Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lead Mare in the Making

The old mare watched the tractor work,
A thing of rubber and steel,
Ready to follow the slightest wish,
Of the man who held the wheel.
She said to herself as it passed by,
You gave me an awful jolt.
But there's still one thing you cannot do,
You cannot raise a colt.
Source unknown

If someone were to ask your definition of leadership, how would you answer? Perhaps the picture includes someone intelligent, confident,  organized, high energy, and with a five year plan. Maybe it's someone with charisma, all the right words, and a three piece suit.  I might answer that I see more leadership in a scruffy mane across the fence everyday, than I see anywhere else.

Horses are splendid examples of group dynamics, which is why they are used so widely these days in the therapeutic realm. The role of lead mare has been something I have cherished and respected since meeting the tall dark warm blood in our herd at least 7 years ago. But what I have noticed lately about lead mares has knocked me off my toes.
They all are.

Today if I look out over the pasture, I will see each of the five mares clear about their role, but confidently challenging it. Each one from the mature sensitive mare to the one who has given birth and mothered, the big one no one can ignore, and the young filly in a constant state of learning. But the mare that's caused me to notice all of this is my mare Lucy. Over the past 7 years I have watched a horse who I would diagnose as "passive" show up today as a mare that I am sure secretly runs the herd. She's not the first one at the hay bale, and she's not the one to show the new gelding where to stand. But she is the peacemaker of the herd. And the troublemaker.  Everyone misses her when she's gone. The herd is provided with a steadiness because of who she is. She's taught people and horses in a way that makes them think they are doing it all themselves. I even watched her make baby faces at the new gelding the other day, for a reason unknown to me,  this mare that regularly dishes out nasty faces to other horses on trail rides and in the ring.

I've watched her growth through the years not only in what we have done together but who she's been in the herd. I can't help but notice the mirror reflection on my own growth as well. Growth ranging from confidence and learning to self respect and self restraint. Mostly I hope the skill I can posess that I see in this lead mare is the graciousness and openness of heart that she has cultivated. The ability to be ok with everything as it is, and yet know that there is a way to make a powerful difference. 

Every mare in that pasture is a lead mare. Some have more dominance traits, and some have more experience.  But with a mare as with a leader, there is a driving purpose to be fulfilled that will never be satisfied.  The purpose is the herd. It's safety, it's togetherness, it's serenity. A leader is someone who knows his purpose is the herd, and plays whatever part is necessary to make it work.

I used to think that some horses were leaders and the rest just followers in their own regard.  Perhaps my definition of leadership has been very humanized. In a world of bullies and indentured servants, when someone tries to fulfill a calling, we label them "entrepreneurs". We call women who raise families "stay at home moms", as though location is needed for definition.  We think leadership is what you do and accomplish,  rather than what you provide and who you are. Leadership is something that can be present at any moment,  simply by doing what you know there is to do, and by offering what you have to the herd, to the situation. It might mean backing away, or fighting, or a calm steady presence. As I see it from the mares, it's not what you do, it's for what you do. For the herd.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Dark Horse

It was a little hard to have a productive therapy session with the high pitched screaming and thunk of hooves hitting the boards that was coming from the barn. Smoke, the handsome black horse that had come to the farm about three months ago had been steadily making his presence known to the herd, and the gelding in the stall next to him was getting an earful. Though the aura of terror in the stalls was irritating, I could understand his point. Horses have dominance conversations all the time. It's just that it seemed to be gettin worse, rather than resolving. So I was thankful when it was time for Smoke to go out to the field, with his pasturemate Buddy, who he had been getting along with nicely. As I turned Smoke loose in the night and fumbled with Buddy's halter, I was nearly knocked over by a blast of black hide and hair flying towards the innocent paint horse. And before I could regroup, it happened again. I was on my toes the third time around,  however,  and after the two were successfully turned out, the drama appeared over as quickly as it started. A couple days later, Smoke gave a lovely therapeutic riding lesson, like a trustworthy mount with a true calling.

I have been finding myself the victim of a dark horse lately. It rears it's ugly head mostly when I am alone. It sounds like grumbling, complaining,  anger, greed. It assumes something negative before anything is present.  The dark horse has a very limited focus, and generally feeds itself. And then, just when I an afraid it will swallow me up, something happens,  and the dark horse is brought out into the light. It gets held up to reality. To connection, to feedback, to a smile and truth. And shakes out its mane and it simmers down.

