Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, Part 2

Apr 18, 2021 | Horses, Travel

Immersion, Day Two

1.

After morning yoga by the woodstove, I arrive at the Sanctuary semi-rested, tea thermos in hand. A group has gathered by the big round pen that connects to the mustangs’ range. There is about to be a ceremonial release of a horse they’ve decided, after much work, is just not cut out for human interaction. Some of the NL participants know this horse from last year’s training here, and they want to watch his reunion with the herd. The gate is opened. He darts away in a choppy, high-headed canter. He and the others come together with some head-tossing play, then everyone settles down to pick at the scattered hay.

As I walk back toward the meeting circle, Jack veers in my direction so I can’t escape walking with him, short of an obvious snub.

“So what’s our goal with Jazz today?” he says.

“Connection,” I say.

“I’m gonna scratch her belly,” he tells me.

“Has she given you an indication that she’s ready for that?” I ask him.

“Oh, I’m lookin for it,” he says defiantly.

Before discussion begins I seek out the female instructor—let’s call her Alice—who I know from a previous training. We step aside from the group and I share my worries about my partnership with Jack. I mention the trauma I’m in the midst of working through (which actually she knows a little about already, from previous communication). I’m wondering if she thinks I should say something to Jack to try to shift the dynamic. I know I need to use my voice somehow, either to speak up with Jack or tell the instructors I’m just not comfortable trying to get closer to him.

Alice is a therapist who helps a lot of clients with sexual trauma, and in this moment she is exactly the steadfast ally I need.

She tells me the instructors have observed the Jack situation, both in the round pen and elsewhere. They noticed, of course, that he’s not using the NL model. Plus apparently there was a drama in the lunch line yesterday in which his misogynistic comments rattled people, herself included, truth be told. (This incident must have been the source of his aggressive “blow things up and kill people” remark to me.) But so in other words, if I don’t feel safe connecting with him, it’s okay. She is very clear on this point and wants me to know she’s got my back.

As I listen to her speak, waves of emotion break over me. At crucial times in my life, there was nobody there to protect me, and so to have Alice protecting me now brings up relief and sadness together, and I well up with tears.

Alice says she thought of trying to bring in another horse so I could work separately, but that would attract attention to my situation—and she also wants to protect my privacy. So their plan is to have one of the two male instructors stationed at our pen at all times, to give me the kind of support I won’t be getting from Jack, and to try to teach him the NL model. And I don’t have to stay when Jack’s in the pen; if I need a break to take a walk, just let her know and she’ll go with me.

She asks if I’m okay with this arrangement. And she’s truly asking me—as in, she truly wants me to feel safe answering either way. (Here it is, NL 101: she doesn’t want to take away my sense of choice; she’s being careful not to push me further into my survival brain.) I say yes, let’s try it.

I take a slow walk down the driveway to compose myself, turning my face up to the morning sun. The reality is sinking in—I am indeed in my most triggering situation: stuck in a working relationship with someone who doesn’t feel safe. But it’s temporary, I remind myself. And I have an out, if I choose to take it. Alice will help me. Plus, I’m an adult now, and I’ve chosen to be here. I’m not in actual danger. But my nervous system doesn’t know that—such is the nature of trauma, and being triggered. It’s often not actual danger that triggers us but rather something that reminds us.

I feel like an animal that needs to shake its skin. The buzz of activation hums in my nervous system: the body in fight-or-flight. If we’re stuck this way long-term, it wreaks havoc on our health—something I’ve experienced in multiple forms, from chronic and debilitating pain to internal-medicine-type emergencies. So I’ve changed how I live and care for myself, and I’ve learned some things. Like, settling my system is priority number one, before I dive into any task. And I’ve learned to observe the sensations in my body, how they shift in subtle ways, and then I don’t feel so stuck. The buzz moves through my torso and throat. I haven’t felt this way in a long time, but I know the feeling well. I breathe and try to shake it out through my hands, feel my feet grounded on the earth.

Photo: Tanner Jobe

2.

Today’s group discussion topic is Flight Zones. I’m sitting next to Lucy, let’s call her—of the fringe-tongued boots and life-coach training—at the HQ hay bales. I’ve lost my pen, and Lucy and I are passing hers back and forth, for alternate notetaking.

