On Sensitivity and Strength

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.

 

 

Horse Yoga Isn’t Vaulting–Here’s Why

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?

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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.

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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.

Speak from Your Heart

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?

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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

Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked…or Equestrians 

  Winter came in with a bang this month in the mid-Atlantic. Our “winter” here in northern Virginia had consisted mostly of sunny, mild days. Suddenly, Mother Nature remembered what season it was and said, “Oops, here’s all the snow and cold you’ve been missing.” Snowstorm Jonas began rolling in about midday Friday. I got off of work early from my barn manager job and went to play in the fast-accumulating snow with my horse. We went for a ride, during which we saw a beautiful, bright red fox absolutely resplendent against the white snow. Then I tucked my horse in for the night and went home to hunker down. 

  
When I awoke Saturday morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes—there was a wondrous amount of snow! Driving was out of the question. I shoveled our way out of the house and my mom and I walked to the barn in the midst of the blizzard. 

  
It felt like we were on the set of The Day After Tomorrow. After 45 minutes of braving the wind and snow, we arrived to the barn. 

  
The horses had all survived the night, but they’d have to deal with staying in, and they weren’t too happy about it. They looked longingly out of their stall windows, craving to stretch their legs and stimulate their minds. All we could do was provide them with clean stalls, hay, and water, and promise them they wouldn’t be cooped up forever. 

  
By Sunday morning, the snow had stopped. With the help of a kind neighbor who visited the barn, I shoveled a path to the paddock closest to the barn. 

  
The horses could finally stretch their legs after being confined to their stalls since Friday night. Most of the horses had never seen this much snow, and their expressions were priceless. They thoroughly enjoyed playing in the snow, for about 10 minutes, then they were worn out. It was quite a bit of work to wade through all that snow. I rode my horse again for a few minutes, pretending to be in Game of Thrones (bring it on, White Walkers!). 

   
   
The horses had to spend the night in the barn again, but they seemed much more content. They peacefully munched their hay as I bid them farewell for the evening. 

  
You don’t get days off when you have horses. Sometimes you even have to walk 45 minutes in a blizzard to go take care of them. But I wouldn’t trade it for a thing. 

Watch a video of the horses playing in the snow! 

Out of the Woods…And into the Garden

Ever since I returned from Costa Rica at the beginning of December, I’ve been searching my heart and trying to figure out what to do with my life and how to use my gifts to best serve others. I felt like I was lost in the woods. I took steps to get another “real job,” but I felt quite a bit of anxiety about it. My passion is with yoga and horses. So I made what some would consider the not-so-smart decision and turned down the “real job.” I had faith that I would find a way to do work that spoke to my heart.

Well, I asked and the universe answered. I’ll soon begin work with Wheatland Farm as its barn manager. It provides therapeutic riding and an array of other services and activities. I’m thrilled to be a part of such meaningful work.

I spent a few hours today at the bucolic Oatlands Historic House and Gardens. I’ll be teaching yoga there every Sunday (except the first Sunday of the month) beginning February 21st. On the first Sunday of each month, my yoga mentor, Denise Moore, will be teaching, and I highly recommend attending her class, too. During the colder months, we’ll practice in the cozy greenhouse among the refreshing energy of the plants. Once it’s warm, we’ll practice outside in the lush gardens.

Stay tuned for more yoga classes to be added to my schedule. They’ll be posted here. There are lots of other exciting things in the works, and I can’t wait for them to come to fruition so I can share them all with you.

I’ve always followed my heart, and it has yet to lead me astray. We all have gifts, and it’s up to each of us to figure out what those gifts are and how to use them to serve others. If you spend your life chasing money, power, fame, and material objects, you’ll never be happy. Spend your life instead sharing your gifts, helping others, making this world a better place, bit by bit. Follow your heart and the rest will fall into place.

