Horse As Muse – Art & Equine-Facilitated Learning

As many of you know, I was down in Amado, Arizona last week for Linda Kohanov and Kim McElroy’s workshop combining equine-assisted learning with art and creativity.

Kim is a well-know equine artist; who collaborated with Linda on the Way Of The Horse cards. Here’s an example of Kim’s work:

Shadow Dancer by Kim McElroy, Chalk Pastel
Shadow Dancer by Kim McElroy (chalk pastel)

The workshop was structured brilliantly with a variety of activities that toggled between sessions with the horses, art instruction, deeper spirit/emotional work, music, and shamanic journeying.

On our very first morning, we started out with artistic – rather than verbal – communication. Rather than go round the circle introducing ourselves, we were given a silver circle on black paper and invited to draw a mandala (stick figures welcome!) with our intention for this workshop – why we were there and what we hoped to receive, along with our name and where we were from.

I love jumping off cliffs; so with the familiar trepidation of being faced with a blank page and ready to have my art look like crap, I picked up a colored chalk pastel to see what, Finding the joy in every moment and being open to whatever wants to happen, was going to look like.

Here’s what emerged:

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Now, normally, me and chalk pastels don’t get along too well. And I still have no idea how Kim gets such amazing results from her chalk pastel artwork! But I have to say I was pleased with this initial foray and it made me happy to look at this piece.

Then we split up into two groups and headed out into the corrals to work with the horses. Kim had prepared ‘feedback sheets’ with a line drawing of a horse and a human for us to use as a prompt, or framework, for drawing what we saw happening between horse and human as we each took turns observing each other in a large round pen with the horse we felt drawn towards.

For my session, I was chosen by the blue-eyed Leila when she instantly magnetized me to her paddock, then licked my hand and stamped her hoof. Okay! I will not even make the acquaintance of the others – I understand I have been given my orders!

I had a lovely connection with Leila in the round pen. I put aside my feelings and thoughts about round pens, and I was purposely open to whatever wanted to happen, without judgement, and just open to finding the joy in the experience. At one point, Leila told me to wrap my arms around her belly and hug her. I did so hesitantly, because only one of my horses enjoys being enveloped like that. But she told me to hug her deeper, so I threw my baseball cap on the ground and really bear hugged her around her belly – with our bellies pressed together and both my arms wrapped snugly around her.

When I came out of the round pen to share my experience with the group, here’s what Kim had drawn on her sheet, to show what she had seen happening between us:

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And here’s what another woman in the group drew:

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Note how both of them noticed the shadow of the tree branches against Leila’s white coat. I found that significant, as I am consulting the trees in my search for the right land for my herd.

Then after the session, we each drew our own picture (with our box of chalk pastels) representing the session, or a particularly meaningful part of our session with our chosen horse. Here’s what I drew:

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Note how I have drawn the mesquite tree arching over us

For those of you who have done equine-assisted therapy/learning sessions, the verbal feedback and insight from someone observing the interaction (both seen and unseen) is valuable. But this non-verbal feedback was often particularly profound and insightful. It was also very cool to have your perception/intuition confirmed by other members of the group who saw or perceived the same things!

Kim saw a cradle rocking in my belly and the same one in Leila’s belly, then my cradle morphed into a Viking-style boat. You’ll note in my drawing how our bellies are pressed together – as that was significant for me when I hugged her

Shamanic Horse Journey

On the second day, Linda drummed and guided us with her voice into a shamanic journey where we transformed into a horse. As her drum faded away, music composed by her husband, accomplished musician Steve Roach, took over and accompanied us on the rest of our journey.

Afterwards we each wrote notes about what we had encountered and what had happened on our journey and then shared our story with the group. Then we had a chalk pastel art demo from Kim and went off to draw/paint a representation of our journey.

In my journey I turned into a black horse, with glowing white hooves, a tiny white mark on my forehead, and one silvery white strip down the center of my tail. My left eye was blue – like Leila’s. This represented the feminine. My right eye was brown – representing the masculine. I had no gender, I was both – like my eyes. I was simply Horse.

I heard the question, Why are you here? I answered: To teach, to embolden, to hold space for possibility.

In my journey, my own herd came to run with me. I was in the lead, with baby Juno flanking me. Zorra and Montaro were each out on the wing (left and right side) and Audelina directly behind (forming a triangle). Jax was the scout, running ahead and then reporting back, as we swept across the desert, which then changed into mountains with crisp, white snow.

