You Are Not Alone

You Are Not Alone

It’s hurricane season again in Florida. This means that we are dealing with daily thunderstorms, tropical storm surges, and localized flooding. It also means that I spend the season on high alert for sudden shifts in weather, constantly worrying about the state of my horses’ feet as they stand in rain-soaked pastures, with a daily re-evaluation of whether it’s safe to let them graze or keep them on high ground in the open barn. This decision involves balancing the risk of them either abscessing from the wet ground or getting sand colic from being turned out in the sand arena where they spend the day nibbling at weeds around the edges. Sometimes, it feels like a never-ending cycle of soaking and wrapping feet and midnight colic poop watch. Occasionally, I wonder why I choose to live this farm life.

It’s in those moments, when I’m knee deep in flood water, or sleeping in the classroom next to the barn to be closer to the horses during a bout of colic, that I am most aware of how working with horses has shifted my perspective of what it means to be a caretaker of the land and animals in my life. The small shifts in priority over the years as I’ve learned what farm life really means becomes a stark contrast to what I thought I was signing up for! The physical labor required to maintain a farm; the anxiety provoking sight of a horse in distress; the early mornings and late nights scrambling to make sure that all the animals are fed, watered, and predator proofed – all of it on top of the demands of running a small business – is a LOT! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time. But I also know that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Visiting us on site at The HERD Institute, particularly for students who are at the beginning stages of their equine facilitated journey, people see the idyllic life of small acreage living where my horses, dogs, cat, and chickens live in peaceful co-existence. There’s a sense of flow in sessions from classroom to pasture, and barn to arena, as we move from one session to the next. Magic happens in the connections made between horses and students and a sense of community and belonging is forged. We focus on the interconnectedness of being in this world and students leave feeling nourished, inspired, and passionate about their work and the journey ahead.

Then, real life strikes and the visions that they hold for what they want to birth into the world seem more distant. Connections made during training seem less tangible. For some, a sense of isolation might creep in that adds to the daunting task ahead. Added to all of this, the uncertainty of what is yet to come during these pandemic times has left many feeling unsure of their next steps.

So, I’m here to tell all of you who are feeling those struggles that you’re not alone. I hear you. I get it. This isn’t a “I’ve been there, and you’ll get through it too” thing, but more of an “I’m in it with you” feeling. For many of us, asking for help is part of the struggle, but what I’ve learned is that it’s a critical step. We all need support. That support doesn’t have to be in the form of practical “fix it” solutions but simply to know that we are not alone. Hearing that someone else is experiencing something similar allows us to sink into acknowledging that what we’re going through is hard, and that we don’t need to tough it out alone.

That’s why, we believe that continued mentoring, supervision, and peer support is so critical for our industry. It can be a lonely and overwhelming journey to manifest a vision, no matter how passionate you are. We need to know that we’re not alone in our struggles and it helps to have those who have walked the path before us to show their humanity too. It’s important to acknowledge that we have not chosen an easy path for ourselves and that what we are doing, creating, building, and nurturing is needed in this world full of uncertainty.

Contact us and let us know what you’re struggling with in your programs right now. Let’s see if we can support each other in community. In this herd, we all belong.

Warmly,

Veronica
Executive Director

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A Million Dreams

A Million Dreams

A Word From The HERD, August 2021I’ve often been called a dreamer, an idealist, and an optimist. The implications of these terms being that I’m being unrealistic and lacking in pragmatism. The privileges that I have been afforded in my life means that I possess the internal resources to hold an abundance of hope. Hope for a more equitable, sustainable, and inclusive world; hope for increased accessibility to services for those who need it most; and hope for those who are often dismissed or invisible, to become visible, loud, and proud.

Over the past couple of years, we have worked hard at The HERD Institute® to challenge the status quo of the equine facilitated industry by offering trainings, workshops, and conferences that center the needs of the marginalized populations that we serve, and by increasing awareness of the importance of cultural competency in the industry. Our virtual summits have focused on highlighting the incredible work that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and/or LGBTQIA folks are doing within the industry, while also encouraging conversations about how to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion within our communities. These summits gathered leaders across our industry together to engage in some vulnerable, poignant, and brave dialogues to model what it means to courageously step into the unknown. I believe that these collaborations are critical to our industry and represent the beginnings of real, systemic change.

Within The HERD Institute®, I am incredibly proud of our team’s efforts in diversifying our HERD community. Our student demographics have shifted from being only 9% of BIPOC and/or openly LGBTQIA folks to almost 25% in 18 months. This significant increase represents the undeniable impact of centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in our enrollment strategy, and is a step towards honoring our vision of making our trainings accessible to those who are historically under-served. By offering a safer and more inclusive space for folks who have traditionally not felt welcomed into this space, we can support practitioners to serve their communities from within their cultural contexts.

I’ve talked a lot in various webinars, conferences, and podcasts recently about the importance of organizations making “more than a statement” on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m often asked about how to implement strategies that increase diversity and belonging. I am not an expert in these matters. All I know is that by following my heart rather than worrying about the bottom line, we are making progress a small step at a time. Part of our next steps is through releasing our own statement, what we’re calling our Commitment of Belonging, that declares proudly and loudly to all those with whom we come into contact, the values that we hold as an organization. This commitment is now part of our organizational DNA.

In the process of creating the summits, workshops, and drafting this Commitment of Belonging, I have found myself repeatedly returning to the lyrics of the song, A Million Dreamsfrom the movie The Greatest Showman.

They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind
I don’t care, I don’t care, so call me crazy
We can live in a world that we design

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all its gonna take
Oh a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

I am grateful for our team at The HERD and to all our community members who have stepped up to dream these dreams with me. This is just the beginning, and the next dream is already emerging, unfolding, and becoming more real, day by day. Watch this space!

Warmly,

Veronica
Executive Director

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There is Light

There is Light

It’s been 15 months since the start of the global pandemic that stopped the whole world in its tracks. This week also marked the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. I feel the weight of what has been the toughest year ever of being a trainer, mentor, and supervisor to educators and mental health practitioners who have been on the front lines every day in support of others, many of whom are struggling with the same feelings of uncertainty, isolation, depression, and anxiety as their clients.

It’s been a long slog and It’s not over yet. While pandemic restrictions have eased in many parts of the USA, I am aware that around the world, restrictions and lockdowns are still very much a part of everyday life for many people. Travel restrictions are still in place and while the USA are doing well with getting people vaccinated, there are still many who do not trust the science behind the vaccine and/or are unable to take advantage of it due to pre-existing conditions. In Hong Kong, the vaccination rate is only 2% of the population despite an abundance of vaccines available. Meanwhile, in India, the virus is on a rampage across the country and they are desperate for vaccine supplies. These pandemic inequalities highlight the systemic inequalities that are so embedded in the fabric of our global society, and while it’s tempting (and easy) to turn a blind eye because many of us are not directly affected, it’s part of the ecosystem that supports the work that we do at The HERD Institute.

It was against this background that we held our first in-person equine facilitated psychotherapy certification practicum of 2021 last week. Students arrived from all over the USA to connect, explore, and practice our compassionate approach to working with humans and horses. Each student brought with them their individual life-space and cultural context. We dug deep and excavated intrapersonal and interpersonal processes that supported our way of being in the world. There were disagreements and ruptures that were held with dignity, respect, and compassion for the other’s worldview. Repairs were made possible through acknowledging and accepting differences of experiences and opinions. The horses showed up, as always, with their wisdom and authentic engagement that left us in awe and wonder. For me, I will never cease to be amazed at the energetic resonance and co-regulation that can happen when we allow ourselves to surrender to the here-and-now experience of connecting deeply with self and others, and the horses.

So, I’m coming out of this immersive experience with a sense of lightness that I haven’t felt in a long time. I’m beginning to feel the softening of my hard edges and I’m starting to see a glimmer of light. It’s always been there, I’m sure. I just haven’t been able to orient myself towards it until now. My experience as a global citizen tells me that there is always light in the dark; that things are never so black and white, right or wrong; and that healing often happens in the murky light of overcast grey skies. Now that I’ve turned towards the light, I long to feel the warmth spread through my body, and I’m more supported in my ability to reach for it.

I recognize this feeling. I call it hope. And for me, hope is the starting point for my creative endeavors. So, watch this space. The creative process is unleashing and who knows what will emerge!

Warmly,

Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Anniversaries of Grief and Gratitude

Anniversaries of Grief and Gratitude

Personally, 2021 is a special year. I’d been looking forward to celebrating many milestones with my nearest and dearest. Last month, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother-in-law turned 50 a few weeks ago. Next week, it will officially be 10 years since we moved to the United States, and in June, my husband and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. So many milestones and so much to celebrate. What we hadn’t envisioned was how many of these celebrations would need to be curtailed or postponed. Mixed in with all of this, of course, is the anniversary of the global pandemic.

