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

What Are We Giving Thanks For?  

What Are We Giving Thanks For?  

When I first arrived in the USA, I reveled in the All-American tradition of Thanksgiving. I loved the idea that this was a holiday dedicated to our ability to feel gratitude, rather than one of commercial gifts and gains. I felt humbled by the spirit of abundance and generosity extended by our new friends in our newly adopted homeland, and the sense of inclusiveness I experienced. Many times over the past few years, with my husband traveling for work, I was home alone for Thanksgiving, and was invited to join my friends with their families on the day. Tables were extended and I had found a place where I felt that I belonged.

In the eight years since my first American Thanksgiving, I have come to understand that this is just one version of this holiday. As my network of friends and acquaintances has grown, I have been introduced to the real story of thanksgiving from an indigenous people’s perspective. I have felt shame at my ignorance, and a responsibility to acknowledge the full picture. And yet, I still feel pulled towards celebrating thanksgiving in the “traditional” way with a day of feasting, family, and friends, all focusing on what we are grateful for. Each year, I battle this cognitive dissonance, and struggle to balance myth with the truth: join in with the festivities or honor those who mourn? I’ve rationalized it in my mind that it’s possible to be respectful of those whose historical trauma is triggered by these annual festivities while also holding gratitude for the abundance before me. I’ve succumbed to the pleasures of the day while telling myself that it’s not “my” history, and therefore not my loss to grieve, and subsequently felt the shame of that. I’ve tried to appease my guilt by volunteering at homeless shelters every year before indulging in the abundance.

What I’m aware of in all of this is my fear of ostracizing myself if I were to voice these struggles. Of course, I’ve been thankful for the inclusion to celebrate with others, so if I were to mention the real story of Thanksgiving, would I be offending those that are celebrating? If I don’t, am I part of the collusion to eradicate an important part of history that needs to be brought to light in order for it to not be repeated?

In the last few months, I have been working with a number of organizations that are struggling with conflict management. I have found that beneath the issues and concerns is this same fear – will I be isolated if I speak up? Whether we are working with organizations or with individual therapy clients, we are still driven by human needs. The HERD approach of relational attunement applies regardless of the client population and scope of practice. Rather than engaging in conversations that continue to polarize the individuals or groups involved, we can look at acknowledging both perspectives as truths. Looking for the common humanity in the struggle, we can support any relational ruptures that need to be repaired.

I saw a meme recently on Facebook that I “liked” that said something about how we can disagree and still love each other. A couple of minutes later, I saw another one that challenged this perspective with the added comment of “unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist”. I caught my breath as I read that, and “liked” it too. Therein lies my dilemma. How can we speak up without rupturing relationships while holding both truths?

In working with the organizations through conflict management, I recognized that the moment that we begin to take sides, is the moment that we lose our connection with the “other”. Instead, by saying that I hear your truth, and that’s different to mine, but we also share something in common (whether it is the desire for a more peaceful and compassionate workplace, or to reach a joint measure of organizational success), we can begin to repair any ruptures. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy, and in fact, requires us to show up, lean in, and do the hard work of staying with what is uncomfortable. Recognizing the common desire for reconciliation is the key. Conflict management is not about pretending that all is well, but to acknowledge that there are differences of opinion, while still respecting the other and being prepared to offer grace and compassion in the midst of disagreements. Speaking up means that we show up and take the risk to be vulnerable. Leaning in means that we foster an environment of mutuality and hope. If we can remember that we are in that struggle together, we have a fighting chance of repairing the rupture.  To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, this isn’t about being an optimist, but about holding on to hope. Difference is the catalyst for growth, and disagreements provide fertile ground from which a new way can emerge. Nelson Mandela also said, “I like friends with independent minds because they tend to make you see from all angles”.

So as we head into the Thanksgiving season, I am grateful for the different perspectives that I have been shown, and I am hopeful for the diverse community that we are building together.

Wishing you all a season of grace, compassion, and thanksgiving.

Veronica

Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute

Kumbaya

Kumbaya

Last month saw our first hurricane preparation at The HERD Institute. We are incredibly thankful that Hurricane Dorian spared us a direct hit. I cannot imagine the horrific devastation that this storm has caused for all those in its path, and my heart goes out to all those affected. Thanks to friends and neighbors who have been through this before, I am grateful that I am now equipped to prep for something like this. Yet another learning curve in my journey of living Stateside.

