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Riding Wisdom ~ Part 1

Winner of  the Honorable Mention Award in the 2008 Angel Horses with a Mission True Story Contest

Kim creating art

Kim creating art

For over twenty years I have been an artist who seeks to define horses in my art and portray them with an awareness of their sentience and spiritual gifts. Though I had faith in the truth of what I believed about horses, and though I had experienced some profound connections with horses I had met, I was still searching for some elusive aspect of being with horses that I had yet to define.

Then I read Linda Kohanov’s books, The Tao of Equus (New World Library, 2001) and Riding Between Worlds (New World Library, 2003). In these books Linda writes about her Epona Center in Arizona, and her amazing experiences of receiving and witnessing others receive emotional healing with horses. Her writings further confirmed my feelings about the profound wisdom of horses. I longed to experience the intuitive encounters Linda had described but imagined that they were only available to rare individuals born with the gift of intuitive communication.  I also didn’t believe at the time that I needed any emotional healing; instead I felt that was a path that only trauma survivors needed to walk.

One day, I received a flyer announcing a three-day workshop in my area presented by Leigh Shambo of Human Equine Alliances for Learning. Leigh is an Epona Instructor who studied with Linda Kohanov. I was excited to learn more about her work. In addition, Leigh listed one of the workshop’s benefits as a way of learning to overcome fear of riding. This was something I could definitely relate to, so I signed up.

Though a lifelong horse lover, I had only recently become a horse owner. I had fallen in love five years before with a racehorse named Darma. Darma is a beautiful bay Thoroughbred mare. At 16.3 hands her withers are taller than my petite 5.3” frame.

Kim and Darma ~ 1996

Kim and Darma ~ 1996

Darma’s abrupt entry into my life had its share of challenges. Acquiring her had not been a practical decision. But my overwhelming emotions the moment I met here were so strong that any sense of practicality went out the window. In some ways we seemed suited for each other. At the young age of 3 years old, Darma had already sustained a racing injury to her knee that made her life as an athletic riding horse more limited. Most people bought horses to ride, but though I was a horse lover I had never been an avid rider. However after a year of attempting to handle her unpredictable mood swings and fears on the ground, I succumbed to the advice of various horse trainers and people I thought were knowledgeable horse people who asserted that riding her was the best way to establish a relationship. Now I know this advice is rather backwards, but at the time I gave in to others opinions.

After a year of lessons and workshops and practice riding other horses, I did ride Darma a few times, but neither of us was able to truly relax. Then one day, only moments after I had gotten into the saddle, she went from a standstill into a bucking fit that threw me off her back, whereupon she ran frantically away from me. Fortunately I was only slightly injured and I was able to catch her. Though she was obviously shaken she seemed physically sound. But I was emotionally devastated. These emotions later turned to fear whenever I attempted to ride any horse. I could barely sit on a horse without an overwhelming sense of vertigo. My decision to never ride again seemed inevitable.

My strong emotions and my deep need to continue to find a way to understand the relationship between Darma and myself let me to explore learning more about horses than what I had previously been taught. But books I read on the subject of horses and training seemed to be missing something. I intuitively felt that there was more to the connection between Darma and I than what could be explained in traditional theories of horse behavior and the human drive to interact with horses. I had always been spiritually inquisitive, and my art was about spiritual and emotional themes, but it took a traumatic experience with Darma for me to realize that perhaps there were things we could heal in each other.

I began consulting with animal communicators and other intuitive practitioners to find some answers from that realm of knowing. Little did I know that my experiences with Darma had catapulted me into a quest for healing that was deeper than my fear of riding horses.

Interestingly, my quest with Darma led to my introduction to Linda Kohanov and her books, because Linda had heard a story about Darma and I through an animal communicator I had consulted with. Linda called to interview me for her book, The Tao of Equus. I was honored and thrilled that Darma and I were to be included in her book. Linda’s discoveries resonated with me, but even though I felt Darma was leading me on a path to healing. I still did not foresee the potential that all horses could assist me in profound ways.

