Our Dominion Delusion

Teacher and Student

Teacher and Student

Teacher & Student

He’s clear about his parameters. I feel my smallness when he soars. He eyes my thumbs, then shows me the dexterity and strength of his talons and beak. We laugh at reality.

He suggests a zoom lens. He’s right. Boundaries work.

What else works when we endeavor to learn from wildlife and companion animals? Mindfulness is the skill that crosses all species’ boundaries. Respect and mindfulness are the most effective skills we can apply here. Dad Raven is clear about his parameters. He shows me through his behavior when he wants to relate and what distance.

He always opts to connect when I’m fully present to our shared moments. When I lay down my human mantle, with all its control buttons, and attend to the feel of the air moving across my face, the variations in fragrance and temperature as it wafts by, the sounds filling our shared moment, he let’s go of its apprehension. I let go of mine. For those moments, we’re just two beings enjoying or contending with Life.

Most critters live in that state of mind. We probably used to too. Human literature and our spiritual traditions across time and geography are replete with references to the importance of this state of consciousness. It’s been associated with the development of virtue and wisdom cross culturally for millennia.

When I sit before the ravens, or any other critter, and shift my internal dialogue from thoughts to the here and now of Life, we connect. They appear to be as curious about me as I am of them. They show me their boundaries. I show them mine. We agree on our safe distance. Before long, we begin to sense-feel one another. It’s the most welcoming feeling I know of. I’ve yet to meet a critter who hasn’t been receptive to this.

Doing this for even a few minutes a day changes us humans. It makes us more resilient to stress, among other benefits. These days, what could be more valuable than increasing our ability to metabolize stress instead of being at its effect? The opportunities to do this are endless.


Going to the Birds

Do you long to connect with wildlife? Maybe the wild critter in you is asking for like-minded companionship. That calling in me has escalated during the political crises that have defined our human zone in the States for the last couple of years.

My daily practice includes a stroll around Bodega Bay Head. It’s chuck full of wildlife. Birds are its most obvious residents and part-time guests. The ubiquitous bunnies and gophers feed many of them. Access to the harbor, bay and Pacific Ocean provides gluts of seafood for those so inclined. Great Blue Heron, Egrets and Ravens and Great Horned Owls are year-round residents, countless others drop in for a season or two annually.

This year, Life has blossomed here. A five-year drought broke last winter. A couple of extra feet of water were bestowed on our life-support system. Apparently, this tripped a baby-making trigger. Our resident raven couple had their first brood in six years. They had three beautiful babies, who have already grown into aerial acrobats. Their mom and dad take them on hunting excursions around the park and village several times a day.

Back in March, before Mom and Dad Raven had their eggs, Momma Raven broke a leg. It dangled crookedly below her belly when she flew. Her flights reflected her distress. They were short, business like, instead of her usual displays of aerial wizardry. Some of her feathers looked discombobulated. Back then, I didn’t know that she was about to brood. It looked like she was about to die. Then, I didn’t see her for about six weeks. I thought it likely that she had succumbed to her injuries.

For the next several weeks, her husband established a routine of what looked like compulsive hunting and flying to their nest among a group of Cypress trees. I now know that he was feeding her while she brooded. Later, he was feeding three chicks too. So much for my hypothesis that he was in the throes of a grief reaction.

I got my first glimpse of the babies and their mom a few weeks ago. Mom looked seriously haggard, but her flight seemed smoother as did her feathers. She looked like a woman who had just spent a couple of months trapped alone with three toddlers. My heart went out to her. She reciprocated by swooping over me, landing a couple of feet away and doing a little jig. When she had finished, she flew to the perch her husband was on and touched his beak with hers. The gesture was every bit as tender as any kiss I’ve shared.

Since then, I’ve been bringing a bag of peanuts along on my morning walks. Now, their kids usually spot my car and accompany me part of the way between my home and theirs. I don’t have words for how good this feels. The only equivalent high I’ve experienced is having a band of horses race across their pasture to greet me. If there’s a better feeling available on this plane, I haven’t experienced it.

It transcends true love! It beats that moment when you finally understand a concept that you’ve struggled with for years, or perfect a recipe, or reconnect with a long-lost friend. It’s truly the bee’s knees. Why? I think this feels so good because we humans need it so much.

We’ve designed our world to minimize contact with real life based on our fears. In so doing, we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained. In this moment of geo-political crises, what we humans need most is to reconnect with real Life. I offer you a bit of mine in the hope that it’ll inspire you to share a bit of yours.


What If We Kept Horses as Spiritual Guides, Teachers and Psychotherapists?

I left the competitive horse world in my mid-twenties, once I figured out that the more successful horses and riders became, the crazier they got. The horses I loved and worked with did the impossible for me day after day. In the world I inhabited, horses who weren’t great athletes wound up in dog food cans. There was tremendous pressure to make sure that those who passed through my hands found a niche in a performance specialty. Their lives depended on it.

The problem is that horses were not designed to live like hot-house flowers. They’re set up to move about eighteen hours a day among a small band of friends and family foraging for a variety of delicacies. Performance horses in the fifties and sixties lived in box stalls, usually about 12 X 12-feet. Their diets had little to do with what nature intended. Denied social bonding, a wholesome diet and freedom of movement, horses get nutty. They become overly dependent on their human handlers for everything. It’s a sick relationship based on a healthy calling to bond with another species.

The people caught up in performance specialties don’t seem to fare much better than the horses. Most appear to get into it because of a profound calling to horses. It seems to take Nano-seconds for highly motivated humans to turn into pathological control freaks in performance specialty realms. I became obsessed with figuring out why.

That led to a graduate program in clinical psychology. I began to learn what made people tick. It was a fruitful time. I met my soul mate, who turned out to be a dog guy. I also developed what turned into a life-long fascination with how relationships work. What makes some marriages and families function well and messes up others? How does one person’s psychopathology affect that of others in his or her life? What sorts of relationships mitigate the damaging effects of chronic mental illnesses?

Being a born critter person, I naturally explored animals as potential helpers for those who suffered from what eventually became known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My first informal dog trial worked beautifully. Within a couple of months, I worked out a loose protocol employing my dogs in my clinical practice, which at the time was office based. I quickly turned it into a home-visit practice, which just as quickly morphed into a practice primarily run out of our home. If a patient had animals at home, that’s where we worked. If not, or if the patient was too distracted at home, we worked in the setting my dogs were the most comfortable with.

Countless patients whose brains had been hijacked by unspeakable trauma found their way back through the delighted grins of dogs who were genuinely happy to see them. They practiced holding paws, throwing sticks and trotting down woodland trails behind wagging tails. While they did that, their brains re-wired their happy to enthusiastic greetings, eye contact, and giving joy to another. Mindfulness training happened in the context of Life. Gradually, the humans re-established a sense of confidence in their abilities to make authentic and safe relationships. Then, they practiced these newly reintegrated skills on the people in their lives. And, they’re off…

Whoopee, I knew how to treat an untreatable disease without psychotropic pharmaceuticals. It worked. My practice perpetually over flowed. Life was good. I thought about horses often, but usually with a sigh of relief for having escaped the craziness of the performance world. There was a longing for them though. I dreamed of them nightly. That never went away.

Life took another sharp turn after my husband died. His death coincided with that of the last of the golden retrievers who had lived and worked with us for a quarter of a century. I was bereft. Then, my beautiful mountainside property began to slide. What the …?

I moved 120-miles north with my one surviving cat. A property on the Northern California coast called me. I went. Eventually, I met a woman who was seriously horse crazy. We became partners in an herbal business. She nagged me about her burning calling to be among horses. Life happened.

She dragged me out to look at a horse she thought was perfect. What I saw was a lame, traumatized three-year old Walker whose mouth was shredded, his back was tender in four areas and his feet were misshapen from ridiculous trimming. I was horrified for that poor horse and bought him for her on the spot.

We all have crazy moments. That was a big one for me. I thought she knew about horses. She told me she did. I was in such a state of shock by beholding that poor, young horse, that in the moment, I hadn’t been quick enough to process that my partner didn’t really have a clue. Well, she was about to learn. And I have to hand it to her, she dug in and learned. She learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. We quickly began to challenge one another to grow our respective equine skill sets.

My partner taught me to be far less compulsive about “training” and far more attentive to mood. I came up in a world in which performance was the gold standard by which all horses’ value was measured. We quickly wound up with three profoundly compromised young horses. My job became figuring out how to give them viable lives in a world that still valued horses primarily for their athleticism.

None of these horses was ever going to become blue ribbon athletes. I felt frantic while the partner was amassing wounded horses. She found them, but I kept being the one who had to pay for their upkeep. It strained our relationship mightily. I also pushed me to discover the wild world of equine guided, assisted and facilitated learning and psychotherapy. It dovetailed beautifully with what I had been doing with dogs. The holistic approach through horses worked even better and faster than that with dogs and cats.


It turned out that during my years of treating people with dogs, there was a whole movement of people doing similar work with horses. I was ecstatic. I had finally made my way back home, through an extremely problematic partnership.

I hadn’t looked in the literature for information on treating mental health issues with horses until I accidentally shared a moment with a border at the ranch where we kept our little band. It was a lovely summer evening. I was on my way to visit with our two mares who were enjoying the dusk in  a back pasture. As I passed the darkened and perpetually dank indoor arena, I heard an odd chirping coming from the back. I paused and peered into the darkness. Now highly pitched words were mixed among the chirps.

First, I thought that it was a migrating bird I hadn’t yet encountered. When words arrived in the same timbre, I was intrigued. This was a curiosity that I couldn’t pass up. I leaned into the front gate of the arena. There was movement back there, but I still couldn’t see much.

“Are you okay?” My query was met with more chirping. I went in awash in curiosity. What I found still makes me chuckle.

In the far back corner of the arena was one very patient, elderly horse standing about twelve feet away from one morbidly obese middle-aged man with a grin from ear-to-ear and a huge western saddle laying catty-whompus in the sand footing between them. I asked the man how it was going. He said, “It’s fantastic! I’ve never been better in my life.”

I looked quizzically at him, the horse and the saddle. “How so?”

The man flung his hands above his head and did a little dance. Of course, the horse backed itself into the far back corner when he did that. The man  didn’t seem to notice. He was carried away by bliss.

I asked him what he was trying to do. He said, “When I came today, I thought that I was going to try out this new saddle.” He looked at the forlorn hunk of leather and fittings sprawled across the sand. Then he waved toward the horse. “He doesn’t like it.”

