(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.