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New Beginnings

Horses have a knack for showing us our biggest flaws. When this happens, we have a choice; we can either blame them for our shortcomings, or we can take the opportunity to look within, acknowledge our mistake, and grow. I recently started playing the Parelli Games with Snowy. It’s been a fun way for us to spend our time together and to learn new skills. Snowy has progressed pretty quickly, so the other day I introduced new objects into the games—a tarp, an umbrella, and a big ball. The tarp and umbrella were no big deal for Snowy. He had seen them before and playing the games with them seemed to make Snowy more engaged. He was having to really think, learn, and play all at once.

The ball was a different story. His fear of the ball was evident throughout our session. He always kept his eyes on it and was more tense than usual. I eventually got to the point of being able to hold the ball against Snowy’s body. He stood quietly while I did this, but I could tell from the wrinkles around his eyes that he still wasn’t the ball’s best friend.

The day after our first ball session, I had the ball out in the arena again so we could continue our desensitizing/friendly game. Snowy saw the ball from outside the arena and planted his feet, refusing to come any closer. I stayed calm at first, patiently insisting that he walk toward the ring. My insistence and patience weren’t working, and I felt frustration start to build. I had tried all the tools in my toolbox and nothing was working. So Snowy and I went back into the barn and I groomed him.

Other horsepeople may have their own opinions on what I should have done, but I’ll say this—I was aware of my frustration building, and I didn’t want that frustration to turn into anger. I’m only human, so of course I’m going to experience emotion; however, anger has no place in our relationships with horses. Snowy and I approached the arena again once we were feeling more relaxed, and he walked in with only the slightest hesitation. We worked on more friendly games with the ball and I felt very satisfied with our session.

Snowy taught me that day that no matter what my plan or goal is, I must be flexible enough to listen to his needs. Snowy needed me to be a calm, confident, patient leader, and when I wasn’t able to provide that for him, I took a step back. I would rather take that step back than take my frustration and anger out on a horse or any other animal any day. I’m still growing in my horsemanship, and always will be. Playing with horses offers endless opportunities for growth and learning. I’m thankful Snowy showed me my flaws that day, for it gives me a chance to be a better partner for him. Remember that no matter how much experience you have, it’s okay to try something new. You may feel like a bumbling beginner again, but it’ll be worth it.

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Transforming the Pain of Loss into Love

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“Oh, Sugar, I miss you. I want to see you right now! I can dream of you. But that’s still not enough. Oh yes, it’s pretty rough without you. I’m sailing up to the stars, catching some sparkles for you. Oh, Sugar, how I miss you. Your shiny, velvety coat and flaxen mane and tail. Oh, Sugar, I miss you! Yes, I do.”

I wrote this note to my pony when I was eight years old. School was a distraction; my horse was my life. Not much has changed, but Sugar Maple has moved on to another plane. When I found this note the other day, it hit me in the depths of my heart. Sugar was my pony soul mate. He taught me patience, perseverance, empathy, and compassion. He taught me love. He saved me. You never get over a loss like that. It’s been over a year and a half since I said goodbye for good to Sugar, and the pain is still there.

Even in his death, Sugar taught me. I thought I would never love another horse again. I didn’t think I could. And yet, Snowy, Sugar’s grandson, has worked his way into my heart and makes me smile every day. Sugar has shown me that loss can lead to healing if you allow it; that grief can open the door to more love.

Snowy always knows how to make me laugh.


When I discovered the note, a great sadness settled into me, but right next to it was joy. I never knew sadness and joy could exist simultaneously, but in my heart they did. I was sad for my loss, sad that Sugar is no longer here; but I was also joyful that I was lucky enough to have such a special love in my life. My relationship with Sugar cannot be summed up in words. Our bond surpassed language.

Snowy has been a vital part of my healing process. He makes me laugh even on my worst days. His facial expressions at times look just like Sugar’s, and sometimes I could swear I see Sugar twinkling in his eyes. Still, Snowy is a very different horse than Sugar was and Snowy has taught me new lessons. Snowy lightened me up and taught me not to take myself or life too seriously. He humbled me and showed me how to laugh at myself. He taught me when to be bold and when to half halt.