You could conceptualize the horse’s flight zone as her personal space. You learn where her particular flight zone is by approaching her; when you approach her flight zone, she moves. It could be a large area around her, or something much smaller-scale, as when a horse is head-shy about having her ears touched, for example.

The analogous idea in psychology (though inversely analogous) is the Window of Tolerance. This is the zone in which we can stay relatively calm and regulated—our safe zone, more or less. If we blow past our Window of Tolerance, we get overloaded and can’t learn. On the other hand, if we always stay inside our Window, we won’t learn either. What a good therapist knows, and what we can strive to understand for ourselves, is how to work at the edges of our Window of Tolerance, in order to expand it. It’s at the edges of this window where support is most valuable. At the edges, where our current capacity meets greater challenges, the right guidance helps us grow—and heal.

In the education world, this is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: the space between what we can already do, alone, and what’s currently way too hard for us; the sweet spot of what we can learn to do, with support in the process.

Natural Lifemanship 101: Working appropriately at the edges of the horse’s Flight Zone builds connection and trust and therefore safety. We need to understand the difference between working at these edges and blowing past them, as happens when trainers desensitize horses. They’re teaching the horses to dissociate, or check out. It requires “a high level of attunement with self and the other” to find the edges of the Flight Zone and work with them effectively.

And as you might imagine, this is hard to do well. It takes practice.

Which brings Tim to this other, related point that’s near to my heart…

Natural Lifemanship 101: We need to trust in our ability to repair, rather than trying to be perfect. Fear of mistakes hinders us; trust in the possibility of repair helps us. A relationship that can’t survive imperfection is not a worthwhile relationship. And horses need to experience repair, too, just like people.

Despite our best intentions, Tim says, we will do things that damage the relationship in small ways. So don’t worry about that. Actually, we need to make those mistakes in order to create resilience. “Like those micro-tears when you exercise muscles,” he tells us, “you need those moments of small damage and disconnection in order to build more strength in the relationship.” The key is to trust in your ability to repair.

I write all this down in my little NL plastic notebook, while the sun climbs and leafy shade moves across us, in our hay-bales circle. The bales are solid and bristly benches. I learned early in life, and most potently via one particular abusive episode from the aforementioned coach, that mistakes were unforgiveable. And so even though I’ve revised that view, Tim’s reminder reassures me about where I am. Not just, Mistakes are okay, but, Mistakes are necessary.

One of the mares our group worked with (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

Wild burros at the Sanctuary (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

3.

And yet, there’s still Jack. Intel from yesterday’s lunch line reveals what Jack’s heated “blow things up and kill people” nonsequitor was referring to. The lunch-line conversation in question was about women in the military. And Jack allegedly said some hair-curlingly disturbing things—namely, “Any woman who goes into the military is asking to get raped,” and, “The men get frustrated and angry and they have to do something.”

Yes, you read that right.

This man is my partner.

And now my mind is also spinning with the thought of how much damage he could be doing if he’s working with women who have sexual trauma from military service, as he told us at the outset.

In other words, Alice’s assurance that I do not need to connect with Jack was both wise and protective. I don’t believe it’s always bad to try to find human connection with someone who expresses destructive views. I actually think it can be key to making progress, bridging the gap in awareness, in political disagreements, in simple differences of opinion, etc.: finding human connection where you can, rather than just writing people off. But right now, in this setting, and given what I’ve been working through—not my job.

Earlier, Tim told the group something one of his supervisors said: “You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.” And, Tim said, you don’t have to connect with every relationship you’re invited into. His glance in my direction felt meaningful. “Not everyone is safe to connect with,” he reminded us.

4.

I ask Jack to go first with the mare today. I need a little longer to settle my system.

Natural Lifemanship 101: Mindfulness and regulation exercises are critical before entering the round pen. If we’re not in a regulated state, we won’t feel like a safe person for the horse to connect with. We’re often not aware that we’re dysregulated, or we don’t know how to settle ourselves, and then we wonder why a horse (or person) reacts to us the way they do.

I linger by the hay bales, drinking my tea and eating an apple. I can see from a distance that Tim, in his cowboy hat, is stationed at Jack’s (our) pen. I take another slow walk—the jangly feeling is starting to soften—then finally I approach the gate, breathe deeply, and enter the enclosure.

