Yesterday, the herd at Stable Outlook moved from the property where they had lived for three years. The process of moving all the water tanks, feed bins, various tools and implements, plus eight horses and two donkeys is about as huge and difficult as you might imagine. We are very fortunate that many members of the herd were moved just across the road to the property where we lease the indoor arena for our workshops and programs. We are also very fortunate to have found affordable areas nearby for the rest of the herd. But the process of saying goodbye to the old and stepping toward the new has been a little stressful to say the least.
For those who follow the Stable Outlook Facebook page, there are certain familiar horses and donkeys who make regular appearances. For people locally who attend workshops and programs, the same is true. One horse we have never used for any Stable Outlook work is Nellie.
Nellie is a beautiful palomino quarter horse mare (she is the mother of Amarillo – the palomino quarter horse who is frequently seen in Stable Outlook pictures). Nellie has never been used in the program for two reasons: the first is that she has a bad leg which is fine under normal circumstances, but becomes painful for her if she is trotting or running on it. The second reason is that she has been abused and still has a fear of most humans. I have had her for almost seven years and each year she gets a little more trusting, but catching and haltering her can still take some time - as she always tries to evade human interaction. She is not as freaked out and reactive as she once was, but she still has a long way to go to trust. At least I thought she had a long way to go…
Yesterday, in the midst of all the hard work and stress and worry, a miracle happened. I had already moved a few of the horses and I went to the corral to catch Nellie. I opened the gate to the corral and called her and she actually walked right up to me and then stood completely still while I put a halter and a lead rope on her! I swear to you, I got a little teary when it happened. I am tearing up now as I write this. Of all the days and all the times when she could have trusted me, yesterday was the day she picked.
I have no illusions that she won’t be a little reactive and nervous still, but it was still a miracle. And this after SEVEN years…
One of my favorite TEDtalks is “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte-Taylor. (https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight) I watched it again last night, and as always I found it so moving and powerful. She is a brain scientist who had a stroke. Her talk is about the unique experience of her shifting awareness between her left and right brain hemispheres and what it was like to be a brain scientist watching her own stroke. I have seen it at least four times – and what stood out to me last night was a detail I have missed before: It took her eight years to recover from her stroke.
Eight years. How many of us have constant expectations that any uncomfortable feeling we might experience will go away quickly? Most of us (certainly I know this is true of me) would really rather not have to wait for “relief” from any discomfort. How amazing of her that she not only recovered, but once she had done, she didn’t go back to her life as it was before, trying to ‘put it all behind her.’ Instead, she wrote a book and shared her experience of herself as an expansive spiritual being seemingly too infinite to fit into a human body. Her trauma and 8 years of recovery was transformed into a beacon of hope and love and unity.
Nellie had experiences in her past which taught her that humans were good for food and should otherwise be avoided. She has slowly worked through a lot of her recovery and has been an amazing teacher to me through it all. And after seven years of patience and kindness, she was ready to share a little healing with me yesterday just when I needed it most.
Caring for horses in winter is hard. There is the extra effort required to haul hay and feed through snow and ice and cold. There is extra worry about water lines or water tanks freezing. Sometimes just traveling through the ice and snow to get to the barn is hard work.
Even under normal circumstances, the hierarchy of the herd becomes apparent at feeding time. A “pecking order” that is specific and unchanging comes into play and each horse knows where their place is. When a horse of lower standing tries to get out of order, they are dealt with swiftly. But when you add in cold and snow and ice, and the intensity of the “corrections” given to a horse lower in the hierarchy can seem almost vicious.
Although they have intelligence, horses don’t have the Weather Channel. They don’t know that the cold snap will end tomorrow and the snow will melt. And although they know me and see me several times a day, they don’t know I will be back in four hours to give them more food. They don’t know that I will put out more than enough for every horse to eat.
All they know is that it is cold and in order to survive they must eat. Their instinct to survive makes them more likely to kick and bite and push each other to get to the food first. As prey animals their tendency is toward flight more than fight. But if eating means surviving, they will kick and bear their teeth at one another. For a human bundled up and on slippery footing, feeding time can be a little dicey!
But if you stick around long enough and wait til after feeding time, the food instinct becomes replaced by herd instinct. Once the hay has been eaten and it is time to hunker down for the night, their herd instinct drives them to bunch together to share body heat. Their fight or flight instinct gets tuned down and their community/herd instinct takes over.
Horses are so amazing at helping us for many reasons, but one is because of their adaptability. They live in the present moment. If the present moment brings them hay, they focus on getting the required calories they need to survive. When the present moment requires warmth, they focus on grouping together as a herd. All scuffles over food are forgotten immediately and working as a herd becomes paramount.
