Cherry Gulch, Idaho sits above a beautiful valley, serene and peaceful. The day displayed intermittent sun, wind and rain, but I was happy to be in such a different therapeutic setting than my usual one; an office. The EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and LearningAssociation) training was like no other I have experienced.
I had no idea what to expect as I went to this training. My sister, Laurie, who is an Equine Specialist extraordinaire, invited me. I had heard of using horses to assist in therapy, but actually had no idea how they assisted. As it turns out, they actually DO the therapy. All we did is observe the interactions of the people and the horses and then open up their processing of the experience by sharing our observations and asking very open-ended questions. If the only thing I got from the training was the honing of my questions and observations to keep them very simple and clear, it would have been worth it, but I received so much more.
The first day I decided to volunteer to be a “client.” I stated that I had been aroundhorses my whole life. The discrepancy was apparent as I walked toward them to just hang out in their midst. I realized my heart was pounding. Of course I had 40 or so Mental Health and Equine Specialists watching me, but it was much more than that. I had a deep fear of horses that was causing my heart to race. As I tried to approach one of the horses she tried to bite me, twice, which caused my heart to race even more. As it laid it’s ears back I knew that meant “walk on lady, I’m in no mood to chat.” I did just that, all the while wondering when my heart would stop racing, or if I would have a heart attack. After another failed attempt to “hang out with a horse,” I found a little donkey that seemed to want to hang out with me for a while. This felt really significant because in the previous role-play another lady had needed to force this little donkey to stay with her and I had deemed it rather uncooperative. But she wouldn’t leave my side, as to say “I’m here for you and I am safe.”
They called us back in and asked us to debrief a bit. As I shared a flood of emotion from negative childhood experiences came up for me. I was given a horse at the age of 5 and was expected to know everything about horsemanship without any instruction. I was thrown from the horse numerous times and was more and more terrified each time I had to “get right back on that horse and show him who’s boss!”
I realized as I was sharing this, all the emotion was still there and more importantly the message were still there; “you should know how to do this” and “you are incompetent” and “I can’t trust people , I have to do it on my own.” These were messages I took with me into adulthood. Messages that haunt me today.
After lunch, the trainers asked me to continue with the session, so I went back out with the horses. This time the “assignment” was to be with the horses in a way I had never been with them. As I did so I realized I had never really tried to make peace with horses and just enjoy the beauty of who they are. I intentionally did deep breathing as I felt my heart beginning to race. As my heart was calming down I found I was inadvertently inviting the horses into my space. The one who tried to bite me was the first one to come near me. I was so intent on calming myself that I didn’t notice all of the horses saddling on up to my side. Soon the little donkey laid down in front of me and I decided to squat down close to the ground. As I did the horses all gathered around me with their noses down. It was as if the little donkey had broadcast to the others that I was safe, could be trusted, and that I needed help making peace with them.
This time when I was done the trainers said it looked like this was a significant shift for me. I agreed. It was the only session they didn’t allow the group to ask questions of the “client”. For which I was exceedingly grateful because it felt like I had a truly sacred moment. Powerful beyond what I thought possible, simply hanging with horses. What it demonstrated to me (and was confirmed throughout the weekend) was the power of just being with horses. They are incredibly intuitive animals because of the fact they are herd animals as well as animals of prey. They have to be attentive and intuitive in how they interact with the world. They seem to read your mind and will respond as they feel will meet you where you need to be met or even mirror your “stuff.” I hope to get the second level training within the year so that my sister and I can work as a team helping others in this unique and profound way.
In what ways can you simply “be” today? You may not be able to be with horses, but who or what are you able to just “be” with today? Maybe it is a loved one or maybe it is a good book.I hope you can find time to settle your heart and your mind and enjoy a sacred moment.