Horses have always mesmerized me. They are dynamic and social creatures, and inspire me towards awe and wonder. When my husband gave me a package of horse riding lessons to celebrate my thirtieth birthday I was excited even though I had little experience with horses.
When I went for my first lesson I was suddenly confronted with something that I did not anticipate. I was very anxious. Anxiety is no stranger to me, so I acknowledged it and stepped right up to it.
I was standing in front of a 1500-pound animal that was looking at me with curiosity and question. I imagined that this giant was staring right through me and thinking, “you have no idea what you are doing, you are fooling everyone but me.”
I was also anxious about learning something new. I like to exercise, but I am not what anyone would call an “athletic exerciser.” I like to do things like zumba, swimming, biking, and long hikes. I don’t do things like soccer, basketball or water polo. So a new experience that was also a physical experience, and an athletic one at that, definitely triggered some serious goose bumps.
It was a strange experience for me — having these huge eyes, this huge, elegant horse looking at me. Something in the directness of his gaze also charged me to understand just what was making this so difficult for me.
I had heard somewhere that horses can tell if a person is nervous. The idea that this magnificent giant might be able to read me definitely did not soothe my nerves. But, that is part of the power of Equine Learning experiences.
I wanted so badly to bond with this animal, and I could feel all my fear and anxiety like a wall between me and her.
There is a saying in the EAGALA world (EAGALA stands for Equine Assisted Growth and learning Association). It goes, you can’t look in a mirror if you’re riding on it’s back.
Although my first experiences with this horse was a riding experience, I think I started learning what that phrase meant in those first moments with this horse.
In order to get close to that horse, I had to get close to myself. As I stood there with her eyes reflecting my discomfort, I knew I had to come to terms with that discomfort if I was going to get close to the horse in any real way. As I watched her fidget and whinny, I felt myself doing the same thing internally.
I had to create a space to just be there with her, and I found myself doing the same things I tell my clients to do when they are unsure about their reaction to their kids. I was flooded with anxious thoughts, and then I remembered to breathe.
It was almost like magic. I took a deep breath and as I exhaled this massive creature leaned into my body and relaxed. She stayed there calm, quiet and didn’t move.
My anxiety didn’t go away after that first lesson. I confronted it again and again each time I approached a horse. By the end of those six lessons I was so close to the horses. Since that was my goal, I was relieved but not too surprised. What I wasn’t expecting was that I would become so much closer to myself and to my work.
My experience with the horses was very much like what parents experience when they are confronted with the gigantic responsibility of raising a child. We feel small. We feel unsure. We feel utterly vulnerable beside the grace and possibility of our children. This is also what kids experience when they are trying to be honest and vulnerable with their parents and begin to individuate. It is what couples feel when they are looking to work on their relationship and step into the mess of the struggle. Learning to step right up to this anxiety, to create the space to breathe within it is one of the most difficult skills for any person to master.
My initial introduction to horses taught me that maybe we don’t ever master it, maybe we always have to be open to our reflection in the eyes of those children, partners, people, or horses who share the space of our emotions.