cherokee mustang in memory

In Memory, Cherokee the Mustang

In Memory, Cherokee the Mustang

Eleven years ago, when I first met Cherokee I went to touch her. She turned and walked away. Weeks later, my husband asked about the big and powerful brown horse out in the herd.

I said, “Her? Yeah that’s Cherokee the mustang. She won’t let anybody catch her.” Which was the truth. She was the least tame horse on the ranch.

Weeks after that, my co-worker and friend said, “You should do some of the new horse training techniques you’re learning with Cherokee. I think you two would get along.” 

I stood in the pen the next morning with little chance of getting a hand on the coppery, stout bay mustang. But, she watched. She listened. Her skin flinched when I looked at it from fifteen feet away. She moved off the slightest pressure.

In the horse world we call this responsive. Then she began to follow me. I knew in an instant she was the most sensitive horse I had ever met. She was obliging my requests, but it was not because she was willing. I saw right away how wise, how clever, and how horribly wounded this mare was.

She was responsive because of fear. There was a brilliant innate sensitivity that had been corrupted by terror of humans. She carried this terror as rock solid tension in every taught muscle in her body. I could barely read her breath for how frozen in fear, ready to bolt in an instant, she was. Her self-preservation was on high alert and she was determined to survive.

The Lead Mare

In a natural setting, with her horse friends in the pasture she emanated a relaxed, powerful, palpable sphere of authority and confidence. Cherokee had real swagger. That mustang was cool as cool could be and she knew it. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet another spirit with such quiet, confident bravado.

As the lead mare in a herd of sixteen horses, her leadership was rarely questioned. She told who when to eat and in what order. She decided when it was nap time and when it was social hour. Cherokee lead with benevolence, rarely ever physically exerting her dominance. All it took was a look from her and the other horses listened. It was riveting to watch.

That morning, she followed me around the pen for five minutes and it was the most amazing feeling. She followed not because she liked me or thought me worthy. She followed because she knew that if she was behind me I couldn’t touch her. She tracked every footstep of mine. That was astounding to me. Crazy as it sounds, I fell in love. If I could get that intelligence to trust me and get that confidence to bridge to the human world, boy what a life we’d have together. 

And, what a life we did have together. She did come to trust me slowly and entirely, over the years, until I could do anything with her, anything but ride her. That part she always kept for herself. And, like I said when I committed to bring her into the family, I was okay with that. I admit that for quite awhile I wasn’t always okay with it. I exhausted myself and my resources for many years trying to convince her to be a riding horse, but in her last years I finally came to terms with how it was. My contract with Cherokee was not about riding and going places. It was about dancing and knowing lightness of feel, whispers of the heart.

She came to trust all humans, vets and farriers included, and that, ultimately was my goal. Her fear of domesticated life had put her own life in jeopardy. I wanted to know that she would be able to receive routine and emergency care if I couldn’t be there. This happened and I’m grateful.

Her transformation marveled everyone she met. I couldn’t have fully rehabilitated her without the help of an awesome, patient team of family and caregivers over the years. For them, I am grateful.

For the rest of my life, I will never take for granted a horse that lets me ride on her back, load her in a trailer, trim her feet, and any do other things a domesticated horse needs to do. I understand how much horses have to trust to override the natural instincts that a wild horse is born with.


There were a lot of synchronicities in my life with Cherokee. We didn’t know her history in the beginning, only that she was a mustang. I expressed my random hope that she’d come from a herd in New Mexico.

We met Cherokee while living at Colorado Horse Rescue. I spent a year and countless hours building a relationship with her. Then she was abruptly court ordered back to the abusive owners she’d been rescued from. I was devastated but determined. I contacted the owners and was able to buy her. After three hours of trying to get her on a trailer I’d borrowed from a friend, she got on and we brought her home. If she never would have had to go back to the owners, I never would have gotten her original paperwork. I never would have learned that she was in fact from New Mexico.

We made a pilgrimage to see Cherokee’s herd in New Mexico and visited nearby Pagosa Springs for the first time during that trip. A couple years later, we came back to Pagosa Springs for a Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinic. We fell in love with the little town. If Cherokee wouldn’t have been such a challenging horse to train, I might never have made the significant investment to attend the two week clinic with her and we might never have discovered our current home.

A few months after the clinic we bought property in Pagosa Springs and started our move. Cherokee then spent the last eight years of her life living within a couple hours of where she’d been born, in very much the same type of terrain. I swear she knew she was back home. She settled right in here. So much in her relaxed. Her swagger remained but her demeanor softened.

My First Horse

Cherokee was my first horse. Nearly everyone thought that someone as green as me shouldn’t have a horse as dangerous as her. And, well, they were right. It was probably the most foolhardy thing I’ve ever done. I’m lucky we both made it through so many blowups and wrecks unscathed.

Two weeks after we bought her, she and I were in a clinic to get the help I so sorely knew I needed. Cherokee spooked at some hanging plastic bags. In sheer panic, she bolted. She pulled the rope out of my hands, jumped a five and a half foot fence, and ran a mile off into the neighborhood. It was one of the most humiliating, terrifying and crushing experiences of my life. This horse I loved so dearly seemed so impossible to gentle.

Over the years, I hired at least ten trainers to work with her. All but one refused to ride her. He got eleven rides on her before he moved and we moved, and her transformation into riding horse never fully materialized. She bucked me off a couple times after that when I tried to ride her on my own. Then, she developed arthritis in her front hooves and needed to be retired. I’ll never doubt that we gave it our best try.

