MHP Reflection

By Stephanie McBride


Victor, Lassaro, and Commander are in the back arena. Lassaro and Commander are playing “halter tag” attempting to bite each other’s halter. They are precise in their movementsthey do not make contact with each other’s skin, using their teeth to grab only the leather strap that runs down their cheeks. “It reminds me of siblings playing,” says one of the observers. The horses, all three in the game, take turns rearing up on their hind legs, their heads close together. The energy is higher now and the horses are nipping each other’s necks and shoulders with increasing pressure. “Ow!” says another observer and Lassaro nips Victor with more force. Victor quickly swings his butt around towards Lassaro ears pinned back. “That was too much; they were all playing but that was too hard.” Lassaro takes a step back and doesn’t nip at Victor anymore. “It worked! Victor asked him to back off and he actually did!” Some energy shifts and now all the horses are running, close together, step for step, round and round the arena.

We were at “Hanging with the Horses,” an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) sample day with volunteers and curious community members. We were observing the herd to see what the horses’ relationships had to teach us. Alison and I have run that group several times before, but it is always different. The people are usually new to the group, the horses show up in different ways, and the environment is always changing. I have been at Medicine Horse since January 2017, starting first as a practicum student, then since May as an intern. I have learned so much during that time, and yet I still struggle to articulate what I actually do. A big piece of that is that EAP looks different for every person, group, and horse, and it changes from moment to moment.

The horses begin to settle and still, sniffing at cottonwood branches or at a pile of poop. Lassaro looks like he is about to roll, his nose dragging the sand, looking for the perfect spot but he cannot seem to find one. “It takes a lot of trust for a horse to roll, to be belly up and so vulnerable.” Suddenly Commander is alert staring off to the west, his body is tense, head high. Almost instantly Victor and Lassaro mirror Commander. “What do they see?” We are observing outside the fence of the arena, but our attention is also mirroring the horses, all straining to pick out what they are reacting to. A red-tailed hawk flies towards us. The horses are still watching but exhale. A second hawk chases the first and they land on the closest branch to the arena. In a moment a third hawk joins, all on one branch, all watching the horses watching them. The three horses are all in a line watching the three birds. The hawks alternate watching and picking at one another and so do the horses. “They are mirroring one another! How does that even happen?!”

I am in my final year of the Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy master’s program at Naropa. Part of this program and also my personal belief, is that we as humans are not separate from nature but part of it. Interconnected, we affect and are affected by the world around us. By closely observing our environment, we begin to observe ourselves; by being in relationship to the natural world, we enter into relationship with ourselves. So I ask myself (and often clients) what part of myself do I see in the horse that may not trust enough to be vulnerable, what part of myself is alert to danger? How are the relationships in this group like three hawks and three horses playing and watching?

Commander is alert again. We can see the white of his eyes, his head is high, he quietly snorts, just a quick forceful exhale. Slower this time, Lassaro and Victor become mirrors of Commander, standing close together, looking past the hawks into the field, they see a threat. Then I see it too. “There’s a Coyote!” Larger than most dogs, the thin sleek coyote is standing in the field 200 yards away, tongue hanging out panting watching three horses. Or watching us. “The horses are sticking together for protection. They need each other when there’s danger. It is how they survive.” Eventually the coyote leaves, Victor shakes it off like a dog after a bath, Commander starts eating grass through the fence, and Lassaro takes a “horsey breath,” nostrils vibrating as he exhales. We all exhale too, a few of our lips vibrating to copy Lassaro. The horses stay closer together since the coyote appeared.

This work can feel like magic. Of course my rational brain can justify what happens, how horses communicate, can sense our nervous systems, how they relate to one another. Horses can influence our heart rates, can act as 1200lbs living, breathing bio-feedback machines, can attune to our emotions and congruence often more quickly than we can ourselves. As herd animals, horses are exceptionally relational. As prey animals they are exceptionally sensitive. Their hearts are as big as our brains, they have four hooves very connected to the earth, and constantly remind us to connect with our bodies. The magical part is that I cannot make any of it happen. It has to be real, in the moment responses and relationships. I cannot make Lassaro respect Victor’s boundaries, or make the coyote show up, or make the horses to rely on each other. What shows up during EAP is almost always what is supposed to happen. What we bring in with us inherently shapes the relationship with the horses and with our environment. EAP is based in experience, and the only way to truly know what may happen is to experience it.



Broken Ribs and a Broken Heart: Finding the courage to say no

By Nikki Hodgson

He caught my attention the same way the horses do. Our first kiss was in a parking lot. Our second, at a lookout where I saw a shooting star. I breathed him in like the dusty, sweet scent of hay, and lost track of everything else. My life has been a series of suitcases and moving boxes; he felt like the kind of place where you set down your bags and shut the door.

I have always had trouble saying “no.” I keep my thoughts to myself and swallow my emotions whole. My grandmother had heard about the way the horses work—how they coax courage out of cautious hearts. She signed me up for riding camp when I was seven. For twenty-five years, I have been sweeping dusty coats with horsehair brushes, untangling manes, tightening cinches.

But, for all the horses have taught me, I still have trouble with the word “no.”

When he said “just friends,” I swallowed my disappointment and forced a smile. But he kept coming over anyway. I kept my words tucked under my tongue, tracing my fingers along his skin, quietly waiting for an answer to a question I couldn’t find the courage to ask. Eight months slipped by; 250 nights of staring at the ceiling, torturing myself with what ifs, trying to swallow my anxiety and convince myself I was strong enough to handle the uncertainty of a man who couldn’t love me back, but wouldn’t let me go.

