Borrowed Benefits

by Cathy Steiner

Max Patti.JPG

Many horses offer healing and comfort, often in surprising ways. As equine-assisted coaches, Paula Karen and I partner with horses to help people heal and grow. We host a monthly group for caregivers who take care of others, whether on a personal or professional level. In the group, called Self-care According to Horses, we explore lessons based on the ways horses look after themselves and relieve stress. Our co-coaching horses also help participants process their experiences in caregiving. Not only does the person working directly with the horse benefit from the experience, the participants watching the work derive “borrowed benefits” or their own growth through observing.

Even when they appear to be completely distracted, the horses manage to give us guidance. A perfect example was a group session with Max, a large warmblood. He is generally very sweet and interactive, and always has something to say. It was a beautiful day in June following a few stormy days of rain and wind. Tree branches had been knocked down all over the property, including in the round pen where we do our work. The leaves were still fresh, offering tasty snacks for the horses.

We brought Max into the round pen to work with one of the participants. While we talked with the woman, Max remained focused on the leaves and branches on the ground, seeming oblivious to what the humans were doing. As we reached a heart-felt aspect of the participant’s caregiving story, Max stopped eating and came over to check in before returning to his leaves. He did this several times at key moments, only to go straight back to munching near the fence. His “fly-by” interactions, as Paula calls them, were always at poignant moments and always brief. He was aware and interested in connecting when there were emotions involved. This interaction was very helpful and validating for the participant as she worked through her feelings.

We completed that particular piece of work and asked the group what their takeaways were from observing the session. One woman noted that seeing Max enjoy eating leaves showed the positive that can come, along with the negative, from a storm. With tears in her eyes, she said that Max’s interactions were particularly meaningful for her because they reminded her of her son who is wheelchair-bound. Although it may appear to those who do not know him that he is living in his own world because he is nonverbal, her son is very aware of everything going on around him all the time. Like Max, he is able to momentarily connect with her in purposeful ways. Seeing this behavior in the horse reminded her that, despite the storms in her son’s life, he is still aware of his surroundings and wants to love and be loved. She then told us her son’s name is also Max.

Riverbend Coaching

The Gift of Horses in Our Midst

by Linda M. Bendorf


In my dreams, I see you -- The Gift of Horses in Our Midst.
Buckskin, silver dapple, chestnut, black.
Lakota first called you Sunkakan, holy dog or mystery dog;
Others called you red dog, big dog, elk dog.
Then Seabiscuit, Stormy, Silver Blaze, Flicka.
In song they call you Dust in the Wind,
The Strawberry Roan, The Chestnut Mare. A Horse With No Name.
But here, Medicine you have been named.
I see you Silverwood, Frankie, Nitro, Susy,

I place my hand on your strong shoulder.
Ally, Teacher, Guide. Friend.
On the grayest day, you dress the landscape
with patience, power, strength and knowing.
You see through masks, through closely guarded secrets,
and sharing the space of your sphere, you take me as I am.
Your strong hooves and my feet -- rooted on the same patch of earth.
In silence we breath stillness, peace
and the deep, fluttering breath of calm.
We breathe energy and healing.
Together we overcome obstacles
in the arena or on the trail of life.

I ride the rhythm of your trot; your hooves as smooth as river stone.
The graceful twists and turns spiraling like aerial silks or a gentle breeze.
In the sun, your tail glistens like gossamer threads
and the wildness of your mane invites my heart to dance
Sweat drenched, you carry me through wind swept air.

You neigh and nicker, whinny and sigh, prick up your ears and swivel them toward my face -- reminding me to use my voice.
With gentle wisdom in your eyes and a few sweet nibbles
You see me, too, and you take me as I am.
Help me to remember harmony within the herd, and all the gifts of horses in our midst.

© 2018 by Linda M. Bendorf, Director, Blue Sage Writing

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.