I looked over at the horse. He was a beautifully conformed quarter horse that looked to be about eighteen years old. “Is he yours?”

“He sure is!” The look of pride and satisfaction on the man’s face could have lit the Vatican.

“He’s beautiful. How long have you had him?”

“Three days, he said. Every word that came out of his mouth had an exclamation mark attached. I’ve rarely encountered humans who can hold onto a sense of excitement that long. It was contagious. I was excited for him and a bit scared for his lovely, old horse.

“He’s a really nice horse. He’ll make you a great friend, if you figure out how to be with him. He’s trying to figure out you as much as you are him. You might want to work with him from the ground for a while before you try to ride him. Horses are like women. You can’t rush them.”

The man’s face flushed. “Really? I thought he was getting bored and I had to ride him to keep him fit.”

“That’s not been my experience with horses. The slow way around gets you home safe and sound. What is it that you like about being with your horse?”

He sighed and then his out-sized grin flashed across his face. “When we’re together, that’s where my head is. It’s right here right now. That never happens to me. I’m always thinking, worrying about work and home. You know, life. Here, hours go by and they feel like seconds. I’m totally engaged here.”

It was in that moment that I got what it was that the dogs had done for my earlier patients, the horses did too, only faster and smoother. The “it” was mindfulness training. Being in the presence of someone from a different species requires us to be more present and engaged. When that being outweighs us by ten times, the imperative becomes even more compelling.

To develop and maintain effective boundaries with someone that much bigger requires us to pay attention differently than we do in our human-constructed worlds. That focuses our attention fully in the now by shutting down the internal dialogue that most of us spend most of our lives engaged in. There is nothing more freeing for the human psyche.

When our internal dialogues quiet down, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, our brains become more agile. New and more complex pathways appear in our nervous systems. These build in resilience into our neuronal nets. And, it feels great. We want more from our first taste.

It’s also what calms horses and all the critters that I’ve tried it on so far, including humans. When our nervous systems focus on now by dropping that internal dialogue, critters easily connect with us. It’s like the static on our channel clears.

Most domesticated animals zoom into the link the second it manifests, unless they sense something off. Their bodies show us, once we get hip to what it looks like. An authentic connection is heralded by a release of tension.

That may look like a yawn or a shake and roll or even just a tiny quiver. A release happens in the human too. Sometimes it’s subtle. Others, it’s more intense. It looks like both systems are recalibrating when they hit the link. Once it’s secure, the channel seems to open a river of information flowing between the human and critter. The critter may relax, knowing that they’ve discovered a safe spot. It can go other ways though. We have to be ready for anything.

When horses sense something scary in the human, they may react. The good news about that is that it invites people to delve deeper into their issues. The horses will guide them, if they’re astute enough to listen, into healthier realms.

Those lucky enough to have horses in their lives now have options to develop this aspect of their horsemanship. Regardless of what else you and your horse do together, developing a Mindfulness practice with the animal will give you far better communication.

When I was a youngster, there were few trainers around who got that. I was lucky enough to have spent several years with a classical dressage trainer early on. He had a life-long mindfulness practice, which he certainly did not think of as such. It informed his life though. That was enough for me to get the importance of how I used my attention. There are few greater gifts.

Life among horses is a gift. It requires dedication to provide horse-happy life-long homes for a band of equines. Well-kept horses live around thirty-five years. Large tracts of land suitable for horses are expensive or very far flung. It’s far easier to stable horses at local boarding facilities. The potential problems associated with that can suck the vitality out of our connections with our horses though.

When we board them out, they’re at the effect of whoever manages the property. Some folks who hold those positions are magnificently evolved in their approaches, some talk a better game than they can deliver and others are still stuck in their own unexamined dominion delusions. Most have a sprinkling of all three issues at play.

Human minds are big and complex. A lot can go wrong with them. They take loads of maintenance to keep healthy. Cultural mores have a huge effect on our mental and physical health. We have been enculturated to believe that critter lives are resources, not sentient beings. Most of us who live and/or work with critters get some of those edges smoothed out through our relationships with them. Some don’t.

The enormity of the commitment we’re taking on when we take responsibility for a horse or a band of them is beyond words. Caring for them appropriately and having a reasonably functional human life carries thousands of challenges. I’m beginning to develop some ideas for new ways we humans might think about structuring and managing horse-human facilities and ownership models. Can we even, in good conscience, own an animal?

I loved when we began to refer to our pets as companions. Now, it’s time to make the next step. How about looking at animals with whom we share our lives as our teachers, coaches or spiritual guides? Might their homes evolve into our spiritual gathering places, schools or clinics? Might the kinship of fellow horse women and men bind us together to see to the care of a herd comprised of several bands brought together on a large tract of land? Several resident caretakers can provide for the horses needs on site either simultaneously or sequentially, so long as a couple of humans are consistently there.

With holistically kept horses hanging around, there’s going to be healing and growth. These can be a bumpy businesses. It would be great to build into horse properties models for ways people can peacefully resolve conflicts with the help of the herd.

Horses are splendid conflict resolution models. They seem to get it when negotiations are underway between humans. When the humans are functional members of their band, they can get on purpose about helping to resolve upsets. When one or more of the humans also has some group skills, issues that can rip apart families and partnerships can be noted and addressed before they morph into disasters.

That healing can be extended into the larger community of man. Economically, the setup could generate self-sustaining income by inviting folks to the site for a variety of opportunities to play and work with horses in their worlds. The more people who experience mindfulness training from horses, the better.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve talked with loads of women about their issues with keeping their horses. I lost mine to my partner when we went our separate ways. The recent economic collapse was super tough on horses and their humans. I think that we can do better than the private ownership model. When one person or family is obligated to cover the whole deal, any life change can endanger their horses. Sometimes it takes their lives. Often, that beats the alternatives. We can do better than this.

I write this as we, in the States are enduring a seismic shift among our policy makers. Life is changing. In this moment, those changes aren’t looking good for life on earth. In our hierarchal-designed human world, this sort of change is hardest on those at the bottom of the pecking order, which is where animals are. Domesticated and wild critters will have a tough path ahead. More horses and their humans may join the ranks of those schlepping over hill and dale in search of their next haven. I fervently hope that they find them. In the meantime, let’s open some space to imagine a third way.

The gentleman I stumbled on in the arena would have benefitted from being coached by a good holistic horse practitioner as he began to learn about his new horse. So could his horse. At that facility, there wasn’t anyone on site who had that role. I’ve never been on any horse site at which the humans didn’t need more wrangling than the horses.

Boarding facilities are often problematic for the horses’ humans too. There’s usually a lot of judgments flying around. Cliques are common. People have different ideas on how horses should be kept. Often, everybody thinks they’re right, so everybody else must be wrong. The reasons for others’ wrongness is often examined in detail. Stables can be like junior high school on a social level.

My guess is that this tendency has more to do with the inherent competitiveness involved in performance specialties than the horses. Performance specialties can only exist in a left-hemisphere-dominant mindset. I view it as a symptom of our culturally reinforced Dominion Delusion. Regular time among horses in a holistic setting with other humans who are practicing relating with them as teachers, spiritual guides and counselors fixes this mental imbalance. We need that now.


Horse-Crazy Humans

I was a horse-crazy kid, and still am. At the time, which was more than sixty years ago, this was a common appellation for children who just couldn’t get enough of them. I discovered that this wasn’t unique to me when my dad took me for a pony ride at an equestrian’s teaching/training stable when I was three. I met Jimmy, who was as couple of years older. We instantly recognized each other. At least for those years, we had found a home that worked for us.

We shared a profound bond: an unremitting calling to be among horses. As we grew, neither of us cared much whether we were mucking out, cleaning water troughs, stacking or feeding hay, turning out horses or bringing them in, grooming, hot walking or training. We just wanted to share the air they were breathing. To our olfactory systems, their fragrance was perfume. Their greeting nickers were auditory love letters and leaning into their shoulders, a full-body hug. Horses were home. We were magnetized to their magnificence.

I’ve met others who were powerfully called to horses. Those that I think of as horse-crazy have an energetic pipeline to the equine world. They populate our conscious thoughts and dreams. Their images fill our mind screens when the class or workroom clocks seem to be going backwards. This seems to happen whether we have access to horses or not. Have you known young girls who shun dolls for horse figurines, photos, books and movies? Have you known adults who adorn their desks, cars or homes with horsey décor?

Most horse-crazy humans are women or girls. We are represented in every ethnicity and class. So far as I can tell, this connection never goes away, though it’s not always actualized in ordinary reality.

A non-ordinary reality connection is just as valid. We just have a harder time giving it credence. This is one of the lessons horses teach us, when we’re astute enough to listen. To those horse-crazy humans unable to fit their lives onto an ordinary reality horse trail, don’t despair. Horses are great at energetic connections with those called to their teachings. You may just need a bit of human support to get your linkage working.

What’s it’s source? My guess is that this powerful bond is connected to the fact that we shared stem-parents with horses fifty-six-million-years ago. Neuroscientists recently discovered that we humans, and probably other critters, pass information, including familial memories, through our gene codes. Could some of us be tapped into those way-back genetically-encoded memes of our interdependency? That’s my working hypothesis, though I’m not sure that the cause is as important as the calling.


The drive to actualize this bond is immense. It often manifests like a compulsion in young girls and women. Pre-menopausal hormonal changes appear to trigger its manifestation in some. Maybe there’s an hormonal link. Men sometimes carry the calling too. I’ve known fewer, but have a couple of notables among my lifetime acquaintances.

These people have to express their bond. As a child, I noticed that other children who were sent to the stable for riding lessons came mostly at the behest of their parents, who wanted them to develop confidence, leadership skills, a sense of responsibility or social bonds among the children of high-status families. Those kids enjoyed themselves and liked the animals, but they weren’t consumed by a need to be there. When school or social activities interfered with their days at the farm, they didn’t come. Once beset by the hormonal changes of adolescence, they disappeared. The horse-crazy kids always came because nothing compared to their need to be there. We were there for nothing less than to meet our destinies.

What’s a Parent of a Horse-Crazy Child to Do?

There are a lot of choices available to parents of horse-crazy kids. They each have consequences. Some are great and others aren’t. Your choice in coaches-trainers and settings may well wind up being determining factors in your child’s development. There are a lot of operant variables to juggle.