The other partners are in the thick of it, each pair with one partner outside the pen, watching intently, encouraging, practicing facilitator-type feedback, while the other engages the horse in this deliberate, sensitive interaction. Ask, wait, release. I move here; I watch what you do; let’s see if we can communicate. They’re building attunement, finding the flight zones, absorbed in this super-difficult, whole-brain endeavor of intense self-awareness plus fine-tuned attention on the other. What it looks like, specifically, is different in each pen. The people with the hypervigilant horses are just trying to be in the pen without the horse panicking. The ones with the quieter horses are walking around, trying to ask the horses to approach them.

Jack is in the pen with our mare, pursuing her, heavy-footed, at close range. Tim is guiding him to give her some space. When Jack creeps up and tries to touch her, Tim draws his attention to the signals she gives, as to whether she’s comfortable and connected or checked out. She’s tranquil by nature, but you can see her eye worrying or going blank, her neck stiffening, her walk quickening. Jack backs off temporarily when Tim tells him to, but the message isn’t really getting through. He keeps grabbing at the mare, even when her body language says “no.”

Tim begins to say some very pointed things, in a stern voice. Eg: “When she’s uncomfortable and you touch her anyway, you are violating her.” Jack receives this with a wooden-faced grimace and halts his slow stagger for only a moment, before continuing on.

Tim sticks with him, a marvel of calm even as he raises the pressure—firm directives, in this case—to get Jack’s attention. And when Tim is monitoring him I do see Jack trying to listen. Which makes me hopeful until Tim is pulled away to a dilemma at another pen, and Jack reverts to stalker mode. He pins Jazz into the corner and puts his hands on her. She rears and swings her head up and over him to escape.

And seeing his utter disregard for her distress, I get another wave of that heart-racing, prickly buzz that traps my breath in my throat.

I go to Alice and catch her eye, and when she sees my face, she says, “Wanna take a walk?”

Jack yells to me to come back—though he doesn’t use my name and at first I don’t realize he’s addressing me. “Are you calling to me?” I say. “Yes, come back!” he says, beckoning with his whole arm. “I’ll be back in a little bit,” I tell him, “but if you’re done for now, just go ahead and take a break.” Maybe he’s starting to wonder why I won’t engage with him more.

Alice and I hurtle through the gate; we share this urge to get away. We’re both striding along, venting this bottled up fury at Jack. Way down by the Sanctuary entrance we stop in the shade and talk a while, sympathizing, bonding, calming down. She’s let down her Instructor-role barrier and is just being a fellow human, connecting with me. I’m thankful for this. It’s what I need most.

We return to the group just as lunch is announced, and I’m feeling revived. I eat with the S. Carolina ladies, all of us crammed around the small round table. When they ask me how it’s going, I don’t hesitate to tell them the truth. They show me their secret feminist hand signal, a gesture of strength and solidarity that begins at the heart. We talk about serious stuff and then we get laughing, and by meal’s end, we’re natural friends.

5.

I start with Jazz in the afternoon. Tim is with us again, and I ask him questions as I work. Jazz remembers what we did yesterday, and soon she’ll come and stand by me. I feel energized, calm, ready for challenge. After Jazz’s morning experiences, I’m being ultra-careful not to touch her unless she gives me a definite yes: a move toward my uplifted hand, a relaxation of the eye. But touching her is not my goal right now; connection is.

I work on asking her to follow me. She’ll come a few steps, then drift away, and so I ask again. After a while, we have a nice long stretch of it, walking around the pen together, until she drifts away once more.

Jack is right there at the fence. “When you lose it, it’s hard to get it back, isn’t it?” he says happily.

“It can be, but it’s no big deal,” I tell him. “It’s all part of the process.” And I’m pleased to feel that I’m actually unbothered. I watch Jazz walk—those slender legs, her bright sorrel coat, expressive eye, the furry cup of her ear pivoting toward me—my mind is on her.

We’re getting better; she follows me more, and longer. I change direction; she comes with me. It’s a sweet, companionable feeling. And it’s exciting: this is working, I can do it. I hear Tim explaining things to Jack, using what I’m doing as a positive example. And I’m so far removed from caring what Jack thinks that I don’t even feel triumphant; more like supported and protected.

