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 ;-).
Dr. Veronica Lac
The HERD Institute
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
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!
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
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks sitting by my Grandma’s bedside in hospital. She’s rapidly declining, and it’s likely that she won’t make it through this latest bout of pneumonia. It’s serious enough for my whole family to fly in from different parts of the world to see her. I had imagined that I would be a wreck when the time came for this. She’s 95, and has been pretty fragile for a couple of years, so it’s not like it’s unexpected. I had imagined that I would be inconsolable at the thought of losing the most inspirational woman in my life.
Turns out that sitting in hospital with a loved one as they ease their way out of the world is simultaneously heartbreaking and reaffirming. As I watch my Grandma gradually letting go, I have spent the past few days in deep contemplation, filled with gratitude for having the experience of being loved by her. I have been strengthened as I reflect on how she has modeled grace and compassion, coupled with a good dose of badass, empowered, and independent womanhood. I have recognized that my need to hold on to her may be in conflict with her need to go. Yet, I can see her fighting to stay and also yearning to join our ancestors. It’s a surreal experience to witness. I have told her in my heart that I am ready if she is. She knows that she is loved and so do I.
By the time you read this, it will all be over. As an existential-humanistic orientated practitioner, I have to wonder, what is the meaning in all of this, and how will this impact my way of being-in-the-world, and with others?
The feeling of being fully seen and loved anyway, regardless of our imperfections, trusting that the other holds hope and compassion for all of who you are, is a rare gift. I have carried this gift from my Grandma in every fiber of my being since the moment I began to exist. Her love is fierce and loyal, yet full of grace and compassion. I can see how this has shaped who I am, and why it feels so important to me to be of service to others in some way.
I realized, too, that my feeling of being fully seen is also present when I’m with horses, and that it is precisely this process that our clients and participants step into in the interactions we hold space for. It is the herd’s ability to love, and be loved that is healing and transformational. Without agenda, without expectations, without judgment; simply sharing space with love.
So as I sit in contemplative awe and gratitude with my Grandma, I hope you can all experience sharing space with your equine partners and those you love, so that you too can love, and be loved in return.
Warm wishes to you all, Dr. Veronica Lac Executive Director The HERD Institute
Edited to add: Veronica’s grandma passed away on Friday, March 29.
In dedication to her, our first HERD Institute Conference theme will be entitled
Finally! Here at The HERD Institute, our transition from Ohio to Florida is almost complete. After almost six months of back and forth, inactivity, and failed promises from contractors, the barn conversion is finished. Originally, an RV port, the previous owners had created a makeshift barn by putting together some corral panels, thrown some sand on the asphalt, and called them “horse stalls”. In the paddocks, there were a few sparse trees that provided minimum shade, but no run-in shelter. An old tree-house in the back paddock gave some respite for the brutal Florida summers, but was slightly too small and low for all three horses to gather underneath. The paddock doubled as a riding arena, but was uneven and full of fire ant mounds. There was also no space for a classroom to conduct workshops.
Upon initial viewing, we could see that the property was beautiful, and had plenty of potential. I came away feeling positive that I could transform the RV port into a barn, create and arena, put up a lean-to for shade, and convert an old shed into a tack room and classroom. I obtained quotes from contractors, signed on the dotted line, and crossed my fingers that my vision would be realized. The road to completion was a little rockier than I’d hoped, but we now have a fully functioning training space that works for us, and I feel incredibly relieved and blessed.
Over the past few months, I have been reminded that necessity is the mother of creativity, and finding alternative ways to manage my herd, and facilitate workshops without the “ideal” surroundings has been an interesting process. In the midst of my impatience for the building work to be completed, I had to remind myself of my early days in doing this work, when I didn’t have my own horses or facility, and had to navigate my way through the maze of considerations needed to create a successful partnership with facility owners and barn managers. I started in the UK with a horse I had leased for 3 days a week, working with one client, with access to only the barn aisle. Then, I partnered with a therapeutic riding facility with 3 horses, no indoor space, and one round pen. Over time, as I moved locations, and before I was able to have my own horses, I have worked at a wide variety of facilities, from a small private barn with 2 horses, with an indoor arena but no restrooms, to large PATH International Premier Accredited centers with herds of more than 20 plus horses. In each of these environments, I was clear about one thing – that in order for me to dream big, I had to start somewhere, however small that might be.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would never have imagined
that it would be possible for me to live on a farm, with my herd, to work
with clients at my own facility. My wish of creating a training institute was
a far-away fantasy. Getting a book published by an academic press was not
even on my radar. And yet, life has presented me with my deepest desires.
I am blessed and privileged in so many ways, and full of gratitude to all
those who have supported me along the way, both two and four-legged.
Reaching for your dreams can be incredibly daunting. The uncertainty of
each moment as the process unfolds can create a level of anxiety that feels
paralyzing. Yet, when we feel called to follow our hearts and travel off the
beaten path, it brings a sense of excitement and adventure. It is this adventurous
spirit that many of us can relate to when we decide to embark on this
journey of equine-facilitated work. What holds us together is something that
is unique to our profession: none of us just fell into it. This isn’t a career path that comes by accidentally. Whatever path we took to get here, by the time we reach the point of actually introducing clients to the horses, we have intentionally, passionately, and tenaciously reached for that goal.*
So for those of you who are just starting out, keep believing in those dreams. The road to that vision may be long, but it’s worth every step. For those of you who are in the midst of running your own programs, and grappling with finding the balance between work and personal life, hang in there and remember why you chose to do this work. Above all, while big dreams start small – they just have to start!
Warm Wishes, Dr. Veronica Lac Executive Director The HERD Institute
*Excerpt from Veronica Lac’s book, Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy & Learning: The Human-Equine Relational Development (HERD) Approach