Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tao of Equus - the story of Rocky

A woman at The Ranch adopted a formerly abused Arabian gelding who everyone insisted was hopeless. The sixteen-year-old horse was distrustful of people, head shy, extremely difficult to catch, halter, and lead. He was commonly described as stupid, psychotic, and more colorfully as loco. Nancy, however, felt a strong connection to Rocky, whose large soulful eyes held so much promise on minute and so much fear the next.
(That is how I would describe my own eyes. Sometimes, I feel so clear, and I know there is life in my eyes. Sometimes, I feel so afraid, and there is nothing but fear in them. And sometimes, my eyes are completely lifeless as I dissociate.)
One evening, Nancy's twenty-year-old daughter, Becky, asked me to take a look at the horse.
"The vet thinks we should put Rocky down," she said. "He went ballistic yesterday during his checkup. My mom and the vet were just trying to get the halter on him, and he freaked out. He actually tried to jump the fence and cut his leg real bad in the process. He was so keyed up that the vet shot him full of tranquilizers and still had trouble wrapping the wound. Everyone says Rocky is dangerous. My mom feels terrible, but I don't want her to get hurt."
I have thought many times that my emotions were so out of control, it would be doing me and everyone else a favor if they just, "put me down."
Walking toward Rocky's stall, I knew I had the final say as to whether this horse lived or died. the little gelding stood in the corner, obviously wary of my presence. I took a deep breath and slowly approached him as Nancy stood just inside the gate. A number of conflicting sense images filled my body.
"Has something particularly disturbing happened to you?" I asked Nancy. "Other than what happened with Rocky, are you upset about something in your life?"
"Well..." she said, "I lost my job last week."
"Have you been trying to act happy around Rocky when you're actually feeling sad, angry... trapped?"
"Yeah," she replied tentatively, not quite understanding why I was asking such personal questions about her when rocky was the one whose life was on the line.
Rocky lowered his head and licked his lips, a sign I had come to read in my own horses as indicating the release of some previously unacknowledged emotion. In this case, Rocky's comfort level seemed directly tied to Nancy's hidden feelings. I walked toward him. He backed away. More images, more sensations seemed to arise from his wounded leg and his aching heart. I silently conveyed to Rocky that Nancy was his last chance, that I would try to explain his perspective to her, but if he couldn't bring himself to trust this woman, his worst fears would indeed come true. I told him I would convince her to give him one more month, the rest was up to him. After a good fifteen minutes of subtle interactions with the horse, he allowed me to briefly touch his shoulder.
That is what it felt like the first time I met with BJ. I remember feeling like this was my last chance, I had to bring myself to trust him. It was up to me. He was willing, but I had to meet him at least half way. I am grateful that somewhere, I found the ability that I had never had before.
"Imagine this," I finally said to Nancy, who now stood quietly, hopefully, next to the feeder about five feet away from Rocky. "Imagine that you were raped as a teenager. A few years later, you marry a man who seems very gentle and understanding. Yet once you have that wedding ring on your finger, he thinks you should just get over your conflicting feelings about sex. He suddenly treats you like he owns you. You know he loves you, but he's impatient with you. It doesn't make any sense, but you feel trapped, like you want to run away from this person, who you also realize is your only real hope for connection. rocky feels like that. He knows you care for him, but just because you officially own him now, just because you pay his feed and board doesn't mean he can automatically let go of all those years of abuse and mistrust. He can't become intimate so easily. Do you know what I mean?"
I have felt that with many people in my life. With Larry... With Dann... with BJ... with my parents. I wanted to let go of the mistrust, the pain, the hurt, and I knew they cared, but I couldn't do it. Until now...
Nancy stared at me in silence for a moment.
"I do," she finally said, diverting her eyes as if suddenly embarrassed. She slowly looked up at me, shaking her head in disbelief. "Basically, you just told my life's story."
I was taken aback by this admission. The example I used had popped into my mind while interacting with Rocky. I had no idea it related to Nancy's life. Unprepared for a full-blown equine-facilitated psychotherapy session, especially one based on a sudden intuition, I nonetheless gathered my wits and proceeded to explain the concept of emotions congruency. I told Nancy she wasn't doing Rocky any favors by trying to suppress her negative feelings in his presence. This was not the way to calm him down and gain his trust. As I discussed Rocky's situations form a therapeutic perspective, it became obvious that Nancy's attraction toe the horse stemmed from I've come to call emotional resonance. People and horses who've experienced similar difficulties, betrayals, and abuses are like two strings tuned to the same note. Whenever Nancy was in a heightened state of turmoil, I explained, Rocky couldn't help but resonate with her. And the intensity would increase if she tried to hide those feelings. In such a state of incongruity, her emotions were fighting her intellect, begging to be expressed/ this actually turned the volume up on the sympathetic vibrations exciting Rocky's own unresolved fears and frustrations, causing him to act these feelings out for both of them. I asked her to consider the possibility that even though Rocky was afraid of the vet, his reactions were accentuated in the presence of Nancy, who it turned out was only experiencing feelings related to the loss of her job, but a series of frustrations with her her husband, who was having an affair with another woman in part because of his inability to deal with Nancy's childhood sexual trauma.
"Tell Rocky what you're feeling," I said. "Get it out in the open so he doesn't have to mirror it for you. He won't necessarily understand what you're saying, but by expressing your true feelings, you'll become congruent, and you'll release the tension behind those emotions."
For he next ten minutes, Nancy spoke candidly about the violence, shame, and betrayal she experienced. She promised rocky that she wouldn't push him, that she would treat him as she would have wanted to be treated by the men in her life. My eyes began to sting in response to her story. the moment I let go of my professional distance and allowed the tears to flow down my cheeks, Rocky stepped toward me and rested his face in the center of my chest. Just a few minutes earlier I had told Nancy that, unlike human beings, horses don't judge or reject us for what we're feeling; it's the act of trying to suppress our emotions that drives them insane. Rocky took that notion one step further. He showed us that even a horse written of as loco, a horse considered too cray to live, could feel safe enough to approach us the moment we let down our guard and began to speak from the heart.
Rocky did indeed take us up on our offer. The first month came and went without incident as the horses accepted the halter, and began to lead and longe without objection. Six months later, he is a gregarious even joyful member of Nancy and Becky's herd, and they've made arrangements to start him under saddle with me in the spring.
As I finished this story, there was a huge lump in my chest. I am not even sure what emotions were there. They were all clumped up together, and were too big to come out. I just know that I resonated with this story, and I am hopeful I become gregarious and even joyful...

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