Utopia with Horses

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, Nancy, 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.

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Unlearning with EAGALA: Part II

In my previous post, I described taking part in a three-day EAGALA training in Marion, NC. This blog entry tells more about the training.

Each day started with a "check in" around the fire, with time for questions and answers

Each day started with a “check in” around the fire, with time for questions and answers

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.

Role play instructions: "Form a human-horse blob"

Role play instructions: “Form a human-horse blob”

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.