With all of this, I’m feeling a mixture of grief and gratitude – both in overwhelming proportions. I’m imagining that this is true for many of our HERD members too. These waves of grief and gratitude that exist simultaneously for all that we’ve lost collectively and all that we can still feel blessings from. And now, with the vaccination roll outs that are under way, the beginnings of a glimmer of hope for reconnecting where possible with those we’ve missed during this past year. My heart feels wide open and full and empty and forlorn. Both/And.

So, as we move forward one step at a time, I urge you to take care of yourselves and each other, now more than ever before. Because the burn out that I am witnessing in myself, our students, graduates, and community members tells me that so many of us have spent this past year attending to those who’ve needed us more. Compassion fatigue is setting in just as the world begins to open back up. I’m certainly learning to be clearer about my intentions with what I take on board, what boundaries I need to hold, and what support I need in order to stay upright. I am not ashamed to say that I am exhausted and weary and am intentionally taking more time to re-center, ground, and find support from those I have learned to lean on in these times.

From the deep, deep wells of my grief and gratitude, my heart is with you all as we continue to navigate what’s next. May you find grace, compassion, and joy until we meet again!

Warmly,

Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Gaining Momentum

Gaining Momentum

Our Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit at the beginning of February was a groundbreaking event. This was the first ever summit that was led and hosted by people of color in the equine facilitated space and I’m so grateful to my co-host for the event, Elizabeth McCorvey and to all our speakers and panelists for helping to create such an open-hearted and inspiring space for dialogue. Proceeds from the summit raised a whopping $5500 for the Patricia Kelly Scholarship Fund through Share in The HERD™. This scholarship fund is named after our keynote speaker for the event, Patricia Kelly, of Ebony Horsewomen Inc. A pioneer in the field of equine facilitated work, Patricia has been a role model for many people of color in our industry.

On the day of the summit, I was giddy with a mixture of excitement and trepidation of what might unfold. We had an amazing turn out, and while the technological challenges of virtual gatherings didn’t escape us, we were able to maintain a steady stream of participants in all of our live sessions. It was incredible to see so many different approaches to equine facilitated and assisted work being represented by those in attendance. There were folks from EAGALA, Natural Lifemanship, EPI, and PATH International, as well as those who came from outside of our equine facilitated community from breed or discipline organizations, equine welfare and educational spaces, and the American Horse Council. It occurred to me as I looked at all the faces on the screen that morning, that coming together in community with all our different approaches is the essence of diversity, and I felt a sense of pride in how so many people showed up and stepped up to the challenge of addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field.

Once the adrenalin rush of the event was over, and I’d surrendered myself to a brief moment of satisfaction with what we had collectively created, I was left with a sense of urgency. This feeling of urgency is not new to me when it comes to matters of social justice. It comes from a frustration of wanting to lift up the voices that need to be heard and knowing that so much more work needs to be done. This time though, I felt a slight shift with this urgency. I realized that just because the work was urgent, it didn’t mean that it could be done quickly. Instead, there was a sense of needing to allow for space to rest and digest what happened, and is continuing to happen, through the summit. For those who chose the extended access options, or those who couldn’t make it to the live event and are accessing the recordings in small bite size chunks, before jumping into the “next thing”, we need to give space for people to process and experience it all at their own pace. Because that’s how the issue is gaining momentum – not from those who are mired in the struggle, but from newly formed allies who are stepping up to do the work.

So, for those of you who have been asking “will there be more?” the answer is YES, absolutely. I’m working on the next offering as we speak. Meanwhile, I want to encourage everyone to take their time to immerse themselves into the experience of the first summit, continue to engage and connect with each other, support and strengthen the work that we are all doing to build a more inclusive world. And, if you didn’t get a chance to sign up for the summit, you can now purchase unlimited access of all the recordings. Simply click on the link below and enter into the experience.

Here’s what a few people have said about the summit:

And my favorite:

My heart is full of gratitude. Until next time, my friends!

Warmly,

Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Stand Up, Stand Out, and Stand Strong

Stand Up, Stand Out, and Stand Strong

Our Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit is almost upon us! I can hardly believe how quickly that has come together. From talking to Elizabeth McCorvey one day about how often we were the only people of color presenting at industry conferences, to deciding that we would take the plunge to create this summit, and pulling together a line-up of presenters, I feel as if I’ve been swept along on a wave of enthusiasm and excitement for this event. What began as a one day live gathering soon extended to providing attendees the option to immerse further into the experience with pre-recorded presentations and conversations with industry leaders.

When Elizabeth and I first talked about creating this summit, our motivation came from a desire to highlight practitioners of color in the field who are doing some incredible work in their communities. Our hope is that by increasing representation, we can encourage a new generation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to enter into the field. We also wanted to support people in the equine industry who want to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in their barns and programs to find creative strategies to move forward. Most importantly, we want to help challenge, change, and create organizations to be more welcoming of difference. Our hope is that by offering a space where people can come together to listen with curiosity about each other’s experiences, we can begin to dismantle systems of oppression and build a more diverse and equitable industry.

We are aware that for many people, talking about racism and systemic oppression is uncomfortable. We also know that we need to have these difficult conversations in order to find a way forward. Part of being an ally for diversity, equity, and inclusion is about taking a stand to say that we believe that this issue is important, and that we’ll fight alongside those who feel oppressed. That’s risky and vulnerable to put yourself in a position where you might stand out from others. For organizational leaders who are willing to take that risk, it may result in criticism from their members, staff, and/or potential customers. It’s about choosing courage and integrity over comfort and status quo. It’s about leading from the heart and not the bottom line and standing strong in the face of resistance.

For these reasons, we want to recognize the risks that our sponsors have taken to be visible allies in our quest for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We are so grateful for the support and hope that your leadership will encourage those within your organizations to embrace the call to action to challenge, change, and create organizations with DEI in mind.

Thank you, to Kathy Alm and PATH International for embracing change. In addition to taking part in the Industry Leaders Panel Discussion and continuing a conversation with me about the challenges of navigating change as part of the summit, Kathy has spearheaded an organization wide effort to address DEI issues. From the Board of Trustees and Staff development, to creating a Diversity working group, she is modeling what it means to be an ally through her commitment to dismantling systemic racism in the industry.

We are excited that State Line Tack took the initiative through their Diversity Equestrian Project to highlight people of color in the equine industry, and for promoting our summit through their network. When corporations stand up to become visible allies through actions like these, it gives hope for those of us on the front lines of activism that things can change. With State Line Tack standing up and taking the lead, we are beginning to see other organizations within the equine industry embracing the message too. This, in turn, makes it safer for us to speak out and engage in these difficult conversations.

When I first launched The HERD Institute®, I was clear in my mission that our community would be one that fostered a spirit of abundance, acknowledging that there are many ways of working with horses in psychotherapy and learning settings, and that not “one-size-fits-all”. I have intentionally collaborated with other training providers over the years, and nurtured relationships around the world, knowing that our mutual support is essential for the industry. As a result, I am thrilled that Bettina Shultz and Natural Lifemanship have made a donation towards sponsoring the summit and have also generously provided some bonus materials for our attendees. These bonus recordings are from Natural Lifemanship’s Interconnected 2020 virtual summit and offer an embodied perspective of racism, implicit bias, and racialized trauma.

I’m also grateful to my friends, new and old, who have supported this project through their visible allyship. Elisabeth Crabtree of A Stable Connection, Dr. Anastasia Curwood and Sally Spickard from Strides for Equality Equestrians (SEE), and Dr. Louis Hoffman at University Professors Press, who have all put their weight behind this project in different ways. Your continued support means more than you know.

So, it is with giddy excitement and gratitude that I invite you to join us for the Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit next Saturday, February 6, 2021. You can find out more and register here. In addition to the LIVE sessions, there are over 20 hours of pre-recorded presentations and conversations, as well as bonus materials for those who want to dig deeper. Join us to stand up, stand out, and stand strong for a more inclusive world.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Veronica Lac
Executive Director

 

 

 

 

The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

This year, in the lead up to the holiday season, I’ve been noticing two very different responses to the challenges that Covid-19 has brought. Many people are opting for a more low-key holiday period, foregoing large get togethers, Christmas parties, and holiday decorating. Others are going all out in a show of defiance that a global pandemic won’t ruin the holidays, doubling down on the festive spirit in an effort to make the season even more spectacular than ever. Certainly, in my neighborhood, I’ve noticed people’s decorations have been extra elaborate this year, and my social media newsfeed has been flooded with pictures of immaculately decorated trees and mountains of gifts, all beautifully wrapped under them. Personally, I’m opting for the low-key approach and I’m encouraging others to do the same.