The Gentle Teacher

Either way, she put up with a lot of nonsense; pool noodles, tarps, plastic bags, jumps, barrels, balls, saddles, and ropes. You name it. She saw it. And slowly she stopped fearing every errant sound, every unfamiliar movement. Eventually she became that been there, done that kind of horse. The confidence that was the core of this lion-hearted mustang pushed its way through the layers of fear and into domesticated life.

I had my own fear to tackle in our time together. So, so much was transmuted. And to say this mustang taught me multitudes about horsemanship and horse behavior would be the grossest understatement of the century. I don’t even know how to begin to describe how much knowledge and skill I developed in the thousands of hours I spent learning while training that horse.

We completed the highest level of groundwork possible as amateurs, she performed successfully in front of a crowd in a big arena, and she worked with my clients as a wise therapy horse. Cherokee gently mentored my nieces and nephews in safe horse handling and helped my friend’s young autistic son find new avenues to self awareness. The dangerous horse became the gentle teacher.

She was brilliant at liberty work with no halters or ropes. She and I would dance together, free in the pasture. It was a dream come true.

In the end, Cherokee was the horse in my herd that came eagerly when I called her. That was the most precious gift, that she sought me out and wanted to be with me.

Mustang in the Truest Sense

Cherokee was a mustang in the truest sense of the word. When I met her I felt she was one of the strongest, fiercest, most complete and wild souls I’d ever met. I couldn’t fathom how she could be both totally intact and shattered, courageous and fearful, confident and insecure, entirely beautiful and broken yet unbreakable. In her lifetime, I never knew the full mystery of this beast.

She changed my life, but, even more so, she changed me. It seems too that, at least in part, I returned the favor. Eventually, the waves of fear subsided until the storm disappeared on the horizon. In time, the fragments found their way back to her or she found them.

The fact that she even wanted to become whole again, that she even wanted to live a content, comfortable life brings me such hope, such joy. She could have kept the walls up, but instead she was willing to become my companion, a family member, and a horse that helped humans heal. Her heart was so much more vast than I could imagine. 

The fact that she could forgive and heal gives me an undying, unyielding hope. 

So many obstacles seemed like they would prevent our becoming. Because of her unyielding spirit, none of them won. What won was love, hope, and happiness. Because of this life together, I too now know the wild and free way. I’ve, with her help, leapt over the barriers of fear and judgement and run back home. 

What it Means to Be Free

I used to think that to be wild and free meant to leave, to be isolated and detached. I now know it is to be loving and be loved, to let nothing get between me and love.

That same wild spirit that made her untouchable, allowed her and I to touch the infinite. The same wild spirit that made her untamed, allowed us to tame the impulses that barred the way to our true nature. That same wild spirit that made her unbreakable, allowed us to break open our hearts, to break open the way to patience, compassion and contentment. In the end, nothing could hold the way from us. Nothing could keep us from a peaceful, fulfilled love together.

On her last morning, she did her classic downward facing dog bow for breakfast right at my feet. It didn’t escape me that she was bowing to me, saying thank you. I bow to you sister and all that you gave and all that you are. Thank you for the grand opportunity of this life together.

Now she rests in a valley at home where she found happiness and lived out her days. She slowed down considerably in her old age and was stoic through all the pains in her weary body, but was the leader until the end. She was surrounded by her family and herd and passed in an instant, bolting in her spirit body to a new found level of freedom. Yours is the infinite now my dear.  

Miss Cherokee taught me all that I share in this writing and more. I had a friend once ask me if my next book was to be about Cherokee. This mare obviously is worthy of a whole host of tomes. I clearly could fill volumes.

Still I would never be able to say how full my heart is as a result of allowing one beautiful, bold, powerful and magnificent mustang touch, tame and break it.

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About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

stacey couch spiritual directorStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the world of symbolism easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.

horse gracious wild

In Memory: Caruso’s Puer Spirit

There is one character in my book Gracious Wild that I didn’t have enough pages to share about. That is the small, sweet chestnut Arabian horse named “Caruso”. The only mention he gets in the book is a brief telling of our least glamorous moment together when he tripped and I came off of him. Then in the epilogue, I touch on the heartache of saying goodbye to my friend. I am coming back around full circle to remember my time with him as he passed away recently.

Caruso was not the first horse I ever rode. I actually learned to ride on a sweet Morgan/Arab cross bay mare named Kami. She took fantastic care of me and helped me build my confidence because, I have to admit, for as much as I wanted to be with and ride horses, I was intimidated by them. They were big and unpredictable and I was old enough to know I wasn’t invincible.

Part of being a gentle, quiet horse meant that to some degree Kami ignored a lot of her rider’s cues and was on the slower side. After a couple of months of riding lessons it became clear that I was ready for a horse with more “go”. I understood how to give more subtle cues and had developed a better seat. My riding instructor Jamie, who reminded me of a sweet fairy godmother, was already cooking up a plan.

Getting to Know Caruso

Jamie had once owned Caruso and had him as part of her herd of lesson horses. When her health began to suffer she had to pare down her herd and one of her students, a teenage girl suffering with depression, was in love with him. The girl’s parents purchased Caruso for her and at first all went well. Eventually though, her life got overwhelming or some such thing and she had less time for her horse. Caruso was still at the same stable, stalled right next to his friends. It tore away at Jamie to see him stand in a 10×10 stall all day long with nothing to do.

