Archive for July, 2007

Dream Horse Women Interview: Alyssa Aubrey and Medicine Horse Ranch

alyssa-and-teen.jpg  The e-mail said that on Cerini Road I would pass two cattle guards and see the horse barn on the right. What it did not prepare me for was the dynamic, yet relaxed and generous horse woman I would find waiting to let me into the gate. Alyssa Aubrey welcomed me one recent July morning at Medicine Horse Ranch, a center for Equine Guided Education in Tomales, California. She greeted me with a firm handshake and strong, penetrating hazel-green eyes as she asked me why I wanted to meet and interview her. Like the well-tended horses in her life, she is curious, intuitive, and at ease with herself.

 

Alyssa Aubrey is the founder and program director of Medicine Horse Ranch, which is home to 22 horses. She runs a retirement home for horses, as well as taking in other horses to board. Her intelligent eyes light up when she talks about her twin passions: horses and teens. Alyssa is relatively new to having horses in her life fulltime, yet her competence in tending the horses is obvious. As a girl she collected dozens of horse figurines and spent hours drawing horses, but had no horses of her own. As a woman, she volunteered to work with children and teens removed from their homes to help them navigate the legal system and receive much-needed services. After doing that work in Florida, and moving to California, she began taking workshops with mentor Ariana Strozzi and became a Certified Equine Guided Educator. Since 2005 she has joined her twin loves for teens and horses through a remarkable program for at-risk adolescents.

 

Teens and Horses

 

Aubrey’s “Horse Sense for Teens” groups began when she got a call from the Novato Youth Center asking her to organize a special day for teen girls in their pregnancy prevention program. She donated her time, while others donated the space, the horses and the art materials. What began as a one-day workshop for six Novato Youth Center at-risk teen girls hosted by the Novato Horsemen Association has grown to ten two-day workshops serving 90 at-risk adolescents young women and men. Non-profit social service agencies rely on her unique training program that helps teens learn about themselves using the language of the horse.

 

Standing up to a Bully: It’s All About Congruence

 

A teen that came for a recent private session with Aubrey had dropped out of school and refused to return because she was being harassed and bullied. The young woman began her session by describing her experience of being intimidated by a fellow student.  As she relayed her story, Medicine Horse Ranch program horse Toyota walked over and began to knock his head into the girl’s shoulder, gently, but insistently. Toyota continued to “harass” her by pulling on her collar, pushing her around, and at one point even untying her shoelaces with his teeth.  The young woman was clearly irritated with the horse’s antics; her jaw tightened, her breath quickened, and her speech got tense. The young woman appeased, then pleaded with Toyota, saying, “Please don’t do that,” while simultaneously petting him on the neck.  As she continued her efforts to ‘make nice’ with the horse, the horse continued the harassment even more until finally, in complete exasperation, the teen held both hands out in front of her and yelled, “STOP IT!”  Instantly Toyota complied, dropped his head and stood quietly by her side. Until that moment, the girl’s actions were not in congruence with her intentions.

 

For the first time, by witnessing the horse’s reaction to her, and her response to his actions, the young woman could recognize that she was giving off mixed messages, which were only contributing to worsening the situation.The teen now had a reference point for the congruency needed to effect change. She had learned how to stand her ground and mean it. In just one session, under Alyssa’s firm guidance, the willing Toyota had guided the young woman to learn how to access her own personal power in a powerful form of experiential learning.  Having practiced new skills at Medicine Horse Ranch, the young woman returned to school and successfully stood up to the bully.

 

Because horses are “prey” animals (they do not eat other animals, but instead are food for various predators), they are very attuned to their environment with what has been called socio-sensual awareness. For horses, predators are easy to spot because their intentions do not match their behaviors: they are incongruent. The horse, just like an astute teen, can spot the deception easily.

 

Horses and Teens: A Winning Combination 

 

Alyssa Aubrey loves working with teens because she finds them honest, and very savvy about picking up cues from the herd. Aubrey explains that teens respond especially well to the work with the horses because much of it is in non-verbal language, and they are keen observers of the social cues around them. She finds them willing to face their fears and make positive changes. Aubrey stresses that the non-verbal nature of the work is especially effective for English language learners. In Alyssa’s previous career as a talent scout for models, she learned the importance of empowering young people.

