Letting animals choose lets them be their best

(Photo by Nancy Crowe)

The massive draft horse was one of the saddest, checked-out animals I have met. He’d spent years on at least one Amish farm, was isolated and probably abused, and had given up. After he was rescued, his new owner wanted to find out what he needed.

The first thing I did was ask if it was OK to communicate with him. Surprised but skeptical, he agreed. The notion that he could choose anything was foreign to him.

Within a week or so, he told me what he wished to be called: Duke.

When I offered to share Reiki with Duke, I made it clear that opting out was absolutely fine. As we worked together during those first months, sometimes it was a yes and sometimes a no. How long the session lasted was also up to him.

That is the core of the Let Animals Lead method I practice. It’s all meditation and no hands unless the animal initiates contact, or the practitioner knows the animal well enough to gauge whether that would be welcome.

One day Duke decided he’d had enough Reiki and walked back into the barn. I thanked him and moved on to a pig a few feet away.

A few minutes later, Duke stuck his big head out the barn door and looked straight at me. “Got any more of that?” I heard. I assured him I did, but he’d have to wait until the pig and I were done. When I returned, he was waiting at the fence. I met his eyes and saw hope.

His owner, veterinarians, equine bodyworkers, clients, and I all worked to help Duke heal from the effects of his past, giving him choices whenever possible. Two years later, he still struggles mightily with triggers. But he has friends in the herd. He connects with veterans who also live with PTSD. He even let kids dress him up for the Fourth of July. Being a therapy horse would have been an unthinkable job a couple of years ago.

While we can’t let our animals choose to play in traffic or opt out of a vet visit, there are many other options we can offer. We can give them a choice of toys, blankets, or litter boxes. We can hold out two different treats and see which gets gobbled up first. We can let cats come to us rather than picking them up. We can suggest a walk or a ride and pay attention to the dog’s body language for a “let’s go” or a “not today.”

Choice frees us all to engage honestly, be our best selves, and create our “better than before.”

Meditation with animals: Focus, refocus, repeat


2019 09.13 Gabby w Chaps & Emmie in bg

(Photo by Nancy Crowe)

When practiced with animals, Reiki is all about meditation. It creates a safe, peaceful space that promotes healing.

Until a dog barks, a truck beeps and backs up … what was that I was supposed to pick up today? I’ll have to avoid the construction at … aw, crud.

Anyone who has practiced (or tried) meditation will know what I mean. Many folks think they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still, quiet their minds, avoid distraction, or any of the other “supposed tos.” That’s the beauty of animal Reiki. While animals may call you on it if you’re not fully present, they’re all about second chances. 

That’s true even if the moment includes a pig screeching, which pierced a quiet session with some horses in a pasture. I turned from the fence and ran toward the sound, wondering if I’d have to call the police or a veterinarian, only to find said pig simply wanted out of her enclosure. Somebody else with thumbs had obliged by the time I got there.

I headed back to the pasture, taking a few deep breaths along the way. The horses looked at me not with reproach for the interruption, but empathy for reacting to a noise they probably endured often. We continued with the Reiki session. 

This ability to shift in and out of meditation was honed during my training in a sanctuary barn full of barking dogs, restless horses, and other anxious animals. We learned to hold peaceful space by adapting — moving around as needed, responding to interruptions — and refocusing. Dropping our expectations of what was supposed to happen allowed the energy to work … even when a rat ran across the floor and got the dogs barking again! 

At the end of our three days at the barn, our teacher, Kathleen Prasad, pointed out how much quieter and calmer the animals were. (You can see and hear the before and after.) We could hear the rustle of hay and the chirping of birds in the rafters. The place felt lighter.

Occasionally, especially in this season of pandemic and protest, it’s my own thoughts that pierce the peace. As soon as I notice this, I gently steer myself back to the present moment and the “Just for today” Reiki precepts. Or I’ll listen to Gregorian chant, which the animals also like. They don’t mind that it’s in Latin. Neither do I. 

