BY JESSICA SHANNON
If there is a debate whether or not faith and animals, particularly dogs and horses, go hand in hand, then allow me to settle it. When I was a teenager, my late mother encouraged me to watch our horse in the pasture. She gently and eloquently shared that watching a horse be a horse was watching God at work. We can bond and connect with our horses without being in arm’s reach as our horses graze, explore, and breeze through a pasture with curiosity, energy, and wonder. They are, in a word, majestic.
That moment, sitting on the type rung of the wooden pasture fence with my mom and watching our grey thoroughbred glide and graze as if we were watching our own nature show, never left me. Whether it has been due to work or fewer lesson horses in barns than there used to be, I have been in and out of the saddle since my first horse died in 2006. In the early days of COVID, I adopted a 3-year-old OTTB from New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program. My mom’s encouragement to see God’s power and majesty in our equine partners quickly came to mind as my 3-year-old gelding stepped off the trailer from Kentucky.
Knowing we have a lifetime together, my plan from the start has been to take it slowly with him. I’ve held true to that plan, giving him 1-2 days per week off per week in which I still come to the barn for groundwork, baths, grooming, or hand grazing him, as well as being intentional about listening to him and never rushing him under-saddle. Perhaps what helped me remain focused on riding the horse I have each day, and not feeling too heavily influenced by watching others moving faster with their young horses, was the healing effect time with him provided.
Life outside the barn was a chaotic, PPE mess. I don’t mean the pre-purchase kind but rather the N95 under the procedure mask, gown, gloves, and goggles PPE that my colleagues and I lived in at every hospital around the world. My role as a pediatric chaplain allowed for unique insight on the pandemic.
Initially, children’s hospitals had minimal exposure to the virus itself, but our lives, like yours, were altered. My chaplain colleagues at adult hospitals were providing unprecedented levels of emotional support to lonely people. All healthcare workers faced uncertainty. The uncertainty took another turn when the virus began to affect children more significantly. Chaplains, regardless of whether they are military, corporate, hospice, at adult hospitals, or pediatric chaplains, provide a safe space for staff to process their own feelings and the situations they face. The pandemic increased the amount of staff care we provide by outstanding numbers. Like everyone in and out of the hospital faced, many of the activities and communities that helped us cope with our heavy, emotional labor jobs were taken from us in order to prevent from COVID19 becoming worse than it already was.
Social distancing, while necessary, became difficult and affected our daily lives more than we anticipated. It was not only restaurants, gyms, and stores that were closed but most houses of worship, too. Even when the latter reopened, it was not the same. Personally, I remained out of church buildings for much longer than many other people did. I work with immunocompromised children, including premature babies, sickle cell kids in heavy pain crises, and childhood cancer patients. What I did outside of work could affect them on a devastating scale.
My dogs have always been a source of peace and a safe space for me. Until recently, I had four spectacular pups. Although we are surrounded by death and grief of all types, chaplains avoid crying at work as best we can. Once we cry the dynamic shifts. It becomes about us. We are present for patients, their families, and the staff, and we have to be diligent about our self-care.
My dogs have been a constant for me. There have been countless dog walks in tearful reflection about a spiritual play (an intervention and assessment tool pediatric chaplains use in order to guide children in processing their feelings, situation, or terminal illness) visit with a childhood cancer patient or holding a family as they share memories of their dying child. Those walks and hikes were church to me before pandemia caused the church doors to shut. I always felt God strolled along with us. My eyes were open to that because of my mom’s encouragement to open them to watch God gallop through our horse decades earlier. I found God with my four pups, especially the Boston terrier who was half-human.
A little over a year before the pandemic began, I started riding again with weekly lessons on a couple of tired yet caring lesson horses. They helped rebuild my confidence after a horrific fall and give me a peace that had been hard to find. In April 2020, the barn closed to non-boarders. That’s when I realized how much one ride a week had done for my fatigued chaplain soul. I did not want to pause riding again. I never imagined owning a horse would ever be possible, as I often joke that chaplains are paid in tears, and the financial stress of owning a horse that most of us are all too familiar with, is worth the joy. After years of chaplaincy and attempting to create a community again in my church while the things I see at work are always at the forefront of my mind, my soul was finding peace again in the sanctuary of pastures and the holy ground of freshly dragged arenas.
Gunner, the barn name I gave my New Vocations graduate after my beloved Arsenal FC, stepped off the trailer and grabbed my heart the way a transformational faith experience does. At home, my half-human, half-dog, Oliver was that space. God sent him my last year of graduate school, in the fall of 2006 and 5 months after losing my first horse, and, in spite of always connecting with animals on a deep level, the life I shared with Oliver was like nothing I’d ever known. He was present for my grief over my horse and a source of pure love and joy.
That kind of love can only be from God.
God built a pack with three more pups and a fiancé who is grateful to come second after the four-legged loves, especially Oliver. God then sent Gunner at a time when I was encouraging hospital staff to find COVID safe ways to fill their own cups, as I continued to pour from mine with fewer things filling my own cup. We found a barn home that is full of passionate horsepeople who truly remember why they began riding in the first place: for the love of the horse.
I found God in a tennis ball obsessed Boston terrier and watching dogs find utter joy in smelling every leaf and flower. I could feel God through the unconditional love of dogs who simply want to be involved in your life. I found God and myself in Gunner’s velvet nose, his goofiness, and the naturally socially distanced world of the barn. I was able to leave my troubles at the mounting block, feeling God’s presence through my horse’s barrel moving beneath my saddle, and see God through Gunner’s two bay ears. It is almost as if we can feel God loving us and seeing us through the eyes of a horse. In Horses Speak of God, Laurie M. Brock wrote,
“Faith and love seem to grow best in the dirt of not knowing.
I went one day to ride horses, not knowing I would find love
and in that love an expression of God.”
A chaplain’s role is to help people find hope in a mess. Sometimes what gives a person hope is their faith. Sometimes people find hope in nature, a sport, or animals. I spend my 9-5, well 7-3:30, energy in helping others find hope. It is up to me to find it for myself. God put dogs and horses in my life in order for me to find hope, too. Where we find hope, we find God.
Jessica lives in The Woodlands, TX where she works as a pediatric chaplain with a strong passion for meeting the spiritual needs of children through play. She’s a proud dog mom and is retraining a 5-year-old OTTB, who is her forever heart horse, “Gunner.”