I’m going through a tough time. Sometimes I wish the world would stop spinning so I’d get flung into space, and maybe there, without gravity, the weight on my chest would release me. This evening I just wanted to be with the horses. I didn’t want to ride. I just wanted to be. With the horses, I don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to pretend I’m ok when inside I’m falling apart. I don’t have to pretend to be happy when all I want to do is release the well of tears building up inside. Horses let me just be. They don’t pass judgment. They don’t criticize. They don’t tell me to toughen up. They just let me be. Because that is where they always exist – the simple, yet profound state of simply being. I plopped down in the field and Snowy came up to me, grazed right next to me, gradually moved outward, then he came back and nuzzled me again, grazed next to me, slowly moved outward, and then came back. This went on for a while, with Snowy letting me know in his own way that he was there to witness my pain, and to allow me to express it. After a while, Snowy let out a deep sigh, and I immediately did the same. It didn’t fix everything, but it alleviated some of the heaviness. I wonder what this world would be like if we were more like horses. If we didn’t pretend nor expect others to pretend. If we had the strength to sit with pain and vulnerability. I imagine the world would be a slightly better place.
It’s been three years since I said goodbye to my pony soulmate. He chose me, a wild three-year-old pony galloping down to a hesitant eight-year-old girl. He gingerly took an apple from my outstretched hand and in that same gesture, took my heart. We would spend the next 17 years learning from each other, teaching each other, comforting each other, and, mostly, loving each other. I learned what any little girl learns in a barn—the value of hard work, patience, perseverance, and compassion. All my secrets and tears were kept safe in my pony’s ears and fur. All of my insecurities faded away when I was with my pony. Sugar Maple was a pony that comes around only once in a lifetime.
My pony’s dam and two grandcolts found their way into my life. The dam is enjoying a happy semi-retirement, the older colt has a loving home with a former riding student of mine and my mom’s, and then, of course, there’s Snowy. I’m so grateful to have a piece of Sugar still in my life and now so deeply woven into my heart. After I said goodbye to Sugar, I wasn’t sure I would ever love another horse. I didn’t go to the barn for days. Then something happened—my relationship with Snowy deepened. My love for Snowy isn’t the same as was my love for his grandsire, but it is just as deep and profound. Snowy builds on the life lessons Sugar taught me. He reminds me that love comes in many forms. He makes sure I never lose my sense of humor. If Snowy were human, he’d probably be Tony Stark—confident, funny, handsome, and a bit of a pain in the ass. Snowy reminds me that there is always more to learn and room to grow.
Sugar’s memory lives on in my heart and the hearts of all those other children who learned life lessons with him. On this three-year farewell anniversary, I ask you to feel free to share your favorite memories of Sugar if you were a student of his or a parent of one of our students. You can leave them in the comments if you feel so inclined.
Thank you, Sugar, for all you taught me, for your patience, your tolerance, and your love.
I recently overheard a conversation between two lifelong horsewomen. One of them was very outspoken. She proclaimed that she learned everything about horses that she needed to know from her mother, who was also a lifelong horsewoman. She then started criticizing Natural Horsemanship, and the Parellis in particular. She mentioned an experience she had with a Parelli instructor who came to assist her with fixing her horse’s loading issues, which, I’ve noticed that 99.9% of the time, a horse’s loading issues are actually their human’s issues. From the sounds of it, this Parelli instructor tried to explain to this woman that the goal was to get her horse to want to go onto the trailer. Unfortunately, the instructor wasn’t able to get through to this woman, who continued her story with, “If I want my horse to load at 6am to go hunting, and he doesn’t want to load, he is still damn well going to load!” She concluded by talking about how when the ace (a sedative) wears off when she hunts this horse, he starts trembling all over.
I found this woman’s remarks deeply disturbing. I, too, learned much of what I know about horses from my mom, a lifelong horsewoman, but the difference is I didn’t stop learning, and I didn’t close myself off to other methods and philosophies, and my mom encouraged me to keep learning. While I don’t agree with 100% of what the Parellis teach, I do like a lot of it because it works for me and my horses. The best way to learn is to stay open to other training methods, try them out, and keep what works for you, discarding what doesn’t work and what doesn’t resonate with your heart and your horses’ spirits. Remember, too, that there will always be people who misunderstand and misuse certain training methods. We shouldn’t let these people give the entire method a bad name.
