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.