As we ran, our herd transformed from horses, to elephants, to dolphins, to whales and then back to horses again – in a continual circle.

My journey neared its close, and I received this message:

As I am part of the multi-dimensional matrix of life, I am not solely in charge of finding our land. That may come from someone else in my web (my husband, Ian?). I only need to walk my journey, as I am led, one step at a time. So I need not feel any urgency or pressure. It is not all on me.

It was very interesting to me that I became a black horse. Because I’ve been checking out black horses for the last year – feeling that a herd member was missing and it was black. This is the scene I chose to paint, representing my journey:

As you can see, thanks to Kim’s excellent instruction, my skill with chalk pastels improved over the course of the workshop. But I doubt I will ever resonate with this media the way I do with oils or watercolor and I remain ever impressed with Kim’s chalk pastel magic:

(c) Kim McElroy
(c) Kim McElroy (chalk pastel)

Freedom To Express & Improvise

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this workshop was the way both Kim and Linda allowed me to be my authentic self. Many workshop leaders are focused on their own agenda and the lack of flexibility makes it hard for me to expand my boundaries. But Linda and Kim both have a solid confidence in their own abilities and a large toolbox to pull from – so they were able to support me to explore and then also assist when I needed guidance, or a fresh set of eyes.

This is very rare in workshop leaders, who can often feel threatened by new ideas, or experimentation. Linda’s assistants also embodied this same spirit, so when I asked to work at liberty on the second day – in the pasture, rather than the round pen (Linda was with the other group that day) her assistant Elyssa agreed to let me try that – even though that was not the norm with new clients.

Elyssa leading me through a body awareness scan before I enter the pasture
Elyssa leading me through a body awareness scan before I enter the pasture

I had an absolutely wonderful exploration of the back-and-forth of empowered relationship with the half-draft Brandy that day, who even led me into the roundpen for a bit (the roundpen is inside their pasture area) to have some interaction in that space. Then I asked her to walk back out with me and explore the back part of her pasture. By the end of my session, both Elyssa and Erin (Linda’s assistants) were thrilled with how empowered and confident Brandy became as we worked together and they expressed their pleasure that I had suggested that.

Say what?? Usually leaders are threatened by innovation (in my experience) and are not too happy when I push the boundaries of what’s familiar. So it was such a pleasure for me to be in an environment where ‘doing things differently’ in alignment with my intuition was supported. Here’s the drawing Erin did of what she saw between Brandy and me in that session:

(c) Erin Menut
(c) Erin Menut

The other two members of my group also then chose to work at liberty in the pasture with their horse that day. For me, their interactions were far more interesting and informative to observe, than the day before in the round pen. When the horse had more freedom, the interaction become more complex, nuanced – more of a dance.

Linda says this about the pros/cons of working with horses in the different-sized spaces:

“We do sometimes send people, individuals or groups, into the full corral instead of the round pen, particularly if they already have horse experience. In some workshops, we also turn the herd loose to run the entire property and have people interact with the herd that way. When Diedre West and Kim McElroy attended the Writing Between the Worlds workshop last year, for instance, much work was done in the entire corral, and sometimes with an entire herd, rather than in the round pen.

However, when I work with people who are new to horses, I’ve found that they can have some safety issues working with horses in the corral [what I’ve been calling the “pasture”], in terms of getting trapped in corners and at feeding stations where you have to be very aware of your own safety in relation to what the horse is doing. Also because the larger corral is where the horses live, they sometimes expect the human to be more aware in that context. Essentially, the human has full run of the horses’ home and needs to have more respect for horse culture and language, which is difficult for people who have no previous exposure to horse body language. To me, it feels like the difference between a counselor having a designated home office to see clients, rather than allowing clients free run of the house. When working with people who have no horse experience, sessions held in an enclosure with no corners, like a 6o to 80 foot round pen, can be safer for both horse and human. And experienced horse teachers really seem to appreciate that this enclosure is their “office.”

Because of the variety of experiences the horses have with humans, some in larger corrals, we have also noticed that some of the horses appreciate the focus that a 60 to 80 foot enclosure (whatever the shape) affords.