 

Incorporating the Wisdom of Ancient Traditions

 

Alyssa Aubrey incorporates another non-verbal modality, art making, into her “Horse Sense with Teens.” The youth especially enjoy listening to rhythmic drumming, imagining their personal spirit horse, and then decorating special horse masks that they take home. Aubrey’s work has indigenous roots in ancient cultures that had rites of passage for teens going through massive changes physically, psychologically, and spiritually on their way to becoming adults.

 

Following the Call of the Horse

 

Alyssa Aubrey is passionate about her work, even as she scrambles for donations to cover the costs of the non-profit. She feels called to the work not only by the agencies that contact her, but by the horses themselves. Aubrey became very reflective as she told me how many women she has met like herself that have been inexplicably drawn into being with horses at this time on the planet. It is a calling that she and others find is hard to put into words, but it is real and compelling nonetheless.

 

Aubrey notes that since 2000, there has been a 300% increase in programs that bring humans and horses together for healing and learning purposes.  Aubrey has joined with other like-minded equine educators and practitioners as co-founder of Equine Guided Education Association (EGEA) to support practitioners to learn and share best practices. For more details about the January 2008 EGEA conference that will feature speaker Linda Kohanov and other noted equine education facilitators, see www.equineguidededucation.org.

 

Fortunately for us and the young people entrusted in her care, Alyssa Aubrey has the integrity and courage to follow her own calling, and has answered the call of the horse.

  

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Women, Horses and Freedom

Girl on a Horse

I recently read a paper written by Isabella deMoss[1]. She described her girlhood experience when placed on a retired racehorse:  

When this horse caught wind of the wide-open space ahead and took off like lightening, I instinctively crouched low and became one with the horse, pulling on the reins with as much force as my ten-year old, 50-pound self could muster. I can still feel the wind pushing at my face, sending my own waist-length ponytail sailing behind me. Terrified. Exhilarated. Afraid for my life. Free. All at the same time and wanting this feeling to last forever.  

This exhilarating experience of freedom is, as deMoss writes, frightening as well as liberating. Horses are synonymous with freedom for many of us. 

National Velvet: Freedom Inspires

Another young girl enamored with freedom is Velvet Brown, the fictional heroine of Enid Bagnold’s novel, and the 1944 film National Velvet. Velvet, played by the young violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, watches the highly-spirited Pie jump over fences, and break through constraints that would hold another horse. Although naturally shy, Velvet’s love for her steed sparks a dream of riding him in the Grand National Steeplechase Race. Just as the powerful Pie breaks through limitations, Velvet, too fights against restrictions placed upon her because of her sex, and even her own temperament.  

Runaway Bride: Freedom as Autonomy

In The Runaway Bride, the 1999 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the symbol of the horse is used throughout the movie to symbolize a woman’s freedom and autonomy. In a dream sequence from the very first scene of the movie, Roberts is seen in a wedding dress fleeing on horseback. Maggie, played by Julia Roberts, has left several bridegrooms at the altar. In the film action, Maggie is about to wed, and a big city reporter comes to her small town to witness the phenomenon of the “runaway bride.” The reporter, played by Richard Gere, is hunting for a story, and hoping that she will flee again so he can get his magazine cover article. He has previously written a newspaper column reviling her for running away from marriage which has brought her into national attention as the “Runaway Bride.”

 

Maggie is the butt of the townspeople’s jokes because of her wedding flight and apparent fright of marital commitment. The reaction of the townspeople, and the media circus attending her wedding speak to the powerful patriarchal taboo against the single childless autonomous woman who has resisted the pressure to mate and marry. As Gere interviews the previous men Maggie has left at the altar, he learns that she has adapted herself to each potential husband. Though she may not be able to articulate her fear, she is terrified of losing her authentic self to marriage and pleasing her mate.

 

The reporter and the Runaway Bride fall in love. Yet Maggie bolts from their wedding, too, even though she loves him and he has seen into her soul. She may not know why she runs from him, but until she has retrieved herself, she is unable to mate.  It is an important quest. Premature marriage would restrain her unbridled self. Maggie takes risks and forges a new artistic career for herself, which causes her to venture away from her small cloistered town, to New York where her lover lives.

