I’ve lived in many places throughout my life; different countries, cities, and towns, and each time I move, I learn something about the way I orient myself in order to find my feet. My last move, in 2013, was particularly difficult. After a wonderful two years in Northern Virginia working as an equine facilitated therapist specializing in eating disorders, I had to close my practice and pass it over to a trusted colleague and start again in a different state. Being told by well-meaning friends and family that “When one door closes, another one opens”, left me feeling unsupported in my need to grieve. It was a new beginning that was also a painful ending.
I missed my friends and colleagues, and the herd of horses I worked with. I missed the community that I had become a part of. I missed the diversity of Northern Virginia, and I missed the woodlands where I walked with my dog. I noticed that as I tried to settle into my new life, I compared everything with what had been lost. While I was excited to begin a new journey in Ohio, I also recognized that I wasn’t ready to let go and step forward wholeheartedly into it.
I was fortunate enough to be able to bring my mare, Reba, with me to Ohio, so was able to watch her transition into her new life as I eased myself into mine. Since then, she has moved three more times to different facilities. I learnt a lot from observing how she interacted with her new herds, and subsequently have been able to translate that into my own process.
Like us, horses remember their pasture mates and owners, so I have often wondered how they deal with herd transitions. Whether it is pasture mates leaving or if they are the ones that leave, I wonder if they miss their friends and how they feel about entering a new herd. Unlike us, they often don’t have a choice as to where they live, or with whom they share their lives, and I wonder what that’s like for them.
Watching Reba meeting and greeting a new herd is fascinating to me. I am in awe of what I perceive as her ability to get her bearings of where she has arrived with such ease. Entering into the herd, she is inevitably greeted by other members in turn, during which she will perform her little ritual of sniff, stamp, and squeal. I have yet to see her meet another horse without this little dance of announcing her arrival. I see it as her willingness to engage with others while setting clear boundaries right from the start. Once the dance is over, Reba always chooses to spend time by herself away from the rest of her new herd. Regardless of whether it is a large herd or a small one, a mixed herd or mares only, she will take herself off away from the others to graze by herself for a while. If another horse approaches her, she will greet them cautiously and wait to see if they are demanding anything of her. If not, she will return to grazing and allow them into her space. If the other horse is approaching to claim their own space, she will move aside and find another spot for herself. In this way, within a day or so, Reba will find a pasture mate or two to graze alongside. These will become the horses that she stays loyal to during her time in that herd. They will be the ones who she greets vocally when they return to the paddock after spending time with their humans, and they will be the ones she calls to when she walks by their stalls as I lead her through the barn.
Watching Reba, I became more aware of my own need to allow myself to take some time in surveying my new surroundings, and to assess with whom I wanted to spend time with. I recognized that I needed to find my own human “herd” in order to feel connected with where I had landed, and acknowledged that taking the first step towards that was not easy. It requires taking a risk to show our vulnerabilities and willingness to be open to new relationships.
We are wired for connection and belonging. When we are removed from the safety of our “herd”, our brains are literally searching to replace that which was lost. Stepping into a new space is anxiety provoking for many, and we deal with that anxiety in many ways: overcompensate by being extra gregarious, shrink and retreat into the safety of ourselves, or take tentative steps forwards and back until we feel secure enough to reveal more of ourselves to those around us.
The beauty of being with horses is that they help us call attention to where we are in our process. I don’t know if Reba misses her old pasture mates from previous barns, but I do know that she is able to be present with her current ones in the moment. Reba reminds me with every move that it is imperative to remain authentic in what we are searching for: connection with others who allow us to be ourselves. It’s the type of connection that is felt on an embodied level as the gradual easing of physical tension, as an opening outwards to receive the beauty of friendship. It is the feeling of embracing all of oneself that may often be kept small in everyday life. It is the sensation of not needing to hide, and instead breathe in and be, however we are in each moment, and know that we will be granted deep affective reciprocity. It is the feeling of coming home to a place where one wants to linger and stay awhile.
This is the foundational philosophy of Sharing Space at The HERD Institute that we foster. The inclusion and acceptance of members as they are in each moment, witnessed and strengthened by the presence of the horse and human herd. We recognize that taking that first step is a difficult one, so we take care to create a safe and nurturing space. We also know that taking that first step towards joining the HERD is the new beginning in a journey of self-discovery, and encourage each new herd member to savor each moment.
So take a breath and take that first step. We look forward to welcoming you home to the HERD.