There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
Sir Winston Churchill
As a girl, I found that when I was around horses, my sense of body shame transformed because I didn’t feel divided between my mind and body. I felt fully embodied. Horses didn’t care that my hips were growing or that my eyes were strange. They didn’t care about surface appearance. What mattered to them had to do with your core. Could you be trusted? Were you consistent? Were you gentle and kind? Did your actions match your intentions? I knew intuitively that being around horses was the salve I needed because in their presence I felt completely attuned to the instinctual and animal nature of my body. No body shame could exist in the powerful unity of that state of being because there was no mind-body split into which to lodge. Thank goodness my parents allowed and encouraged me to have that transformative connection with horses.
Of course they said no to my pleas to have a horse in the backyard. But every June they sent me off to summer camp in the rolling hills of Maryland. There I learned to shoot rifles and arrows, swim and canoe, make my bed with military corners, craft lanyards out of gimp, and most importantly to ride and care for horses. Waredaca (an acronym for Washington Recreational Day Camp) was run by the Butts family who owned a few hundred acres of fields and woods with fifty to sixty horses. Together with my best friend Shorty, we were entrusted to train a couple three year colts so that they would be safe for any inexperienced rider. Short on actual information and skill, Shorty and I shot from the hip, trusting our instincts and limited experience on more seasoned horses. I find it amazing, looking back on it now, that we both survived intact, and so did our charges, Sundance and Little Cuss, two palominos who taught us through their bodies to stay firmly rooted in ours.
Since those early horse-crazy days, I have tried my best to have horses in my life, or at least to have neighbors who have horses. Although that love affair started in the East, moving West made it much more possible to be in close proximity with horses, sometimes, happily, right in my backyard, as they were in Oregon. I like to think, and it has been mostly true, that I am a better person around horses, more connected to myself, more conscious of my surroundings, more mindful of the simple fact that we humans are not the only sentient beings here on this glorious planet, and that compared to the natural grace of horses, we have a lot to learn.
The only time that I felt disconnected from horses was the result of a sad incident that I write about later in the chapter titled “Over-riding intuition.” Suffice it to say here that my participation in this incident upset me so much that I thought myself unworthy of having horses in my life. I raffled off all my horse sculptures, and carved the rider off of a perfectly good wooden horse sculpture. I felt I had sinned against my totemic animal—the horse—and only hoped that after my time of doing penance was over, I would be forgiven by the Horse Gods and Goddesses and granted the honor and responsibility of caring for a horse of my own.
Imagine my gratitude (and trepidation) when, in January of 2011, a dear friend gave me a three-year-old bay filly with three white feet and kite-shaped star on her forehead, an Arab/Morgan cross named Esperanza. Barbra had more horses than she could care for. A seasoned horsewoman, mother of six, and former mine laborer, she rescued horses, pit bulls and cats, but because she lived in the prairie of the San Luis Valley with no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, she kind of needed rescuing herself. She had seen me around her horses, and approved of how I treated them, plus I was making a habit of going to visit her ramshackle assortment of trailers and crude pens to help out in any way I could. Barbra had had a rough life, and although she said she was happy and content living with her animals, anyone having to haul water in winters where forty below is not uncommon is, in my book, still having a rough life.
For about a year I worked with Esperanza from the ground, teaching her to lead, stand tied, lift up her feet, back up, lunge in circles around me, and plow rein as I drove her from behind. She was smart and wanted to connect and learn as long as I went slowly and didn’t pressure her too much. I may have been around horses off and on my whole life, but this was the first horse I have had the privilege to gentle and train “from scratch.” Given my recent history, I sure as hell didn’t want to screw it up.
