Horse as Mirror: A Lesson in Trust
By Susan Crimmins, Sep 5 2015 05:33PM
My recent journey to Montana reminds me that we often have to be mindful of what we ask for, as the universe hears and responds in ways we cannot imagine! My summer days had become filled with more questions than answers, and I found myself swirling in mental energies that thwarted my intuition from flowing. In celebrating a landmark birthday, I was contemplating doing something that allowed me to play at “my edge.” I had been seeking to connect with nature more and to better access my internal wisdom, so a retreat in the Montana wilderness found me, which promised to be filled with both inner and outer exploration amongst a group of like-minded women. When I said “yes!” I had no real grasp of how this would stretch me, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Heading off for a week into the wild sounded adventurous, bold, and exciting. It turned out to be all of these, and it also offered a healthy dose of humility, surrender and surprise as well. It started out with some technical snafus in our living situation, which required flexibility from all participants and I recall thinking, okay, here comes the theme of the week already identified. Interspersed amidst Jungian dream work, came several trail rides with a herd of horses that, upon first blush, appeared to be more wild than tame to this novice cowgirl. I was anxious.
Each of us shared our experience with riding, as the lead wrangler/herd manager, a cowboy named Jake, matched us up with a horse that would suit our skill level and demeanor. When Gracie, a beautiful paint, was paired with me, I saw the question mark on Jake’s face, as to whether this was the “right” match for me. I shrugged my shoulders, deferring to his wisdom and so it followed that Gracie and I set off to bond outside of the corral. Let’s just say, her beauty was striking! I had always had a “thing” for paints, and yet, reluctance bubbled up inside me—a mare. Hmm. My preference and experience involved mostly interactions with geldings. Mares can have a reputation, deserved or not, for being more deliberate in their decisions and so, I asked Gracie if she would be gentle and go easy with me. I told her I was nervous and that riding was my edge. I needed her to keep me safe. Her response, which seemed very direct and unaffected, was “trust me.” Okay, understood, or so I thought.
We then headed down to the round pen to saddle up and to go through a sequence of communicating via the reins. The moment I mounted her I could feel Gracie shift. There was no mistaking it. She was in charge. As I was directed to circle in the round pen, Jake informed me that Gracie is one of the lead mares, and she does not care for round pens, nor for the other two mares, who also were circling in the pen. Great. I stopped breathing. This only served to add to her pinned ears and herding, as she got ready to nip and clear anyone and anything that came in her path. Oh no, I thought, what happened to our agreement from our conversation on the ground? Jake assured me she was a great trail horse, and to just keep breathing until I feel more comfortable. Wait, how many days do we have?! He laughed. I did not.
As any horse aficionado knows, breath is the key language when communicating between human and horse. I soon learned that my regulated exhales were allowing Gracie to be more even in her strides and I learned to maneuver her in all directions when we got too close to the other mares. I praised her every time she cooperated with my lead. Again, she seemed to be unmoved by any thing that came out of my mouth. She was far more attuned to my body than my words.
Out on the trail, Gracie was the first horse behind Jake’s horse, Sundance. Our first ride involved many hills and I was still getting my horse legs and learning balance in all of the various climbs and descents, as I simultaneously kept reminding myself to breathe. No doubt Gracie knew her stuff, knew her trails, and knew her herd. When another mare, Coco, got too close from the rear, Gracie would pin her ears and turn to snap—a good reminder for me to be aware and to allow my horse to be her true self, while learning to be flexible in my decisions of how to accommodate both of us. I exhaled deeply when I dismounted. Made it! Whew!
The second ride was much easier, as I felt that Gracie and I had established a sense of basic trust and we were far more attuned to each other’s gifts and personalities. The terrain was more even and it was a sunset ride. I became more focused on the beauty surrounding us and was able to relax into trusting my girl with a deep sense of gratitude.
In addition, the suggestion of horse as mirror came up as a reflective exercise for the humans to consider over the days we were riding. Gee, what did Gracie and I have in common? Was I outwardly unemotional? Did I convey a sense of leadership and dominance to others? Was I matter of fact in my communication? Did I expect others to automatically trust me when we entered into relationship? With horse as mirror, did I trust myself? Too many questions for me to ponder, and little time to do so before the long ride. At the end of the second ride, I felt more confident for the upcoming “big “ride that was scheduled for the following day. All of us knew that this was the longest ride on the trail that brought both much beauty and much trepidation. Still anxious, I felt more trusting of Gracie, now that we had completed two rides together. Little did I know what was ahead of us.