I’m exhausted from all this intense focus and energy-control, but I climb the fence with a spring in my step, and Tim is grinning and congratulating me in this warm, genuine, joyful way. He offers me a bear hug, which I gladly accept. And just like that, my day has turned good.

6.

Tolle writes,

“At times you have to take practical steps to protect yourself from deeply unconscious people. This you can do without making them into enemies. Your greatest protection, however, is being conscious. Someone becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Nonreaction is not weakness but strength. Another word for nonreaction is forgiveness.”

So it’s my intention to practice this: nonreaction, forgiveness. “When you realize it’s not personal,” Tolle writes, “there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were.” It’s an empowering idea, and something I’ve been working on for a while. People have all kinds of stuff going on inside them, and their actions, even when directed at you, are not necessarily about you. Jack’s egoic maneuvering is not about me at all.

As Tim says, “It’s damaging to own stuff that’s not yours in a relationship, and it’s damaging to project what’s yours onto the other person. If we project our stuff onto the other, then we’re saying we don’t have to do anything to change. We want the other person to fix it all.”

And in the current situation, my own stuff to manage is this:

  • my self-regulation—understanding what triggers me and how to care for myself, including having healthy boundaries
  • my responses—what I say and do toward Jack and others; practicing nonreaction
  • my thoughts—I can blame others and stir up my own resentment, or I can accept what’s already here and make the best of it.
  • my own ego-vs.-awareness evolution—I can watch for signs of egoic patterns in myself, eg. getting personally offended, feeling inferior or superior, trying to prove myself right; and I can step aside from those kinds of concerns.

I don’t want to argue with Jack about what to do in the round pen. And given the healing journey I’ve been on, proving myself right feels like a trivial concern. I just want to stick to my path of learning. I have to find the support I need elsewhere. And that isn’t the end of the world.

7.

Alice and another NL staffer are also staying at the rental cabins. Pre-dinner, I bring over some cheese and crackers, they pour a round of wine, and we sit out by the stream in the evening sun. The pines tower overhead and their needles carpet the ground under our chairs. I could use a nap, but this, for now, is better.

The Californian is staying here, too, as is the East Coast therapist, and we all car-pool up to the campsite. For dinner, I end up wedged on a bench at the big indoor table with my S. Carolina friends, eating steak and beans and discussing their work, and spirituality, and horses we love.

We adjourn to the campfire and gape at the stars. For some reason there’s a debate going on about how to say “gelding” in Dutch. And between the two Belgians, one Dutch-expat Sanctuary volunteer, and one person of Dutch descent, nobody actually knows. Finally I go for my phone and text Nancy, the multilingual, encyclopedic manager of my farm back home, who settles the question immediately. (It’s ruin, pronounced “rown,” in case you’re curious.)

Speculation about constellations begins. Since I’ve got my phone out for the first and only time at these campfire evenings, I open the SkyView app, which identifies (gorgeously) two equine constellations above us: Equuleus and Pegasus, both upside-down.

8.

It’s a cold night. Back in the cabin, I switch on the faux woodstove to warm the room before sleep. The gas flames flutter and hiss in soothing cadence. I sit facing the stove to meditate, then tuck in with my book.

“One of the ego’s many erroneous assumptions,” Tolle writes, “one of its many deluded thoughts is ‘I should not have to suffer.’” But “suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of the ego… The ego says ‘I shouldn’t have to suffer,’ and that thought makes you suffer so much more… The truth is that you need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it.”

This notion parallels my meditation practice: Say yes to whatever arises; accept the present moment instead of struggling against what’s already here. From this mindset, you can either just be, or you can take action from a place of strength. Acceptance doesn’t mean letting bad stuff happen to you. “To refrain from complaining,” Tolle writes, “doesn’t necessarily mean putting up with bad quality or behavior.” It just means making peace with the reality that’s before you, with the challenges you’ve been given. So instead of complaining, resisting, and reacting, you can respond in a healthy way.

Through challenges, through suffering, we can connect to the peaceful awareness that is always inside us. Tolle asks, “Can I sense my essential identity as consciousness itself? Or am I losing myself in what happens, losing myself in the mind, in the world?”

9.

