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.