When Your Therapist Is a Horse
What can a horse teach a single gay man looking for love and hoping to start a family one day? A lot more than you'd think, it turns out. As a mental health professional, I recently had the opportunity to complete an 8-week equine assisted therapy program Heart of Horsemanship (HOH) for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While I am fortunate that I don't personally suffer from PTSD, the experience deeply touched me in ways I can barely put into words. And while it might not be obvious what a experiential horse therapy program has to do with Gays With Kids, I'd encourage you to read on. It's more relevant than you think.
Make Yourself Vulnerable
From the first moment I met my horse, Maggie, I was terrified. I hadn't been raised around horses as a small town boy from San Diego. Of course, I was matched with the largest horse in the group, a brown thoroughbred who I was told was friendly, but quickly wanted nothing to do with me when I entered her stall. I can remember feeling so nervous that this horse was going to trample me. I was instructed by my cowboy instructor that before I began to brush her, to try to connect with her and pet her. As my heart raced, all I kept thinking about was fear of being stomped and trampled on. Horses can innately pick up on your emotions, what you give out they react to without any judgement. She wanted nothing to do with me. But, the minute I let go, and trusted she wouldn't hurt me, I felt calmer. For me, having recently gone through a difficult break up with my former partner, it was a reminder me to keep my heart open and to make myself vulnerable to someone once again. Don't close yourself off from the possibility of love.
Trust the Process
There was logic to the process and direction in each week's interaction with our horses. Initially, it was just going through the motions. I pet her, brushed her, saddled her, and rode her, without much belief in how a horse could really matter. How could she teach me about things in life I wasn't figuring out on my own? But, I assure you, just like with dating, finding a husband, or bringing children into your family, you have to trust the process.
During one of my first interactions with Maggie, I had had a stressful day at work and I couldn't stop thinking of the other things in my life I should be doing: paperwork, training, meetings, counseling, studying, organizing, etc. My horse very quickly reminded me that if I am not here fully, she isn't going to be with me, either. As in my relationships with my coworkers and friends, it begged the question, am I really present, or am I half listening to conversations, coffee dates, or time with family and friends? Am I giving people my entire self when I spend time with them? If even a horse is able to when I'm not 100% with her, how might I incorporate the practice of being present into my relationships as well?
Live in the Moment
In one of the most powerful interactions of the program my cowboy challenged me to the goal of taking Maggie to the light post, turn right and come back. In my head I am thinking "oh no problem, I can do this, easy peezy". However, when I asked Maggie to go forward she stopped, then went right, then turned and I grew frustrated. "Why wouldn't she listen to me and go to the light pole like I asked her to? I was looking where I wanted to go as my instructor taught me". My cowboy stopped me quickly and said something that touched me to the core, "Paul, you're so focused on the goal of the light post, you stopped connecting with Maggie. She isn't going to follow you unless you maintain focus on the goal AND her". I paused, closed my eyes, and nearly broke down in tears overcome with emotion as I realized a powerful lesson this horse had just taught me. It was an insight I had been working so hard to find for so long. I realized at that moment, what Maggie was telling me, "stay present with those around you and what's right in front of you". For so many years since my break up, I have tried so hard to find a husband, so I could reach my goal of building a family. I had started to lose hope and give up. Maggie reminded me to stay in the moment and to stop trying so hard, to enjoy what's right in front of you at this moment and to enjoy life right now.
Perhaps some of you reading this may think how come I am not the lucky one? How can I find that person I am meant to be with so I can start my family? My desire for you is to stay connected, open your heart, trust the process, stay present, and have hope. Don't give up. I never dreamed a horse could so valuably shift my perspective on such basic things and looking forward to a bright and hopeful New Year.