Accepted by the Herd (Experiencing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy)

64D5CC01-C4B0-4E0A-8C48-70D4CF6D91B1I don’t quite understand what actually happened to me today, I have no explanation for it nor grasp of the theory behind it, neither did I have a pre- conception of it or expectation from it. One thing I do know is that something happened today and that something was as profound as it was silently reassuring. Today the usual twisted, tumble dryer of a day with its functional challenges, wretched good intentions and calamitous attempts at steering my way through a sensory quagmire evolved into what I can only describe as a rather magical encounter, not with people or frenetic attempts at squeezing my way into a neurotypical shape in order to ‘do’ something social, not with insular painting or writing or playing music or hiding under a blanket playing iPad Bold Moves, not in masking, nor stimming, or tending to my sixty giant sunflowers, but in a rugged, green meadow strewn with buttercups with a backdrop of forestry commission landscape. For it is in this meadow that I was asked by a specialist practitioner to step silently through a gate and to walk alone towards a herd of horses grazing peacefully on the far side. This was Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, a process that would hopefully help me to reengage with life and community in a way which enables me to accept a new way of being and to not feel like a failure anymore. It has been two years since I was a missing person after the death of my mum and I rarely go out or engage with others, this was a big step made even more challenging because I am afraid of horses!

I haven’t done anything on my own for so very long, my wife is my anchor, encourager and safe place and has been since I shattered into a million jagged pieces. But today, today she stood on the sidelines, her smile and the demeanour that tells me she knows that everything will be alright, the tears in her eyes representative of the hope that she holds for change and freedom. And so, after being talked through a ‘body scan’ of relaxation and breathing, I put on my cap to shield my eyes from the sun, stepped through the gate, took one more look back at her and then slowly began to walk. I walked quietly and reflectively, firstly towards a tall, dark brown horse with a shiny coat and muscular girth, handsome and strong and  ……… I approached him, he lifted his head from his grazing place and looked straight into my heart. I stopped and gently closed my eyes, breathed deeply and nodded to him, he walked over to me, I felt something, an empathy, a sense of truth, an understanding, a meeting of minds, I felt a surge of emotion running through my body. I knew that he had a story to tell. There in the silence of a field something happened, something changed, a white and brown horse with one blue eye and one brown eye siddled up to me, she was edgy, anxious, a little disconcerted, like a mother hen checking out the children, a little skittish, maybe jealous and protective and then another, a chestnut, gentle eyed, calm animal who offered the time of day but was very laid back in demeanour. Within a matter of minutes I found myself encircled by these three beautiful horses, all inquisitive, all vying for a space to see me, no words, no noise, nothing but the tenderness of that moment, their breathing, their ability to look inside my heart. I was not allowed to touch them until signalled to do so and so, I stood as they breathed in my ear, touched my skin, sniffed my hands, paced and watched me, fathoming out the stranger in their midst until gently returning to their grazing. I moved on to a white Spanish horse, he looked at me, approached me and stood alongside me like a loyal friend, his eyes were deep black, like mirrors to my own pain and it’s then that I took a sharp intake of breath that took me by surprise as the tears began to fall, stood in a meadow beside a beautiful creature who looked at me with knowing eyes and understanding, with a wisdom that defied belief. And as I stood, arms down by my side, I whispered to him that my heart had been broken and that I didn’t know where to put my sorrow, this horse moved closer, so close that I could feel his warm breathe as he nestled in to the crook of my neck, wiping away my tears before going back to his grazing. Next came a white Spanish Arabian horse who made no attempt to engage other than looking up to check me out and communicating to me that if I stuck with him I would be safe, he was wise and old fashioned and there was something about him that left me calmer, reassured somehow. I left to approach another brown horse in a cordoned off paddock but could hear a distant voice of the assessor calling my name and gesturing me to stick with the five horses that I had already met. As I made my way back up the meadow, the brown horse who had been first to meet me ventured over, came close to my face, breathed into my neck and licked away the remainder of my tears. The horse who had previously joined me alongside him seemed anxious now, I sensed that I too felt a little fear as the horse nudged me, I respected her space and moved away, back to the Spanish white horse who playfully nibbled at my pocket and nudged me into his side. I had no idea of how time had elapsed and no real desire for my encounter to end, it felt as if I was in the presence of friends and yet not overly pushy friends nor demanding nor expectant friends, simply accepting friends with no demand to perform or succeed or fit in or to prove my value or my worth, I simply felt equal, no higher or lower in status, simply equal. I respected them and they in turn had respected me. We were a herd, they had accepted me. And in their acceptance of me I could feel a deep awareness of the need for me to accept myself. There has been such a sense of loss, such a divorcing from all I once knew, career, grief, mental health, diagnosis of autism almost too late to the party to find a place and a sense of regret that is futile and exhausting. It was truly humbling to find myself stood within a field beside a horse who enabled me to see the extent of my own feelings of failure and as the breeze blew on my face I dared to believe that my life could be changed, that it isn’t too late to be the person I was always meant to be, that I needn’t be defined by a life of misunderstanding.