She had permission to employ Caruso in her lesson program and was also searching for a person to lease him to help with his expenses. I was willing to get to know the friendly guy and was tenuously interested in having more “ownership” of a horse. Immediately, I was challenged to up my horsemanship in his company. With Caruso’s sensitivity, cleverness and high energy, I had to know what I was asking, ask clearly, and stick to my word. If I was uncertain or unclear he, in his quick-witted way, would simply do something else and fast. Caruso, like many Arabs, was very busy.

Caruso’s adrenaline could elevate at a moment’s notice. I got very nervous when he got excited and, just like when the hawks Thalia or Graccia got agitated, I was pushed to go past the point of freezing and find confident action. When Caruso got excited during a lesson all was well and good. Jamie would coach me through it and her voice alone would help me find my footing. The trial began when I started leasing him and taking him out alone. This was a huge accomplishment for me to have the permission to take a horse out, tack him up, and ride him all by myself. It was also really scary.

The “what if’s” plagued me endlessly. What if he got away from me? What if he got hurt? What if I got hurt? What if other people saw me unable to control him? Caruso didn’t worry. He was who he was. Years later now looking back, I plainly see that Jamie knew what she was doing. Caruso was a bit excitable and could sometimes be mischievous, but after knowing over a hundred other horses, I can say that he was a safe horse for me to learn with because he genuinely cared about my well-being.

Caruso’s Gift and Reward

I had to learn self-assurance and I wasn’t going to unless it was tested. After many independent outings, I was an exceptionally better horse handler than I ever could have imagined. Caruso gave that to me. I would not have had the confidence to apply to work at a horse rescue had it not been for what he taught me. There are dozens upon dozens of frightened horses that I was hands-on in rescuing from starvation, abuse and neglect. I had to draw from that Caruso’s teaching and offer the horses what he once gave me, confidence and compassion.

Shortly after Gracious Wild ended and I moved away from Caruso, he was bought by a dear friend of mine for both herself and her son. Her family took him in and showered him with attention. He so deserved that forever home. He had many great years in their company with the utmost in care. I couldn’t have imagined anything better for him. I feel there was so much of that horse I didn’t get to know in the short time we had together, and my friend had the awesome opportunity to take in the greatness of his being. My heart and prayers go out to my friend for her heart-breaking loss.

For me I find a tenderness in his passing and a reassurance in him already showing up in spirit to help in my work. Reflecting back on my time with Caruso reminds me that every life that touches ours matters.

The Puer Spirit

The name “Caruso” means “close-cropped” in Italian and years ago came to generally mean “boy” because younger men tended to wear their hair shorter. Caruso had long hair, but he did have that puer spirit. According to Thomas Moore, “Puer is the face of the soul that is boyish,” and Caroline Myss says of the puer eternis spirit manifest that it is “a determination to remain young in mind, body and spirit.” Peter Pan is a perfect depiction of the puer spirit. The puer spirit wishes to fly about the labyrinth of adult life and into the unfettered playground of the Gods.

We don’t often think of teachers as young and boyish, but this one of mine was. When Caruso was excited he was a puer spirit flying like a kite at the end of my rope. I was worried because I didn’t have control. He was elated because he had space to run. There was a teasing part of Caruso’s nature that reminds me still not to take life so seriously, to let go and have fun.

About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the world of shamanism easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.

The Legend of Purity of Heart

As a child I harbored secret fantasies about horses. Standing in the Colorado State Fair stable with the gigantic nose of a Budweiser Clydesdale cradled in my small hands was pure bliss. There was a precious brief moment where I could just enter, enter into the experience of equine. Nothing came between us.  The gentle gelding’s eyes smiled at me. I still remember the touch of his velveteen white muzzle and the round edges of his nostrils. Then everything becomes lost in memories of a blinding assault of stinging headaches and dizzying sneezes.

Allergies seem like such frivolous, temperamental things, but in many ways they stole the carefree capacity of childhood from me. Hay fever was a debilitating, miserable mess of a condition that bottled me up indoors and prevented me from touching what I loved. Too much flower pollen, horse dust or kitty dander on my palms and I was cursed. I came to fear touching things of the natural world.

The natural world that I was so in love with could attack me at any time. This showed up in the worst way with horses. It was heartbreaking, so much so that I eventually came to deny my love for horses. Still, one scene from a movie stayed with me. Majestic white unicorns running through a river in an enchanted forest haunted me. I never stopped loving the movie Legend. Even as an adult I indulged in it, albeit secretly, every so often.

I eventually was cured of all my allergies. There was no magic remedy, but a series of changes on the inner then the outer that culminated in me standing in a friend’s barn allowing a gray mare to lick my palms for a half an hour. I cried when I left the barn. It was over. First the pollen allergy faded away then the cat allergy and, now, the horses. Thank you soul searching. Thank you nature. Thank you acupuncture. Thank you herbal remedies. Thank you homeopathics. Thank you hope. Thank you vulnerability.

I have my own two horses at home with me now. They are big, loving, brave beings that are two of my best friends, but recently I’ve been grieving a new loss of freedom with them. Last year I found out that my first horse, Cherokee, was no longer rideable and now my second horse has encountered the same fate, both due to arthritis. This wouldn’t be the end of all things as I have a toolbox full of groundwork play we can do, but both are also limited physically. I have to be especially careful to not stress their joints. When they are excited to burst into a full-fledged run, I am the one that has to put the brakes on. Again I find my carefree capacity restricted.

