Healing is simple. Not easy but simple. It is the act of transcending, rising above, learning from and moving beyond that which makes us feel broken for a time. Interestingly enough, at the core there is never anything broken; rather there is baggage in the form of beliefs that our life circumstances have told us or painful memories that need to be shed and dropped to lighten our loads and return us to our original state- full of grace, freedom and peace.
I have had the honor of witnessing profound healing in the least clinical of all places, in the back-country of the West, in fields, in barns and in riding arenas with people from many walks of life. They have all had their traumatic experiences brought full circle by the curative magic that happens when a horse and a human make a connection of the heart that transcends words. It is impossible to say what the connection is between the human heart and the heart of a horse but it has been my privilege to experience it firsthand.
There is something indescribable about falling in love with a 1000 lbs plus creature that makes you feel safe just because he puts his head on your shoulder. It is counter-intuitive that when you stand next to an animal that could literally take your life, it is possible to feel such trust that you want to tell it all your secrets and often do just that. It is the combination of this trust and this safety and the awe of it all that makes for this inexplicable bond that allows humans and horses to connect and be there for each other in a very unique and profound way.
At a wild horse sanctuary in California, I had the opportunity to bring teens with their probation officers to visit the wild horses. The 350 wild mustangs there have been saved from a life of captivity. They now run free on a sanctuary that is next to the Pacific Ocean. The horses there are in a place that deeply respects and honors their natural habitat. I could not help but draw a parallel between the horses once abused and facing captivity and the kids once abused and now facing captivity. During our visit, we saw a band of horses off in the distance. One of the horses was sleeping on the ground while the other horses stood guard. It was obvious to the kids that the horses looked out for each other and cared about the others’ wellbeing. The extraordinary horses and the people dedicated to the sanctuary gave our kids so many lessons that day about family, freedom and the importance of looking out for the welfare of something beyond one’s self. The horses also gave the kids a beautiful gift by showing them that there is a life beyond captivity and abuse and healing is not only possible it was happening before their eyes. Coincidentally; we all had a picture taken in front of the sign with the name of the sanctuary on it for the kids to keep as a souvenir. The name of the sanctuary is Return to Freedom- the irony was not lost on the adults in our group as we saw the kids next to that sign.
At another riding arena, at Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Santa Barbara, there is a photograph of a child’s wheelchair with a hand painted sign obviously made by a young person that says Gone Riding! The chair is empty because she is flying around the arena with her hair in the wind and her heart light because her horse friend is doing love and service by being her legs. Hearts also has a program called Horses for Heroes where soldiers ride the horses to heal from PTSD. I heard one of the soldiers talk about his favorite horse, Lilly. He talked about how he could ride Lilly but more than that she was the best listener he ever met and he was able to tell her things about the war he could not tell anyone else. Horses are the world’s best secret keepers. Maybe it is their size that makes it so easy to tell them the really big things because intuitively we realize they can carry the weight of it all.
Once a week, I go to another sanctuary called California Coastal Horse Rescue that takes in horses in Ojai Valley in California. They rescue abandoned and abused horses. This rescue group is 100% volunteer. On the Fourth of July, they each take a horse and while the fireworks are going off they stand with the previously abused horse and comfort it so it does not get spooked. This place is aptly named a sanctuary because the word means a refuge or safe haven. Obviously anyone who comes here to “help” the horses also benefits from the time they share with the animals in this peace filled healing environment.
I know a soldier that survived a hellacious war and lived with the terrible memories of it. I know a child who was abused and thought that her nightmares would be the only way she ever experienced a night’s sleep. I know a man who is disabled and struggles just to walk. I know a boy who has a sensitive open heart and a kindness that does not protect him from bullying. I know a horse named Amigo, who was left to die with a broken shoulder and the people who picked him up and brought him home to their place to heal his wounds and restore his faith in humans. I know a wild horse that was saved from the slaughterhouse floor by people who made it their mission to get her to a sanctuary to run free as nature intended.
The one thread that unites the people and the horses I have interacted with is a connection so strong that it is a higher force than any of the traumatic forces that have gone before it. The Hopi have a word that describes what happens to anyone that experiences trauma. It is koyaanisqatsi which means a life out of balance. I believe in the curative powers of horses because they are so often the catalyst for breakthroughs from great pain to freedom that restores balance to many who have experienced traumatic life events.
Maybe they are sent by the Great Spirit that walks us through pain to lead us to higher learning. Yes, humans advocate for horses, rescue and heal them and ride them but ultimately the great cosmic joke is that the horses are actually truly one of the most gifted healers on earth because by being their authentic selves they remind us that true freedom is a state of mind and in their presence we feel it. For anyone that needs a vision of this; just stand in the West and watch a family band of wild mustangs run, as you listen to the sound they make, as you watch one of the most moving sights of your life, you will be restored to knowing that there is something higher and more beautiful than any of us can truly grasp that has sent us these magnificent horses to make the wild journey called life just a bit more free.