In this excerpt from It’s Not About the Food I share a story about the surprising thing I learned at an Equus training and how it impacts the drive to overeat.
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Transcript of this episode
It is early autumn 2014 and I’m standing in a covered outdoor riding arena. Beyond the open walls I can see the California sunshine warming the desert landscape. Here inside, it’s a bit chilly in the early morning, and I’m wishing I’d worn a light jacket.
The arena is huge, probably nearly the length of a football field and almost as wide. The ground is covered in brown dirt, and where the sun comes past the walls into the building, I can see dust motes floating in the beams. Within the larger arena, there’s a temporary round pen that’s about 40 feet in diameter. I’m inside that pen and I’m not alone. With me is a brown and white horse, whose name I didn’t catch, and we’re going to spend the next few minutes bonding.
I’m here at ‘horsey camp,’ as I call it, in my latest attempt to try to heal the drive to overeat. I’ve flown from Vancouver, British Columbia, to very Southern California and spent money I don’t have in order to spend two days doing what’s called Equus training.
I love horses and grew up around them. My dad started me taking riding lessons when I was about four years old. So this is a comfortable and happy place for me. However, we’re not doing any riding this weekend. I and the other ten or so women in the class will all be doing our work from the ground. Which is why I’m standing in the round pen with a paint horse.
Over the next two days, we all take turns in the round pen with a variety of horses. The premise of the training is that we’re going to learn about ourselves by being in the pen with a horse, both by seeing how we react to different situations and also by seeing how the horses react to us. Horses are highly intuitive and sensitive creatures. Though they are large, they are prey animals, not predators, so they’ve evolved to be keenly sensitive to their environments and to changes in the energy around them. As such, they give immediate feedback about a person’s state of being, often pointing out patterns of behavior that we aren’t aware of.
The objective of the first exercise we do is to get the horse to trot, or canter, around the outside edge of the round pen. Individual trainees like me stand in the very center of the pen and encourage the horse to move without shouting or running at it. You might have a coiled lead rope in one hand that you can gently slap against your leg, but that’s all the guidance you can give to the large animal looking at you with wary eyes. You’re essentially moving the horse with your energy. Letting it know what you want it to do by holding the intention in your mind and being clear and calm. (We’ll get to why calmness matters in a minute.)
I’ve traveled to this foreign land, crossed an international boundary, rented a car, and booked a hotel with the hope that this silent, brown and white animal with pointy ears and a soft muzzle will show me what’s wrong with me. I want to know why I feel so broken inside and why, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to conquer the drive to overeat.
The horse and I look at one another for a few moments while I receive instruction from the workshop trainer. Outside the round pen, my fellow workshop participants are watching, which is really uncomfortable for me. I hate being the center of attention.
The workshop leader, Jill (not her real name), lets me know I can start anytime. I picture in my mind what I want to happen, gently flap the lead rope against my jeans, and make a clucking sound with my tongue. The horse starts to move, trotting counterclockwise around the pen.
After a few moments, Jill says, “Get her to canter,” so I hold that intention in my mind and, miraculously, the horse starts to canter.
I can feel the connection between me and the horse. My self-consciousness about being watched disappears and my attention is entirely focused on the present moment, here, in this round pen with this brown and white horse.
“Now make her turn around so she’s going in the other direction,” Jill says.
I keep my energy at the center of myself (I’m not sure how else to describe this), step ever so slightly to my left, and imagine the horse turning around and running in the other direction.
And it does.
“Now slow her down.”
I calm my energy down, sort of like pulling a blind down over a sunny window, and the horse slows down from its canter to a trot, then a walk.
“Excellent,” Jill says. “How was that for you?”
I turn my back on the horse and look through the bars of the round pen at Jill and the others who are standing in the dirt outside it. I can hear the horse coming up behind me and eventually it comes to stand beside my right shoulder as I describe what the experience was like for me. I turn slightly and place my hand on the horse’s withers while I speak. Someone in the group takes a photo of me and the paint horse, and to this day, I have that image pinned to my fridge.
As I said, I grew up around horses, but this experience was entirely different than saddling and unsaddling, walking, trotting, and cantering (heels down!), and jumping over little rails. There was more connection between me and that brown and white gelding in those 20 minutes than there had ever been with any of the horses I’d ridden as a child and teenager.
And yet, I leave the weekend disappointed.
I get to spend a couple more sessions in the round pen with different horses over the course of the weekend and each time it is as effortless and powerful as the first time. Others in the group have different experiences, and several have big, cathartic moments that are akin to a breakthrough in therapy, except they do it standing on a dirt floor and sobbing into the neck of a doe-eyed gelding or mare. I don’t experience this. I don’t come any closer to understanding why I feel the drive to overeat, and I leave the weekend grateful for the experience but very sad. I had wanted to be fixed. Surely spending all that money and traveling all that way would have resulted in some sort of healing awareness. But it didn’t.
I do learn one thing, though, that sticks with me from then on, and it is this. Every wild horse herd has a lead mare. It is her responsibility to guide the herd to good grazing areas and to sources of water. She will also alert the herd to signs of danger. And the most interesting thing about a lead mare is that she is not necessarily the toughest animal in the herd; she’s not necessarily the strongest, fastest, or biggest. She’s the calmest.
Now, if you’re an equine biologist you might dispute the veracity of this claim, but I love this as a metaphor. It points to the idea that being calm serves us.
This little nugget of information stays with me in the years leading away from that workshop, popping into my head every once in a while. And once I discover the inside-out understanding, I will see how it is a helpful metaphor for our human experience and for healing the drive to overeat.