Three women wait quietly outside the paddock holding a large bay mare. The youngest of the women sits in the far corner of the paddock on the top rail of the black board fence; her crystal-blue eyes watch the mare intently. A middle-aged woman with fiery red hair and deep green eyes stands with her arms folded across her chest, leaning her left shoulder against one of the thick, wooden fence posts. Near the paddock gate, a slender woman with long, grey hair and multi-colored eyes watches the bay mare closely from her tattered old folding lawn chair.
Inside the paddock, the mare circles restlessly, working her soft, black muzzle back and forth along the ground. Her large belly swings gently side-to-side as she moves about the enclosure. She stops to paw at the ground, her sharp, heavy hoof sending clods of dirt and bits of grass flying out behind her. Looking up from her pawing, the mare snorts loudly and shakes her graceful head. She looks at the woman sitting on the fence; flaring her nostrils she blows out a deep breath before she begins circling once again... MORE
Three equines and three women occupied the arena that day. The three women were connected by a common theme. Each woman was standing in the face of significant change -- a thread of uncertainty which held them loosely together. For one woman, change was intertwined with stress, for another, change requires the constant reminder to “stay calm.” For me, change’s haunting companion is What If.
The women huddled together in the arena talking about the impact of change on their environment. To each woman, environment held a slightly different meaning and significance in the face of change. For me, I have been actively seeking to change my environment, plucking out the good and positive memories from an often dark and foreboding past. Reconstructing my life from tattered bits of two very different tapestries – attempting to grasp and hold on to the parts worth keeping and, with difficulty, give up the dark parts which no longer serve me, letting them slip away, now powerless but never forgotten.
My companions helped me spread color through our new environment, tossing a rainbow of traffic cones and pool noodles onto the mud-colored arena surface. Together we moved heavy, wooden poles to our new, changed environment, arranging them until we had created a space completely different from the one we started with. We then turned our attention to the three equines.
Each of us selected an equine and named it. A small, roan pony was named “Stress,” a large pinto was named “Stay Calm” and I named a solid bay gelding “What if.” Our goal was to each move our chosen equine into our new environment -- moving those parts we struggled with, into change.
I walked over to What If who was standing nearby. I reached up toward his head intending to encircle his neck with my arms and guide him over to the environment which represented change in my life. What If would have no part of my plan, constantly moving his head out of my grasp, pulling away from me and standing stubbornly just where I found him. The more I struggled with What If, the more he resisted my efforts to control him.
After several failed attempts to control What If, I paused to contemplate my next move in my effort to bring What If into my changed environment. As I stood quiet and unmoving, trying to figure out what to do next, What If walked into the center of my changed environment and stood quietly, nosing one of the colorful cones.
I walked toward What If, wanting to stand with him in my changed environment but as soon as I moved into his space, What If walked away. I went after him, wanting to bring him back to my changed environment but I could not budge him, What If resisted all my attempts to control him. I gave up my efforts to control What If and stood quietly once again. As I stood in silence, What If returned to my changed environment, looking around inquisitively but disrupting nothing.
In that moment the lesson became clear. What If will take care of itself. The more I try to control the “What If” in my life, the more I struggle and the less I am able to accomplish. What If doesn’t need me to worry over it, I cannot control it and any effort to exert my will over What If is met with frustration and resistance.
With my new found discovery tucked safely in my mind, I looked around the arena to see how my companions were doing. By letting What If take care of himself, I was available to help my companions reach their goals. I went to each and asked if I could help them. When we were done, we stood and watched as What If began driving Stress all around the arena in a decidedly non-productive pattern taking them far away from our newly changed environment. The three of us stood watching, with Stay Calm standing quietly over us, his legs firmly planted like the trunk of an enormous tree; a tree which would bend and sway with the winds of change but never break or fall, never losing ground to follow the whims of What If as he worried after Stress.
In their quiet way, the horses had spoken once again. Horse had become teacher and the lesson was learned.
I see your multi-colored, hazel eyes staring deep into mine
questions, confusion, fear, and anger shoot back at me like
which tear jagged holes in my soul
my words are twisted into tools of hatred and destruction
I feel powerless against what lurks inside you
"Why are so hard to love" I say as a look into your
multi-colored, tear-filled eyes
You have no answer, just blank and desperate silence
I shake my head in defeat,
and turn away from the mirror.
I wrote that poem. Just now, as I caught myself spiraling
down the old, familiar drain which leads to the foulest reaches of my desperate darkness. This time, I catch myself. I peer over the crumbling edge, looking into the darkness just long enough to retrieve this poem and remind myself that depression is always lurking, it is dangerous, it is deadly.
