keep her on her feet and moving, every massaging hand on her swollen belly, and every tender, connected caress was a powerful energetic commitment to her well being. We work with and teach about the power of energy every day here at Montebelli, and often we focus on the growth, the education and the healing that the energy of the horses brings people. In this case, it was the healing energy of people that helped save Sylvia.

One of the clients present that special day returned this week to Montebelli with her two young daughters. The horse who connected most with the family was Sylvia. She showed each member of the family something significant about their own energy and style, whether at liberty in the arena, moving in the round pen, or riding. She formed a special bond with the elder daughter, who was able to dramatically increase her leadership presence and embody confidence in just three days. It was evident that this seven year old girl from Istanbul possessed the same spirit of determination and fortitude as the eight year old mare from Italy. As we always say, there is no such thing as coincidence.


A Horse for the Soul

You bite, you kick, you lay your ears back and roll your eyes in a way that I could only dream of doing in order to brandish profound disdain. Some might say you never learned manners. I say you know how to express yourself. It is my duty to learn how to communicate with you, to engage with you in a partnership that satisfies us both.

Is this interaction with a horse so different from a relationship with a human being? We are caustic, recalcitrant and we can gesture disapproval graver than any stated phrase with barely the turn of a head and a look in the eye.


We love, we long to love, we think we might love, and we lie down sobbing when we think we might never love again. Horses, by contrast, only know love when it is in the air: in the present moment, admitted or concealed. They also know and feel fear, grief, anger and any other emotion that present moment may hold. Being around a horse shines new light on soulful living.

My earliest definition of what a soul is developed at a very young age… probably five or six years old. It was a fluffy, cloud-like gray thing that was loosely rolled up inside the body of every living thing, and it gave that thing its aliveness. It also had a component of character. I believed there was something about each soul that was the reason for no two people or animals being exactly alike.

There was no doubt in my mind that horses had souls. On the farm where I grew up, the horses were distinct in personality and inclination; they played and fought and took care of one another just like people. In fact, it seemed to me, better than people. Around horses, I never wondered whether or not they liked me or whether I was good enough. Due to the farm’s distance from any neighbors who might have been playmates, I spent more time in the fields with the horses after school and on weekends then I did with other children. I was convinced for several years that I had simply been born into the wrong body; I believed I was a horse, and that underneath my 50 pound, two-legged frame and their 1,000-pound, four-legged frames, was exactly the same fluffy, gray, magical, life-giving soul.

By far, the most pleasantly outstanding aspect of my childhood was growing up with horses. They were my friends, my family, and my inspiration. I wandered freely among them in the fields, munching clover and licking salt blocks, feeling at peace and as one with any group or community as I had ever felt. That first moment when they would lift their heads from busily grazing to acknowledge my arrival might as well have been a moment when crowds cheered for the Queen as she made a public appearance.

Horses warded off loneliness, lack and feeling “less than.” They were good company and even better teachers. The first time I witnessed a foal emerge from a mare, I was completely in awe of the wet, pale grayish, shuddering blob that appeared, and within minutes became a perfect little newborn horse. That was magic. The patience, attention and care that mother demonstrated from those first moments of life defined for me a way of being that I had not been shown anywhere else.

When my family moved to the city, I was eleven years old and completely devastated. I locked myself in my room and did nothing but draw horses for days. That move was my first experience with the agony of loss and the pain of transition. I vowed then that somehow I would be reunited with the horses and I would never forget what they meant to me.

As one does in life in order to survive, I adapted. Although I was able to visit and ride my cousin’s horses for several years, I developed close friendships with classmates, discovered boyfriends, and eventually learned to see the tenderness and devotion my own mother had for my brother and me. Yet every time I so much as saw a photo of a horse, a current of emotion and a yearning surged through me.

