Category Archives: horses and humans

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.

Why Horses

bugsy and Tom

Be very careful about what you ask for in life. Spending a weekend with a horse whisperer and a herd of horses, became an adventure that irreversibly changed the focus and direction of my life.
Up until that weekend, my life was predictable. I did what I thought was expected of me. Being a responsible adult meant putting away childish things and disconnecting from essentially anything that made me feel alive. By silencing my authentic, essential self, I exchanged playfulness for a perpetual emotional state of confusion and apathy. Nothing really made me happy. It felt like there was a piece of my soul missing. I traded what I loved for the approval of my parents and the ominous “everybody”.
Over the next 30 years I had a few enlightened moments. I spent hours reading dozens of self-help books. In one of Martha Beck’s books she wrote about her encounters with a horse whisperer and the freedom she found doing that work. I thought, “That would be so cool if I could do that!” Several weeks later I discovered an opportunity to spend a weekend session at the ranch where Martha and the horse whisperer. My husband thought it would be a great Christmas present. A month later, I left for Arizona, ready for an adventure and not expecting a total transformation.
On the first day of the workshop, I felt some old negative feelings surface; grumpy, resistant, defensive and curious. The second day, while I was standing in the middle of a huge arena, coaxing a small, stubborn buckskin mare into the corral, I felt an enormous emotional shift; like a gigantic genie had jumped out of the bottle. My dormant essential self had come up for air, saying loud and clear, “Hey, I’m out, I’m not going away and I want to play!”
I felt a deep, peaceful calmness, free, released and clear. In that moment, nothing existed except me and the horse. I knew what to do in that moment with the challenge the horse was presenting. I focused on my breath and watched the mare’s nostrils moving in and out. We were breathing in sync. Taking one more gentle breath, I moved into a sacred, wordless mind space, relaxing and trusting myself. My heart and breath and the horse were connected. I gently motioned toward the corral with my hand, made a kissing sound with my lips, and the mare and I willingly moved in the desired direction. The mare went into the corral and I, relaxed deeply into my intuitive self.
The entire process from shifting to alignment took less than 90 seconds. The original assignment, to get three horses into the corral, seemed like an impossible task. Experiencing Oneness with the horse made it an effortless, joyful event. The best part was that I had reconnected to the True Self I thought I had lost decades ago.
I have not been the same since. Almost every day, I stop and let myself drop into the same connected oneness of my mind, body and emotions that I experienced on that hot afternoon in Arizona. When my heart and mind align and connect, I am free.  I know what to do next. Life in that moment makes sense.
Today, I give others the opportunity to connect to their powerful wise selves by working with horses. Over the last three years, I have witnessed horses helping humans ease into their vulnerability. Successfully communicating wordlessly to a 1000 pound horse, requires that you connect, first, to your primal self and then to the horse.  In that connecting moment, nothing else exists. The mind-heart connection to each other leads to a state of oneness that guides and helps you know what to do next. I promise, you never lose the physical and emotional impact of that moment, ever!  That connection in that moment, sets you free to be your powerful, wonderful self.
Horses are healing beings. In his book, Radical Knowing, Christian de Quincey discusses the three brains in humans; the gut, the heart and the brain. As prey animals, horses have a similar system. They respond first from their gut, then their heart and finally their small brains. When we listen to all three of our brains (starting with our gut), we accurately address what needs to be done with each challenging moment. We have Oneness with our essential, true nature. There is no second guessing, over thinking or comparison to others. We are leading with our primal wisdom, our true nature. Participating in equine facilitated learning is one of the best ways to make the mind-body-intuition connection. Horses lead the way to our transformation.

Try this: Equine Facilitated Self-Coaching Exercise #1

For those of you who claim you always feel better after spending time with a horse.

Beginning Oneness:

Go into a pasture, or corral or round pen where it’s quiet: just you and a horse.

Sit down or stand still, focus on the exhale of your breath.

Do not look at, invite or approach the horse in any way.

(Read a book, drink some water, have a picnic. Your lack of any demand on the horse is your invitation to connect.)

If/When the horse approaches you, maintain an arm’s length of space between you and the horse.

Watch the horse’s nostrils and sync your breathing with the horse’s