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


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