This “most wonderful time of the year” is one of the most stressful periods of the year under normal circumstances. Often, as a therapist, I’ve witnessed clients struggling to pretend that all is well in an effort to maintain the illusion that the holidays is a magical time. The reality is that for most people, the rush to fulfil the commercial expectations of the holiday season with the gift buying and wrapping, holiday card mailing, seasonal decorations, and producing baked goods for exchange are added pressures in an already hectic schedule. Not to mention the stresses and strains of family dynamics in general, swallowing down feelings in a bid to keep the holidays peaceful. This year, when we add the explosive cocktail of a global pandemic, I’m witnessing an unprecedented level of stress and anxiety about the holidays. So, I’m encouraging a low-key approach as a way of self-care.

Now, is the time for you to take a breath. This trip around the sun in 2020 has been a memorable one for sure. Celebrate your resilience. Recognize your growth. Grieve your losses. Acknowledge your sacrifices. Let go of what no longer serves you. In doing so, perhaps you can ease into a well-earned restful time this year, find joy in connection, and peace and love within.

Wishing you all a season of love and hope for a joyous New Year!

Warmly,
Veronica

Grace, Humility, and Gratitude

Grace, Humility, and Gratitude

I love this time of year of pumpkin spice lattes, autumnal leaves, cozy blankets, and wood burning fires. Of course, living in Florida, we only get the pumpkin spice, but I do love seeing pictures on my social media feed of everything else and daydreaming about snuggling up in front of the fireplace in my pjs and wooly socks. It’s a time for me to slow down as we approach the end of the year, consider the dawn of a new season, and offer gratitude to those who have walked with me on this trip around the sun. Clearly, 2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year, and the past couple of weeks have been no exception.

As I write this, we are being impacted by the outer edges of yet another tropical storm. My pastures, paddocks, and classroom are currently flooded, and my property now could be considered to have a lakeside view. Covid-19 cases are spiking to an all-time high of over 100,000 cases a day in the US. Uncertainty continues to loom in terms of unemployment, and the political leadership of my adopted country is as yet to be officially decided. Regardless of your political views, I think it’s fair to say that the 2020 US Presidential election resulted in us collectively holding our breath on a global scale. And while some people are beginning to exhale, many are still fighting to be heard on both sides of the political divide.

So, I’m not entirely sure what pulled us to take the plunge to add another member to our family in amongst all this chaos, but we did last weekend. Enter Grace. A one year old cattle dog, bluetick coonhound, Weimaraner mix with boundless energy and no basic puppy training in place. She is sweet, intelligent, and endlessly forgiving. In the space of 3 weeks, Grace had been owner surrendered to a shelter, moved to a foster home for a week, and then adopted to her forever home with us. True to her name, she handled these transitions with grace, humility, and gratitude. She has adapted to her new surroundings with ease, seemingly open hearted to these strangers in her life, curious and playful with her adopted fur siblings, and is already proving to be a loyal companion. Her willingness to trust others is in stark contrast to the skepticism and hostility that I have witnessed (and been guilty of) in the polarized world that we exist in. In watching Grace adjust to her new environment, I realized that what I was witnessing is vital to any hopes for our collective healing.

As the leaves begin to fall, we can learn to let go of what no longer serves us. As we transition from one political season to another, we need to dig deep for grace and humility. As Grace steps into her new relationships, she can heal from her past and embrace her future. As she gazes up at me with her tiger eyes, full of innocent wonder, I become aware of how I had lost sight of my willingness to take the risk to trust others. I become aware of the need for humility, to acknowledge that we are all inextricably connected, and that all relationships need effort from both sides.

There is nothing more heartwarming than the gratitude emanating from a rescue dog’s eyes. When I look at Gracie, I can feel my heart joining hers in gratitude for all those who have helped me on my journey, to survive and thrive. This Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to the efforts that friends have made to remain connected through this time of social distancing and isolation. I’m grateful for friends who model grace and humility while holding opposing views. I’m grateful for neighbors who become friends and friends who have become family. I’m grateful that despite the curveball of Covid-19 and everything else 2020 is throwing at us, we are learning to become more resilient in the face of constant change. Most of all, I’m grateful for all the members of our HERD community who are on this journey with me. May this season of Thanksgiving bring you all moments of grace and gratitude.

Warmly,
Veronica

 

What My Chickens are Teaching Me About Diversity and Inclusion

What My Chickens are Teaching Me About Diversity and Inclusion

Yes, you read that right. I’m talking about my chickens.

I’ve had a backyard flock of chickens now for the last four years. Learning to raise chickens has been an eye-opening process full of joy and heartbreak. Those of you who have been to The HERD Institute® headquarters will know how much HERD Program Manager, Sarah Morehouse, and I love our “chick chicks”. In the beginning, I chose to start my flock with 6 beautiful feathered friends named Zelda, Griffin, Buffy, Ophelia, Daphne, and Buckbeak. These girls would free range our farm in Ohio during the day. They hid in the bushes, climbed the manure pile, nested in the stalls, and joined in with client sessions and teaching workshops. They brought hilarity in moments that needed levity and insight during profound moments of learning. They demonstrated the indisputable fact of their sentient nature through their unique personalities.

Over the years, we’ve lost our girls to sickness and predators and of the original six, only Zelda and Griffin remain. We’ve added to the flock over the years and now have a couple of 2 year-olds (Henrietta and Martha) and a couple of younger ones at 19 weeks (Libby and Bessie). We also fostered a couple of adult chickens (Blanche and Dorothy) for a couple of months this summer before rehoming them. Each time we begin to integrate the flock with new arrivals, I am fascinated by how they build relationships with each other.

Much like horses, dogs, and other animals, chickens have been perceived as having distinct social structures based on the dominance theory of “pecking order”, where individuals within a group have a social standing that is reserved for the one who exhibits the most dominant behavior. While this dominance theory has been challenged in relation to horses and dogs, it is still regarded as fact for chickens. What I’ve observed in my own flock is that this theory only holds true if we equate dominance with aggression and power. This comes to light most often when new birds are being introduced to the flock. My established flock of four (Zelda, Griffin, Martha, and Henrietta) are a fairly egalitarian group. Zelda is the matriarch that the others turn to when there is a threat. Griffin is the most likely to guard resources and chase others away from food. Martha pushes boundaries by regularly escaping the chicken run but has no sense of personal space, and will regularly bump into, or jump on, the others when she gets excited. Henrietta is the broodiest and will claim her space at the nesting box and push others out of her way if needed. To focus on dominance only in terms of power and status would miss the nuanced interactions that form the fabric of the social structure within the flock.

When we fostered Blanche and Dorothy, I quickly recognized that they were not going to mix well with the rest of the flock. Blanche was physically much bigger and stronger than all the others and introduced herself by way of stretching her neck upwards and puffing herself up to her fullest extent. She charged at the others, randomly striking and pecking at them as she went. She flapped her wings and landed on top of Martha, who valiantly fought back and wrestled free. Dorothy then followed Blanche on her rampage by pinning Henrietta to the ground. I stepped in and separated them.

Traditional backyard chicken owners would say to introduce new birds to the flock over a period of time, extending the time of contact with each session until they are comfortable with each other and have established their pecking order. It’s a given that there will be some scuffles before things work themselves out. I had used this method of introduction with Henrietta and Martha the year before, and while there were a few minor pecks and a bit of jostling, there was never any targeted bullying like I was seeing with Blanche and Dorothy. After a couple more attempts at integrating them which led to similar results, I decided to keep them separated for the duration of their stay while I looked to rehome them. Thankfully, my neighbors decided that they wanted to start keeping chickens and I was able to rehome them with ease. They now have free range access to forage under shrubs and bushes and follow my neighbors to their patio for treats. There are no other chickens, so their bullying tactics have disappeared.

I could have let nature take its course and allowed the flock to “self-regulate” and find its own equilibrium, ignoring the stress signals that the girls were demonstrating, believing that they’d get over it. I could have subscribed to the idea that a pecking order was necessary and the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest would balance things out. I could have told myself that they’re only chickens and maybe I was anthropormophizing the whole thing and it’s really not as bad as it seems.

What I knew for sure was this: for the entire time that Blanche and Dorothy were in residence with us, overall egg production went down by 50%. As soon as I rehomed them, egg production went back to normal. The girls were also more willing to engage with me and much less anxious about going into the chicken run during the day.

This process got me thinking about racial and social justice work and what it means to be an activist and/or ally. It brought to light the difference between attending to the symptoms of systemic issues rather than actively dismantling the power structures that perpetuate them. Stepping in to break up a fight between the chickens would be an intervention that addressed the symptoms of the system. Removing Blanche and Dorothy and rehabilitating them in an environment where they didn’t need to exhibit those bullying behaviors dismantled the system. It’s worth noting that I took Blanche and Dorothy in because their previous owner was sick and could no longer care for them. They had been living in a relatively small coop with no space to free range and had to fight for resources with others. It’s not that they were inherently “bad chickens”, simply that they had learned that being bullies was the way to survive.

Clearly, dismantling systems of power is not so easy in human terms. But we can think about which bullies we might want to remove from power, and what resources we have, both individually and collectively, that can help us to do that. We can work to unpick the fabric that we have woven which supports the dominance, oppression, and supremacy over others and look for ways to empower, support, and celebrate them instead.

