Sunday, July 19, 2015

Shifts in Perspective: A close read of Carole Fletcher's "Healed by Horses"

More than seven years ago, when I first started volunteering in the field of Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies (EAAT), I picked up a copy of Carole Fletcher's Healed by Horses, A Memoir. At the time, I enjoyed Fletcher's story. I made note of Fletcher's words, "The horse did not heal me. It's working with horses that heals, by developing discipline, courage, patience, and perseverance."

Recently, I came across my notes of this passage and decided to give Fletcher's memoir a second read. This time, I read it as an experienced EAAT professional. I have known the healing effects of working with horses on my own soul and I have also facilitated a connection with horses and therapeutic riding for hundreds of individuals with diverse physical, cognitive and emotional challenges.

This expanded perspective allowed me to read Fletcher's memoir with a whole new appreciation for its exceptional value as a book-length, personal testimony to the transformative power of working with horses. While the EAAT field is filled with anecdotal evidence (and thankfully more and more established research!) to underscore the value of what we do, Fletcher's testimony takes the reader close - we understand her as a vibrant young woman who owns horses prior to a terrible accident; we read of her excruciating, life-threatening burns and her fight to live; and finally, we are transported along with her as she beats all odds and makes it back onto a horse. In fact, she goes on to build a life with horses.

Horses are part of Fletcher's healing before she even leaves the hospital bed where she spends seven months after her accident. Inspired by a doctor's advice to "Give her a reason to live," Fletcher's mother posts a poster of Bailey, Fletcher's horse, in the hospital room and writes in big letters, "HE WILL CARRY YOU." Fletcher writes, "When the poster of Bailey went up on my wall, it gave me a focus - something to long for and dream about. My vantage point shifted... from inside to outside - from my airless [hospital] room to hills and fields."

After seven months in the hospital, Fletcher finally makes it to the barn to see Bailey. She writes, "I wrapped my arms around his neck, pressed my face into his satin coat, and took long breaths. I wanted to inhale him." Fletcher writes about getting on him for the first time. Notably, she again uses the word "shift" in her description. She writes, "It's a test of courage to get on the back of a thousand-pound animal while you're feeling frail. Riding horses, you come to know that there are many such times, when desire overcomes fear... [On Bailey] I had shifted just a little: a cautious and downtrodden woman was at least moving in the direction of bold and assured rider."

Fletcher's story illustrates with very personal testimony a shift in meaning and motivation that I have also witnessed to varying degrees in my work in the EAAT field. This shift is the boy with autism who settles on a horse and produces language for which his parents had given up hope; it is the older adult with a degenerative disease who rides and realizes she still has adventure in her life; it is the young adult with a life-altering spinal cord injury who finds the courage and tenacity to get back in the saddle, take the reins and ride! Over and over again, those of us who work in the field witness how horses and riding can facilitate a shift in perspective, motivation and intention that changes lives for the better. (I often think about how important the word "transition" has been to centuries of horsemen and women. I ponder these shifts, these transitions - physical, emotional and spiritual - that horses help us to make.)

Testimony like this - the way that horses essentially transformed Fletcher's life, post-accident, move the reader from cover to cover. Fletcher clearly labels the book a memoir and intends it as such. While she has worked with riders with disabilities, the text is not necessarily intended solely, or even mostly, for professionals in the EAAT field. Having said that, I would suggest this book as an essential read to any EAAT professional who might want to better understand their students' perspectives as well as in fact one's own connections to horses: How do horses heal? How can being around horses help to "right" or reframe a life that has been suddenly and significantly altered by injury or disability? And, in Fletcher's case, how does a life-long commitment to horses and riders eventually allow her, if not to overcome completely, than to find personal meaning and deep joy in her existence?

These are questions that drive our field. Carole Fletcher's very personal answers to these questions drive her narrative and make it an engaging and perspective-shifting read for anyone working with horses, serving people.

*Fletcher, Carole with Lawrence Scanlan. Healed by Horses: A Memoir. NY: Atria Press, 2005.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Physical & Emotional "Flexible Stability" Reinforced by Horseback Riding

It is relevant to examine horseback riding as not only a right brain/ left brain synchronizing activity, but also as a holistic activity for body, mind and spirit. This is especially true when the rider (or instructor) has therapeutic goals in mind and an awareness of the therapeutic potential intrinsic in interacting with horses. Riding requires consciousness about alignment and position, as well as “flexible stability” from one’s physical core.

