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