One September before the pandemic, I attended a training at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California, way up north in the remote wilderness. It was an advanced immersion in Natural Lifemanship, the model of equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy I’m trained in.
NL is a neurobiology-based model about healing through connected relationships. The work teaches self-awareness, self-regulation, and sound relationship principles that strengthen bonds with animals and humans. It also helps to heal trauma in a powerful and lasting way. I am profoundly convinced: the more people learn this work, the better the world will be.
I had basically begged my way into this instantly-sold-out immersion course. I was expecting a rich and challenging four-day experience involving wild mustangs, psychology, horsemanship, campfire dinners, lava-rock meadows and California mountains. It was all that. It also brought another challenge neither I nor the NL trainers expected.
There’s an idea that life presents us with the experiences we most need for our own learning and growth. Looking back on those four days, I can accept that notion. I did learn. I did ultimately get stronger. Just not in quite the ways I’d planned.
After my cross-country flight, I drive north from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, its square russet spires disappearing into fog. On the other side, the wrinkled hills of Sausalito rise tawny-brown under brilliant sun. In the valleys to the west are banks of fog with ragged, wispy tops churning like cauldron steam, the ridgelines dotted with dark brush.
California traffic creeps along the 101, past Tamalpais, Larkspur, San Rafael, and on towards Calistoga and Napa, my layover destination for tonight. The hills grow softer and broader. On country roads now, I pass rows of Eucalyptus trees; a few horses listlessly grazing parched pastures; a couple of vineyards with their verdant, neatly strung rows.
The landscape opens outward again: arid wild-west plains; vast gradual hills; stacked zigzag fence. A row of winglike solar panels adorns a ridge. Cattle wander their barbed-wire boundaries, where they’ve trampled the ground to a rutted pulp. White barns, paint peeling, stand starkly against the earthen landscape. A roadside joint displays a vintage sign for cold beer.
In the midst of this ranch country, traffic backs up for a mile at a stop sign intersecting the larger road to Napa. Then it’s all vineyards, stretching away on both sides. Undulating rows of vines; Spanish-tile-roofed wineries in pale stucco against the pale hills.
My Napa hotel has a luxurious-looking car parked in the lobby under spotlights, its headlights shining. The spotlights, when you walk under them as you must do to reach the desk, are blinding—and the car turns out to be just a Kia.
At the rooftop bar, overlooking distant dark mountains against a faded peach sky, I eat beefy tomatoes and green beans with herby dressing, followed by an overpriced and astonishingly salty steak with a pile of buttery wild mushrooms. The steak is so salty I can barely take it, but I’m tired and hungry and I decide, downing glass after glass of water, that the only way out is through.
Two tables down, a woman also named Sarah is celebrating her birthday with a group of friends. In lieu of cake, she receives a lone birthday candle on a small white plate, balanced on a glass of honey-colored dessert wine.
Next morning, I jog on the treadmill facing a wall of glass, the sun reflecting sharply off the wet slate of the rooftop deck. A female attendant appears and begins to mop the water—first with actual mops, then white towels pushed by mops. Women with rolled yoga mats gather nearby as the attendant works. Around and around she goes with the white towels. The slate must be dried. The task seems insurmountable.
I assemble my cabin-survival food kit at the opulent Napa Whole Foods Market— where just turning left out of my parking-lot row takes a good ten minutes of waiting—and hit the road northward. Those couple of hours on the I-5 are a straight-road eternity: Vacaville, Dunnigan, Arbuckle, Williams, Corning, Red Bluff.
I pass hulling-and-shelling plants with their enormous scaffolds and tubes and conical mountain ranges of discarded nut shells; rows and rows of almond trees; livestock feed processing plants with their massive interconnected silos; the desolate Broken Box feedlot where forlorn cattle stand in grassless pens. Billboards of grinning people at card tables promise I’m headed towards fun: Win River Casino 125 miles!
Trucks reminiscent of toy-train coal cars haul mounded loads of tomatoes. Beside the road, three trailer homes hunker together in a dusty paddock shared with horses. There’s a place selling those temporary carports in two styles: tent-tunnels or tin roofs on sticks. And beyond that, a purveyor of prefab fiberglass swimming pools, the pools arrayed belly-up, their humped plasticky undersides exposed skyward.