As for shapes of enclosures, for me, the round pen is a mandala, a scared circle of wholeness. The circular form feels more flowing, like nature. Square corners feel more harsh in terms of “created by city-based humans.” So while for convenience and economic reasons, we create larger rectangular corrals in some places for herds to live in and sometimes work with humans in, those sharp angles remind me of boxes and buildings and barn stalls.”

It’s fascinating to me the way different beings perceive the same stimulus or situation differently. So although I don’t enjoy round pens – unless they’re really big, like 1/4 acre+ in size! It’s interesting that Brandy led me in there of her own free choice. And as we can see in the quote above, Linda has a very different feeling about round pens.

Here’s another example: I have always cringed at the sight of a trainer with a whip or quirt. And I try to use one as little as possible with my herd. Even though they are not afraid of it and I have made sure we have playtime with the quirt or flag so they even enjoy monkeying about with whips. BUT. My bias is that whips are nasty things and used to hurt people and animals.

On the last day of the workshop, Linda led me through a felt experience (she was the human and I was the horse) of using a whip versus your hands/arms/energy to set a boundary. And lo and behold if the whip didn’t feel gentle and flimsy, but the energy shooting out through her hands felt dangerous and like an assault!

This is why it’s of utmost importance to listen to each individual horse, rather than operating from our existing biases. And also why it’s important not to judge each other’s methods, but rather take the time to understand how and why each of us are treating our horses in a particular way.

On that last day, I was with Linda and the black Arabians at the other end of the property – back in the round pen – where I had some very interesting experiences, which I tell you all about here (along with a video of what happened)…

Leila on the left, Brandy on the right - in their pasture with the round pen behind
Leila on the left, Brandy on the right – in their pasture/corral with the round pen behind

Jini Patel Thompson is a natural health writer and Freedomite. She began riding at age 2 in Kenya, and got her first horse at age 8 in Alberta, and so continues a life-long journey and love affair with these amazing creatures.

Horse As Muse – Art & Equine-Facilitated Learning

18 thoughts on “Horse As Muse – Art & Equine-Facilitated Learning

  • November 26, 2016 at 7:19 am
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    This is a wonderful description Jini. You are a marvelous writer.

    Just to let you know, we do sometimes send people, individuals or groups, into the full corral instead of the round pen, particularly if they already have horse experience. In some workshops, we also turn the herd loose to run the entire property and have people interact with the herd that way. (When Diedre West and Kim McElroy attended the Writing Between the Worlds workshop last year, for instance, much work was done in the entire corral, and sometimes with an entire herd, rather than in the round pen.)

    However, when I work with people who are new to horses, I’ve found that they can have some safety issues working with horses in the corral, in terms of getting trapped in corners and at feeding stations where you have to be very aware of your own safety in relation to what the horse is doing. Also because the larger corral is where the horses live, they sometimes expect the human to be more aware in that context. Essentially, the human has full run of the horses’ home and needs to have more respect for horse culture and language, which is difficult for people who have no previous exposure to horse body language. To me, it feels like the difference between a counselor having a designated home office to see clients, rather than allowing clients free run of the house. When working with people who have no horse experience, sessions held in an enclosure with no corners, like a 6o to 80 foot round pen, can be safer for both horse and human. And experienced horse teachers really seem to appreciate that this enclosure is their “office.”

    Because of the variety of experiences the horses have with humans, some in larger corrals, we have also noticed that some of the horses appreciate the focus that a 60 to 80 foot enclosure (whatever the shape) affords.

    As for shapes of enclosures, for me, the round pen is a mandala, a scared circle of wholeness. The circular form feels more flowing, like nature. Square corners feel more harsh in terms of “created by city-based humans.” So while for convenience and economic reasons, we create larger rectangular corrals in some places for herds to live in and sometimes work with humans in, those sharp angles remind me of boxes and buildings and barn stalls.

    Reply
    • identicon
      November 26, 2016 at 10:47 am
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      Ooooh this is excellent Linda! Thanks so much and glad you came over here to read the post after I tagged you. I was relying on you to correct anything I got wrong. But this explanation is so fantastic I have added it to the post as a quote – along with the story about the whip vs. hands experience you gave me. Thanks for making the post even better! Hugs. 🙂

      Reply
  • November 26, 2016 at 7:41 am
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    One more little nuance Jini. I do not consider workshops like Horse as Muse “equine therapy.” Unless I’m working in partnership with a licensed mental health professional with a clear therapeutic goal, I am not doing therapy. Most of my workshops fall under the heading of Equine Facilitated Human Development, or Equine-Facilitated Learning ,where we teach leadership, creativity, relationship, intuition, and social intelligence skills to people who really want to excel in life. Thanks!