"Vision" Prints available here

“Vision” Prints available here

Horses as Mirrors

Leigh Shambo’s workshop was held at a horse boarding and riding facility that offered to host her 3-day workshop. The attendees were a small gathering of five people including myself. Diane, the barn manager, Cathy and her daughter Sara who owned horses there at the barn, and Cathy’s husband Teri who was the only man in the group. Teri was a writer, who admitted to only recently being introduced to horses because of the interests of his wife and daughter.

The cold winter wind blew outside as we huddled in the warm tack shed the first evening to listen to Leigh’s introduction to equine facilitated learning. Leigh began her workshop by explaining that horses could act as mirrors to human behavior. Through a complex series of involuntary physical clues and even more subtle energetic factors, a horse can essentially read the state of physical, emotional, and mental states of anyone in his or her vicinity. In Equine Facilitated Learning some of the exercises are when a trained facilitator assists a person to engage with a horse in one on one reflective or active sessions with a horse. The horse’s responses allows the person to gain insight into their emotions and thoughts, which the horse is reflecting back to them by its actions and behaviors, and which the facilitator can help interpret.

As an animal preyed upon in Nature, horses are ultra sensitive to those around them. One primary discovery was that horses often appear most comfortable around people who honestly express how they are feeling. As humans we are often taught to suppress our emotions, but it is that very suppression that is often unsettling to horses.

In addition, just as the horse is affected by our presence, so theirs affects us when we are taught how to tune into our body sensations, energy dynamics, and intuition. Leigh also explained how we all have a critical mind or “false self” that tends to inhibit new learning or being open to new experiences. These concepts were fascinating to me. I was eager to learn more.

The next day we gathered at the outdoor round pen. The day was chilly but clear. It was Teri’s turn first. Teri stated that his goal was to seek some clarity in his work life. Leigh suggested Teri would benefit from a reflective session.

A horse was led into a 40’ outdoor enclosure called a round pen. The horse was allowed to move freely about, and after some safety instructions, Leigh said that Teri would enter the space with the horse and that he would interact spontaneously with occasional guidance from her. Leigh invited Teri to leave his “false self” outside of the round pen.

Leigh led Teri to stand near the round pen but face away from the horse, and do what she called a “body scan”, which is a technique developed by Linda Kohanov to assist a person in identifying what is present in their body, mind, and emotions before interacting with a horse. Teri told Leigh what he was hoping to receive from he experience. The horse watched intently as this process began, and he even walked over to stand near them. Then Teri faced the horse, again speaking quietly with Leigh, and then she invited him to enter the space with the horse.

When Teri entered the pen the horse came up the greet him. Then a silent dance seemed to begin. Teri would move about – at times approaching the horse, only to have the horse step away. At other times, the same actions on Teri’s part would result in the horse willingly approaching him. After awhile it became clear to me that the horse’s behaviors and movements differed from the usual dynamic of a human and horse working in a training exercise. The intent wasn’t to train the horse, or ask it to move, or even to ask it to engage. Rather the horse was given the freedom to respond to the person.

Leigh began asking Teri questions, and Teri explained to us what had been transpiring. He had entered the round pen with questions about a career change he had been facing from being a technical write to a creative writer. The potential change both excited and frightened him. His career was stable yet stagnant, and yet he wanted to provide for his family. His creative writing was a calling he couldn’t ignore, but was a step into the unknown.

Whenever he thought about his current technical writing job and his dislike of it, the horse would seem to avoid him. When he thought of his creative writing, his fears would come up about his job change and the horse would move uncertainly away from him. When he thought of his desires to write and the depth of what he wanted to express in his writing, the horse immediately approached him and touched his nose to Teri’s heart. This profound moment gave Teri a feeling that he could move forward despite the fear and that he would be supported in his decision. The interaction had taken perhaps half an hour, but in that time Teri’s entire demeanor had shifted, he patted the horse gratefully and emerged from the round pen with a look of amazement on his face.

