All posts by My Therapist Eats Grass

My horse helps me connect to emotions that I'm not always aware that I'm feeling. His wordless presence speaks to my heart in whispers. I trust what a horses say because they always tell the truth.

Guest post from my colleague Pam Suraci, LMFT in San Luis Obispo

It had been a long day.  One more stop before I go home, to clean stalls and set up tomorrow’s breakfast.  The barn nightlight creates shadows as the horses poke their heads out to see who is visiting so late.  Preoccupied with my day’s work, I grab the rake and wheelbarrow and get to work.  As I scoop sift, dump dirty shavings and manure, the sessions of the day roll through my head – was it a full moon?  What on earth was happening with my clients – so much resistance today, from everyone.  How weird- no wonder I was so tired.

Scoop, sift, dump.  Like a stall –cleaning machine.  My mind wanders….What was up with that teenager?  She was so combative – it reminded me of parenting my own kids in the most challenging times…  That never happens in therapy sessions though…I can usually find a way in, especially with that kid.  The horse, whose stall I had invaded at this uncivilized hour, seemed to need to stand exactly where I needed to clean.  “Come on, buddy, move over” I coaxed – a step here, a step there, he always seemed to be more, not less, in my way.  Gentle nudges, contorting myself to reach around, finally the stall is done.

Next stall, back to the replay of my day.  What was going on with everyone today?  The couple who had been doing so well were suddenly at odds, irritated by each other and by me.  Back to basics and they found some peace, but dang it, they should be beyond that, shouldn’t they? …just as that thought pops in, my next housekeeping job is challenged by another 900 ponder who can’t seem to get in my way enough.  “Really, Max?  Do you need to stand here right now?”  He blinked at me calmly in the dim light.  Once again, contort, scoop, sift, dump.  Max moves closer, nosing the cart and threatening to dump two dirty stalls’ worth all over his newly clean floor.  I yank the cart out of the way, just in time.

One more stall, my horse, to do.  Before I even enter, the movie of my day begins to replay.  My big gentle friend blocks the door completely, before I even get to scoop, sift, dump.  “Dude”, I softly say, “move your big butt”.  Nothing.  He extends a velvet muzzle my way…I know the game.  I touch the very tip of his nose with one finger, and he sticks his tongue out.  I retract, he extends and we start again.  He can play this game for hours.  But I am in a rush, so I shove by him to clean his day’s leavings.  He is certain, though, that his ideas are better.  Sidling between me and the cart, he again extends his soft nose.  Ok, I get it…one finger, a big pink washcloth tongue emerges.  I put down the rake.  I reach to pet his neck, but he pulls away.  Nose out, finger touch, tongue flick.  I scratch his always itchy shoulder, but again, he moves away.  “Nope,” he seems to say, “I only want this interaction”, and extends his nose again.  I am ready to pause my chores, give him a snuggle and get on with my cleaning but he moves just out of reach.  Slowly I get the message – he will only receive what he is interested in receiving.

Deep breath, horse smell, long gaze.  A decision is made.  Today is already done, no more replay.  “Pay attention,” he seems to say, “you’re not the only one here.”  I need to focus on what he is showing, not telling, me.  I can give only what the receiver is ready to take.  I step back, he follows.  Another step, he follows again.  Hands in my pockets, we regard each other for a moment.  He steps forward a bit more, sniffs my jacket and together we take a moment.  I realize, once again, my desire to give or to heal never trumps the needs of a receiver.  That teenager? She was doing exactly what she did with her mom, and showing me what I need to see to help them both.  Today’s couple? Well, they had a bad day.  They weren’t ready to receive from each other, or from me.  When I pushed, they retreated.  When I paused, went back to the smallest connections, they came forward.  It’s a lesson I learn over and over again.  There will always be time to scoop, sift and dump.  Right now, I pay attention.  I extend my finger, and the soft muzzle meets me halfway.

Three Things to Remember as you’re walking out of Hell.

Waking up on a gorgeous June morning, expecting to spend another summer day with my kids, my life was abruptly thrown into upheaval. My friend, Marie, called frantically yelling, “The Teton Dam collapsed. The water is heading your way!” Continue reading Three Things to Remember as you’re walking out of Hell.