Just south of Redding I turn off the highway in the sinking sun. Fields of wheaty grass and lava rock line the dirt road, the bitter-spice scents of pine and sage on the air. My Neil Young album rolls its long finale: harmonica and mournful guitar, a chorus of feathery voices—A natural beauty should be/ preserved like a monument / to nature—the marimbas’ cascading chimes, Young’s reedy voice—Went to the rodeo today / I saw the cowgirls lined up on the fence… Minor-key melody, twanging strum, harmonica’s rasp; the lava-rock landscape slides past. Listening and driving in this low, golden sun, I am fully alive in my skin: a moment of all things aligned.
When I arrive at the rental cabins, it’s golden hour still. My cabin sits under tall pines and just behind, down a pine-needled path, is a clear stream with its water-burble sound and leaning birch trees, the sun slanting warm on my face.
My cabin is Southwest-themed, with a Navajo bedspread, Native American dress-as-wall-hanging, and Comache book on the nightstand. It has a mini fridge which I cram full of the contents from my insulated shopping bags, plus a portable cook top and pan in which I can boil water for my morning tea. There is a gas-powered faux woodstove and a guestbook in which people have written sweet little notes. The shower stall is bus-shower-sized but the water is good and hot. There is a typed message from the owners explaining the Internet only sometimes works, and the hot water heater is strong but small-capacity so no long showers, and we believe we must protect the planet for the next generation, so please recycle in the bins provided, and if you want fresh towels, you’ll need to ask. In the note, the word “our” is repeatedly spelled “are,” and for some reason my critical editing-brain is not especially bothered. The whole setup has a human, imperfect charm, and right away I am unaccountably fond of this elusive owner-couple whom I’ll never meet, who left the key in a little lock box by the door and emailed me the code.
Immersion, Day One
The Wild Horse Sanctuary sits on 5,000 acres of protected land. Wild mustangs and burros live in freedom, each stallion with his band of mares and foals, roaming the rocky meadows and woods. The Sanctuary is run by a non-profit, public foundation that protects wildlife and land, manages the horses, organizes pack trips, and hosts educational programs on horse- and conservation-related topics. Plus they have a system for mustang adoptions. We’ve been told in advance, via email with pictures and names, that these horses we’ll be working with are also available for adoption, in case we’d like to take one home.
Sanctuary Headquarters is located ten minutes down a winding mountain road from the rental cabins, with glorious-distant-vista scenes opening with each switchback—an earthy, scrub-brush, out-west landscape under morning sun. I turn in by the rough-hewn wood sign and follow the dirt drive past a couple of rustic buildings. And just beyond is the fenced boundary of the mustangs’ range. A bunch of horses are hanging out right there on the dusty ground, by the water troughs and feeding areas—duns, bays, palominos, roans—and they don’t seem shy about coming up to the fence.
There’s a round pen with a system of chutes leading to it from the pastures, for herding horses in without having to catch them. There’s a tin-roofed outdoor kitchen with a bar counter and three battered, mismatched refrigerators (one of which turns out to have a broken freezer that has been converted to just a storage cabinet). Way down at the end, there are more small pens beside a gated chute that looks to be for loading untrained horses onto trailers, plus an actual outhouse with plank walls, a crooked door, and a tin wash basin on a folding table.
First person I see is a woman in a cowboy-ish hat and authentic-looking ranchy clothes who turns out to be Jill from the Sanctuary. She directs me where to park in the shade and gives me forms to sign (registration, liability-release, etc.). It was cold when I left my cabin this morning, but now at this lower elevation, with the sun shining, I start to strip off coat layers immediately. The forecast says high 80’s, so I’ve got my sun shirt underneath all these vests and coats and scarf/beanie, plus my sunscreen and big straw visor ready in the car.
More people start to arrive, some of whom I know from previous trainings. (Most of the group is staying at the Sanctuary’s campsite, a B-Y-O-Sleeping-Bag cabin setup with a separate shower/outhouse building that everyone scurries to in the morning cold, I gather, and a campfire area where meals are served. I’m in the offsite rental cabins because, as I mentioned, I basically begged my way into the training after the Sanctuary campsite slots had already filled.)