Your child will need your help to steer her toward opportunities that will offer maximum positive growth and minimal trauma. I have strong opinions about what that looks and feels like for both the humans and horses. These have developed over the course of 62 years of horse handling and 37 years of psychotherapy practice. In reality, almost any face-to-face horse contact is wondrous for horse crazy humans. I’m taking the long view here: what works best for the psychoneuroimmunological health and safety of the humans, horses and our collective life-support system?

I advise parents to look into their own hearts and ask their child to do likewise. Why does your kid want to be with horses? Ask! She may have limits to her ability to articulate her calling. Help her figure it out. Get some age-appropriate  picture books that show different types of horses engaged in a variety of action. Be sure that there are plenty of photos of horses grazing together in a variety of settings without people doing things to them. Watch her as she flips through the books. What lights her up? Where does she linger?

Then ask yourselves what you hope your child will gain by following this calling. If your youngster is old enough, include her in this conversation. Encourage her to get more information on the types of horses and activities that intrigue her.

Today, there are hundreds of equestrienne disciplines. Most are about training horses in performance specialties. When I was a kid, I wound up among hunter-jumper trainers, migrated into eventing, and then in later life discovered equine facilitated education and psychotherapy. Now, the calling moves me toward engaging equines as consciousness raisers and body-mind-spirit balancers. My trajectory through horse realms reflects, in part, the evolution of the horse-human bond.

The connection between humans and horses is enjoying an evolutionary growth spurt. Many horse people are beginning to question the dominance assumptions they bring to these relationships. This turns out to be a fruitful area of inquiry for our well being as individuals, families and cultures. Expanding the energetic pipeline between horses and humans has the potential of healing what ails us and our cultures.

When its well executed, the bond between horses and humans can go a long way toward relieving the stress of modern life for both. It gives us necessary tools to balance cultural influences that skew us toward living exclusively in our heads. The drive to be among horses brings us face-to-face with our interdependencies with other members of our life-support system.

Life around horses is real. Learning by doing has several advantages over purely intellectual learning. The former gets a free short cut to a secure position in longterm storage regions of our brains. The latter lingers temorarily in short-term storage, then is pruned from our neuronal nets, unless it’s applied redundantly to real-life situations.

Horses show us how to be mindful. To be safe in the presence of horses, mindfulness is essential. Cooperation is how horses survive. Being among them in a mindfully cooperative frame-of-mind on a regular basis is our original default setting. It feels like home should.


Archeological and anthropological evidence indicates that we humans first revered horses from a distance. Later, we used them for food and transportation. Eventually, they became workhorses on farms and ranches. Out of those roles arose specialty performance training. Competition within specialties is big business now. Even so, more and more humans are engaging horses as companion animals. As psychotherapeutic collaborators, they can’t be beat. A few forward-thinking horsemen and women are beginning to look to horses for spiritual guidance. In the States, law prohibits using horses for food now. All the other roles are still operant. You and your child have choices.

I recommend leaving the performance specialty horses and trainers in your rear-view mirrors. Training horses in specialty performance disciplines necessitates removing them from much of what makes them horses. They’re highly social browsers and grazers. They’re designed to move incessantly over lots of varied terrain in small bands. The movement gives them access to a variety of vegetation to feed on and presents a steady supply of problems for the band to collectively solve, which increases their social bonding.

When horses are trained as specialty athletes, they’re taken out of their natural settings. Often, they’re confined to stalls and/or small paddocks where they’re lucky if they can turn and lay down. Their only stimulation becomes their training protocols. These conditions under stimulate their neuronal nets and leave them prone to digestive, skeletal, neurological, emotional and kidney issues. The food, exercise and social conditions these horses endure are more like plush Black Site Prisons than educational facilities. The care of hot-house horses is expensive, time and labor intensive and often heartbreaking, because these horses’ lives are cut short. They’re often lame or sick.

The horsemanship training available at specialty performance stables is, in my opinion, as much of a disservice to horse-crazy kids and adults as it is for the horses. This training is always based on an assumption of Dominion: we humans have a God-given right to remove other members of our life-support system from their territories and families in order to force them to do what we want, no matter how damaging it may be. This behavior is as damaging to the perpetrators as it is to the victims.

We humans are beginning to get the errors of our ways. The horse world is one of the areas this mistake is being confronted. Save yourself and your kids the heartaches and dangers that inevitably attach themselves to human behavior that’s driven by our Dominion Delusion. There are more alternatives to it arising by the day.

 What Does It Take?

Fasten your seatbelts; horses are expensive. Unless you have a bunch of horse-friendly-fenced land with excellent and varied forage, a steady supply of clean water and other horses, providing for your horse is going to a big-ticket item every month. Your horses’ needs won’t take a rest when your finances are tight. In fact, when you’re tense over finances, your horse(s)’ health may well take a downturn that will require a vet’s intervention. Horses are that dialed into our emotions. This can be as costly as human health care.

Even if you have an ideal setting for horses already established, they’ll need regular farrier and veterinary services, supplemental feed and therapeutic herbs. If your a beginner, you and your horses will also need you to get plenty of help to figure out each other. Even if you aren’t a beginner, there will always be more to learn.

My best advice is to go slowly as you’re entering the world of horses. There’s a lot to know. Do some research and get your kid(s) involved in this part. It’s okay to allow the anticipation to build.

Holistic versus Dominance

As I see it, your first decision is the most important one: Do you want your child’s horse time to reinforce her dominance skills, or would you prefer that it shape the development of her mindfulness, virtue and wisdom? Hands down, I’d pick the latter. The former has utility, is by far the most commonly available and may even be cheaper, initially. Beware: it has huge potential of becoming expensive fast. The dominance approach is far more dangerous for both horses and humans.

Dominance oriented stables have one or more trainers. They usually focus on a specific specialty, like show jumping, roping, cutting, dressage… The teaching time is devoted to giving students opportunities to master basic riding skills. Then, training focuses on developing skills specific to the trainer’s specialty. Usually, the trainer shows.

Beginning students are given a taste of competition, often by showing one of the trainer’s horses. Then the sales pitches begin. They want you to buy horses that will become or already are super-successful in the show ring. This brings your trainers hefty commissions, boarding, training, transportation and management fees, while it raises their professional status. The faster horses move through their hands, the better, for them.

I was in that kind of situation as a teen and became this sort of trainer, temporarily. I stopped. During my years in the competitive horse world, I noticed that the horses and humans became nuttier the more successful they became. Horses that cost more than airplanes were wound up in knots and so were their perfectly-coifed riders. Winning became the goal. The love that initiated the connection inevitably frayed. A lot of time and money seemed to be washing down the drain and no one but a few trainers benefitted.

I suggest starting with horsemanship lessons at a holistic equine facility. Good horsemanship teachers don’t just chuck kids onto the backs of horses and teach them how to make them stop and go. That’s not horsemanship. It’s more like domination indoctrination. It’s what a lot of programs offer and many parents expect.

In my opinion, this is a huge disservice to both horses and horse-crazy people, in that it takes a sacred calling and contorts it into a reinforcement of our delusion that we humans hold dominion. When we go there, it’s far more difficult to uncover horses’ most valuable lesson for us: a somatic understanding of our interdependency with all the beings of our worlds.

From my perspective, ideally, you will find a teaching facility where children and adults are shown how to share life with horses from a holistic perspective. You and/or your kids will learn from the bottom up, literally. You’ll start with a pitchfork or shovel and a wheelbarrow. This isn’t a theoretical education; it’s a hands-on deal. The good news about hands-on learning is that it sets. I encourage those who are looking for an equine education to open their minds to how much of life this training can bring into focus.

Horse poop and pee abound and, when they’re properly handled, nourish the land on which your horses forage. You’ll be mucking out pastures, stalls, arenas, grooming stations… Wherever horses go, their manure drops. Letting it linger draws flies. Fly bites are irritating and cause disease. It needs to be picked up and composted quickly. When it is, the manure pile becomes a life-generating biome that creates heat, mellows into perfect winter insulation and eventually morphs into magnificent, clean, fertile topsoil that’s capable of sustaining healthy forage for the horses and all who live and work among them.

We in the west tend to think of learning as an intellectual pursuit. I get the importance of garnering intelligence about how and why stuff works. It’s equally important to have a somatic component to learning. Information doesn’t necessarily stick in the human brain unless it is somatically anchored. Horses are spectacular at facilitating this.

It starts at the compost heap. This is the citadel of soil. There’s much to know about turning various species of manure into wickedly great soil. It takes practice, patience and a fair amount of heavy lifting. That’s one of the places the energy of youth comes in handy.

Of course, you and/or your child are there for the horses. You’ll be introduced. In my perspective, the ideal way to make introductions between humans and horses is to let the people watch the horses while they’re at liberty in a pasture among their band. I like to let people watch them, sometimes many times before they get within touching range. I want the people to see how the horses communicate with each other. What do the folks think about how the horses negotiate space, access to food, water and shelter? What sort of impact do these people have on the moods of the horses they’re watching?

A good horse-handling facilitator will find ways to draw your and your child’s attention to what’s important to get a feel for. She’ll move slowly and she’ll put you to work. This isn’t to save on stable help or to pack in unnecessary lessons over irrelevent details. Giving beginners a good start in the horses’ world is time and labor consuming. This gives the humans a chance to begin to get into synch with how life works without all the technological bells and whistles that we’ve developed.

How does the health of the land, water and air effect the well being of the critters and plants who live on it?  What are our responsibilities to keep them all healthy and safe? Plenty, if we wish happy and healthy lives.

So what’s the use of that? It’s real. We humans need regular hits of reality to help balance our current dance with the virtual realms. Look around. People are on the brink of extinction because we’ve become confused about how life works. Being among horses brings us back to ground truth. There is no better balm for the soul than that. And, in my opinion, there’s no better healer for the woes of our mixed-up culture than to provide training in the art of holistic horsemanship to as many humans as possible.

As fascinating as the poop patrol is, there’s more to horsemanship than building great soil. I could write a book about it, but others have already done it well. My personal favorite is The Humanure Handbook by J. C. Jenkins. This book focuses on supporting us to overcome our fecophobia in order to learn the wonders of soil making. The text focuses on using human manure, but it’s applicable to barnyard critter poop too.

Kids get into this. Horse manure is a lot easier on the nose and lighter on pathogens than human, dog and cat manure. Horses are vegans. Healthy, fresh horse poop and pee smell great. Different fragrances and textures are indicative of various imbalances. If they’re caught early from a whiff of foul pee or poop, it’s far easier and cheaper to discover the source of the problem and fix it. A great teacher will point out the good and bad qualities of the manure and help you to figure out what it’s telling you about the health of the herd, their fodder, the land it grows on and the water that hydrates it.

