They arrived together in a trailer one morning, two small, wide-eyed, scrappy Appaloosas who had been dubbed Cherokee and Apache along the way when it was discovered they had never been officially named. The mares had been living in a pasture for the past few years, largely untouched by humans, after apparently refusing to cooperate with a program that included teaching adolescent boys at a residential treatment facility to rope cattle. The ranch director offered to donate these horses to my Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice, noting that “these girls don’t like ropes, cows, or boys.” As I watched them prancing nervously down the trailer ramp, twirling and snorting, I wondered if they were going to decide they did not like being therapy horses either . . .
My Equine Specialist at the time took a liking to the strawberry roan and named her Spirit after the horse in her niece’s favorite Disney movie. (We had already decided to ditch their hastily applied monikers in favor of something of our own choosing). The name Spirit certainly seemed to fit as she was quite fiery in expressing her opinions. Her friend, mostly brown with a splash of white spots on her rump, was much quieter in expressing herself. She tended to plant her feet and gaze at you thoughtfully when resisting a request. The way she held her ground when she did not agree with your proposed plan without becoming agitated or aggressive intrigued and challenged me.
A traumatic incident that occurred while I was out running in my neighborhood several years ago caused me to have to give up that form of exercise for a time, and during this hiatus I discovered the practice of yoga. The word “yoga” literally means to unite the body and mind in harmony through breath and posture, and I found it grounding and centering in ways I had never experienced before. Processing my trauma while developing a yoga practice proved to be a deeply rich time of discovery for me as I realized how much of my life I have spent trying to take up as little space as possible, so a particular pose became very meaningful to me: Utthita Tadasana, or Five Pointed Star Pose. Uttita means stretched, tada means mountain, and asana means pose or posture. In this particular pose, the arms and legs are stretched wide and far apart and the head is held straight above the tailbone to create the five points of the shape of a star. As the name and posture and my yoga instructor all suggest, you are meant to take up your whole mat in Star Pose!
Watching my little Appaloosa mare quietly own her space with a calm energy just as I was learning to do so on my yoga mat inspired me to name her Star after my favorite pose. I was curious to see how Star and Spirit would interact with my Equine Assisted Psychotherapy clients. My clients “meet the herd” of five horses who live together in a pasture to decide which one they would like to work with in their therapy sessions. I encourage them to notice who they feel drawn to as they walk around the pasture. Horses have different personalities, just as people do, and some of them like to come right up and introduce themselves while others hang back more cautiously. Star tended to hold herself apart from anyone new, and was often overlooked in the choosing process, as she did not come forward and engage with humans the way her herd mates did. However, this very reticent and cautious style attracted a handful of clients, who were intrigued by her or found her less threatening and overwhelming than the more friendly (i.e. pushy!) horses. They offered various interpretations of her behavior, concluding that she must be an introvert, or very shy, or must be lonely and in need of friends. I personally experienced Star as very self-contained and selective about who she attached herself to. However, once she trusted you, she was eager to engage and build a relationship. Many a client who chose her thinking she would be easy to manage quickly became frustrated by her ability to quietly resist any attempts to control her. Star did not appreciate being treated like a task or a project, but was very responsive to genuine requests for connection that left all of her options to ignore, resist or cooperate open to her. The clients who persevered in appropriately requesting Star’s attention and continued offering their true selves were rewarded with a beautiful exchange of trust and authentic presence. As one client reported after a particularly challenging session, “This is my most honest relationship. Star never pretends I am showing up differently than I am. I am the boss at work and I know many of my employees are too timid to disagree with me. I like that Star is not afraid of me and doesn’t let me bully her into compliance. When she connects with me it is because she wants to be with me, not because she if afraid of what I will do if she doesn’t give me what I want.”
Unbeknownst to me, Appaloosas are prone to a type of chronic eye infection called Uveitis, which is progressive and can be difficult to treat, as it involves a thrice daily administration of several different types of eye drops for weeks at a time, with no guarantee of a cure. Attempting to administer these drops with connection and cooperation took hours, while attempting to do so without connection resulted in broken cross ties, wasted medicine and many tears. Star’s vision deteriorated and the pressure in her eyes mounted to painful levels. For over a year, with the help of a dedicated veterinarian, I tried different types of treatments and pain management techniques that seemed to help only minimally and temporarily at best. At first, Star adjusted with the same grace to her visual impairment as she did to any other challenge in her life, learning to navigate the pasture, her herdmates and her client sessions by relying on her senses of smell and hearing and her ability to read energy in the environment. When a client asked her for attachment, she could walk right up them and stop directly in front of the person without coming too close or misjudging their location. Clients were amazed and touched by her courage in continuing to offer connection and relationship and helping them on their healing journey in her quiet, confident way.
As her world progressively darkened and her condition became increasingly painful, Star began to lose her confidence and became increasingly fearful of any noises and movement around her. I tried feeding her separately from the herd, administered different medications to manage her pain, created smaller spaces for her, and limited her equine interactions to her best friend, Spirit. It was heartbreaking to see her begin to shuffle along, nose on the ground, fearful of bumping into something, reactive to any sounds or activity around her pen. The vet agreed that there was nothing more to be done for her from a medical standpoint, and she no longer seemed to have enough felt safety to enjoy any quality of life.
On Star’s last day, a client came to say goodbye to her, and was deeply moved to see how much Star was struggling to stay present even in the safety of her smaller pen. She recounted an episode of temporary blindness she experienced while hiking on a mountain trail with friends; the terror and helplessness of not being able to see well enough to navigate the terrain, and the embarrassment and vulnerability of needing to be carried by her friends down the mountain. As we processed that traumatic event, I was struck by the way Star continued to help others even at the end of her life.
A star is a luminous ball consisting mostly of hydrogen and helium gases that is held together by its own gravity. It is the name of the yoga pose that helped me begin to practice owning my space. It is also the name of a brave little Appaloosa mare that came into my life at a pivotal time in my healing journey and that of so many others. Star will always shine brightly in my memory, and in the memories of those she so bravely helped.
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to healing, will be like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)