Our meeting place at HQ is a circle of hay bales under a broad-canopied tree. I set up in a shady spot with my tea thermos and water canteen, snack bars, notebook, pens, etc., and start to talk with some of my fellow participants, getting the lay of the land. Things I’ve found at these trainings: participants are mostly women, they are warm and thoughtful and above-averagely evolved in terms of self-reflection, and they share a priority of healing self and others. I’ve made closer insta-friendships at these trainings than anywhere else, ever, because of the nature of the people who do this, combined with the fact that the trainings themselves involve sharing vulnerabilities and supporting each other through a process of growth—which is the stuff of actual real, meaningful connection.
And so in this context of pre-program chat, I am naturally inclined to like everyone and feel optimistic about our upcoming time together. Meaning, in other words, that I don’t have my guard up at all, which in hindsight I’d characterize not exactly as a mistake.
Many of us come to this work via traumas in our own pasts. I myself am in the midst of working through a big one that happened when I was a very young teen and tormented me so deeply for twenty years that I couldn’t mention it even to a therapist—such is the weight of shame and self-blame and things too overwhelming to face.
For the NL trainers, creating a safe environment is top-of-mind. And what you find is, working with the horses in this model brings up your stuff. Your tendencies, hang-ups, fears, triggers, worries, etc. You have to confront your own stuff before you can really effectively help others. So the realizations, emotional releases, learning, healing, etc., that happen at these trainings are part of becoming a good practitioner—and of course make your life better. People brave and comfortable enough to share with the group will talk about their process during discussions, thereby often helping others who are listening. It’s generally a wonderful and profound thing.
So how this works is, we’ll be partnered and each pair of us will practice with one horse over the course of four days. The horses are various degrees of wild: some have never been touched by a human; others have maybe been petted or have sniffed people’s hands. But they are all, in the terminology of old-school horse talk, “unbroke.” Each day, the horses get herded into those little pens back by the trailer-loading chute—which herding operation I never get to see but evidently involves sending them into the general area together and then sorting them, via the gestures and body language horse people use, into the various pens and strategically closing gates until there’s one horse per enclosure.
The partners, then, will take turns working with the horse. The person outside the pen practices facilitating the work by helping/supporting the person who’s in there. This way, we hone our skills directly with the horse and also practice the role of seeing clients in-session. (As you can imagine, these two modes are related but different areas of expertise.)
Our group includes four warm and lively and clearly super-smart women from a South Carolina equine therapy organization. One of them has sleek black equestrian garb with the edges of complicated full-color tattoos visible at her neck and arms, plus a stylish black Australian-type hat and a honey-and-gravel drawl that makes me adore her immediately. Another, less boldly dressed, has just lost her house to the Hurricane-Florence-induced floods and is facing her highly uncertain situation with a calm resignation/determination/optimism combo that qualifies as actually inspiring. These four women are ultra-supportive of each other and laugh a lot and have attended several NL trainings together. I feel good around them and the vibe they have going on.
There’s a heavily-made-up California woman with cascading blond hair-sprayed waves and fashion-cowgirl clothes you know have never seen actual ranch work. There’s a smooth-faced, lovely young woman who wears a very broken-in pair of fringe-tongued western laced paddock boots and is studying to be a life coach. There’s a darkly witty therapist from the East Coast. Two slender and wiry Belgian women have traveled farther than any of us; they speak with Flemish-tinged French accents, rolling their soft French r’s but clipping their th-sounds into thudding Dutch d’s: “We work togedder,” “dee udder day,” “I would radder…”
I know two of the instructors already but I’m just now meeting Tim Jobe, co-founder of NL, for the first time. His look is classic flinty-eyed cowboy: peaked black hat, grey horseshoe moustache, prize belt buckle, that particular way of squinting into distance; but then his whole face softens with a warm, full smile that puts you right away at ease. He is deliberate in speech and movement and will say, in this soft, measured voice, many seriously insightful things. He also likes to kid around in a deadpan tone and then break into a grin. In this family, I’ve learned, twinkly-eyed mini-fake-insults are signs of friendship, a way of complimenting via jokey opposite statement. I find it really welcoming and sweet.
