The Energy of Empathy

The small but sturdy paint mare stood stock still in the cross ties. Her breathing was somewhat shallow, her eyes and ears wary. The girl was brushing her. The brush swept across her flank in a manner that felt methodical and distant. Every day, girls of various ages would halter her, walk her into the cross ties, groom her and tack her up for their riding lessons. Sometimes the girls were happily chatting to her, their words lighthearted and friendly. Sometimes the girls whispered their sadness to her, trusting her with their most sacred feelings. Sometimes, like today, the girls were silent, tense, biting their lips as they powered through the mechanics of what they were there to do.

It was these times that worried the mare. She was an experienced lesson horse, and she knew that when the girls were quiet and tense, there was little chance that they were thinking about what they were doing, or truly considering her or themselves at all. It usually meant that the riding lesson would be a struggle. The mare tried hard to understand what they were asking her to do, and she knew they were trying to understand what the instructor was asking them to do, but it was very often forty-five minutes of feeling their frustration increase, their hands jerk the reins harder on the bit in her mouth, and their kicks to her sides become increasingly more desperate and painful.

She was bracing herself as the girl hoisted the saddle up onto her back. Her nine-year-old fingers were fumbling to get the billets into the buckles to secure the girth when the instructor’s voice boomed through the barn, “You are late and this is no time to dawdle! Get that tack on and get out here now!”

The mare could feel the girl holding her breath, using all her might to tighten the girth. By now the mare had begun to pin her ears, trying to show the girl she was worried and did not feel safe. She began to side-step with her hind feet in some attempt to move away from the girl who felt like she might explode. “Don’t let that mare walk all over you,” the instructor sounded angry now, “Tighten that girth and get to the bridle!”

All the girl’s desperation and anxiety came through in one swing. The riding crop landed with a resounding smack on her hindquarters, and in less than a fraction of a second, the horse defended herself. In an immediate reaction to the perceived attack, she kicked out at the girl, landing a hoof squarely on her thigh and sending her reeling against the barn wall.

Healing happens when we experience somatic empathy. When another person – or another being – is fully present to us and how we are feeling, we experience something more than just being understood on a cognitive level. We experience a resonance and a relief that is beyond words, beyond thinking, and that is truly curative.

Horses live every moment being fully present. When we are interacting with them, or even just near them, they are taking in our somatic cues and the energy of our true feelings. We can opt to try to power through, to force our agenda, to ignore both what they are feeling and what we are feeling. Or, we can take every opportunity with a horse to learn more and more self-awareness, to become adaptable and resilient, and to heal the parts of ourselves that have not been acknowledged, soothed or allowed to release the past tension, grief, anger, fear or frustration they are still holding onto.

The girl is now an adult, returning to horses for a new experience; for healing and for changing old patterns in her life. One day, as she was beginning to brush a horse in the field, she felt something constrict in her chest and her solar plexus, at the same moment the horse pinned his ears and side-stepped away from her.

A memory was welling up in her body. Often we block some or all of the cognitive portion of a traumatic memory; rather than feel the pain of it, it seems easier to try to suppress it, or to make it go away. But the body remembers, and all it takes is a situation that reminds the body just enough of that past experience to bring it back.

With the horses, an opening is created for somatic empathy. Instead of powering through and continuing to try to make the horse accept the brushing, she stood next to him, breathing deeply and regularly, and talked to him about the memory that was emerging.

Her mother had been running late that day, as usual. She snapped at Angie to move faster, to get her riding gear and get into the car. Angie could feel the tension in her mother as she turned the key in the ignition and unclenched her teeth just long enough to take a drag of her cigarette. “Goddam it!” her mother swore as a warning light flickered on in the dashboard. “We’re going to have to stop for gas.” Angie shrank deep into the back seat, hoping that it wasn’t somehow her fault that there wasn’t enough gas in the car.

She was pretty sure it was her fault that her parents yelled at each other all the time. And she knew that she had to try harder not to talk too much around her father. She loved his attention when she started a story and it seemed like he wanted to hear it. But she would always take too long, and he would cut her off and be done with her, sending her to her room.

When she got to the barn, the other girls in her lesson class were already taking their horses and ponies to the mounting block to get on. She held her breath, waiting for her instructor’s angry words, admonishing her for taking too long. Angie loved this horse. She loved all the horses. She wished she could stand and pet them and talk to them and love them for the whole lesson. But she had to learn how to be stronger, be a better boss. “Horses need to know who’s boss,” the instructor would say.

Angie didn’t feel like a boss. She felt like a nervous little girl who was trying hard all the time not to make anyone angrier or more upset than they already were. She was worrying about not being a good boss when she was hurrying to brush the mare. And she was worrying that she wasn’t strong enough to get the girth tight enough… not just because the leather would slip through her small fingers when she tried to pull on it, but because she didn’t want to hurt the horse. It seemed cruel the way she saw the instructor pound her knee into her belly and yank the girth to make it so tight so quickly.

When the yelling started, she felt hot tears behind her eyes. She was trying so hard to be good, to be on time, but she was way behind and now the horse was stepping away from her, making the job of tacking up even harder. She knew she had to show her she was the boss. She bit her lip even harder and tried to emulate the instructor… or maybe what her father would do, be tough… and she picked up the riding crop and whacked the horse with it to make her behave.

The hot tears that she held back over forty years ago came back. They leaked out of her eyes on behalf of her love for that mare, her shame over hitting her. And for her fear of disappointing her parents and her instructors, but not knowing how to be true to herself back then, how to love herself the way she loved others. My gelding sighed deeply, yawned, and cocked one of his hind feet – settling in to relax next to Angie for as long as she needed him.

Somatic empathy happens without physical contact. It is simply one body feeling something that another body is experiencing. A person may want physical contact, and the horse may accept that, but touching is not necessary for the horse and the human to be connected in somatic experience. In this time of limited physical contact, of social distancing and self-isolation, I find it intriguing and helpful to explore the way in which matter and energy are interchangeable. How far apart can two bodies be and still experience what is happening in the other? If horses are any indicator, it’s a lot farther than six feet.

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.