Ever since I was a kid, horses held a special place in my heart. I grew up walking distance from a couple equestrian centers in a Southern California horse-town, San Juan Capistrano. My mom, sister, brothers and I would visit the horses at the stables often on a bike ride or simply just to stop and admire them for a bit. My youngest brother called them “Hee-hees,” which is a name we adopted as a family from there on out.
A teenage neighbor of ours owned a couple horses and taught me to ride and even jump. Albeit the first six or seven times I attempted jumping I ended up UNDER the horse, which surprisingly never felt unsafe to me. I trusted them implicitly. I knew these huge, 1500-pound creatures, were as gentle as they were strong. And there wasn't a mean bone in their bodies.
As I entered teenage years, my interests turned more toward friends, clothes, boys, swim-team and musical theatre. I stopped visiting the horses at the stables. Then I went off to college in Northern California, and my mom committed suicide right before Christmas break of my sophomore year. That’s when everything changed.
I was no longer a naïve girl with lofty dreams and lackadaisical ease, I became a controlling, anxious ball of stress.
Fast-forward to 39 and along came Smoky, an 11-year-old Quarter Horse at the Blue Star Ranch in North Carolina. I was attending my graduation retreat after a yearlong Master Coach training program. My mentor and teacher led us each through an Equus Coaching session. I went into the round pen with an intention to learn how to live with an undercurrent of fear. Through utilizing the tools I’d learned in coach training; I had come a long way with my anxiety. This felt like the natural next step…to let fear ride shotgun rather than in the driver’s seat.
In the round pen, standing with this gentle giant, I began to cry. Smoky put his forehead against my heart and shook his entire body. His skin and muscles twitched, his hooves stomped, and then he yawned.
My teacher asked, “Do you know what he’s doing?”
I replied, “No,” but in my mind, I thought, “Having a seizure?”
“He’s releasing energy,” she said. “This is how animals release trauma from their bodies.”
Wild and domestic animals shake trauma out of their bodies. Smoky was giving me the roadmap to healing in the most gentle, loving way. He was showing me it wasn’t about coping with fear and anxiety, it was about releasing it completely.
It was then that a wave of sobbing came over me. Smoky shook, I cried. Feeling vulnerable at this display of deep emotion, especially in front of ten of my peers, I wiped away my tears and said aloud, “It all happened for a reason. I wouldn’t be coaching and helping others if it weren’t for my mom’s suicide.”
Immediately Smokey turned away from me and walked to the opposite end of the pen with his back end facing me.
“Was that a spiritual bypass?” my mentor asked. Then she explained that a spiritual bypass is when we try to bypass how we really feel for some spiritually enlightened cliché or faux affirmation.
“So how do you really feel about Square One?” she asked. Square One is a term we used in coaching to refer to the transformational, sometimes cataclysmic, events that take us by surprise. The kind that pull the rug out from underneath us.
“It fucking sucks!” I half yelled; half cried.
Instantly Smoky turned back toward me and trotted up to once again place his forehead against my heart.
Horses are lie-detectors. They read when we are being congruent and incongruent with ourselves. When we lie, they will find space away from us. When we’re in our truth, they can trust us to be near them and one of the herd.
Smoky was calling out the lie I was telling myself. When I could be honest with myself about how I really felt, and allow the trauma to be present without pretending it away, he could hold space for me.
What I left with was the realization that until I could release the energetic trauma of my mother’s suicide somatically, my default coping mechanism for navigating life would be an obsessive need to anticipate all potential worst-case outcomes as a futile attempt to avoid any future pain of loss and shock.
This brief, yet powerful exchange with Smoky led me to create an intention to find a somatic healing modality that could help me release in the way he showed me. A month or so later, I met a Breathwork Meditation Healer while in line for a Byron Katie book tour event. She invited me to attend one of her breathwork circles on the beach, where I fully somatically released the trauma.
Both experiences led me to train and certify in each modality: Equus Coaching and Breathwork Meditation Healing.
Smoky changed my life and started me down a path that I can only categorize as fate. My destiny was to work with these incredible creatures again. Each time I work with horses, I stand in awe of their power to help us heal.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of leading about 40 volunteers, broken into 4 group sessions, with Free Rein Foundation through Equine-Assisted teambuilding exercises. Even in a group environment with teambuilding as the focus, our personal experiences come forward. How we show up in the world is a reflection of who we are, whether engaging publicly or privately.
Sure enough, when asked what the experience with the horses reminded them of…almost all commented that it was a direct reflection of something happening in their personal life. These are folks who work with horses regularly in their volunteer work and are accustomed to moving them physically through the pastures. And yet, where they’re stuck in life was where they were stuck in the equine-exercises given to navigate.
When given the opportunity to look at the horses and experience as a symbol or metaphor, they were able to take a step back and find some wisdom on how to approach what was going on in their personal lives. It was beautiful to witness.
If you’re looking to experience the power of horses in this way, I invite you to either schedule a one-on-one Equus Coaching session or gather a group and experience an Equine-Assisted Team Building session.