The path my life took during the years away from horses led me through music, art, photography, political activism, and eventually to a steady corporate sector job in Human Relations. As I look back, I am grateful that I was willing and able to search for that which I found truly inspiring and meaningful in life. Somewhere along the line, I turned to seeking safety and stability in physical and mental terms only. I convinced myself that marriage, a house with a yard and a spare bedroom, and a climb up the corporate ladder would equate to a fulfilling and joyous life.

Instead of achieving the American trumped up version of nirvana, my life began to feel incontrovertibly awful.

When I had just about lost touch with my soul’s desire entirely, I began having visions of horses. Daydreams and night dreams filled my psyche with the four-legged friends who had been my first community as a child. I would drag my listless body to my office each morning, forcing myself to perform the duties of my job at an advertising company in a large city. There was still a part of me that was escaping into the old back field with the babbling brook, where I would eat clover and paw at the cold water with the horses. I began to think incessantly about a life in which I worked with horses to connect people to whatever it is in the world that makes life worth living.

I had no idea what that life would look like. I knew what horses had done for me to connect me to a sense of comfort and belonging many years ago, and that I was sure there would be a way, with the guidance and generosity of the horses, to bring relationship to the disconnected and to introduce possibility to the demoralized.

Though I was not conscious of it at the time, the horses were saving me once again. I was completely disconnected and nearly hopeless. The horses salvaged my link to my own soul. There is no enduring safety and stability in a one or two-dimensional life where the deep longing of the soul, the calling to embody one’s core values and beliefs, is ignored.

… To read the rest of this story, please visit p. 34 of  March/April 2015 TRUE COWBOY MAGAZINE online.


Sylvia: Strength and Vulnerability


Sylvia lay in the dirt in the grips of agonizing pain, her swollen sides heaving with each breath, slowly giving up on her fight to live. An eight-year-old thoroughbred mare, and a former racehorse, she was retired to live and work in the horse experience program at Montebelli. This particular afternoon, just two hours before a group of clients was due to arrive for a session with the horses, Sylvia was colicking. Her intestines were either twisted or so impacted that the blockage was creating unfathomable stomach pain, and in severe cases like hers, 8 out of 10 instances result in death.

The only chance Sylvia had for survival was if we could keep her body moving enough to cause movement through her intestines and to reduce her pain. As cruel as it may have appeared, my partner and I had to force her to continue moving – walking, trotting, cantering – no matter how much she wanted to stop, while intermittently administering pain medication, until she could stop and stand without lying down and giving up. We were used to seeing this horse full of life and energy; she was always one to play games in the paddock, teasing and frolicking with both humans and horses alike. Suddenly she was unrecognizably ill, her spirit largely sapped away by the pain.

For two hours, the three of us ran; my partner, Tommaso, and I each covering one end of a paddock, and as she would slow down, we would chase her and move her on. The other horses ran with her, somehow lending their solidarity and support. All of us were sweating and exhausted, but not enough manure had passed out of her to keep her from continued colic.

When the group of clients from the Coming Back to Center somatic workshop arrived, we had no choice but to abandon the original plan for the afternoon’s exercises with horses. We could not leave this horse. We explained the circumstances and invited the group to observe. While Tommaso continued the constant pressure to keep the mare moving, I talked to the group about the dual nature of horses: at once they are powerful, majestic and creatures embodying strength, and they are creatures for whom a seemingly minor illness or injury can quickly become life threatening. This duality of strength and fragility is a paradox we all live with. All of our gifts and strengths can become challenges and weaknesses when we don’t embrace the 360 degree view of them, honoring the strength and accepting the vulnerability.

Periodically, Tommaso would let up on the pressure, and we would all watch intently as Sylvia would come to a halt, and then lie down. When she lay down and showed clear signs of continued stomach pain and distress, rubbing against the earth or splaying out her neck and head on the ground in resignation, we would have to immediately get her up again, and get her moving. This was excruciating to watch; witnessing her torment and her inability to keep fighting on her own touched the chords in us humans that echoed the pain of grief and the fear of death in our own lives.

