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The Way of the Horse

At the age of 50, with no prior interest in horses, I propelled myself into the local horse world with an over-the-top enthusiasm. From where did this urging come, I wondered, and why now?

My adult life had consisted of work as a therapist, yoga teacher, writer, and full-time pilgrim on a spiritual path that was predominantly nature-based. I felt peace in the mountains surrounding my home in Alaska, and had long ago given up the guilt-ridden discipline of Catholicism and begging for specific outcomes from a kindly god somewhere outside myself. Meditation was my prayer life and, through this: contemplation, stored knots of resentment, lethargy, anger, jealousy. Samskaras they are called in yoga philosophy, would eventually work themselves out if I were diligent and accepting of the darker human hindrances we all experience.

I would excavate the reason for this newfound yearning later; in the meantime, I volunteered at a summer horse camp. Before the children mounted their horses, I taught a yoga session that resembled their ground work in the round pen — poses that required them to stretch, balance, concentrate, and develop strength, as well as deep breathing to help eliminate fear while becoming familiar with these 1500-pound animals.

Image by Loren Kerns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

I read books on centered riding and natural horsemanship. For the moment, I was perfectly happy mucking stalls, cleaning tack, grooming, and walking the horses on lead ropes from arena to feeding stalls at the end of the day. There was a quiet, satisfying rhythm to these actions.

After the children left, I could be alone with the horses, watching their fickle personalities and herd alliances, and enjoying the soft nickering and playful energy they displayed after a dinner of hay and grains.

Then, one day while leading a particularly feisty quarter horse named Obi, I felt an overwhelming flood of emotion. Waves of pain unfolded in my chest as I buried my face in Obi’s mane, shielding my tears from the children.

In the days that followed, I felt hurt and exposed, like a shell had cracked open leaving me frightened and vulnerable. God was talking to me, not through words in my now-scattered contemplations, but by putting me in a situation where I had to interpret raw feelings and reveal the hard broken places within myself.

An old wound that had festered in my psyche for years bubbled to the surface. It was big, a betrayal by a person I deeply loved and cared for who broke our friendship into tatters. Though intellectually I knew how to let it go, and did with a focused energy at the time, I truly had not forgiven her, or myself, for unreasonably responding to her transgression.

Image by David Noah/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)..

Now my unfolding kinship with the horse was revealing old wounds. I was thrown off balance and stripped of all confidence. Yet, in my heart, I knew that in time the horse would graciously render it all back. I would simply have to get back in the saddle.

My training from the ground up began with a 14.5 hands chestnut Tennessee Walker named Bandit. We started my lessons in March. Snow was scattered in patches on the still frozen ground.

The first six weeks I rode bareback, learning the basics of feeling and sensing the horse’s body, an awareness of his musculature and breathing. Many of these insights had parallels in yoga. I began to feel my body from the inside out, and how my subtle energies were a form of contact between us. The subtleties of communication, from turning my trunk to squeezing my thighs, leaning forward and back, sitting tall or slumping, the urgency in my voice and the rate of my breathing — all these messages had meaning, and Bandit responded accordingly.

I learned to read his cues, and he mine. On days when I didn’t feel well, he could sense it and was slow in his responses to match mine; on days when there were hard winds whipping up new sounds in the paddock, he was distracted and fidgety. Out on the trails, we rode with exuberance. We became partners, and as the weeks passed, I slowly gained a new confidence that filtered into my inner and outer landscapes. Even greater was an inexplicable joy that bubbled up out of nowhere and needed no coaxing. My heart was expanding. I forgave, and was forgiven.

Nature has always been my guide. The god of my understanding is found in the majesty of hiking in the Chugach Range, rafting glacier fed rivers, and skiing cross-country after a freshly fallen snow. The ground of my being relies upon recognition of the beauty found in the wild places that surround me everyday. It’s no wonder I was led to the horse; he has become another portal, a living, breathing, responsive, loving portal that is capable of bringing healing and rebirth.

Image by Howard Ignatius/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

I’m always compelled to liberally thank Bandit after a lesson or ride, when all he requires of me is a treat and a good brushing. It is gratitude that isn’t forced or ritualized; it just emerges without thought, a spontaneous prayer. Thank you for allowing me to open, thank you for being patient; thank you for being intuitive and cooperative, even passionate; thank you for your quiet dignity because now I feel all those qualities silently pouring forth through me.

A meditation teacher once said that training the mind is like training a horse; the horse is the breath and the rider is the mind. We use the breath to calm ourselves and develop a clear mind, free of samskaras, or past hurts and failures. There are countless pathways on the long road to inner freedom and the search for the Divine within ourselves.

One most illuminating, even mystical, is by way of the horse.

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