On the morning of the big day, we saddled up as we prepared for extra hydration needs and encountering of the elements. Remembering all the lessons learned with Gracie already: awareness of self, other and environs; attunement and communication; and steady breathing, yes, I am ready to take this next step with my horse. Jake was now shoring up the ride and a different wrangler was leading us. Gracie did not seem to respect the horse in front of us. Oh dear, another relationship and more change to navigate. The ride out beyond the familiar terrain began with a steep decline and when coming to the bottom of the hill, there was a creek we had to cross. My heart began to pound. How deep is this creek? Does my horse know what to do? For the first time in our days together, Gracie stumbled right before the creek. We both came down hard and I realized that I had to re-focus on breathing easy and checked in with her to see if she was okay. She moved through the first creek crossing without further incident, but my trust had faltered a bit in her misstep. I was scared yet, I could hear Jake’s voice in my head, “whenever you’re scared, trust your horse.” This was the first of five creek crossings on the way out and each one triggered a sense of halt in my body that must have registered as an ice block with Gracie, yet she kept on moving. I was so terribly glad when we reached our destination at lunchtime—half way there and now only the journey home! I can do this!! Of course, I still had not learned that in the wilderness, anything can happen, and that just because I thought I knew the path, this did not guarantee that I knew what we would encounter on the path. Now, isn’t that a clear metaphor for life?
After a hearty lunch and time in solitude, we re-mounted to begin the long journey back. I definitely felt more connected and in sync with Gracie, and even began to relax—taking in the beauty of eagles in flight and an occasional deer romping alongside the trail. We were riding along for almost an hour when we turned a bend, and encountered at least 30 cattle, Black Angus, directly in front of us, blocking our trail. My breath came to a halt. Oh no, will they move? They began to moo loudly and I saw the mama cows beginning to step out in front of their babies. My immediate thought, this can’t be good. In a flash, I saw cattle running up on both sides of the trail to come up front to protect their own. Now there were at least 40 cattle just several feet in front of us and we were surrounded, as they blocked the trail and the gate that we needed to pass through. It looked like a stand off. Our wrangler just kept going and the sounds from the cattle were so loud that later we learned Jake had been shouting from the back for us to stop.
In less than half a second, my lead mare, Gracie pinned her ears, bared her teeth, and took off to charge the cattle! The movement was so sudden that my brain could not process what was occurring until we already were in motion. Instinctively, I pulled on the reins sharply and yelled amidst the commotion, “bad idea, Gracie, no girl, whoa!” and the next thing I saw was Jake on Sundance by my side, telling me to breathe as he, Sundance and his yellow lab, Trigger, cleared the cattle out from our path. We held eye contact for what seemed like forever. I trusted Jake. My heart was pounding; we still had to move through the gate and keep our herd going until all of us were safely through to the other side. Once past the chaos and challenge, there was no time to feel or to think anything—we still had another hour on the ride and more creek crossings to maneuver before we reached “home.”
It was then that my heart opened 100% to my horse and I re-named her Gracie Liu in honor of the character from the film, Miss Congeniality—an FBI agent who appears hard core and all about the job, yet, has a heart of gold that closed down due to too many disappointments and mis-attunements in life. My horse had listened to me and I had heard her as well. No doubt that this was MY horse, and if this horse was a mirror, than this was somehow a reflection of me, too. Not only did I now trust Gracie Liu, but also I realized that I now trusted myself to live from intuition and heart instead of whatever my thoughts said to me. Inside of me, I always knew what to do and how to be in any situation because my instincts were solid, and when they faltered, intuition and guides would present as back-up. Message received, lesson learned. This was a lot to integrate, but if I could take the time to digest this fully, then I knew freedom would be mine. Freedom from fear of riding and freedom to choose from a spacious place of knowing that I had challenged my fear by trusting the universe, my horse and most of all, myself. In addition, the bonus of this adventure revealed some illuminating steps in the healing process: Awareness, Attunement, Chaos (the Challenge and resultant Message), Integration and Freedom. Thanks Gracie Liu for a lesson beyond my wildest dreams!
What a wonderful description of horse as mirror, especially considering the fact that there was no pre-existing relationship with this horse! To me it shows how a person who is committed to self-awareness and growth creates a world in which growth happens (even though possibly disturbing or confusing at the time). Great photos also!
Beautifully written narrative, and love the accompanying photos, Susan! I appreciate all the moments of congruency, whether intentional or not, throughout this experience. What a demonstration of integrity, by both you & Gracie Liu, and it just keeps growing through the self-reflection. Onward and upward!!