A great holistic horsemanship teacher will have also studied Permaculture. She will have applied those principles to her property and management style. This will pour through the education she provides like sun light through a freshly-cleaned window. A barnyard offers many signs about the psychological and intellectual characteristics of the humans who work it.

Poop reveals volumes about the quality of the facility you’re looking at. Is the barnyard tidy? Is poop cleaned up when its dropped or allowed to linger? Are horses living in small, poop-lined pens or paddocks, or out among compatible mates in a clean area large enough to comfortably use all their gaits? Are there flies and mosquitos buzzing around the horses and/or barnyard? Are there fetid pools of sour urine standing around? Do you smell or see pesticides, herbicides or signs of their use, like an unkept barnyard without insects? Is the pasture large enough to provide sufficient healthy fodder to sustain them? Is their natural fodder supplemented with hay or other goodies? Is the hay clean, dry and does it have an inviting fragrance? Are the water troughs clean with plenty of cool, fresh water readily available wherever the horses spend time, or are they full of pond scum? Do the horses have shelter from the sun and storms? Is there enough room for all the horses to find shelter at the same time? Do they get to spend most of their time among their own kind at liberty grazing?

Horses are designed to eat and move most of their waking lives. If their facilities don’t accommodate this, the horses will be under continuous stress. This leads to outsized vet bills, stable drama and shortened lives. For everyone’s health and safety, it’s far better to keep horses the way they have evolved to live. There are few facilities that can afford to do that these days. Land is expensive. Stabling horses may seem efficient and kind. It isn’t, unless it’s just for a few hours a day or when a horse is laid up.

Horses suffer when they’re caged in boxes. They’re highly social and intelligent creatures. Isolated from a band of trusted mates and unable to move, forage and solve problems, they become stressed. All manner of psychological and physiological issues arise. In my opinion, it’s better not to be among horses than to be with highly stressed ones. Unless you can resolve the underlying stressors, they become anxious, sick and unpredictable, which greatly increases the likelihood that someone will get hurt.

Horses aren’t designed to carry weight on their backs. In nature, the only critters that climb aboard a horse’s back are those who intend to eat them. The weight injures their tender, long spines, unless they’re carefully schooled and reminded with specific exercises before and after carrying any amount weight for short distances. Even then, damage happens.

Who thought of putting metal in horses’ mouths to control them? The only thing I can say that’s positive about it is that it’s an effective control device, so long as you don’t care that you’re causing unnecessary pain that your horse will always remember. Between the bit and your weight, you’re demanding that your horse create all manner of physiological blocks between you and her. These blocks protect the horse, initially. As they become ingrained habits, their spines get out of alignment, which eventually results in lameness. Chronically lame horses far too often wind up crammed into tractor trailers headed to meet a kid with a hammer in Mexico.

Horses are almost never the only critters around a good barnyard. Cats, chickens, goats and dogs are a few of horses’ natural allies. Cats eat the mice and rats who are attracted to the grasses and grains stored for the horses. The cats keep down the rodents which in turn keeps down the snake population around the barn. Horses are scared of snakes. Cats and horses often develop intense social bonds, especially when hoses are stabled. The cats can come and go between stalls. They can frequently be found keeping company with horses that are being inadvertently driven crazy by their confinement.

Chickens are another great horse ally. They love to eat ticks, flies and mosquitos. They’ll hunt and peck through the manure pile and even the horses’ backs for eggs, larvae and adult insects. All these critters carry diseases. Chickens keep them in check. They need more care than most barn cats, but it’s simple and quick to provide. The egg dividends they provide are always welcome. The pest control they offer is unsurpassed and safe. They, like cats, often create affectionate relationships among equines. They’re also lovely companions for people.

Goats will happily graze on fodder that horses won’t touch. This prevents the overgrowth of troublesome weeds in pastures. I like to rotate horses and goats through pastures. Goats sport horns that can be dangerous to other barnyard critters. I’m not down with dehorning them for my convenience. Saddly, this makes it so they need us to separate them from the other critters.

One way to enjoy their benefits without deforming them is to cultivate a relationship with a shepherd who will bring them in to feed on what the horses don’t eat in their pastures.

Goats would probably make good therapeutic animals too, though I haven’t tried it. They’re barnyard humorists. Goats love to play and explore. They’re awesome climbers and dedicated escape artists. Life is never boring around them.

Dogs often function as barnyard gatekeepers. They keep the raccoons and other smallish predators at bay. They alert everybody whenever something is amiss. They can be easily shown that the chickens and cats are their responsibilities too. They often wind up developing close relationships among the other critters. This requires some training, but it’s readily doable. Most dogs love this work. It keeps them usefully engaged in the extended family dynamic, which is what all dogs crave.

Beware: not all dogs fit into all barnyards. Check with the stable manager to find out if your dog will be welcome there. Don’t take it personally if s/he isn’t. This may be indicative of good management practices. Critters who share an ecosystem are frequently called on to defend its boundaries. A new dog may be tough to fit into a well-functioning constellation of relationships among the critters and humans on a working ranch.


I’m a huge fan of working with horses from the ground. The types of groundwork that seem to provide the greatest benefit are about being fully in the now with the horse while you work together to solve a problem. The problem may be one of your invention, or a real issue around the pasture or barnyard. Horses get off on teamwork. So do most people.

Horses are designed to live in teams based on survival. So are we. Human brains learn by redundancy. Once horses get something, they keep it. Variety is essential to keep a horse’s mind active and content. That works for people too, though we require more repetition than horses to hold onto new information. It seems that we’re designed to be good teammates. This works best when we can both lead and follow.


The first problem I usually present to a new human and horse is, how are you two going to get from here to there together? Every important life lesson can be covered in that single exercise. How the human goes about engaging the horse to solve this tells volumes about the current status of her or his mind-body-spirit and how the horse feels about it. From there, I know where we need to start and what may need to be unlearned by the person. The horse(s)’ behavior tells me about the human(s) skills, current strengths and blind spots.

Less is more in the horse realms. The very best reward you can give a horse is to be gratefully present in your shared now, demanding nothing. This is mindfulnessIt’s harder than you might think, but becomes second nature with practice. Mindfulness is the foundation of every spiritual practice and organized religion across the globe and throughout time. The younger we are when we begin to practice mindfulness, the better. It’s never too late to start. Horses somatically reinforce our mindfulness at every turn.

Mindfulness leads to the development of virtue. I’m not talking about the goodie-two-shoes version of virtue here. What I’m referring to is the deep-down knowing that your interdependency matters. What you do has a real impact on all those with whom you share territory. That impact matters. We are each responsible for it.

Mindfulness and virtue eventually lead to wisdom. That’s the big payoff to life, in my opinion. From a position of wisdom, we can share necessary knowledge about how life works with those who are coming up. Spending significant periods of each day in a state of mindfulness gets us humans to wisdom, eventually.

Horses’ greatest gift to humans is that their size and emotionality demand that we be mindful in their presence. When we are, they’re calm, curious and cooperative. When we’re not, they’re not.

A regular practice is necessary for people to stay on the mindfulness-virtue-wisdom path. Creating relationships with horses and their attendants provides a space in life to practice. This brings us to balance in a world in which our equilibrium is under constant threat. There is nothing more valuable now, as our human-constructed world spins ever more out off kilter.


If I had a horse crazy kid, I would start him or her at a holistically oriented facility with a handler who has healthy horses on healthy land with plenty of good, clean water and horse-friendly fencing. I’d ask her how many kids she’s started and what became of them. How many horses does she have and for how long. Does she provide forever homes for her horses or does she keep them moving through sales? What’s the culture of the facility? Who are the other students, borders, trainers…? What are their goals? How much interaction is there among the humans? Does the handler show and sell her stock? If so, what are her specialties?

I would leave places where horses are nibbling on sand in enclosures that are too small to accommodate a good gallop and a buck among friends. Horses who are stabled for more than a few hours a day are stressed. I wouldn’t send my imaginary child there. Nor would she find herself at a competitive show barn. Horses aren’t about competition. Their greatest lessons are in the sectors of cooperation and empathy.

Horses live to cooperate. They don’t cotton to our Dominion Delusions, though they’ll even cooperate with them. I think it’s a far better life lesson to learn to co-create mutually beneficial relationships between horses and people than it is to try to force horses to be compliant. The choice is between getting more proficient at dominating others and establishing a life-long practice that reinforces the best of our humanity: empathy, loyalty and reciprocity. The choice is yours.




It seems that human evolution made a problematic turn about ten-thousand-years ago. It’s landed us in a cul-de-sac of pervasive violence toward one another and our life-support system. We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction spasm. This one is the result of our twisted thinking.

We have devolved to the point of killing one another in crazed attempts to protect ourselves. Meanwhile, we destroy our ground water, soils, air and our relationship with the sun. We torture animals raised for food, performance and companionship, vilify healing plants and those who use them, all while justifying our actions as economically and socially necessary to our survival. By any standard of mental health, this behavior is stark-raving mad.

What’s causing us humans to follow hierarchical leaders who either preach outright bigotry or, more covertly, act it out through policies that support continued environmental and social degeneration as we race toward the finish line of carbon emission induced temperature rise? 2017 is the deadline for stopping all carbon emissions, if life as we understand it is to survive. It’s our choice.

An actionable piece of the puzzle appears to lay in our neuroplasticity. This refers to our nervous system’s enormous capacity to rewire itself to adapt to environmental, social and biological cues. This allows us to evolve mentally and socially at lightening speeds compared to functions that require structural changes. It’s one of the reason’s we’ve thrived. It’s also how we make enormous mistakes, and thus far, correct our course to insure survival.

We’re overdue for a major correction. We humans have done it before in concert with the plants and critters with whom we shared territories. Our interdependency is woven through our collective evolution. We shared stem parents with horses fifty-six-million years ago. In the way-back time, we were siblings. We have evolved parallel to one another at times and were bonded at the hip at others. We even made it through another climate change event together. We’re wired for sudden course shifts of the likes we humans are generating now.

As grimly ridiculous as the geopolitical landscape appears in this moment, we have the ingredients necessary to shift the wheel of destiny from destruction toward redemption. The responsibility rests on our shoulders. Humans, acting as if we were granted dominion over the earth, created this debacle. Our relearning how interdependent we are with those with whom we share this life-support system has become essential to our survival.