When my turn came, I told Leigh that my desire was to understand my fear of riding. Leigh suggested that I also engage in a reflective session with a horse. Despite the interesting session with Teri I really couldn’t imagine how this experience could help me with my fear of riding. But I was open-minded and wanted to experience this new way of interacting with a horse.

Touched by Goldie

The horse I was going to be interacting with was named Goldie. Goldie was a horse owned by the barn manager to give riding lessons to students. She had never been worked with as a therapy horse.

Leigh guided me through the body scan. Leigh asked me to face away from the horse and stand in a relaxed stance and to close my eyes. Then she suggested that I allow my awareness to go from the top of my head down my body to my feet and to report any sensations, images or emotions that came up when I opened my awareness to this moment in time. She suggested that I not try to change any of what I sensed but to just observe and notice. This is a technique developed by Linda Kohanov to tune in with body sensations and visual images with the goal of defining any sensations and visions and asking one’s own body for messages.

This form of tuning into my body’s awareness was new to me. I began to experience surprisingly vivid sensations and pictures. My awareness first went to my forehead where I found my brow was tense. Then I became aware of my heart, but my heart felt empty and vulnerable. An image vividly came to mind of a black hole, a void that was completely exposed to the outside world. I could see small colored lights that seemed to come towards the void but they would get swallowed up in its dark vastness. I didn’t know exactly how to interpret the images, but essentially it seemed that I became aware of a mute but powerful longing, the void was in myself, and it felt like a place that I never believed would be filled.

Leigh then asked me to turn and face Goldie, and to repeat the body scan again. She suggested that I try to perceive if anything had shifted.  To say that something had shifted would be a severe understatement.   As I faced Goldie, the sensations in my entire body shifted dramatically. I can only describe it by saying that I immediately felt grounded into the earth in a way that I had never felt before. It was as if I had spent my entire life floating without feeling truly at home in myself, on the planet, or with my environment.

When I faced Goldie, I was overwhelmed by a sudden sadness compounded by simultaneous sensations of homecoming and grounding that I was experiencing physically in my body. These feelings brought up emotions that I could barely contain.

Leigh asked if I was prepared to enter the round pen with Goldie. I nodded yes.  The moment I entered the pen, I began to cry. The wail that escaped my lips echoed across the valley. I wondered remotely what it sounded like to those who heard it. But then I became lost in the experience. The sadness was so deep that I felt as if I was sobbing tears accumulated over my lifetime. While I cried, Goldie stood by me, gently lending her unconditional support. My feelings were a mixture of loss, frustration, powerlessness, doubt, and disillusionment.

In the midst of my crying, I reached out to touch Goldie a few times. I thanked her for her forbearance, yet she allowed neither the impulse of apologizing to her nor for seeking comfort for myself. Instead, she gently leaned away, out of my reach, while continuing to stand in the same place. She seemed to be making it clear that her supportive presence wasn’t intended as a crutch, and she also didn’t need my apology for my overwhelming expression of emotion.

Where Were My Emotions Coming From?

When I stopped crying long enough to form words, Leigh gently asked if I knew what lay behind my emotions. I could only find a few words for what had taken place. I had released the deep despair I felt when I gave up riding Darma. Some of the emotion came from being overburdened by the task my husband and I had taken on of caring for twenty-one animals we had rescued or adopted over the previous five years. Some grief came over my mother’s death four years before. Yet I knew my words were only touching the surface of what I felt. I realized somehow these emotions were just the tip of an iceberg. I was absolutely taken aback at its depth and by the realization that engaging with a receptive horse, asking for healing in a specific way, and tuning in with my body had brought forth such profound emotions. I couldn’t deny that something very important had occurred. Later, I understood that only by going through those emotional fires, the burning tempest of them, would I find the key to reclaiming my inner strengths.