I dream that the man who abused me is stalking me through a horse show, then through a shopping mall. In the dream, I know there’s someone I should call to report what he’s up to, but I can’t quite get there. Then I’m half-awake in the dark under my heavy blanket. And I notice something: instead of being caught in heart-pounding panic, as I’ve often been, waking from fear dreams for much of my life until recently, I find myself just witnessing. Okay, so there’s that uncomfortable feeling; and here I am in awareness, observing the feeling. It’s a lot better than panic-grip, and although I can’t sleep again for a while, I feel reassured about the much-improved state my nervous system seems to be in. My path of healing is real.

Immersion, Day Three

1.

Morning, at HQ hay bales: I’m sleep-deprived but determined. Tim is describing the scene up at camp. Before sunrise, the horses came into the campsite and wandered around the cabins and fire circle. Tim and Tanner were out drinking coffee. That little palomino colt, Tim says—he was so playful. He’d get curious and come up and sniff at them, then scamper off bucking.

I wish I could’ve seen that. One of the S. Carolinans says she woke to the sounds of snorting horse breath and hooves on rocks, right there outside the cabin door. As much time as I’ve spent with horses, the magic of this still gets me.

Coffee at the campsite (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

Morning at the campsite (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

I find my spot next to Lucy and construct a barrier nest out of extra jackets and water canteens. Jack plants himself right at the edge of it, tilting in my direction.

Our discussion topic—and lest you think I’m bending the timing of this for narrative purposes, I have it right here in front of me on our printed syllabus—is Touch and Connection. Straight from the syllabus:

“1. Touch – The importance of allowing the horse to ask for touch because we’ve built a level of connection.
2. Exploring our personal experiences with building a level of connection before touch can occur, and in giving the horse the power to decide when touch is appropriate.”

Tim begins to speak on the subject, and I notice that Jack is taking notes for the first time. Since he’s practically sitting on my lap, it’s easy for me to snoop. “Connection before touch,” he writes. And underlines the word before.

A ray of hope.

2.

Tanner is stationed at our pen today. I start with Jazz, again asking her to follow me. After a little while we’re stuck in this pattern where she’ll get hung up in a corner (the pens aren’t actually round); she’ll keep pivoting to face me, looking calm enough, but won’t walk forward. I know I’m not supposed to direct pressure toward her head, so I keep moving over to aim at her haunches, and she keeps turning her haunches away. I don’t know what to do.

Tanner advises me: She’s the one who put her head in the way. I can still direct my energy toward her haunches, kind of through her head. She’ll move her head out of the way. And voilá, this works. We get back into a nice rhythm of walking around together.

I’ve learned something: a skill to handle this particular problem, yes; and then also, there’s this feeling that I can continue to calmly, confidently make my request even when the other finds a clever way to deflect it.

Natural Lifemanship 101: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. In other words, the stuff I’m learning here is the stuff I need to learn.

I hear Tanner pointing out some things to Jack about what I’m doing, and Jack says, “Well I’m not as graceful as Sarah.” Tanner says, “Sarah’s like a dancer!” I do a schmaltzy ballet twirl right there in the dirt, and then the three of us are laughing together.

Working with Jazz (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

Jack takes his turn, and he’s trying to listen to Tanner. It’s a more earnest effort today, I can see it. Tanner, like his dad, is mind-bendingly patient and kind. He has to keep intervening with the same instructions, but he never humiliates Jack. With Tanner directing him, Jack starts to sort of get the idea. He applies pressure toward her hindquarters and waits, then releases when she looks his way. But he still wants to get claustrophobically close, and he keeps angling his body toward her head, giving her mixed signals.

And so Tanner hands Jack a training stick to hold phallically at his belly button and point at the mare. (The stick, so you can picture this, is about four feet long, with a golf-club grip on one end.) The idea is it’ll make Jack more aware of which direction his torso is facing, and it’ll give the mare a modicum of space, if he has to be at least a stick’s length away from her. I get it, and it actually seems to be helping; but the visual of him pursuing her predatorially with phallic rod extended sets off that buzz in my nervous system. I excuse myself for a snack break. This time, that little bit of distance is all I need to settle down.