We’ve had a couple rough patches. One time I pastured her at a friend’s in Northern New Mexico. I was practicing saddling Esperanza with my old Aussie Western saddle and all seemed fine until she felt the metal stirrups thumping against her ribs. She bolted and I lost control of the lead rope. She ran and ran around the low fenced corral in a panic. With Henry and Sandy watching, I must have felt that I needed to appear in charge, because when I managed to catch Esperanza, instead of taking the saddle off and calming her down, I tightened the cinch. Wrong move. She bolted away from me again and finally, wild-eyed, leapt the low fence and tore off into the field to be with Sandy’s horses. The saddle slipped upside down and it took a few days to find the stirrup leathers. It could have been a major wreck. When I caught Esperanza, she was slick with sweat and heaving. With Henry’s and Sandy’s help, we got the saddle off of her and I walked her back to the corral where all seemed well. But for a long time after that, Esperanza hated being saddled. And I got a lesson in the danger of allowing peer pressure to influence my work with Esperanza. I’m not saying Henry or Sandy pressured me; I did it to myself. I wanted to show off for them, plain and simple.
Esperanza and I had another rough patch when in 2013 Henry and I moved to Dolores, Colorado to help my cousin run a horse ranch focused on natural horsemanship. Although the horse whisperer my cousin employed, Ramon Castro, is the real deal in my opinion, and helped me immensely with getting Esperanza used to all the unexpected, chaotic, and irritating things that come along with humans and being ridden—flapping stirrup leathers, ponchos, bumbling mounts and dismounts, for example—I found the competitive atmosphere of natural horsemanship clinics counterproductive to furthering my connection with Esperanza. Pressure, agendas and ego-driven competition are not helpful when working with an anxious and young horse, and I was guilty of all of that.
Ironically, Esperanza and I got along much better as soon as we both moved off the ranch. I had lost a great deal of confidence—I had fallen off her and quickly learned that when you’re in your sixties, the ground is much harder than it used to be and you don’t bounce as well. Plus, Esperanza developed a mysterious abscess near her udder, so riding was out. Once we realized that the veterinarians really didn’t know what to do about her abscess, I began to rely on alternative therapies, my intuition and Esperanza’s direction to heal her. I would research different poultices and salves, and, when I allowed her to smell the medicine, she would either walk away from me, clearly saying No, or she would encourage me by actively pointing at her belly with her nose, and lifting her hind leg to make it easier for me to treat her. A clear Yes.
Slowly as she healed and as we learned that we could make our wishes known to each other, our relationship—all from the ground—improved to the point where I began to throw a saddle blanket on, and then gradually the saddle (minus the stirrup leathers), and then so on until we worked through her PTSD. I learned, with the help of a few key horse people I happened to meet, to take the pressure off as soon as Esperanza even began to do what I hoped she would. This was her reward: to take the pressure off. I spent a lot of time with her out in the field with no agenda at all. My touch got lighter. My patience grew. I listened more closely to my intuition. I listened more closely to Esperanza. And to my amazement, she responded by becoming calmer, steadier, and more willing to make and keep our connection.
Now it is 2016 and Esperanza is eight. Despite our troubles and setbacks (or perhaps because we worked through them), we have managed to develop a mutually beneficial relationship: Esperanza gets to learn good social skills so she can serve me as a steady mount and companion as I age, while I get to experience the world through the senses and wisdom of a fully embodied creature. She is naturally grounded and centered, two Aikido principles I discuss in depth in future chapters. Every inch of her is alive and responsive with natural ki as she extends her field of awareness in every direction around her. When I climb up on her bareback, she is alive and alert to every shift of my balance, every movement of my hands and legs. What her eyes cannot see, her swiveling ears hear and sensitive nostrils smell. Even in the darkest night, her kinesthetic intelligence gives her all the information she needs to know where she is and what’s happening around her. Many horse people say that a horse’s embodied intelligence is so developed that they can sense more subtle energies of thought and intention. No wonder. Horses are prey animals; their very survival depends on their ability to sense and respond to the dangerous presence of a predator and to read their intentions before it’s too late.