So I wonder at myself and this dark horse I have. How does one navigate between the waves of dark and light that show up? How can you tell the difference between the horse in the stall next to you that you just met, and the one you've been friends with for weeks, and not attack the wrong one?

Wait and see.

Night turns into day. Shadows turn into evidence. Hold your dark horse up to the light, you might find him warm and happy in the sun, ready to nuzzle your chest and lick your hand. Maybe just hold those thoughts for a while and see if they change. Our problem often is that we believe everything we think. Have you ever noticed that you tend to think the same things over and over? Same gripes, complaints and problems?  Brains are very programmable, but we often don't pay any attention to what we are programming. We don't leave any room for creative process in our thoughts. No room for possibility.

Taking your dark horse to the light might look different for everyone.  It might mean sharing your feelings with a trusted friend. It might mean excersizing to get out of your head. It might mean therapy, or just taking a break. Once the light has cracked in, make room with it. Create. And know that the dark horse will come again. You just may know better than to believe it this time.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Not the Breaths We Take

     "Life's not the breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away."

As I stared at the frail shadow laying before me of the man who I always remember towering over me with an easy air of vigor, wit  and  a grounded worldlessness, I was stunned. This was not how I thought it would be. The gasping and struggling,  the cruel uncomfortable moaning spoke nothing of the mystery and myth that I imagined sending a loved one to the other side would hold. This was mean. I could not even say unfair,  as the man had lived a generous and glorious 92 years. I could not argue with the need to pass after ones long work is done, but wouldn't it be better if he was just handed a gold watch and ushered into glory? It was mean. Mean in the fashion of it being common. Gutteral. Natural like bodily fluids and stench. Noone tells you this. Noone tells you that one day the patriarch of the family will be at the mercy of you,  to move his arms and legs, clean away the mess, tend to whether he is cold or warm, and decipher grunts and groans to decide how comfortable it can be.

A strange irony to me was that this great now fallen man was resting on a sheet covered in cartoon dalmatians. Perhaps to anyone else it may have seemed inappropriate for the scene,  but to me it brought comfort. I sensed the presence of my sweet dalmatian partner of over a decade who not two years ago I held as I felt her spirit leave her body. I still hadn't healed that hole in my heart, but that didn't matter. Not here at this mortal scene.

Each loved one that I have lost in the moments of their death has given me something.  My horse Buster who I stayed with through the rain until making the decision to send him on still drives me on. Great equine friends who gave all they had made me who I am. Their loss is significant.  But their leaving is something else. 

After the morphine kicked in, and my family had spent several rounds singing Bangala hymns around my grandad's  bedside, in the quiet bustle of preparing dinner and chatting about the next day, my father called us in. We held his hands and quietly offered him into heaven. I felt his spirit rise. But in a subtle, peaceful way. There were no angels or trumpets. It was like he had just walked into the other room. But I'm clear that I saw him kick up his heels on the way.

I know that this story is old. And I know that it's not mine. I know that the humanity we share means that we share these griefs. They say death is the great equalizer. Then our grief must be the most equal and common thing we have. Though it doesn't usually feel that way.

Through this experience I began to imagine what grief must look like. Based of course, on what it feels like. I imagine a big cannonball, chained to a leg. It feels really heavy and impossible at first,  but after a while you tend to get used to having it there. And like it would be lugging around a big cannonball,  I suppose that you may even gain some strength from having it drag behind you so long.  Perhaps you take it upon yorself to pick up the cannonball, so that it is easier for you to move around. And then sometimes you can put it down and leap and play and be happy, but all within the limits of your chain. Many people start looking at their grief ball a little differently, break out their hammer and anvil and work on reshaping it to a figure of their choosing. Some people make beautiful works of art out of their grief. But like all art, it is personal, and sacred. And no matter what it looks like, it is a blessing when shared.

Friday, September 4, 2015


If there is anything in life that can cause stress for people across the board, it is change. Transitions are something that we have many of in life, but often dread and resist. But the one thing that a good horseman is always seeking is how to ride a nice transition. Walk to trot, trot to canter, canter to halt. I've spent many hours in the saddle practicing transitions. Riding these waves of the dance can teach us do much about riding the waves in our life.