As Sylvia would pass by the fence line where the group was standing, many people reached out with their arms to her, and all of them began to reach out with their hearts. There was a clear desire to give support, to assist in some way, to give this horse the additional will she needed to survive. We invited the group to enter the paddock. Nineteen people poured in through the gate, some of them running from where they stood as soon as I opened it. When they were all inside, they stood in a large huddle near the edge of the paddock. Tommaso released the pressure on her from the opposite end of the paddock, and she slowed to a walk. She walked directly toward the large group. She then walked in amongst the group, to the very center – amidst throngs of hands and arms stroking her body, amidst many words of encouragement to her, and amidst many tears springing from familiar, shared pain and struggle.

For the first time that afternoon, Sylvia did not try to lie down. She stood still, soaking in the love, the compassion and the care. People began to speak up and share their personal stories of loss, of illness, of grief, of fear and conflict in the face of the paradox of both fighting to live and accepting death. Horses often bring out the emotions and issues we may be ignoring or avoiding to some extent. Their willingness to connect with us, to respond to us without judgment is a gift that can free us to see parts of ourselves and our lives in a new way.

As the workshop session came to a close, Sylvia’s struggle was far from over. There was still at least an hour more of forced movement, more injections of medication, and then a long night in a stall being monitored. Some participants came to the stables late at night to be with her and to massage her belly. One of Montebelli’s owners spent hours with her in the dark. Tommaso would not leave her until he saw her lie down and get back up again on her own.

By morning we felt like she had a decent chance to make it. The vet came that day, and removed the last of the blockage, which was, fortunately, close enough to the end of the intestine to remove manually. Sylvia was exhausted and her body was flooded with toxins from the impaction, the odor of which was noticeable on her skin. The day after that, Sylvia could barely walk. The soreness from all the exertion was then compounded by abscesses that formed in her front feet. For two more weeks, she hobbled in pain in and out of her stall as we cleaned, disinfected and bandaged her hooves.

Gradually, she began to walk with sure steps again. We had been answering emailed inquiries of concern from the workshop participants throughout her entire recovery. We remained positive, we held out the belief that she would fully recover, but it wasn’t until the morning I released her into the largest paddock and watched her lead four other horses in a full gallop around the perimeter that I could let myself cry for joy.

It is not always possible to save or even help other beings, and those other beings must want to save or help themselves. Sylvia’s desire to save herself had dwindled to being tenuous at best, and what we witnessed in her turnaround and recovery is a testament to the power of conscious energy being given in abundance, as well as readily received by one in need.


More Than the Mind

It was late afternoon, the sun cast a deep yellow film across the dry hillside. Something compelled me to go check on the horses. I spotted Lottie, the small pinto mare, and right away saw something was wrong. As I approached her, I grew increasingly alarmed, as I noticed large lumps covering her entire body. I ran my hands across her coat and realized the welts were bloody and raw. Fear and panic began to course through my body. I had never seen anything like this. It looked dreadfully painful. She was standing listlessly, her head bowed toward the ground. I could not tell if the bloody lumps were a result of wounds inflicted externally or lesions that had developed from the inside. The extent of her malady was so massive that it was overwhelming. Here was an animal in my care who had somehow developed an extreme, likely lethal, condition and I had no idea when or how it had happened, or what I could do to help her or make it better. I loved this horse. I began to feel dizzy with the alarm and the gravity of the situation.

I do not recall thinking or considering my options. I led the horse to a nearby garbage bin and I placed her gently inside of it and closed the lid.

Some amount of time passed, I do not know what I did to fill that time, but I know that I was not forgetting about Lottie. The pressure of the anxiety over her situation was crushing me. I realized that all I wanted to do was to save her. I thought to myself, “what a stupid way to have dealt with her problem! She is not going to heal in that garbage bin.”

