Begin Anywhere

Fiore Farms is as rich in birds as it is in horses. My favorites are the vivid bluebirds that wing through pastures and perch on fence posts, their sapphire feathers as bright as joy.

The aptly named bluebird of happiness

I’ve seen herons, geese, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, barn swallows, hawks, owls, cardinals—and, of course, the ubiquitous pigeons who inhabit rafters and scatter droppings to remind us that they’re occupying the penthouse suites for free.

To me, the bravest and most foolish Fiore Farms birds are the killdeer, plucky little plovers who nest in fields, meadows, and pastures. Killdeer have a unique way of protecting their nests: if a predator approaches, they walk away from the nest, shrieking with distress and dragging one or both wings as if broken. The predator follows the bird, thinking it will be easy prey; once the predator is far from the nest, the killdeer suddenly “heals” and flies away.

The “broken wing” act

Although killdeer make phenomenal Method actors, they are not equally gifted in urban planning. At Fiore Farms, they have built nests in the middle of pastures, their fragile speckled eggs in the direct path of galloping hooves. Zip, Amanda’s young quarter horse, has been making friends with the killdeer who announced squatting rights to Zip’s pasture.

Simultaneous question: “What are you doing in my pasture?”

One determined killdeer built her nest next to a busy path right by the main barn. She blew her own cover by screaming at every person and horse who walked near, puffing herself up, flapping her wings, and hopping with the ferocity of Rumpelstiltskin. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was wielding a tiny broom.

Near the barn path, well-camouflaged, but mighty close to humans

I couldn’t resist crossing the boundary between the human and animal kingdom to photograph this feisty bird. “Why did you build your nest so close to the barn?” I asked her, trying to justify my own invasion of her personal space.

On the nest, keeping a watchful eye

She shrieked at me, then fled the nest and did a broken wing routine worthy of an Oscar nomination. I took a quick picture of her dainty eggs—four in all—and then snapped a few shots of her haranguing me from a distance.

Her beautiful eggs

“Don’t worry, I come here in peace,” I told her.

She harrumphed.

Watching me from a distance

I worried about her nest’s vulnerability to people, horses, dogs, and foxes, but she’d made her choice. She had made her nest and had to sit on it.

A few days later, as I walked Mystic past the killdeer’s nesting place, I heard nothing but silence. No sharp scolding. No screeching. No protective cry. I looked down and saw a slight indentation in the ground. The woven grass was gone, and so were the eggs.

I’d like to think the eggs hatched, but that would be childish fantasy on my part. Most likely a fox stole them; hopefully the mother killdeer got away and is now busy building another nest.

All I can do is offer her the advice that came on a card two dear friends sent me after my May graduation. I love it so much that I taped it to my refrigerator.

Well, maybe not anywhere. Perhaps somewhere further away from the barn and not plunk in the middle of a horse pasture.

I wish you safe nesting, Mrs. Killdeer.


The Cowboy Barista

Usually an encounter between a Starbucks barista and a customer consists of nothing more than friendly chitchat and legal tender—but in David Turner’s case, it put him on the path to his dreams.

How it all started…

A few months ago, David, who works at the Starbucks at the northern end of Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, NC, chatted with an athletic, outdoorsy-looking man who was buying coffee. David noticed the logo on his cap—Cooler Horsemanship—and couldn’t help asking about it. He’d just watched Buck, a documentary about horse trainer Buck Brannaman. Buck had an uncanny understanding of horse behavior and psychology; he did what some call “horse whispering”—a poetic-sounding term for what’s more commonly called natural horsemanship.

Buck Brannaman leading a clinic last fall at Flint Rock Farms in Reidsville, NC

David had been fantasizing about working on a farm, with the long-term dream of running a ranch out west. He wanted to incorporate natural horsemanship into his dream, and watching Buck had solidified that desire.

Eight years as a barista had left David feeling caged, and he was ready to spring the door open.

He expected the customer, James Cooler, to shrug when he told him about his desire to work on a farm. Dave had asked around at some local farms and nobody was interested.