I wasn’t always able to catch myself; many times I sunk down so far I nearly lost my way out. My soul writhing in its death throes as I attempt to exist in a place filled with pain, fear, questions, sorrow and desperate hopelessness. There is no logic, no truth, no meaning, no life. It is not a place I would send my worst enemy.
I have always avoided talking about it. However, silence is quite deadly. The cultural stigma which shames the depressed prevents those afflicted from seeking help. I am not merely sad, I am not wallowing in self-pity, I am not seeking your attention, I am not selfish. I can’t “just get over it.” I am uncomfortable writing this but I feel the message is too important. As I said before, silence is quite deadly.
A large part of my ongoing healing process involves developing my self-awareness. Being aware enough of what is happening to me to recognize when my thoughts are heading in the wrong direction. To recognize when I am not safe and use tools I’ve learned over many years of work to bring me back to a place of
relative peace. Writing is one tool. Work with horses is another.
Horses are excellent teachers of self-awareness. Their
survival in the wild depends on their ability to listen to their bodies. The horse is hungry, she eats. The horse is restless, she moves. The horse is in pain, she rests. The horse senses incongruence in another being (say one thing, do another), she
retreats. The horse senses danger in the tension of the environment around her, she turns to her herd mates for
The horse brings this self-awareness to the horse-human relationship. Many people believe this is why equine assisted psychotherapy is so effective. The horse is very good at pointing out incongruence in the people around her. My own horse will not tolerate incongruent behavior in me. Putting on the “brave face,” leaving my problems at the door, or otherwise presenting myself as happy when inside I am not (you know, the way society expects us to behave) will produce several undesirable behaviors in her. If she is free she will move (or even run) away from me; if she is tied or otherwise confined, she will dance around, fret and generally show signs of discomfort in my presence. In extreme cases she will become very nervous, pawing the ground, stomping her feet and calling out to other horses. If I acknowledge how I really feel, she will go back to normal. It is really quite amazing to experience.
Someday I hope to develop an equine assisted therapy program for depressed individuals to work on building their self-awareness. I will add this to my growing list of projects. In the meantime, if you are depressed or have symptoms of depression, find someone to talk to: a best friend, a therapist, a pastor, a counselor, a family member – anyone you feel comfortable talking to. It helps if you can find someone who understands depression as a disease vs. someone who subscribes to the “just get over it” lie.
If you have access to a horse on a somewhat regular basis, be aware of how the horse responds to you from day-to-day. When you observe an unusual behavior,
don’t assume it is a problem with the horse – it seldom is.
She may be trying to tell you something. Take a look inside yourself and be honest about what you discover – it may be a very important step along your path to healing.
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.
I once met a man who is blind. We were discussing what it was
like to be a blind person in a sighted world. This man was an advocate for the blind and worked as a consultant to help businesses and other public facilities become more accessible for persons who are visually impaired. For the most part he
found businesses were happy to make needed accommodations such as adding braille to signs throughout the building. However, he found some businesses to be quite resistant to making any changes at all saying it was much too expensive to make accommodations. One business owner told him it was simply too expensive to accommodate blind employees. The man replied with a chuckle "it is interesting
to hear how expensive it is to accommodate the blind with a few raised bumps on a sign but no one ever complains about how much it costs to light an entire building for the sighted."
Yesterday I co-facilitated an EAP/L workshop at the Sundance Center in Fennville, Michigan. One topic which came up in processing our activities was how difficult it can be for us to view the world from another person's perspective; especially if this person is very different from us. In EAGALA model EAP/L we focus on the art of "clean language" -- asking a question with as little judgment as possible. A "clean" question has very few words such as: "How was that?"
Words which carry any judgment are removed and/or changed to clean words: "How did the horse feel when you hit him with the pool noodle?" becomes "What happened when the pool noodle touched the horse?" The idea is to be curious, not judgmental in our questioning. Can you see the judgment in the first question? If someone asked you that question would you feel like you were in trouble or did something wrong? The point is the first question is being asked to "confirm" what the facilitaor already (thinks) "knows." The second question is being asked because the asker truly wants to know what is going on.
The lesson here in our EAP practice is to ask questions with genuine curiosity and without judgment. This takes lots of practice and requires a shift in our thinking. As you interact with people in practice and in your life, think about the words you choose…are you coming from a place of curiosity and empathy or are we unintentionally (or consciously) coming from a place of judgment and egocentrism?
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!