Nearly two decades ago, Leonard Shlain, M.D., a neurosurgeon, came out with a great book entitled The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. In it he postulated that the huge change in human culture wrought by literacy, which arose about ten-thousand-years ago, was at the root of this trend. When we humans came in from the wild, we developed agriculture, which for the first time allowed us to stay in one place and accumulate stuff, including new skills. Literacy was one of the outcomes. According to Dr. Shlain, our nervous systems accommodated to reading and writing by shifting from right-hemisphere dominance to the left hemisphere.

As right-hemisphere-dominant hunter-gathers, we processed our world in terms of relationships. In those times, we were acutely aware of and dependent on everybody with whom we shared our worlds. As left-hemisphere dominant agrarians, we became hierarchically driven. Might suddenly became right in the human psyche.

Our cultural evolution reflects this. Instead of viewing connections with others as co-creative endeavors, we began to view other species and even humans of divergent colors, political or religious affiliations as threats to our stability. Plants, animals and even the elements of life and other humans came to be viewed as commodities instead of our collective life-support system. Bigotry was codified into our nervous systems after artificial racial boundaries were drawn based on skin color. The monotheistic religions that replaced their shamanic polytheistic predecessors deified literacy as they demonized the natural order of life on earth. These values were inculcated into the cultures around the globe by force.

The solution to pollution became dilution in “advanced” cultures. This wasn’t too bad until our population bloom, that began in the early 1900’s, as a result of our cleverness at harnessing the power of oil and other toxins cooked up in laboratories to protect mankind from the ravages of nature. Our life-support system became our enemy as our neuronal nets became ever-more tightly controlled by left-hemisphere logic. Now, we each carry a toxic soup of chemistry that we haven’t evolved to capacity to detoxify from. Our bodies, minds and spirits don’t know what to do with them. Many of the ingredients are neurotoxins that reduce our motivation while increasing our robotic complacency in the face of extinction.

The polytheistic healers, who knew the importance of our inter-dependency and respected the power of plants, social and environmental interventions, were systematically wiped out. Among Christians, these healers were branded as witches, then publicly tortured and executed in the name of God. The Church assigned the task of healing to barbers, who became the predecessors of modern physicians. Medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the States.

Other monotheistic cultures used other methods to the same effect. Sexism, racism and classism emerged in the context of this agrarian cultural evolution, most likely as a result of the alteration in which side of our brain first processed incoming data. We abdicated our talent for energetic communion with matters of the moment for a sense of control over everything that impinges on our moments, or might. The harder we try to protect ourselves, the faster we poison ourselves and all who share the life-support system.


Recently, neuroscientists have discovered another neurological trait that may be contributing to the collapse of life on earth as we know it. Apparently, stress is epigenetic. So, when our ancestors experienced stress beyond their nervous systems’ ability to metabolize, their genetic codes were altered. This made their off-spring more susceptible to the out-sized stress reactions that we currently refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Further, it appears that stress accumulates in the gene code. PTSD causes its bearer to become hyper vigilant to potential threats. This has utility for survival, at least until the stress reactions become so severe that they evolve into a survival threat. This appears to be where we’re at now.

The two most common psychological sequels to unsuccessfully treated PTSD are Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders, though other character disorders are linked to the cumulative effects of stress on the nervous system. These diseases cause their holders to try to control their environments and everybody in them. They tend to be self involved, sometimes to the point of being unable to process the reality of others’ lives. Some become dangerous to themselves and others. The cumulative effects are the development of cultures that are as dangerous as the deluded individuals who comprise them.

These diseases are rooted in our nervous systems, not reflections of individuals’ lack of character. Those who have PTSD and go on to develop confused thoughts and behaviors are no more responsible for their illnesses than those who get cancer. Both are diseases of civilization.

Culture plays a huge role in human health. Character disorders have at their roots a need to control the perceptions and behavior of the other(s) in a genetically-driven effort at self preservation. Dominion has become our default setting for managing escalating stress levels. The individual physiological changes wrought by inherited stress-prone DNA plus the absorption of a mind-bending array of chemistry experiments plus the neurological changes associated with our adaptations from hunting and gathering to agrarian life and now the digital age has brought us to the edge of extinction. It’s time to look at what saw us through crises of equal magnitude before.


Mario Martinez, Psy.D. put out an easily accessible book and CD set entitled The Mind Body Code a few years ago. Mario is a psychoneuroimmunologist who studies how cultural beliefs effect human biology, psychology and spiritual development. His work explodes the myth of separation between our individual and collective mental and physical health. Science shows us that mental, physical and cultural health are inextricably connected. Preliterate cultures didn’t seem to make a distinction between them.

Our barbers-turned-physicians took another route. They opted to divide our bodies, minds and spirits into their constituent parts. Various medical disciplines know little of what their colleagues who deal with other organ systems or healing techniques are up to. We wind up having our health tended to by those who have no training or experience relating to us as whole beings who are inextricably connected to our social and environmental contexts. How could they? They’ve come to maturity in a culture that’s inadvertently thrown itself off balance through it’s attention to the parts at the expense of the whole.


In the States, we’ve seen escalatingly poor outcomes as a result of policies born of left-brain hierarchical thinking married to culturally embedded PTSD. Understandably, people of color are infuriated and terrorized by longstanding policies that result in their systematic murder and/or incarceration at the hands of our police state. Our health care system is broken. It has devolved into yet another powerful agent of social control and a hugely powerful money maker while humans and animals are dropping at a record rate from diseases born of pollution and climate change.

Those employed by the state to “protect and serve” are as subject to the health effects of stress as anyone else. Since it’s their job to deal with highly stressful situations, their nervous systems tend to become compromised too. They can develop hair triggers when dealing with anyone who appears to be a member of ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’

Innocent policemen were killed after a week that showed us images of innocent black men being murdered by policemen. The cop killer was a veteran with a heavy-duty case of PTSD. Around and around we go as human culture sinks deeper into chaos wrought by our addiction to the delusion of dominance. Might this Dominance Delusion be a compensation for our collective PTSD?

Is this a result of a built in expiration date? Might we be in the throes of planned obsolescence decreed by our creator, as the Christians would have us believe? Maybe that belief arose out of fear of these underlying vulnerabilities. Its prevalence functions to reinforce our individual and collective neuronal nets toward the self-destructive behavior that threatens to end our life-support system. Do we have what it takes to rewire our neuronal nets to thrive instead of hate, fear, retaliate, and ultimately, destroy our life-support system? Healing this is a tough challenge, but one within our reach.


 I look at the current state of affairs as an opportunity to repair a longstanding processing error. This is fixable. We’ve dawdled far too long as we’ve indulged our Dominion Delusion to ever-increasing states of ridiculousness. The good news is that the situation has reached a point where the survival of life as we know it is threatened. This kicks our motivation into its highest gear.

Fixes are available. The only thing standing between social health and our current rush toward extinction is the will to re-examine our assumptions about how life works. It’s not easy to change one’s mind. People do it all the time though. If addicts can recover with the support of a community of others in the same boat, we can ditch our fossil fuel addiction and our Dominion Delusion together. The first step is to take a look at our belief that we’re in control of the action. The critter and plant allies who share our life-support system are standing by to lead us back toward balance.


What Works? What Doesn’t? 

I’ve learned a few things along the trail: Psychotropic pharmaceuticals, for the most part, do far more damage than good. It’s also clear that office-based individual talk therapy can be helpful, though rarely sufficient. It can just as easily be harmful. Group work is usually a more effective psychotherapeutic intervention than one-to-one work. Involving companion animals in psychotherapeutic work is an even more effective intervention than human-to-human. Horses are apex healers for humans. Plant medicine works better and has fewer side effects than psychotropic pharmaceuticals in managing mental illnesses. Most mental illnesses require both physiological and psychological interventions to be successfully treated.

Of course, these methods need to be well executed to work. For the clinician, it’s no easy matter to bring one’s skills up to speed because there’s little support for it in the health care system. In fact, when we stray from the 50-minute hour and/or turn away from big pharma, we risk losing our licenses. Even so, the knowledge is out there. There are great clinicians using these methods and teaching others. Cross-pollination of ideas and skill sets is critical now. Healers need to be nimble enough to jump across and beyond  academic disciplines that were born of left-hemisphere dominant thinking. To achieve this, we have to be willing to surmount strenuous cultural barriers embedded in our institutions and individual neuronal nets.

In health care, there’s a rule that each licensed practitioner must perform to “community standards.” These standards are largely shaped by pharmaceutical lobbyists and sales forces. No matter where these standards are set, failure to abide by them can get a practitioner’s license pulled if a wrinkle arises in the course of an alternative treatment. That’s a huge professional incentive to turn a blind eye to poor results and incoherent logic in research design and therapeutic parameters. The community standard for psychotherapeutic care currently involves one-to-one or group talk therapy and/or psychotropic pharmaceuticals. Never mind that the pharmaceuticals don’t work and cause life-threatening side effects. Isolating people in little boxes with a psychotherapist who pathologizes their most personal travails for 50-minutes at a clip works a little better than the pharma approach, but gives the message that the problem is rooted in there being something bad and wrong about the patient. Neither approach effectively addresses the real issues at play. Both have great potential to inflict harm.

We humans became ever-more out of balance in our thinking by routing more and more incoming data through our left-hemisphere at the expense of our ability to relate to the co-creators of our life-support system. It’s time to heal this imbalance. Happily, interventions that work can be fun and readily lend themselves to being integrated into daily life.


What Works?

Mindfulness Practices have been used by every spiritual tradition throughout the ages. They prepare humans for virtuous lives that ripen them into wisdom bearers for the culture. Of late, we humans have replaced wisdom for money as the standard of a well-lived life.

In this moment, we’re uniquely situated to retrieve our wisdom from the morass. Fifty-six million Baby Boomers are in the process of becoming elders in the west. We’re living on average longer than previous generations. This represents a huge reservoir of potential  wisdom. To access it, we’ll need to let go of our aversion to aging. Contrary to popular belief, aging brings a host of health benefits to those who’ve lived mindful and virtuous lives. Elderhood is a distinct developmental stage that we’re just beginning to explore.

To achieve a healthy elderhood, a foundation of mindfulness practices is essential. The sooner a person begins to cultivate mindfulness the better, but it’s never too late. The practice can take many forms. Any regular practice that shuts down our internal dialogue and keeps us gratefully present in the physicality of the moment will do. I favor focusing on relationships with the plants and critters who populate my world or those of my clients. Working with humans and their companion critters and/or their gardens is a lovely, simple set up for establishing long-term mindfulness practices.