Leadership Style is a reflection of your inner life.

It happened every week. Co-workers gathered for the weekly staff meeting, sitting around a large conference table, sipping their coffee and greeting each other. Then, as if on cue, all conversations stopped. The easy flowing conversation abruptly shifted to uncomfortable silence. Suzanne, their district manager, had entered the room.

Suzanne led her team with cold efficiency. Her leadership style was “old school”: fear and manipulation guaranteed results. Continue reading Leadership Style is a reflection of your inner life.

What my horse whispered today: Trust, connection and right brained leadership

“Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

Seth Godin

Trust and connection are the bedrock that successful leadership is built upon. Whether you are working with humans or horses, the strength of the relationship depends on the level of trust and connection between the leader and follower. Horses and humans have similar responses to their leaders. When there is a high degree of trust and connection, they are willingly to reach beyond any preconceived limits and accomplish feats beyond their imagination. There is a direct correlation: the higher their trust levels the more willingness to follow.

Without trust, horses and humans respond with either coerced compliance or defiance. Fear and disconnection dominate relationships not built on trust and connection. Force and coercion automatically trigger fight or flight responses in our brains. Humans rebel and/or shut down. Horses resist and bolt.

Over the years, I’ve observed that the most effective leadership approach (for horses or humans) involves the leader relying on both their emotional intelligence (EI) and mind-body-soul connection. This approach is highly effective because the leaders trust in themselves allows their creativity; intuition and ability to accurately read others emotions leads them to solutions. With their emotional brain in the lead, the leader creates an invitation for follower to be open and cooperative. Their relationship thrives on their mutually trusting connection.

Before we learn language and express ourselves with words, humans live in their right brain hemisphere. Once humans acquire language their left-brain hemisphere begins to dominate their interpretation of the world. Horses, as prey animals, exist in a non-verbal, right brain world. Equine facilitated coaching creates a setting where horses teach humans how to shift from their dominant, language dependent left-brain. The strength of the horse-human connection depends on how well humans are able to shift to their right brain and communicate their requests wordlessly.

I asked my client, Tim, to walk a horse through a simple L shaped obstacle. He naturally went to his left-brain and used a direct, forceful approach. He started pushing and shoving on the horse’s neck, trying to get it to move in the direction of the obstacle. Naturally, the horse resisted. Tim began talking to the horse, telling it how good and beautiful it was. The horse didn’t move. Tim kept trying to shove the 1200-pound animal in a direction it didn’t want to go. His efforts were futile and exhausting.

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Tim relaxed and stood by the horse, facing the direction he wanted to go. Together, they slowly walked through the L shaped poles and completed the task. Forcing his demands (left brain) created resistance. By calming down and shifting to his emotional brain (right brain), Tim silently restored his connection to the horse. The horse willingly went in direction Tim wanted to go.

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A positive, willing relationship with their leadership, horses or humans, depends on the human’s ability to lead from their emotional and intuitive (right brain). In this example, the horse resisted force but when both the human and the horse made an emotional connection, they willingly responded to each other.

Working with prey animals, you rely on a right brain hemisphere approach. However, humans, unlike horses, have both predator and prey characteristics.

Human prey- like responses are typified by; passive aggressive behaviors, such as being slow to provide answers or do work, agreeing but never acting on their promises. As we do with horses, the leader uses a right-brained approach and gently, consistently applies pressure. For both horses and humans, their natural response is to move away from or avoid the pressure, toward another direction. It takes less effort to move away from the pressure than to push against it (the leadership). The leader creates an uncomfortable situation that’s difficult to avoid. As the person/group moves toward the desired goal, the pressure is released. Applying consistent pressure (timelines and restricted access to pleasurable experiences) results in a series of very small positive changes. For example: “Before you go out and play, you need to clean up your bedroom. I’ll set a timer. In the next 15 minutes, please pick up all of your socks off the floor and put them in the washer.” The leader sets small goals until all the items are picked up. Small requests, achievable steps and consistent pressure complete the task much faster.