In this way, balanced riding is a powerful physical metaphor for effective living: maintain the integrity of your position, find balance, even as you are fluid enough to follow a horse’s inevitable (and in fact, desirable) forward momentum and dynamic movement. Sally Swift, founder of Centered Riding, writes “…a balanced body permits a balanced state of mind,” highlighting the way that conscious, balanced riding can lead to a more whole psychological state. (Centered Riding. NY: St. Martin's, 1985.)

Because a horse is an enormously powerful being with a mind of his own, the rider must remain mentally in balance in order to effectively influence the horse’s mind as well as his body. To ride a green or spirited horse with success, Linda Kohanov, founder of EPONAQUEST Worldwide, suggests a rider adapt “a state of mind in which past and future could easily trade places, and suggest[s] the possibility of seeing what was about to happen as vividly as what had just occurred." Kohanov shares the following advice, given to her many years ago by an experienced horse trainer: “Keep your body fully in the present and mind in the recent future. Don’t let the past get in your way." (The Tao of Equus. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2001. 19.)

This sounds perhaps a bit obscure, so here’s a concrete example: If you are riding a nervous horse as a rattling dump truck comes up the driveway, it would be easy to anticipate that the horse will spook at the truck or take off, and you will fall or be thrown. However, you know (using your intellect) that the dump truck is not likely to actually harm the horse; there is no real danger to him or you. Therefore, in this situation, it is your responsibility as the rider to transmit to the horse a complete lack of anxiety or anticipation about the truck. You might utilize deep breathing, singing, or ask him to concentrate on work (i.e. a controlled leg yield away from the approaching truck) to keep him from being overwhelmed by the truck and having his powerful flight instinct ignite. Your whole being reassures: “We got this, Horse. Nothing to be scared of here!” However, at the same time, you must be ready, mentally and physically, to respond appropriately and keep your balance should a spook occur. The evolved rider gives the horse every opportunity and support to act desirably (by not spooking) but is also prepared to keep both herself and her horse safe if the spook happens anyway.

This concept – acknowledging what could happen but not allowing oneself to anticipate (and thus inadvertently support) a negative outcome – is such an important emotional skill, and not only when riding or working with horses. It is a level of emotional acknowledgement and control that would allow one to go through the world with maximum awareness but minimal anxiety. Imagine how powerful that emotional skill can be when put to work with horses, but also with other people and even in situations beyond one's control (that terrible traffic jam!). It is, essentially, the pinnacle of staying present - being open and aware to all the possibilities of a situation but still manifesting with intention the most desired outcome.

As humans, we can learn and practice - what strategies allow us to “ride the horse” (our own psyche) “past the dump truck” (our own emotional triggers)?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Guest Bloggers Wanted! Share Your Story!

This summer, I am hoping to expand this blog to include the writing of others whose lives have been influenced by work with horses. Carole Fletcher, author of the beautiful memoir Healed by Horses, writes:

"The horse did not heal me. It's working with horses that heals, by developing discipline, courage, patience and perseverance. You may come to horses - as I did - unable to walk, unable to cope, disfigured and in disrepair, but what I learned is that horses do not judge by looks or class or reputation. Still, you must earn their respect and cooperation, and out of that comes self-esteem."

Do you identify with what Fletcher has written? Either because you have experienced personal, physical or emotional transformation through working with horses or because you've witnessed such a transformation in others? If so, and you are willing and able to share your story in photos or writing, or through an interview, I would love to hear from you and to feature your story on this page! Please email me!

I also like to review books relevant to the field of Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies on this page. Have you read something great recently? Something that touched your heart the way that Fletcher's memoir touched mine? If so and you'd like to review that book for What Horses Teach, please let me know!

Thanks! Hoping to build some momentum on this blog over these hot summer days and would love to share some diverse voices here!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review of Yoga for Equestrians, A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse

I benefited from reading Yoga for Equestrians, A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse. As a lifelong rider, and a relatively new but totally convinced "yogi," I was already familiar with many concepts introduced in this book. Having said that, authors Linda Benedik & Veronica Wirth weave concepts from the discipline of balanced seat riding and the practice of hatha yoga together in a way that is clear yet sophisticated, inviting yet technical. Reading this book reinforced for me that yoga is the perfect cross-training for horseback riding (and for life!).

