Yesterday I received the incredibly sad news that a very special animal made his journey to the next world. Thor, a large black Percheron with a limitless heart, passed on to join the herd of his Horse Ancestors. Thor was the first horse I ever worked with within the confines of equine assisted therapy – he as the trusted teacher/spiritual guide/therapist, me as the enthusiastic but slightly reluctant client. Initially he intimated the crap out of me but I was eventually won over by his soft energy – he was literally bathed in an aura of welcoming light. The weekend I spent with Thor was filled with lessons in patience and forgiveness, each grounded in respect and visceral awakening; spiritual teachings which have continued to encompass my intrinsic being to this day, some seven years later. I will dearly miss this gentle giant but his spirit leaves behind the gift and unwavering belief that animals, particularly horses, are more intuitive than we give them credit for; they are teachers of wisdom and goodness wrapped in fur. It is my wish that, in Thor’s memory, all who are struggling emotionally or spiritually, find their way to a horse’s guidance. While Thor was my first such equine spiritual connection, four years later I would again have the pleasure of working with more amazing horse teachers. This time, however, the experience would jolt me to my core.
In the fall of 2013 I was preparing to head to Ohio for the second half of my EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) training. The three day workshop would grant me the certification to work with horses and clients in therapy settings – this time as a counselor, not a client. Having attended the first half of the workshop at the same location two months earlier, I was expecting my approach to the workshops to be a little easier as I was already familiar with the horses our group would be working with. Two days prior to my departure I received word that my aunt, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer, passed away. While I wasn’t close to her, the shock of her death was still profound; the last my family had heard she was doing a little better – her spirits were up and she had had a great summer. Despite the sudden news, I made the difficult decision to continue with my plans of attending the training workshop even though it meant missing her funeral. At the time my job was dependent on me completing this necessary training and the next session wasn’t going to be offered for another three months – in Australia.
After the hurried arranging of a dog sitter, I headed stateside while the rest of my family traveled north to pay their final respects to my aunt. Even though I had made peace with my decision I still felt very “off” during my three hour drive to the Ohio countryside. Something wasn’t sitting right in my soul but I chose to set my emotions to auto-pilot and push on.
The first morning of training was typical – introductions, schedule of activities, washroom locations, etc. etc. In the afternoon we headed into the arena to interact with the horses – an obviously large component for working with horses in therapy settings. Four horses were brought into the vast open space – three I had worked with in the previous training, one was new to me. (For those not familiar with equine-assisted psychotherapy, the important thing to note is that at no point are the horses ridden – all the interactions take place on the ground. Therefore, the horses are given free range to walk around the training space until the facilitators give specific instructions for the participants to interact with the animals.) In all my previous experiences with horses they usually never bothered with me; I let them do their thing, they let me do mine. On this first day of training however, something happened that I would have never anticipated. It quickly became clear that I was being stalked by a horse – specifically the “new” horse that I was not familiar with. As I was standing in the middle of the arena, slightly displaced from the thirty plus other attendees, my mind began to drift off. It was one of the moments when you are physically present but are mentally light years away. After maintaining this somber demeanor for I don’t know how long, I suddenly felt a gentle nudge on my right shoulder. My mind flicked back into the reality of the moment – for about a nano-second. Then it drifted away again. Another nudge. Drift away. Nudge. Repeat. Repeat again. Finally I turned around and was greeted with the nose of a horse; not only had he been standing behind me the entire time but he was the source of the carefully placed nudges.
At the time I didn’t give this interaction much thought. I had been in situations previously where merely being in a horse’s way resulted in a gentle nudge – horse speak for “please move.” My interpretation of the above events changed after, on the morning of the second day of training, the entire group was asked to stand in a big circle as the four horses roamed free in the arena. While three of the horses walked around, smelling and trotting and doing what horses do best, my “nudger” broke through the ring of participants, penetrated the inner part of the circle and walked right over to me – where he planted himself directly in front of me. He would NOT move. Looking into his face I felt like he was peering into the deep recess of my soul. It was immensely powerful and comforting at the same time – and a wee bit embarrassing as it is rather daunting to have a 1400 pound animal stake claim to your personal space. This synergy lasted about fifteen minutes until we were instructed to break the circle and move to another part of the arena.
