By Sarah Van Sciver
As I exit my car I notice the unseasonable warmth on this early February day at the farm. I don my black and white wool Persian hat over the two braids in my hair but decide I can ditch my coat and get away with wearing my hooded, gray fleece. The welcomed warmth mirrors the inner thawing that has begun to occur within me during the past couple of weeks. The urge to keep painful emotions tamped down still remains but just as the winter clouds make way for the sun I, too, feel a small opening.
For the past five months, I have stayed committed to coming to a farm once a week where I have been participating in Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, a type of therapy where horses play an essential role in healing trauma. Most of these days I’ve wanted to quit and run as far as I can to escape the frightening sensations that have finally begun to loosen their hold in my body. Like placing a healing salve on an open wound, the process has been painful; bringing to light what caused the pain in the first place.
Throughout the experience, bitter and painful as it’s been, I’ve come to realize that what I fear the most is also what I crave the most: touch and true connection. As if I had a blindfold over my eyes most of my life, I never realized the constant feelings of isolation, loneliness and disconnection I experienced were due to living with unprocessed and extensive trauma. Somehow through some kind of magic, the horses have brought me face to face with this pain while simultaneously healing the broken places inside of me.
Just weeks ago, I found myself in my walk-in closet, paralyzed with fear. I had come home from a session at the farm where I had been given a peak into a presence within myself that felt like a monster and created intense fear and panic in my heart. I had tried to stuff this entity back where it came from, but it had gained leverage simply by me becoming aware of its presence. By the time I entered my closet at home, the monster had grown several sizes and I felt as though I was inside a black hole, being swallowed whole by its vacuum-like energy.
I found myself lying on the carpeted floor, feeling as if my life was being sucked dry by its cleverness. It was in these moments that I thought my only way out was to somehow destroy myself to end the suffocating pain and trauma in my body. But I couldn’t move. I was barely breathing. I didn’t have a real escape plan. Battling this force silently, I chanted to myself, “Call Mary. You need to call Mary.”
On the phone, my therapist’s voice snapped me back to reality. Bringing my focus away from desiring death, I was eventually able to find my breath, feel the bed under my body and reconnect to my life. Trembling eventually moved through my body, the signal that I had been through a traumatic event and my body was shaking off its effects.
I had been dealing with suicidal and self-harm thoughts on and off during my life, but this incident scared me to my core. I felt as if I had somehow reached an edge of a cliff and was quickly falling off the side of it. The experience shook me up, as if life itself was gripping my shoulders and looking me straight in the eye, saying, “It’s not your time to die. It’s your time to heal.” I knew that although I was terrified of what I might find if I stayed on this path, Mary and the horses had become my only hope in navigating this treacherous territory.
Today I meet Mary in the parking lot and we begin to walk towards the pastures. Once on the track, we pass by Topaz, a golden brown pony who is standing towards us on an angle, almost like a host welcoming guests to a gathering. I am tentative and nervous around him because of his history with trauma and how mine has been sprouting to the surface of my consciousness after a long nap deep under the crusty ground.
Giving me a choice, Mary asks me if I’d rather walk across the field of long brown winter grass to avoid the muddy track due to thawing snow and ice. I nod and quietly say “okay” and we enter through the wire electric fence, with me leading the way. As if on cue, my hidden emotions become stronger as I get closer to the horses. A familiar and uncomfortable sensation begins to stir within me. Images of me kicking and screaming flash over my inner vision and anger begins to swim in my veins. The urge to kick my legs furiously becomes more noticeable and I can no longer keep its voice silent. I tell Mary, “There is that feeling again. I want to kick something.” This insight is received by her and given space to just be, with her nodding and suggesting that I simply ask the anger what its message is.
We walk in silence while I chew this over in my mind. The unsettled feeling moves through my body and becomes stronger as we approach the far end of the field. Josh, a huge brown horse with a white stripe down his face is gently resting his huge body upon the cool winter earth. The sky is covered with a soft winter blanket of clouds behind him. His legs are tucked under to the side of him and I am facing the area of his chest where his heart resides. He is bundled up in his long winter coat and he looks soft and fuzzy.
The anger stays constant and the urge to kick levels out rather than intensifies. Josh’s quiet and peaceful demeanor has not changed since arriving about ten feet from him. He feels to me like a meditating yogi who we’ve finally reached after a long trek. He is completely aware of my presence and my inner state yet unfazed by the fact that volatile anger is swimming within me. While my emotions percolate, I begin to feel awe of this great animal, so large and mighty, yet sitting so coolly in front of us. His demeanor is contagious and the angry ripples within my belly begin to mix with the butterflies of vulnerability.
I am intrigued and decide to crouch down next to him about four feet from his chest. I am transfixed by his presence while anger beats against me like a drum. Many moments pass. Stillness begins to move through my body. The power of Josh’s unconditional acceptance and empathy validates the emotions that I feel in this moment and have been pushing away for years. This template begins to be written over my body and helps me understand that the incidences of abuse I experienced warranted anger. Somehow through this exchange, the energy within me is given a doorway to exit rather than being locked up inside my body.
Josh shifts and I can feel the movement before he heaves his body up into an upright position, standing on all fours again. His enormous body towers over me. Mary reminds me to breathe deeper which helps to absorb what just occurred. After several moments I cannot help but follow him and I end up standing next to him near his shoulder. Our connection has opened my heart which increases the feeling of vulnerability in my belly. He reaches his neck around me as if hugging me and before I know it, I am lost in his eye looking straight at me. Everything around us melts away and I feel as though I have stepped into a different realm.
The connection I feel is more intimate and amazing than anything I’ve experienced with another human being before. Whereas I have always felt guarded and detached to some degree with people, I have put my shield down with Josh. But after a several moments I’ve reached my limit and pull away, trying to find my breath. My body is unable to maintain the closeness and I collapse onto the grass, shaking and trembling. New synapses are being born in my brain and my nervous system is changing, slowly replacing old wiring that associates touch with pain.
After the shaking subsides, I am able to stand up again and walk with Mary across the open field. Even though I say, “That was amazing,” we both agree it doesn’t begin to cover or explain what I have experienced. I don’t have words; all I can do is feel the imprint this experience has left on my heart. A feeling of awe and joy emerges as I drive home, realizing that the love and connection I have been searching for has been hidden on the very Earth that I’ve been trying to leave.
Sarah Van Sciver is a freelance writer, artist, mother, personal chef and a FEEL practitioner residing in Baltimore, MD. Her passion for writing stems from the healing and recovery from PTSD she has experienced through working with horses. She is currently working on a memoir about the healing effects horses have on humans who experience trauma. For more information about Equine Faciliated Psychotherapy, please visit https://www.greatstrides.org/. Sarah can be found on instagram.