I knew there was something important for me to learn here, and didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I turned to Willow. That new starting point, the one that said she was exactly where she needs to be, and isn’t wrong for being there; the one where it’s okay for her to BE, was the hardest.
I didn’t know how to stay there. I kept bouncing back to performance of some kind.
“Sure, we can do this for now, but it has to get results.”
“I can’t just let her have her own way. I’m going to end up with a spoiled horse.” (Despite all evidence to the contrary.)
“Is she going to be a pasture pet for the rest of her life?”
“What would people think of me?”
“What kind of horse person am I, anyway?”
I had no idea this mess was so deeply ingrained inside of me. Her worth, my worth, was measured by what we did. And the painful twist to this one, was that my worth was in part measured by what I did with her. Ugh. That was ugly to me, even then.
I’d go out to the barn, and watch Willow, Halley, my older mare, and Lizzy, the young Percheron mare who was part of our family. I felt like the proverbial cow, staring at a new gate. I didn’t know how to think this way.
The part I got right, was, for a long time, to do nothing. I didn’t let myself ‘work’ with her, or do anything more than feeding, grooming, and hoof care. All my horses had beautiful manners, so that wasn’t an issue. We had set up the horse space so that their run in shed, paddock, ring, and pastures were all interconnected. I didn’t need halters for our daily interactions, and we had built a relationship where we did all the basics together at liberty.
When I opened the back screen door in the mornings, they would nicker and come running in from the pasture to the drylot, for breakfast. I moved them all around softly at liberty, and we were a herd together during these times.
It occurred to me that the quality of our relationship during feeding and horse care, was soft, sweet, and connected.
Why could we have that then, but not when I tried to DO anything with her?
It was me. I didn’t have any agenda when I went out to feed. That part somehow escaped my list of ‘shoulds’. I was happy to be with the girls. We’d created a safe, low key routine for our morning and evening meals, and it felt good. Hmm…
What if I were to spend more time in that way with them?
Besides the fact that I didn’t know what to do and would get bored at first, then go back inside feeling like a failure; it wasn’t a bad thought. I’d prop myself up on the manger after meals, and listen to them munch hay. I’d kick back in the pasture with them while they grazed, until they moved on to another spot. And I’d watch. I’d watch how they were without my input.
They lived quietly. Mostly eating, or standing peacefully together. Their energy blended in with the pasture, trees, and open sky. My energy, by contrast, was jangled, driven, and hard to be with.
I’d never noticed that before. Never noticed the constant churn I emitted. My mind was usually in multiple places at once. One part of me with the horses, another part, watching and commenting on my being with the horses, yet another part catalogued the endless list of to do’s that came with owning a farm, another part was worrying about my decaying marriage, another part was with my boys and the fears, joys, and concerns that accompany parenting, etc.
I’d had a saying my whole life that I needed to be three people to get done everything on my plate. This way of being was so deeply ingrained that I’d always prided myself in being stretched thin, like it was some attainment.
Honest admission… I still struggle with this one. Those early days simply marked the first time I’d even questioned it.
I’d seen people who were truly good with horses, and the one thing I felt in common among them was an inner stillness, a groundedness in their own being, own bodies, and own space, that allowed them to meet the horses in a way that communicated safe presence. It didn’t mean that they couldn’t get loud when needed. But it never broke their inner quiet.
I, on the other hand, could get my body to be quiet (for short bits), but didn’t have a clue how to still myself on the inside.
So I watched my small herd. I watched the cadence of their movement. I watched the subtlety of their communication. I watched the rhythm of their breathing, their chewing, their stomping and the swishing of their tails.
I had a long way to go, so I watched for months. I fed them, groomed them, spent time around them, but slowly began letting go of the idea of “doing something” with them.
The watching yielded new thoughts, a new perspective. After so many hours together, I began to know them in a way I’d not been still enough to see before. They stopped being extensions of my need, my desires, my agendas, and became complex beings in their own right. I began to read their language, and in so doing, was able to listen to the conversations they were having. I noticed what interested them, what annoyed them, what worried them, and tuned in to what they were focusing on. I was the student, immersed in a foreign county, and looking to the them to teach me.
The lead mare, Halley, would come in to the run in shed every afternoon, to stand under the fans with the older gelding, Sensei, who was bossed around by everyone. It looked like she would pin him against the wall, and stand blocking him, heads together, taking in the cross breeze from the fans. They would doze, or stand side by side noses touching, for hours.
At first, it seemed to me that he was getting bullied here, but as I watched them, I realized it was more like looking at two old friends, sitting in the shade on a bench, each receiving comfort from the others’ presence, and neither needing to speak. The communion they shared on those hot afternoons brought tears to my eyes. I had never experienced anything close to that.
I watched Willow play in the tiny pond, splashing with her front feet until she was streaked with brown mud, and then lowering herself into the shallow water to emerge like something from the Serengeti. On cooler days she would bolt up out of the water and go galloping around the pasture, mane and tail streaming, invigorated by the chill.
They had full lives completely separate from me. They didn’t see themselves as the fulfillment of my needs/dreams/desires. They belonged to themselves and lived in the moment, enjoying complex relationships with each other, and finding a cooperative peace in their small herd.
What would it look like for me to engage with that?
And the real question for me… what would it look like for me to belong to myself that way, and not bleed over into other people’s space, or take on other people’s stuff (including my horses)?