By Mischa Panek
The late autumn sun is slowly sinking its way toward the horizon. Surrounded by open fields of browning grass and towering trees still adorned with the season’s last few leaves, which rustle in the chilly breeze, we gather in Medicine Horse’s back arena. This is the final meeting of the year for the Writing and Riding group, who have spent the last few months’ worth of Sunday afternoons befriending and learning to connect authentically with the Medicine Horses, and journaling about their experiences, all as a means of self-discovery.
One of the goals for the day is for the participants to build trust and connect with the horses through rubbing their ears and their faces. It’s common for horses not to like having their ears and muzzle touched, but if trust can be built and the horse will allow it, then it’s possible to do this in a way which is very enjoyable to the horse. The exercise has a practical purpose too. The program horses here at Medicine Horse interact with a variety of people every day, and need to be comfortable with having their ears and muzzles touched. This is also an important skill for the horses to have for their routine veterinary check-ups, for tolerating the placement and removal of halters, etc.
Though my usual involvement with the Writing and Riding group is as a horse handler, today we have extra handlers on hand. Because this exercise involves no leading or riding, I’m given a chance to participate. Thrilled at the opportunity, I head toward the barn, wondering along the way about which horse I would like to work with. As I enter the barn, I pause and take a breath, looking up and down the stalls. Without much conscious thought I find myself walking, and seconds later I arrive at the stall of Lassaro (or Laz, as he is affectionately known).
Laz is standing and watching me with his usual calm demeanor. Tall, regal and strong, Laz maintains his place at the top of the herd when among the other horses, but with humans he is ever patient and polite. He is one of the first horses I connected with when I began horse handling here a few months ago. Having struggled with anxiety in my personal life, I found that I naturally gravitated to the stability that Laz embodies.
After entering his stall and putting on his halter, I lead Laz to the arena. He has already clicked into “work mode,” ready to do whatever task may be asked of him, but instead we find a quiet spot away from the participants and their horses. Today, I simply stand with him and take a few moments to breathe and enjoy his company. Then I pet his neck, which he seems to enjoy. When I reach for his left ear, he resists by lifting his head up and away from me briefly before turning his attention back to me. I try again, but get the same result. It’s then that I realize that I’ve gotten nervous. I pause for a few slow breaths to clear this mild anxiety, and wait for Laz to mirror the new-found relaxation back to me.
This time when I reach for his ear, we are both calm. As I begin to rub his ear, Laz chooses not to pull away; instead, he lowers his head and closes his eyes a bit. I pet his neck again, then move to his forehead. He allows me to clean away some bits of dirt near his eye, then turns to touch his forehead to mine. Helped along by Laz, standing there still and quiet, my awareness settles into the present moment. I feel the soft sand underneath my feet, and the sun’s rays on my face. I hear the lively whinny of a horse in a nearby barn. I inhale the fresh Colorado mountain air. I notice myself breathing more slowly and deeply, relaxing a bit more with each breath.
In Laz’s relaxed and calm state, it’s as though an invisible sphere of peace and calm have enveloped us. With my senses heightened, Laz and I seem to be communicating through energy, which is so much more powerful and primal than verbal communication. I feel honored to be here in this moment with this beautiful horse. The typical narration that occurs in the back of my mind – recalling past events, analyzing the present moment, looking ahead to the future – is blissfully absent. My state has shifted from doing to being. Right now, I am truly and utterly here, and only here.
This type of present-centered experience is mysterious and wonderful to me. It is why I began several years ago to meditate and practice mindfulness. It is also ultimately what brought me to Medicine Horse, because it is here that I am completing a practicum as part of my Master’s degree program in psychotherapy. All of our important realizations about life, and all of our healing, take place in the present moment. This is where horses live all the time. They don’t live in the past or anticipate the future. The horses always help me to be present, but today is particularly potent.
One of the group participants walks over to join Laz and me, and as she arrives it’s as though she’s stepped into the peaceful bubble. We comment about how relaxed Laz is, then silently attune to him, rubbing his ears or petting his neck or forehead. For these few minutes, the cares of our usual lives seem to fall away. Our personalities and our stories have no importance. What is left is the gratitude for Laz and the hope that he – somehow, in his own horse way – knows how much we appreciate him. I am struck by a beautiful irony: though my intention while carrying out this exercise is to give him love and care, and to show my gratitude for all that he does, even in those moments it is Laz who is still teaching me. By simply standing there and sharing this moment with me, he continues to help me to relax, to be present, and to heal.