There is a quote by American horse trainer, Buck Brannaman, that reads "Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will". Have you ever been on the former side of that quote?
In my experience, many horse people tend to be stubborn. We're self sufficient, hard working and often put our horse's needs before our own. I mean, how many of you have purchased new tack for your horse before ever considering buying new socks for yourself to replace to old ones with holes in the heel? *all hands raise*
But this stubbornness and tendency to put the horse before ourselves can also leak into other areas of our lives. For me, this happened when I lost my Mom to cancer in 2016. I wanted to be strong. I didn't want anyone to feel they needed to take care of me and so I kept to myself, cried only in private and "soldiered on" as they say. However, in the world of grief this isn't necessarily a healthy practice.
A couple months later I realized I needed to find a way to be around horses again. I felt in my gut that this would help me cope. My husband and I had just moved Georgia so it had been awhile since I had ridden or even touched a horse due to all the chaos. That's when I met Silver. Silver was a resident of a nonprofit organization that ran EAGALA programs, which is a type of therapy that involves experiential learning with horses. Patients interact with horses on the ground and use their reactions to reflect on their own emotions and memories.
I signed up to volunteer for this organization grooming, feeding and caring for the horses. When I was introduced to Silver, a small, young grulla gelding, I was told that he was taken into the program as a favor to his previous owner who could no longer afford him. Little was known about his background and I was told that Silver didn't trust anyone.
Raise your hand if you have heard this line but tried to befriend that horse anyway! I think it's a mixture of that classic equestrian stubbornness and the image planted in our heads when we were horse-obsessed pre-teens watching The Horse Whisperer. Regardless, I made befriending Silver my little side project.
Silver was kept in a large paddock alone beside the rest of the herd and wore a halter with lead rope attached. This was all done by the organization to make catching him a little easier (although, not by much). As soon as a human would begin to release the latch on his gate to step inside the paddock with him, his head would raise, his ears would prick, his eyes would widen, and off he went as far away as he could. Avoidance at all cost.
Little did I know... this tense, fearful, untrusting, lonely caged in pony was my mirror.
...sometimes you may not like what you see...
Something needed to change. This was no life for Silver to live. I needed to redirect the way he associated human interaction. If he already had an unknown fear of being handled, being a scary human lunging for his lead rope wasn't the answer.
I began with entering his paddock holding a handful of hay. As soon as I entered the paddock he ran away as expected, so I slowly followed. I kept following him with my head low and posture relaxed until he grew tired of running away. When he stopped moving his feet, I turned around and walked away. I figured leaving him alone was the best reward I could offer him at this point.
Each day I volunteered I repeated this process, and each day I was able to get closer and closer. The wall he had built around himself was slowly coming down one brick at a time. After a week or two the bricks had come down enough to where I could reach my hand through that wall and offer him a bite of hay. If he turned his head towards me or perhaps gave the hay a sniff, I would again turn around and walk away. Occasionally if he was feeling extra brave, he would take a bite.
Then the day finally came. On September 13th, 2016 after over an hour of patiently approaching and waiting, I caught Silver.
This was a huge day for me, and a huge day for Silver and no one was within miles of the property to witness it. It was just me, Silver and nature all three finally standing side by side, lead rope in hand. I held on to that lead rope for only a few seconds feeling a wave of accomplishment, but most of all I felt proud of Silver.
Then I let him go.
For the next few weeks that I spent volunteering at that organization, I would perform the same exercise. Each day the time it took to catch Silver became shorter and shorter. A month after the first time I held his lead rope, catching Silver only took 2 minutes.
Silver began to become more curious than fearful. Catching him now meant things like getting to walk around the property and graze or getting an itch scratched by a gentle brush. He began to approach me on his own little by little to sniff my hat or check out the things I was holding. He let his guard down and now, he was happier.
As my mirror, Silver was me trapped behind a wall of grief. I wasn't letting anyone break through for fear of looking vulnerable. I was alone as he was alone is his paddock. And just as Silver took baby steps to take down that wall and let someone reach out and care for him, so did I. That first day that I caught Silver was the first day I took a brick down from my own wall. I may not have liked what I saw in the mirror at first, but that day I smiled at my reflection.