Going back to the story of my childhood helps me right now. By going back I can remember those white unicorns and learn more of what is unfolding in me. There was no mistake that when I was searching for a second horse years back that a big, white mare named Legend came up for adoption. I honestly didn’t make the conscious connection between my decision to adopt Legend and my favorite movie (also called “Legend”) until months after she came into our family. She was well trained and a good size for my husband to ride. I found all sorts of practical reasons to bring her home.

And it is in this moment, years later, that I am making another connection. The unicorns in that movie weren’t meant to be touched. They were too pure, too sacred. They were the guardians of the Power of Light. Tom Cruise’s character “Jack” says of the unicorns, “As long as they roam the earth evil can never harm the pure of heart… They express only love and laughter. Dark thoughts are unknown to them.”

Jack’s lover Lili cannot help but approach the unicorns and touch one of them. Jack becomes furious with her and tells her, “What you did is forbidden. You risk your immortal soul.”

Lili’s response is light-hearted, “I only wanted to touch one, where’s the harm in that?”

The problem is that Lili touching the unicorn distracts the creature and allows it to be hit by a poisoned dart from a goblin. As a result of the unicorn’s death, darkness and winter take over the land.

I can’t believe I never saw any of this before as a metaphor for my illness as a child. There is a whole world of symbolism too around the animus, the unconscious and the battle within between light and dark. This theme of innocence and purity corrupted by the naivety and imperfection of human nature reverberates through many of our stories.

This particular story spoke to me because I feared my allergies were an indication that I was undeserving of a connection with the natural world and her creatures. Even worse, I was afraid that the allergies were punishment for my strong yearning to touch the wild.

Through my relationship with two hawks, numerous rescue horses, and my two mustangs, I’ve carried this question with me. The healing of my physical body was very much contingent on my sense of empowerment and coming into the belief that I was deserving, but the story did not end there. I am literally not riding off into the sunset on my white horse.

I’ve found that for as sweet, well mannered and kind that Legend is, that coming into a trusting connection with her presents its own unique challenge. I’ve spent well over a decade learning horsemanship and training horses. Now I have to forget all but the basics. With Legend less and less is becoming more and more. I’ve had to learn to cultivate my capacity for loving kindness and softness.

I’m coming into a purity of heart in all areas of my life. The change in Legend’s physical abilities and the transformation of our relationship is an outward manifestation of this. My immortal soul is at risk of being unveiled. The Power of Light is winning over despair and grief. I am settling into the sacredness of this beautiful, mythical creature’s being.

About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the world of shamanism easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.

Love Her is What I Still Do

Publishing a memoir has paradoxically pushed my personal life more inward as if somehow I can counteract the effect of my innermost thoughts being so public by making my current motivations hidden. It is challenging to meet people for the first time and know they’ve had access to some of the most raw moments of my life. I hold my realtime vulnerabilities closer. They are more precious to me now. On the other hand, I know it is my candor, my willingness to show my imperfection, that helps people connect to their own stories and their own guidance.

So, here I am, ready to share more. Today, in the simplest of ways, my heart broke open. I was in yoga at work in a room with co-workers. Our instructor Margaret invites us to have an intention for what we’d like out of the time there. Sometimes I adopt a focus. Other times I rebel and enjoy the opportunity to let go of the drive of the workday. Today I wasn’t passionate either way, so I haphazardly chose open-heartedness. Then as I laid in shavasana the grief came. I had a simple thought that unraveled me.

I should probably write down everything I enjoyed about my time playing with Cherokee before I forget.

For those of you that don’t know me too well or that have been successfully shielded from my private life, my current animal muse is an 1100 pound bay mustang mare named Cherokee. She’s been in my life for over seven years now. She started out like the harrier hawk Thalia I tell the story of in my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. When I met her Cherokee was just like Thalia, deathly afraid of humans and ill equipped to manage the perils of captivity. I spent a year gentling, hand walking, and befriending her before I saw her eye soften for just a moment in my presence. I remember the day I looked over into Cherokee’s face and exclaimed to my friend Sue, “There’s the horse! That’s the horse that’s been there all along and just now I finally get to see her!” Little did I know that it would be another three years before that softness would settle in for good.

But my mission here is not to tell the tall tale that is the history of our relationship. That would encompass another volume I may write someday. For now, I’m here to capture this one moment in time, this instance in which my grief has resurfaced. Cherokee is well. She may have many more years of life ahead of her. I keep reminding myself to be grateful that she is still in my life. I continue to push back on that gratitude.

Earlier this year the vet discovered significant arthritis in Cherokee’s front feet. As we began to diagnose the severity of the problem I started to see what had likely been creeping up on us for months, if not years. I am no longer free to ask my playmate to run with me and jump even the smallest of obstacles for me. I can’t even ask her to trot. Walking down a hill or taking a sharp turn exacerbates the problem. Nothing  alleviates her condition, not pain medication, not acupuncture, not herbs, not specialized farrier work and not chiropractic. Prayer is a way to honor her sweet soul, but so far has not had an effect on the physical. Cherokee is not excessively old by horse standards, she’s 18, but the neglect she’s experienced in her life before I met her may have contributed to her body aging sooner than I’d like. It could have just been in the cards for her. I’ll never know why her athleticism has been taken from her what seems like too soon.

