Looking outside the bathroom window of the converted barn, my eye is drawn to a horse chewing on the fence, as if it's trying to pry open the gate with its teeth. Kimberly, the owner of the rescue horse ranch I am visiting tells me "that's called 'cribbing', typical behavior for a race horse who's been confined for long periods of time. Even though we have 120 acres here, she still chews on the fence. It releases endorphins that help her calm herself." I suddenly feel like crying. That's me, I think. Huge amounts of wide-open space all around me, and I still feel confined, trapped, imprisoned in my life. Why is that? What will it take for me to realize I am free and have choices and can create the dream life I have envisioned? We hadn't even started the work with the horses and I was already discovering why I had come.
I was here to engage with the horses to see where I get in my way. As this is what I do for others in my work as a leadership trainer and coach, I thought I might as well explore my own limits through this unique horse/human collaboration and break through the boundaries holding me back from truly stepping into myself.
As the ten of us walked out onto the ranch to greet the 23 horses, many of them former thoroughbred racers saved from slaughter, my whole life pattern sprang up in front of me. Part of me felt exhausted. I just wanted to lie on the ground, smell the earth, feel the sun on my skin. But no, I was here to learn from the horses and lying on the ground wasn't mentioned in the "rules." What would the other people think of me? Not to mention I had driven an hour and a half North of San Francisco to experience a horse ranch, not waste my time lying on the ground! I had work to do!
As the other participants walked among the horses, petting them, talking to them, connecting with them, I went into the corral to see who wanted to be my friend. All the horses around me were too busy eating grass to bother with me. I went up to one horse and tried to feed it, eagerly offering some juicy grass. It turned away. Ugh, I thought, rejected by a horse! I am failing at this.
I sat on a log to regroup. And then it came to me. I'm going about this wrong. I'm trying to take something from these horses. I want their attention, their acknowledgement, their love. I decided to walk among the horses and be neutral. I reminded myself I was there to connect with nature and the animals and let go of needing to accomplish anything. Just then I heard a screech and looked up to see four hawks circling overhead. I took it as a sign from the universe that my thinking was moving in the right direction.
When I finally gave myself permission to lie on the ground, I let go of all need to DO anything and allowed myself to BE with the sun, the hawks, the horses, the land. I took it all in. And when I had released all expectation and removed all pressure from myself to somehow succeed at this task, I rose up and went to walk among the horses.
I was drawn to two horses standing under a tree apart from the herd. I climbed up the hill to join them and be in their company. As I approached them to see if they wanted to connect, they moved towards me, gently nudging their heads first into my hand, then my shoulder. As they moved closer I was a bit nervous they would trample me but then one of them, a beautiful majestic chestnut mare, bowed her head and placed it fully against my chest. I felt my heart pour open to her, and then it hit me. This horse was giving me an incredible gift in her presence and connection with me. I was not here to learn from these horses, nor were they here to teach me anything. I was simply here to be and to love and experience the incredible joy in that. When I drove home from the ranch that evening I felt lighter and more present.
The next day Kimberly emailed a photo of Casey (above), the mare I had connected with, along with a brief description of her story. The title under her photo struck me: Expression without Expectation. As I read the description of Casey's life I realized she resembled how I felt when I met her -- tired of the need to perform and prove myself, tired of worrying what others think of me, and wanting a break from it all. Here is Casey: When it came time to perform, Casey, a talented Thoroughbred who had achieved fourth level in dressage, would hang her head in the corner of her stall. Sensitive owners found her new purpose helping us help people. Now Casey shows us her gorgeous collected trot at liberty as the lead mare of our herd. Fulfillment of her right purpose will come with a riding partner who will allow Casey to express her athletic talent and beauty without expectation of victory.
Where are you gnawing at fences that no longer constrain you? Where are you not allowing yourself to surrender to laying on the earth?
Photo courtesy of www.theflagfoundation.org