The Learning Curve

I had the pleasure of participating in a Cooler Horsemanship clinic this past weekend. James, equipped with a headset microphone so we could all hear him teach, worked with ten horses and their owners in a string of individual sessions. A hardy crowd of wind-blown spectators hooked their elbows over the arena rail and learned along with us.

I asked James to help me fine tune Mystic’s side pass on the ground and to introduce me to side passing in the saddle. I learned that the latter maneuver requires knowing how to move your horse’s front quarters—something I was clueless about in the saddle. I won’t go into detail because I’m still figuring the process out (read: I don’t know how to explain), but it’s my newest and next challenge. As you can see from the photo below, it involves complicated reinwork. James described the process as “counterintuitive.” I just call it difficult.

One unexpected benefit of the session was that Margaret Bednar, a fellow boarder, blogger, and über-talented photographer, picked up my camera and started snapping. She captured James riding Mystic—who instantly “collected” himself into a dressage frame. Here’s what he looked like:

I don’t know a whole lot about dressage—clearly Mystic has more experience in that department than I—but even my untutored eye can see the graceful curve in his neck, his compressed energy, and his more balletic movement.

As I tried out my new way of holding the reins, he kept that gorgeous arched neck.

When I went back to a relaxed rein, his posture shifted accordingly. Can you see the difference?

After the session ended, we posed for Margaret. Every time she snapped a photo, Mystic swiveled his ears back. Finally I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Even though learning new things can be tough, Mystic and I always grow from the experience. Best of all, we both ended the afternoon with smiles.

Thanks, Margaret, for photographing us—and for capturing Mystic in all his filthy glory on your blog post “I Wanna Be a Buckskin…” If you haven’t subscribed to Margaret’s blog Just Horses yet, do it now!


Best Buddies

My world lights up when I go to Fiore Farms and find Ben there. Our horses, Mystic and Buddy, are pasture-mates and best friends. I like to think Ben and I are best friends too, though we don’t share the same hay pile.

Ben orchestrating Mystic & Buddy's poses

Ben has a capacious heart—I think it may be the same size as Buddy’s, which means it’s seven to eight times the size of an average human’s. Ben quietly helps wherever he sees the need, whether it’s feeding 23 horses in pouring rain or driving 12 hours round-trip in a day to attend to his ailing parents.

In his civilian life, Ben is an associate professor of religious studies at UNCG. His areas of specialty include feminist religious thought and the intersection of psychology and religion. He was Cornel West’s teaching assistant at Union Theological Seminary, and they remain lifelong friends. Ben taught at Hamilton College before coming to UNCG; his resume also includes teenage ER assistant and zookeeper.

I often ask Ben about his classes, and his answers make me wish I were one of his students. When teaching Introduction to Religious Studies to a huge class of freshmen last fall, he arrived one day with more than 100 fresh oranges. The students read Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Mindful Eating,” which includes this gentle advice:

The students then peeled and ate their oranges as mindfully as 18-year-olds are capable of. Ben cackled as he recounted their impatience and bafflement. A professor for more than three decades, he knew the mindfulness concept might take root in a few students—and that would be enough.

At Fiore Farms, Ben has taken on the job of cleaning the sheds—a polite euphemism for manure-scooping—as well as feeding the herd several times a week. Not every farm has a Ph.D. recipient wheeling barrows of horse dung, but then, Fiore Farms is not just any place. Ben performs his chores with a Thoreauian appreciation for the pleasures of humility and simplicity.

For all his hard-working, self-effacing Puritan qualities, Ben is a softie when it comes to Buddy. He loves that horse with the fuzzy gaze of a doting parent—to him, Buddy, part Clydesdale, part mystery, with his scrubby tail and long, pink-nosed face, is perfect. Together they ride with the Sedgefield Hunt, barreling through the countryside in non-lethal pursuit of coyotes and foxes. It’s a sport for daredevils and adrenaline-junkies, which apparently Ben and Buddy qualify as, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at them.

The incomparable Buddy

Ben and I often ride the trail together: sharing life philosophies and barn gossip while we journey through woods and pasture brings the same kind of joy as mindfully eating an orange. Maybe even more.

Loving horses has brought gifts like Ben into my life. In my experience, horse people are always people you can count on. They tend to be kind, generous, thoughtful, and refreshingly down-to-earth. So thanks Ben—and Angela, Amanda, Jane, Elizabeth, Joanie, Jeanne, Marina, Pat, both Margarets, Jeannette, Emma, James, Kate, and all the rest of you. You bring me a lot of happiness.

Ben & Buddy


The new year got me thinking about the beauty and power of transformation. I’m a sucker for any narrative about deep-seated change—as author Anne Lamott writes, “Everyone loves a good resurrection story”—and my new incarnation as a mental health counselor is founded on the principle that all of us are capable of profound personal transformation.

I can’t help but summon up Mystic and his resurrection story as 2012 rolls in. I won’t rehash the details because they’re already threaded throughout my blog, but I will present graphic evidence of Mystic’s physical and emotional changes. Here he is below when I first started working with him in April 2011. Notice that, aside from being out of shape, he looks tentative and tuned out. He’s not focusing on James or me; instead he seems to be retreating inside himself. His ears point backward, showing discomfort and wariness. He is standing with one front and one hind leg forward, ready to run away or back up in the blink of an eye.

And here’s Mystic in October 2011, looking more like the athlete he was born to be. (I love watching his body change: his chest, shoulders, and rump are muscling up, and his topline is filling out.) He holds himself differently too, with pride and confidence. Standing squarely on all four feet, he is focused intently on me, his ears pointed forward in anticipation, showing full partnership and readiness to take on the next challenge.

I treasure transformations because I’ve been through some big ones. My most life-changing transformation happened 17 years ago, when I had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I detailed this process of falling apart and then putting myself together again in a Newsweek essay that appeared in July 2002 (click here to read the essay). “Coming out” in a national magazine was an act of self-declaration and a call-out to others who might relate to my story. Letters and phone calls poured in from all over the country, and I felt like I’d finally done something meaningful with my life. Like Mystic, I carried myself with more pride and confidence once I began to peel off old layers and discover my core self.

As I was recovering from my breakdown—or “breakthrough,” as my therapist preferred to put it—I started smashing plates and creating mosaics out of the broken pieces. It was art as metaphor, reminding me again and again that destruction creates pathways for creation. With each piece I made from broken, cast-off objects, I understood more deeply that beauty comes from forming new patterns and not clinging to the concept of perfect wholeness.

Mystic was broken in some ways when I first met him. It’s been a joy to help him put the pieces back together, and to learn more about my own strengths and weaknesses in the process. Although I’ve worked with numerous human clients in my counseling internship, Mystic has in many ways been my most formative client. He’s taught me the profundity of body language, the importance of trust, and the power of a loving relationship.  He’s taught me that progress is not linear, and that the quality of what I offer determines his response. He’s taught me horses can help people heal and vice versa—and that equine-assisted psychotherapy is truly the direction I want to pursue.

Am I telling Mystic’s transformation story or mine? They’re so wrapped together that it’s hard to say. All I know is that every change in my life—whether painful or joyful—has brought me to this moment, and I look forward to the transformations ahead, which happen not according to the annual calendar but in small and big ways every day.

Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and creation