With all of that, I am recognizing, more and more, how change is the only constant in my life. Every day, something new presents itself to me, whether it be a new business challenge, an opportunity for connection, or the whispering winds of knowledge that I have yet to gain. Deep in my bones, I can feel the pull towards all the ways in which I want to develop the institute, provide support to our students and graduates, and expand the reach of the work that we do as equine-facilitated practitioners. I am motivated, committed, and dedicated to our vision to create a global community committed to furthering the work of the pioneers of our field. I am excited, curious, and hopeful for all the incredible services that all of our graduates are now offering to the communities they serve. So many moving parts, continuously changing, shifting, and growing. And, I am exhausted.

As I write this, I can look out of my office window and see my horses grazing in the pasture. When I do, I pause and breathe. Inhale, 2, 3, 4…exhale 2, 3, 4. Repeat. I notice the tension in my body, in my jaw and shoulders specifically, and intentionally yawn to release some of it. I can hear my friend and colleague, Sarah, in the background talking with an old high school friend of mine who has stepped in to help us revamp our website. They are laughing as they work together, and to my introverted ears, it’s too much, and I’m irritated by the sounds, so I stick my noise-cancelling headphones on to block them out. I wonder then, if I’m irritated because I’m exhausted, and what else might I be reacting to more viscerally than usual, and what else I might be blocking out, if I wasn’t so tired. I sigh, and again notice the tension in my shoulders and jaw. Taking a deep breath, I tell myself to “suck it up” because I have work to do. And then I laugh.

I laugh because I recognize the compassion that is needed in myself, for myself, is still something that I’m working on. I laugh because the sounds of my friends sharing moments of joy actually delight me. I spent the past weekend with some incredible women on our Empowering Women through The Daring HERD™ retreat, where we discussed the importance of knowing our core values, and the ways in which we sabotage ourselves in our quest to live to those values. We talked about the need for connection, support, and hope in order to build the resilience needed to live courageously. The women were moved to tears as I read Brené Brown’s Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted. As we invited the horses into the process, the mares we were working with chose to stand with us as part of the circle. They weren’t doing what they were trained to do. They were allowing themselves to be where they needed to be. For the women in the group, it represented their desire to join us in unity.

In the work that we do as equine-facilitated practitioners, we often highlight the ability that horses have to simply be in the moment, present in the here-and-now, and offer that to those we work with as evidence of a more peaceful, tranquil, and connected way of being. As if that’s what we should all aim for. In an ideal world, I would agree. I have also encouraged people to take a breath and focus on the here and now – it’s a core philosophy in The HERD model after all – and when I do, the feedback is usually that the participant feels more relaxed in that moment. That’s all well and good, but how do we translate that into every day life with all its associated pressures? How does that help to alleviate some of the stresses in our lives, and the burdens we might carry?

Recent studies have shown that intentional breathing exercises can help to activate the vagus nerve, which forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the regulation of which impacts our capacity for social engagement, trauma recovery and resilience. Bringing our attention into the present moment allows us to momentarily press the pause button in our lives, breathe, ground, and center ourselves. It is in this pause that we can reach for and access any available support, evaluate our choices, and reconnect with others. The connections that we reach for, and hold on to, in those moments of pause allow us to feel less alone in our struggles, and helps us to weather the impending storms.

Recently, one of my friends expressed her frustration with how this approach might lead to a “touchy-feely”, Kumbaya attitude where struggles are voiced but nothing is done, and at some point we all need to suck it up and get on with life. In this, I understood her urban definition of Kumbaya as the sitting around a campfire and singing variety; a naïve optimism that as long as we love each other, everything will be okay. This led me to wonder about the apparent gap between a Kumbaya approach and the polarity of just suck it up. It also led me to questioning how the refrain of Kumbaya got such a bad rap.

Historically, Kumbaya is acknowledged as pidgin English for “Come By Here”, and was sung by black folks in southern plantations, a chorus of unity to bring strength to each other, an anthem against oppression, and a plea for salvation through prayer. So much for the apparent polarity to the “suck it up and get on with it” mentality that it’s supposed to represent. The existence of the song and lyrics of Kumbaya are, in fact, a cultural containment for hope and resilience, without which it would not be possible to move forward to get things done. Kumbaya is the ultimate definition of acknowledging our struggles while shifting our understanding of what it means to suck it up. Kumbaya calls for strength through unity in order to carry on. Because no man is an island, and we all need support. Whether we are facing injustice, grief, uncertainty, or the reality of whatever hardships we face in life in that moment, we need the help of others to alleviate what sucks.

Once again, I’m reminded that it is never either/or, black or white, right or wrong, but always both/and. So moving forward, I will be taking on the mantra to Kumbaya the Suck out of life. So bring on the storms, and we will breathe and weather through them together. But maybe not the hurricanes ;-).

Warm Wishes,
Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute

Marvelous Mistakes

Marvelous Mistakes

As a beginning therapist, I remember being terrified of making mistakes with my clients. What if I did more harm than good? What if my interventions missed the mark, and my clients left our sessions feeling misunderstood and more alone?