Features of this book that I liked most especially included the accurate and sharp illustrations featuring "real" riders with diverse body types as well as the organization of the book by area of the body. The authors provide accurate anatomical descriptions of each body section, followed by yoga asanas to benefit this body section and the relevance/ benefits for riders of practicing these asanas. That's motivating for me!

Finally, I love the overarching theme of the book that horseback riding, like yoga, should be about union. In this case, union between horse and rider. The authors emphasize the importance of a balanced state of mind and body while riding, which the reader would expect, but go further by devoting whole chapters, with practical advice, to breath and the power of the mind. The authors emphasize, "To attain Union with the horse involves two bodies, two species moving together in balance, in concert as One. Your horse-rider partnership encompasses spiritual unity as you ride unaware of your own body, your attention attuned to complete, fluid integration with the horse. During these special moments, time ceases to exist and your activities flow effortlessly."

So glad to have finally read this book, which I have been meaning to study for years now!">View

Horses like yoga, too!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

First Chapter of Barn Dust

Hello Friends,

WORK Literary Magazine published "Barn Dust," an excerpt from my book-length memoir of the same name:   I am searching for a publisher for the full manuscript.

Enjoy and thank you for reading!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Hello, 2015! Resolve to ride, read, write... ready!?

2015 begins with a confession (which doubles as an excuse for my infrequent posts on this blog): I find social media difficult! As a writer, I read over and over again that if I ever hope to publish a book, I need to build my on-line presence through Facebook, Twitter, a blog or webpage, etc. I've read that many literary agents and book publishers will consider your work only when you have upwards of 20,000 friends on Facebook - WHAT? HOW? And even, WHY? Why would anyone want or need 20,000 friends on Facebook? (Having said that, if you like my blog, please feel free to send me a friend request!)

Writers share ideas publically and always have. It's part of what we do: take a little bit of your own soul - of what you're learning or thinking, regretting or imagining - and put it out there. I get it! I've always done it. I've been trained to do it better. I want to do it some more. I just find it most difficult to write in the informal world of social media.

Certainly, writing and publishing in this sphere is not technically difficult. Type IT, hit "Post" and there IT is, as Google says, "shared with the whole wide world." What bothers me is the absence of a submissions editor, some impartial middle-person who says: Yes, this piece of writing or this idea IS important for the world to see. So important that I will give you some space in my literary journal, my magazine or on my shelf. Maybe even some space in my heart. Instead, social media requires the average writer serve as his or her own editor and filter: Is my idea really worth putting out there? Is this completely self-indulgent? Do these thoughts belong in public or better scratched away, pen-and-ink style, in a spiral bound, 70 sheet, wide-rule notebook, the likes of which I have journaled in faithfully since the age of 17?

It is hard to know.

Having said that, 2014 was an incredibly busy year for me (my other excuse for never blogging), and I did learn a lot about myself, my beliefs about horses and riding, my own strengths and where I have room for growth. The part that is important to me to share here on this blog has to do with my expanding beliefs about horses, riding and training, so I am going for it. Self-indulgent or not, here it is, buried half-way through this rather rambling blog-post:

Horses & riding can at best inspire a moving meditation, a sort of all-encompassing experience that transcends day-to-day life. This can happen at every level of horsemanship & riding (for many even just meeting a horse is inspiring) - it's what makes horse lovers and riders come back for more!) Also, horses & riding, for better or worse, can often reflect a living metaphor for one's internal life. When horses & riding are considered in this way, what comes forth?
  • Intention-setting for the time spent with a horse & gratitude for the interaction are always paramount
  • A balanced state of mind, body & spirit is always part of the intention; While one doesn't have to be a world-class athlete or Zen master, conscious and developing "fitness" in all of these areas is crucial to a good experience with horses and riding.
  • Joy: riding that is deeply rooted in the quest for harmony, balance and connection between horse and rider is joyful even when it's challenging.
  • Leadership: the human must communicate to the horses a presence of goodwill, focused attention and purpose. As Sally Swift writes in Centered Riding, "Since you are at the controls, you are the leader when you ask your horse to perform. Your body, therefore, must be free to lead." (This concept of leadership does not really relate to the popular, overused and inaccurate idea of "being the alpha" and always needing to dominate horses and other people.)
  • Play/ fun/ adventure/ goals: This is where professional goals, sport, competition and new skills all kick in. Understanding/ being introduced to the internal points above on some level should always be considered a foundation before "going external" in the world of equestrian sport, professional certifications, demonstrations or other public goals.
These are the ideas I want to carry forth into 2015. I plan to bring these ideas to my work; to read about them and hopefully write about them (maybe even here on this blog...). I hope they manifest into an ever-deepening enjoyment and understanding of horses, riding and the spiritual path that can be inspired by both!

