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Mark and Maggie

The purpose of AIA's Relationship Work With Horses workshop is to focus on the skill components of intention, focus, congruent communication, reflective mirroring, and empathic listening to enhance interpersonal intimacy. These basic energetic principles are investigated and practiced with the help of the horses.

To preview the energetic components of relationship and demonstrate the 'in-to- me-seeing' process, I offer the Mark and Maggie story as an illustration of several key operating principles. I wrote this story as my residential year in Kansas was coming to a close in the Spring of 2001. Our AIA Wellness Work with Horses class for Pittsburg State University students in recreational setting concluded with a parents and family visit to Horses of Hope Riding Center to experience first hand the student's facilitation skills.

Maggie is a 26 year old American Quarter Horse chestnut mare who works in the Horses of Hope Riding Center's equine facilitated activities programs. She is privately owned by Shelly McColm, Director of Horses of Hope and has been with Shelly since Shelly's husband, Allen McColm, cashed in his life insurance policy to gift his young bride with the horse she had wanted all her life. That was 23 years ago.

From my perspective of 'quintessential dressage queen always on the took out for that movement quality, presence of mind and carriage I think of as 'attitude, heart and desire", Maggie is the sort of mare for whom you lay down really good money. It was some months, if even now, before I could accept she is actually 26 years old.

Most days galloping full bore through the hills of the large pasture turn out, she appears and acts more like a fresh two year old. When she is working with a Horses of Hope student, her studied, measured gaits, attentive attitude, and all business-like air of helper and healer reveal the depth of her wisdom and immense quality of heart.

Mark is a 21 year old Pittsburg State University student who has spent the last five years in a wheel chair resulting from a spinal cord injury. I met Mark while co-teaching a class I developed for undergraduate students and/or outdoor experiential education. Twice a week for 3-hour leaming-laboratory sessions, these students study what horses have to teach about basic life skills such as communication, effective boundary setting, conscious behavior choices, and the significance of intention and focus. They develop skill and practice with symbolic sight, and the language and lessons of metaphor found in a schooling and training barn.

The bond between Mark and Maggie appeared to intensify two thirds of the way through the semester, around the time the arena footing changed with installation of new Fibar. It became even more difficult for Mark to maneuver his chair through the deep bed of tanbark chips now laid over the sand. On a blustery, rainy day, while working the imaginary lead line exercise with several of the herd and students, Mark said he would just observe. Too hard to push himself through the footing. And no, he would not accept help with his chair. His family already perceived him as incapable of doing much. They could not get past his being confined to a wheelchair. Mark felt anger with this limiting perception of him.

He told us that being able to come to class, and work outdoors on the imaginary lead exercise had contributed to his feeling like there was more movement in his legs than ever. If only in his imagination, he was feeling good about himself as capable of working safely with horses. One day, working only on the imaginary lead he and Sea Sea Ryder rolled down the long drive, out on the road, and back up the other drive with myself, present to lend a hand if needed. In the class, Mark has successfully returned horses to their stalls, led horses, and groomed horses, including picking their feet. He has experienced the passive movement of a horse during sessions designed to explore his balance while engaged in mounted work.

Mark demonstrates quality common sense skills around the horses. From the first day when he and young Maple, a youthful Arabian mare new to world of chairs, walkers and crutches, first bonded and worked together in the grooming process, Mark had given a sensible answer, to my query, "What would you do if this young horse becomes truly startled and tries to jump in your lap?"

"Well", responded, Mark. "I would first try to roll away, quietly and promptly. If that didn't work, I wouldn't be opposed to throwing myself out of the chair and crawling away.'

"Ah good", I reply. "Willing to be responsible for self today, and thus, contribute to the safety of the group." I was feeling comfortable with his mature willingness to be responsible for self, and thus help to keep the rest of the group safe, including the horses. Maple sighed and relaxed even further with his rhythmic mindful stroking.

That particular day we sought Mark's help in demonstrating the concepts behind round ring congruent message sending. This interactive exercise practices the ability to consciously match inside felt feelings with outward behavioral expression while interacting with the horse.

To assist Mark with this practice we put a huge piece of plywood board in the center of the arena (120' x 8O') on which to more easily move his chair about. Shelly and another student, Liz, helped Mark learn the basic principles of Equus, the body- based language horses use amongst themselves to move each other about.

