What a Horse Taught Me about Grief and Play

Posted on Nov 11, 2017

Brown horse

Earlier this month I was in sunny Pismo Beach, California, as part of Martha Beck Life Coach Training. Immediately following that event, I attended a one-day equus coaching workshop — that is, horses helping coach humans — hosted by coaches Renee Sievert and Dixie St. John. It was new, fun, and unexpectedly intense. Many of us came away from that day with aha moments. Carrie, a curly-haired woman who led a full moon ceremony for two dozen of us life-coaches-in-training by the resort pool two nights earlier, was shown that maybe there isn’t a “right way” to do anything. Mari, a quiet Scot, learned that she wants more teamwork in her life. That she’s been doing it all alone, which isn’t nearly as easy and as fun as with a tribe. I walked away with two big insights. First, because of my many encounters with animals throughout the day, I was called Snow White. (“You think you want to work with animals?” Mari laughed. “How much more of a hint could you get?”) Second, I had a breakthrough about grief and play.

At 8 AM, 20 of us sit on haystacks and plastic lawn chairs around picnic tables, surrounded by horses in barn stalls, horses in outdoor rings, and a collie running in circles. Today I want to work on reducing stress and anxiety in my job as a department head at a growing tech startup. But when it’s time to share our intentions, I’m suddenly tearing up. I say, “I don’t know why, but what’s coming up for me is losing my mom. She died 25 years ago… So, I guess my intention is to be present with this grief.” I’m not the only one suddenly moved to tears. There are stories of feeling insignificant. Of suppressing all visible emotions. One woman says she’s always been a horse person. Then, as big tears fall down her cheeks, she adds, “I haven’t spent time with any horses since my husband died four years ago.”

As we split into two groups, one with each equus coach, I am drawn to Dixie. Her thick, natural hair falls down past the small of her back. She strikes me as nurturing, though I’ve barely spoken to her. When it’s my turn for one-on-one time with a horse, Dixie asks me how I’m feeling. Outside the ring, we are surrounded by distractions — eight or nine people sitting in chairs nearby, horses trotting around rings, the ranch staff and their many dogs walking up and down the dirt road beside us — yet I feel Dixie’s full attention focused on me. Holding back tears, I tell her how I’m afraid to cry. That if I start crying, I might not stop. Acknowledging this fear and recalling the loving group of people I’m with is all it takes for me to relax and let go. I tell her how, at seven, I wasn’t able to cry. I tell her about how much I wanted to die then. As we talk, I learn that Dixie has a daughter named Mandy. She also confides in me how the losses she’s experienced parallel my own. As I’m pulling back from our big hug, a weight lifted, someone hands me a tissue. After no more than two minutes with Dixie, I’m ready to step into the ring and have fun.

First, I stand in the middle of the ring holding a rolled up long line in my right hand, the metal end in my left. With me is a beautiful chestnut horse named Panache. He has a white line down his face and a white spot on his muzzle. With a smile on my face, I jiggle the line and move around the ring, and Panache trots along to my lead. I laugh. This is fun! I feel light and playful.

At one point, he stops, turns toward me, and stares. Suddenly, I’m frozen. What is he thinking? Is he afraid? Is he angry at me?

“What’s coming up for you?” Dixie asks from beyond the metal enclosure. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

I nod.

Dixie and I talk a bit about what I’m thinking and feeling. She helps me connect my experience with Panache with the patterns of my childhood: being concerned about what the adults around me think and feel, and changing or suppressing myself in response. We talk about being playful. She says, “If your mom was here, what would you want to do with her?” She asks, “How could you be playful with the horse?” I’m stumped. What I really want to do is pet him. So, I stand in the middle of the ring, my new running shoes sinking half an inch into muddy sand, and rub the soft reddish-brown hair on his strong neck.

In the ring with my coaches, I realize that although I can’t sit with Mom at our old dining room table and draw, or lay next to her on my bed and listen to her voice change into various Berenstain Bears characters, it is within my power to create that same feeling state. Petting Panache, I am filled with a sense of love and openness. As with Dixie, I know that Panache is fully present. He’s not planning his next move or judging what I’ve just said. He’s a horse! Based on what Renee taught us this morning, he likely feels safe here next to me because the energy I’m giving off is congruent. I’m not a grieving child pretending to be ok for the sake of the adults around me. How I feel and how I let myself be is one in the same. And God, that’s a place I’ve needed to go for a long time.

The afternoon includes group work with the horses. In a larger arena set up with different obstacles — a dozen traffic cones, three barrels, a couple logs — we form a team of four people and one horse. Without talking, we have to agree on an obstacle to guide the horse through, devise a plan, and execute. My intention here? I want to go in that arena and have fun instead of needing to “do” something, to achieve a goal, to meet the high expectations I constantly set for myself. In the arena our team is in sync, easily guiding our horse behind three orange cones. He stops just short of the finish line, looking unsure of the wooden log lying across his path. Nearly laughing, I shake the long line in my right hand, silently urging him to lift his front right hoof over the log. Afterwards Coach Renee asks the observing group, “What did you notice?” Someone mentions how much fun I was clearly having. How light and joyful I looked.

Before the day ends, both Mari and Carrie tell me, “You look completely different. Softer, maybe.” I sneak off to the narrow restroom in the back of one of the barns to peak in the mirror. Wow, I think. I do look like I just got done with a month-long meditation retreat.


What I realized with my coaches (horses and humans!) that day is that grief and play continue to be linked in my life. Allowing some grief to flow through me preceded the pure and simple joy of playing. And the result was so tangible that it was noticeable in my face!

My aha? Every time I grieve a little, I make a little more space for play.