She lights up still when I even hint at play. Her neck arches, she sets her head perfectly, and her ears lean expectantly forward. She lifts into this incredibly light-footed trot. It pains me that I have to retreat and pull away from the magnetism that is this incredible horse. I so want to jig and egg her into a canter, ask her to go one way so she’ll dart another. She is a riveting playmate with a fantastic sense of humor.

When we used to play she would be contrarian and sassy at the start, living out loud how big and strong she was by kicking out at me and tearing off at a gallop. She never left me mentally however. She always had an eye or ear on me waiting to see if I was being drawn in. She’d find higher ground, turn to me with her head held high, and snort a big “huff” my direction pushing at me with her nose. My favorite thing was to beat her to the punch and “huff” at her first with a bob of my head. She’d then stand there indignantly as if to say, “well, I’m still bigger and faster than you.” I’d smile and she’d smile back with her whole body. After some time tearing about and countering every request I made, she would come to me and link up, no ropes attached. Then whatever I asked she would offer. If she didn’t get it right she would try again. That horse has a lot of try in her that few have given her credit for. The trainers saw attitude and/or fear. I’ve had the benefit of her full engagement and confidence. There is nothing better than that gift.

If I went out to the pasture right now, I could have all of this again. She would forget the pain and hand herself over for the joy of the play. I’ve given in to temptation and opened the door only to have to close it abruptly. I have the unfortunate talent of foresight. I know how much she will hurt tomorrow from a luxury taken today. She has a memory like an elephant, but, alas, foresight is not a capacity she possesses.

So, I mourn the loss of the freedom of indulgence in the play we shared together. I have friends optimistically tell me she’ll get better, but they haven’t been through countless vet visits, mounting vet bills, and numerous dead ends. Aging happens. It is an unfortunate circumstance that comes with the opportunity at life. It is so odd to mourn the loss of what we had together and still see her every day. I feel like I am dishonoring her by grieving. She is more calm, sweet, and affectionate that I’ve ever known her. Those who knew her years ago would have never described her as affectionate or, even, friendly. All is more than well.

If I had the gift of laying my hands on her and bringing a miracle about with her arthritis, God knows I would have done it, but my gift is not in that kind of healing. I work with the spirits to mend broken hearts and souls. Cherokee and I already worked our miracle, the miracle of turning fear around into fun, and we’ve tasted the sweetness of success. What a heart wrenching experience to come into wholeness and experience true happiness so that this cloud can come and cover my heart. It seems an unfair agony to find such play that brings unfurled bliss and then to have to deny it. I am not sure why the universe works the way it does, and this is not from lack of trying. I too have a lot of try in me. Every day finds me trying, trying to continue to engage even though it hurts, trying to trust in the process even though I despise it, and trying to be grateful even though I am sad. It might be easier to close the book on it all and turn my back on my best friend, but I vowed to love her and love her is what I still do. There’s no trying needed there.

If you’d like to read other stories about Cherokee and I, here are links to other posts about lessons from my big girl:

Hopefulness in the Face of Hardship

On Immediate Results and Real Consequences

On Leadership

Photo credit: Petra Christensen, Red Horse Coaching

hope hardship horses

Hope in the Face of Hardship

Those of you that own a troubled horse may know a particular type of isolation I am familiar with, the type of loneliness that comes when an expert looks down their nose at you and says, “this is too much horse for you” or the kind of despair that comes from finishing yet another clinic in humiliation because your horse was the most explosive, fearful, defiant, you name it beast there and everyone knew it. I can’t tell you how many times people have politely said to me, “Green and green make black and blue,” meaning that a novice owner and untrained horse are a set-up for injury. Some owners of troubled horses decide that because the effort and training is hard that the partnership was just not “meant to be.” These owners sell or give away their horses and hopefully, but not always, find themselves a more calm, obedient mount. Others believe that nothing great comes without blood, sweat, and tears so they shoulder in and work hard to overcome all odds and wow the crowd. I have many talented friends and trainers who have done just this. I also know five times as many horses who are the “discards” still waiting for their chance at greatness. I have one of those discards standing in my pasture. She is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I’ve come to know beside her the greatness within. No amount of outside praise or accolades will ever match this brilliance.

Cherokee is my reminder every day of how easy it can be to lose sight of our own inner light. After 6 years and 7 trainers she is still too unpredictable to ride and still sometimes fearful. In a world that values outside measures of success and that idolizes goals, we become addicted to praise and, by default, criticism. We come to fear both, for praise only causes a craving for more praise which requires exhaustive effort and, well, the pain of criticism is an easy one to be habitually phobic of. Our fear causes us to set up a belief system that helps us make decisions when the outcome (praise or criticism) is unknown and adversity arises.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown outlines the two paths people commonly take when encountering hardship.

  1. “When we experience something that is difficult and requires significant time and effort we are quick to think This is supposed to be easy; it’s not worth the effort, or, This should be easier: it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it.” I would like to add that in the new era of spiritual positivity and the chase for happiness many also now see roadblocks in a given path to be a sign from a divine source that this is not the right direction. These believers think It’s only hard and slow because it’s not meant to be. 
  2. Others believe “that everything worthwhile should involve pain and suffering.” Brene uses “never, fun, fast, and easy” to explain this mindset. For spiritual seekers looking to become more aware/conscious/enlightened this can look like I need to learn these lessons and clear these woundings before I can attain this dream; the tougher the lessons the bigger the dream. I would venture to say that in there is also the thought I need to learn these lessons before I am worthy of this dream.

