May 22, 2013 § 3 Comments
In his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton described an imaginary Himalayan valley called Shangri-La. Sheltered from the rest of the world, the people of Shangri-La live harmoniously and happily. They live far beyond the typical lifespan, and they don’t age like the rest of us. In short, Shangri-La is utopia, the kind of mythical land humans have always dreamed of but never managed to create or find.
My Shangrila lies closer than the Himalayas. It’s an hour-plus drive up 29 North from Greensboro, in Halifax County, a verdant stretch of southern Virginia marked by hay fields, low-slung homes, and tumbledown tobacco cabins.
I’ve been coming to Shangrila Guest Ranch for nearly four years—long enough to see its owners, Gary and Julie Holmes, double their offspring. Long enough to dream about someday buying a patch of land near Shangrila. Long enough to feel like this is my second home.
My other favorite horse people, James and Kate Cooler, have also fallen in love with Shangrila. This past weekend marked their third natural horsemanship clinic at the guest ranch. Reggie, Greg, Sharon, Bambi, Mena, Lisa, Robin, Alan, and Jessica all brought their horses for two days of groundplay, saddleplay, and trail riding. Scrambled eggs fresh from the hen house, s’mores by the campfire, and cow roping lessons were bonuses.
The weekend gave me a lot of opportunities to play with my new Canon EOS Rebel T3i, doing my best to capture utopia.
May 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
While we mental health professionals had to detach from our clinical training, the equine specialists had to let go of their physical safety concerns.
Much of what people around horses have been taught focuses on physical safety. Emotional safety and the emotional well-being of the client is overlooked. In fact, the old fashioned ”teaching safety” is in itself emotionally damaging to many clients. Instructors’ attempts to motivate clients to listen and remember the safety lesson commonly incorporate scary, horrific stories of others getting hurt or killed….The results of these tactics include the clients becoming so focused on fear that they have difficulty think of anything else or being.
—Fundamentals of EAGALA Model Practice
Emotional safety in EAGALA means not giving a safety lecture or rushing to intervene in a potentially dangerous situation. It means letting clients explore and experience.
Our co-facilitator, Mark, offered another of his many powerful stories:
The client was a thrill-seeking teenage boy: He’d mixed jet fuel and gasoline to power his motorbike; the resulting explosion blew up the garage. He’d cut off a tree limb with a chainsaw while standing on the limb. During an equine-assisted therapy session, he tied the lead rope around his neck; the other end was attached to a horse. Mark calmly walked toward the boy, who then noticed on his own that he needed to untie the rope. He told Mark, “This is the first time I’ve recognized the risk I’m taking and stopped before it was too late.”
We not only heard stories; we lived them through role play. Dividing into small groups, we enacted sessions with clients with ADHD, substance dependence, and so forth.
The most interesting moments emerged when actual conflict emerged. When one role-play group felt unfairly criticized, one of the horses walked over and stood shield-like between the group and the perceived criticizers.
We were told repeatedly to avoid use the word “feeling.” When I forgot and used the dreaded word in a role play, a hailstorm of “She said ‘feeling’!” “We’re not supposed to use the f word!” I felt embarrassed, irritated, defensive, and ornery. Immediately the donkey and mini got into an altercation, with the donkey kicking out. Yup, exactly.
After three days of EAGALA training, I left feeling like a newborn. The knowledge I thought I had going into the workshop turned out to be non-knowledge. I learned that I need to cultivate my powers of observation. I need to trust the process. I need to embrace what Zen practitioners call not-knowing, or beginner’s mind.
Open. Curious. In the moment.
Like a horse’s mind.
April 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
Three horses and a donkey move throughout a steel-covered arena while sixty-plus people watch.
“What did you see?” asks one of the instructors.
“The mini was sexually acting out.”
“The bay was the identified patient, and the others formed his dysfunctional family.”
“The gray was the alpha in the herd.”
“No, what did you see?” he patiently repeated.