As I begin to integrate my youngest chickens, Libby and Bessie, into the flock, my hope is that there will be a smooth transition, a welcoming of the increased diversity that they bring to the flock. I trust that my matriarch, Zelda, will take them under her wing and help to build their confidence. Most of all, I hope that the newcomers will feel a sense of belonging and can feel at home.

 

The Skin We’re In

The Skin We’re In

Last week, I absent mindedly reached down to pick up a bag of mealworms from the ground. I hadn’t noticed that the bag was covered with fire ants. Within seconds, I dropped the bag as I felt the unmistakable piercing stings all over my hand. I brushed the ants off as quickly as I could and ran inside to run my hand under some cold water. The pain did not subside. Instead, I felt the fire spread up my arm, across my neck and shoulders, and down my back. Looking down, I noticed that my feet were red and swollen and after another minute, I was unable to stand. Clearly, I was having a severe allergic reaction and needed to go to the Emergency Room.

By the time I arrived at the ER, my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t put my shoes on and my whole body was covered in hives. Thankfully, I wasn’t anaphylactic and I could still breathe. I was expecting to be given some oral medication and/or an injection of antihistamines and sent home. Instead, the nurse hooked up me to an IV and told me that I’d be staying put for a couple of hours. Had I known that I would be administered high doses of Benadryl and Dexamethasone, I would’ve stayed home and used the stash from my equine first aid kit. I’m kidding. Kind of.

As I lay in the hospital bed, the adrenaline of the past twenty minutes began to subside. I felt a wave of exhaustion crash over me and I surrendered to the heaviness. For the next 48 hours, all I wanted to do was sleep. As I drifted in and out of my antihistamine induced haze, it occurred to me that my body’s systemic reaction was a parallel for what’s happening in the world.

I’ve never had sensitive skin. If anything, my skin has been pretty hard wearing given the extreme temperatures that I’ve worked in over the years. It’s weathered sun and snow with equal resilience despite my lack of care for sunscreen and moisturizers. Lately though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting more allergic reactions. In the last 6 months, I’ve noticed that each time I get an insect bite, my skin has responded more acutely with cellulitis, contact dermatitis, or rash/hives. It’s like my tolerance has decreased with each bite and my body is fighting back harder than before.

On an embodied level, my system has been subjected to constant attack in small doses. While these were troublesome, I’ve managed to live with them. I’ve learned how to fight back in small ways, to soothe the pain and search for healing. Occasionally, I’d have to bring in some additional help of antibiotics to fight infections. And while the threat of a deadly reaction was always in my awareness, I had managed to avoid any direct confrontations. And I wasn’t aware that my body had reached capacity to cope. This last attack resulted in, literally, a firing up of every fiber of my being in mass protest, screaming out for a reset to equilibrium.

Here, I feel the parallel with what’s happening in the world in full force. We have ignored the signs for too long. We’ve patched things up with duct tape and baling twine, and while those fixes can hold up for a while, they too will inevitably fail. 2020 has been a year of climatological, meteorological, biological, and geopolitical disasters. The wildfires of the US West Coast bookend the bush fires of Australia in January. Combined with tornados, hurricanes, derechos, flooding, and earthquakes around the globe, Mother Earth is screaming for change. The global pandemic of Covid-19 is now exacerbated by the onset of flu season. Over 1 million people have died around the world from the coronavirus. Add to that the return of the bubonic plague and the discovery of a brain eating amoeba in the water in Michigan, it feels like nature is launching its own biological warfare against the human race. Politically, there is ongoing civil unrest across the world. Pro-democracy riots in Hong Kong, protests for free speech in the Philippines, and in the US and Canada, the systemic uprising of Black communities against life threatening police brutality, saying enough is enough, hoping that this time they’ll be heard.

Humanity needs a reset. If only there was the equivalent of an IV to soothe the pain, reduce the threat, and offer some reprieve. But returning to equilibrium is not the goal. Like the protestor’s graffiti on the Hong Kong subway declared “We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem”. We need a new world. As Sonya Renee Taylor says, “We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature”. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy. What this is asking is for each and every one of us to take a stand in some way, however small that might be.

Here at The HERD Institute®, I am taking action to increase diversity and inclusion to our field. I am committed to increasing training access to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We have a scholarship fund in place and we are also offering BIPOC folks discounts on tuition. We have revamped our Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy Certification to make training more affordable and accessible. I am collaborating with various organizations within the equine facilitated industry and in the equine industry in general at events to promote cultural competence and anti-racist education. I believe that every action counts. Because if an ant can trigger a full-bodied systemic response, imagine what we can do together.

So, what can you, personally, do as a way of contributing to a brave new world?

Warmly,

Veronica
Executive Director

 

The Double-Edged Sword of Anti-Racist Work

The Double-Edged Sword of Anti-Racist Work

To My Black, Indigenous, and Friends of Color:

The world is appearing to wake up to calls for racial justice. I say “appearing”, because as many of you well know, some of it is simply a performative act to appease those in their audience who may take their business or patronage elsewhere otherwise. The optics du jour for many seems to be the pull to take a stand against injustices everywhere by proclaiming that systemic racism needs to end through an anti-racist statement. Some organizations have taken the step to actually act on these statements in some way, and kudos to them for attempting to do something, anything, to raise awareness for our calls for justice. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?

Do not be fooled, my friends.

In the midst of a global pandemic, we are continuing to see Black folks being murdered by the police. Shot. In. The. Back. Seven. Times. Where is the justice in that? In the meantime, in the “All lives matter” camp, the tragic death of a 5-year-old is being touted as evidence that white lives are under attack. Yes, that was a horrific crime. And the killer was arrested and charged within hours, while those responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor still walk free, months after her death. It is not the same.

In the meantime, those of us who are steeped in social activism, in leadership positions, and those who have always put themselves out there to speak up and speak out, have been inundated with requests to present on issues of racial justice and inequality within our communities and industries. Suddenly, the spotlight is on us to share our stories of discrimination and racialized trauma. On average, I’m receiving one request per day to speak at conferences, book clubs, interviews, and workshops. Podcasts, livestreams, and pre-recorded offerings are pouring forth from organizations within the equine facilitated world and the wider equine industry; from mental health organizations; from business networks – large corporations and small business associations. And this doesn’t even take into account the conversations that white friends are starting to instigate. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?

Do not be fooled, my friends.

Firstly, 99% of these requests are for pro bono work. What does it say about an organization that will pay for training for other topics but not on issues of diversity and inclusion? The exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color is perpetuated in the assumption that it’s acceptable for us to do this work for free. When an organization approaches me to speak, especially if it’s one that I’m unfamiliar with, I’m always curious about how they found me, and more importantly, why they chose me. Many requests come from friends who are leaders in their organizations, so of course, I’m on board with those. Some are through mutual connections and I’m mostly fine with those too. Some requests come from people I don’t know at all, and those are particularly worth investigating. Because I’ve noticed something else lately which feels important to share.

The activist in me wants to say yes to all of these requests because I feel a responsibility to represent people of color so that our voices can be heard, and to do my part to dismantle the systems of injustice, however small that effort might be. The public speaker in me knows that not everyone will want to hear what I have to say. The idealist in me hopes that by speaking anyway, that we can move towards a better world. But the biggest voice of all right now is the mental health practitioner who is watching this process unfold, not only for myself but for so many of us who are being called to do this work. And she is saying, don’t be fooled.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can do it all. How are you taking care of yourself in this process? How are you attending to the emotional and physical toll of being in the battleground, day in, day out? Because make no mistake, this work is HARD. The conversations we are having are painful and often frustrating. The repetition of explaining why agreeing that Black lives matter is the minimum people can do is bone-weary exhausting. It’s not possible to say yes to all of it without burning out. I know, because I’ve tried. We need to be able to take care of ourselves in all this. Have safe spaces to retreat to where we don’t have to have these conversations. Or have people who can help steady us when these conversations go awry. I’m so thankful to the people in my life who can do that with me. This is a marathon and not a race, so pace yourself. It’s okay to say no.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s you, personally, that they want to hear from. Flattering though it may be to feel that people think I might have something unique to offer, I am very conscious of the fact that many organizations simply do not have anyone from within to step in to represent people of color. This is troublesome on many levels and speaks to the lack of diversity, certainly within the equine industry, and the need to mentor and support those Black, Indigenous, and people of color who do attempt to enter this white space we exist in. In the meantime, the tokenism that this process represents literally makes me feel sick. Because for many of us who have worked so hard to prove that we are where we are not because of some positive discrimination policy, being placed in that position is a punch in the gut. This is why it can feel so disconcerting, even when the audience is receptive to what we are saying. And when this is the case, I have a choice: to ignore it or to challenge it. Both of which are also bone-weary exhausting. Ignoring it leaves me feeling that I have to swallow down my anger and frustration, and challenging it takes an enormous amount of energy and the potential for offending the host who has so graciously asked me to speak.

