Unbreakable Bond, Unwavering Mirror: How Our Animals Help us See Ourselves and Heal

My first love was Prince Casabree, a 6-year old chestnut Arabian horse with a blaze face and the spirit of a wild angel. He was boarded at Old National Trail, a state park in Vandalia, Ohio where I helped my mother muck out stalls for the occasional chance to take a riding lesson or trail ride.

I appreciated all of the horses, but Sabree (his nickname) was special, possessing some magic that went beyond his obvious beauty. True to Arabian form, he would toss his elegant head in the air, dancing along as if averse to fully landing, tail proudly held high.

Though gentle as a lamb on the ground, he was not one to be toyed with under saddle. His owner, Tracy, was a flight attendant and could not ride him as often as she wanted or he needed. He was as green as spring grass, with boundless energy, and he needed to be worked. And so, my mother entered into a lease agreement with Tracy that allowed my sister and I to give him the exercise he needed while she was in the air.

Sabree turned out to be a real handful, even after several full summers of near daily work. He challenged me at every turn, his wild spirit ever seeking to break free and be more fully embodied. Despite the challenges, we had tremendous fun. I was only a few years older than he, and so we were more like two innocent children playing than horse and rider.

Sabree and I formed a deep bond, and through my difficult and lonely adolescence, he became my best friend and reason for living. In time, Tracy visited Sabree less and less, but was well pleased with his health and happiness under our care. In gratitude, she gave him to us as a gift, one that in all my days I will never forget.

Several years went by and my interest in riding increased along with my skill. I dreamed of showing at the Kentucky Horse Show in three day eventing. Sabree was small, not far from being classified as a pony, but he loved to jump. With seemingly spring-loaded legs, he beat well-bred hunters much taller than him in local shows. He was utterly confident, willing to jump most anything I pointed him toward, and our courage and youthful verve lent itself well to competing in the jumping arena.

When it came to dressage, however, we struggled. In dressage, the horse performs controlled, ballet-like movements and holds its head firmly set in a low, “on the bit” position. It is not a comfortable head set, especially for an Arabian horse with naturally high head carriage. Sabree resisted this repressive dressage work, having no desire to bow his head and perform subtle tricks. He wanted to run and hold his head high. He wanted to be free.

And so, for a time in dressage we tried a martingale, a device that prevents a horse from throwing its head by restricting range of motion with leather straps. Since neither one of us liked dressage or the martingale, after each lesson I'd remove it and we'd take off bareback onto the trails, disappearing from the world and all its judgements.

We never got far enough in dressage to enter the Kentucky Horse Show, so we kept Sabree for pleasure riding. When I graduated Stivers Music Magnet junior high and was accepted at the Colonel White High School for the Arts, time I'd spent riding became time for rehearsal and practice. Riding took a back seat to my second love, music, that filled my heart in new, creative ways.

When I was 26 my mother died of cancer, and the responsibility of paying Sabree's board and vet bills fell on me. Unable to afford the additional expense, I talked with Patty Carnahan, a woman whom had been giving Sabree the exercise and attention he needed by using him as a lesson horse. Patty offered to buy him, but I told her Sabree been a gift to me, and he would be my gift to her and the young students who loved him. Though I knew she would care well for him at a time when I was too poor and eaten up by grief to do so, it hurt deeply to let him go.

Recently, I began working with massage therapist Diane Richards, and after a few sessions we came to realize the tension in my neck muscles and a few ribs would resolve during massage, only to come right back. Diane spoke up during a session, “I feel lot of energy and emotion in your neck, like frustration, every time I work on it.”

“I've been feeling like my head is tethered to my collarbone.” I shared, “It's interfering with my singing, and nothing seems to help.”

That day I came home and sat quietly to contemplate. At one point, my mind raced back to my riding days, and then it hit me; I feel like I'm wearing a martingale! Everywhere in my body that I had unexplained chronic tension was related to where the martingale had restricted Sabree. My head feeling tethered to my collarbone corresponded to how the martingale would have been strapped to his chest, and where it clipped to the saddle would have matched the tight spots in my ribs.

As I often do when I get an “ah ha” moment, I started doing EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) tapping. I invited Sabree to join me for “surrogate tapping”, and that anything he had felt at that time was welcome to come through me and be acknowledged and released.

You see, we were bonded. There could be no separating us in our riding experience, and so, there could be no separating us in our healing process. We were in this together.

Through my tapping, I realized that I had tried to repress the very thing that made him the most beautiful horse. By tying up his spirit with a martingale, I was trying to stop him from being himself and to turn him into something that dressage judges wanted to see. He was not a dressage horse, he was a wild angel, a healer meant not to bow his head, but to raise it high like the noble creature he was by birth.

I sat on my sofa and cried for how I had twisted him into an inauthentic form. I mourned for innocence lost, for stolen freedom, and felt the sharpness of ignorance shattering into knowing. I concluded my session with a forgiveness meditation, visualizing both of us freed of any bonds that no longer serve.

Now, each time that I have a massage with Diane, the work holds. My vocal control has improved and I continue to ask myself: is my own spirit free to express itself authentically, or am I repressing my own magnificence?

Our beloved animals are our unwavering mirrors. If we have the courage to look into that mirror, we can see more of ourselves and heal more of ourselves than we ever could alone. I am forever grateful.

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Comment by Carisa Holmes on October 23, 2015 at 3:25pm

Thank you, Shelly!

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