Take a moment to consider: What kind of believer am I? We each have a default setting when hardship arises. What is yours?

Awareness here is the first step. If we can catch the first thought of this is too hard or I have to struggle on before our mind takes off in the whirlwind of drama around either path we can hopefully avoid errant action. This is where we break old patterns of ejecting from one friendship/job/marriage after the next or of suffering through unhappy friendships/jobs/marriages way past their expiration date.

I typically default to the “never, fun, fast, and easy” mindset and have been quick to idolize the “meant to be” mindset because that seems so easy and elegant. I sobbed after riding Cherokee for the first time, it was an overwhelming release. I realized that for once, I felt worthy of her. I wasn’t sure if the countless hours of effort and training for both myself and her had been the ticket or if I’d finally healed to the point of deserving this dream. I had been bracing for so long against the hardships and lessons that it was such a relief to have succeeded.

I only had five more rides on her which didn’t always go so well.  I started to loosen my grip on my vision of a blissful riding connection with her. Then, surprisingly, I fell out of love with her. Sounds harsh I know, but I was willing to be with that truth, albeit I kept it a secret at the time. Then I allowed myself to be with What if it’s not meant to be or What if I will never be good enough? 

Luckily, I understood that neither viewpoint was the truth. Every time I heard myself say I’m ready to quit or Just keep going, I used this as a cue to check in with my core self. Always, the entire six years, the truth has been that she is my horse and I am her human. Call it fate or destiny or karma I don’t care, but I know in every fiber of my being that we are family. That’s just it.

It is in this knowing that I find value every time. I don’t know why we’re supposed to be together or what she has to teach me or me her. It really seems to go beyond all of that. There is just a truth in our togetherness that is unfaltering and that itself has value. Trusting in our relationship and our intrinsic value always takes me out of the praise/criticism addiction and brings me hope in the face of hardship.

Here is what Brene Brown has to say about cultivating hopefulness:

“We develop a hopeful mind-set when we understand that some worthy endeavors will be difficult and time consuming and not enjoyable at all. Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast , and easy doesn’t mean that it has less [or more] value than a difficult goal. If we want to cultivate hopefulness, we have to be willing to be flexible and demonstrate perseverance. Not every goal will look and feel the same. Tolerance for disappointment, determination, and a belief in self are the heart of hope.” (page 66 of The Gifts of Imperfection)

So next time you catch yourself thinking that Spirit has approved your goals by making the path easy, stop to ask your inner self how you feel about the goal. Next time you start thinking that you have too many wounds to heal to be worthy of your dream ask your inner self how you feel about your path. Is this worth doing even if you fail? Remember the outcome will never be how you expect it.

Just yesterday after a quiet play session together I took a moment to stand with my bay mare out in the sunny, snowy pasture. I was in her shadow standing beside her neck as we both faced northeast, the place of rebirth and renewal. I ducked my shoulder under her jowl to wrap my arm around her head and hold the bridge of her nose in my hand. For the very first time, she softened in to my embrace. I felt the loving and gentle pressure of her jaw resting on my shoulder. I immediately understood the tenderness of her gesture and brought my entire awareness to bear. We stood doing nothing else but soaking in each other’s light. This is what love and value look like. Everything else is just an illusion.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa

Mustang Mare Horse

On Immediate Results and Real Consequences

Do you ever have the experience of immediate response from your environment? Do you know what it feels like have something shift so quickly that you’re overwhelmed with the results?

In the course of the last 24 hours my reality has been completely shattered and then repaired to its beautiful self. Some of you may know of the challenges I’ve faced with my 17 year old bay mustang mare. She used to be absolutely terrified of humans, and nothing in the human world, let alone riding, was simple or even possible with her. People don’t believe that now when they see how calm she is, how willing, connected and intelligent she is. Cherokee has been in my life for six years and I have invested hundreds of hours into the relationship. We had a brief riding career a couple of years ago until I ended up ungraciously on the ground twice. Neither of us are very good at working through anxieties over riding. So, we continue on on the ground, online and at liberty. She follows me around a grassy pasture now as I do chores. She comes to greet me and our visitors with enthusiasm and curiosity in her expression. She walks, free of ropes, by my side on our 38 acres. Still I want more.

So, when I had a vet offer to treat her state of mind with herbs, the temptation was too great. What if we could “cure” the last vestige of tension left in her heart? What if this was the “key” to being able to ride her? Wouldn’t this be phenomenal? Once again, I repeat an old mistake. So many times experts promised that if we just do these few things over and over or for this amount of time or repetitions that she’ll come around. So many times I’ve succumbed to the juicy quick fix that doesn’t involve me. Still I couldn’t resist.

We started her on the herbs four days ago. A few reports from my family members came that she was acting different. I saw it but was preoccupied. Then on day three (yesterday) when I had time to engage, I found a terrifyingly different horse. She regressed, literally, all the way back to five or six years ago. She was a fire-breathing dragon that jumped at my every move. Every muscle in her body was erect. Her eyes were as hard and black as stone, and there was no light left in them. Just like that, I lost my horse. All of a sudden our relationship was gone. I was absolutely crushed. Of course, we took her off the herbs.