Don’t be fooled into feeling that if you don’t step up, then no one will, and you will be the reason this person/organization/gathering doesn’t hear the message they need to hear. I have felt enormous pressure from white colleagues to engage in events “because there’s nobody else” who fits the bill. This guilt tripping is not only the antithesis to anti-racist work, relying on generations of submissiveness without respect to boundaries or consent, but detrimental to the process of the organization acknowledging that they have created a white space.

Finally, don’t be fooled that just because you are being invited to speak means that the people you are addressing are on board. For me, this is the most dangerous aspect of agreeing to these requests. When the leaders of an organization are fully on board with your message, it would be so easy to assume that the rest of the audience are welcoming you with open arms too. This assumption will often lead you into the lion’s den. This is especially true if you are speaking at an event that is requiring mandatory attendance. The likelihood is that you will be speaking to a group with varying degrees of familiarity of anti-racist work and a wide range of opinions about the topic. In instances when I’m being interviewed rather than delivering a presentation, I have come to realize that the interviewer often either doesn’t have enough awareness of the issues themselves and are unaware of the offensiveness of the questions they ask, or that they are not fully on board with the idea of anti-racist policies. Oftentimes, it’s clear that the interviewer has the best of intentions and is open to being challenged. While that sounds great in theory, in actuality, I’m left once again with the responsibility of stepping into a place of vulnerability in order to challenge or educate, risking any relational rupture that might occur as a result.

As this process has unfolded for me, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the following:

  • It’s okay to say no and take time to breathe
  • It’s not okay to feel pressured into this
  • If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t go there
  • Racial trauma is trauma and needs to be treated as such. If there is no relational foundation, being asked to describe experiences of racism is akin to asking a stranger about their experience of being raped. It’s okay to say no to that request.
  • It’s okay to challenge
  • It’s okay not to challenge in order to conserve emotional energy
  • It’s okay to feel anger or frustration towards organizations who are appearing to do the right thing
  • It’s okay to feel what you feel. Period.

The road is long, my friends. Anti-racist statements and policies do not equate to immediate action or cultural shifts. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s a quick fix. The double-edged sword of anti-racist work is sharp.

Yours in solidarity,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Gratitude

Thank you to each and every one of you who supported, attended, and presented at our HERD Virtual Summit this past weekend. Despite the technical glitches (of which there were many), the feedback we have received has focused on the high caliber presentations, breadth of topics offered, and discussions that came out of the live sessions. Witnessing in real time new connections being made during the live sessions in the chat boxes and, despite this being a virtual platform, feeling an embodied sense of community throughout the day moved me to tears. I truly hope that the technical difficulties you experienced didn’t distract from the learning that you took from the event.

One of the highlights on the day was our HERD Geek Together. Our speaker panel consisted of many of the leading names in our industry including Leif Hallberg, Shannon Knapp, Patricia Kelly, and Nina Ekholm Fry, as well as a number of HERD graduates and faculty members. Shout out to Jude Jennison, Dr. Terry Chase, Deb Schneider-Murphy, and Catherine Frend Gillihan who all contributed presentations and attended the Geek Together. Looking at my screen during that session filled me with a deep sense of gratitude to be in the presence of so many like-minded folks who, despite differences in modalities, shared the same wholeheartedness towards an openness to dialogue on shaping the future of this industry.

In the midst of the global pandemic and calls for racial justice, I am proud of our collective efforts right now in moving forward in small steps towards a more compassionate, understanding, and inclusive world. My closing remarks for the day in the video above captured my sense of hope for our future. I hope you’ll join me in continuing the conversations sparked by the summit so that we can keep building our resilience and move towards recovery and reconnection.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Continuing Conversations

Continuing Conversations

We are now only 2 days away from our HERD Virtual Summit launch! We have been working hard behind the scenes to prepare for the summit and I’m so thrilled that almost 600 people have registered so far to attend. I’m giddy with excitement at the potential for new learning and connections and feel so grateful to each of our speakers who have offered their time and energy into putting together a sensational line-up for the even

I’m sure that my nervous system is on over-drive right now partly because of the “coronacoaster” we’ve all been on over the past few months, where we’re experiencing the simultaneous yearning for connection and the desire to run away from the overwhelm that 2020 has created, and also partly because of the insane length of my pre-summit checklist in our efforts to ensure everything runs smoothly on the day. Excitement and anxiety mixed together, or as HERD students have often heard me refer to as Anxitement.

When we originally made the decision to postpone our in-person conference that was supposed to happen this weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, I felt so disappointed. Pivoting to offer the HERD Virtual Summit gave me something to look forward to instead. The advantage is that we have been able to incorporate a number of speakers who wouldn’t have been able to join us at the in-person conference, and our speaker line-up is even more fabulous than before. The majority of the sessions will be in a pre-recorded format, so you can take your time to watch them with flexibility. There are a number of live sessions that you can catch on the day, but they will also be recorded. The summit is FREE for 48 hours, after which you can upgrade to gain lifetime access to the materials. With all of that, and the fact that we’re squeezing it all into one day, it means that there won’t be as many opportunities to ask the speakers questions during their presentations like you would at an in-person event.

Fear not! We have a solution.

Throughout the summit, you can access our HERD Virtual Summit Facebook Event page where you’ll be able to continue the conversations from the presentations, network with one another, and pose questions to our speakers. Please be mindful that our presenters are located around the world in different time zones, so may not respond to your questions immediately! As always, we are here at The HERD headquarters if you need any assistance.

For now, I’m heading back to my checklist. I look forward to connecting with you all during the summit and to continuing conversations beyond.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Making the Invisible, Visible

Making the Invisible, Visible

This week, I have mostly been thinking about making the invisible, visible. I’ve been noticing the distinct differences in how my friends have responded to recent events. The past few months have changed the way we view the world around us in previously unimagined ways. Whether this has been through seeing the visible impact from the invisible threat of Covid-19 for those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods, or the realization of who we have taken for granted in terms of essential workers, or coming face-to-face with systemic racism, there has been a collective unveiling of how others experience the world. And I’ve noticed how we are still hard-wired to turn a blind eye. 

As the country began to reopen, reported cases of the virus have been on the rise, and we are faced with yet another layer of uncertainty – is that a true reflection of what is happening? Was it because of Memorial Day celebrations or the protests? Are cases on the rise due to more testing? Are we still safe to reopen and reconnect with friends and family? Just because we’re allowed to do something, does it mean we should? Debates around whether masks are effective or not have become politicized and polarized. What has become more visible is the anger and frustration on both sides of these conversations and the lack of willingness, or difficulty in staying with the discomfort required, to listen to one another. We are more prone to confirmation bias than ever before. 

Robert Hartwell, a musical theater actor and Founder of The Broadway Collective, posted on social media recently about his experience of finding and purchasing his dream home. He wrote: 

3 weeks ago I found this house online. I said “this is my house”. I called the seller and was told it was a cash only offer and that “I’m sure that takes you off the table”. Don’t you ever underestimate a hard working black man. I saw the house last week and when I walked in I knew I was home. The house was built in 1820 for the Russell family who owned the cotton mill in town. Slavery was still legal. When the agent asked me why I wanted such a large house I said it was “a generational move”. I know this house is bigger than me. I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their back in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name even when 200 years later they still thought I would be “off the table”. We are building our own tables. I’ve never been prouder to be a black man. Come to my White House any time. I can’t wait to have you! Glory to God in the highest. I’m a homeowner.

He posted this with a photo of him standing in front of the house. Now, I want to ask you to be really honest about how you feel right now having read this. What is your response? What is your instinctive reply? 

I ask this because I shared this post on Facebook without any comment of my own. Within minutes, this post received a high number of “likes” and “love” reactions, along with comments about what a lovely story this is and how wonderful it was for him. I agree, this is an enormous accomplishment and he deserves to feel incredibly proud of who he is and what he’s achieved. It’s a moving story and incredibly meaningful. What I’m about to say does not in any way take away from any of that. 

As the comments and reactions gathered on my shared post, something uneasy stirred in me. Apparently, what was obvious to me was invisible to my friends. Because while I’m thrilled that Robert Hartwell was able to prove that realtor wrong, I was left wondering where the outrage was for the way that he was treated and for the overt bigotry and racism from the realtor? For me, this isn’t simply a “lovely story”, but is yet another hideous example of the racist attitudes that still persist; it’s an outrageous story, in that it causes me to feel outraged. The fact that he overcame all that is, indeed “lovely”, but the fact that he had to confront it at all disgusts me. 

By focusing only on the “happy ever after” outcome, we are whitewashing this man’s experience. We are absolving the bigotry because things came good in the end. 

