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THE VISION BOARD

There I was, back in Seattle in December of 2010, recently certified in Equine Guided Education, with no horses of my own and no idea how I was going to practice this work. I had a new friend, Sue, who was in my certification class at Skyhorse, and she happened to live only 45 minutes from me in Snohomish, Washington. We had met up a couple of times, and done some EGE practice together with her 2 horses, and so she invited me over for New Year’s Eve to make Vision Boards and drink wine. To be honest, the only reason I went was because of the wine. I really did not believe in Vision Boards. I had no idea what to even envision for my life, much less put it on a poster board. But, I figured it couldn’t hurt to cut and paste things out of magazines and chat with Sue and another friend of hers and enjoy a bit of Cabernet.

 

Perhaps it was something about cutting pictures out of magazines that took me back to my childhood, but there I was, just like when I was a young girl, only choosing the horse magazines and plastering photos of horses all over my board. I didn’t bother to put anything else on there – no farm or barn or romantic beach walk pictures – just horses. I didn’t really think about it at the time, in fact, I left the board at Sue’s place claiming that “I would finish it later,” since there were still a few blank spots on it where I could squeeze in a few more horses.

 

Well, my Vision Board disappeared behind some bookcase somewhere, never to be seen again – or so I thought.

 

 

2011 began without much incident. I was still riding another friend’s horses, and taking care of her farm whenever she went out of town, but that was the extent of horses in my life. I was working full time as a Human Relations Director at a growing production company, and though I daydreamed about leaving and pursuing a career in EGE, or taking people on trail rides, or simply introducing people to horses and allowing them the opportunity to experience a relationship with them, it seemed like worlds away from my reality, and I had no idea how I was going to change that.

 

Then, in the summer of that year, Sue asked me if I wanted to ride a new little mare she’d bought named Daisy, because she didn’t have time to work with her much. A 4-year old quarter horse with only basic training… I wondered if I’d really be up to the task. Well, she was young and pushy on the ground, but amazingly level-headed under saddle. I must admit, I really fell in love with her a few days later, when a bee landed on her and she threw an absolute fit – the only fit I’d seen from her and I never saw one again… only because I have the very same fear of bees, and if it weren’t for Daisy needing help calming down, I would have run away immediately myself. And so, 3 days a week, I would drive 45 minutes out to ride Daisy, often before going to the office in the morning.

 

I tried not to love her, but I did. How silly could I be, loving someone else’s horse… that could only lead to a painful good-bye at some point. But I couldn’t help myself. And then, one chilly Saturday morning, Sue met up with me in the aisle of the barn and said, “Ashley, I know you might move to California one day, and I want you to know that I see what a special bond you have with Daisy, and I would never take that away. If you go, Daisy can go with you.” Of course I burst into tears. I was absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude for that gift. I had no idea if I would ever really get to move to California, but I had been wanting to for years. My marriage was falling apart, I was struggling to salvage it, and I knew my husband hated the thought of moving to California. Still, if I ever did go, I would have Daisy.

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In November, I returned to Skyhorse Ranch to take the certification course again as an advanced student for continued study. I still wasn’t sure how this work was going to be part of my life, but I had done a couple of workshops that year with Hallie, another student certified in my 2010 class, and I knew I enjoyed it. Hallie, not surprisingly, lived in San Jose, California though – so it was quite a commute for me.

Just before the course, Ariana called Sue to ask if she would be interested in a paint mare who had been left at the ranch. Ariana knew Sue was interested in building a youth program, and this horse had been ridden by young girls.

 

Sue asked me to assess the horse for her when I went down for the class. I prepared myself, determined to stay professional and objective, and above all, not to like the horse. Now, I do admit that I love horses in general. However, I have also come to know that I connect in a special way with only a few horses. The moment I led Taj out of her stall and her ears perked up, I started to feel that connection. As I was leading her into the arena, one of the other students said, “Oh is that your horse?” and a little 10-year-old girl voice inside me wanted so badly to answer, “YES! Yes it is!” But I maintained my professional distance, and I did not say that. I knew in 5 minutes that this horse wanted attention and direction. I took the lead rope off her and she continued to walk circles and figure eights with me around the arena.

