Unlearning with EAGALA, Part I

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.

The training took place at Head, Hearts, Hands and Horses, in Marion, NC

The training took place at Head, Hearts, Hands and Horses

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.

My fellow EAGALA participants

My fellow EAGALA unlearners

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.


Ode to Spring

Spring has sprung in North Carolina, bringing neon green pastures, prancing spirits, and sweet, sun-kissed days of riding and horseplay.

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The Ambassador and the Intern

Meet Deuce, the quarter horse James brought back from Road to the Horse.

Deuce (right) and Mystic

Deuce (right) and Mystic

Deuce is the new celebrity of Cooler Horsemanship: He’s the Wild Card colt. (It’s kind of a long story—click here to learn about the Wild Cards.)

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.