(I say family because the NL founders, Tim and Bettina, are married, and Tim’s son and daughter are instructors. Their family culture pervades the group such that other instructors also adopt their style of chummy teasing, and it lightens the mood.)
Natural Lifemanship 101: No matter the task or activity, connection is always the goal.
At other trainings, the instructors have paired people they think will work productively together. This time around, the S. Carolina ladies and Belgian duo are already planning to work together, and then before the instructors can assign the rest of us, there’s this scrambly partner-grab moment, in which people sort of pounce on someone near them and call dibs—and for which scuffle I turn out to be non-strategically seated near the end, next to women who’d pre-paired. And so it all catches me by surprise and I find that I, marooned way over here, am left to partner with the lone guy of the group, a paunchy retirement-age person with whom I haven’t yet spoken at all and about whom I have no particular opinion. But the whole weird scrambly episode and the sad, mildly humiliating vibe of last-kid-picked-at-kickball or you-lost-at-musical-chairs gives me a jolt of misgiving. My prevailing sense of optimism overrides that feeling, though, mostly—and I smile at this man and someone jokes that I’d better watch out for him.
On our get-to-know-each-other stroll, my partner and I—let’s call him Jack—trade some biographical details and relevant experiences. We’ve both had traumatic-injury episodes, and he presents his with a whiff of one-upmanship. (Oh, you think your horse accident was bad? Try falling out of the sky in a helicopter…) I bristle at the tone, but I feel for him. He’s been through tough stuff. His angular eyeglasses have a way of glinting in the light and momentarily obscuring his eyes. He smiles with a mixture of friendliness and something else I haven’t quite decoded.
During group intros he said he works with veterans with PTSD and military sexual trauma, and so I’ve made certain assumptions about him, in terms of priorities and empathy and awareness, that turn out to be wrong. Soon his views on women begin to come out: for starters, women are sentimental and nonserious (I’m paraphrasing here), in contrast to “my men,” who “are warriors,” he tells me. I push back in a jokey way, hoping he didn’t really mean it, as my mental alarm begins to chime.
It’s time to go out back and meet the horses in their pens, in advance of choosing which one we’d like to work with. The portal to this multi-pen area is a narrow metal bow gate (cross bar over top, slide-arm mechanism that allows you to move the latch from horseback) with an extra security catch that Sanctuary protocol requires us to always fasten. Inside, the horses stand in their small dirt enclosures, each with a bucket of water, eyeing us. The sun is high now and hot, and back here there’s not much shade.
Other partners are starting to interact with various horses through the metal-rail fences. Jack and I approach a flaxen-maned sorrel filly. I’m assuming we’ll try to collaborate; but right away, Jack tries to order me around. I’m still in a collaboration-type mindset and it takes me a moment to register what’s up. I’ve never encountered this attitude in a fellow NL trainee before: he’s working, it seems, from an immediate and reflexive assumption that I don’t know what I’m doing and he’s the expert. And the directives he aims at me bear no resemblance to the NL approach.
I will say, this is a scenario I’ve faced at times in other contexts—the horse world and academia, for example. It’s something many women face, though not only women: the assumption that we can’t possibly be as smart or competent as the men in the room. Patriarchy is still going strong in an awful lot of places. It does put me in a bind. I’ve often found it doesn’t work very well to try to tell someone you’re not as amateurish or clueless as they assume; better to let them notice eventually on their own. But a certain kind of person both cannot be told and refuses to ever notice.
My heart is sort of sinking. I try a brush-off-Jack’s-orders-but-stay-friendly strategy, while I figure out my plan. As a former shy person I still have this tendency to hang back and assess a potentially thorny situation before I jump in and say stuff. And there’s another layer: the stress of seeing what’s unfolding, even just a subtle, nascent kind of stress, makes it harder to function at my best.
What Jack seems to want to do, for now, is to stand by the edge of the pen in his horse-whisperer pose and send magical come-hither vibes psychically to the horse until she walks over and demonstrates her uncanny immediate trust of him by letting him touch her all over. Which latter part of course doesn’t happen, though, and I get impatient.