 

Taj was underweight, had a windsucking habit that had worn down her top front teeth, and a tendency to pin her ears when approached. But there was something in her eye that was kind and curious still. Though I really wished Taj could come to Washington so I could spend time with her, I called Sue and told her, “This horse will need a lot of attention. I don’t think you have the time, you have so much going on.” To this she replied, “Oh! I just gave notice that I am taking a 2 month leave of absence from my job, so if you think she has potential in EGE, then I can take her!”

 

And so it was that Taj shipped up to Washington a few weeks after I returned from Skyhorse myself. I met the trailer with Sue and walked her up the narrow driveway to her new home myself. I spent hours picking ticks off of her – and showing Sue how to pick ticks, since western Washington does not have any ticks – and grooming her and helping her settle in.

 

Three days later, while hanging Christmas lights, Sue fell off her roof and broke her back.

 

Sue has made almost a full recovery, but at the time, she was confined to a lounge chair for weeks, and had months of restricted movement and physical therapy. During this time, she re-evaluated her life, and decided that she needed to re-home Daisy and Taj. And so it was that I suddenly had not one, but two horses of my own.

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It was August, 2012, only a few weeks before I left my home and my dogs and my husband in Seattle to head to California, when Sue came out to the barn where I was boarding Taj and Daisy and she reached into the back of her truck and pulled out a large, white poster board. She said, “I brought something for you.” And she turned it over, and there was my Vision Board of horses.

I now live and work at Skyhorse Ranch, and have added a third horse to my family. I still don’t know where my home is, nor exactly how my career with horses will look, but right now it all looks pretty damn good. I guess I need to give the Vision Board some credit, but a lot of credit also goes to my friends and my horses. Magic is real.

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RE-ENTRY

Learning as an Advanced Student of EGE

Early November, 2011 was the 1-year anniversary of my initial certification course in Equine Guided Education (EGE). I had returned to Skyhorse ranch in northern California to take the final 2 weeks of the certification program as an advanced student. Completing the 3 week certification program in 2010 was a great start for me in the world of EGE, but I’d discovered throughout the past year that there is so much more to learn and study about one’s self as a practitioner, about non-verbal communication, and especially about how to handle the myriad of different situations that arise with people, horses and the surrounding environment while doing this work, that I wanted to re-engage and further my learning and abilities.

EGE is more than just working with horses to learn about non-verbal communication and develop a deeper self-awareness, though it is certainly valuable for those and other life and work skills. EGE opens the gate to reconnecting with the world as the animal beings that we are, to the innate power and accuracy of our intuition, and to our sense of purpose in life.

Beyond the intensive work with a group of 9 other students and the herd of horses at Skyhorse, I had the opportunity to build a new bond with my EGE partner, Hallie, who assists on staff at the ranch, and our teacher, and founder of EGE, Ariana. I felt a sense of kinship, of being understood, and of being valued in a whole new way. The animals most directly responsible for getting to the heart of the matter in all of this were actually lambs.

I had a difficult time settling in the first week, as the rest of the class had already been together for a week, and I hadn’t able to take the extra time away from my day job. I wasn’t exactly sure of my role as an ”advanced student,” as I worked to integrate into the class, but felt more comfortable assisting Hallie with barn chores, moving horses and anticipating the needs of the class, the horses and our teacher.

Though it wasn’t available when I first arrived, the guesthouse at the ranch opened up a few days into my stay, so I left the room I was sharing with Hallie, thinking it would be nice to have some more space and to unpack my bag. I went down to the house after class Wednesday night, and it was cavernously empty, dark, and cold, and surrounded on 3 sides by the sheep pasture, which was filled with the relentless and unapologetic reality that is lambing season.

Ewes very often have two lambs, and frequently, within the first 4 days of life, one lamb dies. The vultures hang out hungrily on the fence posts listening to the bleating of the new little beings who have lost their mothers, who may not be strong enough to keep up, or who may have simply been abandoned. This was a sound for which I was not prepared.

After a painfully fitful sleep, I awoke to the frantic maa-maa-ing of a tiny lamb, his dangling umbilical cord still fresh, as close to my front door as he could get in his pasture. No other lambs or ewes were nearby. He was calling out with all his might. I stood there in my nightclothes, tears welling up in my eyes, when I suddenly heard his mother baa-baa-ing from the other side of the house. They were trying to find each other, but couldn’t figure out how to go back around the house to reconnect.