As part of our training, we experienced practice sessions in both small group settings, and in “fishbowl” large group situations, where students took turns to step into the role of therapist to hone their skills. These sessions were observed by more experienced mentors, trainers, and clinical supervisors, and followed constructive feedback and debriefs. For many of us, these practice sessions were highly anxiety provoking, and often, shame inducing. For me, these sessions were critical to my development as a clinician, and I learnt valuable lessons from the mistakes I made, as well as through watching others work. As nerve-wracking as those sessions were, I remember I was always eager to step up to the plate to practice. I trusted that my fellow students would hold enough empathy, recognizing that we were all in the same boat, and provide compassionate feedback. I also knew that it was the safest place for me to make any mistakes before I launched my newfound skills into the real world. To me, clinical supervision and personal therapy were the bedrock of my development as a practitioner, and something I continued to turn to regularly after completing my training.

In contrast to the USA, counselors and psychotherapists in the UK are required to have a minimum number of clinical supervision hours per year, post-graduation and licensure. So I was shocked to discover that this was not the case in the US. In talking to other mental health professionals, I got the impression that clinical supervision was only necessary during training, and that once you were deemed ready for independent practice, you’d launch into the world and not look back. There was also an undercurrent of shame around the feeling of wanting or needing more supervision than was required.

At The HERD Institute, in both our Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy and our Equine-Facilitated Learning Certification programs, practitioners are taught to challenge personal biases, and attend to issues of privilege and power. Our aim is to foster a greater awareness for our potential blind spots without judgment or shame, as it is only through acknowledging our blind spots that we can become more inclusive in our practice. We position mentoring and supervision as a collaborative effort, not only between faculty members and students and graduates, but also within peer groups, as a way to foster creativity, build confidence, and broaden horizons.

I hold this attitude to my own development too as a trainer. Right from the beginning of launching the HERD Institute, I knew that I needed to find ways to support myself in order to provide a secure foundation for my students. So while our modalities may not necessarily be the same, and there are differences in the way we approach the work that we do, I am thankful that I have found a group of leaders in the field of Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy and Learning who are committed to building each other up. The issues we face as trainers are different to those in clinical practice, and it’s important to recognize those differences when we hold our boundaries as educators rather than therapists. How we design, deliver, and implement our training programs requires yet another set of skills, and often benefits from being critiqued from a different perspective. All of us who are delivering certifications and trainings in this field are faced with business challenges, related to financial, personnel, or equine matters. We are all learning. We are all making mistakes, and learning from each other, and we are all committed to furthering the work of those who came before us in our different ways.

So for those of you who are at the start of your journeys in this work, please know that when I say that it’s important for us to make marvelous mistakes, I’m saying that from a place of compassion, not only for you individually, but also for us all collectively. Yes, there are important ethical practice questions that need to be addressed with regards to scope of practice. Yes, there are critical conversations that need to be held within our field relating to safety and welfare, for both horses and humans. And we may not always agree. Advocating for our horses and our clients and participants does not have to come from a place of judgment, but rather from a deep knowing that we are all imperfect, and we all need support as we develop the art of facilitating this work without it being at the expense of our horses. So I call on all of you to lean on each other, and find support, so that you can go and make mistakes marvelously as you learn.

Special thanks goes out to my support network of incredible mentors and peers: Barbara Rector, Meg Kirby, Ilka Parent, Sarah Schlote, Nina Elkhom Fry, Elisabeth Crabtree, Catherine Friend Gillihan, and Sarah Morehouse.

Warm Wishes,
Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute

Holding Space

Holding Space

The group stood in a circle outside the stable block, in front of the classroom where we had spent the past three days. There was a gentle breeze that swirled around us as we prepared to say farewell to each other, both horses and humans, holding gratitude and excitement about what each graduate would be offering to the world with their newfound skills and knowledge. As we settled into our circle, Opus walked over to us. He had spent the weekend connecting with us at liberty, during teaching sessions, and at break times. He had won our hearts with his steadfast energy and curiosity, and made us laugh with his fondness for Hob-Nobs (a very traditional English cookie). While technically “retired”, Opus was still eager to share his views, and chose to take his place as part of the circle. As each group member offered their closing remarks, Opus stepped into the circle and placed his head near each person, moving and turning as the next person spoke, before resting his head again. He touched his muzzle to hands, cheeks, and shoulders, and acknowledged each of us as we spoke, before finally resting his head by Jude, his guardian of the last 7 years. It was a touching moment, and we held space for this beautiful being, each of us knowing that this would be the last group that he would hold space for.