Horses are mystical, emotional creatures, but they still have four feet on the ground. They can teach us how to soar while staying grounded. They can teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves. They can teach us how to love. The world is going through a turbulent time, and now more than ever we need to remember that love can accomplish more than hate. Compassion will allow for healing and guide us forward into a future with less violence, less racism, less prejudice, and less fear. The horse can show us the way if we simply open our hearts to learning from their wisdom.

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Pura Vida: Horsing Around in Costa Rica

If there’s one word that describes Costa Rica perfectly, it’s magical. Costa Rica is a place with unmatched biodiversity, kind people, delicious food, and balmy weather. Not only did I experience all of that—I also got to play with horses! As serendipity would have it, Barking Horse Farm started following me on Instagram, so I checked out their profile and website. This farm specializes in Parelli Natural Horsemanship and Jungle Trekking, and hosts interns and volunteers throughout the year, so I thought going to Barking Horse Farm would be a great opportunity to travel and learn more about Parelli Natural Horsemanship. I originally planned to stay for three months, but ended up staying only one month for personal reasons. The month flew by, and I can’t wait to return to this beautiful country!

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I arrived at night and took a cab from the airport in San Jose to the farm, which is in an area called San Rafael Abajo, near a town called Puriscal. The headlights of the cab revealed in the darkness how green everything was; the flora and fauna were so lush, I thought they may overtake the road at any moment. Everything was shiny with a slick layer of moisture. I arrived at the tail end of the rainy season, so the mornings were sunny and bright, then the rain would roll through in the afternoon. Only in my last week there did the rain stop as the dry season began. Numerous dogs watched us as we passed, sometimes observing from a distance, other times chasing us and nipping at the tires. The curvy, hilly paved roads turned into bumpy gravel roads. I finally arrived at the farm and was greeted by a committee of one human, four dogs, and too many cats to count. I began settling in and putting my things away when I heard the sound of tires spinning. The cab was stuck in the driveway, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere! In the darkness and mud, it’s easy to understand how it happened. Pamala, the farm owner’s friend and the human member of my greeting committee, hooked up a cable to the farm vehicle, pulled the cab out, and it was on its way. The excitement for the evening was over. With the roads and animals quiet, I could finally close my eyes and rest. I fell asleep to the melodic rhythm of the bugs’ and frogs’ songs. The matter-of-fact crowing of the rooster woke me. The bugs continued their soft hum into the morning. The birds sang their gentle tunes as the rooster’s crows faded.

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Other volunteers arrived in the following days. They hailed from the UK, Germany, Poland, and France. We were all very excited to go up to the pasture and see the horses. They live not at the farm, but in a pasture near the top of a mountain, where it’s a bit cooler and breezier compared to the climate at the farm, which tends to be warmer since it lays in a valley. We all climbed into the farm vehicle, a tough Isuzu four-by-four, and headed out to meet the horses. On the way, we encountered an obstacle, and one thing I learned is that Costa Rica is full of obstacles. You can either curse your luck and let the obstacles cause you frustration, or you can look at them as a learning opportunity. I chose the latter. There was a truck broken down in the middle of the road, and a group of Costa Rican men was trying to push it out of the way, but to no avail. I got out of our vehicle and walked over to help push. The men looked skeptical, but all the other lady volunteers also walked over to help and we got the truck moved in no time. We parted ways with smiles and, “Muchas gracias!”

