From Equine Leadership Sixth Edition

When she walked into the paddock the small bay mare slowly and carefully made her way over to gently greet the new human. Immediately the young woman’s shoulders relaxed and a bright smile lit up her face. It was the beginning of what would be a beautiful journey to healing and renewal.

grief /ɡrēf/

Noun deep sorrow

heal /hēl/


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Humans in the West tend to underestimate the power and necessity of grief to heal. Grief is related to loss. Loss is common and disrupts our lives, forces change, and creates a need to establish a new normal. Loss of a loved one, loss of a home, loss of natural habitat, loss of a dream, loss of a friend, loss of a job or business, loss of purpose, loss of love and even the loss of a false sense of self.  Allowing for the loss and experiencing grief is a natural step in the healing process, opening space to allow for joy to enter in once again.  Without taking this difficult but necessary step in the process of healing, humans can get stuck.

Trauma causes loss.  It disrupts our sense of safety which can ripple through our lives wreaking havoc, affecting health, relationships, vocation and even the ability to remain present and engaged in life.  Physiologically trauma impacts the nervous system, initiating a survival response, as was intended.  Not allowing for grief, compartmentalizing and pushing emotions and bodily sensations away disengages us from our bodies. This sense of floating in the world, lost and without purpose, can become that reoccurring nightmare that stalks our sleep and even our time awake. Restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, manic behaviors and even checking out or disassociating settle in as normal, and happiness becomes something only other people have.  All because of a fear that if grief is allowed to permeate our beings, it would stay forever.

Without authenticity and congruency from humans helping other humans, healing cannot truly occur. In order for healing to occur, brains must sense safety and allow the body to rest. This involves a slower heart rate, slower breathing, slower blood pressure and an awakening of senses such as sight, smell, touch and taste.

The presence of horses in this process, facilitates this connection to self along this journey in life to rediscover peace and joy, re-engaging our senses and awareness. Horses have a giant energy force surrounding them all of the time and a trusting interaction between beings can powerfully move humans into a space for healing. Their constant powerful presence in the moment, opening space and authentic immediate feedback serve to reconnect and restore. This physiological, emotional and spiritual experience is deeply impactful and if allowed, can shift us out of being disconnected and into our bodies to feel grief and allow it to flow through and out.  This is a natural process seen frequently in nature when animals experience trauma and loss.

For example, horses grieve.  Their lives are dependent on social interactions with one another and they are hard-wired for relationships.  When taken from their mothers, their herds, their homes or their beloved owners, there should be an expectation that they will grieve.  Wild stallions grieve the loss of mares to other stallions; while mares mourn the loss of friendships and offspring. When humans observe the grieving process of horses, they will notice that there is deep grief and then there is healing.  It is usually short-lived and powerful, yet seemingly simple to our untrained eyes. Death is part of life.  Loss is part of living.  They seem to recognize these truths and remain connected to those around them while continuing along the journey of life. They do not shy away from death, or sadness.  There is no fear associated with the recognition of the loss of life.  Only allowing; and then moving on.

One example of this necessary process of grieving loss, is the story of a young woman with a traumatic brain injury, Angee.  A young college graduate, with a bright future, she was walking home from work in her neighborhood one evening, and was struck by a truck that ran a stop sign.  The impact caused her head to strike the hood of the truck and then the momentum of the crash threw her onto the concrete 20 feet away, where her head came in contact with the concrete. She woke up in the hospital, not remembering what happened, and not knowing where she was.

Somehow this young woman fell through the cracks.  She was discharged with a severe head trauma, and no follow up care or therapy.  With the help of friends and family she regained her strength, but the damage done to her brain was done.  She struggled with memory and speech.  In addition, she struggled with loss.  Loss of memory, loss of a sense of safety, loss of trust in a system that was supposed to help her, loss of job, loss of relationships and loss of confidence in herself and her identity.

This young woman bravely made an appointment with me, four years after her accident. She was in traditional talk therapy, trying desperately to regain life and purpose.  Many would have given up, but this young lady had courage, strength and resilience that was hard to miss. With the support of her therapist, she asked for help from my horses and I, and so began Angee’s journey of healing with horses.

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Reestablishing her ability to be present in her body was the first step.  Walking slowly through the tree-covered trails, listening to the sounds of the birds singing, the breeze through the leaves and the crunch of acorns under our feet started the process. A sense of belonging and connection was necessary to establishing safety in order for her body and brain to heal.  Along with the slow process of reconnecting her body to her brain, was reconnecting her to her spirit or true essence, as well.

Leda, a 20-year-old bay quarter horse mare was the horse she chose for her journey.  This mare is a gentle and strong soul, a horse I have been blessed to partner with for 16 years.  She is honest as the day is long, gives nothing away and can sense pain in a human. She does not shy away, she moves into the pain, into the searching for peace, and carefully supports those she helps.  This time was no different.

Moving gracefully and intentionally into a space with Angee was powerful.  Immediately she felt Leda’s presence and was drawn to her.  Quiet slow grooming ensued, with nothing to disrupt the growing trust in connection. Melting into her soft coat, soft tears began to fall as grieving was finally allowed. Leda moved into her and held her and supported her through this moment, not afraid of the pain or shying away from the tears.

Learning the grief comes in waves, and that it is not ugly and destructive is a powerful lesson. As the cleansing of grief happens, and the body begins the process of slowly letting go, relaxation starts to move in and breath comes in gentle and deep.  With each breath our client stood taller and her demeanor began to shift. 

Within a few weeks this brave young woman was steadier on her feet.  Her memory was better and her speech smoother.  Angee had gained confidence and even made appointments to gain closure around her accident and the lack of follow up care.  A neurologist assured her of her progress, which was affirming and empowering. Then a new job presented itself!  

Given the progress and steady increase in strength it was time to reconnect Angee’s brain to her body.  Mindfulness work around how her body was connected to the Earth and to Leda helped immensely.  Finally, a noticeable quivering of her limbs established that her body was reconnecting itself and the sensation of connection flooded her body.  Her therapist was joyful about her progress and recommended that she continue her journey with Leda.

I firmly believe that without Leda’s calming and strong presence throughout this process, Angee would not have made the progress that she has made.  Only through the unconditional giving of healing strength by another sentient being, was she able to restore her spirit, body and mind to a place of healing and the prospect of joy, and feeling of hope for a future.

Although loss is inevitable in this life, we must move forward, never forgetting that grieving loss is necessary to heal.  Awareness of self is necessary for an open heart and mind ready to adjust to a new normal.

Today Angee is working towards a degree in nursing.  She also is passionate about supporting new parents who are struggling. Her beautiful heart and regained strength are a gift to so many.  Without taking the first step out of her comfort zone, and contacting me to work with a horse, she may not have regained the confidence to move forward and experience joy again.  Horses truly do heal.