Horse sense helps veterans move forward

Photo by Ann Collins sm

Geronimo stands with a buddy at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Ann Collins)

When someone returns from military service with wounds seen and unseen, we may not know how to help. Fortunately, horses do.

This might seem counterintuitive, considering how many battles we humans have ridden horses into over the millennia, but humanity’s partnership with the horse continues to evolve. The physical tasks of caring for horses get veterans outdoors, moving, and doing something tangible that makes sense. But it’s more than that.

Horses are nonjudgmental, profoundly empathetic, and delightfully individualistic even though they are also social creatures. A horse may not comprehend the particulars of what a veteran has been through, but you can bet that horse knows how he feels. The horse likely has war stories of his own: of trauma, injury, self-preservation, and survival. When horses allow you into their world, the healing goes both ways.

Jockey Red Pollard said in the movie “Seabiscuit” that he, the trainer, and the owner — three men of very different backgrounds, each with his own demons — didn’t take a broken-down, underdog horse and fix him. “He fixed us … and I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.”

The therapeutic riding center where I volunteer as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, facilitates just this sort of work with horses and veterans. We’re having a special event called Stock the Barn 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, to raise funds to do even more. Let me tell you about a few of our equine warriors.

Pirate, a big, red retired racehorse with incredibly kind eyes, could have spent his retirement at a stud farm but opted to come to Summit instead. He’s got a host of aches and pains left over from his racing days. When I see him walking across the pasture, I hear him say, with each step, “I’m moving … I’m moving.” This summer, as I dealt with some of my own pains, he would regularly ask: “Are you moving, too?” A horse holds you accountable like no one else does.

• When I first met Geronimo, the young mustang reminded me of James Dean … a wildly handsome rebel without a cause who felt others just didn’t “get” him. His resistance to cooperating with director Allison Wheaton, along with a few scuffles with the other horses, frequently landed him in timeout, but she continued to work with him. The skills Geronimo needed to gain, Allison says, are the same skills some veterans with PTSD need to be able to go to the grocery store. Veterans can see themselves in a mustang’s hypervigilance. Last winter, just by his presence, Geronimo comforted a fellow volunteer through a stressful work transition. Now he’s connecting with our veterans. His journey still has its ups and downs; progress is rarely linear. They “get” him.

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Biff, like the veterans he works with, has had to work on learning new ways of responding to the world around him. (Photo by Meg Miller)

• Then there’s Biff. The Gypsy Vanner joined us this summer and proceeded to leave bite marks and bruises on just about everyone before being put in a pen by himself, but within sight of the rest of the herd. Somehow or other, Lakota — another young mustang adopted from the Bureau of Land Management who has been doing some serious training of his own — and Geronimo let themselves into the pen with Biff. The three of them have been hanging out without incident, and all three have been working with veterans. Biff has decided he wants to keep learning.

If a veteran you know is struggling to find a way forward, there’s probably a horse out there who needs a buddy, too. Let’s leave no one behind.

Animal Wise: Where, oh where has my ‘peaceful space’ gone?

Barking Jack Russell by Ben_Kerckx:Pixabay

Photo by by Ben_Kerckx/Pixabay

Animal Reiki practitioners and animal communicators often speak of “creating a peaceful space,” “the Reiki space,” and “holding space” for animals. These all generally refer to a meditative, heart-to-heart connection between practitioner and animal that facilitates relaxation, healing, or insight.

Until a dog barks, a truck backs up, or our thoughts wander. Anyone who has ever practiced (or tried) meditation or prayer will know what I mean. How do we get back into that “space” when it dissolves around us … or when we fall ass over teakettle out of it?

When I do my weekly Reiki and animal communication rounds at a nonprofit equestrian center, I say a prayer before leaving home and listen to a lovely sung Psalm 23 on the way. These small rituals get me in the right frame of mind and heart to share Reiki, or, as my teacher Kathleen Prasad says, to be Reiki, and to listen to whatever the animals want to tell me.

One day I arrived at the barn to find two of its younger residents, a goat and a pig, hanging out in the driveway. Again. Directly in the path of construction vehicles and Realtors coming and going, some rather rapidly.

“What have I TOLD you two about being in the driveway?”

Aaaaand, just like that, I was out of the Reiki space (or pre-Reiki space) and into enforcer mode. (Whoever said that sooner or later, we all quote our mothers was absolutely right, by the way.)