Our human brain is magnificent in its ability to understand that the weather will get warmer in a few days and its knowledge that historically, meals have happened every day, several times a day and it is likely that there will be another meal in the future. But our human ability to project our minds into the past or future can become torturous if we let it. Learning how to be present and as adaptable as horses is just one of the great gifts of equine assisted work.
In any relationship, the greatest gift anyone can give us – and the greatest gift we can give anyone else – is intentional presence.
Horses, if for no other reason than their physical size, are very good at bringing us into the present. In addition, their beauty and sensitivity draw us into their world. They seem to elicit from us a desire to connect.
The feeling we have with horses can be duplicated in our everyday lives and in our relationships. Practicing this kind of mindfulness can help us get to a place of being more regularly present with intention – which will fill all our interactions with more love.
But this practice, this act of love, requires – as the word ‘intention’ implies – a motivated decision and practical application. What our beloveds want from us is the same thing we want from them: we want them to be excited for us when we are excited, comforting when we are sad, encouraging when we need a boost, and honest when we need a clearer perspective.
A simple application of the Golden Rule will suffice: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The term “do” is a verb and requires intention and action on our part. It is a simple rule, but not always easy.
Our many stresses and distractions are the opposites of mindful intention and presence. We are trying to finish a phone call, write down a thought, edit an email and we don’t want to be interrupted. We have so many “selves” we try to occupy: mother, spouse, boss, employee, friend… It may seem impossible at first, but we can learn to calmly set down the phone, push away from the desk and give our attention to the beloved person in front of us.
A recent mini-retreat brought home how intricate this kind of mindfulness can be – especially with mothers and adolescent daughters. Not only do daughters require attention, they desire the kind of intention that will see who they are in the moment: is she the little girl who is seeking the comfort of her momma? Is she the independent teenager who wants to share a new discovery with her pal? Whichever ‘daughter’ she is in the moment will hope for a different response.
Horses can be a great help here, as well, for they are sometimes shy and curious, sometimes pushy and demanding, sometimes nervous and seeking reassurance... In order to partner with them, we need to recognize these nuances of behavior and meet them, wholly accepting, wholly present. And when we do, the reward of their trust and relationship cannot be described.
Imagine that you are the president and CEO of a large company. You are the founder and majority stockholder. You own a building with all kinds of employees working in all kinds of departments and you are giving a tour to some big important journalist who is from a major publication or tv show (NYT or 60 Minutes). They want to spotlight all the incredible things your company does.
So you show them around and introduce them to the accounting people, and the research and development people. You take them to HR and let them meet the janitorial and facilities maintenance department. Then you try to conclude the tour.
But wait, they ask, what about the manufacturing team? Oh, you say dismissively, yes, they’re over in that wing. And then, confused, they ask, what about your sales and marketing folks? Oh, of course, you say, they are over on that side of the building.
They look at you, dumbfounded, when you ask, would you like to see the cafeteria?
The sales and marketing teams are the people who do the communication for the company. They are the people who talk to customers and listen to potential clients and are the eyes and ears of the company. But you are on a tour and act like they don’t exist.
And the manufacturing arm of the company is the place where your product, the very “thing” that you do, is created, made, formed into reality. They are the place that produces the value of your entire business. But you don’t want to highlight their work? These omissions would be pretty glaring, right?
How often do we treat our own emotions and physical bodies like the sales/marketing team and the manufacturing departments? For people in recovery, or other folks who struggle with depression or other forms of mental wellness, we often try to ignore our emotions and our bodies. We tend to clench our fists and grit our teeth and pretend whatever they are trying to tell us doesn’t exist. This often leads to completely shutting down our awareness of how we feel - both emotionally and physically.
Our bodies, like the manufacturing department, are what we are in space and time on the earth in relationship to other beings with bodies. They are full of communication and experience and information and education.
Our emotions are like the sales/marketing team. They are the sensations we have at our disposal to respond to the actions and presence of things and people around us. They are not “truth” but they are information.
If we feel that our emotions and our bodies make us uncomfortable, then we can decide that if we just ignore them, we will be better off. But in fact we wouldn’t be – at all – without them.
The next time an uncomfortable feeling or emotion comes up, try to sit with it for a minute. Be present within your own body and feel the sensations it is experiencing. Ask your emotions or body what they have to teach you. You might just start a dialogue that leads to becoming friends with yourself.
Recently, the word “mindfulness” has kept coming up in articles and on web sites and in conversations. When this kind of synchronicity happens, it is usually a good idea to pay attention.
The concept of mindfulness is not new; people have been using the idea for centuries. Meditation practices and practitioners have filled volumes about mindfulness.