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The horses seemed mildly interested to see us. They had been off for months, enjoying their vacation from the busy season. We brought treats with us, scraps of fruit, which the horses absolutely loved. In the days that followed, the group settled into a nice daily routine. We’d begin our day with yoga (taught by me), have fruit, oatmeal, and happy eggs for breakfast, feed the animals here (I was responsible for feeding the chickens), then go up to the pasture and work with the horses. We began with groundwork and the Seven Games from Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and some days we rode bareback and with the rope halters. The horses took well to us, despite their realization that our visits meant their vacation was over. We always brought them treats, and they thoroughly enjoyed them. We’d then return to the farm and enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by Marta, who has worked at the farm for 10 years. The meals were vegetarian and sometimes even vegan, which was really great. During the afternoon rains, we’d relax, read, and socialize. A few hours later, we’d prepare dinner and after dinner, we’d watch some Parelli DVDs or play games.

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Liz, the owner of Barking Horse Farm, arrived to the farm a few days after us volunteers. She took us up to play with the horses quite a few times and taught us some fun Parelli training techniques. One day we worked on carrot stick riding, which was an exciting challenge. We also got to go on numerous rides. The trails here are mostly on gravel and dirt roads, and the horses are so hardy and sure-footed. We saw majestic views, picturesque sugarcane fields, and wildlife galore. One day we rode over two hours to get to a breathtaking river. At one point, the trail gets so steep, narrow, and full of rocks and boulders that the horses have to be sent down without the riders. I had never done anything like that before, so I was curious to see how the horses handled it. It was like rock scrambling for horses. They stayed relaxed, carefully and confidently making their way down the hill and then back up on our way back. We had packed a delicious vegan lunch of a watermelon and brown rice with veggies. The river was so refreshing and there was no one there but us—a true paradise. There’s another river just a 15 minutes’ walk from the farm. The waterfall there creates a spectacular ambiance. I went every chance I got and returned glowing every time. There’s something about Costa Rica that makes it impossible to be unhappy.

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In addition to horsing around, we also got to have some very local experiences. One day we helped a local farmer harvest beans, beating them with sticks to release the beans from the stalks. It’s hot, tiring work, but many hands made light work that day.

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Another day we went to a trapiche, or sugarcane factory. I use the word factory loosely, because it’s not at all like a factory in the U.S. This factory is very small and run by three brothers. We got to taste the sugarcane in four different forms: first the juice, then the hot, thick liquid, then the taffy-like substance, and finally in its final form as a block of sugar. We were all fascinated by the process and varying flavors.

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The only bad time I experienced was the night we went to an exhibition of the Costa Rican horse. Liz had warned us that Costa Rican training methods are harsh, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The horses looked stressed out and fearful, and there were many large riders on horses that were too small for them. The bits being used were harsh, and every rider wore pain-inducing (for the horse) spurs. The first rider and horse entered the ring performing what looked like a perverse version of a passage. I say perverse because the horse was tense, constantly flicking its tail, pinning its ears, and wrinkling its eyes and nostrils. The horse was also hollow, and the underside of its neck was overdeveloped, making it clear that it was forced to carry itself in an unhealthy position on a regular basis. The rider maneuvered the horse onto a platform where the “passage” turned into a kind of piaffe. It seemed the demonstration would never end, and my heart ached for the horse more and more with each passing second. This type of treatment and training is a result of ignorance, of not knowing there’s a better way. I can only hope that if and when these people are exposed to a better way, they’ll change.

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Liz’s passion and love for horses is inspiring, and her tenacity and commitment to pursuing Natural Horsemanship is admirable in a country where the traditional treatment of horses is harsh and violent. Liz’s horses are healthy and happy; they’re also the most bomb-proof horses I’ve ever met. I hope to return again one day to do a trek to the beach, which I didn’t get to do this time. The people I met, the horses I bonded with, and the memories I made are treasures I’ll remember for a lifetime.

 

Below are some photos from the trip. Visit my Facebook page to view the full album.

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The Tackroom

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happy chickens=happy eggs

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Pirate, chillin’ like a villain

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Manolo, Basta, and our jungle vehicle

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Stopping to snack on the sugarcane

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Full moon rising

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The volunteers with Liz (owner of Barking Horse Farm) and her friend, Pamala.