* Plan ahead, and be in the moment - A rider prepares for his transition.  Whether it be a half an arena away or on the fly, a rider prepares his body before he asks his horse to transition. Preparing mentally  and physically are important for a good transition.  However, there is a moment when preparation must turn into presence. The canter does not happen in the future, it happens now. The mental capacity that we put in to planning can often turn to worry, which is a hugely counterproductive emotion. A horse looks for clarity from his rider. Clarity is never about knowing the future, it is only about knowing now.

* Sit deep, and fly a little - In a transition,  a rider must connect with his seat to be effective.  Understanding that sometimes transitions can provide a bit of a rocky ride, the rider has worked for hundreds of hours at finding and using his seat effectively. This happened long before a flying lead change was even thought of. When we are faced with a transition in life,  whether it is of our own making or not, one of the things we can do is find our seat, our center, and rely on it. It's important that we know our strengths and skills. We can consciously use them, though we are likely unconsciously using them already.  These are things that we have brought with us to this moment, and will carry us through.  Though a rider will sit deep and secure, there is a moment in every transition where everything is up in the air. This moment of suspension is needed for the horse to move from one gait into another. It is the only thing that can make the transition happen. Walking out of your job for the last time with 100 dollars in your bank account. Standing at the brink of your loved ones grave and facing what life will be like from there. These are moments of not knowing. But they are moments of faith. Trusting in a higher power, trusting in the process, trusting in yourself.

*Don't forget to exhale, and keep focused on the goal- One thing that will make every transition smoother is breathing. Specifically,  breathing out. There is something about exhaling that lets go. Exhaling is a bodily function that releases the toxic gas in our blood, and it causes our bodies to be more relaxed, releasing tension. In life we are often called to let go of things. I personally am not one to do this easily,  and it is evident in my riding as well. I have had to exhale a LOT to counteract being a "ride by the seat of my pants" kind of girl. In riding we all want to hang on. No, let go. Let go of those relationships that hurt you,  those places that tax you, those things that eat you alive.  Sometimes the cords can be more emotional than physical. We can only move forward if we let go of what holds us back. That being said, a rider always focuses on his goal. Look where you are going. A posture of focus holds you up during a choppy change.

* Keep moving forward,  but remember it's not about speed - Transitions, yes, even to a halt, require forward motion. Can you imagine the pile of legs and tack on the arena footing should your horse stop moving forward at any point during the transition?  However, it's not about speed. Transitions are never, ever, ever about going faster. The goal of every great horseman is to be able to ask his horse to transition into any gait, and keep the same tempo. This, my friends, requires practice, self control, and presence of mind. Just like managing our emotions and actions through these times of change.

My favorite aspect of practicing transitions with my horse is the feeling of lightness and responsiveness that comes through it. Many transitions make one light. I also enjoy the look back over the many transitions that I have had in my life, and feel a little lighter, more prepared, and eager to engage in the next one.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Trail Less Traveled

As I pick up my old Grey gelding's hooves to trim them and know that I have the honor of owning this part in keeping his health and soundness, I think about the first time I tried to trim a hoof. I had lost my farrier, and clumsily attempted to wield my tools and wrestle with my horse, realizing quickly the difficulty of the task, I shortly gave up and looked in the phone book again. When I think about my  lack of ability and knowledge at the time, I am amazed that I know and do what I do now. Of course I believe it was this very awkward attempt that led me to the woman who taught me so much about hoof trimming. 

So many things in my life have impacted the path I have found myself on. And there is constantly a choice and a crossroads. 

Recently the new barn and indoor have been completed,  and plans and wheels have been turning to organize the facility to offer therapeutic services that use horses to help people. I came to learn about this work and gained friends and associates that have guided me on this path about 7 years ago. Somewhere I probably never envisioned myself to be, but yet somehow always knew.

One of the first events held here was a clinic taught by a man who promotes assisting the horse with learning how to release his body in order to use it more efficiently and powerfully. As I worked with him and my young horse, he guided me in using my energy to release her back and emotional blocks. He gave me confirmation in using a skill that I knew that I had but haven't really practiced. One of the things that he stated was that the kidney area where she was holding tension is the area that fear is held in our bodies. The next day I took my pony for a walk out in the back field and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left kidney. I recognized that this was probably not my pain, rather I was empathizing with her on a physical level. I cleared the energy from her back and loin and had the thought that it might result in urination. Then there was that space.  That space of following a gut instinct and not knowing whether it really made any difference.  This space was so familiar and I know it is the space I had been wallowing in. Doubting, hiding, and falling back on old habits. We took a few strides further into our walk and my mare squatted to pee.