This session went well, especially as Maggie (herself at 26 years) had never played the round ring game. And she was terrified of getting anywhere near the white funny sounding plywood board. The large area of the arena, some 80 feet by 120 feet, is perceived by most as too huge a distance with which to form a connection. The horse is at liberty wearing no halter or other equipment. The boundaries of the standard 66 foot circle are considered large by some professionals.

At the conclusion of the practice, Shelly and Liz left the arena and allowed Mark to interact with Maggie alone. He was able to invite her in to achieve join-up when he rolled off the board (which she indicated true fear of approaching) and offered physical connection some distance away.

Now, about yesterday's remarkable adventure. It was Community Participant day and the PSU students had invited their parents and friends to attend the session to allow them the opportunity to practice their newly acquired facilitation skills with Equine Experiential Leaming (EEL). One parent flew down from Alaska, another father and sister drove 3 hours from Kansas City, and Mark's Dad and little brother had been driven the 6 and half hours from south western Oklahoma by his best friend, Lyle. Dad and little brother had never seen Mark ride or work a horse.

After the imaginary lead line exercise we werel 5 minutes ahead of schedule and Shelly came to me with the idea for Mark to demonstrate another piece of ADVENTURES IN AWARENESS based EEL work. She suggested that Mark work Maggie in the round ring freedom circle dance.

"Let's ask Mark and then check it out with the rest of the group", I responded.

Mark and the group liked the plan. When Shelly went to retrieve Maggie from her stall, Maggie was waiting with her head over the door, playing with her halter, as if to say, "Well, about time you read the picture".

The other horses were given good-bye completion hugs, put away in their stalls, and the plywood board again placed in the center of the arena. The large group, 40 plus, was coached to move back from the rail. Liz talked to the group about the basic principles. The observers might learn metaphoric lessons while watching the horse and individual interact, while the person working directly with the horse is often aware of many insights once the circle dance concludes.

As Mark wheeled towards Maggie with her head down in the corner, it appeared that she was more interested in possible food amongst the bark chips, than Mark. He approached slowly requesting to enter her space (field). He worked slowly first one side and then the other, listening for her permission and feedback. Mark physically stroked her, crooning softly. On the third wheel away after physical connection and stroking, he called a time out.

"I don't feel the connection", he said. "I need help".

"Well, it appears to me you want her to walk with you as you wheel away towards your center?" I query.

"Yes. And I don't feel her connected or willing to come". Mark responded.

"Go to your center and check it out', I suggested. 'Turn and go to your center".

Mark took several long slow deep breaths. He spun around and wheeled towards the plywood board never looking back. Agonizingly slow through the deep bedding of the arena's chips, Mark wheeled with determined strength.

Before he was half the distance, Maggie had turned to follow him with her eyes. As he rolled onto the board, she walked half the distance to him. He picked up the waiting longe wand and clicked to her soothingly. She turned and walked.

Establishing an invisible 60 foot boundary of roundness, she agreed to walk, to trot, to halt and reverse, and again both walk and trot. She remained on an invisible thread of approximately 60 feet of roundness around Mark and the plywood board.

There was hushed silence. Tears were failing freely for many of us, as Maggie completed another lap at the trot around Mark. He dropped the wand, spun his chair away from her, and hunkered his head, appearing to sink into himself. She stopped to look closely. Head down she's continued to eye him.

Slowly one step at a time she moved toward the dreaded board. She could not quite come up on it. She stretched her neck across the distance to nuzzle Mark's ear. Very slowly, he turned to stroke and thank her. After some time, he turned and began to wheel towards the rail and the waiting group. Maggie carefully stepped around the board to position herself as if being led by his right wheel. They arrived at the fence together.

I was still choked with emotion as I told Mark there are professional horse people who could not do what he just did. I wanted to honor his sensitive connection. The immensity of the space and the power of his focus. "What did you learn?", I remembered to ask.

"I really didn't think there was a connection", Mark said. "I learned how powerful it is to ask for help. I think I got the BIG HELP."

Tears running down his cheeks, Mark's Dad said, "Son, I am seeing you differently."

Warmest HUGS,
Barbara K. Rector

Adventures in Awareness(TM)
Adventures In Awareness