Eventually I wrote out my feelings on two sheets of paper. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I told him, as I slipped the letter into his pocket. “I just need you to know.” He doesn’t talk about it. We don’t talk at all. I am left alone, struggling to arrange my life around this slow, steady sadness and the answer his silence spells out.

I retreat to the barn and to my horse, Nitro. We match. Short and blonde with a cheerful demeanor and a stubborn streak, we have spent a lifetime watching people leave. But where I am passive, Nitro is pushy. My tactic has been to retreat from the world, his is to charge forward into it. We wage constant battles over boundaries.

Affectionate and lively, his toasted marshmallow coloring and wide, black eyes endear him to everyone. But horses can hear the demons roaring in your heart. And they respond to them. He pushes hard against my fears and when I don’t push back, he becomes a thousand-pound manifestation of my every anxiety.

I have forgotten how to be firm. When I ask Nitro to listen, it’s underscored by hesitation. It’s this hesitation that pushes him into a restless, agitated state, constantly dancing around my feet and spooking at shadows. One afternoon I swing my leg over the saddle, feeling him tense as soon as I slide my foot into the stirrup. I can see what’s coming, and I feel powerless to stop it.

When a horse spooks, you feel the bottom drop out and then rise from underneath you, like a wave pulling back and then crashing on the shore. There is a moment of weightlessness and then the strength of momentum. Nitro ducks and spins, throwing himself into the air, his head tucked neatly between his two front legs.

I hit the ground on my right side, fingers still curled around invisible reins. They say your horse is a mirror for your soul; I look at Nitro and wonder when I became so afraid.

There’s not much you can do about a broken rib. Take short, shallow breaths. Stay perfectly still when you sleep.

When I get home, I run a bath and sit in the hot water until it becomes tepid. The man I love is gone; my horse left me alone in the dirt. When I replay both scenes in my head, all I can think is how easily I gave in. I just dropped the reins and let both horse and man throw me into oblivion.

The next day, I am back at the barn. I am limping and it hurts to breathe, but cracked ribs heal, trust can be rebuilt. With the horses, I am brave enough to know that.

Our first few rides are tense. When Nitro starts jigging, I hold my breath. Braced for the impact, lower back tightening, jaw set. My trainer’s voice rings through the panic that sets in when I feel Nitro taking control. “More contact, outside leg, inside rein, follow with your hands, head up, heels down, breathe.”

I need a trainer for my heart. Someone whose voice rings through all the dust I kick up. Someone to stand in the center of the arena and call out reminders when I let the reins go slack, braced against the saddle, waiting for the worst to come.

“It’s okay to be firm,” she says when I am hesitant in correcting Nitro. “If he crosses a line, you need to let him know.” We spin circles in the arena, working to find the balance between the love we crave and the boundaries we need. I can swallow my emotions; I can say, “I’m fine.” But Nitro feels what I feel. I can’t hide from him.

And I’m not fine. I was so afraid to rock the boat that I just sat still and drifted out to sea. I let this man walk all over me. I didn’t even try to get out of the way. I didn’t even try to correct him.

Nitro forces me to stand up for myself a dozen times a day. Every time he refuses to pick up his feet, every time he nips, every time I have to assert myself, I grow a little stronger. The next time he spooks, I keep my seat and a firm hand on the reins. “You’re okay,” I tell him. There is no hesitation in my voice. I take a deep breath, settling my weight, watching as his ears rotate toward me and he softens and yields, coming to a halt.

I’m driving home from the barn when I see the text. It’s been a year. I promise myself it will be different this time. I will draw boundaries. I will stand up for myself. I will say no.

But I don’t. In spite of everything Nitro has taught me, I find myself slipping into the same pattern. I watch the months pass, feeling helpless and afraid.

I distract myself by hauling hay and mucking stalls. When people hurt me, I withdraw into myself. When I don’t know how to say no, I simply stay quiet. It is only at the barn that I stand up and shout. I am so much braver on the back of a horse.

In horse speak, I am firm and I am fair and I am stronger than my fear. I keep my head up and my eyes forward. I know there is always a chance my partner will slam on the brakes and send me flying into the future, headfirst and alone. I lean forward anyway.

I tell him we need to talk, writing out the speech in my head so when I forget everything I meant to say, I can close my eyes and see my emotions organized in rows, stacked neatly with the corresponding words. But, as soon as he’s sitting across from me on the couch, I find the practiced calm that the horses have given me. I swallow my hesitation instead of my heart.

“I want you,” I tell him, “but I don’t want this.” He has taken advantage of me, and it hurts. I am not angry, I am not bitter, but I am tired of being pushed aside. My heart has retained the muscle memory of love learned from horses, where boundaries are required and respect must be enforced. It hurts like hell to tell him no, but I can’t rely on him to draw the boundaries we need. I hug him goodnight and head to the barn.

It’s 20 degrees and snowing. The patches of yellow light hit the stalls and then fade out into the shadows. The pigeons shuffle along the rafters. Nitro rests his head over my shoulder. I tangle my fingers in his mane with my face pressed against his neck. When I lean into him, he leans in right back.

What happens now, I don’t know. But I am no longer as afraid. I leaned forward into a relationship that left me sprawled out in the dust, watching everything I’d imagined gallop off, without me. The impact of the fall has left me aching, standing up slowly. But the word “no” made it out of my mouth. There is freedom in that.

Falling is the inevitable risk of horses and love. The crash landing never becomes any less daunting, but the horses have taught me to lean forward anyway. To stand up for myself. To correct the things that hurt me.

When fear rises up in my heart, I channel my equestrian self, waving my arms, shouting, “back” until my heart is my own again. And I lean against Nitro, watching the moon rise as he swings his nose to my hand: the mirror of his soul, showing me the courage in mine.