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    • identicon
      November 26, 2016 at 10:45 am
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      Yes, thanks for the distinction Linda – Diedre West and I went over that in our last teleseminar. It’s just hard for the layperson to keep in mind when pretty much all “learning with horses” feels therapeutic! However, in the interests of accuracy, I have modified the post title accordingly – so thanks for pointing that out.

      Reply
  • November 26, 2016 at 11:16 am
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    Thanks Jini for adding these explanations to your beautiful essay. It’s fun to share ideas/perspectives and collaborate on so many levels!

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    • identicon
      November 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm
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      Yes! It’s an interesting time for me – moving from mostly self-directed expression to LOTS of collaborative expression in all aspects of my life and work. I think it’s working so well now because I have the experience to discern who to collaborate with and also how to set the parameters for successful, enjoyable experiences. I love the way you and Kim collaborate – you create a very gentle, yet powerful space.

      Reply
  • November 26, 2016 at 7:31 pm
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    Thank you both for this clear, fun description of your work in the seminar. I loved both your contributions and your communication. What a lovely way to inspire and ground creativity.

    I’ve noticed that our critter collaborators tend to soar when they get to facilitate at this level. They love to play with human creativity and growth. To the extent that we can bring in those issues to every session, regardless of its purpose, the horses are enlivened. So are the humans to come to us to facilitate their healing or growth.

    I’m a psychotherapist and a horsewoman. Most of the sessions I participate in are geared toward healing psychopathology. That doesn’t mean that’s what we do or talk about most of the time. I go at that obliquely, often by searching for and inviting the client’s strengths to the party. Teasing them out through creative projects is a great way to strengthen the client’s resilience before heading them towards potentially troublesome waters.

    The better we can help our clients tune to the horses’ energetics, the more effective and efficient their healing offers will be received. From my perspective, that’s a big part of the human facilitators’ job. It makes the horses’ jobs easier and more fun too. Art work is also a great way to engage parts of our nervous systems that are often neglected in our modern world. These are the same parts of our brains that the horses engage. Art work is a great way for beginners and veterans alike to prepare to merge into horse consciousness.

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    • identicon
      November 26, 2016 at 8:26 pm
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      Yes! Good point Pat – I had not considered the impact of art on the nervous system – which of course then leads us into the immune system. Art as preparation for horse consciousness is another great positioning statement. Nice.

      Reply
  • November 26, 2016 at 9:41 pm
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    JIni, your comments about the facilitators, Linda and Kim, not being threatened by your ideas and supportive of exploring them further is music to my ears. That is learning at its best. How wonderful! It makes me want to go explore.

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    • identicon
      November 26, 2016 at 9:48 pm
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      I know, right?? So many learning opportunities are wasted when you have to ‘make yourself small’ to avoid triggering the heck out of the workshop leader. To the extent that that can be done anyway! But so much more fun when you can just be in flow.

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  • November 26, 2016 at 10:14 pm
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    I’ve found my experiences at Eponaquest over the 15 years I’ve been involved with Linda and her team, illuminating. Leadership without “authority” but with full guidance and support was unique for me and has lit up ways of being powerful in the world, in a group, within myself, that empower others. Over the years it was put to the test many times. I was consistently met with empathy, compassion and firmness, providing such clarity and insight. When I asked for what I needed, it was offered freely and it made such a difference for me. I’m so glad you had the experience of not running into the limitations of the facilitators, such expansiveness and limitlessness. Embraced in how big and beautiful we can be! Not surprised at all, I’ve come to trust Linda and her associates deeply over the years and have been rewarded in kind.

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    • November 29, 2016 at 2:07 pm
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      I’m honored by your comments and confidence Thea. I’ve long been inspired by your questioning, questing soul.

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  • November 27, 2016 at 5:15 pm
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    I loved reading this and seeing all of the pictures. It is so good to hear that facilitators are strong enough inside to create the perfect container for even those with strong ideas! I would have come in with some similar judgments about being in a round pen. How gracefully you allowed your “ideas” to fall away ! inspiring!