I remember the first time I ever saw the Parellis. It was at an Equine Expo in Pennsylvania, and the Parellis and their horses came galloping into the arena, music blasting, and then they played with the horses. Yes, it was entertainment, but it was also damn good horsemanship, and it was abundantly obvious that the horses were having fun, too. What I like about Natural Horsemanship and the Parelli methods is that they recognize the horse as a sentient being. The horse’s desires and free will are a key part of these methods.
The reason I found the woman’s remarks about her horse and her style of horsemanship so disturbing is because what she really is isn’t a horsewoman, but a bully. She fails to recognize, or perhaps just doesn’t care, that her horse has emotions, that he is a sentient being. Imagine drugging a person, shoving them onto a trailer, then making them run around the woods, pushing them to a point of trauma so severe that they tremble violently once the drugs wear off. This is assault. This is abuse. But somehow some people still think it’s totally fine to do to a horse.
I should’ve spoken up. I should’ve found a way to try to open this woman’s mind so that maybe her horses wouldn’t have to be victims of her willful ignorance and abuse anymore, so that maybe she could discover there’s another way, a better way, to be a horsewoman. I was so upset at the time that I didn’t speak up because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do so in a diplomatic way, that I would just cause her to shut her mind even more tightly. But I’m speaking up now. I’m living by example through my relationship with Snowy. And maybe next time, I’ll find a way to speak up in the moment, to have an open dialogue, to show others the depth of connection you can have with your horses if you remain open, aware, loving, kind, patient, and humble.
My day began at 3:30am. I arrived at the barn early to get Snowy ready for his first fox hunt! His white hindquarters acted as a beacon when I went to find Snowy in his field. The stars were out and there was a light mist on the land. I enjoyed a few peaceful moments with Snowy under the stars, then we headed to the barn, got ready, got into the trailer, and we were off. Lacy (my friend and the wonderful barn manager where I board Snowy) was hauling us and also going to hunt. She’s a pro, so I was thankful to have her guidance. I’ve hunted only a handful of times, and this was Snowy’s very first time.
We were hunting with the Warrenton Hunt (for which my mom used to whip in!), and we were the first to arrive, parking in a bucolic meadow, the sun still not above the horizon. Others arrived and then came the hounds. They bounded right toward me and Snowy as they were let out, and Snowy remained quite calm, observing them without getting worked up. Lacy and I remained in the back, allowing Snowy to figure things out. We went through fairytale-like woods and meadows, water crossings, and rolling hills. Snowy got some good exposure to the hounds, a couple good gallops, and had to learn to just stop and wait. The stopping and waiting was the hardest part for Snowy. With a little more practice, Snowy will be just fine and will learn to savor the stops, kind of like how yogis learn to savor downward dog as a resting pose. Snowy tried hard, and I’m so pleased with that. Snowy had his green moments, but breathing and circles (lots of circles) saved us and made it a positive experience overall—and so much fun! I’m so proud of Snowy and looking forward to our next hunt!
My body totally knocked me on my bum today. I had all kinds of plans, including hopefully taking some horse yoga photos at the new barn, but when the body says no, there’s no arguing with it. I’ve been unbelievably busy the past two weeks, and it finally caught up with me. So guess what I’m doing today–nothing. I totally ran out of prana, and my body became sick. I think our society glorifies being busy. Unfortunately, the art of resting, observing, and doing nothing has very much been lost. I’ll learn from this and give myself a break before my body breaks down next time. It’s difficult to change our lifestyles in this society to accommodate living a less busy life, but we must do everything we can to fight against the current that says being busy is a good thing. Horses are great teachers in the art of doing nothing. Let’s be more like them.
Neighsayer – noun: An internet troll who says negative things about horse yoga.
No matter who you are or what you do, there will be those who criticize you. The internet has enabled complete strangers to say just plain mean, ignorant things to each other. Most people who find me on Instagram or my other social media pages are very positive and supportive; however, there are a few who are critical and negative, saying that what I do with Snowy is abusive to him. Yoga’s first yama is ahimsa, or nonviolence. If Snowy didn’t enjoy our yoga sessions and if they harmed him in any way, I wouldn’t be doing yoga with him. The truth is that Snowy enjoys our yoga sessions just as much as I do. He’s given me very clear signs that it feels good and he’s happy to be my yoga partner. You can watch my YouTube videos to see how relaxed and happy he is.
