In 2002, one of my Professors held class at his ranch in New York. My classmates and I had the opportunity to ride his horses, eat homemade food, and relax in his home with his family. For several hours, two different horses had several of my classmates riding on them, but they did not seem tired (In Western movies, horses can literally run all day and night, right?). Then again, what did I actually know about horses. It was my turn for a nice ride in the fields. My Professor’s daughter (we’ll just call her Kathy) gave me a lesson on how to hold the reigns, stop, slow down, move the horse in a specific direction, and move the horse along/increase speed. She and I started on our ride; my horse and I on the left, she and her horse on the right. Suddenly my horse sped up to a trot. Kathy sped up to a trot and gave me some instructions. My horse did not care what I tried – pull back on the reigns, gently at first, then with more pressure; attempt to turn the horse to the left, then the right; eventually Kathy attempted to stop my horse with her own horse and verbal commands. My horse took off. He did not want to walk or trot. He wanted to run in the open field. When he stopped abruptly at a pond, apparently because he was thirsty, I almost went for a swim. I rode back to the house, but I am pretty certain I haven’t been on or around a horse since that day (except in their stables at the fair).
While I was in Utah at Annie’s House, I had Equine Therapy every Wednesday. Cue sudden close proximity to unpredictable, large animals. My first week there, I know I looked like a deer in the headlights. It was my ninth full day in Utah and the day after I shared my autobiography with the group of people I was living with, and I felt excruciatingly uncomfortable in my own skin. I sat down on the folding chair closest to the door and immediately had a small Jack Russel Terrier named Jack (a fourteen year-old that looked like he had Parkinson’s) in my lap. That little dog was an immediate sense of comfort for me, to be nullified as soon as the therapist told us we could walk into the ring with the three horses and work with them for our activity. I stood at the gate for a bit; then I stood by a side wall, first on one side, then on the other. I avoided the back wall as much as possible because it was furthest from the exit out of that ring.
The following week probably wasn’t much better, but I don’t remember for sure how it went. I know there wasn’t a week that went by that Jack did not sit in my lap. I also know that, week after week, I was trying to feel comfortable enough to get close to and eventually touch a horse.
A few weeks in, I made an agreement with myself. There was a constant state of tension in my body and head that kept me on high alert no matter where I was, or what I was doing. If I was going to feel like that, I might as well learn to sit with the discomfort, with horses. I stayed in the ring next to Peanut Butter (a mild-mannered, twenty-one year-old, retired barrel racer and rodeo steer roping horse) until I was able to slow my breathing and heartrate. A sense of calm came over me, and the horse rested his head on my shoulder. I reached around his chin, and we stood there; horse and broken human, hugging. The therapist noticed what happened, so I explained why it was important to me and the need I had to sit with and through the anxiety. I remember the smile she and her husband had about that moment and sensed not just the importance and pride that they had but the accomplishment and pride I had for myself.
Each week after that I would walk in the ring, do the activity planned for us, and then stick around with Peanut Butter until I had grown to trust him – and he had grown to trust me. Horses are intuitive, and I likely made Peanut Butter (Lady and April – the other two horses) cautious around me because of my initial anxiety. I developed a bond with Peanut Butter over the many weeks I was there. I had also built a strong bond with Jack. He would growl at everyone for one reason or another, but he didn’t just jump in my lap – he let me start picking him up and carrying him around.
I was holding little Jack in the ring around my sixth (?) week in Utah when Peanut Butter approached me. Jack, the very cute but grumpy old dog, nipped and got a hold of Peanut Butter’s nose. Peanut Butter spooked and quickly moved away. The therapist calmed him some, but his eyes and ears showed that he was hyperaware and on high alert. I put Jack down and approached Peanut Butter, but he no longer trusted me. He would back away from me and would not allow anyone to touch his face. I had worked hard to trust this horse and gain his trust, so I stood quietly and calmly near him. I was able to hold his rope and rub his side while breathing steadily and talking softly with him as I had done many times before. Gradually, Peanut Butter let me touch his face, and his eyes and ears relaxed. Trust was re-established.
Our task that day was to make a door out of whatever supplies were available, and without touching them, get the horses to walk through the door. Somehow our group split up and made two doors instead of all of us working together to make just one. When it came time to choose a horse to go through the doors, I walked over to Peanut Butter with my arms out and watched him walk straight toward the door at the edge of the arena. A few of us moved in a way that gave Peanut Butter the awareness of where he needed to go, and he walked through the first door. I turned around and moved toward him, and he walked through the second door in the middle of the ring. A separate group had tried this exercise the day before and had a decidedly much different experience as told by the therapist. They had a difficult time getting any of the horses to walk through the door. Our group took about 5 minutes total to build two doors and have a horse walk through them.
Two things stand out to me about my experience with equine therapy, at least as it relates to trust:
- My very last week, two days before I would fly back to Pennsylvania, I sat in the saddle and rode calmly along a trail with the therapist walking alongside Peanut Butter and I. It was a calm place, I was riding on an animal that I trusted and that trusted me, and I was comfortable talking with the person who had seen a deeply hurting young woman turn into a strong warrior who was bearing a heavy load but ready to fight. That person, an equine therapist who also used to avoid riding horses, had a quiet compassion and walked along as I spilled out part of my soul. That opportunity never would have come if I hadn’t learned to trust Peanut Butter.
- Peanut Butter taught me something about re-establishing trust. It was so difficult for me to station myself next to a horse and wait until I felt calm before walking away, but that painful anxiety was also well worth the relationship I was able to build with Peanut Butter. Not only did I trust him, but he trusted me. BUT, I also had a part in the loss of trust with Peanut Butter because I was holding Jack – the offender – when Jack bit him. The lesson: Trust is not a one time thing; we are human and trust can be a fragile thing. Sometimes trust really shouldn’t be given a second time, but sometimes re-establishing trust is necessary to grow and rebuild, do difficult things, and just be.