It was hot. Not a regular kind of hot; it was middle of July, Florida hot. Doing steam room jumping jacks in a wetsuit kind of hot. My once crisp and dry brand new T-shirt from Abercrombie & whatever now wicked away the beads of sweat dousing my torso. Just imagine a poor soul falling into a pool fully clothed, you get the idea. My mind was fluid with irrelevant distractions as I stood next to this thousand pound beast of an animal.
Being “clean” only but a week from a pretty serious opiate addiction probably didn’t help my cause. Terry, the equine specialist, was attempting to communicate with me, but my foggy brain could only comprehend a word or two here and there. Her calm demeanor was relaxing, which I desperately needed given my abnormally high level of anxiety.
Despite being raised in Ocala, one of the horse capitals of the world, I had absolutely zero horse experience. I picked up on words like ‘intentional’ and ‘present’ and that horses were something she called ‘sentient beings.’ All of it was Greek to me, but before I could even begin to process what she was saying, she told us to grab our horses and follow her to something she called a round pen.
Halters on and ropes in hand, we trekked with our chosen horses from under the sweet shade of the stables out into the scorn of the white-hot Florida sunshine. I chose a mare named Cookie, a fifteen-year-old quarter horse, whose blonde main complimented her chestnut brown body. She was sweet as could be, but had a sassy side to her; it was a perfect fit.
I nervously walked her through the gate and into the open grass, peering down at my feet every few seconds to make sure I wouldn’t get trampled! “Look where you want to go, Jared!” Terry called out to me. “Trust her, and stay in the moment.”
I fought off the delirium long enough to begin heeding her advice. The intimidation factor with a creature as large as Cookie was very much real. As we walked together, while still attempting to look where I was going, I caught glances of Cookie in stride. Contrary to my immense fear, she seemed so calm and composed.
I have heard people tell me stories of their animals “communicating with them,” and admittedly wrote it off as nonsense. However, in that moment Cookie and I made eye contact. I felt to my core she was telling me “It’s all going to be okay, just take a breath you crazy human!” Instantly, the grip of my jaw unclenched, and my shoulders relaxed. I looked forward, noticing our destination only a few yards away. Cookie and I synced up our stride and I fell in line with the other clients and their horses, awaiting what Terry had in store for us.
The round pen was exactly as it sounded, a high fence shaped into a circle, and just enough room for the horse to trot around. My memory slowly came back, I recalled seeing these many times in fields and farms as a child growing up in Ocala. I looked down the row of my fellow clients with their horses. Everyone seemed so confident, so poised with their ‘noble steeds’ while they stood at attention.
Being the new kid to the facility, I felt some slight envy, and silently wished I could someday be as confident, with or without my horse. I snapped back to reality, once again trying to expel the waves of mental detox and focus in on what Terry was explaining to the group.
“Today we are going to put our intention setting to the test,” she said. “I want everyone to go one at a time into the round pen, take the halter off your horse and set your intentions in your mind and body for what you’d like them to do.”
Oh Lord. You want me to get into a small pen with this giant animal, and let it loose?! And you want me to use this ‘intention setting’ nonsense to get it to NOT attack me? Yeah no thanks, Terry, hard pass on this one! Whatever small connection I had just made with Cookie was quickly forgotten when those words uttered from her mouth.
My fear slowly started to get the best of me as I immediately reconsidered the whole “equine therapy” approach. I felt Cookie’s warm breath on my hand, as she used her nose to nudge my arm slightly. Oh no, Cookie, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but we are NOT doing this craziness! “Alright, who is my first volunteer?” Terry inquired.
The group fell silent. They must’ve had the same skepticism as I did, or the heat had stolen any ounce of spirited enthusiasm we collectively had. The moment Terry stated she would call on us at random, Cookie serendipitously took a step forward, pulling me along with her. Whether she moved forward from standing in a mound of ants, or truly felt my hesitant vibes and wanted to push me, I was now stuck being the guinea pig for this terrifying exercise.