After lunch the facilitator’s had the group set up an obstacle course throughout the entire arena. They broke us into four smaller clusters with each one being given a horse to guide through the obstacle course, sans harness or lead. At this point it came as no surprise that my group was given my apparent equine soulmate. I’ve done this exercise MANY times with a variety of different horses, and while each time was a bit of a challenge it was made slightly easier when the group worked as a cohesive unit. If not, the horse would usually take off or kick up a fuss. Again, for whatever reason, I ended up being the lead of my group, that is, I was at the front with my hands on the horse. I remember whispering to him before we started, “If we work together we can get this done in no time.” What followed was a seamless almost effortless exchange between human and animal. Even though the other three horses kept leaving their groups, resulting in them having to start the course all over again, the horse I was leading conscientiously walked through that obstacle with next to no effort – a bonding that I have yet to see duplicated to the same degree.
On the last day of training it is standard procedure for the participants to spend some personal reflection time wondering around the grounds of the farm, meeting the other animals as well as spending quality time with each of the horses used during the activities. Up until this point we do not know anything about the animals – not even their names. As I was making my rounds to the horse’s stalls, I realized another one of the participants was trying to get my attention. When I finally became aware that she was speaking to me, I responded with, “Sorry, I must have mentally veered off for a minute. What were you asking me?” Without skipping a beat she replied, “It’s okay Theresa.” At the utterance of that name it felt like a lightening bolt had struck me. Before she could continue her question I stopped her: “Sorry did you just call me Theresa? My name is Erica.” Startled, she blurted out an apology, “I’ve been calling you Theresa since yesterday. I’m so sorry! I feel terrible!” “It’s okay” I mumbled in reply, “I hadn’t noticed.” And that was the truth, I hadn’t. My head had been in the clouds for nearly three days – part of it trying to figure out why this horse seemed to be so attached to me, the other part with my family at my aunt’s funeral. My aunt Theresa’s funeral. Until that moment I had never been “accidentally” referred to as Theresa in my life. My stomach hit the floor. I had to take several deep breaths as I made my way out of the barn into the fresh air of the October sunshine. Seriously, what the hell was going on?
As we gathered in a giant circle during the final afternoon of training, our facilitators began to tell each horses’ story. Two of the four had been rescued from the racing industry, one had lived at the farm his entire life, and the fourth, the one who had been seemingly glued to me for the last three days, was originally from the farm across the street. He was called Scout and came to live at the farm one month prior. On a night in early September a freak thunderstorm had developed. Scout and the other five members of his herd were out in the pasture when the storm hit. At the time all the horses were eating their evening meal from a round metal bale feeder. As Scout was moving away from the feeder, lightening struck it while the five other horses continued their munching. Each was killed instantly; Scout was the only survivor.
I still remember the shock wave that reverberated through me when I heard Scout’s story. The facilitator could barely contain her emotions, and rightfully so. This poor horse was still grieving – he had lost all his horse friends in a single flash of light. He came to be at the current farm so he could be around other horses; to still feel part of a herd. I realized in that moment that mine and Scout’s paths were meant to cross. In his own way he was reminding me that it was necessary and okay to honour my own grief – just as he was in the process of working through his.
Nearly three years have passed since I had this experience with Scout and it still rocks every ounce of my inner being. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around what occurred during those few days in October, but what I do know is that through sharing a paralleled grief with a horse I learned that the circle of life is not something to fight or deny, but honour and cherish. And even though Thor has now left this world for another, I know his spirit will forever live on in all the lives, both human and equine, that he touched and honoured in his own way.
Goodbye Thor. And thank you Scout. I am a better human because of your horsey wisdom.