I lost sleep over wondering if I’d ever get my best friend back. Would I have to start all over again? Could I really, really go through it all again? This morning she still shied from me, snorted and tensed up as I walked past her. She was wishing for me to leave. Then, just like that, it all went away. Tonight she slipped back into her current day skin as if yesterday had never happened.

As we stood in the pasture side-by-side calmly watching a cinnamon colored black bear wander across our property I felt safe with her. She watched the bear with quiet curiosity. All was serene. Really, it sounds absurd, but it’s true. Bear is about turning inward and knowing the answer is within the vastness of my being while staying open to the unknown outcome. Gosh this horse has been a test. How willing am I REALLY to listen to my own guidance and to trust that I am enough? This isn’t some fairytale, this is the truth, the hard truth with real consequences. Today I am so overwhelmingly grateful that the real consequences, the real answers were so extreme and so immediate. It’s not everyday we have the opportunity to correct our course so drastically and come out unscathed. This too is a gift and I am thankful.

lil bit horse shamanism

Little Bits at a Time

In our Journey Circle today we talked about how trauma can be repeated throughout our lives. For example, I broke my left femur when I was 11 years old and I can’t say how many times I’ve re-injured my left knee or hip since then. Today, I shared how I see these kinds of patterns repeated in the lives of rescue horses. No matter how many owners the horses have in their lives, the story is the same. Some horses starve, are “rescued” and then starved by the people that rescued them, and I’m not talking one cycle of this, but repeated cycles. Other horses attract owners that aren’t experienced enough for them, and the horse gets passed on to one owner and then the next because they are considered “too dangerous”. Really the horse never has the chance to connect with humans and learn how to be around them. It is no fault of their own.

When I lived at the horse rescue a horse named Little Bit (we called her “Bits” for short) and my mare, Cherokee, were the very, very best of friends. This meant I got to know Bits very well. You see, my horse Cherokee used to be incredibly hard to catch and while I was out in the pasture taking the time it takes to catch Cherokee, Bits would follow me around, cuddle with me, and nuzzle me. Whatever rejection I felt from Cherokee was soothed by Bits’ constant presence.

Cherokee’s “Crew” from left to right: Ginger Snap, Cherokee, Star, and Little Bit. All now have forever homes.

I became so enamored with Bits that I ventured to take the relationship further by haltering her and taking her out of the pasture. That was a disaster. She’d try to run me over, bolt, and do whatever it took to get back to her herd. I was keenly aware of how far she had to go. With enough of a project in Cherokee, I never could commit to giving Bits the education she so desperately needed. So instead, I advocated for her. In fact, I worked to start an entire training program at the rescue with Bits in mind. When we had the program running I assigned her to the best trainers we had. To my chagrin she still wasn’t able to find a home. To my delight the training program continued on after I left.

Ever since moving from the rescue I’ve followed Bits’ progress and inquired about her health. For two long years she’s been in and out of training and despite the hurdle of a mild lameness issue and the relocation of her primary trainer she’s made steady progress. I had a couple opportunities to visit her in that time and she always remembered me. She’d come up to me like she always did and bury her head in my chest. It brought tears to my eyes. She was such an amazing friend to me.

This evening I learned that Bits finally has been able to move on from her past and find a great home. It’s a reminder that although we do unconsciously repeat ugly patterns in our lives that we can shift them. It may not happen as quickly as we’d like and we won’t be able to do it ourselves. We need to trust that the right people will cross our paths to help guide us along. We need to work hard, very hard, and persevere.

Today with her guidance, I remember that change happens in little “Bits” at a time and my heart swells with the memory of those warm nuzzles forward.

animal communication

Do They Speak English?

Being in the world of animal welfare as a shamanic practitioner I commonly get asked the question, “Can you talk to the horse and help him understand?”

From a shamanic point of view, the animals do not speak our language. Historically, it was the job of the shaman to learn how to speak the language of the land, the animals, the elements, and the ancestors. The shaman communed with these spirits and surrendered to their cosmic view, so she could work with them on behalf of her tribe. She learned how to communicate in metaphor and story, empathy and wonder.

Many superstitions did and still do surround the telling of the shamanic experience because shaman understood that in the telling the power may be lost. Some cultures forbid the unveiling of one’s power animal while others believe that sharing the name of one’s spirit guide can cause illness. Shaman often would act out their journeys for the whole tribe but refuse to narrate the same to anyone. The shaman was both leader and hermit. This traditional way of being must have weighed heavily on the healer, but carries some important lessons.

The spirit world is not polarized. There is no right or wrong, up or down, inside or out. It is all one. In contrast, our language is inherently polarized. Think of how many times a day you use the word “good”. When I embark on a shamanic journey I am entering into a rich, multi-layered experience that is felt and loved. I put the experience into words as a way to remember so that I can revisit the learning over and over again for deeper levels of understanding. I do this knowing that even my own words read to myself change the experience. I am taking pure white light and shining it through a faceted crystal so that I may follow the rays of color back through the crystal and into the light.

Now, consider this process in relation to another living, breathing autonomous being. When I journey to them or for them I am in the spirit world. This allows me to empathize their experience with more clarity, but I am still a human connected in part to my experience of being human. Now if I take what I experience as them during the journey and translate it into human language I am twice removed from the actual form. I am twice removed from the truth that is that being’s experience. And the being is twice removed from me.