 Running Away as Running To

The final movie scene returns to the bride on horseback, but this time she and her reporter bridegroom ride their own horses, denoting equal access to freedom and power. The act of running away, often perceived in western culture as an act of cowardice, is in this case a remarkable act of bravery. The runaway motif in this film is truly a running away from traditional expectations and a “running to” the authentic self.

 Women, Horses and Freedom

As the ten-year old Isabella deMoss experienced, freedom can be both liberating and frightening. Perhaps the deep attraction that so many women have to horses is a longing for the freedom to be our authentic selves without the layers of cultural expectations upon us. Freedom often involves upsetting human societal norms and expectations. And, just like Isabella, Velvet, and Maggie, we can not taste the exhilaration of freedom unless we take the risk to embrace and experience our true selves.

  


[1] deMoss, L. (2007) Horse as Healer: Touching Spirit in the Borderland. Carpinteria, CA: Unpublished paper.

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Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful

In a recent posting, a reader asked if I had read Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful. The book is a slim volume of poetry written by the amazing writer and activist Alice Walker. Indeed, I have read the book. It is a powerful collection of poems that are raw, honest, and celebrate the capacity to celebrate life and stand up against injustice and abuse.

The title of the book comes from the following quote from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Lakota holy man Lame Deer, noted in the preface:

“We had no word for the strange animal we got from the white man—the horse. So we called it šunka waken, “holy dog.” For bringing us the horse we could almost forgive you for bringing us whiskey. Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.”  

Horses do indeed make the landscape more beautiful. This quote is poignant because of course alcoholism has wreaked so much long-lasting devastation on the Native American people. White settlers, including my ancestors, also brought other diseases, violence, and the forced removal of  indigenous peoples from their tribal lands. Yet, amidst this devastation, Lame Deer honors the return of the horse to the Americas.

 Holy Dog Comes Home 

Curiously, we know that Eohippus, or Dawn Horse, the ancestor of the modern horse, lived some 58 million years ago, and originated in the forests and swamplands of North America. Especially prevalent in the Great Plains, Eohippus was only about 14 inches tall. More dog-like than horse-like, he is described as “a small graceful animal, scarcely more than a foot high with a slender face, an arched back, short neck, slender legs and a long tail, adapted for living in swamps.[1]

 Amazing Adaptation 

As swamplands dried up 18 million years ago, Eohippus adapted by developing a longer neck for grasslands, a single toe or hoof, longer legs, and eyes with almost 360˚ vision to detect predators. The ability to change food as tall grasses replaced the swamp habitat further enabled the horse to survive. Other large animals surviving the Ice Age and drastic climate changes died out because they were only able to eat certain foods that became extinct or otherwise unavailable.

Evidence suggests that descendants of Eohippus crossed the land bridge from the Great Plains to Europe and Asia. By 10,000 years ago, horses had disappeared from the United States. Ironically, the descendant of the horse that died out in the Americas, was returned to the home of its ancestors by the conquistadors and European invasions.

 Sacred Companion 

The Lakota use of “Holy Dog” to refer to horses is an interesting one, especially since its ancestor Eohippus was similar in size to a dog. Holy captures the other-worldly or spiritual nature of the horse, while dog confers the special relationship of companion. The words “Holy” and “Dog,” when put together become a sacred companion.

 Is Beauty Enough? 

Lame Deer speaks of the beauty of horses and how they enhance the landscape. Approximately fifty years ago, horses lost their jobs in transportation, agriculture, and the military in the western world. Today it is expensive and time-consuming to care for horses that are no longer of “practical” use on the farm, for transportation, or in making warfare. Yet, more and more women are becoming owners and riders of horses. Is the beauty of the horses enough to ensure their care and survival, in a culture that values youth, productivity, and usefulness? Hundreds of thousands of women are voting “yes” with their dollars, their time and their love of horses. Perhaps they are seeking a Holy Dog, a sacred companion to accompany then on life’s journeys.


[1] Ensminger, E.M. (1990) Horses and horsemanship (6th ed.) USA: Interstate, p. 3.

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