As I slowly returned to where I had left my wife and the assessor, I looked back several times, trying to keep that image in my mind, this incredibly evocative image of a herd of horses who had briefly allowed me to join them without needing to know why, without words and without touch. When I arrived back I was asked to describe how I had felt about each horse encounter and I shared observations and feelings and reactions. There were tears as I talked about the experience of simply ‘being’, simply breathing in the presence of intelligent, honest creatures that were brimming with integrity and truth, truth tellers, fortune tellers, knowing counsellors.

The assessor then went on to introduce the horses to us. We were utterly amazed at the accuracy in which my own observations and feelings had been reflective of their own stories. My first brown friend, a once three day eventer, now disabled with a spinal problem, fearful of being ridden, no longer accepting of riders or overt contact. He was comfortable with people but any anticipation of being mounted caused distress. He had been targeted for euthanasia and rescued. It was a revelation moment to learn that the horse that I had first been accepted by had been broken too, he had understood my pain because he had pain of his own and the story that I had felt he had to tell has yet to be told. The white and brown mare I felt a maternal pull from had been previously used for breeding, the only one in the herd, last in the pecking order in a herd of 45, bullied and distrusting. The old wise Spanish Arabian horse, the pack leader, head of the herd, the one whom I had felt reassured by, the one with old fashioned wisdom was 24 years old. Each in turn we learned the stories of loss and regenerated life, of breakdown and rescue of being bottom of the pack of being misplaced and disowned and discredited. I had wrongly made the assumption that the horses involved with equine therapy would be chosen for their steady characters their excellence with people, their reliability and their track record and those misconceptions were shamed as we learned that some had only been there for a week, two weeks, two years, each with their own stories to tell. I had been the first person to go into the paddock with one new horse rescued only a week before. I found myself asking, if I had know that these horses were broken, unsure of themselves and distrusting of people, would I have still voluntarily entered that meadow and approached them with such eagerness and trust? Would I have allowed them to invade my personal space, lick my face, breath into my ear? Would I have believed for one moment that their presence in my life could be helpful or effective or life changing? I have prided myself for years on my professional values of anti discrimination and equality but this lesson was a profound one of trust. In seeking to find resolution for my own locked in trauma I had inadvertently found truth and salvation amongst a herd of horses who had themselves been stereotyped, stigmatised and judged for their own unplanned life events. In the eyes of  my new brown horse friend I didn’t see a reflection of the pastures that we stood in, I did in fact see a mirror into my own soul and if I dare to keep looking, perhaps over time we shall find comfort from each other’s stories and permission to take hold of the reigns and to walk on. His name is ‘Fly’ and perhaps, with a little bit of luck we will!

With love, Ju x

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