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    • identicon
      November 28, 2016 at 5:10 pm
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      Hi Kate, after doing a body scan for that session, my intention was ALLOW so I was already primed to be extra open! I also recognize that often it is not the horse that is uncomfortable in a certain space, it is me! Trailers and stalls are good examples of this – both wig me right out, although the horse may feel quite comfortable in there 🙂

      Reply
      • November 29, 2016 at 8:37 am
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        I know what you mean Jini. For instance, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of horses being kept in barn stalls, especially without attached runs. It almost makes me hyperventilate just thinking about it. Horses standing in those little square rooms feels to me like keeping a human in a small bathroom and turning him out once a day for exercise.

        Twenty-five years ago, I assumed that all horses are just waiting to be set free to run in endless pastures. But I have had at least two horses challenge this assumption. One was my horse Noche, an ex-cowhorse who had been abused and was afraid of people. It took months to begin to gain his trust. But once when I was riding him on the trails, we came across a rattlesnake. He reared and I fell to the ground. Then he wandered off into the desert. I thought for sure that this was his perfect opportunity to run free forever. It took me an hour to hike back to the stable and saddle up another horse to look for him. Just as I was stepping into the saddle, Noche walked up. He had returned of his own choice! Thereafter, our relationship deepened. That he had chosen to return made me realized that there are many things that are important to horses, relationships and safety among them.

        Equally astonishing to me was a horse named Mocha, a former show horse, who, when we turned him out in a four-acre pasture, absolutely short circuited. We thought he would see this as “horse heaven.” But instead he ran screaming with the whites of his eyes showing, then paced near the gate and wouldn’t eat or drink. When we put him in a small barn stall with no run, he calmed down and began eating. It took a lot of time to gradually introduce him to the pasture.

        I talk about this in my book The Power of the Herd pages 337 to 339 under the section “The Challenge of Wide Open Spaces.” The gentle process we devised to help Mocha gradually expand his world was an inspiration to people afraid to step out of familiar settings and habits. I always wondered why people, who technically have tremendous freedom, will stay in stifling conditions. The horses helped me to see that the comfort that arises from habit and the relationships they are involved in, however, imperfect, are factors. Horses like Noche and Mocha helped me to see that freedom on its own is not what social beings are looking for. They are looking for relationships that sustain them and make all of life’s journeys worthwhile.

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        • identicon
          November 29, 2016 at 10:06 am
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          Yes, very true Linda. And I’ve seen it work the other way as well. The worst thing I ever did was bring a horse who’d spent it’s life on 30 acres with a herd, down to the lower mainland to a 1/8 acre shelter/paddock. After 2 weeks I paid the former owner to come and get her. Expensive lesson, but not a mistake I will make again!

          And yes, people who insist that horses are only conditioned to like stalls maintain that if you give the horse a CHOICE (with no food inducements), the horse will not choose to be locked in a stall. But conditioning is a powerful thing and I spoke to one woman who said it takes quite a bit of time for a horse to feel safe/settled outside a stall if that’s all they’ve known. But physiology doesn’t lie and horses that are free to range, move, roll, play are healthier in their joints, muscles, ligaments for sure.

          So as you pointed out, the solution is to provide shelter or a stall – with the door open – so the horse can choose. And yes, for a severely locked-down horse, you may need to close that door for the first while. Then maybe close it, but leave it unlatched, then open just a bit, and so on. Again, yes, a great mirror for us humans and our tendency to stay locked into what’s known and ‘safe’. I remember that section from your book and I underlined many passages in it – it was a great treatise on vulnerability, long before Brene Brown took it mainstream!

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          • November 29, 2016 at 11:12 am
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            This is a fruitful discussion. Flies trapped in a clear glass jar for a day, won’t voluntarily leave when the lid is removed. This is learning theory at its most basic manifestation.

            It’s something that we need to be cognizant of when working with both humans and horses. “Getting it” is different than seating a new reality in their nervous systems. That’s the healing/educational component of our gig. Horses are magnificent at setting up new neuro pathways in humans, so long as they have quality human help.

          • identicon
            November 29, 2016 at 2:00 pm
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            Only 1 day!! That speaks volumes. And I love that, “seating a new reality in their nervous systems” – says it perfectly.

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