If you are one of the many people right now committed to self-reflection and anti-racist work, I applaud you. Part of doing that work is to make the invisible, visible. Many of those who commented about this being a great story are also the ones who have been posting about anti-racist resources. Yes, educate yourself. Read the books. But most of all, do the work. That part requires you to be able to hear the other more clearly and remove the blinkers. It also requires you to look more closely at any situation where racism is present and placed neatly to one side because “things turned out okay in the end”. While it’s tempting to see only the positive and the silver lining, it’s equally important to acknowledge the harm that’s been done.

My disclaimer in all this? I don’t know Robert Hartwell personally. I don’t know if he shares any of my views. I don’t know how he feels about the realtor, nor how he responded to him. I am speaking only for myself. I also know that I also have confirmation bias and critics will say that if you look for what you expect, you’ll find it. I hope that one day I can look and not find this. Until then, I will keep making the invisible, visible. 

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

More than the Minimum

More than the Minimum

A dear friend of mine and I had a conversation recently about what it means to be seen. Truly seen. Not the type of seeing that means that you notice another’s presence, but the type of seeing that is actively engaged and intentional. For me, this type of being seen comes with a feeling of spaciousness, an opening that I can step into. Perhaps it’s something to do with the prolonged social distancing measures of current times, but even as I write this, I can feel the yearning of stepping into open arms and being embraced with warmth and gladness of my arrival. It’s the difference between opening the door for someone to step inside and waiting with the door open and rushing to greet them with pleasure.

This is an important distinction in the complexities of the current racial discourse. Because agreeing with the phrase Black Lives Matter is simply the bare minimum. Cultivating a space where black lives are welcomed, respected, encouraged, beloved, and cherished is what is really needed. But in a world where we are still arguing over whether black lives matter, this feels like a steep mountain to climb.

For those of you who want to be allies for racial justice, I want to encourage you to build an awareness of how and when you can do more than the minimum. What might you change to be more welcoming to black, indigenous, and people of color? What do you respect, encourage, cherish, and love? How might you be more intentional in how you engage with folks who feel marginalized because of the color of their skin? How might you advocate and promote their work? What are you doing to support yourself in these difficult conversations with others in the majority so that you can truly advocate for inclusion? How does this translate from an individual intentional practice to an organizational or community wide commitment? Whether you are joining book clubs to discuss Robin J. DiAngelo’s White Fragility, or reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an antiracist, or joining social activist groups, or donating to Black Lives Matter, or supporting black businesses, let’s bring these conversations into our industry. And if you’re not doing any of those things, what’s stopping you?

Within the field of equine facilitated work, what are we doing as leaders of training organizations, equine facilitated learning programs, therapeutic centers, and private practices to increase access to our offerings to black communities? The HERD Institute is committed to bringing more diversity into our field. Our sister organization Share in The HERD, is working on funding more programs and training opportunities. But that’s just the bare minimum. How can we build a culture of inclusion so that when those we want to welcome into this space actually feel like they belong and not out of place? I know how it feels to be the only person of color in the room. I also know how excited I get when I see others who look like me. And I’m aware of how seldom that happens.

In our conversation, I was moved to tears when my friend said, “I promise not only to see you, but to look for you”. This commitment to look for those who may be under-represented in any space resonated with my desire to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive community. So, I am actively looking. For those of you who identify as black, indigenous, people of color, I am looking for you. For those of you who are stepping up as allies, please help me actively look for black, indigenous, people of color who are working, training, or studying in the field of equine facilitated work. I have created a Facebook group called Diversifying the Herd for us to hang out together and network in a safe space. Please get in touch with me at [email protected] . I am eagerly awaiting your arrival and will meet you with open arms.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

You Belong

You Belong

My post last week spoke about the importance of recognizing our unconscious biases. I also want to recognize the intersectionality of privilege and oppression. While I may have experienced sexism and racism in my life, I am also privileged by being a cis-gender, heterosexual woman without physical or cognitive disabilities. I have lived an economically privileged life which has afforded me housing, healthcare, food, relative financial security and the means to access the highest levels of education. Some of these advantages I’ve worked hard for, but for the most part, I was born into them. Holding these privileges does not mean that I am actively oppressing others. What I do with this awareness is what’s important. Denying that I have them limits my ability to find empathy for those who are struggling. Using my voice from a place of privilege and creating opportunities for others to step up can help to empower those who are disenfranchised.

You may be wondering how any of that is relevant and why I’m even sharing this with you. Well, in my worldview, all organizations begin with the vision of its leaders who realize their visions from the context of their lived experiences and personal values. My experiences of not-belonging have meant that I have worked hard to cultivate a culture of inclusivity within the HERD Community.

Now, The HERD Virtual Summit is now only one month away. We are working hard behind the scenes to curate a diverse and inclusive list of speakers and presentations that speak to the summit theme of Resilience, Recovery, and Reconnection. Now, more than ever, we all need to find ways to build our resilience – physically against the threat of the continuing pandemic and emotionally for difficult conversations emerging from the ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Someone asked me the other day why the HERD Virtual Summit included speakers and leaders from other training models. They were confused as to why I would want to advertise my “competitors”. My answer to that is simple: We can all learn from each other and collaboration is more valuable than competition.

I want to promote a culture within our community for diversity and inclusion, operating from a spirit of abundance. This is written into our mission statement at The HERD Institute®. I want to live to these values. I also want to hold hope that it’s possible to champion others who are different to ourselves, to hold the belief that there isn’t just one way, and that within our field of equine facilitated work, we are all ultimately working towards the same thing: healing and growth individually and collectively in the communities and organizations that we belong to and serve. I want to promote dialogue and curiosity, shine a light on the more shadowy parts of our industry, moving away from dogma, ruptures, and denial, to a more robust, resilient, and relational space. Perhaps by starting small within one organization, within one summit, we can create a ripple effect into the life space that we all occupy outside of our industry. My hope is that by doing this, that those who have felt invisible can feel seen, and those who have felt marginalized can feel worthy of belonging. Because you do. You belong. Here, in the HERD, and in the world. I see you and you matter.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Resilience, Recovery, and Reconnection

Resilience, Recovery, and Reconnection

***WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO ENGAGE IN A DISCUSSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR THE VOICE OF A PERSON OF COLOR. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH THE STATUS QUO. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE TOO EXHAUSTED AND FEEL THAT THE WORLD IS CONDEMNING ALL WHITE PEOPLE***

Please note: If you are able to choose not to read this because of the warnings above, then you are lucky that you have the choice not to face this every day, and I would encourage you to come back and read it at another time. Because you need to.  

It’s been an exceptionally tough week. In the midst of the global pandemic, the witnessing of yet another incident of police brutality has ignited a fire storm of reactions around the world. The death of George Floyd was a horrific example of institutionalized racism. But let’s not forget the equally disturbing and calculated racism aimed at Christian Cooper, when a white woman banked on the knowledge that she could weaponize this institutionalized racism. The insidiousness of that incident somehow leaves me feeling more spooked than the blatant disregard for humanity for George Floyd. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that what happened to Christian Cooper was worse, only that it affected me differently.

Since moving to the States almost a decade ago, I have lived in three different states and experienced the vast differences in regional attitudes and reactions when people meet me. As a British Chinese woman who drives a truck, listens to country music, and works with horses, I’m aware that I’m a bit of an anomaly. My expectation and experience of blatant racism follows me from a lifetime of living in predominately white spaces. What does it say that it no longer surprises me that black and brown communities experience institutionalized racism every day? That people of color have been brought up to expect to be treated with such disregard? What does it mean to you, that in some ways I’m more comfortable with knowing that, because at least we know what we’re dealing with and what to look out for?

But what Christian Cooper was met with chills me to the bone. The worst kind of racism comes from those who don’t think that they are racist. It comes from folks who think they are color blind, or folks who think they don’t have biases. As part of The HERD Institute® certification programs, students are introduced to Project Implicit, a pioneering force behind challenging attitudes, stereotypes, and hidden biases that impact the way we perceive others. By partnering with Harvard University, they have created online assessment tools to highlight areas of implicit bias. The assessments they offer are free and I highly recommend you take a look if you haven’t come across them before. What always surprises me is when students enter into our training believing that they don’t hold any biases, or when doing the assessments admit to trying to give the “correct answers”, or those who react defensively against the results given by criticizing the format of the tests. I’m not saying that the test designs are critique proof, but the interesting thing for me in all this is the underlying idea that if we hold any biases at all, it means that we are not evolved enough as human beings, so we have to defend ourselves from that notion and aim to be completely bias free.

I am a person of color and I am racist. I am sexist. I am homophobic. I am politically incorrect. In short, I am prejudiced and biased, and have been complicit in the oppression for those who I stand in solidarity with in so many ways. Why? Because I live in a society that has conditioned me to be that way. Institutionalized racism, heteronormativity, and misogyny have shaped me by osmosis, and continues to influence me through the media and my lived experiences in everyday life. While I make every effort to be mindful of some deeply embedded prejudices, and fight for equality and equanimity, and stand as an ally to all who are misrepresented and oppressed, I know that I will always have my blind spots. I say all this, as a person of color, to alert my well-intentioned white friends that it is okay to acknowledge our inherent biases and privilege. What we do with the awareness of these is more important than spending our energy being defensive and denying their existence.