That is, until I’d shepherded the wanderers to one side and silently recited the “Just for today” Reiki precepts. Then I moved on to sharing Reiki with and listening to the animals — starting with the only slightly disgruntled goat and pig. That reset took less than a minute.

Interruptions and distractions happen, but they don’t have to throw us off. I’ve found that the meditative or Reiki space is something I can move in and out of as needed. My Animal Reiki III and Teacher Training with Kathleen was held in a sanctuary barn full of anxious animals, including many barking dogs. Through practice, we learned to hold peaceful space by adapting — moving around as needed, responding to interruptions, and more — and refocusing. The animals were noticeably quieter and calmer at the end of our three days at the barn. The entire energy of the place felt lighter.

Whether we are practitioners or pet parents, I’m convinced that our ability to adapt to what is happening in the moment can only help the animals. Anything I have learned about mindfulness advises us not to judge the distractions, our “monkey minds,” or ourselves, but to gently bring our awareness back to the here and now.

It’s not about perfection. It’s about showing up, coming back, and being there — sometimes all in the same breath.

Animal Wise: ‘Guides’ sheds light on difficult subjects

Photo by MabelAmber:Pixabay(Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay)

As much as Susan Chernak McElroy gets it right with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine Books, 1997), she gets right to the heart with Animals as Guides for the Soul (Ballantine Books, 1998).

This follow-up is not only a worthy exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, but also a potentially transforming walk through some of the thorniest aspects of these relationships.

8482McElroy, who has worked as a technical writer and editor as well as in several animal-related occupations, writes largely from her experience on a small Wyoming farm. Insights from people who wrote to her after reading her previous book are included.

I appreciate so much in Guides for the Soul, but here are three primary take-aways.

The first is that the healing benefits of our relationships with animals are often subtle, but no less powerful. It isn’t always the spectacular, tossing-away-the-cane miracle with the therapy dog. More often, it’s the steady warmth of the cat curled up on the patient’s lap or the jingling of tags along a quiet country road day after day. Sometimes the miracle is only seen in hindsight.

“We are so conditioned to expect drama and heroics in healing that we forget the staggering importance of all the healing that goes unseen,” says McElroy, a cancer survivor. (Check out this wonderful six-minute video about two guys — one a morbidly overweight human, the other a middle-aged rescue dog — who healed each other.)

What if, she asks, we were to believe that the being at the end of the leash, in the cat carrier, or on a perch could heal by his or her very presence, offering exactly what is needed in every moment? That the dog nuzzling a crying adult was administering critical emotional first aid, or the horse heard the bullied teen as no one else could? Is that so far off the mark?

Second, McElroy delves into the rocky territory of death in a way that can benefit anyone who has lost a much-loved animal, particularly when the loss is accompanied by shame and guilt. These experiences and memories, however long ago, stick to us until we acknowledge their multilayered impact, she says.

Quoting respected authors on pet loss as well as people confronting long-buried grief and remorse, she offers perspective and tools for healing. However, she is respectful enough not to put forth easy answers. The stories of McElroy’s precious llama, Phaedra; and Jody Seay’s elderly black Lab friend McKenzie, are likely to bring both a tear and a spark of hope.

Finally, even when the animals involved are not our own, what can we do when we witness the inexplicable and cruel? When McElroy was about 11, a young coyote with his mangled leg still dangling in a steel-jaw trap was part of a wildlife exhibit at a nearby park. Day after day, he lay in a rusting wire cage with no food or water. She pleaded with the park rangers to care for the coyote. They ignored her. She begged her parents to do something, wrote to the local paper, and contacted the town mayor and her family’s veterinarian.

No adult would intervene until she called Mrs. Roberts, the mother of a friend, who picketed the park. The exhibit shut down within a week. The coyote made the front page of the local paper and was released to Mrs. Roberts, whose veterinarian husband helped care for the coyote in a backyard pen. Months later, Mrs. Roberts drove the coyote to the desert and released him back into the wild.

“She reminded me that although it was she who freed the coyote, it was I who had brought the coyote to her attention. At the age of eleven, I learned that one person can stand up against suffering and make a difference,” McElroy recalls.

We should all have, or be, a Mrs. Roberts.