When horses or humans are asked to make a change or face a challenge, resistance often follows. Our reactions reflect our level of trust in our leader. The less we trust the leadership, the greater our resistance. Left-brained leadership depends on compliance using force and coercion to get results. The external changes are maintained as long as force is greater than the resistance. Right-brained leadership uses resistance as an opportunity for deepening trust between the leader and her followers. The connection and trust of the leader encourages an internal shift and willingness usually follows. When our trust in the leadership is greater than our resistance to change, we move forward.

What’s true for horses is true for humans; “You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear. There will always be something that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.” Antoinede Pluvinel.





What my Horse Whispered Today: Trust your internal guidance system.

A three part series about leadership: Leading your life; Leading others; Sustaining leadership

Horses are wonderful leadership teachers. They instinctively know the survival of the herd depends on their trust and connection to the lead mare. Imagine a herd of wild horses grazing in a field. On the perimeter the lead mare patrols and alerts the herd when it’s time to move on. All of the horses within the herd have one ear pointed toward their lead mare at all times. Each horse is aware of the slightest changes; a flick of the ear, muscle twitches or shifts in the wind. Without the lead mare’s ability to lead them away from danger and toward water and new pastures the herd would perish.

Like horses, humans willingly follow leadership when they trust and have an emotional connection to the leader. Leaders and their followers have an Internal Guidance System (IGS) that functions like their inner lead mare. Our survival, individually and as a group, depends on attending to our IGS. The more we nurture our mind-body-intuition connection (our vulnerable sensitivity that immediately responds to truth) and listen its internal signals the stronger our IGS becomes. To do this, we must learn to regulate our emotions and feed our spiritual life. We can rely on our IGS to give us clarity in confusing situations, help us refocus and lead us in the direction of our best life.

Neglecting our IGS by substituting other’s opinions and allowing our immediate, reactive emotions guide our decisions ultimately blur’s and disables our ability to make sustained, positive changes in our lives. Internally, we become a herd without their lead mare. Not listening to your internal IGS is like a herd disregarding the signals from their lead mare.

Racing thoughts, anger, holding onto past regrets prevents your IGS from functioning properly. Relying only on emotions and rehearsing the old painful stories feed the distorted beliefs about the self and sabotage the IGS. Your emotions take the lead and cause you to wander around, questioning everything, unable to focus or recognize real threats.

I was conducting an Equus workshop with a group from an addiction recovery center. I asked each participant to guide a horse through a simple obstacle course. One of the women had been walking side by side with the horse, moving it forward, her eyes focused on the barrel at the end of the course. The horse hesitated. She got confused, stopped, then turned and faced the horse. The horse responded to her confusion by refusing to move.

Me: What’s happening right now?

Woman: “Well the horse stopped and I’m trying to get it to move forward.”

She and the horse stood still facing each other for about four minutes.

Me: “Where do you want to go?girl&nauticmoving forward

Photo by Sheri Wirt Photography

Woman: “I want to get to the end of the obstacle course but this stupid horse won’t move!”

Me: “ Your horse isn’t stupid. You are asking her to move forward but where are your eyes and body and facing?”

She laughed as she realized that she was physically facing in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go; where she began instead of the finish line.

 Me: ” You need to look in the direction you want the horse to go. You are facing where you’ve already been, not where you want to end up. You want to move forward but keep looking back to where you’ve been instead of where you want to end up.”

Woman: Bursting into tears, “That’s why I can’t kick this drug habit, I keep looking in the wrong direction. All I see is my past failure. I’m not moving toward recovery.”

Then she stopped, calmed down, refocused. She turned around, faced the end of the course and walked the horse finish line.

There are similarities between leading horses and leading ourselves toward our best lives. Where we focus determines our next steps. If we, or those in leadership, disconnect from our IGS letting shame and failures dominate, focusing on the past, our sense of direction is lost. We are leaderless.