In spite of understanding the concept intellectually, the truth underlying the concept eluded me for many years. Then, I realized that the problem, for me, was in the word itself.
Mindfulness always makes me think. Or it makes me think about thinking. Or it makes me think about trying not to think. Of course, none of these thoughts led beyond thinking: to an open awareness of the present or an expansive understanding of the words “here” and “now.”
But how does someone who is accustomed to over-thinking find a new way to grasp this idea without "grasping? How do we think about being mindful without thinking? Countless poets, theologians and philosophers have pointed us to the sunset. Most of us have a memory of being so awestruck by beautiful scenery that we had no choice but to be fully present and fully aware – even if only for a few seconds.
We tend to think of life as a puzzle to be solved or a problem to be fixed. Our busy brains run around trying to organize and sort things in order to give us a sense of control. But when confronted with a beautiful sunset or an adorable puppy, we become fully present and filled with the “nowness” of all things.
It has been said that horses elicit a similar type of visceral response in humans. People generally approach horses with a sense of fear or a sense of love.
Because horses are non-verbal, they move us out of a place of language and analysis and into a place of awareness and presence. They can move us to an experience of “no-mind” to help us become transformed.
The ad said “Will trade for saddle.” The face staring out from the photo looked beautiful, soulful, sweet and sad all at the same time. I could see her hooves were in bad shape and she wasn’t in the best physical condition. I had just left full time employment and was starting my own business. I had no business adding an extra animal to my herd. I sure didn’t have any extra cash to buy another animal. But I did have an extra saddle…
I was trying to simultaneously talk myself into and out of getting this donkey. I looked at those eyes, and couldn’t let go of the look I saw in them.
I contacted the owner and told them about a saddle I had and we commenced to have conversations over the next few weeks. I kept praying and turning it over. If it was meant to work out, it would. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t.
The owner didn’t reply for a week or so after one email conversation and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s done.” Then a few days later I heard from her. She asked if I was still interested. I told her I was but that she would need to have a farrier out to trim the donkey’s feet before I could transport her - and she would also need to get a Coggin’s test done because I was in a different state.
I really thought I would never hear from her again. Then I got an email: feet were trimmed and Coggin’s test was negative. When could I come and get her?
Excited and wondering if I was completely out of my mind, I hitched up the trailer and began the first four hours of an eight hour trip.
When I got there, she was with two other donkeys and I wanted to take them all with me. We got her loaded and I got her home without too much trouble. I worked on getting to know her for the first two weeks and fell in love with her completely.
Then, after about the third week, I noticed that her belly had a distinctively triangle shape instead of being oval or round. I got on the internet and did some research and then sent the previous owner an email. “Could she be pregnant?”
She and the other two donkeys she had been with had all been exposed to a jack. One of the other donkeys had given birth to twins, both had perished.
Excited and nervous I started reading and studying to be prepared. Six weeks after Mabel came to me, she gave birth to baby June.
Each time I get nervous about starting a new business venture, I try to remember this miracle in the midst of change. I try to remind myself that, sometimes, the most illogical choice is still the right one.
Sometimes, even in the midst of fear, we can receive a blessing.
In the program we are taught that “acceptance is the answer to all of our problems.” Acceptance is a frequent topic of discussion. When we recite the Serenity Prayer we ask for the serenity to “accept the things we cannot change.” We discuss the different tools available to us that will help us “accept life on life’s terms.” We are told that we “don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it.”
But there is another way. What if we tried to practice radical acceptance? What if we decided to embrace the things we dread and run toward what scares us?
What if the next time we found someone to be particularly annoying, our next thought was gratitude? We could choose to be grateful for those people who irritate us: After all, they are frequently our greatest teachers.
If we look back, we can surely remember times in our lives when we have thought we faced the worst possible event – and after we got through it, we could look back and see that juggernaut became a life-transforming gift.
Next time you feel that sense of dread, don’t tighten into a ball and hope things bounce off. Don't grit your teeth and tough it out. Roll up your sleeves, rub your hands together and say “All right! Let’s do this! It’s going to be great!”
One of the members of the Stable Outlook herd is a Shetland pony. Like many of the other equines on the place, he was a rescue.
For centuries, humans have given horses a bad rap for their behavior, but for the most part, our equine friends are trusting and curious and want to be in connection to us. They are herd creatures, which means the scariest thing they know is to be separated from the herd. When they see a human, their instinct is to investigate them and determine whether they are a threat. If the person isn’t threatening, the horses will surround them and welcome them into the herd.