“Well it looks like someone is excited to perform! Come on down, Jared!” Terry exclaimed with a laugh. My nervous smile must’ve been an indication to Terry, and she smoothly opened and closed the gate, guiding me through this nerve-wracking experience.
She had me stand there for a moment in the middle, instructing me to breathe deeply and clear my head as much as possible. A task I deemed to be near hopeless. Again I heard the terms she mentioned earlier, this time with much more clarity. I felt so exposed in the middle of the ring, like I was a gladiator waiting for the lions to be released. Intentions are everything with horses, Terry told me with support in her eyes.
The time had come to face my fear. Removing the halter, I freed Cookie to do as she pleased, which I could supposedly control with my mind and intentions. I untied the knot and freed her, holding my breath while thinking for a split second it could be my last. However, once I held the horseless halter down at my side, Cookie just stood there, calm and expectant. I exhaled.
“Now don’t move a muscle, don’t say a word and just clear your mind and put your focus 100% on Cookie.” Terry told me.
“Set your intentions in every part of you to tell her to walk in a circle.” She explained.
This is where my BS meter started ringing off again. There is no way this horse can “read my mind,” it is just going to do what it’s going to do, I thought. I’ll play along, though, I guess. I very half-heartedly thought, ok horse…run in a circle.
My focus was still on my fear, and not on my horse. Terry sensed my distance. “Take a deep breath and close your eyes for a second, Jared.” I was instructed. “When you open them back up, don’t think about me…don’t think about the other clients, the heat, your life outside of here, just think about what you would like Cookie to do.”
I inhaled deeply, closed my eyes and exhaled fully. In that instant, Terry’s instructions came to fruition. I let go of all my baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying. All the problems my thoughts created, what was for lunch that day and my stupid sweat-drenched shirt did not matter anymore.
The only thing that mattered was this gentle giant to my right, and me silently asking her to start walking in a circle. I opened my eyes, and in a millisecond that felt like ten minutes, Cookie left my side and gracefully began trotting around me. I wish I could make something like this up. She proudly strutted about, her blonde mane bouncing off of her neck while she continually made eye contact with me for approval.
My entire body at this moment was covered in goosebumps, and the chills up and down my spine overpowered the tremendous heat which previously burdened me. The moment was so cinematic, I could just hear the orchestra playing the victory music as my peers cheered Cookie and I on. I was sold. This equine therapy business works!
Every day I wake up I want to chase that moment. The feeling of pure intention and focus liberated me like nothing else I have experienced in my twenty-four years. For that small sliver in time, I felt completely free.
As I continue to go down to the barn my relationship with Cookie develops with every passing moment. She reminds me, on a daily basis, to remain present and focused on the task at hand. I give you all the details of that story to paint the picture of skeptic turned believer, in the matter of an instant. A portrait of remaining open-minded.
That story is not exclusive to just me, though. I have witnessed countless clients of Mending Fences have amazing breakthroughs with their horses. I’ve seen both men and women who suppressed their feelings and opinions their entire life learn to assert themselves in healthy ways. People with attention deficit disorders focus fully on a task for two-plus hours at a time. Women who fell victim to sexual assault or vicious trauma’s that learned to love and trust again. All by practicing these things with the animals they call mirrors to our soul, horses.
The beauty of equine therapy is that none of these lessons are ever left at the barn. They carry substantial weight into our everyday lives. Cookie has taught me to remain open-minded in life. Never to judge something or someone from the start, and be patient and intentional with all endeavors.
I no longer look at going down to equine as the laborious task I once did. The heat no longer matters to me. The flies no longer bother me. Heck, even shoveling Cookie’s poop is nothing to me anymore! I love every second of it. I cherish every morning I am graced with her presence. With all of the self-help books I’ve read and therapy sessions I have been in, the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned was from a spunky fifteen-year-old quarter horse, who’d have thought?
Written by Jared Schappert
Edited by Crystal Champ