I went to a BodyMind practitioner the other day. She was as you would expect: gentle and patient; centred and well grounded; non-judgmental and quick to notice any incongruent behavior on my part. It was a satisfying session. When I left I scratched her nose and offered her a carrot. My practitioner, you see, was a horse.
I wasn’t expecting a session when I went out that day. My intent was to interview Carla Webb, a natural horsemanship coach/trainer and wellness coach, who combines her two talents into the relatively new field of Equine Guided Development™ (EGD™).
I arrived at Carla’s farm early that morning with some trepidation. My last experience with horses had found me trotting up a trail in complete mortification: my tube top had vibrated down my nine year old chest and I was at wits end trying to stay on the horse let alone pull the top back up. Moreover, trotting up and down like a Singer sewing machine with a belly full of popcorn is just not pleasant. Add trail-raising dust that clogs your nose, coats your mouth and dries your eyes and monster kamikaze flies to the mix – flies, by the way, you cant swat because you are hanging on for dear life – you get the picture: I hated horseback riding and, by extension, horses. Yes, I had some trepidation.
Carla was fine with my nervousness even when, in a moment of fear inspired childhood regression, I called the horses things. As in, what if I cant control these things?! But after drinking some rich espresso and discussing an equine inspired philosophy of life my fears slowly started to dissipate. Hard not to as you watch three horses graze contentedly in a sun-drenched pasture doing something I’ve never fully been able to accomplish, the fine art of doing nothing.
Linda Kohanov, in Riding Between the Worlds, writes that horses have perfected the art of doing nothing, what Chinese Taoists call wu wei. In the stillness of “not doing”, our sensory perception fine tunes. With horses, sensitivity to the environment heightens to the point where they open to the emotional intention of other animals, especially predators. Kohanov states that prey animals such as “[h]orses, zebras and deer will often graze unconcerned as a lion who has recently eaten a big meal walks right through their pasture. Yet when an agile carnivore is on the prowl, the herd will scatter long before the cat can get close.” This aspect of a horse’s survival is why they also make excellent therapeutic partners. In the natural state, horses are prey; humans are predators. Because of this, horses are alert to a client’s inner state, more so perhaps than the therapist or the client themselves.
Our coffee finished, my fears diminished (or so I thought), we made for the pasture. Carla lives on seven acres of gentle rolling grassland and aged maple-cedar forest on the Langley-Abbotsford border. Ravens regularly make their appearance as do eagles, deer, and of course, the ubiquitous summer fly. This time, however, my hands were not otherwise trying to save my life and I felt free to swat.
My first exercise was to pick out a horse with which to work. Standing a short distance away I gave myself time and space to observe the small herd. Allowing information to come to me, I bypassed Babs and Shady – too skittish, I thought, and chose May. May was presenting exactly what I felt I needed at the time – solidity.
I found out later that one of the reasons we know horses are alert to our inner states is that they tend to act as mirrors. Carla states that a horse will often be anxious, irritated or otherwise, around a client who is masking similar internal emotions with a calm exterior. This news did nothing for my pride as I realized that Babs and Shady were not so much skittish as mirroring the parts of myself that were still nervous. I consoled myself thinking that May saw through it all by reflecting my grounded parts. The other truth about horses is that because they act so well as mirrors, they are also excellent at inviting projection, the act of placing one’s own characteristics, emotions or thoughts onto another being or object. My experience with May was no different.
Carla and I walked May to the round pen, a rather large fenced-in corral. I was invited to sit outside and allow May to “tell” her story through observing her behaviour. This is a useful exercise in EGD™ using projection to help clients get to know themselves better. Within minutes, “solid” May was agitated, feeling abandoned and sensing that life had passed her by. As I “heard” her story, it quickly became apparent it was really my story she was telling. Or at least the way I was feeling due to an earlier event that had triggered me into old thought patterns. Then, watching Babs come visit over the fence, I sensed May, and by extension myself, feel reassured that we were not alone, that we both had supportive social networks. Finally, moving to the centre of the pen, May awkwardly got to her knees. (Carla says that even a sprightly colt looks awkward in this process.) She rolled over and gave herself a nice back rub in the sandy dirt. Yes, I thought, self care is awkward for me too at times.
As an EGD™ facilitator with a leaning towards wellness coaching Carla uses her observations and stories from the sessions to help clients move on from their blocks and develop their true potential. I was there to see the possibilities of using horses with BodyMind therapy. As a practitioner I work to empower my clients, increase their self awareness and encourage a creative response to life. I use a variety of techniques that are useful in achieving these goals but one specifically is to gently work with defensive behaviour helping to make it more conscious. Once our defences are conscious, we can then decide if we want to continue doing life in the manner the defences have chosen for us.
In the next exercise, my initial intention had not been to work with horses on this technique but rather to see how sensitive they were to changes in my energy field. I chose Babs, a beautiful, small in stature, Palomino. Standing in the centre, I grounded deeply and expanded my energy field while she cruised the inside perimeter of the round pen. Babs’ ears (the horse’s radar) constantly orientated towards me despite distractions from other horses, people sounds from afar and general life on the farm. I then called in my energy, pulling it down, deep within the earth, inviting her to approach me. When the invitation proved irresistible she walked the five meters towards me stopping about a body length away. Directly in front of me, I continued to pull in my energy, inviting her to come closer. She did not come forth. I ended the exercise and in talking with Carla was reminded that when horses respect you, they respect your boundaries. I wanted to argue the point stating that regardless of Bab’s respect for me, I had been inviting her to come closer. Then it hit me – the invisible had become visible. The defensive energetic boundary I had used for years to feel safe by keeping people away; the same boundary I had worked for years to be more flexible and conscious, was still yielding some power. In making that defence visible, Babs had opened up a door that I had not known was still closed.
My BodyMind training has taught me to accept and honour the different parts of myself – the various feelings, thoughts and behaviours that make up the person I am today. It provides me with a foundation of safety: empowering me to take responsible leadership over these parts with their seemingly diverse wants and needs. Working with horses provides a concrete manifestation and validation of these teachings. Chris Irwin, in Horses Don’t Lie, states that “[h]orses don’t lie — they always tell the truth with their bodies”. From my own experience in working with these 1000 lb gentle and honest beings, I found I was hard pressed not to experience that truth as my reality.