Opus was 31 years old, with no teeth, and was struggling to keep weight on. The decision had been made that he would be put to rest in the coming few days. In the end, he chose to lay himself down to sleep and cross the Rainbow Bridge unaided, two days after our closing ceremony. It was time, and as always, he had an opinion and decided for himself.

My heart breaks for Jude and her herd as they grieve the loss of Opus. Having been in his presence, I know that he was a willing participant in this work, and has helped many clients and participants by challenging them to show up authentically, and lead from their hearts. As he held space for others in life, I want to hold space for him in his passing by keeping his human and horse herd in mind.

But it’s not only Opus.

As guardians of our equine partners, it is our job to hold space for them as well as our clients and participants in the work that we do. This is why we emphasize the relational ethics of horse-human welfare and safety at The HERD Institute. Many of you have asked whether there will be hands-on time with horses at next year’s HERD Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. An interesting process has emerged for me in considering the questions “What about the horses?” and “Will they be there?”

I’ve thought long and hard about the pros and cons of this, and have had many conversations with others who have organized such events. It seems odd to have a conference about working with horses without any horses present. How can we effectively communicate the magic of what occurs without demonstrating our skills live? Surely if we want to draw attention to our programs, we need to show people what we can do with the horses present.

As I pondered these questions, I began to recognize that the pull towards including horses at the conference centered on the needs of humans, and not the horses. As someone who espouses the importance of the relationship between horse and human in the work that we do, it seemed counter to my values to set up a scenario where presenters would come into the space to work with horses who don’t know them, in an unfamiliar environment, with potentially dozens of people in attendance. With the theme of the conference as Sharing Space with Love and Compassion, it seems important to lead from my heart and stay true to the relational ethics that I have come to hold dear: that this work cannot be done at the expense of the horses.

So, what about the horses? Sure, I’m confident that the horses we brought into the mix would be able to manage their stress and anxiety in an unfamiliar situation. Horses will just do what horses do and shake it off afterwards, right? Maybe. Yet I found the phrase “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” popping into my head, because really, I don’t want the horses to simply tolerate what is happening to them/with us. Instead, I’d like us all to consider how we might hold space for the work that we do with all of our incredible equine partners, in the context of our relationships with them, and create an event that honors their spirit and willingness to partner with us. I’d like us to be creative in how we bring our horses “into the room” at the conference, and while it’s not the same as being able to touch, smell, and hug on a real live horse, it means that I can sleep soundly tonight, knowing that I am choosing integrity over comfort, and living into the values I hold dear.

So will there be horses at the conference? Absolutely. Just because Opus is no longer physically with us, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t present. Through our hearts, our stories, and our intentional way of holding space for them throughout our time together, we can bring our horses with us as we gather.

I look forward to connecting with all of you and the horses you will “bring” with you. If you are interested in presenting at the conference, please go to our website and submit a proposal before our September 1st deadline!

Warm wishes,
Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute

P.S. In the event that you want to go sniff some real live horses, the Kentucky Horse Park is literally ten minutes away from the conference venue!

Embracing Our Imperfections

Embracing Our Imperfections

I’ve just returned home after delivering an EFL Level-One Module, and am basking in the joy and gratitude I feel for having the privilege of doing work that I LOVE. I feel deeply honored to be able to be part of how our students and graduates go out into the world as the agents of change that they want to be. I recognize the risks that they have all taken to be seen more fully, and am always left in awe of the personal and professional growth that the horses help to facilitate.

In all of our training programs, we encourage our students and community members to fail fantastically during skills practice sessions, and to make mistakes boldly, in the knowledge that we are in a safe environment where learning is embedded through practice. It takes courage to learn something new, and each time we place ourselves in a learning environment, we open ourselves to moments of vulnerability – whether through questioning our abilities, or simply acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a lot that we know we need to learn.

I will be holding this awareness as I prepare to attend Sarah Schlote’s Equusoma training in July. I’m excited to be in a student capacity rather than trainer, and am looking forward to geeking out with some fellow practitioners. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the applications of the Polyvagal theory in an equine facilitated setting, and connecting with folks in the wider community.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have completed EFL Level One training and wanting more practice within a safe environment, check out our new Graduate Live Mentoring Series. This will be especially helpful to those of you who completed your Level One training a while ago, to act as a refresher and/or to embed the skills that you learnt. Perhaps it’s taken you a while to get up and running with launching your program, or maybe you are venturing into working with a new client population. Perhaps you’d like to get together and explore different ideas with other HERD graduates. This is a new opportunity for you to gain more experience, receive feedback on your facilitation skills, and reconnect with the HERD to get some support towards realizing your vision.

Warm Wishes,
Dr. Veronica Lac
Executive Director
The HERD Institute