When I return, Tanner has moved to another pen, and Jack is on his own in there, stickless, still practicing. And a miracle happens: he asks for my help. He wants me to guide him, the way Tanner was doing. And so I do, I launch into helping him—checking his body angle, his spacing, when to release or keep asking. I’m watching Jazz’s signals, watching Jack, giving direction—it takes intense concentration. And he listens. It’s actually kind of fun.

Eventually she stands beside him and he wants to scratch her, “as a reward.” He reaches for her head, and she jerks away. “Maybe not there,” I tell him. Her grabs her mane; she flicks her head. “Not there,” I tell him. He tries her withers, and with that, she seems okay.

3.

Post-lunch, when I step back in with Jazz, the mood changes. There’s this unspoken question: now that Jack has asked for my help, what will his role be while I’m with the mare? I adjust my baseball cap and do a little stretch. “Don’t worry, you look great,” Jack says. And I have this mental lag because appearance-type stuff was so far from my thoughts. “That’s the least of my concerns,” I tell him.

(Let’s just pause with that for a minute. As I walked in to begin work with this horse, work that requires serious skill and awareness, this man assumed I was worried about how attractive I looked to him. I’ll be blunt: this repulsive man. It’s kind of astonishing when you stop and think about it, but this type of thing is common. Hence the saying “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”)

Before starting this morning, I’ve checked with Tim about my next steps with the mare. We’ve made progress in Attachment (following with connection), so I’m planning to work on Detachment (moving apart from each other with connection). Detachment work often strengthens the quality of Attachment—by deepening attunement, building the relationship, and reassuring both horse and human that we can stay connected whether we’re next to each other or not.

I direct my energy toward Jazz’s barrel, where my leg would be if I were riding her. I’m asking her to walk calmly around the edge and keep her attention on me. She starts to walk. Her inside ear flicks toward me. Then her attention wanders. I ask her to bring it back. The process of communication begins.

“You know, when we do this work at home, we always start with connection,” Jack tells me.

“You mean Attachment?” I ask him, trying to keep my concentration on the mare.

He tries again. He’s got the terminology garbled, but he seems to want me to know I’m doing it wrong.

“I’m not being critical,” he says. “She just doesn’t look very connected to you.” His smile feels mildly aggressive.

Still watching the mare, I explain that Detachment is another way to build connection; since we’ve made progress with Attachment in previous sessions, this is the next step I feel will help us most. Sessions often start with Attachment work, but not always. You just have to feel your way through building connection in both of these modes.

He’s not buying it, though—not from me. I suppose he’s had to really humble himself to ask for my help, and now his ego’s making an appearance, trying to shore itself up by making me wrong. I know it’s not personal, but I’d like him to stop picking at me so I can give my full attention to the mare. Finally I shrug and say, “Ask Tim.”

Jack turns to Tim, who’s sitting on a hay bale a short distance away, and the two engage in conversation. With Jack’s focus diverted away, I feel this subtle sense of relief—of calm, space, privacy—and my energy shifts. In the background, I hear Tim telling Jack the same stuff I’d tried to explain.  Soon Jazz and I start to tune into each other in a new way. Her eye softens; her ear stays on me. She walks a smooth circle, staying engaged; then I shift the pressure to her haunches, and she comes toward me. We’re in the dance, moving together and apart, maintaining connection. Her soft, rhythmic steps on the dusty ground; my own steady movements and breath; her red coat in the amber light; her deep, tranquil eye; my body relaxed, my clothes light on my sweat-damp skin. I feel a calm excitement wash over me—all that effort resolving into ease; I’m just purely happy in this moment.

I hear Tim say, “And see, Jack, when you work on those things, your connection will start to look more like that,” pointing toward Jazz and me. And whatever Jack might be thinking, I don’t know or care; it just feels good that Tim’s there, and supportive. It feels good to be genuinely seen.

Before wrap-up, Tim steps into the pen with one of the hypervigilant mares. She’s spent most of these three days snorting at her humans and trying to avoid them. The late golden sun shines on the tan fence, the dusty ground, the mare’s glossy bay coat. Tim walks an arc in the pen, head tilted, sending energy toward the mare. She considers him. She’s worried still, but curious. She turns toward him. He releases back. They continue the dance. Soon she starts taking actual steps in his direction. After fifteen minutes or so, she reaches out her nose and touches his outstretched hand.

4.