Taking a stand against bigotry and hate requires us all to examine our own prejudice. It’s uncomfortable, and often deeply unsettling, to admit to the judgments that we hold. The act of being an ally begins with working through these ourselves, before we even enter into the dialogue. Within the current political climate, it is imperative for us all to take action, speak with compassion, be clear in our intention, and acknowledge that prejudice resides in us all. In doing so, we can step away from the defensiveness that arises when someone points out our privilege. Somehow, in the current discourse, the term privilege invokes anger and denial, as if admitting to having privilege in any way makes us a bad person. If that has been your understanding, let me be clear: having privilege doesn’t mean it’s your fault that people are oppressed, but denying that you are privileged makes you part of the problem. This isn’t a process of privilege shaming; it’s an opportunity to reflect on what we have been blessed with and find compassion for those who are less fortunate. Privilege shows up in a multitude of ways, every day, and allows us to seek to understand the experiences of those without. The aim is not to erase all of our biases, but instead, for us to acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases, and that we need to work to raise our awareness of them. By bringing these biases to light, we can actively choose, and reflect on our thoughts and actions from a different lens. We ALL have biases as a result of being alive in a relational space; our environment, our culture, our upbringing, our experiences, and our own choices speak volumes about how we have become who we are. Stepping into an equine-facilitated setting with the intention to be aware of our biases so that we can interact with our participants and horses with intentional non-judgment helps us to provide a safe space for all.

This week, we opened registration for our upcoming HERD Virtual Summit: Resilience, Recovery, & Reconnection. The theme was chosen at the beginning of the global pandemic, thinking ahead to July with hopes that we would be through the worst of it by then. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much more relevant the theme is when we take into consideration this past week. In writing this piece, my hope is that we can find ways to bolster our resilience in times of discomfort, look for opportunities to lift each other up as we recover from this collective trauma, and in doing so reconnect with ourselves and one another. Putting together this summit is hard work, with a lot of moving pieces. But I’m doing it because I believe in hope. I hope that we can come together as a community and address the disparities within our field. I hope that we can build bridges towards increasing diversity so that all our voices can be heard. I hope that you will join us in this quest and in doing so find resilience, recovery, and reconnection in your life.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

A Whole New World

A Whole New World

By now, we will all have been impacted by the global pandemic of Covid-19 in some way. Cancelled conferences and workshops, school closures, social distancing, and self-isolation are becoming the norm. Bars and restaurants, theaters, and other public gathering spaces are being closed. Businesses are closing their doors. Some will survive and some will not. Fear and anxiety for our family and friends have led to panic buying and hoarding in many areas. And we are yet to see the peak of the pandemic in many places. The plethora of information that has been disseminated, communicated, and mis-communicated is overwhelming.

How we respond to this crisis now will hugely impact what comes next. Now, more than ever, we are being called upon to take collective responsibility. The welfare of all comes before the desires of the few. As equine facilitated practitioners, we witness this collaborative model every day in our horses. When there is an external threat to the herd, horses will swiftly gravitate to one another and move as one. Equine ethologist Lucy Rees has observed horses in the wild to respond to danger through cohesion, synchrony, and collision avoidance. This is what we need on a global scale right now.

Cohesion of strategy. If we all go about our separate ways doing different things, this pandemic will continue to spread through our communities. When horses respond to a threat, the whole herd responds cohesively. The call to action is based on a life or death threat. To question how severe the threat might be and wait before taking action could leave one at risk. That decision translates to the rest of the herd as an increased risk for further attacks. Coming together means letting go of individualism for the greater good of the collective. Losing one’s identity to merge with the masses is safer than fleeing alone. For us right now, this means letting go of individual needs and adopting a communal approach. We are all in this together.

Synchrony of action. When horses come together in preparation for a stampede to flee potential danger, they move together in one direction at the same pace and the ones in the middle are the safest. We need synchrony of movement and we need to learn from China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany, and other countries who are a few weeks ahead of us in this pandemic. We are not immune. We are no different. The advice has been to stay home to flatten the curve of the rate of infection. This can only happen if we synchronize our actions.

Collision avoidance is necessary. When horses are fleeing from danger, they maintain a clear space between one another to avoid collision. Colliding increases the chance of falling and falling could result in being attacked and/or putting others at risk of falling. Obstacles are avoided in flow as the herd separates and comes together again. The awareness of others within the herd is present at all times. The intention and awareness of the movement of the entire herd is held collectively. We need to heighten our awareness of collision avoidance. Already, we have seen supplies run out as people panic buy to over and above what they need, leaving others without necessities. We need to flatten the curve so that we don’t end up in a situation where we are colliding in hospitals and reducing one another’s chances for survival. We need to think like a herd and be mindful of every member, even as we run from danger.

The need for cohesion, synchrony, and collision avoidance in this whole new world that we are living in will become more evident in the days ahead. The HERD Institute has cancelled or postponed all in-person workshops and trainings for the duration of the pandemic. This was not an easy decision as we know how much time, effort, and financial commitment has been given by students and participants. We also know that this puts us, as a business, in financial turmoil. And we know that we are not alone.

I believe that we can all weather this storm together and find new ways to connect through the time of social distancing and self-isolation. Throughout this season of the pandemic, we will be offering a weekly support group for HERD members via Zoom. Every Tuesday at 2pm EST we can come together as a community and connect. Faculty members will also be available for individual mentoring and supervision for all members throughout this time. We will be offering group sessions online as well as launching a number of webinars. Details will follow as we tackle each obstacle at a time.

My hope for our community is that we can find strength through cohesion, synchrony, and collision avoidance. Once again, we can look to our equine partners to teach us. For that, and for each member of our community, I am deeply grateful.

May you all keep safe and healthy through these uncertain times.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director

Reference: Rees, L. (2017) Horses in company, Wiltshire, UK: J. A. Allen

Gratitude in the Here and Now

Gratitude in the Here and Now

As I write, it’s an unusually cold and blustery day in Orlando, Florida. The trees are swaying from the strong wind, the air is damp and drizzly with rain, and it’s the first time that I’ve felt cold in a while. The view from my window is reminiscent of the cold and dreary days I grew up with in the UK (minus the palm trees, of course). Those of you who know me well will know that I’m not a fan of hot and humid weather. Ever since we’ve moved to Florida, I’ve been petulant about the need to shower multiple times a day in an effort to rejuvenate from the sweaty mess that I find myself in each time I step out to the barn. I’ve been homesick for Ohio and the changing seasons, yearning for some reprieve from the exhausting heat, and feeling adamant that my body prefers the cold. But now that I’m feeling the cold, I’m not sure if that’s what I’m cut out for either.

All this got me thinking about how the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, and how so many people I meet are on a quest for something more, or different, to what their lives are offering them in the moment. I’m not exempt from this process, clearly. It’s what motivates me to work hard towards my mission and vision for The HERD Institute. It’s also what drives me to continuously reach for more knowledge and skills. It comes with drawbacks though. The pull towards something more, or different, stops me from appreciating the present.

This cold day is a stark reminder for me to be more mindful of taking in the joy of each moment, and to offer gratitude for all that is. And I have SO much to be thankful for right now! This month has been incredible. As The HERD Institute continues to grow our community, I have been gifted by the presence of some amazingly talented students coming through the programs. Each of them will be making their own unique contributions, impacting the lives of so many in their local communities, through bringing their authentic presence into this field of work. I feel honored to be walking alongside them on this part of their journey. This month has also been spent developing a new HERD Affiliate program that we are aiming to launch in April this year. This new venture will allow more practitioners to take the work of The HERD into their communities. We will be announcing more information soon, so watch this space!

I am also proud to announce that we are now officially recognized as an affiliate service provider for PATH International, making us the only Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy & Learning Certification provider listed on the PATH website. This partnership seeks to offer additional benefits to those working within the field of equine facilitated work, and The HERD Institute is pleased to be able to offer a 20% discount to all PATH Intl. Members enrolling on our certification programs.

In other news, after a rather traumatic computer malfunction that resulted in the loss of a third of the manuscript, my second book entitled “It’s not about the activity: Thinking outside the toolbox in Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy & Learning” has just gone under contract with University Professors Press, and will be published by June this year.

While all of this is exciting news, what I am most grateful for right now is the outpouring of love and support we have received from students and graduates. As part of our continued efforts to improve our services and offerings, we invited students and graduates to a filming day in Ohio. Through the magical lens of John Ondo from Ondo Media, potential students will now get a glimpse of what it means to belong in The HERD. This touches me deeply as the community we co-create is one of the most meaningful aspects of what The HERD Institute stands for.

So despite the dreary weather, my heart is warm and cozy, and I am beyond grateful for this moment, right here, right now. What are you feeling warm and cozy about right now?