With zero sheep experience, and no clue how dogs can get the job done, I ran out to try to herd that ewe back around to her baby. She was definitely being herded, but never in the right direction. I wasn’t fast enough to get around to the side of her and keep her on track, so she kept shooting off in all directions except the one towards the crying baby. Finally, I figured I would need to bring the lamb to her.

I’ve read that sheep can recognize at least 50 different faces, up to 10 of them human, but I’m not sure I have that skill for recognizing sheep faces. I tried to keep one eye on her while I approached the scared little one. Of course I scared him even more and he tried madly to escape me while I reassured him that I wouldn’t hurt him, tried cajoling him into trusting me, and ultimately, dove in to swoop him up in my arms.

Not entirely sure I had the right ewe, I approached slowly with the little guy, who was now silent, probably somewhat stunned. I placed him on his feet near the presumed mother, who was eyeing me silently along with 2 of her friends and their lambs. Well, the lamb took off like a wobbly rocket towards her and as they all moved away together, I was left panting in my pajamas, hoping for a fairy-tale ending for him.

As for me, there was no way I was going to live there for the next week an a half, alone in the furniture-less house surrounded by sheep strife and struggle, separated from my own herd about a mile up the hill. I realized that unpacking my bag was low priority compared to being close to companions and colleagues. Another room in the ranch house freed up, so I moved in there, relieved and, I thought, ready for anything with my herd around me.

Part of the EGE process includes identifying experiences and stories we have created about those experiences that are shaping our patterns of behavior, our actions and our reactions to the world. One thing that surfaced for me that I hadn’t shared much, if at all, before was the fact that as a child, I truly believed I had been born into the wrong body, that I was a horse trapped in a girl’s form, and that I had rejected my physical body ever since. All my games on the farm where I spent my childhood years featured me being a horse, running, jumping, and playing with the other horses. I ate oats (sweet oats with molasses were my favorite), shared the salt licks in the fields, and even drank water out of an algae-lined bathtub watering trough. When my parents moved us to the city, I shut myself away in my room for days, and when I came out, I found I was every bit as good at pretending to be a well-adjusted, popular, good student and all-around good girl as I had been at pretending to be a horse. But where did all the pretending end? Had it?

Another significant realization was that, throughout my life, integrating and accepting death, be it the death of a barn kitten or the death of my mother, has been extremely challenging for me. Cerebrally, I understand that it happens to every living being. At my core, I had never experienced death in a way that made sense or felt natural or complete. One thing I feel strongly about is that every death deserves an honoring of the life that came before it, and when I don’t feel I’ve truly had the opportunity to fully and ceremoniously honor that life, it haunts me, and gnaws at my heart.

That gnawing, it appears, had become an impetus for a lifelong penchant for rescuing – an ill-advised attempt to help others evade death, strife, or pain of any kind. I used to rescue bugs out of my great-granny’s swimming pool with my cousin, lining them up in the sun-warmed recovery ward that was the diving board. I tried to nurse a sick pigeon back to health in the abandoned dairy section of the barn. When the bird disappeared after 2 days, I assured myself that my care and feeding had given him a new lease on life. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the barn cats mistook that bird for a generously offered feast, but perhaps a new lease in death is something my 8-year-old mind wasn’t yet prepared to ponder.

As it happened, during the last week of my stay at the ranch, I became the primary caregiver for orphaned lambs. Ariana brought the first orphan up to live in the pen in front of the house on Monday. After briefly observing formula preparation and bottle-feeding, I embraced my new charge and became the surrogate mother.

Unlike the lost lamb in the field who tried to run from me, this lamb almost instantly bonded to me, trying to attach himself to my legs and follow me out of the pen, bleating mercilessly when I left him after a feeding, and maa-maa-ing so loudly when he awoke hungry from a nap that I could hear him from the barn a few hundred yards away

My resume of bottle-feeding began at the age of 5 when my father brought home a fawn from the alfalfa field, badly injured by the sickle bar during harvest. He held the fawn’s trembling body in a blood-stained sheet, his tiny hip sliced through to the bone, and I remember being vehemently angry at the sickle bar, angry at the alfalfa, and angry at my father for what had happened to that animal. I was afraid he was going to be “destroyed,” just like the racehorses who broke their legs on the track. But the care with which my father was handling him meant something important to me.