In our end-of-day discussion, Tim talks about relationships. It takes some work to have really good relationships—your own inner work, as well as the back-and-forth process of building a truly strong and healthy relationship with another. There’s lot of joy in the process, too. You just can’t expect a great relationship to happen magically, with no effort at all. Healthy relationships need to feel safe, he says. “Safety can come only from a true, deep connection. You can’t fake it. It has to be real.”

And then there’s the inner work. He tells us, “The best place to find reassurance is within yourself.” We do need relationships and human connection, of course. And we need to be able to turn to others at times for support and comfort. But, he says, “You need to be able to notice if the person you’re asking for reassurance is capable of giving it.” For example, someone down in the survival parts of their brain—or too caught up in their own struggles—cannot offer support. In those moments, we need to have the inner resources to care for ourselves.

5.

After our final-night’s dinner, Lucy and I sit on a log by the campfire and talk late into the evening about our marriages and everything we’ve learned, how we’ve grown in awareness, and what we’re still working on. She’s wrapped in a printed shawl, and I in a big soft blankety sweater, the fire cracking and sending up sparks, its warmth on our faces.

The mustangs are right along the fence, out there in the dark. We can hear their huffing breath, their hooves scrabbling over rocky ground.

Immersion, Day Four

1.

The final day, our group is divided in half for trail rides. One person from each pair will stay to work with the mustangs while the other goes riding. With half the group gone, there’s this quiet lightness in the work area. Tanner has stayed behind while Tim and Alice ride.

Conserving energy after another night of minimal sleeping, I sit on a haybale and talk with Tanner for a while, asking him questions. Then I go in with Jazz.

I feel an expansiveness; the complication of Jack is lifted. It’s a peaceful Sunday morning. We have all the time in the world. My mare strolls along in the dappled sun and shade from a scraggly oak tree. Moving unhurriedly in our small dirt pen, I feel, finally, that sustained sense of connection, as if it cannot be broken. It’s a feeling in my heart and the core of my body: warm, peaceful, alive, at ease. A feeling I’ll carry with me.

As Tolle writes, “A genuine relationship is one that is not dominated by the ego, with its image-making and self-seeking. In a genuine relationship, there is an outward flow of open, alert attention toward the other person in which there is no wanting whatsoever. That alert attention is Presence. It is the prerequisite for any authentic relationship.”

2.

My trail-ride horse, Deuce, is a hefty fleabitten grey with a Roman nose and pigeon-toed stance in front. He looks steady and sweet. Regardless of our level of horse experience, Sanctuary policy does not allow us to untie our own horses from the fence. We wait our turn; wait for help. It’s an odd feeling, playing the role of dude-ranch trail ride customer.

Deuce and me (Photo: Tanner Jobe)

The saddle is the sitting-on-a-board variety. I’m in pain within five minutes of leaving the stable yard. I experiment with adjusting my legs and seat, then decide to just relax into it. I’m dreaming of one of those sheepskin saddle covers I saw in my youth, that the foxhunting ladies had. The kind of thing any show rider would deem back-yardy, but man—what I wouldn’t give for one now!

Tanner and the S. Carolinans start an acorn war, plucking them from trees and pegging each other. These old-soldier horses don’t mind in the slightest. The ground is astonishingly rocky. (Actually this rockiness is what keeps the mustangs’ hooves pretty much trimmed, the Sanctuary ladies have told us.) There’s no chance at all of directing your horse around the rocks. They’re just constantly underfoot. We squeeze between scrubby trees and traverse rocky meadows. Occasionally a smoother straight stretch allows for some trotting. Deuce’s gait is big and jostly, but posting—meaning rising out of the saddle in rhythm—is a wonderful respite from this torture-device of a saddle. And after all the energetic, sensitive jumpers I ride at home, it’s nice to be on a horse who has no interest whatsoever in any kind of antics.

We ride under massive powerlines emitting an eerie buzz.  Mount Lassen is there in the distance, a trapezoid of dun-colored earth and dark vegetation against a soft, cloud-studded sky.

We don’t encounter any wild horses, but a couple of burros cross our path. Their ears are super-furry and as long as their skulls. Near the ride’s end, a branch snags my leg and rips my jeans open at the knee. Amazingly, my skin is untouched. So I ride home with this open flap of pant leg, lamenting the demise of my current favorite riding jeans and feeling mildly embarrassed by this mishap.