This time was different.

“You should come out sometime,” James said and handed David his card. “We do natural horsemanship. That’s what we’re all about.”

It took David about a half second to accept. Later in the week he appeared at Fiore Farms in Summerfield, where Cooler Horsemanship is based. He watched James and Kate play with their horses: it was different from anything he’d ever experienced. James’s Arab-quarter horse, Indigo, freely ran alongside him, dancing in circles, sailing over jumps. Kate rode Kleo, her elegant Arab-Friesian mare, using body cues to move her forward with lightness and grace.

James and Indigo doing ground play

Kate and Kleo

David, who grew up near Charlotte, had spent a lot of time at his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. “My maternal grandfather had horses,” he remembered. “He was old school in how he trained them. You couldn’t even approach his horses because they were so afraid of people.”

These horses were different. “Seeing horses with personalities was a shock because my grandfather’s horses didn’t have any,” said David.

He was hooked in a big way. He started helping out at Fiore Farms, taking care of water tanks for more than twenty horses while absorbing the fresh, coffee-free air. He began taking lessons here and there, learning the fundamentals of natural horsemanship.

Kate instructs David on how to back up Moonshine

His mother came out to see what he was raving about.

“These horses are smiling,” she said in wonderment.

His girlfriend, Abby, came out and loved the place, especially how it de-stressed David. Her only concern was his rekindled desire to ride a bull in a rodeo.

Abby and David

In late April, David got on a horse for the first time since he was a small boy. “I’m scared of heights, so I was nervous at first,” the erstwhile rancher confessed. “But once I got up there, I realized there was nothing to worry about.”

Filling water tanks and helping with other barn chores has made David realize that his ranching dreams are giant-size. But he’s working toward them, one lesson at a time, and is a happier man because of it.

David and Moonshine after a lesson

“I’ve always said I was born in the wrong part of the country. I belong in the West or Midwest.”

And bullriding? For a man who’s afraid of heights?

“I just want to ride one.”

The future?

Riverwood: Part II

In my previous post, Riverwood: Part I, I described attending a workshop called “The Power of Working with Horses for Health and Personal Growth,” which represents my first step toward practicing equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP). The workshop took place at Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center, with Dr. Doreen Hughes and Laura Pallavicini as co-leaders. This post details the powerful final activity and my takeaways from an extraordinary afternoon.

After two more activities—“Join the Horses” and “My World”—we embarked on our final one, called “Brain/Body.” This was an equine-assisted learning (EAL) activity as opposed to EAP. Though based on similar principles as EAP, equine-assisted learning focuses more on educating groups and individuals and teaching them specific skills (e.g., providing resiliency training for veterans, increasing corporate executives’ leadership abilities).

Taking part in “Join the Horses,” an exercise in being fully present, respecting boundaries, and letting go of expectations and personal agendas

For starters, we formed teams and worked together to build obstacle courses representing our individual challenges. Then Doreen instructed each of us to choose one obstacle/challenge and one horse that symbolized the strength to overcome it. Finally, we had to move our horses through the obstacles—no touching allowed, although we could make sounds.

Laura and Doreen explain the “Brain/Body” activity; obstacle course materials lie at hand, including hula hoops, pipes, noodles, cones, and barrels

Four at a time, we swarmed toward the four horses, who huddled together as if anticipating our onslaught. We made succulent kissy sounds, waved our hands like sorcerers conjuring spells, clucked, and walked forward with exaggerated purpose. The horses stood like statues. They seemed to know the depth of our determination and were set on resisting it. I swear they were saying, “Y’all look pathetic—stop trying so hard.”

I’d chosen the chestnut to represent “belief in self”; together we had to navigate a parallel set of ground poles that symbolized “self doubt.” Alas, the chestnut’s utter disinterest in me didn’t do a whole lot to cure my doubtfulness. Then a fellow student sailed into view and began coaxing my horse forward. It followed her as if she were the Pied Piper heading out of Hamelin. I fought off feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, letting gratitude bubble to the surface. “Which obstacle do you want to go to?” my intervening angel asked. I pointed to the poles and walked alongside as she and the chestnut breezed through the challenge. Suddenly my heart felt light, and I remembered the thing I always forget: I am not alone.

