Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Four-Legged Therapists

In my 24 years, I have only sat in on one formal therapy session. I was in 7th grade and having a hard time with my peers that led to a deep depression. I met with the therapist, embarrassed, ashamed and confused. I didn't like her methods and the session made me uncomfortable. Whether or not she should have, my mother didn't make me go back.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against therapy. Rather, I highly support and encourage it. It's just that, even though I was unaware at the time, I was in fact receiving a whole lot of therapy throughout my childhood. That therapy came in the form of four legs, a mane and a tail.

I sat on the back of a horse for the first time when I was three years old and was instantly hooked. At that time, in all of my understanding as a three-year-old, horses meant happiness. As I aged, horses started to mean a lot more things: courage, strength, responsibility, fear, frustration, safety, pain, confidence, confusion, understanding, and more.

Though every horse I have encountered over the years has brought me some type of therapy, some have had more impact than others.

When I was 7, I met my first identify-your-feelings-and-actions-and-fix-them therapist in the form of Ginger, a small and chubby Appaloosa mare with a fiery attitude. Ginger got mad when you were scared. It was almost as though she didn't want to deal with it. Ginger's worst habit was slamming her body into yours and the wall behind you when you attempted to saddle her. She only did this, though, if you were scared. From watching the older barn girls, I realized that she didn't try the same antics with them. I noticed that when the girls worked with Ginger, they were calm and authoritative. So, each returning week, I would try the same air of confidence. Week by week, I breathed through tricking myself into being brave; in turn, week by week, Ginger got less mean. One of the greatest victories I had as a kid was saddling Ginger on my own and returning later in the role of "older girl" to help the new, fearful riders. In a phrase, Ginger taught me to "man up".

My next significant therapist was my own horse, Jasper. Jasper and I met at the wrong time in our lives, though I didn't know it at the time. I fell in love with him the first moment I saw his head pop out of a stall, and my heart clouded my mind. I was a young girl in need of a confidence-building  horse. Jasper was instead a challenge, and a beautiful one at that. Brave and head-strong in my young age, I pushed to keep Jasper, even though my veterinarian and parents warned me against it. I like to live without regrets, so instead of being upset over our years of ups and downs (and a few broken bones in between), I've chosen to learn from them. I got Jasper as a pre-teen and had him in a difficult growth period in my life. Though he was my savior in many ways, I was too much of an emotional wreck for him. On top of being an emotional wreck I was a girl that didn't know what was happening with my moods, or how to control them. Instead of being the type of horse that took my pain and soothed it, Jasper bottled it up and threw it right back at me. That type of reflection was lost on me in my youth. Instead of always healing each other, Jasper and I had our highs of victory, success, happiness, and comfort, and our lows of defeat, frustration, miscommunication, and pain.

After Jasper, I was left broken. I felt that I had failed as an owner and a rider. Each fall that I had off of Jasper took a mental toll. When I returned to riding about a year after giving him away, my mind was so blocked up with fear of falling that it was hard to trust anyone, even myself. That's where Killian came in. Killian was a big, sweet Thoroughbred owned by my pediatrician's wife, Kathy. Kathy was kind in letting me use Killian for lessons and, eventually, the occasional show. Killian taught me how to trust again. He was the kind of horse that takes care of his riders. He moved at a big, slow pace, and had such confidence in his young years that I started to build a confidence of my own. Killian made me feel safe, and in that safety my ability as a rider grew. He was the type of horse that I perhaps needed instead of Jasper and definitely the type of horse that I needed after. In his trusting and gentle ways, Killian healed me.

Fast forward to a couple of years and a horsemanship course that I took at Michigan State University. MSU is home to an Arabian breeding barn, and though Arabs are not my cup of tea, I enrolled in the horsemanship class to feed my riding needs. As Killian had left me a much more confident, calm, and able rider, my instructor had me work with a 7 year old broodmare named Star that had just been pulled from breeding to be used for riding. Her training was minimal and her trust was low. She was a reactionary horse, ready to buck or fly at any brush with discomfort. Since I was in a much calmer and more stable part in my life, I was ready to take Star on. I worked her through insecurities, brought her to new places, and calmly held on for dear life in her freak outs. Star reminded me that though horses are large animals, they still need to feel as if they're being taken care of. They need a leader.

Now, as a riding instructor, I've been able to call upon the teachings of all of my therapists past. Each horse mentioned above along with countless others have taught me a great deal about myself. That understanding of self has enabled me, along with horses, to help others. It's really the horses, though, that help. I'm just their channel. In guiding people to understand horses, people come to start understanding themselves.

Horses are, above anything, honest creatures. They do not lie, they do not cheat. They give you signals for everything--you just have to know how to read and interpret them. You have to remember that horses are prey animals, reactionary beings.  It is their nature to be observant, to be constantly aware. They are always looking, always listening, always mindful. Horses are equipped to sense a change in pressure, ready to hear the change in breath.

And that is the key to understanding: breathing. Horses can hear your breath when you're around them and feel it when you touch them. Breathing affects the way you hold yourself, and to horses, that is communication. They use body language to speak to each other, to speak to us. Their body language changes with their moods, just as ours does. When I get frustrated, my breathing is halted. When I am sad, my breath is deep and low. When I am anxious, I hold my breath in my chest and stop it from falling into my belly. When I am sick, my breathing is obstructed and off-rhythm. When I am fearful, my breath is shallow. When I am happy and at peace, my breath is effortless. You better believe that my posture changes in reflection of my breath, and yours does too. Some horses will take the energy I give off and, like Ginger, require me to be strong in order to work with them. Another horse, like Jasper, will fight me through everything unless I am at peace, while a horse like Killian will restore me to where I need to be. Or, a horse could be like Star, and not trust her own shadow unless I am present, confident, and whole. That's the beauty in horses: they'll take what you give them and make it their own. You just have to know what you're giving them.

Though I still rotate between bouts of frustration, sadness, anxiety, illness, fear, happiness, and peace, I now have the power to recognize where I am and what I am giving, according to my breath. To begin the process of healing, of reaching peace and happiness, all I need to do is breathe. Horses taught me that. It's the best lesson I've learned to date.

My personal equine therapy will continue to evolve as I grow and develop relationships with new horses. Right now, I've got 6 active therapists that help me and my clients at Hunkapi Horse Program. Please stay tuned for my next post to see how they help me and, in turn, can help you.

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