My two main takeaways from the ride: Sitting on the back of a horse feels like home. This is an essential part of who I am. And also: A group trail ride turns out not to be enough of a novelty to feel actually worth tormenting my body in this way. The saddle is like straddling two parallel metal poles.

Back in the yard, Jack bears down on me with a self-satisfied air. “I got her tail lifted and picked up one of her feet,” he informs me. I say something along the lines of “Oh, ha,” thinking, Got her tail lifted? Dear god, what does that even mean?

But whatever imaginary touching-type accomplishments Jack boasts about to me, the fact remains: in the end, when he wants to have his photo taken petting the mare, she won’t let him touch her at all.

3.

We all start to gather belongings and prepare for the journey home. Jack comes over and thanks me for my help and wishes me well. And I shake his hand.

In the passenger seat of my rental car, with a method perfected in the traveling horse-show life, I change into non-ripped jeans and a clean shirt. We gather for a group photo by the fence. There’s a spirit of celebration, plus wistfulness. A few people climb up and balance on the top rail so we can all fit into the shot.

I was planning to drive south for a while and find a hotel closer to San Francisco, but Lucy offers to have me share the room she’s booked in Sacramento. We say our goodbyes and drive off in the late sun, turning to the right out of the Sanctuary, away from the rental cabins, heading south.

Leading our two-car caravan, she drives the mountain road like a slalom racetrack in her rental sedan. The landscape is prairie grass and plowed fields and distant mountains. On my stereo, Neil Young’s twangy voice and raw guitar: “One of these days / I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter / to all the good friends I’ve known.”

We stop for gas and then plunge back into traffic. It’s dark by the time we pull off at a rest stop, trying to stay awake. We’re glad to be together, traveling like this at night. And even gladder, it turns out, when we arrive at the motel. It’s the kind of eerie, tattered place that makes us want to hurry to our room and bolt the door. The room’s musty odor only intensifies when we turn on the fan. Lucy brings out a pouch of essential oils and sprinkles lavender and bergamot across the vent. In the morning, she gives me one of the little sweet-scented vials for my travels.

With Jazz, at the end of our work together

Reflections

1.

Over a year later, I was living in Austin and met a couple of my NL friends (instructors, both) for a barbecue dinner. The subject of my Wild Horse Sanctuary experience came up. “Wait, he was your partner?” one of them said. Jack had challenged the trainers in unprecedented ways. They’d handled it admirably, but it wasn’t easy.

We could all laugh about it by now, which in a way is a luxury; we’re all fine. As someone pointed out, the trainers and I had to live with Jack for four days. Jack has to live with himself always. That’s got to be the worse end of the deal.

It’s not about comparison or pity; he’s responsible for himself, just as we all are. But this realization—that deeply unconscious people are themselves suffering—can bring some compassion. Everyone wants to find some measure of contentment. A person who behaves like Jack is not at peace. I can feel a genuine wish for him that he might find some peace, for his own sake and for everyone around him.

I have no regrets about how I navigated those days with Jack. I was triggered and challenged, but I was aware. And I had support. Amidst the feelings of confusion and struggle, I also experienced powerful things: Alice truly cared and looked out for me; Tim and Tanner backed me up and supported me beside the pen; and I felt, in an essential and unshakable way, my own inner strength.

If I faced the same situation now, I’d be equipped to tackle it with less stress. That’s because I’ve continued to heal and improve my life in transformative ways. And because I’ve already dealt with Jack once—and made it through.

I’ve moved past that inner resistance of wishing the situation had been different. A kind, supportive partner would have allowed me to focus completely on horsemanship and facilitation skills. I could have made more progress with the mare. I could have avoided all that trauma-activation in my nervous system. I could have slept through the nights and arrived rested. I could have deepened another friendship with a colleague. But those are not the experiences the universe delivered. I’ve made peace with it.

I’ll go back to the Sanctuary one day, when COVID restrictions are lifted and the NL intensives can resume. I look forward to giving it another go—and seeing what I might learn this time.

 

Learn more about Natural Lifemanship here.

Feature image: Tim Jobe works with one of the mustang mares (photo by Tanner Jobe)

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