Love is born from a great, vulnerable daring “YES,” after an unbearable silence.
~ Michael Xavier
Gypsy Spirt Outpost, Leaves and Lizards Eponaquest Adventure, Arenal, Costa Rica with Shelley Rosenberg
There are three main values that we hold in the work of Eponaquest. (Footnote: 1)
1. Congruency over conformity.
2. Authenticity over perfection.
3. Adaptability and Inquisitiveness over methodology.
These values have always been a part of my work as a facilitator, but when I went through the Eponaquest instructor training, I came to understand that it is also how I have come to live my life as a sober person. Living life on life’s terms is not an easy task. If we were all honest enough to tell the truth, we might all agree, that most of us are addicted to something and distracting ourselves from feelings of any kind has become a cultural art form.
What we fail to understand is that feelings-although painful at times-won’t kill us. They actually have the capacity to enhance and transform our lives! It’s kind of an oxymoron.
One of the emotions we invite our clients to experience with horses is vulnerability. When people hear this word, I generally witness the deer in the headlights look of terror and hear this phrase, “Vulnerability! Are you kidding me, if I show vulnerability, I will be annihilated!” This voice is what we call the conditioned self. It’s what we’ve been acculturated to believe. Vulnerability = Weakness and sadly it’s the exact opposite of the truth.
Vulnerability leads to authenticity. It’s not about slaying ourselves open and exposing ourselves to harm, it’s really about the willingness to feel the truth of what lives inside us.
It’s important to understand that whatever we attempt to mask or control, the horses will read because as prey animals, they have finely tuned radar devices to keep them alive, so they become living and breathing bio-feedback mechanisms and as such, help us become truly authentic, passionate human beings. What we learn through them is honesty. It’s much healthier to simply say, “I am scared shit,” so we can move through the emotion and become congruent. This is the gift of emotional agility and it’s how we become more horselike.
For me healthy vulnerability has become the willingness to suit up, lean into fear, be willing to fail and most importantly, as needed, be able laugh at myself in the process.
You see I am also a recovering perfectionist and as such, my modus operandi (MO) in my early years, was that I was unwilling to try anything new, because I feared failing and the feelings of shame that come with that experience or in an effort to create a false sense of courage, I drank and drugged my way through them. The educational system only reinforced this as I was a child with undiagnosed learning issues. Through my personal creative process and the time I’ve spent with the horses and DreamWeaver Sunday, I have come to understand how this way of being keeps us incredibly small. It was during my year-long trailer adventure in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, which inspired my classes and eventually my book, that the Gyspy was unleashed and I knew that I could no longer put the lid back on the box. It was during that road trip with my ex, that I uncovered and discovered my true, authentic SELF and there was no going back to the old way-the mask of perfection.
In Costa Rica, my small group spent time in the Vinculo barn. We were told that Vinculo means relationship and an inexplainable bond. As I stood in the arena with Negro that first day, attempting an Eponaquest activity I had done-what felt like-hundreds of times before, nothing I attempted to communicate, was clear to Negro. Or so I wanted to believe. Remember…horse as mirror. Horse as metaphor. They give us exactly what we need, whether we want to see it or not.
I was having a split screen moment, the authentic self, understood that this was a horse who had never done this activity and felt a sense of excitement and calm and the false self (my Venomous Toad Committee) was screaming, “YOU ARE AN INSTRUCTOR, you SHOULD know how to do this and you’re failing miserably in front of the entire group and your mentor, get it together”
It’s just this kind of thing that sends a very convoluted message to the horse, which can put them over the edge, which is pretty much what happened for both Negro and me and as I’ve come to understand…”It isn’t about the horse!” What was needed in the moment was for me to “get BIG,” aka dominant, which is absolutely NOT my forte. In my eyes, I felt like I was already hugely upping my internal dominant, for Negro, not so much. And suddenly there I was in the midst of a horrific shame attack.
It happens that fast. I can go from a confident adult woman, to feelings of abject mortification in the blink of an eye…still!
At dinner that night I spoke with Shelley about my feelings. I then asked Debbie (the owner) and Sally, another Eponaquest instructor, who had worked with me that day, and who recently made a huge courageous life leap and moved to Costa Rica to join Leaves and Lizards, if they would support me in working with Negro, before breakfast the next day, because my intuition was that he was not being “stubborn,” but as a new member of the herd, he did not understand what I was asking him.
We met in the arena at 7am. and Debbie suggested that instead of Negro, I work with a mature dominant in her herd, a small but mighty, little Criollo horse named Espartaco (Spartucus) who I nicknamed Taco. Debbie felt Espartaco could better support this particular learning experience. All I heard was the word,” DOMINANT.” “Oh great, another F’ing challenge, I thought this was a vacation!!!”–I said to no one but myself. Really??? The night before I spent some time with my journal processing the experience with Negro, in an effort to go back to the Neutral Zone and re-embody my true self. I wrote and created an expressive arts piece and was able to get to some pretty big personal insights.
The next morning, I was able to share openly (vulnerably) with Debbie and Sally, what had surfaced for me during my experience with Negro and what I had uncovered processing the experience on my own. As we finished our conversation and I was ready to begin the activity, Shelley walked down to the arena. I felt my conditioned self attempt to shove it’s way into my head, “Oh, look your mentor has arrived, you better get this right!” It’s exactly this kind of experience that would have shut me down in the past and caused me to quit—and drink. In the moment I had an awareness, Shelley was not judging me, no one was! I was judging mySELF! We project what we want to protect.
I promptly took a deep breath and said to my hideous internal Toad, “No more perfectionism, I’m going to give this my best shot without your critical voice!” This was a moment of growth and self-love.
Debbie’s choice to work with Spartacus was brilliant. He was challenging enough not to be a push over, yet gentle enough to help me stay in my body to support the internal shift that was in need of healing. He truly embodied what the role of a mature dominant leader. On our first day, Shelley told us that “No is a complete sentence,” so I pulled the lifeline cord and asked to ride Spartacus for our first excursion to the waterfall. This “ask” in itself was a major victory. The willingness to risk what I perceived as losing face in front of my peers, my teachers and my fellow participants and asking for what I truly wanted, was BIG. Why? Because it is truly believed that the horse that chooses you-Negro-is the horse you are meant to be with, I was requesting an experience with another horse.
Big growth experience Number 2: I asked for help and what I needed to feel safe in the moment.