Companion and wild critters respond immediately to humans who can be present with them in their worlds. Once they get that you’re not there to control or hurt them, they relax. When we learn how to take the next step, sharing the wonder of whatever is up now  with members of other species, their bodies ease. Often they yawn or snort, apparently to discharge the stress that arises when they have to interact with us.

We’ve conditioned them to fear us by confining and controlling their every move. When we can set aside our Dominion Delusion even for a few minutes a day, the shift in their bodies and attitude brings us tremendous rewards that we registere somatically. When they relax, we do too. Something primal rises in our consciousness. I call it relief. This is a self-reinforcing state-of-mind that our neuronal nets want to replicate. One can almost smell new synaptic connections forming.

We and the critters we share our lives and territories with can begin to establish new formats for relating with one another. We can negotiate with them instead of carrying the heavy mantel of control over them. This opens us to the forgotten fact of our interdependency: We don’t have to be in charge all the time. This is a responsibility most companion animals are willing and able to share. Given the opportunity, they have much to teach us.

I have worked primarily with horses, cats and dogs. Each brings a unique set of talents. Horses are apex healers for humans. This may be because fifty-six-million years ago, we shared stem parents with them. We’ve evolved parallel to and in conjunction with one another since. Horses are well endowed with mirror neurons, which cause them to experience and reflect the emotional state of those in their territories.

Humans and dogs are well supplied with mirror neurons too. Cats have them, but apparently not in the concentration of dogs or humans. Mirror neurons enable our companion critters to get where we’re coming from, often better than we do. Once we bring a mindfulness practice into our relationships with them, they relax enough to show us who they are and what they can teach us. When we relax too, we will see a reflection of our psyches in the horses’ behavior.

Once a human has been in mindful connection with a companion, work or wild critter over a period of time, s/he begins to change his/her relationship with the Dominion Delusion. This may rattle our human thought cages. It calls into questions assumptions about reality that are so deeply embedded in our culture that it might bring up anxiety early on. With group or individual support, this usually manifests as a tiny speed bump. Without support, things can go sideways at this juncture. I learned to let folks know that this is a common early reaction before it has a chance to come to fruition. This gives us a framework to deal with it.

Horses’ size and emotional volatility give them additional advantages. To the uninitiated, horses are scary up close. Even the most seasoned equine veterans shift their consciousness toward mindfulness in their presence because it’s safer and more productive. This automatically invites us to become more mindful. Too often though, this natural progression is thwarted by our culturally conditioned Dominion Delusion. 

We become aware of where horses are in relation to us. Our internal dialogues tone down to accommodate our need to establish safe boundaries and effective communication. When they’re met with mindfulness, well-kept horses respond to humans with friendly curiosity. They want/need to know who’s sharing their world. If they are met with fear, impatience or resentment, they respond in a like manner. Whatever emotional state humans bring to horses, they reflect it right back. From a therapeutic standpoint, working with horses brings the skills of a world-class diagnostician to the party.


Dogs and cats bring many of the same benefits of horses and different ones. Cats and dogs are easier to incorporate into our homes so we spend more time with them. This makes it easier to make places for them within the family circle. As we practice mindfully relating with them, other household members get to bear witness and may be motivated to get with it. Conversely, dogs and cats are smaller in stature which can make it more difficult to shake our Dominion perspectives in these relationships.

Dogs and cats bring different skills. There are many old sayings about cats and dogs. A paraphrase of one is, Dogs are for people who want/need to be adored and cats are for those who are willing to become their staff. At this point in my evolution, I prefer to live among cats. By nature, they offer continuous opportunities to question our Dominion Delusion in its many manifestations.

We domesticated dogs and horses. Cats domesticated humans. Apparently, we’re apex rodent wranglers for cats.

According to the tenants of ancient Egyptian spirituality, cats were revered as higher-order beings. It was thought that they had arrived from another universe to guide our spiritual development. They may have been right.

A few years ago, a new vet set up shop in our rural community. When I brought in my cats for a check up, he told me that he thought cats were from another planet because physiologically, they responded differently than any other known species. After getting to know him a bit, I doubt that he was aware of Egyptian thought on the subject.

Anyone who feeds cats will have a relationship with them. It’s trickier to have great relations with them. When we approach cats in the context of our dominion assumptions, life gets annoying and messy fast. Conversely, when we engage cats mindfully, we open a door to wonders beyond words.

A cat’s purr is at a frequency that accelerates body-mind-spirit healing. When we or they are ill or injured, their purr significantly speeds healing. Bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, connective tissue, minds and spirits all respond to their purr. All one has to do to access a healing purr job is to create a good relationship with a cat. It’s simple; just be present with them in the moment without an agenda. Give them room to negotiate with you over their lifestyle.

Dogs have a servile side that can feed our Dominion Delusion. Special care needs to be taken to counteract this. When we take care, the benefits can be awesome. When we don’t, sharing life with dogs can simply reinforce the ubiquitous cultural reinforcements for our sense of dominion.

The differences between dogs whose humans engage them mindfully and those who don’t are stark. All dogs are loyal. The mindfully handled dog bumps loyalty toward devotion. This isn’t the slavish devotion one sees in abused critters. That appears to be more like a Stockkholm Syndrome than spiritual devotion. Dogs who have freely chosen to bond wholeheartedly will see their human(s) through whatever life throws at them. A dog will never tire of being at the side of her mindful human.

Most people who keep critters as companion animals love them. Many love them to the exclusion of humans. This doesn’t mean that our love is manifested in healthy ways for them or us. All critters, including humans, have basic needs that require satisfaction if they’re to enjoy healthy, happy lives. Those who love the critters with whom they share their lives and don’t fully get their needs, inevitably run into difficulties.

We all need good, clean food and water, shelter, companionship with our own kind, a degree of autonomy and reliable, consistent interdependence. Each species has its own set of criteria for how these needs must be tailored. Horse, dogs and cats require specific diets and have unique social intimacy and territorial needs. Caring for cats as if they were dogs or horses doesn’t work any better than eating like a horse works for people. Humans who wish to share healthy bonds among other species need to get this. No horse, dog or cat can be fully present with a human who can’t or won’t act on this.

Confining another species in a territory that’s not designed to meet their specific needs, so they can spend their lives waiting for us to bestow our beneficence upon them, isn’t love. It’s captivity. This reflects our Dominion Delusion.

True love is open handed, not controlling. It’s curious, respectful and willing to negotiate boundaries and choice. Few humans are capable of manifesting healthy love consistently. We’re in desperate need of healing our love mojo.

The critters who populate our lives respond immediately and dramatically when we get it right, even if we can only hold on to that state of mind for a few seconds. This is sufficiently reinforcing to propel us into practices that can untangle our love knots.


Our yards, gardens, parks and wilderness trails provide other avenues for mindfulness practice. Here’s where we find plants that evolved alongside us. These are the biochemical geniuses of our world. Plants generate an array chemicals that attract what they need and repel threats. Plants are subject to many of the same threats and needs as us, so their chemistry often helps us.

Modern-day pharmacology likes to isolate plant constituents, synthesize them artificially, then give them, often in extreme doses, to treat our ailments. This usually causes imbalance. The presenting problem may get fixed, but the stage is often set for far worse issues down the road. Plant medicine, as practiced by our ancestors, uses the whole plant, sometimes several to work synergistically, to bring the organism back to homeostasis. With its constituent parts intact, the plants perform this function seamlessly. Built into their biochemistry are buffers for the problematic issues of their constituents.

Humans have been using medicinal plants forever. We’re attracted to their beauty, medicine, fragrances and the nutrition they provide. Plants that grow where we are, have made biochemical adjustments for the soils, water, sunlight, winds, predators and beneficials that share our territories. They happily share this fine tuning with those who pass, including us. All we need to do is to eat, smell or rub them into our flesh. Of course, it’s critical to know how to engage the plants in ways that work for them and us.

When we consistently approach plants and other animals with our minds fully present in the moment, their wisdom eventually becomes available to us. To my receptor sites, plant language is far more subtle than that of critters. I had to practice among a variety of critters for decades before I began to learn how to tune into the vegatative realms reliably.

It’s always a two-way street. We humans have given back to the plants and critters who make our lives viable until recently. We are interdependent. When the practice of mindfulness generates virtue, we garner the wisdom necessary to comprehend and act on this.


In following chapters I will go into greater depth on how to achieve wisdom by shifting our mindsets toward our plant and critter allies. Just thinking of them as allies instead of possessions is a critical first step. This is the beginning of reclaiming our connections.


From Dominion to Receptivity


When Humans Trade Domination for Education

Human domination over other life forms is woven into the traditions of the dominant monotheistic religions. That may have made sense back when there were a billion humans on the planet. Over the course of the past century, our population has bloomed to over seven billion. We’ve diminished competitive predators in most of our territories to the point of extinction. The human prey pool has grown to include all life forms. As a result, our planet is in the midst of a human-generated extinction spasm that threatens the viability of life, as we know it.

Our sense of entitlement to dominate is at the root of the problem. Our spiritual traditions were unable keep pace with our technological development over the past century. Instead of recognizing the problems associated with our population bloom, they continued to preach domination. As a result, the hands of the Doomsday Clock are quivering on three-minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Project is not some fly-by-night gang of discontents, as many would have us believe. It is a decades-long consortium of top scientists scattered around the globe, who meticulously comb through the data in their fields of expertise to measure the effects of human activity on Life. Their news reflects reality.

There’s good news hidden in this scary scenario. There is no more compelling drive than survival. Every living being has it. Horses, cats and carrots have as much of it as we do. From my perspective, it seems that all the species are knocking on the portals of human consciousness in a last ditch effort to shift our course. I suggest that we invite them in.


I’ve worn a few hats: horse and dog trainer, teacher, student, psychotherapist, herbalist, disabled person, environmental and social activist, friend, writer, wife and widow are a few. Plants and animals have been my allies throughout the journey. There have been challenges along the way. Some made me stronger; others bent me. My story is both unique and yawningly common.

We all encounter trials. Our personal responses determine the course of our development. Our collective responses shape the world in which we live.

As I write, our nation is headed toward a presidential election. One of the candidates, is a flagrant narcissist. All but one of the others, demonstrate strong narcissistic tendencies. The scary thing about these wanna-be leaders is their impassioned followers. I wonder as I watch events unfold, what those folks are thinking. Don’t they remember Hitler? That’s not a productive question. What we really need to get clearer on is what causes humans to act so nutty?

