I’m all in for “anything horse.” Riding, grooming, sharing a horse’s space, stroking a muzzle emanating every fiber of love of my being for the creature, whispering sweet nothings into his or her ear.
This weekend, however, I ventured something hands-off—I audited a fundraiser for Wild Hearts Horses for Heroes, a therapeutic equestrian program for veterans. On a gorgeous autumn morning, nearly forty people came together at Indian Creek Stables in Carver, MA—veterans of the Program, participants with unreconciled childhood trauma, and horsey people with their own therapeutic equestrian programs for youth-at risk as far from home as Florida.
Twenty “auditors” assumed seats in chairs that stretched unilaterally across one side of the arena and within three sessions over a six-hour period, we observed Tim Hayes, renown equine therapeutic clinician and author of Riding Home, ask twelve individuals to perform groundwork tasks with their horse-partner to attain increased self-awareness and healing over a past traumatic event.
The most moving interaction occurred when Tim asked a former combat veteran (I’ll call her “Sheila”) to pet her horse and lift each of her horse’s feet. This exercise, Tim told us, tends to “bring stuff up.”
“Sheila,” Tim said, “pick up each of your horse’s feet.”
“No,” she replied, adamantly.
The feel-good bubble infiltrating the arena burst. Tim remained close to where Sheila stood, unaffected and relaxed, standing with his hands loosely clasped across his front. His patience was a mile long. Some moments later, he began to probe Sheila for the reasons why she refused.
“I’m nervous and anxious,” she said.
“Weren’t expecting to be in front of all these people, were you?” Tim reasoned.
Sheila began to cry. The two other veterans enrolled in the Wild Hearts program looked on, their hands resting on some part of their horses’ body—neck, withers; identifying with Sheila’s emotions. My heart was breaking.
Tim nudged, “Why are you crying, Sheila?”
“I get overwhelmed when I’m faced with doing something new,” she replied. “It’s too much at once. No one understands.”
“Well,” Tim said, “We can take it slow. We’ll tackle it one foot at a time.”
Sheila stood unresponsive and still for several moments. Then, she wiped the tears from her face and reached for one of her horse’s front hooves and pulled at it. The horse lowered his head, nudged her thigh with his muzzle and lifted his foot. I exhaled the deep breath I was holding.