Many of us who become involved in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning (EAP/L) have had some previous involvement with horses. Perhaps you were among the lucky kids who grew up with a horse in the backyard or maybe you looked forward to horse camp each summer with intense joy
and anticipation. Some have always loved and appreciated horses from a distance but were not able to realize their dream of horse ownership until adulthood; others have a deep tradition of spiritual connection with the horse as is the case with the Lakota. In her book, The Tao of Equus, Linda Kohanov writes about the “horse ancestors” who serve as spirit
guides in her life and work.
Within the world of horses, humans have developed a variety of relationships with our equine companions. On one end of the spectrum are the individuals who see their horses as
important members of the family while at the opposite end are those who see horses as property used to make money; in between are those with some combination of values along the spectrum.
I have been on both ends of the spectrum; an owner who sees my horse as part of the family and as an employee of those who have horses solely for the purpose of making money. So long as the welfare of the horse is the top consideration; I don’t believe there is a universal right or wrong answer regarding the most desirable horse-human
relationship – just as in all of life; it is a question of what is right for the individual.
The path which led me to my career in the field of EAP/L traveled both ends of the horse spectrum. When I was in high school my goal was to work as a professional horse trainer. I went to a college with an intensive, horse-focused degree program and went on to work in many areas of the horse industry in a variety of roles. In the worlds of high-end show horses and famous Thoroughbred racehorses, I lost what originally drew me to horses in the first place. I lost the relationship.
Even though I was living and working on the world renowned Claiborne Farm (former home of Secretariat) and should have felt very successful; I, instead, was feeling shiftless and unfulfilled. I had lost my connection with the
For me, building a relationship with my horse, Farletta has led me to a greater understanding of myself and my place in the world. She does not allow me the incongruence of presenting “happy” on the outside and sorrow on the inside.
She finds a way to touch my pain and bring it to the surface where it can be healed. I am following my own Path of the Peace Horse to find my way to the future God has planned for me. It is no accident Farletta and I ended up together; I believe God placed her in my life to lead me on the path to not only my own healing but also to aid in the facilitation of healing for others. In my case, Farletta is the Peace Horse.
Do you have or have you had a special horse in your life?
Have you found your Peace Horse; that one special horse which changed your life? Please share your story in the comments section below; we’d love to hear it.
People often ask me how EAGALA model EAP/L works. It's not so easy to describe; I find a story is the best way to illustrate the concept. Here is a personal reflection from a recent EAGALA training.
He was striding around the arena with long, slow steps. His elongated but refined head spoke of his noble Thoroughbred ancestry as it hung gently from his long, slender neck. He carried his neck straight and level in the loose and relaxed manner of a horse that is comfortable with himself and his surroundings. His withers protruded well above his back which dipped very slightly before it rose up and connected with his boney, angular hips. His spine protruded from his poorly muscled loin (equivalent to the small of the back) as if his skin were stretched over the ridges of a rocky mountain range. His legs were long and slender making up much of his nearly 17 hand frame as they stretched up into a gaunt and rangy body.
He was lightly muscled and his angular features made him appear too thin although he was of a light but healthy weight. His tail was thin and wispy and swung gently from side-to-side as he moved. His coat was white with thousands of bay-brown flecks throughout from his face to his rump and down his legs to his grey-shaded knees and hocks. At one time he was likely a stunning steel grey colt with a noble fire in his eye and hard, sleek muscle over his impressive frame. Today he is what horsemen call a flea-bitten grey (referring to the brown flecks over the white coat); his hard, sleek muscles have given way to softer flesh stretched over his now gaunt frame. But the noble fire is still there, not in his eyes which have turned a cloudy blue with cataracts but in his very presence and the impressive, gentle energy which he exudes from every fiber of his being.
I could not stop watching him as he moved easily about the arena. He seemed to float gently and effortlessly over the ground with long, slow, purposeful steps. Each time a front hoof landed, he kicked a bit of dirt up from the soft arena surface creating a tiny dust cloud. The other horses followed him as he slowly circled the arena. Sometimes he was in the lead, other times another horse led the small group but his powerful presence never changed. The facilitators asked us about the new horse. “He is a strong, quiet and gentle leader.” I said aloud. There was something about his spirit; his energy which commanded respect without fear. He didn’t need to make a lot of noise and draw attention to himself to lead effectively. He knew when to step back and let the strength of others shine. He didn’t need to be in control of everything in order to be a strong leader.
As we stood in a circle and watched the horses I was so drawn to him. I wanted to see him up-close and feel his energy. As if he heard my desire, the large, Thoroughbred gelding stepped into our human circle, walked over to me and stopped. I put my hands on his neck and stroked his beautiful face. “Thank you” I whispered as he turned and strode away.
My story took shape as I watched Monte. When I was able to be closer to him I could see his body bore many scars; they weren’t noticeable from a distance as they were well camouflaged by the multitude of brown flecks in his coat. The inside of his left foreleg was looked hard and lumpy and I suspected there was much scar tissue under the skin from an old injury. He looked like he had been through a lot in his life. Perhaps not always cared for in the way that he deserved; he had worked hard and given much of himself to the people in his life. The facilitators asked us to journal about our experience. This is what I wrote:
September 15, 2012
I have really connected with a horse named Monte. He makes me think of me. He looks like he’s been through some shit in his life; he came out scarred, tired but still alive on the other side. He is wiser now than he was. He has a story to tell. He knows (now) how to keep himself safe (do I know yet how to keep myself safe?). He is gentle but not always understood. Sometimes people look at him and think he is broken but he is not. His spirit is strong and vibrant.
The Facilitators asked us to use the horses and demonstrate the learning which had taken place for us over the weekend. I knew Monte had to be a part of this activity as I felt the most significant self-discovery had taken place for me in those first moments I saw him and realized he was a reflection of what I saw in myself. Not the part of me I try so hard to project to others; the “normal,” undamaged woman who knows just who she is and where she is going, but rather the real me. The Cheryl who was traumatized as a child, had suffered through depression, anxiety, self-hatred and fear; the woman who bore the scars of her life, both visible and hidden deep inside the dark crevices of her heart. In Monte I saw what I could be. He knew who he was and where he had been and owned it. Monte exuded a quiet strength which naturally drew others to him and he was comfortable in that leadership role.
I took a lead rope and slowly walked across the arena to Monte. He had his head over the gate and was looking out across the rolling green fields to the tree-line far in the distance. He flicked an ear toward me as I approached. I spoke softly to him as I placed the rope around his neck and led him toward the center of the arena. I stood with Monte in a group of three other participants and we discussed what had taken place for each of us over the weekend. As we talked it occurred to me I should release Monte so he could do what he wanted; in this activity he was a representation of me and I knew I do not like to be stuck in one place with no freedom of choice to go or to stay. I let the rope slip gently from Monte’s slender, grey neck. Our eyes met briefly as he turned and slowly walked away.
Later, as we all came together to discuss our final activity and our experience as a whole, I made one last connection between my life and Monte. I thought about how I had released him so he could go where he pleased. I thought about how I felt about the gifts God has given me and how I wanted to share them; to perhaps help others. However, I am afraid to put them out into the world. I am afraid of being rejected or humiliated. Sometimes it seems too scary to show the world my light. I thought about how for a time I held Monte close. When I finally let him go I realized he was fun to watch from a distance as well. He interacted with other people and horses and I realized by keeping him close he could not touch the lives of others. Monte became an illustration of why I need to share what I have learned, my gifts and my talents. Because I can help others; and because it is fun to watch.
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!