Thus began my “unlearning” at Part I EAGALA training in Marion, North Carolina.
Our mission was to learn the fundamentals of equine-assisted psychotherapy. The participants were a mix of mental health professionals and experienced horsewomen and men.
We had to leave what we knew at the door.
We learned that the horses we watched were big or little, brown or white. They moved closer or further away from each other. Their tails moved in a back and forth motion. One put his nose close to the ground. One put his ears back.
Clean language. That’s what EAGALA calls it. Clean language is about letting go of assumptions, projections, interpretations, and opinions. It’s about compacting observations to the simplest, purest form possible.
By using clean language and removing your own “stuff” from the session, you allow clients to create their narratives, with horses as key players.
Our co-facilitator, Mark, offered this firsthand example:
A family of three came for their initial session. They walked into the arena with their bodies tight and heads held high; the horses stiffened accordingly. The little donkey walked over to the father, turned its back to him, and defecated on his shoes. The father had no reaction, nor did his wife and daughter.
In the second session, the same thing happened: the donkey quickly went to the father and relieved itself on his feet. Again, the family members were non-reactive.
The third session brought a repeat performance. Mark had never seen this donkey defecate on anyone’s feet, much less three times. This was a pattern, which he noted aloud to the family: “The donkey has crapped three times on Dad’s feet, but no one has said anything about it.”
“That’s how it goes,” the daughter responded. “My mother doesn’t say anything, even though she knows what my father is doing to me.”
And that’s how the incest surfaced.
My next post will describe group role-playing and a donkey who publicly expressed my feelings.
April 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Spring has sprung in North Carolina, bringing neon green pastures, prancing spirits, and sweet, sun-kissed days of riding and horseplay.
April 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Deuce ran quasi-wild on the 6666 Ranch in Texas for the first three years of his life. Now he’s in training with James, learning a whole new way of being. When he arrived at Flintrock, he was wary of human touch. These days he crosses his paddock to nuzzle hello and accept a rub behind the ears.
Deuce’s pasture buddy is my horse, Mystic, whose ambassadorial powers are legendary. Kate swears that Mystic gets along with all horses—not by being a pushover, but by having a quiet strength that other horses respect. When I hear how affable Mystic is, I feel unaccountably proud, like the mother of a piano prodigy or an Olympic decathlete. I can’t take any credit for it, but I still puff up inside.
Deuce joined the Mystic Fan Club from the get-go, following him around like a pesky little brother. Mystic, however, has not always lived up to his Mr. Congeniality title. A couple of weeks ago he got miffed at being left behind with Deuce while his usual herd of geldings frolicked in the big pasture. Because he was in a temper, Mystic nipped Deuce.
“He was just being a horse,” Kate told me. “I don’t blame him in the least.”
Still, I felt as though my child had fumbled the final notes of Fantasia in C Minor and then whacked the piano teacher.
Fortunately, Deuce forgave Mystic right away, because Deuce is a sweet fellow. And Mystic is mighty good-natured too when he is getting his way—perhaps a little less so when he’s not. (Which may be something he and I have in common.)
I like to think that Mystic is bringing some gravitas to Deuce’s life, while Deuce keeps Mystic from getting too grandfatherly. A little coltishness, a little wisdom—put them together and it’s magic.
March 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
I always thought a fall from a horse would take me down. Heaven knows I’ve fallen enough times—as recently as three weeks ago, when I tried cantering Mystic bareback. I didn’t have a balanced seat and he wasn’t in the mood, so he lowered his head, gave his neck a vigorous shake, and ducked his inside shoulder. He ejected as me as neatly as a toaster pops out a piece of nicely browned bread.
Now here I lie, crutches leaned against the wall, sutured knee buffered by a mega-size ace bandage and wrap-around ice pack. I’m in recovery from arthroscopic surgery for a meniscus tear on my left knee.
I sent a photo of my left leg to my parents the day after surgery. My dad, who never met a photo he couldn’t Photoshop, sent back this framed version, titled “Still Life with Knee and Flowers.”