Thank you for reading & Happy New Year, 2015!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Work Is Messy: Practicing Buddhist Principles in Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies

Every once in a while, a book comes into your hands that changes your life. Sometimes, this happens quickly: one weekend, during a period of loss, I read Marilyn Robinson's novel Gilead and as the story unfolded, I realized: you are not alone in this experience. Because of her novel, I recognized grief and this helped me cope.

Sometimes, a book changes you over time, after frequent visits. For me, one such book is Michael Carroll's Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work's Chaos. I've known of this book for many years - nearly a decade. My late uncle Gerald sent a copy to my mother, Susan, when she struggling with a work-related issue many years ago. Mom showed it to me back then and told me she read a "chapter" every morning, which helped her face the day with clarity, peace and wisdom. Each chapter explores one of the workplace-oriented Buddhist principles that Carroll advocates.

Years later, I lived with my parents for a while after going through a divorce. During that time, I was teaching first-year writing at a college and often struggled with the "busy-ness" of my business. I had the writing of so many students to keep track of during the day and then in the evenings I tutored, so I was often tired and overwhelmed. I picked up Mom's copy of Awake at Work. Reading it from time to time helped abate my chronic anxiety. Just the pace and tone of Carroll's writing was comforting and helped me feel better. However, I don't think I was really able to absorb and execute his principles at that time - not sure why, maybe because I hadn't yet find my true professional "medium," which would come a few years later when I certified as a therapeutic horseback riding instructor.

My first job in the EAAT field was at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, CT, a large, well-established and busy non-profit organization. I was thrilled to be working in the EAAT field and ecstatic about the opportunity at High Hopes, but I quickly found myself stressed, overwhelmed and tired. This time, I had to face that my chronic anxiety (and occasional neuroticism) was not necessarily coming from my work itself, but rather from my methods of coping (or lack thereof) with workplace stress. Teaching therapeutic riding was my dream job - an essential piece of my destiny - and I knew I needed to learn to handle the inevitable stress that comes with work. I didn't want to burn out this time. 

Mom bought me my own copy of Awake at Work. I made a practice of reading a principle every day while I drank my morning coffee. I didn't meditate, though the book suggests it. I just read a principle, reflected for a moment or two, and promised to let the thought guide my day. At the time, it helped greatly and to this day, I make a practice of reading a principle in the morning during times of workplace stress (see September... this year... you win!)

After all, Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies is an amazing field where we see individuals with disabilities of all kinds reach new levels of physical, cognitive and emotional function thanks to the gifts of horses and riding. However, if there were ever a field where it is necessary to stay flexible, present and responsive to the current moment, it is EAAT! While I am not a Buddhist in any formal kind of way (and no statues decorate my desk or lawn), I recognize that you need some serious Zen in order to work as a therapeutic riding instructor. A rider may present each week with slightly different needs. Horses can be affected by the weather, their workload or changing age/ soundness. The group of workers who we depend on to help provide our service are usually volunteers, which can occasionally lead to inconsistencies. Not to mention that most EAAT centers (and all that I've affiliated with) are non-profit organizations depending on donations, fundraising and administrative creativity to function. Components like these make our work interesting and ever-changing. Staying present and responsive to the situation at hand, while remaining professional, timely and organized is an on-going challenge.

Having now taught at three therapeutic riding centers around the country, I've learned that unpredictability is inherent to the EAAT field everywhere, as is the unlimited potential to respond in the moment and create positive effects for the individuals we serve. I'm grateful for the way that teaching in EAAT has required me to develop a more present, responsive attitude towards work, teaching and life. Carroll's book has been a steady companion, an instructive friend.

One of Carroll's principles states: "Work is a mess... Many of us come to work with the hope that we can control our jobs... The reality is that there is no solution to work's inherent chaos and messiness. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain. The good news is that work's messiness and uncertainty need not be distressing. They may, in fact, be just what we are looking for." I find when I am really frustrated or stressed, it helps just to think: Work is messy. For everyone. In working with horses and riders with special needs, at least I know that I am doing work I love and believe in, messy or not! I'm grateful to Carroll's text, and to my mother and uncle for passing it along.