Natural Lifemanship 101: Connection is predicated on a request. In other words, you can’t expect someone / a horse to read your mind and just automatically form this great bond with you. You need to make appropriate requests and then have a back-and-forth exchange that builds connection.
Watching Jack not apply this idea with the horse, I consider how I might apply it with him. This seems to be my challenge: how to connect with someone I find difficult.
Eventually I tell Jack I’d like to visit some of the other horses, and he agrees to that. In all there are two little fine-limbed sorrel yearling mares that seem sweet; a bay mare, paint mare, and bigger bay gelding that all snort at you hypervigilantly from across the pen; and another bay gelding that wants to lean on you and push you around. One of the snorters is curious enough to walk toward us, while the others just keep pivoting defensively to keep us squarely in sight.
“Most people,” says this book I’m reading,
“are so completely identified with the voice in the head—the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it—that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind. We call it egoic because there is a sense of self, of I (ego), in every thought—every memory, every interpretation, opinion, viewpoint, reaction, emotion. This is unconsciousness, spiritually speaking.”
The book is A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. I read these kinds of things often—about awareness, presence, meditation, spiritual practice—and Tolle’s book turns out to be a good one to have on this trip. He explores the idea of ego vs. awareness, with ego being the driving force of all kinds of dysfunctional behavior: a false sense of self that relies on separateness and comparison. (Me vs. You / Us vs. Them / Am I better or worse than you? / How can I get ahead of you? / How can I make myself feel superior to you?). We will never find peace in all this maneuvering.
But in order to become Conscious—to touch into the vast reservoir of contentment that is always already here, inside us—we only need to begin to notice, without judgment. To notice our own reactivity, our stream of thoughts and emotions.
Just sit with that for a moment: notice your own stream of thoughts and emotions. Notice your internal physical sensations. Notice sounds around you, the rise and fall of your breath, the feeling of your clothes on your skin. This is mindfulness practice.
The awareness that notices is our essential Being. When we rest in awareness, our happiness no longer depends on external things being a certain way.
And, says Tolle, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.”
Strategic questioning reveals that Jack has not attended one of the crucial prerequisite trainings. He must have slipped in by administrative oversight. He doesn’t seem to know there are specific prerequisites and that he’s missing them, and I don’t bring this information to his attention.
At lunchtime, the Sanctuary crew sets out cold cuts and salad stuff on the outdoor kitchen’s bar counter. Given my particular food-related needs and desires, I’ve brought my own lunch, which I retrieve from the fridge, dodging the Sanctuary ladies who are busy behind the bar. The eating area is a hodgepodge of picnic tables (classic rectangular wood; round plastic w/ attached benches; folding table w/ chairs), some shaded by trees and others by a small tent, arrayed alongside the driveway near some low, tangly woods.
The Californian and I have both brought bottles of fizzy Kombucha to drink. Jack and two other women join our table. Flies buzz at our food. Conversation turns, lamentably, to politics. Jack doesn’t share the views of the woman who introduced the topic, and he’s eager to correct her. I won’t bore you with details of this kind of contentious discussion that plays out ad-nauseum. I bisect my avocado with a plastic knife and scoop the flesh onto my salad. For each bite, I fork-spear a combo of avocado, vinegary beet and goat cheese, observing the trio of colors and flavors. Across the way, wild horses are lazing around in their herd under baking sun, against a backdrop of terra-cotta ground and sage-colored mountains.
Eventually, in what feels like a calm tone, I describe the personal experiences a couple of people I know have had with the politician in question.
Jack’s vexation seems to be rising. Partway into dismissing what I’ve said, he stops mid-sentence and barks at me, apropos of nothing, “Never forget the primary purpose of the military is to blow things up and kill people.” This seems like a very bad omen indeed.
I ask him what he’s referring to and he fumbles around and mutters that he’d forgotten some other conversation he was having wasn’t with me but a different woman. (It really must be confusing for him; there are so many of us here, and more than one of us seem to believe that women should be treated as men’s equals.)