I raced to the bin and opened the lid. She was still alive. She seemed more listless than before, slow to respond, but thankfully, still alive. I eased her out of the bin and stood her up in what was now the cool air of the evening. I began to reconsider my options. What could I do to make her better?


Then I woke up from the dream. My impulse was to run outside and check on Lottie. I recognized that it was only a dream, but I needed to satisfy some part of myself that wanted to be absolutely sure this situation was not real. In the early morning stillness, there Lottie stood with the rest of the herd, halfheartedly swishing her tail at the flies, and raising her head along with the others at the sight of me, anxious for hay.

I did feel a wave of relief in that moment. It wasn’t real. But underneath of that momentary relief was a brewing surge of anxiety. Something about the dream was real. What was it? What did it mean? What did I need to be aware of or look out for?



How do I deal with issues and challenges that are enormous, complicated, and new?

What is my body’s first response? How does my mind contribute to trying to find a solution or resolution?

When a dilemma feels really huge, or when I am facing intense confrontation, it consumes my entire body. I feel like my system from my throat down through my gut is being squeezed to the point of unbearable pressure. Often I feel like I will lose bladder control.  If I do not consciously focus on my body becoming grounded, on my breathing staying full and regulated, I leave my body and in that dissociated state, I feel like I have no power, no choice at all.

Next, my mind will begin to clamp down and instead of helping to open up options, it tells me to give up, to run away. My mind reverts to an old recording of attacks against myself, such as, “You are a bad person,” “You are incompetent,” “You are ugly and unlovable,” “You should just give up and die.”

My spirit is not at peace with giving up and dying. I have been in an ongoing cycle of self-defeat and resurrection, thanks to the force of my own spirit and will to go on and try again. The spirit knows there is much to do in this life, and it is the dark horse in this race who keeps coming from behind to prevail, despite a lack of training and nurturing on my part.

For much of my life, I believed my mind. I allowed it to step in and defeat me in the face of battle. Even when I tried to overcome the destructive thinking, it would be another part of my mind that would step in and try to fight. To fight the mind with the mind was not enough.

What I know now is that my spirit is my fuel, my force of will, and my body is a powerful asset. The more I practice using it in new ways in the face of adversity, the more I realize my own strength, competence and beauty as a human animal.


Working with horses allows for daily practice in using the body before the mind. When I need to halter a horse who resists and backs away, I check in with my thoughts. If I entered the stall or the paddock with thoughts like, “I need to take you out to the farrier quickly,” or “My plan is to work with you right now,” chances are that my mind was overrunning my body’s ability to connect with the horse and invite the horse to participate in an activity. No one, including a horse, likes to be told what to do and when without an invitation or established trust.

If I find that I am stuck in my mental mode, I exit and reset my breathing, relax my muscles, and pry open my mind to the fact that my body will be the one doing the work. I can then re-enter, get close to the horse, sync up my breathing, move backwards and forwards with him, relate to his mood and energy level, and invite him into the halter and then the activity.


Acknowledging the success of that practice does not mean I can always succeed in my efforts, it means I ought to keep practicing, always finding new subtleties in the ways in which I can use my own body to both calm myself down and be open to others’ opinions and experiences. If I find myself facing another person who is in some way uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, upset or all of those at once, I ask myself how can I use my body to help keep the mind as well as the emotions from taking control of us both?

To date, I am still quite new at this practice. I find that my habitual mental response jumps in when I am first confronted or when I let myself forget to stay present with my body and I begin to dwell on the issues. I equate that habitual response to being as ineffective as putting a sick or injured horse in a garbage bin to recover. My intent in the dream was not to throw her away, it was the first thing I could think of to do in order to help her heal. The problem is, it was the opposite of helpful and healing, just like the way my mind tries to get me to run away, attack myself, and accept defeat or surrender. That is simply the first thing it can think of, but it is not the only choice. Fortunately, I usually have time to reset my body and mind together, and pull myself out of the bin to try again in a new way.