Unlike me and most humans I know, Esperanza has never doubted the wisdom of her body; it doesn’t occur to her to separate thinking from everything else her body does. She does not suffer from the angst-filled ramifications of a mind-body split or its ugly stepchild: body shame. To the contrary: if I willing to listen to her, her embodiment is contagious in the best possible way. In her presence, my breathing slows and deepens. On the ground my balance becomes steadier, as if I too have four legs. Astride her, my balance becomes more dynamic and undulating, attentive to each small shift and change. Watching her vigilant ears swiveling around to catch each sound, my own hearing becomes more acute. When she jerks her head up and gazes intently in the distance, I’m alerted to that truck in the distance I had not yet spotted. When she suddenly shies or crouches down as if to run, I’m cued to extend my senses so as to better harvest the world’s mysterious bounty of information so obvious to her. I try to take what I am learning from her everywhere I go.
Of course I am not always successful. Some of the places I go are places Esperanza would detest and attempt to flee from as soon as possible. Airports and airplanes, for example. High-rise buildings. Parking lots. Classrooms with windows that don’t open. The vice-grip of a mammogram machine. The gridlock of a city. For some insane and unearthly reason, we have constructed a world of human activity that segregates us from the natural world, and from our bodies. If I look at these places the way Esperanza would, it is obvious why they are detestable. Like her, I flee as soon as possible for the green and quiet and open.
Horses are surprisingly astute when it comes to picking up the mind-body split and the difference between having the idea of something and the physically embodied intention of it. You can think Whoa all you want, but unless that’s accompanied by clear physical cues, even if they’re very subtle, a horse will not react.
One of my most influential Aikido teachers, Robert Nadeau, spoke constantly of the difference between the concept of an idea and the EXPERIENCE of that idea. A cerebral understanding of an idea without the bass chord/root of the body’s experience results too often in an ethereal, airy, space cadet, head-in-the-clouds kind of quality rather than a solid, grounded, vital dynamism. He spoke of embodiment as the physically manifest expression of a state of being. To practice embodiment is to bring the idea of developing an inner life home.
Horses know the difference between someone who is living in their head and someone who is living in their body. They know who is spaced out and who is solid. From a horse’s point of view, this distinction is rooted in nothing less than survival. Horses are herd animals; they are tuned into each other so that anything that threatens an individual will be instantly communicated to all members of the herd. But questions of survival depend on reliable communication. A horse that’s willing to stand guard while its herd mates lie down for a nap in the sun is playing a valuable role and must embody the herd’s trust. In contrast, a horse that’s not paying attention cannot be relied upon for accurate communication, and indeed, may soon become a dead horse.
When it comes to horse-human interaction, the same dynamics rule the day. I have seen Esperanza physically move away from someone who was scattered, unfocused, agitated, and not in his body, even though he insisted at the time that he was fine. Something about the intensity of the man’s mind/body split and the incongruence of walk versus talk must have spelled danger for her. In contrast, just the other day I saw her tolerate the wild fluctuations of an over active child as he climbed the fence, ran back and forth, and poked his hand through the corral; I can only guess that she wasn’t alarmed because there was something congruent in the child’s energy.
The sensitivity horses display toward mixed messages and the level of embodiment in humans may help explain the growing field of equine facilitated therapy, in which disembodied humans practice being with embodied horses in order to reawaken to the life spring of our body-based wisdom. This sensitivity may be even truer if the horse has suffered abuse and learned to mistrust humans and their ability to honestly walk their talk. Linda Kohanov writes about this dynamic in her books about equine facilitated therapy when she notes that some formerly abused horses are especially great teachers because they will be only respond to people who learn to become congruent in mind and body, even if that congruency is one of terror, or, in the case of the over active child, frenetic energy. Maybe Esperanza trusted that child not because she particularly likes wild and sudden movements, but because the child wasn’t trying to mask anything or cover up his crazy impulses with a thick layer of socially acceptable behavior. Perhaps horses prefer authenticity.
 As Linda Kohanov has written in her important book, The Tao of Equus, the fact that horses are prey animals that run in herds means they are especially attuned to noticing and assessing intention; their survival depends upon not only being able to discern what a predator is up to but also to instantly react to the collective response of the herd.