Strange story, I know. But what it left me with was confirmation.  There are places that I can make a difference in ways that I am meant to make difference.  There are lessons to learn and voices to hear on a path that you can't ignore just because they may not sound like everyone else's. Or because you can't find them in school or the parameters of the office.

People don't learn and grow the same. And there are so many places on the path to get stuck, to doubt,  to get fouled up by what someone else says or thinks. And the path continues to bring new things to light. A path is something that is meant to keep you moving. Loitering about is against the rules.

My hope is to bring to this beautiful new space that I am working in the possibility that people get to find themselves.  Their true selves. Through psychotherapy, and trauma work, and horses.  And through whatever it takes. Because to me, that is what therapy is. It's the opportunity to get connected to oneself in a way that you can heal yourself. Through being whole. And I can't offer this to people unless I'm willing to take the path I have set out on. Maybe it's less traveled,  but I know there are plenty of guides along the way.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Letting Go....... Again and Again

The scene is a sufficiently cold New Year's Day, on horseback (of course) with an old friend on the trail and new 2.5 year old Arabian filly being ponied at my side. That's the way I like to spend New Year's, appreciating the old and taking on the new adventures. And this gorgeous, intelligent, sensitive, and spunky little black filly, by the name of Isis, is obviously chock full of new lessons for me. But as is appropriate, this introductory lesson she gives me on this day is really a reiteration of an old one. (See "Letting Go"-2011)

We were walking the back dirt roads behind the mill pond, and had gotten a bit lost, but were heading back to the trailers. It was getting to be dusk soon. Everyone else in the area was ready to head home to, so a few trucks began to go by. It was a tight road and we pulled over to the side. To our trusty  trail horses this was old hat, but little Isis thought jumping in the air and scooting around was her only option.  I held the rope tighter to keep her close and safe. Another truck came by, same thing. I knew three times makes a pattern,  and horses love patterns. I didn't want this unconfident behavior to be what my  little horse learned, so I began to rethink my strategy. As the next happy park visitor began to roll out, I thought about my horse's typically very investigative and thoughtful way, and I realized that she was probably upset because she couldn't see the trucks coming up behind her. So there, when that last truck came by, on that tight little wooded road, instead of holding on tighter to try to keep my mare safe, I loosened the rope to give her the room so she could turn her head to see. And she watched the truck roll by with calm curiosity.

Horses are constantly teaching us these counterintuitive lessons of letting go. As upright, verbal, opposable thumb owning predators, we learn to think that holding on is the best way, or the only way. Horses don't have thumbs, or words, but they do have intention and space. A lead mare can clear a horse from the herd from across the field,  and can keep a frantic racing herd together without touching, without ropes and halters. But for some reason, humans think the more control, the better. Control of others, control of our life, control of our emotions. Until we realize it is an illusion. The fact is, humans aren't built like horses. We need to practice letting go.

I guarantee you that ten years ago, I would not have thought to loosen that rope for my horse to see the truck. But I've been practicing being a horseman worthy of the horse, and loosening my rope has become slightly more of a habit than holding on to it.

In my life there's always opportunities to practice letting go.  Letting go of a thought, an expectation, a habit. Not trying to make it go away -that's more of the same.  But giving it the space to be, like a horse sees another horse. Setting my intention and allowing the beings around me to do as they see fit. And then the next moment doing it again. Noticing when I try to take back control, and then letting go again.

Like tossing rose petals into the air to watch them fall around you. And once they fall, tossing up another handful.

There will be another day, another horse, another rope to let go. And perhaps I will. There will be a million chances every day to let go of the ropes and even chains that I've held on to in my life. And maybe eventually, with continued practice,  I will play without ropes.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Hard Way

The horses on this farm have lived for over ten years like horses. No barn, no stalls, no tack room, no feed room, no blankets or buckets of mash on a cold night. Just pasture, grass, a few trees, water and a little bit of shelter. This means that the humans who love these horses have had to live with the same inconveniences. So it's been trudging through snow drifts lugging buckets of feed, tending to sick horses in the dark, and managing all aspects of horsemanship in the rain, heat, snow, windstorm and bugs. Though it is a great deal of work and sacrifice, I have found there is something about this way of living with a herd of horses that is very rewarding. 