The equine vet came out to the farm on that Sunday evening, and sewed that hip up in a horse stall on a bed of straw. I named him Flag, after the fawn in “The Yearling,” and helped with his bottle feedings. He grew up in the chicken coop, running after me like a puppy, and following me into the house when he was allowed – jumping on beds, nibbling ears and winning hearts left and right.

 

The second day into caring for this orphaned lamb, Ariana brought up another unlucky orphan from the sheep field. No matter how hard she had tried to get the mother to accept her newborn and let him nurse, the ewe kept walking away. There were those old feelings again: I was angry at the ewe, angry at the field and angry at the universe for making the way of things so hard to bear.

With my newly acquired skills, I set about regular feedings 3 times a day for the 2 lambs. While one nursed the bottle, the other would latch onto my jacket, inspired and hungry. The new addition was even smaller than the first guy, but seemed every bit as eager to live.

I didn’t name them, because I didn’t want to get attached. But of course I was attached. The instant I held each of them close and supported their little bodies while they struggled to figure out the artificial nipple, I was attached. I finally started calling the older one Day 3 and the younger one Day 2, figuring I’d rename them each subsequent day and make a handy reference to the chart on the formula bucket as they aged and required more food.

But by the afternoon of the second day, Day 2 showed a sudden change in his energy. He still ate, but tired easily while feeding and didn’t maa-maa with the same force and volume. After his night feeding, he immediately lay down under the lean-to shelter instead of scrambling with Day 3 to get out the gate, glued to my legs.

In the morning, I went out to check on them before mixing up the formula, knowing that I may only need to mix half as much. When only one little voice called out to me, I knew I’d lost the little guy. Knowing that didn’t help ease the blow of walking over to see his still body laid out on the ground, with the living lamb still trying to snuggle up to him for warmth. Why does a death feel so painfully unbearable? I’d known that lamb for a day and a half, only a few hours less than his entire life span. I tried to take solace in the fact that I’d fed him and I’d loved him like a mother.

I wrapped his tiny body in a towel and put him in the garage until I would have an opportunity to bury him. I then set about making breakfast for the lamb with an increasingly urgent voice and appetite.

That day was a “Client Day” at the ranch. As students of EGE, part of our program was to plan, host and lead a full day of activities, open to the public, as an introduction to the work. I had to focus all my attention on the clients and the goals of the day, so I put my grief on hold and immersed myself in getting to know the clients, and working together with the horses and my classmates to create an outstanding day of experiential learning.

The opportunity to bury the lamb came at midday the following day. It was Friday, the last day of our EGE course, and I could no longer stave off the feelings of unresolved grief. I don’t remember ever burying anything, except my paternal grandfather when I attended his funeral in Arlington National Cemetery at the age of 7. Every other being I have lost was shepherded away by the adults around, or buried at a time or place I was unable to attend, or cremated. Scattering ashes or setting an urn of ashes in a mausoleum has its own brand of ceremony, but the physical act of digging a hole in the ground and laying a body to rest is something very different to me.

The burial site was adjacent to the pen in which he had spent his short life. As I struggled to make the hole sufficiently deep and wide, the living lamb anxiously bleated and tried to clamor through the wire fence to be next to me. Twice I had to stop digging and go into his pen to untangle him from where he’d gotten himself stuck in the boards of an old gate, propped up in the corner. I was struck by the tremendously divided feelings of focusing on the life that was lost and the life that was fighting to continue.

I spoke to the living lamb about the fact that I would be there for him and feed him soon. When I finally placed the body of the dead lamb in the ground, I spoke to him about the fact that I would be there for him even as he was entering a place I didn’t know or understand.

Tears began to flow as I piled the dirt on top of his body, entombing him in fresh earth, while the living lamb continued to maa-maa a few feet away. My body was wracked with a full-fledged, all-out cry as I patted down the last shovelfuls of dirt on top of the small grave. I was burying this lamb to give him the respectful send-off he deserved, but I realized that I was burying him for all the other beings I didn’t get to bury. Beyond the physical burial act, there was the true acceptance of their passing that I had never quite been able to manage. I thought I had accepted at least some of the deaths, but in that moment, they all came flooding back to me. The lives that were intertwined with mine, whether for only a few minutes or for 28 years; the lives I had wanted to honor upon their deaths but hadn’t known how.

