BY ANDREA LONDON
At age 68, with 2 elderly retired show horses, my competitive equestrian days were over. I had neither the physical nor financial resources to start over with a young horse, so I sought other means of fulfilling my need to be with horses.
My friend Thomas Smittle, an exceptional horse trainer, was one of the instructors conducting a clinic for veterans, first responders, and their families. The participants were paired with BLM Mustangs to begin the process of gentling these wild creatures. The clinic was held in the fall of 2019 at Checkpoint One, a nonprofit EAT program, which sadly did not survive the pandemic of 2020.
I went to observe and learn and what follows is the story of one attendee’s extraordinary experience.
Michelle, one of eight participants, is an EAGALA trained Equine Specialist. Among other roles, she is a full-time caregiver for her father, an Army veteran. When she left home to attend the clinic, her father was in the hospital. Although he was being cared for, she felt guilty for leaving her husband with additional responsibilities. She was determined to be the best caregiver she could be, but the pressure she put on herself was crushing. She was exhausted from her duties as a caregiver and her other commitments, and felt like she was “being pulled in different directions”.
After introductions, orientation, and classroom instruction, the in vivo clinic began on a brisk autumn morning at a facility surrounded by the grassy rolling hills of Doswell, VA. Released from the holding pen, a wild mustang ran through a series of chutes and gates. It sprinted into the round pen where Michelle and Thomas were waiting for him. The participants named the horse Phantom. His face was vertically divided at the midline by color, brown on one side and white on the other—as if he were wearing a mask. Thomas had asked Michelle to have a plan before she entered the arena, but when she stood in the presence of the horse and instructor, she froze. “I just wanted to be still with no thoughts or need to make a decision that may be the wrong decision.”
So, Thomas got Michelle a chair and said, “Here, sit.” She did. When he left the arena, Phantom started running around her.
“I felt my body trembling and boiling up, tears from my toes to my eyes. I clinched (sic) my teeth and … focused on Phantom running in circles. Suddenly Thomas yelled from outside the arena ‘Michelle, breathe. I want you to do this meditation with me for a moment.’ I did, and the room was as quiet as a muted TV. I kept my eyes closed and focused on hearing Phantom’s hoof steps come close and go far away.”
Michelle stayed in the metal folding chair in the center of the oversized round pen. She remained motionless with her hands clasped together in her lap. Her face was downcast and her eyes were closed. She could hear the little mustang’s hooves in the dirt as the horse timidly approached her and then ran away. At times he raced in circles around Michelle’s stationary figure. While her body was still, her mind was far from it. The sensation of the horse whirling around mimicked the torrent of thoughts and emotions rushing through her being.
“This went on for what seemed like forever until I heard Thomas’ voice again saying, ‘Phantom’s looking for you.’ I opened my eyes and started watching him run again. I stood up, took a deep breath and we connected— a look. Still, he wasn’t coming in to see me. I could feel my heart racing … and my disappointment that Phantom did not come to my summons through thought. Thomas asked what might we do to get connected. I responded that I need to settle my heart.”
By then it was late in the day. The temperature dropped and it was quite chilly. Phantom had worked up a sweat, so the session wrapped up. As Thomas and Michelle left the arena, Thomas gave her an assignment. She was to think about ways she might be able to connect with Phantom. His parting words were “Forgive yourself.”
The following day, Michelle and Thomas worked to allow Phantom to “trust enough to touch.” Prior to entering the arena, Michelle and Thomas discussed letting go and moving forward.
“I asked how is that possible when one day you think you have everything… and bam! Something is thrown at you that brings it all back.”
Thomas said, ‘Stop picking it back up.”
They began the session by simply standing at opposite sides of the arena as Phantom went back and forth from one to the other, sniffing Thomas’ outstretched hand and pausing to make eye contact with Michelle. As the wild horse began to accept the presence of the two humans, Thomas initiated physical contact by creating an extension of his arm with a glove taped to a narrow, 6 foot long PVC pipe. As Phantom raced around the perimeter of the arena, Michelle placed the glove lightly on the horse’s back and held it steady. Eventually, Phantom was able to accept being touched by the glove, standing calmly while it rested on his back.
As a team member of an EAT psychotherapy program in her home state, Michelle was quite aware of the role horses have in providing opportunities for personal growth. Seeking respite from the enormous stress associated with being a caregiver, she came to Checkpoint One to experience being the recipient of these healing powers. When she allowed herself to simply be present with a scared, vulnerable wild creature, she was able to examine the feelings and behaviors that were causing her so much distress.
Scared and vulnerable herself, far from home and away from familiarity, Michelle’s only agenda with Phantom was to seek connection. Some eye contact, perhaps a touch. In the process, she came to terms with some inner issues and gained insight into the need to care for herself to be able to more effectively care for others. She accepted Phantom’s reluctance to come to her not as her failure, but as part of a process that the two of them were engaged in together.
Exactly how, or at what specific moment, Michelle came to these realizations is not so clear. Sometimes the path is not straight and the plan is not obvious. But the outcome is real. The therapeutic value of horses cannot be denied.