We are 21st-century humans dealing with crazy stuff. Interruptions and distractions happen, but they don’t have to throw us off. Meditation with animals, especially rescue or working animals, is a perfect opportunity for flexibility and compassion. This includes self compassion. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make better.

If you don’t have time for what you think is a meditation practice, try sitting, standing, or walking with your animal friend and taking 10 (or five, or three) deep breaths. Focus on the peace you have, or seek, with and for your beloved friend. If something else floats through your mind instead, notice it and return to peace. If your cat leaves the room or your dog barks at the UPS man, let them and return to peace.

Congratulations; you can meditate.

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 acknowledge our humanness and try again.

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

Showing up in 2020

horses-on-a-grass-field-under-a-cloudy-sky-Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels
Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pixels

A sad stillness enveloped the barn and pastures at Summit Equestrian Center on a damp, fall-is-coming morning a week after Whinnie died three years ago. The animals were grieving, and as I arrived for my weekly animal Reiki rounds, so was I. In fact, I feared my own sadness would taint the energy I wanted to share with them.

Whinnie, Summit’s thriving-with-disabilities spokeshorse, was a dwarf miniature horse with a giant presence. That presence was glaringly absent now.

All of the animals had taken turns visiting with her before she passed. They knew she had been struggling. When animals grieve, whether for a human or another animal, it’s not that they don’t understand what’s going on. They probably understand it better than the humans do, and feel the loss and disorientation all the more acutely.

On that morning a week later, no other humans were about, but three horses waited by the fence. They felt not only the loss of Whinnie, but the sadness of the other animals and humans who’d known her. 

I wasn’t sure anything I could offer at that moment would help. In the face of suffering, injustice, and anger, it’s easy to feel that whatever we bring to the table will not be enough.

However, surrendering the outcome is essential when sharing Reiki energy with animals or communicating with them. So with a brief prayer, I set an intention for the animals’ highest good and put it in God’s hands.

Rain began to fall, and without thinking I put my umbrella up. Startled, all three horses pulled back.

I folded the umbrella and stashed it away. I started to castigate myself for not remembering that I actually knew better than to unfurl an umbrella near a horse. 

But they were still there and so was I. “Sorry, guys.” 

They relaxed, and I shared Reiki energy with them and with the other horses, ponies, and donkey who stood, still and mindful, in the pasture.

I offered a variation on the earth and sky meditation my animal Reiki teacher, Kathleen Prasad, taught. This meditation gently taps into both the grounding power of the earth and the divine expanse of the sky. I reminded the crew that support is always available, no matter where we are or what is happening.

A chilly breeze cut through my jacket as we finished up. The perfectionist in me still wondered if I’d done enough.

Then Boo, a beautiful 14-year-old black cat with white whiskers and a delicate white star on her chest, strolled up. She usually hid out in the barn. Now here she was, meowing and rubbing against my legs.

Boo at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Boo had been dropped off a couple of years earlier. Though initially terrified of people, she became “selectively social,” as executive director Allison Wheaton put it.

Being well-trained by cats, I know when one is demanding food, a lap, an opened door, a quick head rub, or the ever-popular skritch above the tail. Today, Boo wanted healing energy: Come on, let’s see what you’ve got.

I sat on a bench in the garden while Boo continued to wind around me, occasionally putting her front paws on my knee but never quite taking the leap into my lap. As she took in the energy, she kept up a running commentary of meows and purrs. This, I felt her tell me, was just what she needed. Of course, it was just what I needed, too.

One of Whinnie’s most important lessons was that it doesn’t matter what you can’t do or don’t have. If you show up with an open heart and put what you do have out there, chances are it will be exactly what is needed.

Even today, when COVID-19, violence, and division send us scrambling for an adequate response, we can bring our imperfect offerings.

We are here. We can offer more than we think. We can do this.