I stood on top of his grave and looked into the gentle wind. I let myself stand between the living and the dead, speaking to them both at once, letting them know how much I loved and appreciated my time with them. I stood there in my body, my animal body, which speaks to all other animals in a way that I had almost forgotten.

When the conversation was finished, I went and got the old gate from the lamb’s pen, and laid it out over the grave.

Rescue for Slaughter-Bound Horses

In March of this year, I helped rescue a horse for the first time. I didn’t have a farm, I didn’t have a trailer, and I never even saw the horse in person. I was able to help by donating online, and by coordinating getting the funds to a foster “mom” who went to pick him up and get him started in his new life. His name is Trooper, a stout and friendly chestnut gelding about 18 years old, and I feel bonded to this day to the people who participated in the joint effort to get him safely into foster care with quarantine and then placement to a new home at a riding camp for children.

Trooper had been sold for likely very little by his former owner to a feedlot owner in Zillah, Washington. It’s unfortunate but all too common that when hard financial times fall on horse owners, the owners don’t have many options. Feedlots and auctions are options, but the real business of these options is not necessarily widely known or understood.

Feedlot owners advertise that they “buy, sell and trade” horses. That is true. That is their business. But because a thriving business exists in the sale of horse meat for human consumption, at the end of almost every week, all the horses left on the lot will be loaded into large stock trailers and shipped across the border to either Canada or Mexico to slaughter houses.

The people who purchase horses to sell for meat are called “kill buyers,” and they work on contracts with slaughter houses  which require them to provide a certain quantity in weight of horse meat to them in a given amount of time. Feedlot owners are guaranteed to receive a certain price per pound for their horses. They will offer the horses for sale to the public for a slightly higher, non-negotiable price, which covers the costs of the extra efforts to coordinate with individual buyers. These prices are usually under $1000, which is not relatively expensive for a horse.

 

 

The horses’ breeds, ages and levels of training vary widely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many wonderful horses available, and it is well worth considering rescue as an option for acquiring your next horse. This option means that you will have to make a relatively quick decision, and be prepared for appropriate vet check bills and behavioral quirks that a brief assessment by an experienced rider may not uncover. It is highly recommended that you keep a rescue horse quarantined for the first month, just in case they have picked up strangles or any other contagious infection or illness.

Since March, I have been exploring ways to help publicize this process and get the facts out to people who are interested. Horse slaughter is a controversial and emotional issue. My personal opinion is that, to date, no form of killing en masse in a slaughter house has ever been humane for horses. Simply banning slaughter in the USA has not been enough. We are beginning to see laws passed around humane transport to slaughter, but that is not enough either.

I will do my best to provide links to websites and articles that provide current information, as I believe that the more awareness and involvement we can inspire, the better chance we have of shifting the paradigm and finding better alternatives for horses and horse owners in need. You don’t need to have a farm or a trailer to get involved and make a difference in our horses’ lives. Below are a couple of links that are just a start.

 

Information regarding the practice and methodology of slaughter can be found at the below link. Some material is graphic, and the author’s bias is very evident, but it is hard to find such a comprehensive explanation without a bias. http://www.respect4horses.com/truth.html

Dr. Temple Grandin, who was reportedly working in Wyoming on researching a more humane form of horse slaughter, determined that the key to solutions lies in (1) stop the overbreeding, (2) find ways to care for horses in need. http://www.animallawcoalition.com/horse-slaughter/article/1491

 

WASHINGTON RESCUE GROUPS:

People Helping Horses

Rebels Equine Feedlot Savers

And on Facebook, visit Another Sunrise Equine Fundraising Network to follow and contribute to the fundraising efforts for some of the horses that may be posted on my Horse Rescue Network Page.

Catharsis: Inside the Round Pen

The sun seared my tear stained face, my mouth sticky in its coat of dust, my body exhausted to near numbness, and still the big bay horse roared at me, insisting I was not yet finished, I had not gotten all the way through the heart of the matter.

I had been in the round pen with him for well over an hour, dredging up grief, strife, fear and every angle of inner turmoil I could ever have imagined. Still, he was not releasing me.