That simple thought was so liberating that it literally left me breathless.

This woman, this horse, had freed me from a repetitive, irrational thoughtI have to do everything myself; no one will help me—with that simple act.

At that moment, I loved them both, even though I barely knew them.

After all of us had finished the activity, Doreen and Laura asked what we’d learned.

“It’s frustrating!” one participant nearly shouted. “I learned that trying to make horses do what you want is frustrating!”

We all laughed, glad that he’d voiced our most elemental feelings.

“That’s right. Now imagine how a boy with ADHD might feel when trying to do that activity. Think about what he could learn about slowing down and focusing,” Laura said.

The woman beside me started giggling. I wondered what was so funny; then I looked at the horses. They were picking up hula hoops and rubber cones with their teeth, walking over obstacles, and generally having a ball.

“Why are they doing it now instead of when we asked them?” asked the frustrated man, looking half amused, half annoyed.

Doreen smiled. “Isn’t that like life? When you stop trying so hard and start trusting in the process, everything shifts.”

Oh, wow. Another giant nugget of wisdom to put away in my already full pack.

“Now, if you’d like, you can spend a few minutes with the horses,” Doreen said.

“Can we pet them?” someone asked.

Doreen nodded, smiling kindly from beneath her rumpled canvas hat.

We walked to the horses in small, respectful groups and offered our thanks with our hands and voices. They accepted our tributes graciously, letting us stroke their muscled necks and rub around their mobile ears.

Zen masters, I thought. They’re our zen masters, and we humans will be their students for life. What an honor that they let us study with them and use their amazing powers for our growth.

Tony, an elderly draft horse who wanders freely through Riverwood’s grounds

As I reluctantly said my goodbyes and drove away from Riverwood, past Tony the wandering draft horse, past tumbling stone walls and undulating fields, I felt a piece of myself stay behind.

A last look at Riverwood’s main building and Tony foraging in the garden

Sometimes you just know where you belong, without words or conscious intention. You just feel it, the way a horse senses absolute truth in the present moment.

Goodbye, beautiful Riverwood

Riverwood: Part I

In the presence of horses, one recognizes something within the horse that is echoed within oneself. This creates a wonderful learning atmosphere, allowing the horse to teach us about ourselves as humans and, through our relationship with the horse, how to treat not only other living creatures but also one another.

~Lanie Frick, Of Horses and Women

Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center, with its lush sloping pastures and verdant woods, has a gentle, benevolent energy. It’s a place where healing happens, which is why I found myself driving to the unromantic-sounding town of Tobaccoville, North Carolina, in late April.

I had enrolled in “The Power of Working with Horses for Health and Personal Growth: An Introductory Workshop on Equine-Assisted Therapies for Professionals in Health Care and Education.” A mouthful, to be sure, but an exciting first step in my dream of practicing equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP).

An enchanting still life outside Riverwood’s main building

Dr. Doreen Hughes, a Winston-Salem psychiatrist and proprietor of Hughes Equine Energy, led the workshop along with Laura Pallavicini, Riverwood’s program director and therapeutic riding instructor. Both EAGALA certified, they formed the treatment team, comprised of a mental health professional, an equine specialist, and—of course—a horse. The team approach is essential: it allows the equine specialist to focus on horse behavior while the mental health professional attends to the client.

The real star of the team is the horse (or horses—EAP may involve one or more equines). A handout from the workshop describes their role thus:

Horses are both prey animals and herd animals. They are exquisitely sensitive to nonverbal stimuli, and give clear and authentic feedback when interacting with others, including humans. They are social and seek relationships, and have distinctive personalities and differing roles in their herd. They are large, powerful, and can be quite intimidating. All of these factors result in interactions with them offering multiple opportunities for metaphorical learning that relates to other life situations that are fearful or confusing.