Individually or we are in the role of parent, teacher, therapist or equestrian, our connection and response to our physical, emotional and intuitive signals determines the effectiveness of our leadership, personally and with others.. Disconnecting from your IGS disables your ability to connect with or lead anyone else

I teach my clients how to connect to their intuitive self by developing their IGS using the three core practices of personal leadership.

They are:

  • Examine your personal truth: Are your passions, values, emotions and actions are aligned? As I asked my client, “Are you focused in the direction you want to go? “Focusing on the past, keeps you in the past. Moving forward takes all of your energy, focused in the direction you want to go.
  • Listen to your heart: Your heart is that part of you that immediately recognizes the truth. Have a clear focus for the day. What do you want to create and how you want to feel at the end of the day? Ask yourself what truths are your emotions and body telling you, right now?
  • Stay Present: Adjust your actions and thoughts according to the needs of the moment: Your body (not your judgmental, critical, worried mind) is your most trustworthy guide. Be like a horse- a prey animal. Without engaging your analytical mind, the vulnerable part of you becomes more responsive to what is happening in the moment. Connect and trust your physical/emotional responses to direct your next steps. The feeling of lightness and freedom says, “Go.” Constriction and heavy, hesitant feelings say, “Stop, wait, look, reconsider.” Trust yourself and adjust your actions accordingly.

As the herd depends on their lead mare, depend on your IGS for daily guidance. Aligning your responses and decisions with this internal system will reconnect you with your inner leader who will protect and move you forward.





What my horse whispered: If you are troubled, stand by me.

I’ve been having some trouble in one of my closest relationships. I am asking that we work through a problem that stares us in the face daily and is becoming too painful to ignore. I find no consolation in knowing that confronting and resolving this issue will make our relationship deeper, stronger and more intimate. Instead, my emotions flip between wanting to curl up and cry or lashing out in anger. I feel stuck, not sure of my next step. Where do I go from here?

From the time I was ten years old, I’ve known that I could always find emotional peace and safety with my horses. So, today, I drove my troubled self out to be with my horse, Nautic. I brushed him and took him out to graze on the new grass that had sprouted up after our first big rainfall. As I watched and listened to him eating, I experienced the familiar, warm, wonderful magic of being in a horse’s presence: my mind quieted, my heart calmed and I felt peaceful.

Is being in my horse’s presence really magical? A study by the Institute of HeartMath confirmed that bidirectional “healing” occurs when we are near horses. By measuring electromagnetic fields, researchers found that the heart has a larger energy field than the brain. A horse’s heart is five times bigger and stronger than a human’s and directly influences human heart rhythms. Researchers also found that the physiological benefits that occur when interacting with horses included: lowered blood pressure and heart rate, increased levels of neurotransmitters (pain suppressors) and reduced feelings of anger, hostility and anxiety.

Psychologists have identified a similar phenomenon in human-to-human interactions influencing heart rhythm called, entrainment. It’s defined as; the process that activates or provides a timing cue for a biological rhythm. I’ve witnessed entrainment by watching a mother calm her crying infant by gently holding its head against her breast so the baby can hear her heartbeat. The peace and stability of one being seems to override and quiet the fear and distress of another. Although researchers may not say it this way; a calm peaceful presence is stronger and able to neutralize fear and distress.

As Nautic is standing in the sun munching on sweet, green grass, my heart and my breathing respond to his rhythm. I experience gentle physical and emotional healing by simply being near my horse. In this peaceful space I reconnect my body-mind-soul and find clarity. I know what the next steps I need to take as I peacefully face the challenges I have today. My horse’s heart and peaceful presence are bigger and more powerful then my troubled self. As I stand in his wordless, calm presence, I receive amazing grace.

I think about loved ones and my clients and want to be more like my horse when I am around them: having a big, strong peaceful presence and giving them space and time they need to find answers as they regain their balance and emotional footing

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. -Rumi


My Therapist Eats Grass: A blog for anyone who has experienced the power of the horse-human connection.


What my horse whispered today: “Chop Wood, Carry Water and Carry On.”

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My friend, Susan, who is one of my favorite horse people, gave me some awful news a few days ago. The results of her biopsies revealed she has an aggressive form of breast cancer that has metastasized.

