By Ali Valdez
Nothing could drag me away. Yoga is an extremely important part of my life. I don’t mean this just for fitness but for my overall well-being which includes managing stress, preventing anxiety about things in life that I cannot control and time to breathe. One simple inhale and exhale is the best medicine. I have my shit together, don’t I?
Not being born into an animal family, I didn’t get the horse bug many young girls do. I have acquired a joy of sightseeing around the world on the perch of a horse, its slow lazy pace off the beaten path when traveling by myself. In this isolation, there is an affinity and kinship with these strong and stalwart animals. They help elevate my perspective on the world; they empower me as they submit to taps of my heels and heed the gentle tugs of the reigns.
Tomorrow I will ride, once again, over the patchwork landscape of the Andes in Ecuador, but it won’t be the first interaction with horses. Last week, our retreat group was taken to an equine therapy session. Perhaps all roads lead into one because my students back home, my travel companions to Peru and others have increasingly come forward asking me about developing equine yoga therapy into my programs. I was open to doing the session with the group inspired by the number of requests that have been made of late. I was even open to working on the topics that I had set as an intention during this Gentle Therapeutics retreat (expertly led by the masterful Allaine Stricklen). The group was game and super excited, and I was too, admittedly a bit reticent as well. Is it possible to feel both at the same time? In the course of the next four hours, all sorts of conflicting emotions embraced me at once.
First, we were greeted and guided into the stables by Christina, the owner of the center and a clinical psychologist. Her horses are all rescues; they heal while facilitating the healing in others. She says the groups that come together never do so by accident,
“There is always a common thread in the groups that make the sessions so powerful.”
The group was a bit flummoxed, a mixed age, mixed geographical group, someone boldy inquired, “So, like what?” Christina patiently paused.
“Well, in the group yesterday every single person in the group had recently lost a child.”
So we went silently and single-file into a stable with about six horses. She encouraged us to just walk around but not to touch the horses. As they mill about you, the horses want to communicate first with a tap or a gesture. Touching them may send the message to back away by how you extend your hand. So we walked. This wasn’t a popularity contest, but the horses quickly aligned with certain people in the group, namely those that had a lot of experience engaging with horses. They felt more confident around the massive steads and it showed. I cannot say that the horse paid much if any attention to me. I walked around non-chalant but they were more intrigued nipping one woman’s carrot colored sneakers, pinching another woman’s hat, and another biting a jacket sleeve.
Some of the horses socialized with ease, playful while others stood cautiously back. Others simply could not be bothered and grazed off in the corners. At first site, I was drawn to the large brown dominant male horse grazing further afield in the pen. Then a smaller white female horse. This should have told me EXACTLY what I needed to work on. Admittedly, I am embarrassed I am just now seeing this as I type.
“They tend to tap chakra zones,” Christina commented as one horse walked up and tapped my Svadisthana chakra, where I just had surgery and felt like energetic imbalance was happening between the masculine and the feminine.
At one point, two horse stood on either side of me, flanking me with their heads drawn in towards center like guards and protectors at the gate. I found tears welling up in my eyes because I felt so safe but then thought, ‘why am I the one crying, and first?!’
My thoughts and conversations around the trip were mostly centered around my daughter and our sometimes difficult relationship. Recently, things have been a challenge. Our communication had broken down. She was resentful because of how much I work and now acting out by being increasingly disrespectful. I know I needed this time in Ecuador for myself, for some isolation but at the same time, I kept wishing she was there and how much she would enjoy doing this equine therapy with me. Plus, what would we learn together? How much fun would she have? What breakthroughs would we have that would transform the current dynamics for the better?
It’s so easy to drag someone else into your own malaise. This was really all about me, and the inner work I needed to do and not about her.
Throughout the day, the horses playfully bit and nibbled as Christina quietly observed and encouraged us further to let our guards down. None of the horses did this with me. When we regrouped in the center, Christina commented on how she had never seen the horses so lively and interactive. We smiled. She also said she had never seen so much biting or nipping and how we were allowing them to really push their limits suggesting perhaps our group’s theme was working together on understanding and setting boundaries. Our expressions dropped; a few started to cry as they nodded.
Christina asked us where in our lives did we feel we lacked healthy boundaries. Are there places where we let people push us around? Again, I wanted to cry because so much of this resonated back to my daughter and how I needed to do a better job establishing consistent boundaries. This was a long conversation with two of the women on the trip our first group dinner. One horse came up to me and began nuzzling under my armpit. It was sweet and everyone gathered together smiled. How sweet.
Then he tapped on my heart chakra as he did my second chakra earlier. Cute little horsey…
Then he did something I could never have imagined.