I had almost called it off. My good friend and EGE facilitator, Hallie, had brought me out to the horses this afternoon to further explore some personal issues we’d been discussing, but I had a flight to catch in about 2 hours and the horse I chose to work with had bolted just before we reached the round pen and run all the way back to his paddock. One thing about Hallie: she is the most calmly determined person I know. I’m not sure if she said anything in words at all, but somehow my attempt to bow out, or at least bow out of working with Buddy, had led to the three of us turning right around and trekking back out to the round pen.

Buddy. The irony of his name revealed itself in the first 5 minutes of entering the round pen with him. The steady, centered horse I’d met napping in the warm California dust became a frenzy of flying hooves, mane and tail, with 1200 pounds of excited, if not panicked, heart and muscle in between. The urgency of his cries ripped through me and I was suddenly swept into a state of interconnectedness with a horse like I had never known. This angst, this pain that he was writhing in and screaming about was my own.

The gift of a round pen experience is the time and space to find your own clarity. An honest, non-judgmental horse reflects what is really going on inside of you, and an impartial, supportive facilitator helps you recognize the relevance of the body language of the horse and anything else in the environment that transpires to lead you into self-awareness and understanding. The challenge is, in order to fully receive that gift, you must let go of your logic, your linear thinking, your ego, and any shred of self-consciousness that holds you hostage to what you “should” be thinking or doing. You are there to bare your soul, and to experience the freedom that comes with doing that.

I had been through the wringer already by the time my flight was taking off at 3:42, some 25 miles away. I need to stop taking responsibility for others and their feelings. Heck, I need to stop thinking I know what their feelings are going to be. I need to start loving and caring for myself, for if I don’t, how will all that I want to do in this world ever happen? Each time I recognized one of these issues, Buddy would stop bellowing, he would stop careening around the pen, sending our adrenaline levels skyward, and he would either defecate, or urinate, or sigh deeply and relax. But when Hallie would ask him if we were finished, he would start up again.

Buddy would belt out an explosive call, sometimes inciting response whinnies from his herd in the distance. He would rush to the fence of the round pen, and press his neck and chest into it, bowing it outward, striking at the lower boards with his hooves. I would be again reduced to tears, wanting to end the pain and frustration, for him, for me, for us both. So I would search for the relevance in the moment, allowing whatever was emerging to surface, then speak the truth of it out loud. Sometimes I spoke to him, sometimes to myself, sometimes to the world at large.

I explored my fragile marriage, a strained friendship, my mother’s death and her belongings in my garage I haven’t been able to throw away. I admitted that I was angry with myself for having anxiety over missing my flight, but that I couldn’t get rid of the pressure to make the flight. I finally resigned myself to miss the flight, to give myself the opportunity to complete this experience, no matter how long it took, since Hallie was not going anywhere, and Buddy was unrelenting. I felt a deep gratitude that these two beings cared enough about me that they didn’t care how long it took.

In one of those moments in which I had spoken up about something that needed acknowledgement, and Buddy had calmed down and begun grazing through the fence boards, I had the urge to ask him to follow me around the round pen, to walk with me in my declaration that I matter, that I am important. But I was afraid to try. I was afraid that he wouldn’t believe me, that I didn’t believe myself, and that he would not follow. I wanted to lead, but I was afraid of failure.

And so it continued. At one point, in the scorching July heat, I knelt down in the middle of the round pen and just cried. I didn’t have any room for self consciousness left; I didn’t have the energy to fight it. So I let myself sit there and bawl. And that big, beautiful horse strode over to me, lay down in the dirt, and rolled. He rolled with luxurious abandon, as if to say, “Let it go, let it out, do whatever you need to do.”

So there we still were, what seemed like, and probably was, hours later… in a moment of calm, which seemed to indicate that we had brought up enough pain, and discovered enough truth, and that we could relax and be finished. Suddenly, gunshots pierced the hazy, hot quiet. Buddy was off and at it again, hollering, calling out in as urgent a voice as ever. “But this can’t be about ME,” I pleaded to Hallie. “These are some gunshots, and yeah I have anxiety over the fact that some killing might be going on, and he’s upset too, but that’s not part of my relevant issue!”