From this standpoint, all that is being had is a hopelessly garbled conversation. Like a foreigner trying to order dinner I will first try to select a dish I think I would like from a menu I can’t read. Then, with much difficulty, gesturing and mispronunciation I will ask the waiter to confirm that I have made a good choice. Not satisfied with his answer I will order it anyway. He has the chef make what he makes everyday and what arrives on my plate is no where near what I would have guessed.

healing animal communication

The Healing That’s Offered

The piece on “Do They Speak English?” leaves the reader with a new question: “If the shaman cannot help a horse understand what can they do?”

Domestic animals live in a world full of human agenda. Before the time of domestication, animals operated solely on their own will. Now we force them into trailers and kennels. We demand they be quiet when asked. We expect them to give solace and comfort to our tired souls. In all of this work, all of this submission, they can become weary and ill.

By nature, the shamanic practitioner works from a place of no personal agenda. To conduct healing, the shaman must surrender to and direct the spirits in equal parts. It’s in the surrender that agenda must be shed. The direction given is not respected unless the agenda is released. Agenda is polarized and the spirit world is not. Mother Nature is not malicious or kind in her power. Her power just is. The spirits work in the same way.

There are many paths to healing. Each has it’s own merit, but in shamanic work the path is tailored to the patient’s truth. In this way, the animal is allowed the opportunity to regain their sense of self which is a healing on its own. The animal is treated as an autonomous being valued for who they are outside of their relationship with humans. The healing is offered to them to do with as they please. This may be the first time in their entire lives that they realize the opportunity to manifest their desires. Do they want to stay and support their human? Would they rather languish in disease? Will they stay disconnected? Are they up to the task before them?

Self realization is a powerful healing, but disperses in the first wind of the civilized world without some shoring up. This is where the next piece of the work comes into play. The shaman brings forth energy that until this point has been unavailable to the patient. Since domestic animals have so little control over their physical environment, pieces of their essence are easily lost. Their personal power is forfeited. The brilliant light of their will grows dim. The shaman seeks out this essence and brings it back into the sphere of the patient’s conscious control. In this work, the desires of the animal may shift to reflect who they truly are at the core of their being.

There are as many benefits of shamanic healing for animals as stars in the sky, and what I’ve laid out here is the groundwork. I encourage you to explore the field further. This is our opportunity to offer back the unconditional love our furry friends are so courageously infamous for.

horse leadership

On Leadership

I find it an interesting synchronicity that at this time in my life I find my perspective of leadership turned on its head. In the over 2 years I’ve known my mustang mare she has been the lead mare of her shifting herd of 15-18 mares. She has shouldered the role so gracefully that life in the pasture has been ordered but playfully choatic, friendly with a sound level of ownership. She rarely, if ever, exerts her power over the others and has been willing to let many a discretion slide. My mare is not a micro-manager or one to delegate tasks, she lets each horse fall into their natural role in the herd, and shares her time with each regardless of rank. She has continually demonstrated that leadership is not about brute force, shear power, or outright enchantment, all of which she has in excess, but about sound quiet confidence.

Now, in the last few months I’ve watched another, smaller but quicker, mustang throw the herd into a jumble and bully my mare out of her position. I’ve realized how desperately I’ve clung to Cherokee’s identity as a leader, and I’ve had to go through my own path of transformation to reframe our relationship.

Relationships are tricky, especially those we have with our animals. So frequently I see that an animal’s illness, spiritual, emotional, mental or physical, is strongly tied to the human’s circumstances. We regularly project our own stuff onto our furry friends. We commonly ask them to excuse our faults. We pursue a mirror of our strengths. This is the natural order of things. To be in relationship is to connect and share our energy, love, and life.

The problem arises when the bond we share becomes static. This stunts the growth and transformation that is primary to every living being’s path. When this happens with the humans in our lives we begin to either voice or hear a good deal of grumbling which, when not heeded, turns to outright defiance and the severing of ties. Our furry companions cannot explain to us what the problem is with language, so we start to see other symptoms. Misbehavior and noncompliance are the first signs. Physical illness or violence are the last stage.

In the case of my mare and myself, I saw immediately that the shift in her role and my strong reaction to it required a big adjustment. I could have chosen to wallow in pity and spend my hours wishing for her to regain face. Instead, I saw an opportunity. Here was my chance to direct all her freed time and energy into our work together. Since she didn’t have a herd to watch over all day, I could provide Cherokee with more play sessions to ponder and I could visit at odd times. The weather this winter has been awefully cold, but I bundled up and went out. She met me in the middle by adjusting to the strange environment of the indoor arena. We’ve had some absolutely outstanding days together and now more than ever we look forward to making contact in a new way.

Many times I’ve pursued a position of leadership in my herd of two, but never would I have wanted Cherokee to have to give up her own. I still don’t know for certain that she had to relinquish her role in her herd to accept me as her leader, but something tells me that the opportunity arose for her and she took it. Maybe she’s thinking the same of me?

Feel like evaluating your own relationship with your furry friend… Here are some great questions to get you going:

1. What roles do my animal and myself play in our relationship together?
2. How have these roles shifted over time?
3. What role(s) would I like to work towards in my relationship with my animal?
4. How might our relationship change if I shifted into those roles?
5. How can I honor who my animal is in their life apart from our relationship?