He bit my left breast. Yes it hurt, but mostly it was shocking. And so symbolic. Everyone gasped. Then the horses began to circle around me very closely as if boxing me in. I realized quickly (and painfully): I lack boundaries in general, and not just with my daughter. It was an emotional day for many; but I felt on some level the day belonged to me. I ended up realizing that I probably needed this work more than anyone. Christina recognized this by calling me in during our snack break to work with the horses alone.
She assigned me tasks which broke me; it seemed more than the will of the horses. She confronted me in operating in my full personal power, which I thought ironic because I already thought I did but around these horses, I was a mess. I was assigned a task to corral the wayward band of obstinate equine into completing a loop around the pen in a single line and in order. I was given a whip and told to get angry and to assert myself. I know when I feel like yelling, I lose my voice. I just don’t want to go there. I certainly do not wish to go there with my child. I wish it could all be yogi love and Namaste, but when tested by an eight year old, they don’t always play by the Yamas and Niyamas and I was quickly learning that is my problem, and not her’s.
I struck the whip to the ground unconvincingly. It felt so violent and unnatural. The horses, as you can guess, pretty much completely ignored me. My voice broke and stuttered as I told the horses where to go and what to do. My arms were exhausted whipping the round, and I was getting winded trying to run around at altitude attempting to get the horses to sort of do what I was asking of them. My morale deflated like a smashed plantain tossed in the fryer.
My instructions were a moderate success, at best. A few of the horses, including the dominant brown male seemed to amuse me half a lap but then quickly sputtered and lost interest as I lost hope in myself. Others went in when my time was up, some more masterfully than others got the job done. This left me time to reflect and process. My tit still hurt which was dull and achingly nudging me deeper down the path of self-reflection. Process, process, process. Something has begun to open up, now stay the course.
Christina later announced that we had one more group activity. I think I actually said “fuck” aloud with absolutely dread. I had had enough humiliation and plenty to process and think about. Did I need to go back in and get schooled all over again?
Begrudgingly, I went back in with the group. Our task was to take a few small bits of rope and corral all the horses into the smallest possible huddle with only our bodies and these little ropes, intentionally not enough to rope off the entire area. The horses made no effect whatsoever to oblige us in these endeavors, galloping away, pissing in the nether regions of the pen, grazing and swatting relishing in the rebel play. As one or two horse got in, they just put their snouts under the rope and walked back out.
By default the group delegated the Met curator and former equestrian as team captain. This approach did not work but it didn’t not work either. We all needed to become captains, and not just Kim. Our emotional power, not our intellectual reasoning, was what the horses would respond to; circle back to that whole “personal power” thingy.
Oddly, amidst the flurry of equine obtrusion and spilling out of our physically and psychically flimsy circle, I have found myself face to face with the grand stallion (ok, he probably wasn’t War Horse) that stalwart, black-maned male beauty, the taller more elegant and most dominant of the bunch.
Yeah, that guy!
He stood looking at me as if a frozen film reel unmoving, intent and focused. Eka grata with Equine, who knew, right? This moment was secured in the stillness of time while everyone and the flurry of horses around us seemed to fade off into the distant background. It was him and I going toe to toe, no rope, just mano y mano. What a stare down. The other horses eventually got corralled into a circle and although they kept moving around, they stayed. The entire time my horse didn’t move nor take his eyes off of me. IT was easy and symbiotic; birthed from a place of mutual respect, together absorbing our stillness.
As a group, we were then tasked to slowly take steps back, then turn around, leave the stable but keep the horses in their circle. Mission accomplished. The group left happy, each one of us feeling fulfilled by the sessions and eager to share our feelings with one another. What a great bonding exercise.
As we were out of the stable, the horses kept their order momentarily then began to break off and go in their separate directions. The big brown horse stayed still. I kept thinking to myself, I really would like him to walk over because I want to thank him for helping me learn so much about myself and my feelings today.
Then he made his way over and I was able to pet him and say, “You’re a good boy. Thank you.”
Later, Christina mentioned to Allaine that the horses were all about my issues with men, and not really about my daughter but I see it being about both. The natural attraction to the emotional distant big male dominant horse aligns with both my father and one of my master teachers. The taps to my second and fourth chakras are absolutely two energy zones that align with the issues that surfaced in the equine therapy. I see the horses behavior both closing in on me and flanking me helping me differentiate when I feel bullied versus protected and reading my own emotional cues without doubt. The nip on my breast reminding me that I am a caregiver and a woman but should not be taken for granted and tolerate bad behavior or allow others to consume my own resources and personal power.
I always felt like I was very powerful but apparently I am not. I can only imagine when I can fully connect into my personal power, just how mighty this one little woman will be.