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Manolo, a rescue, with lots of love and Natural Horsemanship has come around to being a fantastic horse.

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Zanahoria wanted to come home with me.

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The volcano Momotombo in Nicaragua erupted the day before I flew by it on my way home. It hadn’t erupted in 100 years.

 

Setting Boundaries: What Horses Can Teach Us

TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses issues of bodily autonomy, and may be triggering for those who have experienced sexual trauma.

“I’m not comfortable with you standing so close and touching me. Please stop.”

At least three times, I had asked a drunk male acquaintance at a party I recently attended to back off. Each time I asked a bit more firmly. I repeatedly walked away from him to interact with others and escape his inappropriate advances. When he approached me again and interrupted a conversation I was having with a friend by touching my thigh, I again told him firmly to stop touching me. When it didn’t work, I raised my voice and gave him the equivalent of a horse kick. No, I didn’t literally kick him or physically assault him in any way. I do not advocate physical violence in any situation. But I did verbally stand my ground. I told him it was unacceptable no matter how drunk he was to continue harassing me or any woman after she had repeatedly asked and told him to leave her alone. And what was his reaction to my standing up for myself so strongly? He called me mean. Because in our society, when a woman demands what should be a given—bodily autonomy—she’s considered a bitch.

This is only one of many, many times a male—ranging from acquaintance to stranger—has touched my body without permission, and it could have been worse. Other women have experienced much worse. But the cause is the same—the patriarchal notion that women don’t have bodily autonomy. We treat animals in much the same way. I’ve seen countless horsemen (and women) touch, groom, saddle, and ride a horse when the horse was clearly uncomfortable. How many times have you entered a horse’s, dog’s, or other animal’s space when it was giving you signs it didn’t want you to come so close? The importance of respecting bodily autonomy for women, horses, and all animals cannot be emphasized enough. 


We must build relationships with our horses and earn their trust. We must view other humans and animals as equals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We must not enter another’s personal space without permission. How often do we objectify horses in much the same way women are objectified, determining their worth based solely on conformation/looks? How many times do we enter a horse’s or other animal’s space and begin petting them without heeding warning signs they’re giving that we’re moving too quickly? We must awaken to the fact that horses are sentient creatures. They feel fear, love, affection, grief, and joy. We must realize that all humans and animals deserve to have bodily autonomy.

Horses excel at setting boundaries. They give nonverbal warning signs when their space is invaded, pinning their ears, baring their teeth, and sometimes partially lifting a hind foot in warning. If the invading horse or predator chooses to ignore these signals, the horse will deliver a painful, sometimes fatal kick or strike. Humans can learn a lot from the way horses set boundaries: give warning signs; give the intruder the opportunity to walk away; gradually escalate the intensity of the warning; and, if necessary, deliver the kick or strike (again, not actual physical violence—rather standing up for yourself in a highly assertive manner and/or getting help, including the authorities, if necessary).

Sure, the intruder may call you names, but so be it. His or her opinion of you matters not. What matters is protecting yourself and setting boundaries you’re comfortable with. I believe we can all do better. Bodily autonomy is certainly a feminist issue, but for feminism to be successful, it must be inclusive. Women are not the only ones suffering from violations of bodily autonomy. The journey is far from over, but one step at a time, we can make this world a better, safer place for women, the LGBTQ community, people of color, young girls and boys, horses, and all other animals.

Happy Halloween

When the veil between the worlds thins, and the last leaves hang on the trees, we all become equal in our sins, and the darkness alters what one sees

Samhain’s a time for inward gazing, reflecting on what we’ve lost, and though some memories may be hair-raising, we must face the past at all costs

For what we don’t resolve today, will come back to haunt our soul, so through the darkness we find our way, piece by piece making ourselves whole

On this night there’s no need to fear, no need to cause a fright, think instead of those you hold dear, embracing darkness to reveal the light

  
Happy Halloween from me and Snowy!