A new beautiful barn and indoor arena is up and on its way to being finished and drastically changing the way of doing things around here. And though it's an extremely exciting dream come true, honestly,  it makes me a little sad. For many years we have lived in our horses world. All our activities have been in their space and in their way. We've had to do it the hard way, and in doing that had to be flexible.  We've never gotten to throw a horse in a stall when they have moved to the farm, we've had to work with the herd and listen to what they needed to assimilate. Vet visits and hoof trimmings have all happened with a few good buddies standing by in support. Deaths and illnesses in the same manner. We've had to manage our herd in a way that takes into account who they are. And we've built an incredible herd bond because of it. 

I'd say if there's a word to describe how we've been in doing it the hard way, it's humility. Something draws a line in our relationship with horses when we bring them into our world and do things our way.  They become the beasts of burden, made to live how is convenient for us. When we live more naturally their way, we become the beasts of burden, and what a lesson that is.

My point here is nothing about how we keep our horses, rather in who we be when life hands us difficult circumstances.  I've seen a huge difference in people who fret over having to do something the hard way, and in those who handle it with grace and humility. One definition of humility is "having a clear perspective and respect for one's place in context." In other words, the understanding that things are perfect as they are, and being present to the learning opportunity available.  

Doing it the hard way for so long has had its difficulties, but what we leave it with is an invaluable understanding of who our horses are, and who we are to them. This chance we had to be open to a different way of being and learn from our horses has left me looking for a way to keep the spirit of who we are with our horses alive even though our circumstances are apparently improving. Having a clear perspective and respect for one's place in context leaves an openness for all matter of lessons no matter where one is in life. This gives us the opportunity to move to the next place in life better suited for its own challenges and lessons, and hopefully with more gratefulness for what we have, and what got us there.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How Not to Hide your Hiney

Sometimes the nature of humanity breaks my heart. Like when I see people that I care about doing things over and over that simply don’t work. It’s human nature to get stopped in life, and even stuck from time to time. It's easy to look at someone else and think that we can shake them out of it. And then I find myself stopped and stuck, and I feel what that mucky mire is that’s got me weighed down dripping from my boots. Shame.

Shame is an aspect of humanity that seems to me like the most underaddressed big ugly beast of them all. It is so debilitating. One definition of Shame is,  “A pervasive, negative emotional state, usually originating in childhood, marked by chronic self-reproach and a sense of personal failure.” Ew. So murky and sticky. But don’t for a moment think that you don’t find yourself loving to live there. It’s like a deep dark magnetic vortex, so easy to be sucked into.

Reminds me of a technique that is often used in horsemanship, especially with young or naughty horses, of teaching that horse to turn and face the human, providing an aspect of safety and respect. They learn to “hide their hiney”. Such is the definition of Guilt. To put it in human terms, it is understanding the difference between right and wrong and being willing to apologize, show respect, and restore the relationship. This is the purpose of this game.

But sometimes, horses get stuck. They start to think that the ONLY thing for them to do is turn and face. Perhaps a fumbling or fearful human has built this into them, and soon you have an animal whose sole built purpose in life is moving forward, completely stopped. This is the danger of Shame.

I have found myself there many times. Most recently was most frustrating, because I knew what it was holding me back. I knew that there was something that I had neglected to do to the standard expected of myself, and proceeded to beat myself up over it. I thereby avoided any forward progress. Some good friends reminded me of what I already knew, and then I saw what was missing: the circle. I was so focused on the problem and on hiding my hiney about it, that I forgot what I was there for- to make a brilliant difference.

Focusing on the problem and on the shame more, and on trying to make something right is not the answer. Getting connected to your commitment, goal, and purpose is. If a horse or human lives its life in fear of his hiney getting smacked, then life will look like simply trying to avoid a problem, a fear, or a negative interaction. I want my horse to find comfort and connection in a soft rhythmic pace on the circle, and I want to carry that into anything that we do anywhere, being free to connect from any angle, distance or speed. I want to be able to do that with myself and my connection to life as well. That can only be found in the trying and in the living.

One of the first rules in horsemanship is “look where you are going.” If a horse forgets what it means to be a horse, well then they don't make a very good horse. When a person forgets what it means to be a human, and finds themselves staring down the big heavy stick of failure, well then they stop moving forward. Somehow, whether it be through personal reflection and persistence, or a good friend dragging you out of it, the human needs to peel his eyes off the problem and direct his gaze back to the circle before he can move forward. And I promise, it’s a better view.