Horse sense helps veterans move forward

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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 serve 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 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.

African violet victories

Geri's AV with ribbons at fair

I grew this African violet from a leaf cutting three years ago as part of an anxiety-inducing repotting operation. 

There was a time when I avoided even looking at the African violets I passed in grocery and home improvement stores. Experience told me I did not have whatever knack, touch, or mojo was required to care for them. Enough heartbreak, I vowed.

Then my dear spouse Kathy presented me with an absolutely beautiful African violet from McNamara Florist (location formerly known as Sand Point), one of my favorite nurseries here in Fort Wayne. It thrived for two years. I was amazed.

Then I noticed it was looking a bit gangly and the lower leaves were drooping. The need to repot was a sign of success … but it was also another opportunity to screw up.

I consulted fellow Master Gardeners. I studied the African Violet Society of America‘s website. Then I gathered my courage, tools, and potting medium, and performed the transplant.

After some transitory drooping, the patient pulled through like a champ and bloomed again. I hadn’t killed it! What’s more, a few of the cuttings I’d rooted from the leaves removed from the parent plant became brand new little African violet plants.

I gave some of the offspring as gifts, letting my intuition tell me which plant needed to go to what person. Or you might say I let the plants tell me.

The baby African violet that went to my friend Geri knew what it was doing. Under her care, it grew many more lush green leaves, bloomed abundantly, and needed a new pot after about a year. Just like its mum, it took the transplant well.

Summer arrived, and Kathy suggested Geri and I enter our brilliant young charge in the Allen County 4-H Fair. Geri and I are city girls. 4-H and county fairs have not been part of our experience, by and large. But what the heck, we figured. Geri filled out the form and entered the African violet in the adult House Plants: Propagated Potted Plant category.

The plant won Best of Show.

So if you think you don’t have African violet mojo, try the following:

  1. Get a plant from a good source, such as a reputable local nursery.
  2. Water weekly with a weak African violet fertilizer solution (weekly, weakly).
  3. Repot when needed, and don’t panic if it droops afterward. Give it time to recover.
  4. Consult sources such as the AVSA or your local Master Gardeners for information and support.

You just never know what you can accomplish with smart sourcing, well-researched information, and a little help from your friends.

On being sensitive, not insufferable

Walking through life as a highly sensitive person can feel like this. (Photo by Nicolò Paternoster on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

As many lights as Elaine Aron’s groundbreaking The Highly Sensitive Person turned on when I discovered it years ago, a red flag popped up, too. I remember thinking: Wow, a highly sensitive person can be a force for good … or a pain in the ass. I did not, and still don’t, want to be That Person who complains often, takes offense easily, and makes the atmosphere sticky.

Knowledge about ourselves as highly sensitive persons is power, right? With that power comes the responsibility to make more authentic choices about everything from careers and relationships to the smallest interactions with our world. Those of us who are wired to experience life intensely, feel the pain of others, and draw energy from down time can use those traits to make the world a saner, kinder place. We can also gum up the world’s works by being reactive or making others responsible for our well-being.

Aron’s research indicates 15 to 20 percent of us have the traits of high sensitivity, also known as sensory-processing sensitivity. More recent research on brain activity points to physical, structural differences in the brains of highly sensitive people. It’s not in our heads — well, it is, but you get the picture.

So how do we HSPs thrive conscientiously in 21st-century America? The answers to that question are a work in progress, but here are my current thoughts.

Own it 

We may be outnumbered, but we’re not out-powered. Though we cannot control the crowds, the noise, the news, the behavior of others, or the thousand other potential sources of overwhelm and overstimulation, we can control our exposure and response to them. We do this through caring for ourselves, setting boundaries, and believing we are worth the effort and retraining it takes to do so.

Yes, retraining. We may have spent years grinning and bearing whatever and trying to make up for being “too sensitive.” So mustering the initiative to leave a party a wee bit early, ask your spouse for what you need, or say no to yet another request or demand may feel like scaling Mount Everest.

Won’t there be pushback? You bet, and it will be damn hard to resist. But when we can stand up for ourselves without making it about the other person(s) — that is, without judgement or blame — we get real. Wouldn’t you rather deal with a real person than one who is trying to shrink or stretch to please others? I sure would.

Handle empathy with care

Highly sensitive people and empaths can often sense what is really bothering the client who doesn’t like our design, or its fifth revision. We can observe how the family dynamic in the waiting room may sabotage the patient’s follow-up care. We know the horse we are grooming is sad, and we may even be able to tell it’s because his buddy in the next stall went to a new home last week. Well-managed empathy can not only tell us what’s wrong, but map the gentlest route toward making it right.

However, the good we can do with empathy is diminished when we take on others’ pain and burdens. Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. Taking on someone else’s “stuff,” instead of helping that person, expands the problem and leaves less room to find a solution … which may not be ours to find in the first place. And if others are rude, unkind, or downright horrid, that’s on them. Judith Orloff has some good books, last year’s The Empath’s Survival Guide in particular, about navigating these minefields.

The good we can do is also undermined when we don’t use discernment and discretion about the impressions and information we get through our sensitive spidey senses. Some of it, like the “Don’t get into the car with him” vibe, arrives ready to use. Some is best silently received and released. The rest has to go through the “Is it true/fair/kind/necessary?” mill before we share or act on it.

Empathy can actually be a check for sensitivity’s pain-in-the-ass potential. If we are quick to feel hurt, yet remain clueless about the impact of our own behavior on others, our sensitivity is a liability rather than an asset. This can happen to anyone, especially during times of stress. Good self-care and boundaries help us regain our empathetic balance.  However, if this one-sided sensitivity is business as usual, that’s misery all around. “The Happy Sensitive” coach and blogger Caroline van Kimmenade goes so far as to say sensitivity minus empathy equals narcissism.

We can walk a fine line between the building-up and tearing-down sides of sensitivity. Using empathy wisely helps keep us on the constructive side.

When in doubt, follow the Golden Rule

We may feel everything, but we don’t know everything. You’ve seen the quote attributed to Brad Meltzer: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” It reminds me of that bit about treating others the way we would want to be treated, which still works.

The world needs folks like us … just as it needs folks not like us, and compassion is needed more than ever. Let’s bring our best selves to the task.