Jack represents a certain sub-genus of man identified by Rebecca Solnit in her brilliant essay “Men Explain Things To Me.” Here’s some noticing of my stream of thoughts and emotions: I have an exceedingly low tolerance for this sub-genus, Men Who Explain Things To Women. I regard them with a mixture of resentment and disgust. One of their hallmark characteristics is that they appoint themselves expert in any conversation, even when the subject is a matter of opinion, or, worse, when they don’t actually know stuff and the female explainee does. Not all men act like this, of course. It’s just this sub-genus we’re talking about. They bluster and interrupt and condescend.
And then to further elucidate the conflict here, in terms of my side of the equation: I subscribe to Instagram accounts like risingwoman and feministabulous; I wear tee shirts that say “This is what a feminist looks like,” and “Girls just wanna have fundamental rights.” As a child and teenager, I was trapped in a relationship with a male coach who abused me. (So, beneath the aforementioned resentment and disgust is probably fear.) I was a shy kid, and for years, well into adulthood, I didn’t know how to speak up for myself effectively. Faced with a bullying person, I’d panic and freeze. And if I did try to speak, my dysregulated state got in the way. It was hard to find my voice.
What happens with trauma—and now I know I’m not alone—is when your fight/flight/freeze response gets triggered, your survival-focused lower brain takes over and amps up your physiology in alarm. At that point you don’t have access to your higher brain regions, the ones that would help you stay calm in the face of conflict or distress. For effective communication, your whole brain needs to work together. When that’s not happening, you come across as too weak or too forceful; you collapse or fight; you can’t find the words, or you say the right words but they somehow aren’t received the way you meant.
Natural Lifemanship 101: Agitation is perceived as increased pressure. Increased pressure, in other words, feels to the recipient like aggression. You might have no aggressive intentions whatsoever, but if you’re experiencing anxiety, fear, tension, distress, or any similar nervous-system dysregulation, it’ll be hard to communicate with others. A horse will tell you right away if you’re projecting this kind of energy. People who’ve experienced trauma often struggle with this, interpersonally. And it can happen to anyone: you’re stressed or worried, and those around you feel it and react in subtle or obvious ways.
Years of Somatic Experiencing therapy, along with my meditation practice, helped me learn to notice when my freeze response was getting triggered; self-regulate in the situation; and use my voice more effectively. And the NL work has deepened my healing and understanding.
But as you might imagine, the sub-genus MWETTW, who by definition wants to diminish and silence the female explainee, is one of the most challenging types of humans for me to encounter. I’ve gotten better at interacting with them, mainly by deploying a jovial-sparring tone. In small doses, I can manage myself around them. But trapped for four days in a close, working relationship in which we’re supposed to share vulnerability and support each other? I feel my walls going up: my creeping lack of trust in Jack’s intentions.
I’m trying to keep my mind open; use this as a chance to practice.
There’s one piece of advice from both NL and Tolle that I will hold close: Don’t take his behavior personally. No matter what else happens, Jack is giving me a chance to practice that.
Post-lunch, our group reconvenes at the hay-bales-under-tree area. The instructors have decided to try an experiment, which is to leave us alone to decide, by consensus meeting, which pairs will work with which horses. We circle up and share our top choices, with someone acting as scribe. Then we negotiate until each pair has a horse that was at least somewhere on their list. Jack leans nonchalantly against a hay bale and points out repeatedly that he’s fine with any of the horses. Eventually the Californian shoots back a sharp retort to his sub-commentary, which seems to be that all this caring-about-which-horse is rather foolish and weak. Other than that exchange, everyone is remarkably calm and kind and forthcoming, and it doesn’t take long to sort out a plan.
Jack and I end up with one of the sweet sorrels, per my firm request. I’m determined to learn here, and since dealing with my partner is taking a lot of mental energy, I know I won’t have the bandwidth to manage chaotic horse behavior. I don’t like that this is true; I’d rather be the tough-horsewoman-who-can-handle-anything version of myself. But that’s not where I am in this moment. In fact, as alluded to above, I’m right in the middle of a series of EMDR sessions—a type of therapy that uses bilateral sensory input to unlock and process trauma in the nervous system. (Talk therapy, by the way, doesn’t cure trauma, because talk therapy interacts with our neocortex—our thinking brain—and trauma lives much deeper in the nervous system.) And the particular thing I’m working through right now is that I was molested by the abusive coach.
