I’ve been invited to audit a workshop on boundary setting for entrepreneurs that involves equine assisted therapy. It sounds fascinating. Working with animals often helps trauma survivors like me–those of us with massive attachment trauma often feel safer with animals. Also I haven’t seen a horse up close in a long time, so I drive to Wake Forest. I can only get there by taking my old route home, and as I drive the stretch of Holloway St where I used to run I remember feeling free and fast, remember the grass grazing my ankles, remember turning this left to get home. I purse my lips and keep driving. Now I’m on the route I took to see a couples therapist with my abuser. I shake my head. I’m going to see horses. I breathe into my discomfort.
I drive down a gravel path to a large beautiful house. I follow the ladies who’ve arrived already into the barn, where we sit at tables in the center of a central aisle. There are stalls on either side and a young, blonde farmhand walking around doing farm things. We make name tags and accept yellow folders with handouts. There are a few stall doors and two big doors outside. It’s surprisingly a little cold this morning, and I am a little tense as we sit there listening to Lori, the life coach, present the material. Occasionally there is a sound from a horse in a stall. Or the farmhand with a shovel. Behind walls. Where I can’t see them. Sometimes it’s a machine. I know they’re all just benign farm sounds, but my attention is split between what we’re dong and what my nervous system needs to feel safe in this barn: identify all the sounds. It’s distracting and tiring, and I quickly grow irritated and impatient. I toss my head and startle when a machine starts outside. Be normal, I remind myself. Make eye contact. Smile. We break for someone to retrieve something and I immediately forget everything we’ve just talked about. Oh my god, I want out of this barn. Right now. Then there’s a flash of dark in the stall across from me. I look up and there’s a big brown horse with big brown eyes looking right at me over a gate.
“Hi there!” I perk up. The horse is beautiful. I want to go see if he’ll let me touch his face, but everyone else is sitting so it feels inappropriate. I stay, and the horse leaves. Elizabeth the therapist goes to the far barn door and opens it further. She says we’ll be going outside next, and now a few people are standing. I join her at the door; I want to go outside. I see the horses crowding a gate near us. I can’t resist.
“May I go see them?”
The horses are clearly interested in us, and the tall brown one is standing quietly, looking at me. She says something that means yes and then I don’t notice anymore what these new people are saying or doing. I stand before the gate and hold out my hand to see if the big horse might sniff it, like a dog. He does, and his breath is warm and humid. I watch him and move slowly, testing to see how I can touch his face. He lets me rub his nose and cheeks. He steps closer and I scratch his neck. He’s very calm, but two much smaller horses thrust their heads through the fence to get closer. I laugh; they’re funny. I reach out one hand for each of them to sniff. They grasp my hands with their lips, awkward and eager like puppies. They stomp and shoulder the fence. The brown horse stands patiently. I caress the end of his nose, which is velvety soft.
I’m aware that behind me, the humans have just discussed what we’re doing next and I’ve completely ignored it. I see by their body language that they’ve paired; oh dear. I step back and Elizabeth comes to the gate. One of the women makes eye contact with me. Good. I step a little closer. Elizabeth is asking each pair to choose a horse. The other women look hesitant; I am not.
“That one?” I call out a little too loudly. I look back to my new partner. She steps forward with me as Elizabeth walks the tall horse out with me next to him. My new partner is talking with Elizabeth; “How many hands?” They talk; I’m watching the horse. She holds out a brush, which I take. She’s telling us the horses like to be brushed while she goes back to help other people with horses. I check in with my partner and then start brushing–she used to ride and is a little less interested than I am in the novelty of horse grooming. Cool. The horse leans into me a little as I brush his neck. He’s actually quite dirty; small clouds of dust and horse hair drift up from my brush. Does he like his face brushed? Yes. Cool. His legs? Yes. When I first stood next to him I kept back an arm’s distance but now I can see that he won’t step on my feet and I’m very close, left hand on his back while I brush with my right. She asks for the brush and I give it to her; I continue brushing the horse with my hand, knocking the dirt from his back and sides. Someone in the group said she was afraid to stand behind the horse. I’m not; I stand next to his hind legs and brush his hip.
Elizabeth is telling us now we can try to get the horse to walk around us. I take hold of his bridle and tug very gently. “Come on, buddy, this way” I coax. He pulls his head a bit and I look at him, concerned. My partner tells me I’ve stepped back and he doesn’t know what I want. Oh. I step in so I’m shoulder to shoulder with the horse, then try again. He leans his giant head toward me and walks a slow, small circle. Cool. I hand over his lead and stand back, she does the same thing. In the background, Elizabeth is pointing out that someone else is instead walking around her horse–one of the small ones. I’ve gone back to petting the tall horse’s face.
Now she says we can do a group activity with one horse. “This one?” I call out, stroking his neck. Someone is concerned that he’s an awfully big horse, but Elizabeth is already leading a small horse away.
The group of women gather around and pet the horse. Someone takes pictures. When another lady poses next to his head, I step out of frame so they can get the shot.
We do a few more activities with the horse. I feel comforted standing close to him, I think, because he is big and calm and affectionate. He feels safe to be around. I can’t get this close to a person, though I wish I could. While I lean against his giant neck, Elizabeth tells us that it’s a testament to us how compliant he’s been. She says he’s often ornery and uncooperative. She’s waited until the end to tell the story of this horse, whose name is Safari.
He was once a racehorse, she says–but he injured his leg. He couldn’t race anymore so was sent to live with a man and several other horses. She explains he didn’t do very well there; he was skittish and would run like hell every time he heard other horses behind him. I get chills down my spine and my eyes fill with tears. Me too, I tell him silently.
I am tearful again as it’s time to say goodbye. I turn my face subtly away from the people, who I imagine will find it weird for an adult woman to cry over saying goodbye to a horse she met a couple hours ago. I wipe my tears away and try to be normal.
Animals are simple. Survivors of complex trauma show up with our wounds, our attachment issues–and our very pure, very essential need for love and connection. We don’t know which humans will love us back and which ones will hurt or abandon us. We’re terrified because that’s already happened and it hurts like hell. Animals show up with an unmasked need for love and connection–and we meet each other there.