I met her at the stable, cried, hugged her and gave her my love. Typical of Susan, she said she was sorry that her news made me upset. She’s sure everything will be okay.

Me: “But you said ‘it has metastasized’.”

She: “I know, but I’ll be fine. Everything will be okay.”

She was scheduled for a double mastectomy the following day.

She had to leave and take her husband to the airport. I turned back and walked toward the barn. Nautic greeted me with his typical nickering. I gave him a treat and began stroking his head. He leaned in, lowered his head and stood really still. I was a sad, tearful mess. The fear and sadness of possibly losing Debra to cancer jolted my soul. I asked myself three questions: How can I help my friend? What can I do right now? Is there a lesson I need to learn from this?

I believe that everything comes to us as a gift, intended to teach and enlighten us. Both the good and the difficult guide us toward our own North Star, helping us find Home. Our journeys are fraught with obstacles, surprises, challenges, defeats and victories with lessons coming in all shapes and sizes: rude people, an injured horse, unrealistic demands you’re trying to please, a sick child, a grim diagnosis, chemotherapy, annoying relatives, traffic, a 17.2 hand Warmblood refusing to take one step closer toward a plastic sack on the trail, a courageous friend. Everything is designed to shine a light on daily, ordinary moments, revealing the Truth we need to hear. By paying attention, letting feelings flow and trusting that there will be enough light to lead us out of the darkness; we eventually, become the authentic, loving creatures we were born to be.

There is a story about a man who went to his teacher and asked: What must I do to find enlightenment?

The teacher answered, “Chop wood and carry water.”

Several years later the man returned to his teacher and asked: “I haven’t achieved enlightenment, what must I do?”

The teacher answered; “Chop wood and carry water.”

The man went away and many years later returned to his teacher and said: “Master, I have achieved enlightenment. Now, what should I do?”

The teacher replied; “Chop wood and carry water.”

Her life has been turned upside down. My life remains pretty much the same. What changes is my commitment to stop wasting time and energy fearing the possibility of bad or scary news. Almost everything in my life will take on a new shade of grace, because Susan’s journey has gifted me with a new perspective.

The answers to the three questions I had when she told me about her cancer have become clear: Be still; patiently wait, watch and listen. As my friend embarks on her new adventure with breast cancer, I will stand by her offering my love and support as she faces days of feeling awful, more surgeries, chemotherapy and doctor visits. Selfishly, I’m hoping that being in the presence of raw courage will shed some light and teach me more about confronting my fears.

Fearful, troubling situations are part of life. In fact, if your life stops encountering scary, fretful or anxious moments, you’re probably dead. For me, the essence of living my best life means accepting the daily challenges that are right in front of me; the big scary fears, the everyday annoyances, and allowing all of them to teach me the lessons I need to learn. Great or small, it means being still, facing whatever is terrifying me and promising myself that I won’t run away. Most likely, I will need to reach out for a hand to hold, or grab some mane and hold on tight. I’ll let fear be my teacher and let my courage grow. I’ll live life a bit more enlightened and brave as I continue to chop wood and carry water.

P.S. One of the ways I can support Susan is to offer Equine Days for breast cancer patients, survivors and their families. Like my friend, we want others to experience the powerful healing and strength that comes with being in the presence of horses. I’m already finding funding sources willing to help me provide this gift to honor my friend. Knowing Susan, she’ll probably insist that I use her horses and her arena; her way of chopping wood and carrying water

What My Horse Whispered to Me: “Stop ‘Shoulding’ all over Yourself”

Most of my life I’ve lived with free floating-guilt: feeling guilty when I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s triggered whenever I am living in an unpredictable or new situation or when huge changes have occurred and I am struggling with my new normal.

Over the last ten months, my life has been turned upside down. Some changes were made by choice and others happened quite unexpectedly. Living in my new normal means temporarily sidelining my business and much of my social life. When I compare my current situation to my life a year ago, I feel worried and guilty because I don’t have a clear picture of how my life is supposed to look and feel. Frequently, I second-guess the choices I’ve made and question whether I should have done something different?