“Well,” she said calmly, “None of the other horses in the paddocks are acting like this.” DAMN IT! She had a point. This was still something to do with me. “What do you feel like this is about?” she asked.

I felt like it was a test. I felt like I had come through all kinds of crap and cried and ached and been downright miserable, but that I had finally reached a place of calm and centeredness, and now this was happening to challenge me to bring myself and this horse back to peace. He was criss-crossing the round pen, rushing through the center, inches from wherever I was standing, so that I could not stand still, I had to turn and shift and maintain presence, or be run over by a very frustrated, very anxious, and very large animal.

I thought about the last issue we had uncovered: needing to accept my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was as if I hadn’t ever accepted that I was human – an animal with a body who is subject to defecating and urinating and needs and fear and trauma and death and mistakes. I accepted that in everyone else, but not in myself. If Buddy was scared or vulnerable or did something “wrong,” would I still love and respect him? No question.

He’d seen me naked: every weakness, every regret, every conflicted corner of my psyche. But he had never stopped pausing to acknowledge me; to touch his muzzle to my face when I stood next to him at the fence, or to turn from the far side of the ring to look at me in the moments he stood still. He still trusted in me, that I would figure it out, that I would know what to do.

I have always found relief and release in just walking, and suddenly I knew that was the way through this. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself, and that in doing so, I would take care of him.

“I can lead through this.” That was my silent declaration. And with no halter and no rope, I went to this horse who had been charging across the round pen, and I asked him to follow me.  There was no worrying about whether I would succeed or fail, only the conviction that I knew we could get through this.

I couldn’t see the horse behind me, but I could sure feel him. I felt his every solid step and his head bobbing slightly with the quick and steady pace around the whole perimeter and then back to Hallie at the gate.

Experiential Learning

When we set out to educate ourselves about something, the goal is to remember what we learn for the long haul. How many times have you thought to yourself, “If only I could download that information into my brain…?”

Horses can help with that download. Learning through an experience with a 1300 pound, living, breathing, responsive being gets about as much of you involved in downloading information to long term memory and understanding as possible.

Notice how we are taught to take notes when listening to a lecture, or break out the highlighter marker when reading a textbook. These simple activities move us farther into the experience of absorbing the information. The more of ourselves that we can involve in learning, the longer we can retain the information. Inspiring all of our senses and involving our whole bodies in the process of learning is an advantage that traditional classroom teaching and even the most elaborate of corporate seminars with PowerPoint presentations and props cannot deliver.

Marcia Conner, on her Ageless Learner site, writes a concise but comprehensive description of experiential learning, and quotes author David Kolb from his book Experiential Learning, as he “describes learning as a four-step process. He identifies the steps as (1) watching and (2) thinking (mind), (3) feeling (emotion), and (4) doing (muscle).”

From the world of childhood through the corporate world, the experience of learning self-awareness, presence, trust and decisiveness is an ongoing process. The growing field of Equine Guided Education is offering immediate and lasting results.

Just outside Melbourne, Kay Ivanac and Sally Brinkworth founded EGE Australia, and are not only providing valuable lessons in leadership and teamwork to people of all ages, but are also fulfilling their mission to grow the industry and help support the existence of Australia’s nearly quarter million horses.

Aptly named “Horsepower,” EGEA’s programs exemplify the profound and valuable aspects of learning your strengths and weaknesses in communication and relationships, both personally and professionally. The EGEA website is a rich resource in describing the work and its potential benefits: http://www.equineguidededucation.com.au/

Describing Equine Guided Education

When you hear hoofbeats…

don’t think zebras. Unless you’re in the African savanna. So it is with Equine Guided Education (EGE) and related fields of working with horses as teachers and healers. It is really quite simple: interacting with horses is eye-opening and therapeutic.



Through basic ground work activities, horses provide us opportunities to learn about everything from the effectiveness of our communication to recognizing the difference between what we think we should believe or feel and what we actually believe or feel. Signing up to experience EGE does not require any prior knowledge of horses or horsemanship on the part of the human participants. It requires a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to try doing things differently.

People often ask “what do you actually DO if you’re not riding?”

