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After a particularly difficult session, my therapist took me for a walk around her farmyard. I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained and discouraged by high anxiety and debilitating depression. But I walked. The place was abuzz with insects, horses, a cat, braying donkeys, rabbits and a riot of midsummer plants in bloom. She coached me to focus on my body in the environment – to pay attention to the sun on my arms, the earth under my feet, the air wafting through my hair.
One of the realities of my recovery from severe early life trauma is that I retreat into my mind and disconnect from here-and-now sensations. So, when I met a horse named Fira, I expected nothing and received everything.
As we neared Fira’s stall, Deborah coached me on our approach: notice her ears flicking, the pause in her chewing and her changing body movements. When I reached her, the large Arabian nuzzled her nose into my chest putting a gentle pressure over my heart. Something happened inside me: I felt as if she had reached a wellspring of past hurts, fears and failings. My inner sludge melted away and I couldn't believe it.
We stood with Fira for a while; then I patted her velvety nose, ran my hand along her strong neck and played with her mane. I breathed in the horsey smell of her. In those moments, I didn’t have to concentrate on feeling better; Fira helped me feel loved and safe.
How is it that a horse, one I had just met, reached in and touched my deepest emotions? Those who study psychoneuroimmunology have shown that emotions are not just part of the imagination, or “all in our heads.” Rather molecules carrying emotional information (known as neuropeptides) are produced throughout the body – especially in the heart and the gut, as well as in the brain. Horses, with their large hearts and guts, seem particularly good at noticing and responding to the cues.
Over the coming months, I worked with Fira, learning rudimentary communication and leading techniques to work in tandem with her. Initially, I was skeptical of equine-assisted therapy. I wasn’t sure exactly what one would do with an animal weighing over 1,000 pounds besides riding it. But I knew that Fira had touched me in an uncommon way and had made me feel better in a short period on a very bad day. She met me the only way she knew how – by responding to my emotional state and reflecting it back to me in an open, affectionate way. She didn’t require anything from me that I wasn’t offering. I had found a four-legged friend and guide.
Each time my therapist and I entered the round pen, Fira would eventually wander over. She stood very near; just stood. Close, but eschewing touch. If I touched her too much, as I was wont to do, she walked away. But Fira would come back and stand, and I took immense comfort in her presence. It was astounding to me that it mattered, her standing there.
Some researchers have suggested that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns, that they calm us down with their natural empathy, that we become more centred. In my sessions with Fira, I found that I lost my usual self-consciousness and revelled in inner freedom. With Fira I was engaged, I could focus on communicating whether we would walk forward, turn left, turn right or stop. It was an intuitive process, an expectation of her compliance with my unspoken commands. I felt consumed by my connection with this beast towering at my shoulder, all sinew and muscle and ready for movement.
What did Fira teach me that I was having so much difficulty with? First, I learned to live in the present, to focus on what was happening this day, in this moment, in this place. I learned to forget the past, with all the hurt and angst, and the way it weighs me down. I learned to forget the future, which hasn't happened yet and is unworthy of my worry.
As prey and as herd animals, horses must use their highly developed nervous systems to acquire information that enables them to survive and thrive. In part, that means living in the moment. They are natural masters of the mindfulness practice that is now a recognized strategy for living positively with stress-related illnesses. Horses naturally possess the unity of mind and body. While humans can find themselves undone by unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviours that undermine optimal health, horses handle body behaviour and feeling behaviour simply as “information” to monitor and respond to. Unlike humans, they have not been taught to hide, analyze and twist the truth of their emotions. When you stand beside a horse, you immediately become part of her “herd.” You exist completely in the moment. You seek a relationship and own your own emotions and intuitions. You recognize that “being,” is more valuable than achieving.
Standing alongside Fira, I could let go of my judging mind that leapt to conclusions. With Fira at my side, I had glimpses into a life in which trust comes first, and compassion follows. I could take back into my daily life, into my own “herd,” a willingness to experience, to suspend judgment, to ignore the old interpretations that put stress on me.
With Fira, I felt camaraderie, purpose and empowerment. I found a deep peace in leading her through an obstacle course and holding her lead, but using my own power of intention to indicate start, stop, left or right. I felt greater quietude – and often elation. My work with this horse was part of an intensive therapeutic journey out of a very dark night of the soul.
Rebecca Garber lives in Nanaimo, B.C.