In order to process and heal something through EMDR, you have to face it. I’m mid-stream in the work, and the memories are raw. I feel better than I have in twenty-two years, finally; I feel hope, and relief… but looking out for myself right now is crucial, my most important job. In other words, I need to practice self-care, not heroics.
Jack stands up from his hay bale and swats at the hay clinging to the back of his shirt. “Will you get this off?” he says to me, catching me off-guard. The thought of touching his body, even in this minor way, repels me. But I don’t know how to refuse, and while I swipe at the hay as quickly and non-body-touchingly as possible, I feel myself mildly dissociate, as if I’m not fully here inside my skin. My internal voice scolds: Why can’t you speak up for yourself? Then the new voice I’ve cultivated: It’s okay, you’re working on it, I forgive you.
It’s not that being asked to touch the fleshy, sweaty, polo-shirted back of a man who makes you uncomfortable is the very worst thing that could happen; it’s that an event such as this can be triggering for someone who’s experienced trauma of the inappropriate-touch variety.
Natural Lifemanship 101: It’s the other one in the relationship who gets to decide if what you’re doing feels safe, not you. The absence of a “no” is not a “yes.” And also: touch is vital to connection, but touch is only appropriate when a genuine connection exists, such that both parties are comfortable. Touch without connection can lead to a lot of problems.
Our mare, Jazz, is a flaxen-maned sweetie. She doesn’t know what to do with humans but shows no signs of meanness, either. Before I climb into her pen, I interact with her through the fence, as we’ve learned. Just our presence in the pen will feel like a whole lot of pressure to these wild horses, so we’d best make sure they’re comfortable with us entering.
What this cross-fence interaction consists of is a conversation via pressure and release, which is the essential language of NL. Namely, you apply pressure by directing energy—focus, gestures, sounds—toward a particular part of the horse’s body. This is how you make a request. In this case, when I apply pressure toward her hindquarters, I’m asking her to step her hindquarters away and turn her head towards me, maybe take a step in my direction. When she tries a right answer, I release the pressure, telling her, yes, that’s what I’m asking.
And so Jazz and I have this conversation and begin to get used to each other. Then I hoist myself onto the lower rails of the fence, and she stiffens; I wait until she relaxes, then I step down: release. I repeat the partial fence-climbing until she stays calm all the way—telling me, okay, I’m not worried about you now—and then I’m up and over and standing in there with her.
She’s not upset, per se, but she’s aware. I take a few slow, relaxing breaths and then begin asking her to connect and come towards me. She walks around the pen on her fine-boned legs and tiny hooves, trying to figure this out.
The sun is seriously hot, and our pen is shadeless. The work takes concentration and patience, especially when the horse is searching for an answer and trying a bunch of “wrong” ones. That’s also known as resistance, and it’s not necessarily bad. The horse is engaged with you, trying to understand and respond. And the crucial, challenging thing during resistance is this: you need to keep the pressure the same. Meaning don’t escalate, don’t get annoyed, don’t weaken and release at the wrong time. Just wait and let the horse begin to think and find the answer.
Any Horse Training 101: When you release the pressure, you’re rewarding whatever the horse just did.
Natural Lifemanship 101: Ibid. Plus, if you use too much pressure, you push the horse down into her survival brain. From there, she’ll either fight or try to escape or become robotically compliant. Compliance and cooperation are not the same. You don’t want to take away the horse’s sense of choice. You want the horse to willingly choose to do the right thing.
So when Jazz walks around, as long as she’s aware and responding to me, I don’t want to raise the pressure. I keep the pressure the same, aimed at her hindquarters, and wait for her to look my way. When she does, I step back: release. And once we’ve done this a few times, I ask a little more. I want her to take a step towards me before I release. She’s still not sure of our relationship, but we’re starting to communicate. By the session’s end, she’ll walk over to me and stand nearby and chill out—deep breaths, yawns; she’s getting comfortable. I climb out of the pen feeling tired and sun-baked and optimistic.
Jack and I say a few innocuous words to each other, acknowledging the changing of roles, and I retreat to a small spot of shade a short distance away from our pen. My hiking shoes and ankles, below the hem of my wildly patterned yoga pants, are coated with red dust. My sun shirt clings to my skin. The water in my insulated canteen, at least, is cool.