The fact is, my pants—not a spill from a horse—took me down. Specifically, the palazzo pants that I sewed myself and wore for many years. My coworkers back in Massachusetts jokingly called them my “killer pants” because I tripped on the hem so often—once in the middle of a road with oncoming traffic.
Apparently my body was more elastic in my 40s. When I tripped on my pants and fell in a parking lot last October, I unknowingly tore cartilage in my knee. It took me five months to admit that my knee just wasn’t working right. An MRI proved the point a few weeks ago, and I hustled into surgery on March 20 so I could be back to horseback riding as soon as possible.
Now I’m happily on the mend, with my surgeon’s initials on my thigh as a reminder of the great time we had together. I managed to drive my car yesterday, and I hope to get out to Flintrock to see Mystic tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’ve learned a couple of lessons, along with a new definition of fashion victim:
1) Never make, buy, or wear wide-legged pants. If people start referring to anything you wear as a “killer” item, throw it away.
2) Stop worrying so much. The things you think will get you won’t, and the rest you can’t predict, so just enjoy the ride. But do remember to keep a balanced seat.
March 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
I made a road trip last week to Lexington, Kentucky, with a different kind of road as my destination: Road to the Horse 2013.
This was no ordinary spectator experience. I got a backstage view and a front-row seat, thanks to Wild Card competitor James Cooler and his wife, Kate. I came as their self-appointed communications director, student, friend, and true believer.
James’ mom came too, all the way from Lewistown, Montana. There were dinnertime reminiscences about James’ late dad, who got him started on the road to the Road. There were hopes-and-dreams talks about Cooler Horsemanship, which strikes me as the equine equivalent of The Little Engine That Could.
I got to spend three days steeped in horses, natural horsemanship, a crowd of 8,000 horse lovers, horse demonstrations, and horse-gear vendors. The only quiet spot was the building where the horses were stabled, including James’ horse, Sebastian. It was fun to see the headliners’ horses (plus Obbie Schlom’s zebra) calmly munching on hay, looking nothing like the rearing, leaping, galloping stars they transformed into in the arena.
For us Cooler Horsemanship fans, Friday was a nail-biting day: James and the other Wild Card competitors drew from a playing deck to determine pick order for their colts. James pulled an ace, which gave him top choice. He picked Career Cat, a muscular bay with a long white streak on his head. James soon renamed him “Deuce,” in honor of his father’s penchant for declaring deuces wild in poker.
The four Road to the Horse competitors—Dan James, Guy McLean, Obbie Schlom, and Sarah Winters—performed amazing demos. I took a gazillion photos; my favorite shows Dan James leaping into the air above his horses. For me, it captures the zeitgeist of Road to the Horse: wild risk, soaring dreams, extreme talent.
Watching the competitors start their colts was like trying to track a four-ring circus. You knew something big had just happened when the crowd clapped or went “Oooooh!” Dan James and his broncy horse, aptly named Bucky, got a lot of oooohs.
The obstacle course was the final challenge on Sunday. Guy’s horse, Mate, rode pluckily through the course and mounted the “mystery obstacle,” a wooden platform. Guy couldn’t resist standing on his horse on the platform and cracking a couple of stock whips (seems to be an Aussie thing). They looked like winners—and they were.
After the show we meandered down to the arena. James mingled and shook hands with some of the greats of the natural horsemanship world. I felt proud just to be in the vicinity.
James squeezed in his first session with Deuce in the corrals adjoining the arena. He approached Deuce with the utmost respect, never hurrying him. “If I’m doing this right, it should look like paint drying,” said James of the careful, delicate session.
After watching Deuce and James for a while, I hit the road for home—exhausted, exhilarated, and excited about the next 12 months. On Friday, March 14, 2014, James and Deuce will be back in that big arena, competing with the other Wild Cards for a spot in the 2014 Road to the Horse.
What a road to travel.