Yesterday was a first for me: I experienced an equine-facilitated therapeutic session led by my friends Erin and Wes.
I came away from the session in love with two horses: Phoenix, a dark-brown thoroughbred racehorse who was deserted by unknown owners in the desert and survived by eating gravel until my friends rescued him; and Mystery, a black horse who just showed up in Erin’s life, lost and alone.
I came away from the session smelling of horse—and that lingered a while even though I washed well. Later in my car, I found myself by sniffing my clothes, hoping to catch just once more that earthy, compelling scent.
And I came away from my equine-assisted therapeutic experience gratified for new insights and somehow emotionally spent, though the session lasted only an hour. Within a short time after it, I lay down to take a nap. I figured that was a good sign.
The background to all this: Erin is a good friend whom I met while walking the Camino in Spain in 2013. She’s a long-time horse lover who bought and developed a ranch in California’s High Desert, designing her own house and horse barn and greenhouse. Her estate is beautiful and clean and overlooks a wide, sandy plain that rises into rock-strewn mountains beyond. It’s Roy Rogers land—and indeed, Roy and Dale lived in the region.
Erin is also an MFT therapist, graciously and generously serving people of the hot, economically depressed upper desert community of Lucerne, CA. And, as an MFT, she is bravely exploring the legal and logistical issues of establishing an equine-facilitated therapeutic practice. Wes, the big-hearted man who helps with the animals and with maintaining the property, has been trained to assist in equine therapy. They make a great team.
Here’s how the session worked: Erin asked me to identify the issue on which I wanted to work. That was easy—I wanted to let go of expectations and attachments connected to how my completed children’s book would get published. I’ve been querying literary agents for a couple months, without notable success.
Erin explained that once I in the corral with the two horses, she had no expectations about what I should do or how I should relate to the animals. She pointed to several “toys” in the corral—two beach balls, a couple hula-hoops, a few swimming “noodles,” several bright orange highway cones, some lengths of rope—that I could use in whatever way I wanted. That kind of threw me: what in the world was I going to do with those things? Then Wes explained that his role to was to make sure everyone was safe—me, the horses, the property, and the two therapists.
Skeptical and timid, I entered the arena. I didn’t have a clue what to do—except that I knew I wanted to be the observer, NOT the participant. I wanted to be the eyes, not the body. Horses scare me. Not that I’m a sissy, oh no. It’s just that they’re foreign, big, and unpredictable.
Almost as soon as I entered, the two creatures came up to me, pinning me in the corner near the gate (or at least, I felt pinned). They were curious. I was overwhelmed. I decided I best take control of the situation; I reached out and stroked their faces, which is what I’ve seen others do; I told them they were beautiful; I called them by name.
So far, so good. Now what? I don’t remember the order of what happened next, but I can give the gist of it. I do recall I continued to feel at a loss.
Erin suggested I restate my intention. She reminded me about the toys and that I could use them to in some way to illustrate my situation. Ah, that was a relief—I had a direction, something to do. Good!
I took up a beach ball and a piece of rope; I laid the rope flat on the ground in the shape of a hangman’s noose and placed the ball/book inside it. Ah, yes, I thought, the ball was my book and my issue. That was a pretty clear metaphor—my issue was strangling me. Then I took up an orange traffic cone and lifted up the loose end of the rope and pushed it into the top of the cone.
The horses stood observing me, and as I finished this 3D art piece they backed away from me, busying themselves in looking for something to graze on. Wes asked if I noticed what the horses were doing.
I did: they were demonstrating no interest whatsoever in me and my problem. And what might the horses represent? I decided they represented the world—which also doesn’t seem to care about my problem.
Soon the horses were actively grazing near a pile of their poop. I decided I’d better figure out how to get them to interact with me if I was to derive any benefit from participating with them. Actually at that point I wanted their attention, I really wanted it. So I approached them; I held out my hand; I called them by name. No response.
They clearly would not be so easily manipulated. My neediness was certainly not an enticement.
That stalemate—them grazing, me needing—went on for a while. I felt stupid.
Erin brilliantly suggested perhaps I might turn again to my sculpture. Again I was relieved to have something to do. I picked up the long foam noodles and moved five of them into a star-like formation around the orange cone. Then I took the ball-symbol-for-my-book and tried to balance it on top of the cone, which didn’t work. Finally I removed the cone altogether and put the ball-symbol-for-my-book in the center of the star-shape.
At that point the horses ambled closer to me and watched. Hmm. Interesting. When I did something positive with my ball-symbol-for-my-book—the horses (read, the world) became somewhat interested, certainly more interested than when I made a hangman’s noose.
Shortly, I saw a raven flying across the expansive sky, coming near the corral before veering off. Erin and Wes noted that ravens are often associated with magic. I knew that, but at the moment, hadn’t remember.
“Call to the raven,” Wes suggested. I did—not out loud, but within me—and it came closer again. Suddenly the horses were animated; they looked at me; they moved in the direction of the “magic” raven.
By then, our session was nearing completion. One part of me was deeply stirred by the whole experience; another part, baffled. Were the horses REALLY so intuitive, so sensitive to me that they moved away when I was feeling negative, and came closer when positive? Would I be crazy to interpret their behaviors as metaphorical?
I really don’t have a clue.
What I do know is that I had a truly new experience. I entered a zone of not-knowing, which is something I seldom do anymore. But I treasure those experiences, uncomfortable though they be, for I “grok” that it’s in not-knowing that authentic new learning can happen. It’s in not-knowing that I reveal myself to myself; it’s in not-knowing that creativity is evoked.
I have no idea what others experience in equine-assisted therapy or what one is supposed to experience. And I don’t really care. For I came away from it with a deep sense of trust and connection and awe about beings very different from me—a sense that I’m supported in far more ways than I’ve yet imagined. And isn’t it interesting that my phone camera failed almost immediately when I started the session so I was forced to write this if I wanted to do a blog post about it at all? Hmm. And with that, my session concluded.
I have to authentically thank Erin and Wes. They and Phoenix and Mystery started me down a new path, certainly a better one in terms of my attitude toward my publishing my book. Mission accomplished, yes!