So when people who don’t know me or Snowy say that I’m abusing my horse and practicing yoga with him just for attention, it gets under my skin. Let me clarify—usually neighsayers’ comments don’t bother me. Yoga teaches us to keep our mind calm through the good and the bad, so I work to appreciate the positive comments without letting them go to my head and to shrug off the negative ones. Every now and then, though, a neighsayer will leave a comment that actually bothers me a little bit. When this happens, I find the best thing to do is laugh it off. These neighsayers don’t know me or my horse and clearly have issues of their own that lead them to leave such hateful comments about a person they don’t even know. So I laugh it off and send them love.
The most recent neighsayer suggested I do yoga “on a bucket or something” instead of with Snowy. So here’s to all my neighsayers out there. May you find your own peace and sense of humor. And to all my supporters, thank you ❤
Yoga without a sense of play isn’t really yoga, at all. If you fall out of a pose and can’t laugh at yourself (as long as you aren’t injured), this creates more “vrittis,” or disturbances in your mind, and the whole point of yoga is to learn how to quiet your mind and eventually reach samadhi. Horses appreciate a human’s inner child, too, as it encourages a sense of wonder and awe.
Here are three reasons to get in touch with your inner child, whether you’re a yogi and/or equestrian or not:
1. So you can live in the present moment.
If you haven’t checked in with your inner child in a while, he or she may have a few things to say. You may need to get in touch not just with your inner child, but your past self. Events that caused you great pain as a child could still be affecting you today, even if you’re not conscious of it. I have issues surrounding separation and expressing my emotions because of things that happened when I was ages six to twelve. I’ve known for a few years now that six-year-old me was affecting the way I reacted sometimes, but I didn’t start doing serious work to heal and grow from that until recently. The work isn’t fun, but it’s essential to being able to truly live in the moment. Growth is uncomfortable and, many times, painful, but it’s always worth it.
2. So you laugh more.
Children laugh way more than adults. Laughing forces you to breathe. When you’re tense and stressed out, your breathing moves up into your chest. Laughing encourages the breath to move back down into the belly, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system). So lighten up and laugh a little. Actually, laugh a lot. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
3. So you can keep learning and growing.
Children possess such open, unprejudiced minds. Think about how much you learned during your childhood. Think of what your life could be like if you were willing to continue learning like that. With yoga, horses, and life in general, I’ve realized that the more I learn, the less I know. Keeping an open mind is essential to growth.
Your inner child calls to you when you stop to notice a dandelion, when you’re stuck in traffic and see the person next to you singing her heart out and feel an urge to do the same, when you listen to the animals, and when you listen to your heart. Let that child come out to play.
This is for the sensitive ones out there. The ones who cry easily. The ones who feel others’ pain. The ones who have been called weak for being vulnerable. I’m here to tell you that your sensitivity, rather than being a weakness to work on, is a strength to be proud of. I’ve been told I’m too sensitive more times than I can count. The people who have told me this misunderstand me and, surely, any other sensitive beings in their lives. Unless you are sensitive yourself, it can be difficult to understand sensitive people (and animals).
I cry easily and feel everything deeply, but this isn’t something I want to change. Feeling everything deeply isn’t easy and takes A LOT of strength to endure. The Achilles Heel of sensitive people is that we tend to take things personally. So I have done a lot of work on not taking things so personally and, even when they are personal, to understand that others’ words and actions are a reflection of them, not me. I’ve gone through some tough changes and lost friendships in the past few months, and the work I’ve done on taking things less personally has been a huge help in getting through those times. Cultivating self-awareness and committing to never-ending personal growth is essential to sensitive people surviving and thriving in this wild ride called life.