According to law, craziness is clearly defined. Three criteria can get anybody detained for a mental health evaluation in the States: being a danger to self, others or not having the capacity to care for oneself. When those standards are applied to our culture, it’s easy to see that, at least in the States, humans have gone around the mental health bend. How else could our democracy have produced a culture that wantonly destroys the whole planet’s life-support system?

Where does this behavior come from? An important clue was recently uncovered by those who study the human nervous system. Stress is epigenetic. When a person experiences profound stress, their genes change. Their brains become highly reactive to perceived threats. Once stress has altered neurology, it’s difficult to undo the damage. The diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) came into vogue some years after the Viet Nam War. It explained what we were seeing in veterans. The question that haunted this diagnosis was, why do some warriors get sick and others seem okay when they return home from the same experiences.

This seems to be explained by the genetics changes wrought by stress. What this tells us is that the effects of stress accumulate over the generations. So, if you’re from a family that was subjected to genocide, you’re probably hardwired for a character disorder. Anatomically and functionally, the amygdala and subgenual pre-frontal cortex are supercharged and the structures designed to modulate their actions are compromised. This causes folks to experience chronic anxiety and to over react to to relatively minor threats, among other things. The biggest other thing is the development of what we call ‘character disorders.’ Narcissism and Borderline Personality Disorders appear to be the most common. The symptoms of these diseases are not caused by character deficits, as was previously thought. Rather, it appears to be a built-in physiologic vulnerability to stress. Those whose ancestors were subjected to profound stress are more likely to demonstrate symptoms of PTSD. I wonder how many of us don’t have profound stress bending our genomes.

The hallmark of Personality Disorders is the need to control others. That makes perfect sense when seen in the context of PTSD and epigenetics. It can be traced back to a sensible slight-of-hand performed by our nervous systems to protect us from prime predators, which now translates into each other.


Many who prefer relating to critters carry trauma injuries and sometimes, character disorders. We may be drawn to them because controlling them is socially sanctioned and easier than controlling people. It also provides a barrier from people. The great news is that the critters we’re drawn to hold a key to healing these problems, which are also causing us to overheat and crowd our shared life-support system to the point of ending life.

As tough as change is for a brain hardwired to protect itself this way, the horse compels us with a finesse I haven’t seen duplicated. It requires an adjustment in thinking to trade-in dominion over for being with. When conducted well over time, joining a band of horses is a breathtaking dance of empowered liberation for both humans and horses.

The size and emotional volatility of horses carry hazards. To be safe in their presence, we tune in. When we do, they relax and we’re safer. There is no better mindfulness coach than the horse. The moment we slip out of the here-and-now, horse behavior changes. Because they have a preponderance of mirror neurons, brain cells that mirror the affective content of their environment, they are masters at reflecting our emotional state. If we’re scared and defensive, they become so too. When we let go of our internal dialogues and pay attention to what’s so now, we reestablish our connection. We become an ally instead of a threat.

What’s important to horses? The same stuff that’s important to us. Fifty-six-million-years ago, we shared stem parents. In the way-back times, we were siblings. We’ve evolved similarly. We share a social proclivity to live in small, changeable bands that cleave together for safety and emotional comfort. A lone horse is extraordinarily vulnerable, as is a lone human. After centuries of selective breeding, the domesticated horse is highly tuned to humans. In their view, we become members of their bands. If we play our cards right, we can become recipients of their healing in the process.

When people practice mindfulness regularly, we function better. This leads to the development of virtue, which in turn brings wisdom. Mindfulness, virtue and wisdom are what spiritual traditions are charged with cultivating. They’re also what heals character disorders. Horses train us better and faster than religion or psychotherapy. They have more practice and don’t judge. The practice demands physical engagement. This opens the internal space for us to be present in the moment; instead of fretting over when and how we will be shamed, betrayed or abandoned next, we’re focused on keeping our feet out from under theirs.

Our present moment is dire. The same thinking that delivered us to three-minutes before midnight won’t fix this. It’s time to step beyond our comfort zones. Safety lies in the voices that we’ve tried for so long to shut out. In my experience, horses are the best mindfulness teachers, but they’re not the only ones. Developing affinities with any plant or creature can support our personal and collective evolution. The first step is to expand our consciousnesses enough to give credence to our shared reality. We are interdependent.


Healing Horses to Heal Humans


cropped-cropped-pal-and-daisy-2.jpgNot everyone who gets horses can keep them healthy and happy throughout their lives. Life changes. Children grow up and leave. Money problems happen. Natural disasters occur. Health issues arise and sometimes, don’t go away. In an ideal world, we would all find ways to overcome these upsets so we can keep our loved ones close. Our human-constructed world is not always ideal.

Let’s face it; not everyone keeps horses for love. That’s a subject for a different day. So, what do we do when we can no longer provide for our horse(s’) needs? At this point, the prospects are slim, unless the horse is in its prime, well trained in a performance or work specialty and sound in body, mind and spirit. That describes a small percentage of the horses out there.

There’s a huge population of great horses who have plenty to offer us humans. In California, many of them wind up jammed into tractor-trailers like sardines on their way to meet a kid with a hammer in Mexico. California outlawed horse slaughter in a misguided attempt to prevent cruelty. The unintended consequence is brutal deaths for countless horses. Loving people, some of whom thought that they were giving their old friend a second chance when they sent them to auction, once owned many of them.

It’s a bleak picture, but it doesn’t have to be. There are alternatives. It seems more are rising every month. A few years ago, I started working with rescue horses to prepare them for work in equine education and therapy settings. There’s also a new trend, which I support wholeheartedly: keeping horses as companions. I’d like to see that grow to include involving horses in our individual and collective spiritual journeys. Though some horse people believe that rescued horses are too damaged for this sort of work, I’ve seen otherwise. The horses re-educated me. It took them some time, as I entered the project overly confident in my horse training skills.

The horses taught me to leave the tack and training protocols in the barn. When I finally figured out that the most important part of the work was to be present with them in their world, I started to hang out in their pastures. There’s always plenty to do in a pasture. Picking up poop is an endless chore that gave me hours to watch, listen. At first, I figured that being of service to them in their pastures was important. They taught me otherwise. What each horse responded to best was my letting go of my agenda. Instead of ‘working them,’ as I had when I was a performance trainer, I joined them. I didn’t distract myself with books, art materials, my phone or endless chores. I just was there with them, paying attention to things like the color of the grass, the feel of the air, the facility of their muzzles to sort out the delicious from the chaff. When I did that, they started coming to me, not to demand treats or attention, but to explore me.

They started to incorporate me into their group. There are many steps involved in joining a band of horses, but we humans don’t need to direct the show. Once you master the art of presence, which is mindfulness, the horses are happy to take the lead. They trained me to stay mindful in their presence, by showing me the differences in their behavior when I was in the zone and when I slipped out.

Once I integrated this revelation, I began to recall the many times horses have done the impossible for me. Those occasions always happened when I was fully present with them in some kind of tough situation. I didn’t “train them” to do it. No one could. It just seemed to happen. Now, I think it was because, unbeknownst to me at the time, I had slipped into their wavelength.

The first rescue horse I worked with was a three-year-old filly who had been spirited away from her horrifically abusive owner when she was hours from death by starvation. Her halter had grown into her head and had to be surgically removed. She had spent a month in intensive care at a vet hospital. A friend with a huge heart was hired to socialize her in preparation for a forever home. The friend asked me for help.

When I got a look at her, my first thought was, why didn’t they put down this poor creature? She’s too far gone to bring back. Then I turned to my friend and realized that there was a reason for this. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I had confidence that it would emerge. Together, we might be able to figure out how to bring this mare peace. If we could do it for her, any horse could be saved.

For a few minutes, I tried to calm the mare as she struggled against cross ties in the barn. It was a dark and stormy night. It seemed cruel to throw her out in the pasture with a band of mares. She hadn’t met another horse, until she was hospitalized. But, there was no way she was going to safely settle into a pole stall. Everything seemed to terrify her. So, as the night wore on, it became clear that the pasture was our only viable option.

She didn’t know how to walk on a line and she didn’t have a scrap of trust in humans, except my friend, who had been called away to talk with the stable manager. The mare spun around me as we made our way through the dark, stormy night.  She blew and struck out with all four as I struggled with the gate, then bolted inside when it swung open. As I struggled to keep up with her and get the gate closed, I slipped under her churning legs. As I went down, I was sure that I would die there. Then she levitated. I could see her feet flopping inches over my face, but instead of landing on me, she touched down a foot to my side. All the commotion brought the band thundering over a grade directly toward us. That little freaked out mare stood her ground, chasing six other mares away from me while I scrambled to my feet.

The line was still secured to her neck. I waited in the dark storm, unfamiliar with the terrain of the pasture. My flashlight had drowned.  Where was she? The rain sliced sideways on a fierce wind. It felt like razor blades on my exposed face. I stood there for what felt like hours hoping for some kind of hint that would help me find her. Eventually, an old PMU mare nudged the back of my shoulder. The little mare quivered behind her. I crawled over to her because the storm was too strong for me to walk into. She snorted and struck, but came nowhere near me when she did. I croaked out the Itsy-Bitsy Spider song. It seemed to surprise the mare. She snorted, but stopped striking. I managed to free the line. As soon as I did, that old giant mare began to amble toward the shelter. The little mare trudged after her. Over the next few months, that old mare taught her how to be a horse.

From that muddy moment on, I’ve been committed to bringing rescue horses into equine therapy and educational settings. A horse doesn’t have to be physically sound or highly educated to be a great therapist or teacher. In fact, those who’ve made it through tough times or a long life can bring wonderful qualities to the work.

What appears to make the biggest differences between horses in this work is the extent to which the humans in their world can be present with them. Does their environment support their horsiness, or is it set up for people instead? Once their humans get their heads right, if their horsiness is honored with plenty of time at liberty with a stable group of equines, their forage and water is of high quality and their health needs tended, the horse will make a fine niche for itself in the work. When problems arise, look first at the energy the humans are bringing. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, an adjustment there will provide the fix.

There are a growing number of clinical and educational applications for horses to slip their mindfulness expertise into the human psyche. Beyond these settings, is another application that’s just beginning to rise among horse-loving people: keeping horses as companion animals. I would add yet another: keeping horses as spiritual guidance counselors.




Reclaimed Connections

Reclaimed Connections is an off-shoot of Cradle of the Moon. Cradle of the Moon began as a rescue program for abused and abandoned horses. Its core reasons for being was to provide them with jobs that help them to reconnect with people positively. Repeatedly, ours demonstrated their enormous capacity for forgiveness. We were privileged to tap into their vast healing potential.