When you think about the process of going riding, the time spent actually riding the horse is often a fraction of the whole experience. Greeting the horse in the field or the barn, haltering him, leading him to the ready area, brushing him and cleaning his hooves, checking him over for any injuries or sensitive spots, tacking up, possibly lunging before riding, then afterwards, untacking, grooming again, checking hooves for rocks or footing debris, giving him a thank you snack, walking him back to his field or barn, releasing him and saying good-bye… all of this takes a large amount of time and energy. All of this also constitutes essential communication between you and the horse, and can create a bond and sense of trust that greatly assists and improves the riding experience.

All the things people can do with horses besides riding offer a plethora of ways to enjoy horses, bond with them, and learn from them. One of the wonderful things about working with horses in this manner is that such a broad spectrum of horses and people can participate. Plenty of elderly or previously injured horses can do the work. Plenty of elderly or previously injured people can, too.

One of my colleagues in EGE, Agus Vera Alemany, co-founded Terra de Cavalls, coaching “natural leadership guided by horses,” operating on the outskirts of fabulous Barcelona, Spain. Their website does a wonderful job of presenting their work,and in response to the question “Why horses?” the reply includes the following:

Throughout history, for human beings horses have represented the symbol of nobility, strength, beauty, capacity for sacrifice, curiosity, loyalty and sociability. Because of this, they enthuse us and challenge us to go after our dreams, broaden horizons, change beliefs and take a step beyond our “Comfort Zone”… The horse is an animal with a great ability to perceive our moods, our deepest unconscious, reacting by instinct to the energy we give off… When they decide to let people lead them, it is because they find in them an “authentic leader”, whose messages are clear and unambiguous , and who are secure and confident.

For full details about Terra de Cavalls, see http://www.terradecavalls.com/about-us/why-horses/?lang=en

If you, too, believe horses are good for the soul…

Join me in exploring what is happening in the worldwide arena of horses and human beings. For more than 5,000 years, our two species have coexisted; sometimes we being more reliant upon them, sometimes they being more reliant upon us. Not so long ago, we Americans built our nation with the invaluable service of horses to thank for transportation and security. As the Industrial Age slowly but surely made the jobs of horses in daily life all but obsolete, horses found a prominent place in sports and entertainment. More recently, and just in time to help swing the pendulum of reliance back toward center, there has been a growing trend in people working with horses as healers and teachers.

A little bit of history…

In 2008, just as the recession crept in, I quit my office job to search for something more. I didn’t know what something more would look like, I just knew that it included horses. I had grown up on a farm with horses, but somehow, my life’s own version of the Industrial Age distanced them from my daily life. Despite the proverbial “successful career” I had forged for myself doing Human Relations at a well known production company, my soul was lacking something essential, so I set about reading books, articles, heck, the internet, to find out all I could about what interested me the most: how horses are helping heal souls and how I might be able to become a part of that arena. Horses are partners in pyschotherapy, in physiotherapy, in corporate workshops, in youth programs, in prison rehab programs, in life coaching, and so much more. This is fantastic! So… what could I do? Start talking to people!

I first had the good fortune to meet Lisa Eppley of Acacia Farm (http://www.acaciafarm.com/) in 2008 when I began my quest to get horses back in my life, and she, quite literally, got me back in the saddle and has reacquainted me with my farming roots. Though I don’t own a horse of my own, she has generously let me share the joys of hers.

After contacting, visiting, and experiencing the practices of many wonderful people and organizations involved in working with horses in education and therapy, I decided that Equine Guided Education was the practice that most closely aligned with my personal background, experience, philosophy and goals, so in 2010, I became a certified Equine Guided Educator. (see more about EGE and certification at http://www.skyhorseranch.com/)

Oh, I did go back to a day job in production; I now do Human Relations for a growing animation company, and it is my not-so-secret plan to somehow merge the world of production with the industry of working with horses in the service of teaching and healing. More on that later.

At the 2011 Annual EGE Conference, I sat next to Jill Rivoli one morning, and have not stopped talking to her since! A fabulous blend of down-to-earth and always-open-to-possibility, Jill is one of the most experienced facilitators in horse centered learning I know. (see more about Jill at her website http://newperspectivesusa.com/)

So that brings me to now… I am very excited to be embarking on a joint venture with Jill, designing retreats in the Pacific Northwest that are focused on Equine Guided Education.

Thank you for reading my very first post. I look forward to your thoughts, ideas and questions.

~ashley