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.”

Lola’s legacy in spots

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Any child Lola carried was her No. 1 priority. (Photo courtesy Summit Equestrian Center)

I watched Lola carry the young rider around the grounds at Summit Equestrian Center, accompanied by two side walkers and director Allison Wheaton. The 15-year-old Appaloosa mare moved with the ease of a practiced therapy horse.

What’s more, she’d attuned herself to the energy of this young girl, who lived with a condition affecting neuromuscular and other systems. The child had groomed and saddled Lola, with plenty of pets along the way, and now sat beaming on her back.

Writing a Fort Wayne Magazine story on therapy animals had brought me to the barn to meet Lola and watch her work. Lola adjusted her stride to each child who rode her, I would learn. Once, she abruptly stopped because she sensed a child’s oncoming seizure.

Even her coat was beautiful, fun, and functional; kids counted her spots or adorned them with nontoxic finger paint during summer day camp. She stood perfectly still as riders stretched to touch one spot or another.

Just a couple of years before, Lola had arrived at Summit Equestrian Center — a nonprofit which offers therapeutic riding lessons and equine-assisted counseling — worn down emotionally and physically. Months of good nutrition, training, and mindful care helped her recover and decide on her new role.

From then on, Allison said, it was forward all the way. Whatever happened in those first dozen or so years of Lola’s life could not be undone, but they would not define her. She made sure of that. She had better things to do.

Lola and I met again a few years later, this time in my capacity as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner doing weekly rounds at Summit. She was always happy to see me — and to fill me in on anything she thought needed attention. Ever the matriarch, she kept watch over the herd, as well as the goats, pigs, chickens, cats, dogs, sheep, the volunteers, and especially Allison. The two of them built Summit’s mission one lesson at a time.

As time passed, Lola’s physical body began to weaken, but her spirit and sense of humor remained strong. A few months ago, I caught up with her as she was eating breakfast and asked her how she was. “I’m an old lady. I’m up. I’m eating. What more do you want?” she replied wryly.

This spring, I watched her follow newcomer Mojo, a handsome Tennessee Walker, around the pasture, at once shamelessly flirting and telling him things he’d need to know and take care of when she was no longer there to do so herself. Lola had plenty to tell me, too — thanking Allison for her loving care and the difference they made together, a caution not to take much sass from a certain mustang, a reminder about keeping gates closed, and more.

Under a summer solstice sky, Lola completed her work on this plane and went to join old friends Whinnie and Ritzy on her next adventure.

When I look at Lola’s life, I see each lesson, ride, encounter, and experience as a spot like the ones on her coat. No two are exactly alike. Some overlap and even seem multilayered. Together, those spots form a pattern like no other.

Thank you, Lola, for inspiring us to find the beauty in our own patterns.

 

 

 

Donkeys carry with care

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Diego, adopted a year ago from the Bureau of Land Management, gets ready for some Reiki at Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Picture it: You’re a young girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy — one with major implications for the larger world — and a new husband who wasn’t quite on board at first. The kid’s coming any day now, but guess what? You’ve got to schlep to another city because some dude in power decided to take a census. Some help with these burdens sure would be nice.

Though the Gospels do not specify how the two got to Bethlehem, the image of Mary riding a donkey with Joseph walking alongside is part of Christmas culture. One can only hope it happened that way. It would have been a long, hard walk for a pregnant woman, maybe impossible if she went into labor en route. But even if Mary and Joseph didn’t have their own donkey for this trip, it’s not hard to imagine that one might have turned up on the road to Bethlehem and, having considered the matter carefully, volunteered for the job.

Donkeys have traditionally been beasts of burden, but they have a strong sense of self-preservation. I’ve learned they carry a lot more than us and our stuff … but they’re selective about what they take on, and when.

Diego, who is pictured above, came to Summit Equestrian Center last year from southwestern Arizona via the Bureau of Land Management. This previously wild burro was understandably overwhelmed when he arrived. The first time I offered to share Reiki — a non-invasive stress relief modality — with him, he declined and walked away. I told him that was completely OK, he was in a safe place, and I was not there to force anything on him. Central to the practice of animal Reiki is that participation is always up to the animal.

In the weeks that followed, he did agree to share Reiki for short intervals, each time moving a little closer to where I stood just outside his enclosure in the barn. One day, he gently bumped noses with me. Soon he decided he liked not only Reiki but head rubs.

Diego has his own sense of where he belongs and the proper way to relate to others. Throughout last winter, he stayed in the barn, often accompanied by Lakota, the mustang with whom he’d traveled from the BLM center. He watched with concern as Mildred the goat settled her arthritic limbs into a pile of hay, and she calmly returned his soft gaze.

Another day, Josie, Summit’s resident pig — who at the time was going through what I can only describe as porcine adolescence — approached the pen. Diego leaned down so that they were nose to snout. Josie, who perhaps had counted on being ignored by the equine newcomers, squealed insolently and trotted off. A confused Diego drew back.

“Don’t take it personally, Diego,” I told him. “You should hear some of the things she’s said to me.”

Spring flowers bloomed, and Diego still resisted going outside. Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, read up on donkey training, gathered some ideas, and decided she needed more treats and more patience. On the next try, Diego walked right out and joined the others as if that was his intention all along. A natural introvert, he’s found his niche — often a donkey-sized space in the trees — but he joins the herd around the hay each day. When he wants Reiki, he makes himself available when I’m on my rounds.

As Allison pointed out, Diego challenged us to get beyond what we thought should happen and when, and instead to tap into our creativity and patience. That freed us to think in new ways and Diego to offer more of his authentic, kind self. From someone captured from the wild and moved from one holding area to another before being adopted, that is a precious gift indeed.

Rosie, a miniature donkey who was formerly part of the Summit herd, also had strong opinions about what should happen when. If breakfast was late, everyone heard about it, and she didn’t like it when the pony she habitually hung out with wasn’t close by. Once, when I arrived and went to check in with the sheep, ducks, and chickens first, Rosie hee-hawed from the pasture fence.

“I’ll get there,” I assured her. “You’re important, too.” She looked back at me, ears swiveling, and quieted down. She still wanted to be first, mind you, but she appreciated the acknowledgment. Rosie has since found a new family and is happily keeping her humans, horses, and cows in line.

A friend has a donkey she says is like a giant cleansing stone, soaking up her worries and processing them like a string of rosary, mandala, or misbaha beads. It’s a relationship of trust and mutual care. If a donkey shares your burdens, you can be sure that donkey finds them (and you) worth his or her while.

Today’s donkeys may not carry material possessions and riders like they did when Mary needed help on her journey. But if we treat them right, and let them lead us into new ways of thinking and being, we may find support beyond our wildest human expectations.