Using animals in therapeutic work is not new. Employing previously traumatized horses in this realm is rare. Most of our critters suffered abuse, neglect and/or abandonment in their earlier lives. They proved to be willing partners in helping people to make peace with disabling emotional trauma, after we put in significant work to heal their disturbances. These horses were astoundingly astute at seeing beyond the masks most of us humans present to the world. They’re all about relating to us as we really are, with all our warts and wrinkles. Equine Guided Education does not involve riding or exercising power over horses. Instead, it engages them as collaborators who cut through our social conditioning and personal defenses to reflect back the true Self without blame or judgment.

Like everyone, horses do best when their environments are designed to accommodate their needs. Horses are grazing, browsing herd animals. Their relationships to their herd define their lives. We humans can integrate ourselves into their herd sensibilities, if we approach them with humility and respect. This requires a type of mindfulness that’s very different from that of training a servant or show animal. Instead of the all too common approach of power over, this requires us humans to touch into our pack animal natures in ways that often run counter to our enculturation.

Through religion, industrialization and our more recent movement into the information age, our culture trained us to believe we are entitled to dominion over the plant and animal realms. We have been schooled to view them as resources to be exploited instead of as partners to be negotiated with. This approach hasn’t supported our health any better than it has that of our planet.

Equine Collaboration is a path toward healing the chasm humans wrought in the natural world between our life – support system and us. In this age of environmental degradation, social upheaval and apparently insurmountable personal crises, we humans long for opportunities to heal our planet and ourselves. Horses, properly maintained, have much wisdom to share on how to create and maintain healthy communities that function in balance with the world. When we have access to human communities that function on these principles, we are empowered to heal the traumas lurking in our pasts that may contort our relationships and our health. Reclaimed Connections is about providing a framework for this.

I am also an advocate of herbal medicine. I began life deeply connected to the botanical realms. Through a series of various crises, I found my way to robust health through the judicious engagement of our botanical neighbors and critter allies. During a hiatus in my psychotherapy practice, I teamed up with Tana O’Connaigh to open HydroSouls Alchemy, where we offered blends of organic, therapeutic-grade whole herbs and essential oils, hydrosols and infused based oils to promote the health and happiness of humans, horses and dogs.

Psycho-neuro-immunology is a relatively new field of scientific inquiry. The advent of tools that reflect accurate images of functioning brains has given rise to several new approaches to both understanding how humans function and how to heal our problematic anomalies. Mario Martinez, Ph.D., a neuro-psychologist, has posited a theory on bio-cognition that seamlessly weaves together our expanding comprehension of how our minds, bodies and spirits function with anthropological evidence that demonstrates the enormous impact of enculturation on our health and thought processes.

Using Dr. Martinez’s work as a background template in conjunction with decades of experience handling horses, dogs, cats and people, I offer humans and their companion animals services to assist them in transcending culturally embedded beliefs around dominion to bring their relationships to the next level.


The Ring of Fire is Ablaze: How Wildlife and Your Companion Animals Can Help

Paloma at the trough croppedLast week there were five quakes around the Pacific Rim and several volcanic eruptions. Seismologists warn that this scenario is linked to impending quakes of huge magnitudes. One seismologist says that up to four disastrous quakes could hit the rim in short order. That’s more than a little scary for those of us who live there.

In 1989, I shared a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains of central California with my late husband, a pack of dogs and a pride of cats. On October 17, The Loma Prieta quake hit with the force of between 6.9 and 7.2 on the Richter scale. The following is the true story of how we survived.

My husband, Tom, was released from the hospital the day before after heart surgery. He was hugely relieved to be home and looking forward to watching the World Series that evening. I rose before dawn, as was my habit. A few months before I had moved my psychotherapy practice to an out building on our property, so I could be available to Tom while he struggled with his declining health. Several of our dogs worked with me as co-therapists. I got up early so we could all have a good run before our workday started.

That morning the dogs were goofier than usual. I noticed, but attributed it to their reaction to Tom’s return home and how compromised he was. In retrospect, I see that for transference instead of an accurate assessment. As we started down the fire trail that ran along the periphery of our property, I noticed several snakes lying across the path. It was too early for them to be out sunning themselves. As we continued on, more and more snakes appeared. They showed up in an astounding array of sizes, shapes and colors, many of which I hadn’t seen, in twenty years of hiking there. I was transfixed.

About a mile below our house was a creek where I was in the habit of doing Yoga while the dogs played. When I got to my spot, I noticed a bright turquoise snake with about a four-inch circumference and about nine-inches long draped across a log that spanned the creek. Its coloring and shape were magnificent and completely new to me. It didn’t move, though it watched me intently. As I returned its gaze, an emaciated cat wobbled out of the woods on the far side of the creek and headed for the log. I sat on the other side and watched as that poor, ataxic creature climbed onto the log, looked me dead in the eye and made his weak way across. He walked around the snake, who just watched, and kept coming towards me. When he arrived he climbed into my lap, threw his forelegs around my shoulder and began a deafeningly loud purr. His eyes were so crossed that I was astounded that he could see at all. He lit up the mommy thing in me so strongly that I was surprised that I didn’t start lactating on the spot. I carried him back up the mountain. The dogs took the lead, jumping over or going around the snakes. They seemed to be remarkably unfazed by them.

When we got home, Tom was up. He was furious that I had “dragged home yet another rescue critter.” It was an old dance we had performed many times before. Tom was a surgeon. When he looked more closely, he told me that the cat’s eyes were crossed because he was starving. He trundled into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of cat food laced with butter and placed it on the mantle. I was still holding the cat, as the rest of our critters were seriously interested. I wanted the new guy to be able to eat and hydrate before he had to deal with them. When I put him on the mantle, the cat unhinged its jaw and shoveled the food in like a backhoe. As we watched, I noticed a single tear roll down Tom’s cheek. I sighed. That was the sign I needed to know that Tom would be the new fellow’s friend for life.

I had to get ready for work. In the confusion, I forgot about the snakes. Every critter needed reassurance that their places in our hearts were secure, even though another had joined the family. Tom needed emotional and physical support. Everyone needed stuff and I had a full slate of clients scheduled from nine until four. When I checked in at noon, Tom was napping with the new guy sprawled across his lap.

At four, I went back to the house to prepare snacks for the game Tom had been talking about for a week. Tom came into the kitchen to keep me company. We were joking around when an ear-splitting scream from the living room stopped us. Ani, my elderly Siamese cat was leaping between the ceiling beams with each hair straight out screeching. We stood transfixed for a moment. I grabbed Tom’s boots. He refused to take them. Ani jumped off the beam, marched across the living room and pissed in his slippers. While she was doing that, I got my boots on. Tom was yelling, but he threw off his slippers and put on his boots while Ani raced around the house gathering up the dogs and other cats into a tight circle around us. Then, she herded us to the fire trail. When any of us broke ranks, she raced around us until we reformed our tight pack. She moved us to an open meadow a couple of hundred yards from the house.

That’s when it hit. There was a crashing explosion, and then we were all flying through the air. While still airborne, I saw the mountainside ripple like the belly of a woman giving birth. We fell back to earth with a resounding thud. Tom and I had been holding hands when it hit. When we came back to Earth, I was holding his ankle. Tom was shaken, but he reached into his deep well of reserves, got to his feet and calmly told me that it was “just and earthquake.” Not being a California native, I had thought it was an atomic blast. Across the canyon, a grove of second-growth redwoods was slamming in unison against the hillside, popping up and then slamming in the other direction. I had a hard time catching my breath as we watched.

We made our way back to the house. The mortar had given out on the rock wall that formed one side of our home. The boulders had crashed through walls, appliances and furnishings. Tom yelled at me to get out of the house; we had work to do. I found him outside staring at the propane tank that had come off its moorings and landed on its shut-off valve. Propane hissed into the air. He told me to lie down with my butt as close to the tank as I could get it and to use my feet to roll it off the valve. He knelt so he could get a hand on the valve. His plan worked. We set off to check on neighbors. We found few humans but lots of overturned propane tanks and freaked out critters.

It was still early. The commuters hadn’t made it home. There were just a few folks around. Fortunately, several were strong teenagers. One of them spotted a fire. I found rakes and shovels while Tom instructed them on how to put out a fire with them. We gathered the handful of adults and decided to break into pairs to go house to house turning off propane tanks and looking for the injured. Tom and I set up a makeshift infirmary outdoors.

Time passed. The commuters weren’t showing up. One of the kids found a generator and plugged in a television. We watched replays of the Bay Bridge going down. We recognized the car of one of our neighbors teetering over the broken bridge. After dark, another neighbor showed up. He told us that there had been a major slide that only a strong hiker who knew the territory could get around. We were cut off.

Tom wasn’t surprised but he was running out of steam. He had fixed a dislocated shoulder and set a few bones. I didn’t know where he was drawing his strength from at this point. My love for him and gratitude for our marriage ballooned. Being cut off frightened us both. Tom’s health was enormously precarious at the time. He was the only M.D. within reach. There were others with injuries that would have been better served in hospitals.

Everyone in our community survived. There were injuries, but in the scheme of things, none were serious. Several houses went down. The community’s water system was destroyed. This turned into a miracle. Our water system was old and falling apart before the quake. We were on the water board. Another member found a way to get the quake damage to pay for a new, state-of-the-art system that our tiny community would not have been able to support. We, and several others, eventually rebuilt our homes. Life went on.

Tom and the dogs and cats, except for Seymour the earthquake cat, eventually died. I moved 120-miles north with Seymour. He has since passed too. I now live in a fishing village poised over the San Andreas Fault with two cats. From my perspective, it’s silly to live in an active fault zone without some good cats. My habit of a daily hike now carries an extra dimension: keeping an eye out for snake conventions. I do that morning and night now. I figure that if the snakes surface again, I’ll have at least 12 hours to inform folks, batten down and get my critters to safety. By nature, I’m the belt and suspenders type.

Surviving an earthquake is easy, if you pay attention to what the wildlife and your critters tell you. I didn’t get the significance of the snakes at the time. They are our friends. They absolutely get that we’re all in this together. At no point on that fateful morning did I witness any hostility between species that normally prey on one another. I will never ignore such information again.

Be safe. Please let your friends and families who live on the Pacific Rim know about the snakes’ reaction to an impending big quake. It could save their lives and yours. Good luck to us all.