I was blessed with an extraordinary opportunity to learn about experiential therapy using horses in Colorado. I was in Graduate school at the time and in the process of obtaining my Masters in Social Work when I began to question the traditional forms of therapeutic interventions. I am still characterized as the analytical thinker who challenges ideas. It wasn’t just the fact that I had six years in the human services field under my belt at this point, but I also had nearly a decade of therapy myself to mark off the roster. I knew that the traditional interventions weren’t working for anyone, including me.
I never had any experience with horses, but I was immediately drawn to the notion that animals could indeed be smarter and more intuitive than humans. Oh and Colorado wasn’t a bad resting spot either. Could there actually be another species who was intuitively sensitive and actually embraced for it? I couldn’t book my ticket fast enough. Before I knew it, I was in an Equestrian center full of people who certainly didn’t “look like me,” but beneath the surface they were everything like me. They too, were on a quest to find the value in sensitivity and an alternative method to connection like I was.
I still remember the first time I stepped foot into the arena. It was truly the most magnificent site I had ever seen. It was the most comfortable blend of terror and excitement I had ever felt. There were horses of all breeds, shapes and sizes everywhere. I didn’t know anyone but it didn’t take long before introductions assured me that I was where I was supposed to be. It wasn’t just that most of us were psychologists, social workers and counselors who worked with people. It was that we were all led there by an intense curiosity to find answers that we didn’t quite know would begin and end with us.
In order to facilitate equine assisted psychotherapy, you have to participate in what you will ultimately orchestrate for individuals and/or families you’re working with. It was one day and exercise in particular that forever impacted me. Each person was given a particular exercise outside of their assigned group to complete on their own. I was instructed to get at least one horse from the other side of the indoor arena to me using only a rein.
Let me remind you that unlike the majority of the company I was in at the training, I had no prior experience or exposure to horses other than a couple of horseback riding excursions. I was horrified to likely fail and embarrass myself in front of dozens of people I had grown to admire and respect over the course of our time together. There I was with a rein in one hand as terror filled the other. I could feel my heart beating as I cautiously stepped one foot in front of the other to make my way down the other side of the arena. I had my eye on this one particular horse. He was a beautiful black quarter horse gelding that stood among a variety of other horses trotting or galloping around me. As I gained the courage to step closer to him, he took a step backwards.
I’m stubborn and some say strong-willed. I was not about to let that horse walk away from me. I pursued and he resisted. No soon after I would aim the rein towards him, he would shuffle away from me. We danced at this for quite some time before my trainer stopped the exercise. I was asked to stand before the rest of the team and talk about what had happened. I was embarrassed at what I perceived to be failure in front of my peers. The facilitator asked me why I kept chasing after that particular horse. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, why not?”
She asked if I happened to notice the three horses that were trotting behind me. I didn’t. Then, she continued to ask me how it felt when I couldn’t get the rein on as instructed. I turned red and waited for her to tell me what I was already beginning to feel, which was that I didn’t belong there, but she didn’t. Instead, she asked me a question I will never forget.
She asked, “Do you usually chase after people who have their back turned to you?”
Everything in that moment turned quiet. It was as if the entire arena paused. I couldn’t hear anything and she may have said more, but from that sentence on I couldn’t hear anything other than her question pounding inside my head. All of a sudden my shame took front row seat and all I was standing beside was my fear.
She was right. I did chase after the horse that didn’t want me and I still do. I still do.
I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if she broke me similarly to when they break a horse, except it was in front of everyone. All that poured out of me was:
Every person who found me unworthy.
Every person who took advantage of me.
Every person who dishonored me.
Every person who rejected me.
Every person who criticized, ridiculed and shamed me.
All of those people took the place of that black horse. I was so busy chasing after him that I didn’t even notice the ones who were bidding for my attention. I was so busy proving I was worthy to him, that I didn’t see that I was already deemed worthy to three other horses who were waiting for the invitation of my rein. It was in that moment that I learned a valuable lesson about something I was doing to sabotage the joy and acceptance in my life. It took the exercise for someone to literally show me where my attention innately goes to. It’s the people who don’t want me. They never did and it’s possible they never will. They have never accepted me, but I still keep trying to chase them.
I am thankful that my unraveling resonated with so many other people that day. It helped me pick up my ego off of the dirt floor and stay for the remainder of the training. I wasn’t the same after that though. Over a decade of therapy hadn’t shown me what that horse taught me in a matter of minutes. We all spend so much time and energy focusing on the people who don’t want us to succeed or the people who don’t see us. They will always be critical, unhappy or displeased with whatever it is that we do. They’re the ones who smile to your face and dismantle your character behind your back. They will never have the courage to step foot into uncertainty and vulnerability, but they sit like spectators to judge how you do what they would never do for themselves. You know them, right?
I still struggle with the chase from time to time. I have to remind myself that while I am chasing after those people, I am silencing the ones who are waiting to embrace me. While I am trying to win their approval or acceptance, that I am doing so at the cost of permitting true love and acceptance. The good news is that I am recognizing those people a lot sooner than I was then. I see them. They may not even know I see them, but I do. Like you, there are some people I can’t easily detach myself from, but what I am learning is that you can choose what you’re willing to offer up to them. Not everyone deserves all of you.
Don’t chase the horse with its back turned to you. It’s likely everything worthy of you isn’t waiting for the rein because they’re already there.
In love & truth,