I've been riding since I was a little girl, and my heart feels the love. I'm riding again.
Long before Afaa and I ever met, when we were only children, we had each been touched by the magic of horses. You might say, horses were what drew us to one another as adults but that's another whole story. For now, I want to focus on the "magic" of horses and their spiritual power to heal the psychic wounds of humans.
Now, before we go too deeply into this, I want to make one thing clear. I use the word "spiritual" gingerly. I don't really know what it means. I mean, to me, all things are spiritual. Now, in case you're rolling your eyes and dismissing me as just another New Age pantheist, hold on a second. Because, well, maybe I am but I don't like labels either. Call me a "Life-ist." I believe in everything that IS and everything that IS contains a dollop of magic (or the "marvelous" as Aristotle said in De Anima), otherwise it wouldn't exist. It's just that when the Chief Spirit was doling out Life Force, I believe He/She/It gave the mother lode of spiritual mystery to the Horse.
So, let's go back to the power of horses to heal psychic wounds of people. In recent years, new treatments have sprung up around "Equine-Assisted therapy," especially for trauma survivors. From battle-torn veterans to battered women to abused and neglected children, "horse-therapy" have proven to be as if not more effective at treating PTSD than many other treatments.
Why might this be? Two basic reasons: safety and connection. According to Judith L. Herman, M.D. in her classic Trauma and Recovery, the survivor's sense of safety and trust are among the gravest psychic wounds in the aftermath of violence. Similarly, in Psychological Trauma and the Adult Survivor, Dr. Laurie Anne Pearlman and I. Lisa McCann identify the deep disconnect that the survivor feels - disconnect from self, others and the world at large. A relationship with a horse, that "gentle giant" can foster an unspoken and non-threatening ("safe") connection with another being. In short, the horse can heal the wounded trust. I can speak firsthand of broken trust from childhood abuse and neglect. But, I can also attest to the healing that a relationship with a horse can bring, if only from afar. When I was growing up, I was never so fortunate to have my own horse or pony. In my family, we were barely making ends meet. But I promised myself that when I became an adult, I would get my own horse. To this day, my Inner Child is still waiting for me to make good on that promise. Like, Afaa, I'm investing in a saddle.
As a child, I was raised next to a horse farm. A rusty barbed wire fence separated our house from a beautiful yellow pasture that seemed to stretch into forever but stopped at the barn on the far side. Behind our house, there were deep woods with myriad horse trails which seemed to my young eyes like magical corridors. I used to hide behind fat oak trees or among bushes along broken-down stone walls just to see equestrians on their steeds passing by. Oh, to smell the oiled leather and hear the clank of the stirrups. Even to catch a whiff of freshly-dropped.... well, you know. To this day, I love the smell of manure.
The Education of the Wild Child
I was raised in a very lonely house with all sorts of secrets that made me believe I was a very bad girl. It was only until I spotted the ten-dollar-bill on my father's bureau that I glimpsed redemption. I was jumping up and down on his bed when money galloped into my imagination. It was my ticket to ride. I leapt off the bed and pocketed the money with the bravado of a rookie then ran as fast as I could run to the barn a good quarter of a mile away. When I got to the barn which was owned by a man who only spoke French or Italian or some language in the movies, but no English and he wore a crooked wide-brimmed hat, I told him that I wanted to ride a horse. He smiled but when I produced the money, his eyes widened and he saddled up a gentle old mare named Apple. Then he lifted me up on her spotted back, shortened the stirrups on the Western saddle and led me out to the middle of the field. When we stopped, he wrapped the loose reins around the horn of the saddle and he left. I sat on her back, in the glorious summer sun, the two of us, alone and at one, among the sweet timothy hay, beast and self, nature, universe and buzzing insects. I had never felt so secure, there in the leather bucket of the saddle. I reveled in the musky smell of the mare's coat, the coarse white mane between my fingers and her round, strong shoulders which I stroked and stroked and stroked. I was five when I discovered the magic of horses.
I don't remember how long the spell lasted but it imbedded itself in my deepest memory. Horses heal. The connection with them is as mysterious and strong as any child's imagination. Of course, my father discovered the crime and set out to undo the treachery. I remember watching him walking on the street below from atop Apple's back. He moved with violent determination. I could almost imagine the steam coming out his ears as he moved, like some cartoon character. I heard the shouts from the barn as he berated the uncomprehending stable manager and watched him fume his way out to the field and pull me off the horse. I felt his hand on my bottom with the order to go home to my room with no supper and Iran like the wind, a wild child, leaping over rocks and ditches, squeezing through a hole in the rusty fence that separated home from the farm next door and going straight to my room because, in truth, I wasn't a bad little girl and the empty space of love I lived in was not my fault or my parents or anyone's for that matter.
This was my first lesson as a wild child and one I am still learning - that there are many ways to heal and be healed, to love and be loved- healthy, strong and safe ways - like from the Earth which grew sweet grass to suck on or the sun which warmed my bare knees that day and arms and cheeks or from an animal like a horse and when I flopped on my bed, I remembered Apple and how secure I felt in the sturdy safety of her being.
That is where it started for me. Horses and magic and how miraculous healing can be no matter what the trauma.