Way of the Horse by Linda Shannon
I love transcendent moments. I know them by their fruits: my small, limited self transforms and my conscious awareness expands to touch a divine, spiritual knowing. I love these moments, and I long for them.
Recently, I had a transcendent moment of a most unusual kind. It crystallized when I had the chance to be with animals that are, for me, the most beautiful of all sentient beings. Horses.
I’d been feeling unhappy for a while, as life just didn’t seem to be going my way. I am a single mother of a three-year-old, and there are times when I am overwhelmed. I also need to work full time and feel I cannot leave my job, which is for a bureaucratic agency with all the dysfunction of differing political agendas. After work and on weekends, I have an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice, and my intention is for this to be my full-time vocation. Yet, I am frustrated that my career of choice isn’t developing as fast as I want it to. With all of these things filling my present tense experience, I decided to go to a workshop in Olympia, Washington, far from home and out of my day-to-day routine
I was excited to attend this workshop, “Energy and Grace Through The Way of The Horse,” because Linda Kohanvo, one of the originators of the Epona Program in Tucson, Arizona, and author of “The Tao of Equus” and “Riding Between the Worlds”, was presenting the first night. Linda has done wonderful work in facilitating necessary changes in the way humans view horses.
My journey into the way of the horse began with Linda’s evening lecture at Evergreen State College. There we learned about the mythology of the horse-human relationship and the energies the horse represents to our human psyche. As I listened to Linda discuss the “Way of the Black Horse”, I felt a sense of longing and loneliness for my own magical black horse back home, being taken care of by my neighbors. It had been a long time since I left my small herd, and I wanted my horse Sissy by my side supporting me on my healing sojourn.
My mood was dark and unsure when I showed up the next day for the workshop, but my spirits lifted as soon as I pulled into the driveway. What a beautiful place! A creek and a pond created a boundary as nature sang to us her song of welcoming. The barn was to die for, warm and inviting for equine and human alike. The meeting room was serene, and the energy of the people coming together felt like a reunion of like-minds and souls, creating a sense of comfort and belonging.
Creating community is a difficult process as most of us wonder what “other people” are going to think about us. The unconscious question that arises is “what mask do I wear in order to fit in here?” However, in this gathering, people worked hard at letting go their masks of social conformity in order to be authentic and fully present with the others gathered. This was an honoring of diversity at its finest, each accepting and welcoming the others, flaws and grand dreams included. One young woman summed up the energy we created saying, “There’s only one in a thousand who thinks the way we do, and we are gathered here together. This is no accident.”
The purpose of the workshop was to awaken and learn to apply our dormant intuitive capabilities—the ones usually sacrificed on the altar of logical understanding that so dominates human interactions in the world today. Our collective intention was to become aware of the energy surrounding us by practicing balancing techniques, and engaging the courtship of mind and soul by being fully present within our bodies and experience. Among other things we were taught the ancient practice of Qigong in a setting that still sends waves of peaceful belonging to my soul. Imagine a group of people facing the four directions, North, South, East and West, moving gracefully in slow motion, honoring the energies of earth and sky, nature and water. I swear the trees were smiling down on us and embracing each one with gratitude that we are here on this Earth—at this moment in time—to bring in the healing energies of the goddess.
When the time came to meet the horses we were instructed to “feel” or “listen” to what each horse said to us. It was our first opportunity to try out our newly honed skills of intuitive communication. I began my sojourn at the lower end of the property where there were several horses for us to meet. Moette, beautiful and graceful, felt very secure within herself to me. Her pasture partner was not as secure, wanting Moette all to herself, which Moette did not seem upset about. It was as if she held the pasture security as her task and did not want to interrupt it.
The two boys in the next pasture however, where a completely different story. Shane and Chance had an air about them of playfulness. They both knew who they were individually, yet together they competed for the attention of the strange two-leggeds who stood looking at them. They were funny. I watched as they vied for the attention of whoever was near. Chance would say, “Look at me”, then Shane would butt in as if to say, “Hey, I’m much better looking than he is!”
I went up the hill to meet the next two horses. The sign on the gate gave the name of the horse we were to work with, describing her as “all brown.” I saw a chestnut and a bay. To me, bay is more brown than chestnut so I watched the bay horse more intently. This was easy to do, as she would not stand still for a minute. She paced and pawed. She would bump into the other horse with no respect or manners. She whinnied and snorted as she watched the two-leggeds stare at her. You could tell she did not feel secure within herself and that she was anxious. The impressions in my head coming from her were, “Who are you, what do you want?” Nope, she was not even close to being secure within herself. I could relate 100%, and knew she was the horse I wanted to work with.
When we gathered back together after this meet & greet exercise, two of us had heard the call of the bay horse. April was her name, and her story was classic codependency. Although she had been weaned, she’s never been long away from her mother. When separated from her mom, she becomes dangerous and unable to think, goes into fight-or-flight, and displays externally the inner dynamics of the trauma survivor. She cannot tolerate being on her own, and she’ll do what she must to “return” home to her mother where she feels some sense of safety.
Towards the end of the next day, April appeared for her first session, in an activity called Reflective Round Pen. Since it was getting late, I opted to be with her the following morning rather than working fast against the encroaching night. Besides that, April was not even close to being able to be with anybody. I watched silently as she gyrated around the pen, tossing her head, whinnying for her mother. She would run up to the edge of the pen, and thankfully, she stopped herself in time before smashing into it.
I watched her mimic what I felt internally—the fear, the hypervigilance and the angry outpouring of emotional energy seeking unsuccessfully her safety net. I, too, have acted out the yearning for a love that has been lost. I empathized with this young horse who had not yet developed her own sense of self, her own voice, or the empowerment that comes from knowing she can and will survive.
I could tell that Leigh, the workshop leader, was not feeling safe with having someone be with April, as she was literally out of control. But, Nina, the workshop participant who’d heard the call of the bay, wanted to work with her on the outside of the pen and connect with her at a different level. This was amazing to watch. You could tell something was happening, and April could feel energy she was not used to. At one point, the process became too much for her, and those of us observing silently chose to position ourselves to provide safety for horse and human alike. Nina was so immersed in sending peace and calm that she did not see us, but we knew we were there if needed.
Slowly April began to calm down. It was as if she became more curious than dangerous. All of us who watched this process knew that something happened. Yet we could not objectify it; the tangible conventional logic we have become accustomed to could not be applied. It was beyond words, but true nonetheless.
That evening I could not get April out of my mind. To me, she represented a multitude of the disowned parts of myself, and I kept imagining exposing those parts of me in her presence. I had this image of the lead rope being a symbol of my attachment to old, outdated ideas and personal myths that no longer served me. Then I imagined taking the lead rope off, this being a symbolic initiation into the center of my own self—standing alone yet still connected by energetic community with April.
This was such a delicious thought, I was excited to see if it could happen in real life.
When I arrived the following morning, I felt energized, light, with a sense of emotional emancipation from the false perceptions that have shaped my life. When the workshop leader told me she preferred I work with Chance instead, because she felt uncomfortable with April’s behaviors of the night before, I felt my spirit drop and the old habit of thought break in, saying, “Told you so; things don’t go your way!”
But then something happened within my own mind. I chose a different thought, a much lighter path. I chose to trust the present moment rather than second-guess it. As soon as I let go, I found out that Chance was busy with someone else. I was overjoyed! When April was brought to the arena I watched her taking in the environment with uncertain movements. Her hyper-vigilance had her primed to flee; yet something was different in her actions from the night before. I had a sense from her of tentative curiosity, that she knew she might miss something if she fled. Holding eye contact with her, I slowly opened the round pen gate and walked toward her taking the lead rope from the handler.
I held the lead rope and gently rubbed her neck with my hand. She turned and looked at me and again held eye contact for a few seconds. Her body tightened up and she became anxious again; she lowered her head, snorted and walked away, dragging me behind her.
I could feel myself becoming annoyed, as horses are “supposed” to cooperate with humans. How dare she walk away and not listen to what I, the human, was telling her. Mostly, how dare she make me look bad in front of the people watching us!
Then I remembered something: this had nothing to do with horsemanship, but with relationship. What if I simply allowed what was going on in the moment, without judgment? Would it be different? Would I be able to fulfill my imagined healing process from the night before? Could we indeed become independent beings trusting each other and ourselves? I decided to let go and go with the flow.
With her body turned away from me, I lowered myself to the ground and caressed the lead rope through my hands. April raised her head and noticed I was still attached, so I grabbed a handful of dirt, letting it sift through my fingers, back to the earth. April came over and smelled me from the top of my head, working her way down my cheeks, face, and shoulders and then to my hands. She was licking and chewing as she placed her nose to the ground and smelled it. When she was done, she again walked away, and this time, rather than pulling her to do what I wanted, I allowed her to go and I followed. After a few moments, I asked her to follow me by combing the rope gently and inviting her to be a partner. Incredibly, she walked with me around the pen. If I went left, she went with me. If I turned to the right, she went with me. I bent down again, grabbed some dirt, and let her smell it. She again walked away from me, and again I went with her. Then to my amazement she pawed at the ground, found a great place, and rolled. What was I to do but allow her to ground herself, as I had to ground myself!
When she shook herself off, I wondered if I could indeed remove the rope and have her be free of all fetters but still in relationship with me. So, as any of us good codependent people do, I asked for permission. Part of me was hoping I would be told no, for was I really willing to cut the symbolic cords of attachment to dysfunctional thoughts and relationships? “No”, my mind screamed; “Sure” I heard Leigh, the workshop leader, say, “I think it will be OK.”
“Crap,” said my mind.
I unfastened the lead and took a deep breath. April also took a breath and walked calmly away to find the last little morsel of hay. It was done; we were independent beings sharing the same space together. I went to the rail for feedback from the people watching. The feedback was amazing, and I still feel tremendous gratitude for it. I especially liked being told my “eyes are bluer when I am with horses.” As this was happening, I looked over and there was April, licking and chewing, by my side. She placed her muzzle on my shoulder as she, too, took in the information from the other two-leggeds. We did it! April and I together forged a partnership based on trust and energetic communication.
At that moment, a transcendent insight came to me. Through trusting the energy around us, we trust the universal love of the Goddess/God. It is this path that we walk to become the living bridge marrying mind and spirit, masculine and feminine, in wholeness.
Another insight and transcendent moment awaited me when I put all the pieces together. If Nina had not begun the process of connecting with April the night before, my suspicion is we would not have developed the partnership we did. I believe it took the three of us—April, Nina and me—to build a community. This helped to reinforce how interconnected we all are. There really are no boundaries between any sentient beings. We are all one, experiencing different stories.
Returning to my home and work routine, I felt a fundamental shift had occurred. I experience more transcendental moments now, knowing our one-sided attachment to conventional left-brain logic causes pain and suffering. Through feelings and emotions, I listen more attentively to my intuitive voice, and ask my left-brain for help in making meaning. In a sense, I feel more real, more authentic than before, in spite of the fact that my situation remains essentially the same. I know, as many of us do, that we have a lot of work to do to bring authentic community into the world. We have lost our way, and there are those of us, one in a thousand, blazing paths for others to follow, back to themselves. We may not have the answers, we may flounder in the process, but maybe, just maybe, the way of the horse will lead some of us there.
Linda L. Shannon LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker with 18 years experience in agency and private practice settings. For more information on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning (EAPL) she can be reached at (503) 373-4908.