I learned that EAP can be used to treat mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, conduct difficulties, communication issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and excessive anger. Here are a few of the cognitive and behavioral patterns that indicate a need for EAP:

-disconnection from feelings

-low self-esteem

-lack of response to traditional talk therapy

-concentration and attention problems

-anger management issues

-withdrawn behavior

-inability to take responsibility for one’s actions

My fellow attendees were mainly counselors, RNs, and social workers—a gentle, good-natured bunch. We listened closely as Doreen spoke before we began interacting with the horses.

“In my work, I’m struck by the importance of relationships for all of us,” Doreen said. “We all are actually wounded. The way we heal ourselves is through our relationships. For some of us, it’s through people; for some, it’s through pets. Horses are remarkable because they’re so open to relationships. Building a relationship with a horse is a most powerful thing.”


Laura, Doreen, and our equine teachers in the background

For our first activity, we observed four horses in the arena. Laura and Doreen intentionally withheld the horses’ names, breed, age, and gender, making them blank slates for us to project our thoughts and emotions on. I became obsessed with a paint draft who bullied a straggle-tailed chestnut, forcing it to move ceaselessly. When the chestnut stood near me, I silently said, “You can do it. You’re more powerful than you know.” Even as I formed those words, I knew I was talking about myself and old feelings of futility and runtiness. Yup, horses definitely draw out our emotional baggage.

If this had been an individual, actual EAP session, Laura, Doreen, and I might have done some processing on the spot. The bulk of the processing, however, would take place with a therapist in an office after the fact. The mental health practitioner who takes part in the equine-assisted activity always documents what happens and notes progress made toward treatment goals, passing along the information to the client’s primary therapist as needed.

Most EAP sessions at Riverwood last anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes. “Occasionally we’ll have a psychotherapy session where the client spends an hour with the horses,” said Laura. “Those are where we hear about the most ‘aha’ moments.”

“Wherever a client wants to go, we go there,” added Doreen. “We can go pretty deep.”

This is the first of a two-part series. My next post will detail an intense equine activity and wisdom gained from the workshop.

Borrowing Freedom

My niece Lila Mae just turned five. She’s an enchanting old soul, fey and wise, shy and uncannily aware. As her “Aunt Mimi,” I get to indulge her, all the while wiggling the key to her big little heart in the hopes of getting inside.

Luckily for me, Lila Mae loves horses. Although physically cautious in most situations, she’s not afraid of horses. Far from it. She lights up at the sight of them and doesn’t hesitate to be hoisted aboard. Maybe it’s just auntly pride, but I swear she has a natural seat. She settles into the saddle with ease, her back straight, her small frame swaying gently with the horse’s movement.

Recently a family contingent visited Fiore Farms, giving me the opportunity to play my trump card with Lila Mae: offering her a ride on Mystic. She accepted with a radiant smile and a check-in glance at her mother—my sister Abigail, who also loves horses. Thumbs up all around.

Mystic and Lila Mae tolerate their admirers

With her fuchsia helmet, flowery skirt, and cowgirl boots, Lila Mae cut a fine figure. Mystic carried her gently, taking small careful steps, clearly aware that he was bearing precious cargo.

Heading out

I led them to a nearby pasture and let Lila Mae enjoy her first ride on rolling hills thick with spring grass. A gaggle of Seymours captured the moment with their cameras, lining up at the fence like paparazzi behind velvet ropes at the Cannes film festival.

Lila Mae rides under her mother’s watchful eye

When the time came to swing Lila Mae off Mystic, she looked crestfallen. I understood exactly how she felt. When I was a little girl, I felt complete on a horse. Stronger, too, and primed for adventure. As author and wild horse activist Helen Thompson writes, “In riding a horse we borrow freedom.”

Glowing with horse joy and freedom

I look forward to setting up more rides for Lila Mae and ushering her into the horse world, where little girls can borrow freedom and make it their own.