Jack climbs heavily into the pen. His method, it seems, is to creep up on the mare and try to put his hands on her. She’s sweet enough to tolerate him somewhat, but the sequence goes like this: she flinches, he touches her anyway, she lets him scratch her for a moment, then walks away. Touch without connection. She’s too kind to give him a piece of her mind, but the flinching and leaving are signals. I watch Jack from my slice of shade, hoping the instructors are noticing.
Near day’s end, the female instructor offers Jack some guidance, and he immediately contradicts her.
We all gather sweatily, seeking shade, at the hay-bales circle for Day 1 wrap-up, and then I follow Tim and his son Tanner in their rented truck up to the Sanctuary campsite, where dinner will be served. We’re circumnavigating the preserve by road, and it takes a while. Finally we stop by a chained roadside gate that must be opened manually and leads to a two-track dirt path. Soon I’m driving my rented Mercedes crossover through a small stream, almost bottoming out, and laughing while I photograph out my windshield into plumes of dust.
The campsite is full old-west, with split-log fence and plank cabins, a central kitchen building with tin coffee cups on the washboard and a dinner bell on the porch. A herd of horses gathers at the log fence, which is low and really only for looks, someone mentions; they can come into the campsite if they want. There are a couple of colts with this band, including a feisty palomino who keeps instigating play-fights and play-chases with the others. The Sanctuary rep tells us one of the stallions has been sick and this other one, Antonio Banderas, has stolen some of his mares.
There’s a cooler of cold beers. I pry one open and sit on the porch with Tanner and Tim in the setting sun, trading horse stories, while the onsite campers go for showers. All truly horse-crazy horsemen have this in common: that one horse (or maybe two) who you can’t stop thinking about, who has human-level status in your life history, who your spouse knows he/she can’t compete with for that particular piece of your heart. Tim’s was the mare all his current horses are descended from. He tells a story about riding her, on a bet, into and through a military helicopter with the blades spinning. It would seem like fanciful boasting except the central point is one I also know: the things a horse, that special horse, was willing to do for you—if you know that feeling, it can make you cry just thinking about it. True connection moves us like nothing else. It’s what Tolle describes as “the simple yet profound joy of connectedness of being.”
Trainees emerge, freshly showered, and some join the conversation. The Sanctuary crew serves buffet dinner. I heap my plate with salad and grilled chicken and gluten-free pasta and find a seat on one of the knobby logs by the campfire. This close circle of women bundled in sweaters and blankets, faces soft in the fire-glow, is a place of comfort. I talk with my companions well into the evening dark. Off to the side, Tim and Jack are engaged in their own conversation.
Before sleep, I meditate and read. Tolle says,
“It is not easy at first to be there as the witnessing presence, especially when the ego is in survival mode or some emotional pattern from the past has become activated, but once you have had a taste of it, you will grow in Presence power, and the ego will lose its grip on you. And so a power comes into your life that is far greater than the ego, greater than the mind. All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. That is why we may also call it Presence… And this is also why becoming free of the ego cannot be made into a goal to be attained at some point in the future. Only Presence can free you of the ego, and you can only be present Now, not yesterday or tomorrow.”
When you strip away ego concerns, he writes, “What remains is the light of consciousness in which perceptions, experiences, thoughts, and feelings come and go. That is Being, that is the deeper, true I. When I know myself as that, whatever happens in my life is no longer of absolute but only of relative importance. I honor it, but it loses its seriousness, its heaviness.”
What’s on my mind is the worry about my partner and what will be expected of me. I notice some old patterns arising: wanting to please others, wanting to excel at the assignment, not wanting to make waves, hesitating to express my needs. I practice observing these things without being swept up in them, but instead feeling grounded in my body, lying here in this cabin in the woods, under this heavy Navajo bedspread, sensing the rhythm of my breath.
I fall asleep with exhaustion, excitement, and trepidation overlaid with this sense of peacefulness—the calm of coming back to the present moment, of simply holding space for whatever arises.
Continue to part two of the story here.
Feature photo by Tanner Jobe