One of the most difficult challenges has been reducing the time I spend with my horse. Because it is a 2 hour and 15 minute drive, one way, to the ranch I’ve decreased my visits from five to six times a month down to twice a month. I have looked for stables closer to St Helena, but nothing offers the same care my horse receives at Debra’s ranch. So, twice a month I drive out to Lincoln to reconnect with my horse. It’s not ideal, but it is the best I can do for now.

Whenever I go to the ranch, I find Nautic peacefully grazing in his beautiful, lush pasture. When I call him, he gallops to me. We’re happy to reconnect. We hang out for an hour or two, and then it’s time for me to get back on the road before the traffic gets unbearable. I give him a treat and put him away. Often, he’ll whinny as I drive off and then runs away with his pasture mate to enjoy the summer evening. He is a very happy horse. But, I don’t appreciate that my horse is in an ideal environment. Instead, I leave, feeling a little sad and guilty, wondering whether I should have given him more time?

The source of my guilt is anchored in my attachment of achieving the unattainable, perfect ideal; how my life should be. Failing to meet that ideal means I’m screwing up. Things should go this way. It should look like that. I find myself living as though I’m in some grand Dressage competition, striving for the perfect, illusive score of “10” as I move through each transition. My self-imposed guilt trip makes me miserable. Focusing on what should happen keeps me from learning the lesson of this moment and receiving blessing.

If you have free-floating guilt like me, you suffer through frequent attacks of “The Shoulds”: It should be done this way; Life should feel like that; I should know that by now; I should have seen that coming. In counseling we call this kind of thinking, shoulding all over yourself. It’s a very toxic, unproductive use of your energy, driven by fear, is not reality based and rarely, if ever, brings about positive results.

Horses don’t have the same, large cerebral cortex that humans do and, as a result, they don’t overthink anything. They’re intuitive, able to remember, respond and react, but they don’t over-analyze, draw conclusions, criticize or have any notion of a perfect ideal. If I were more like a horse, I’d stay in the moment; accept reality, stop beating myself up because I’m not living according to an imagined, impossible ideal and the guilty chatter in my head would stop. I long to be more like my horse.

I developed a four-step process that helps me practice quieting my guilty thinking as I make my long drive home.


Step One: I clarify the thoughts and guilty beliefs. Where is the should coming from? Have I committed a real offense or am I blaming and second-guessing myself? Has my free-floating guilt habit kicked in again?


Step Two: I challenge my guilty thoughts and feelings by asking: ”Is this true or false guilt?” If its true guilt, I can easily identify what I’ve done or said that was hurtful. I need to clean up my mess, apologize, make amends and learn the lesson. If I haven’t done any harm, I’m in false guilt. I’ve shifted into my not-achieving-perfection mode. Go to step three.


Step Three: I ask myself: Can anyone help me find a better solution? Am I resisting the obvious answer? Have I failed to tell myself the truth? If I answer “yes” to any of these questions, I seek out help (counseling, prayer, meditation, a really good friend) so I can find what thought or belief is driving of my false guilt.


Step Four: The antidote for false guilt: Let go of perfection. Accept and embrace what is happening right now and stop judging, criticizing or over analyzing the situation. Remember, you and everybody else are living in the middle of your life’s movie. You have no idea how it’s going to end. Life is perfect as it is. If we are willing, we learn from it, let it take us to our edges, stretch us and make us more resilient.

As I work through my false guilt, one by one, I experience a deep peaceful connection to my true self. I am in emotional balance. My mind is quiet. It ‘s the same feeling I get when I’m standing quietly with Nautic, stroking his neck, his nose on my shoulder, feeling his breath on my face, knowing that, in this perfect moment, all is well.

What My Horse Whispered: How Old Are You Today?

I turned 64 yesterday. My mother, a vibrant 83 years young, sent me a birthday card that read: “no matter what, don’t act your age.” She reminded me to follow that advice during our phone conversation later that day. What is acting your age? Is it true we get better as we age? If I didn’t know how old I was, how old would I be? Continue reading What My Horse Whispered: How Old Are You Today?