"My Radiant Dream" Prints available here

“My Radiant Dream” Prints available here

The Real Goldie

While I led Goldie out of the round pen, to all uninitiated onlookers she might have seemed like just a school horse. But to me she had transformed into a being of profound wisdom and generosity. The stable owner looked at me in amazement and said that Goldie’s personality was that of a bad tempered and disgruntled lesson horse. She was not normally patient or still. She would never previously have willingly stood next to a human in that kind of supportive and nurturing way.

The next day, I voiced my wish to ride Goldie. Amazingly, though shaky on my new emotional legs, I felt steady enough somehow to take on that challenge. I tacked up Goldie and tried to prepare myself to transition from the meditative experience I’d had in the round pen to the active experience of riding her. I asked that she take care of me and teach me to overcome my fear. I told her how grateful I was for allowing me to ride her.

In her presence, I had the same sense of feeling grounded as I’d had the day before. I climbed on Goldie’s back, and she moved at a gentle walk. I waited for the fear to come up in me. It didn’t. I waited for the vertigo. It never came.

Kim riding Goldie

Kim riding Goldie

Leigh began to instruct me in subtle adjustments to how I was sitting in the saddle, or my posture. As Goldie walked steadily around the arena, I began to feel even more secure. Leigh’s supportive encouragement allowed me to relax and feel less self-conscious. She told me that if I did feel fear, I should acknowledge it. She could offer tools to help me understand and work through it. Goldie was steady and gentle. She carried me faithfully into a secure riding experience with the wisdom of a sage.

Later, when I put Goldie back in her stall, I hoped that somehow I had helped shift her own awareness and consciousness in a small way. Perhaps she had been able to change her mind about some humans, too.

More Profound Messages

I attended several more of these types of workshops with other instructors, including Linda Kohanov. Each workshop provided pieces to my personal puzzle. While I learned more about my own wisdom and myself, as revealed by the horses, I consciously began to integrate the lessons into my life. I reacted to situations and challenges with more inner strength. I wasn’t as afraid to make decisions. I had a newfound confidence that allowed me to try new things. In emotional situations I was able to more clearly define what my feelings were and identify why I felt that way. Then I made better choices by listening to my emotions rather than thinking of them as something I had no control over.

A few years later, I attended another workshop with Leigh Shambo. Though I was now rather experienced at this sort of personal growth work, the layers of emotions and awareness revealed in that context always surprised me.

"Here in my Heart" Prints available by Custom Order here

“Here in my Heart” Prints available by Custom Order here

This time, one of the most profound messages came from a horse named Leo. Despite having experienced several miraculous healings with horses, I still felt emotionally blocked as I began a session with a horse. Each time, I thought that my expectations would be too high or I wouldn’t know what to do. This was a reflection of how I felt in life. I harbored constant questions, which blocked the flow of my experiences: What will I do next? What if I don’t know what to paint? What if I can’t make a decision? What if I am disappointed?

I entered the round pen with Leo, feeling once again the heaviness that I carried with me. It only came to the surface whenever I did the reflective work with horses. Leo was a beautiful 15-year old chestnut thoroughbred horse. His face had been scarred by an accident with a gate before he was rescued and came to this wonderful farm. Leo turned toward me and waited expectantly. I could feel the tears starting in my eyes. I asked silently, “What if nothing happens?”

He looked into my soul and said in words that my mind heard as clearly as if he had spoken them. “Nothing never happens.” I knew then that he meant I could create anything I wished in art and in life. All I had to do was let go of the doubt. And in that moment, I did.

The lessons that I have learned from my horse teachers continue to unfold. In the process, I have begun to rediscover long buried sources of wisdom within me. My mare Darma inspired me to begin this quest. The word Dharma means the chosen path. Indeed Darma has led me to travel pathways I never could have foreseen to inner destinations that are unfolding with each step of a four-footed beat.

Postscript: After writing this story I inquired about Goldie and learned the wonderful news that Teri and his family purchased Goldie and she now has a wonderful and permanent home with a family who love her.

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