When this pony sees an adult human, his first instinct is to stay away. In spite of the instinct to be in a herd, he will run to the opposite side of the pasture in order to escape. For most humans, this is seen as bad behavior: if a human wants to catch a horse and the horse doesn’t want to be caught, the human generally gets frustrated and angry.
When he is in a confined area (a pen or a stall) he still functions from a panic mode. No matter how calm a human is around him, he is wary and ready to bolt. If a person simply walks by him carrying a manure fork, he will react as if they are coming to kill him. This is after three years of loving, kind, non-violent care.
Interestingly, the pony is very calm and gentle around children. When a child is on his back, he is calm and gentle and places every hoof down on the ground with exceeding care. This shows us that children were not his abusers.
When people are early in recovery (from trauma or substance abuse) they often get frustrated with themselves and think they “should” know how to “do life.” There is a huge amount of shame and regret that their past has brought them to a present where they don’t have the tools or skills to manage “life on life’s terms.”
But like the pony, if we were raised on fear and mistrust, it isn’t reasonable to expect ourselves to instantly recognize love and safety. We don’t have the tools in our past. We live what we have learned.
Even the good stuff has to be attempted, experienced and tested. This is what we call healing. This is what we can receive in the program if we keep coming back.
Have you ever noticed that the “Serenity Prayer” isn’t really about serenity? It’s about facing change with acceptance, courage and wisdom.
Life is constantly changing: creating, living, growing and dying. And yet how many of our character defects are a result of wishing for stasis? We fear change and loss, so we become controlling or procrastinating or perfectionist. We want to seem “okay” which results in us spending our money and time and energy to look the right way, dress the right way, live in the right house and drive the right car. We don’t feel okay on the inside so we work very hard to appear okay on the outside.
We fear our own feelings. We don’t want to feel afraid or sad or lonely or angry. And in order to hide from our feelings we shop, we gamble, we smoke, and we drink. In order to avoid facing our own fears we end up having issues around food or sex or money or substances.
At this time of year when people are celebrating the holidays, many of us struggle with regret and loss and longing. Nothing like Santa Claus and Christmas trees to bring out our deepest griefs and sorrows!
And so we seek relief. For some, relief comes from substances and addictive behaviors of all types.
For those of us in 12-step recovery, the Serenity Prayer is a way of praying and pleading or deflecting and struggling with our fear of change and need for relief. It is a reminder that we are not in control and that in order to find inner peace we must surrender our illusions of perfection and instead accept “life on life’s terms.”
The full version of the Serenity Prayer was published in 1951 by its author Reinhold Niebuhr. Although not as well-known as the shortened version (used widely in 12-step recovery), it has a few beautiful nuances befitting the Christmas season.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
There comes a point in recovery (recovery from trauma, recovery from addiction, etc.) when we realize that there is a voice inside of us we have been muffling or smothering. We realize that the voice can no longer, will no longer, be silent. It is not just a single voice, but is a choir made up of different voices inside us that all want to be heard.
We can find ourselves terrified of the overwhelming, raucous cacophony; but part of us knows that the choir has to be heard. We want to scream and rage and shout and finally be free to express what has been silent.
The choir of voices needs to have time to sing and speak its truth. Feeling safe enough to let them be heard can be daunting. After all, there was a message somewhere inside us that told us NOT to speak, not to acknowledge, not to admit. We tend to associate that message with other people. Someone did or said something that made us think silence was the only safe choice.
Another difficult part of the process is moving through: the choir has its story to tell, but it is not the whole story. We can get stuck in this particular place and think that the choir represents our truth, not just an aspect of the truth. Imagine an opera where a group comes on stage to sing its part of the story, but then refuses to leave to let the next group of singers take the stage to move the action forward into the next scene.
The twelve-step recovery process provides the tools and the settings for us to allow one part of the story to end so that the next part of our story can begin. Meetings and sponsors offer us a safe space where we can be heard, and where we can hear ourselves. Listening to others at meetings and reading daily meditations allow us to find a path way through this “phase of our development.”
‘Acknowledging the past without wishing to shut the door on it’ means that the parts of us that need to be heard can have their time ‘on stage’ without taking over our lives completely. Our story can’t move forward and our healing can’t progress until these parts of us have been given – and have given up center stage.
One of the reasons horses are so powerful in the Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) process is that they don’t judge us. We often look at humans and project onto them the motivations that we have experienced in our past. With our equine friends, we are given a sense of being completely in the present moment. And in creating this unique space and time of “now,” the horse can see us with honesty and clarity and reflect our truth back to us.
In the arena we are offered a place to speak our experience and to bring it out into the light. Working with the horse as a partner, we are also presented with a place where we can move through and experience – in the present moment – a space where releasing and healing can happen on the deepest level.