At 10 years old I went away to a two week summer camp on a ranch in northern California. As my parents drove me out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, I noticed how the 7-lane freeways became smaller and smaller, until they turned into two lane roads, then even gravel roads. I remember thinking to myself, “What am I doing? I will never leave the land of 7-lane highways.” But the first thing I did when I got to camp Wood-n-Peg was pick out a dusty pair of used western riding boots and get assigned to my horse, Flash—my partner in crime for the next two weeks.
Throughout those two weeks I rode Flash throughout miles of trails and light arena work, as well as worked hard, building stone walls, clearing brush, and weeding and planting gardens. At night we sat around the campfire cooking hotdogs and marshmallows or lying on the trampolines looking at the stars and had cookies in the old school house mess hall late at night. In between this hard work, I had all the freedom I could ever imagine—something never granted me as a dedicated student living in the city.
But what this experience taught me was that hard work builds character and with hard work comes good fun. I also developed lasting connections with people and my horse, Flash, whose name I remember to this day. Flash taught me about patience as I groomed him and picked his feet, leadership as I lead him in from the pasture, and assertiveness as I trotted him around the open arena.
This was my first exposure to horses. I returned to camp Wood-n-Peg year after year. And dreamed of having contact with the magic that was my relationship with Flash every day. But living in the city this was not a reality. Horses and 7-lane highways don’t mix so well… So 20 years later, when living in a different area of the county, I sought out the animals again, and instantly fell back into the magic.
As an angsty teenager, I longed for the nonjudgmental and unconditional love I had from Flash, from the people around me. He was patient as I learned and carried me to safety every day of those two weeks. In my city life, I sought out teachers, mentors, and therapists as I looked to be loved and cared about in the way that only he understood. And every day I come out the barn now as an adult, I anticipate that unconditional love, dependence, and connection from the horses as I carefully pour their food and fill their water buckets.
Horses are special in that they can sense the energy we bring. When I come to the barn sad or angry, the horses know it. When I come in ready for the beautiful day that is to come, the horses nicker and welcome me. The simple activity of grooming a horse such that all the hair falls in the right place, or sweeping the barn aisle, calms and focuses me in a way that nothing else can. Like many adults, I carry a lot of tension with me throughout my day. My connection with the horses forces me to regulate my breathing with theirs—breath that does not have the nasty conversation of “I’m so stupid” or “Why did I do that?” that goes on in our brains, behind it. Through connecting with their breathing, I connect with mine, and can relax the tension I carry in my shoulders and abdomen.
However, horses have helped not only myself, but they also bring this magic to whomever they interact with. Through more formal therapy with horses, children and adults alike can all experience the magic horses have to offer. Horses teach leadership—as you literally “lead” a 1,200 pound animal, he looks to you where to go. Horses teach patience, relaxation, and mindfulness—through grooming and breath, a focused connection happens, helping the human to truly tune in with his or her own breath as he or she connects with the breath of the animal. Even the simple act of sweeping the barn aisle, staring up at the stars, or cleaning a stall can increase the focus of the mind, bringing attention to the present moment.
When in concert with a horse, you cannot be in the past, thinking of what you had for breakfast or the nasty words your “best friend” said to you on the playground or by the water cooler the other day. Or the nasty words you said to yourself. You also cannot be thinking about what to have for dinner or what may or may not occur in the future. Horses live in the present and they force us to live in the present as well. With this present-focused existence we ignore the negativity we are surrounded by and our attitudes might change to one of compassion and ultimately happiness. We no longer succumb to the culture of judgement we are surrounded by and live in daily, but live in an internal oasis of peace, harmony, connection, and relationship.
We also present ourselves to the horse as we present ourselves to the world. Horses then become stand-ins for people in our lives. We can then, all of a sudden, tell the horse things we can’t tell our spouses, our parents, our friends, or therapists. This creates an ultimate vulnerability that cannot be achieved through any other medium. Through this vulnerability, emotions can be felt and processed in a way that no other therapy can touch.
At 10 years old, I found a relationship of trust and unconditional love and dependence, on both sides. I then sought that out in all areas of my life for the next 20 years. I finally realized that the lessons I learned from Flash and other horses in my life can generalize to my relationships with other humans. If I approach a horse timidly, I might ask myself, where else am I timid or scared in my life? If I respond angrily to a horse, I might ask, where else in my life or with whom am I angry? If I feel compassion for the horse, I might ask where else in my life do I feel compassion, empathy, or sadness? Only then can I truly get in touch with these emotions and thoroughly process them through to closure.