Best wishes,

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute®

#4 Questions

#4 Questions

Happy New Year from The HERD!

The beginning of the year is always a time when I feel called to re-evaluate how I want to live my life. The new year opens up infinite possibilities, and as I reflect on the changes from the year before, I want to step into this liminal space with intention. This year, I have chosen “Balance” as my word for the year. With so many exciting developments on the horizon, I am recognizing the need to pace myself so that I don’t fall into my habitual trap of running as fast as I can without attending to some self-care.

Working with horses has taught me not only to be mindful of how I step into relationship with others, but also how I relate to myself, and how I make decisions. When working with 1200lb animals, it’s imperative that we pay attention to subtle nuances in our relational dance with them. Whether I am working with my horses on the ground, or in the saddle, I’ve learnt to ask myself four key questions in order to help me decide what my next steps might be. I’ve also learnt that these questions are applicable to any decision I might make in life in general.

Is what I am about to do driven by my ego?
Is my decision based on what others expect of me?
How does this decision fit with my values?
How does this decision fit with my mission or vision?

In learning to work with horses, many of us have been taught that we can’t let our horses “win”, and that we need to show them who’s boss. When I’m working with my horses, this might show up in ways that conflict with my commitment to being a compassionate equestrian. When I’m lungeing my horse and he refuses to move out and forward, I might tell myself that he’s being stubborn, and that it’s in his best interest to exercise, so I push him for more than he is comfortable with. I’m focusing on what I think he needs to do, rather than listening to what he might be trying to convey. The result is that we end up in a power struggle with me feeling like I have to “win” and not back down.

For me, that’s an ego driven way of working. I know when my ego is in the driver’s seat when I become defensive about a direction that I’m taking. Focusing on “winning” and task completion rather than on the relationship that I’m building is an ego driven process.

Looking at business opportunities in the year ahead, I’m called to consider whether expanding the business is coming from a place of competition, or genuine desire to offer additional services. In leading an organization, I want to make sure that the decisions I make are reflective of how I want to live my life, and not simply a means to an end. I know that my ego can easily succumb to flattery: invitations to present at conferences, contributions to articles, books, and other publications might be interesting and raise my profile, but I need to balance that with my awareness that I don’t need to (or want to) conquer the world. So I can be intentional where I spend my time and energy.

This leads me to my second question: Is my decision based on what others expect of me? When I first started working with horses, I was astounded at the expectations people had. I was expected to show my dominance with my horses. My horses were expected to comply. When I first bought my mare Reba, we struggled in our relationship because of the conflicting messages that I gave her. I was also told that because I was struggling, I should sell her and get something more suitable. When my non-equestrian friends heard that I had bought a horse, they automatically assumed that they now had access to a horse that their kids could have pony rides on. These experiences made me realize that this “horse as commodity” mentality was not one that I could subscribe to, but this also meant not living up to expectations others had.

Within a business setting, my unending curiosity leads me on exciting adventures that may not be directly relevant to my work. I get involved in projects, committees, and organizations with enthusiasm. This sometimes results in me taking on far more than I have the capacity for, and yet I’m often tempted to continue for fear of disappointing others. When I step back from making decisions based on others’ expectations, I can regroup and become clearer about my boundaries and turn my attention to things that I feel truly called to do.

My third question helps me to figure out what that is. By asking myself how a decision fits with my values, I can bring more attention to the areas of my life and relationships that I want to cultivate and cherish. When working with my horses over the years, I’ve wrestled with the conflict of applying a technique or method that feels incongruent to who I am, and how I want to relate with my equine partner. Being told to kick my horse harder, or slap them in the face if they come into the middle when being lunged as a way of negative reinforcement did not sit well with me. I realized that I needed to find a way to be with my horses that was consistent with who I am and how I relate to others.

My personal values and my organizational values also need to be aligned. As a trainer who espouses the importance of integrity, compassion, and authenticity, if I don’t walk within those values on a personal level, those inconsistencies will show up in my organization, and vice versa. As Brené Brown says, conflict in our lives show up when we have conflict in our values.

Finally, the question about how my decision fits with my mission or vision emerges from finding clarity in our values. My aim with my horses was never to enter into the show ring in any capacity. Like all of us in the equine facilitated world, I found solace, comfort, and joy in simply being with the horses. Riding is fun, and while I enjoy the connection I have with my horses in the saddle, it does not define my relationship with each member of my herd. My aim for my horses is for them to live in a healthy environment where they have choice to interact with the humans I introduce to them. If they are willing to partner with me under saddle, then that’s a bonus. My horses have taught me that being intentional in how I relate to them allows for more consistency. Holding my values of compassion and integrity within our relationships also allows me to model that consistency with my students and clients.

From an organizational perspective, The HERD Institute mission and vision is clearly stated on our website and in our student handbooks. We aim to offer an inclusive environment, embrace an attitude of abundance, and honor the potential of all our members. We want to support our members to develop the integrity of their personal philosophy, expand their knowledge and skills, and broaden their horizons through continuous learning and practice. In this way, we can collectively hold our vision to create a global community of equine facilitated psychotherapy and learning practitioners who are committed to furthering the work of the pioneers in our field.

Asking myself these four questions reconfirms my desire to uphold our mission and vision. So, how might these four questions impact you? I want to challenge each of you to reflect on these questions, and let us know your answers.

Email us at [email protected] or post on social media with #4questions #learningfromhorses #herdinstitute

May your questions lead you into 2020 with clarity, balance, and integrity.

Best wishes,

Veronica Lac
Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute

Holiday Traditions

Holiday Traditions

As we approach the holidays, I’ve been thinking about how and what traditions are passed on from generation to generation. What survives, thrives, or dies? What effort do we put in individually to create or sustain traditions that are important to us, and what makes them important?

My family didn’t really do holiday decorations and gifts, and Santa stopped making an appearance when I was six years old after I told my parents that I didn’t believe in him. My brother cautioned me on that one by telling me not to say anything as “It’s better to believe and receive”, but as the truth teller in my family, I was having none of that. Besides, we lived on the 11th floor of a high rise in Hong Kong at the time with no fireplace or chimney, so the story just didn’t make sense to me. When my grandparents moved to California, we started spending Christmas vacations with them. Our family traditions involved going to church on Christmas morning, and was usually followed by a very non-festive day of Chinese food. As I got older, I wanted more of a Western version of Christmas day, complete with a tree and turkey, ham, or beef with all the trimmings. My influences were more British than American though in that department, so I learnt to make traditional Christmas pudding, mince pies, pigs-in-blanket, Yorkshire puddings, and roast spuds.

I remember spending Christmas with my in-laws soon after I got married, and experienced the Lac family version of Christmas. Much like my family, it wasn’t a big occasion in terms of gifts, but food was of highest priority. Not only did we have a Western feast, but my mother-in-law had spent hours preparing a variety of Asian delights. The weird part for me was that we ate it all with bowls and chopsticks, which I found utterly delightful.

As beautiful as the holidays can be, it is also a time of heightened emotions for many. The holidays may bring to mind the loved ones we’ve lost along the way, extra stress and anxiety about “getting it right”, and the dread of obligation of whom to spend time with. The Hallmark picture perfect version of the holidays may push us towards feeling even more isolated in our struggles. I will often remind my clients that this tradition of pretending that life is perfect for the holiday season is what makes it so hard. The reality is that we all struggle in our own way, and perfection is not the point of this season.

Now that I’ve lived in different parts of the world, and experienced a diverse range of holiday traditions, I realized that the traditions that I hold dear are not so much about how things are done, but the wisdom and philosophy behind why I want to do them. I can hear my grandma’s voice saying that “One should never complain about having eaten too much as it’s an insult to those who remain hungry”, that “Generosity cannot be measured through gifts with ribbons, but from how open your heart is to others”, and most importantly that “The spirit of abundance can show up year round”. So whether it’s volunteering at soup kitchens, participating in food drives, or extending our table to include those who would otherwise be alone, these are the traditions that mean the most.

While my grandma is no longer with me in person, her spirit is very much alive, and inspires me to share her teachings with others. Part of the mission of The HERD Institute is to further the work of the pioneers who came before us. The wisdom of the elders lives on through our actions, and as the field of equine-facilitated work grows and develops, we will be passing on our own traditions to the next generation of practitioners. While it’s important to keep some traditions, it’s also imperative that we evolve as we grow, and question how things are done.

For the Star Wars fans among us who have become enamored by the recent introduction of Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian, I’m eagerly awaiting what wisdom has been passed on, as the legendary Master Yoda says, “Always pass on what you have learnt” and also that it’s important to “unlearn what you have learned”. And since the older I get, the more I realize how much more there is to learn, I will also remember his advice that “Much to learn you still have…this is just the beginning!”

So may this holiday season bring you all the wisdom of our elders and the joy of learning. I am certainly ending this decade with a heart full of gratitude for the privilege of being able to share this work with you all.

Warm wishes,
Veronica

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute