(The photo above is one of my favorites of Nova. Ever curious, this was right before she came up to me in the field as I squatted down to get a good shot. She knocked me over as she nudged the camera to explore what it was)
Nova came to me from the wild. She is a mustang, rounded up by helicopter with members of her herd from Cold Springs, Oregon. She was next brought to a giant holding corral in Burns, Oregon, where she lived for almost two years before I adopted her. (The choices about this process by the BLM in Oregon are controversial, and not the focus of this post, but worth researching if you are interested.) What I know is that this lovely being needed a home when I met her, and since then she has been my companion, coworker, and by far the best teacher I've ever had. She was named by our family for her celestial nature, and the markings on her face, in which you can lose yourself as if flying in a swath of stars.
Nova arrived at the barn where I first boarded her with a halter on. By the looks of it, this halter had weathered rain storms, rolls in the mud, and some aging. It was rusty and crusted, stiff to the touch, and I was concerned about how it was rubbing on the bridge of her nose. I knew I had to get this halter off of her but there were a few major issues. First, Nova would not let me touch her head or face. For the first week of our journey together, I had been standing in her stall and run, slowly trying to approach her and give her reassurance that I could be trusted not to harm her. She was only partly buying it, and to be honest, I didn't fully trust her either. She had come from a TIP trainer, a wonderful woman who had taken her from the corral and gotten her to complete a few skills in a few weeks before I adopted her - so I was hopeful that this experience had swayed Nova about humans a bit... but I also had no idea what impressions she got from our species from the roundup and the corral. I could only imagine what she thought of humans in general, and I knew I had to take things slowly. Secondly, I was no expert in gentling mustangs. Not even an intermediate. I was a complete beginner.
There can be beauty in having no preconceived notions, and I kept silently coaching myself from the Zen teaching "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Yes! I was a beginner full of possibilities in this process, and very optimistic in fact. But also, from previous life experiences, not horse related, my body was deeply an expert in fear. So, Nova and I were at a bit of an impasse. After about two weeks, I had finally gotten to the point where I could stand by Nova's head and even reach up and touch her neck and the halter. It had been painstaking, but I wanted to make sure we were both in a place of connection and consent. I knew that these moments in our relationship were very important.
One morning, I arrived to find Nova rubbing her halter and face on the stall door. She looked at me a few times, and I interpreted this as our moment. She was going to let me take the halter off, I could feel it. I stepped in to her stall, used some soothing words and slowly reached up to the buckle on her halter. She stood fairly still while I wrestled with the extremely stiff buckle, and I tried my best to stay calm while we both dealt with our respective discomfort. Finally, I was able to release the strap from the prong, but to my dismay, the strap stayed stiffly in place within the frame of the buckle. It was too stiff to pull through, too crusted with dried mud. I began to wriggle the strap to loosen it, and I noticed myself getting fearful, as Nova began to dance and pull her head up. We were unraveling, even if the halter wouldn't. Despite cold November temperatures, I was sweating beneath my silk undershirt and wool sweater. I knew my internal state was informing Nova's reaction, and I felt helpless against the tide. Nova's dancing became quite large for the small stall, and I had to let her move out. She turned and went to her run so quickly, her rump almost knocked me over. I watched her bend over and shake her head, and I took a moment to breathe and regulate myself. To help her, I would have to find a way to center myself; I didn't want to leave a loose halter on her, for fear she could get tangled up when I left for the day. As I was settling and breathing to calm in her stall, I watched Nova in her run. She had her head low and seemed to be stomping from side to side. At a better angle, I could see she was using her hooves to pull the halter off. After a few minutes, she lifted her head and looked at me, then pointed her nose at the halter that lay on the ground. It was in that moment that I realized that Nova had been talking to me for two weeks to find solutions, and I hadn't been listening, really, at all. I was too locked up in myself, my ideas, insecurities, fears, and the voices of a hundred people telling me how to do things with this horse, in person, and online. It was in that moment that I truly realized our connection and communication had to be what guided this process. I had to shut out those voices, and open up to the energy in our connection to find the path forward.
We have come a long way together since then. We have had over a year together, changed barn locations, and added new herd mates, a frisky Oregon mustang colt and an older gelding who led trail rides for some years in Colorado. At each step, I make sure to listen and be mindful of Nova's communication. She is so incredibly resourceful and smart, and often has a better idea about a new task than I do. I know that in order to find solutions to new challenges and issues, we have to do it together in a connected process. And through my work with her, I have had a profound personal transformation in my relationship with fear. She has motivated me to be aware of and challenge my brain/body knee-jerk reactions in the moment, and not get lost in the old brain channels of trauma. It hasn't been easy, especially on those bone-deep wet cold days in the Pacific Northwest midwinter when things didn't go well with us, but it has been the journey of a lifetime and I am forever grateful for what she has brought to my life and what she will bring to the lives of clients who will get to work with her. It has also helped me enhance my abilities as a therapist, to understand that connection and communication will be the foundation for working with clients to find solutions as they embark or continue on their journeys of self discovery.
Even on our hardest days, I never lose sight of my deep empathy for Nova's loss of freedom in the wild, the loss of her herd mates, and her family - even potentially offspring. I also try to focus on just this day, how she has a new herd, fresh food and water, and shelter whenever she wants it from the elements. I want to hold this awareness while we step forward to create a beautiful future together as partners in the healing work of equine assisted therapy.
“Letting go takes a lot of courage sometimes. But once you let go, happiness comes very quickly. You won’t have to go around and search for it.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
A beautiful bird reminded me on Friday that things don't have to be perfect. Letting go of expectation is a lovely gift we can give to ourselves. There is so much in this moment that can help us connect: to ourselves, to loved ones, to the natural beauty around us. So, instead of the perfectionist in me writing the planned therapeutic masterpiece, I give you moments. Moments from the barn of laughter, joy, and beauty.
A few years ago, I was working as a mental health therapist at an equine assisted therapy barn in Canby, Oregon. Arriving first at the barn for an early client was something that made my soul hum. I loved the quiet, the mist rising from wet grass, the smell of the country and a herd of 17 horses swirling around me. But this particular morning, it was more difficult to feel the beautiful energy that pulsed around me. As a community, we were grieving.
Just the evening before, we had lost one of our stalwart and steady therapy horses, Lovesong. She was a lovely spirit with a gentle touch, and an animal assist partner we could work with around children and clients with severe anxiety, because she understood boundaries and space. She had a sometimes standoffish, and always nurturing way in her care for her clients. Many clients had developed deep connections with her, and as a mental health community, we were bracing for the impact this loss would have on all of us. She had colicked in the night, and could not be saved. Personally,`I wondered how I would fare with a busy clinical day, while managing the painful lump in the back of my throat and the hot tears that pooled in my eyes. Lovesong and I had bonded over our many client sessions together and my evening barn closing duties; pets, kisses and treats intermingled with my barn sweeping and singing as she watched me from her stall .
That morning, as I walked by the arena on my way to prepare for a busy day of sessions, I noticed Harmony in the middle of the arena lying on her side, eyes open, and very still. I walked to the arena gate and clucked, "C'mon girl, it'll be ok" She looked at me but didn't move. I clucked again, "Really, I promise. You'll be ok girl" She looked away. Lovesong was her longstanding partner. They were bonded by years of sharing pastures, turnouts and stalls, and always worked as a pair with our clients. We were all grieving the loss of Lovesong, but none more than Harmony. I tried to encourage her a bit longer to get up on her feet, but she was listless, a deep sense of loss radiating from her. I wasn't sure what to do, but I followed my gut, dropped everything, and went in to sit by Harmony,
I chose a spot by Harmony's head and just talked low and easy with her. I shared my own feelings about Lovesong, how she was loved, and how we all understood that this would be hardest for Harmony. I sang a little bit. I checked in with her about touching her head, and she seemed okay with that, so I just slowly stroked her head and neck while attempting to soothe her with words. There was a moment when I became aware of how nuts this might seem to an outsider, sitting and talking to a horse about loss, but it felt right between Harmony and me, so I stayed present with her. I figured, like humans, Harmony may need someone to just help her hold that heaviness of grief for a moment. I understood, from losing a brother, and from many other losses of loved ones in my life, that this weight could feel unbearable at times. That it could help to just have someone hold a space for the weight of it all. And how comforting it could be for Harmony to receive in that space and feel no responsibility for offering anything in return for a brief moment.
After about 15 minutes, I felt Harmony shift her weight a little. Ever alert for safety around my large animal coworkers, I moved away a bit to give her some room to stand up. But then I noticed she was wiggling and inching herself toward me on the ground. So I stayed. Eventually, Harmony inched toward me until her head, which probably weighed close to 80 pounds, was partially resting in my lap. We sat that way, still singing, petting and talking for quite some time until my legs could no longer hold the weight. I told her that I'd need to get up and start my day with clients and gently laid her head back on the ground. Harmony then let out a long, low sigh as she looked up at me. I held her gaze, mirrored this sigh, and let a few tears fall. "Okay girl, we've got this" I stood up, dusted off my jeans and started walking toward the gate. Behind me, I heard some motion and some grunting. Harmony was getting up. She walked after me, and we had a quiet moment at the gate before I headed off to greet my first client. Harmony walked off to her hay feeder to eat.
Harmony's very physical expression of her grief that morning has stayed with me. The weight of her head on my legs is something I can still feel, almost pinning me to the arena floor, the heaviness of early grief so palpable in that exchange. In these unprecedented times, many of us are experiencing loss. Loss of loved ones, jobs, income, routine, freedom, security and more, Without control and without a definitive end in sight, we need to hold that weight for each other. Our herd has never been more important. We need to continue to connect and hold heavy heads in tiny laps for as long as we can bear, and know that someone else will do that for us when we need it. We need to seek help and give help, and hope that when we walk away, we have helped someone else get on their feet and take the next step.
By and by, Harmony was paired with another lovely horse in the herd. With the help of the clients, coworkers and horses around her, she found a way to survive and eventually thrive in the wake of loss and change. She continues in her work as a healer today.