What we sensitive ones must remember is that our sensitivity, no matter how many times we get criticized for it, is a strength we should never seek to be rid of. Sensitive people tend to be more introverted, not necessarily less social, but we need time to ourselves to rest and recharge. We sensitive ones are usually quiet and calm, and when we’re not calm, we have a damn good reason for it. Horses are sensitive creatures and there are, of course, some horses that are more sensitive than others. Horses’ generally sensitive nature enables them to live harmoniously in a herd and to help each other survive in times of danger. Horses’ sensitivity allows them to feel what their herd mates are feeling and what any other beings (predators and humans) around them are feeling. Did you know that if your blood pressure rises, so does your horse’s? The thing is, we shouldn’t try to get our horses to “toughen up,” nor should anyone tell a sensitive person to do so.
Our sensitivity gives us the capacity to be empathetic, nurturing, highly tuned into our environment, aware of others’ needs and wants, and, most of all, strong. Going out into the world is difficult for us some days, but we do it anyway because we must; however, on these days it’s important not to stuff our feelings down and lock them away in some remote cell within. Instead, we must acknowledge whatever we’re feeling, breathe, and say, “I’ll come back to you when the time is right.” And the right time must be soon, for any feelings we don’t deal with in a timely manner express themselves physically as sickness, pain, or disease.
Sensitive ones, I feel you—literally, and I know you feel me, too. Thank you for being you. You are strong. The world needs you. So don’t ever stop being sensitive (as if it’s a choice, anyway), and embrace your sensitivity as the gift it is. Sometimes it’s hard to bear. I don’t enjoy attending most horse competitions anymore because there are so many unhappy horses and horses in pain and, not only do I recognize in their facial and bodily expressions the pain they’re in, I feel it, and I wince and struggle to hold back tears. I sometimes despair that I can’t do anything to help them. Then I remember that my sensitivity is a gift that enables me to have close bonds with horses, other animals, and nature, and to recognize their suffering and speak up for them when I can, whether it’s on this blog or elsewhere on print and social media. So if you haven’t already, dear sensitive ones, figure out how to use your sensitivity to help others, especially those without a voice. Because we feel so deeply, we don’t need words to understand another’s suffering. We just need the willingness and strength to be present with it and then to speak up and make a change.
I’ve had quite a few people compare horse yoga to vaulting and ask me if I’ve ever tried vaulting. Let me begin by saying that vaulting looks super fun and I would love to try it! Vaulters are very talented and awesome! However, vaulting and horse yoga are not the same thing. Vaulting is gymnastics on horseback and horse yoga is, well, yoga on horseback, so saying they’re the same thing and that doing yoga on horseback is stupid because vaulting is already a thing is like saying that gymnastics and yoga are the same thing and doing yoga is stupid because why not just do gymnastics? See how that logic just doesn’t work out?
I have nothing against vaulting, and again I’d love to try it, but yoga on horseback is its own special practice that differs from the sport of vaulting in many ways. First of all, yoga isn’t a sport—it’s a practice, a spiritual, emotional practice and journey. Vaulting is done while the horse is in motion. I usually practice horse yoga with my horse standing still. Sometimes I’ll do some seated poses at the walk, but for the most part Snowy gets to hang out and be still. Vaulters typically use a surcingle, while horse yogis usually practice bareback or with just a bareback pad.
So there you have it—horse yoga and vaulting are not the same thing. They’re both awesome, but they’re awesome in different ways.
Today an instructor said something to me that no other instructor ever has—she told me to send my horse gratitude from my heart. This riding instructor also happens to be an equine massage therapist, and she pointed out in my lesson that horses have bigger hearts than humans and much larger energy fields. She said that if we want our horses to continue to try for us, we must be grateful to them. Sending them gratitude comes naturally to me, for I’ve felt this way about horses for a very long time. It’s such a privilege to ride upon such magnificent, powerful, graceful, wise beings. Hearing the reminder to send them gratitude certainly didn’t hurt, though, and it felt so inspiring to know there ARE other equestrians out there who feel this way.
Horses are extremely emotionally intelligent. They are social and emotional creatures. How often do you pay attention to how your horse is feeling? Treat your horse like a partner instead of a tool or a recreational vehicle or a means to win ribbons and you’ll have a partnership, a relationship, instead of a constant struggle filled with frustration and misunderstanding. Horses want to be heard. Are you listening?
P.S. Lara Muller is the instructor who taught me today. Here’s her website if you’re interested in learning more about her: www.jltrainingandsales.com