Leave the Lipstick, Take the Iguana - Funny travel stories and strange packing tips


The Horse Whisperess

A frazzled lawyer discovers the business end of horsemanship.

Here in Marin County, home to the hot tub and peacock feather, I thought I knew the alphabet of self-realization, abs to Zen. But I would have to travel to the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains to become enlightened by the Equine Experience.

My gears were grinding in overdrive from my work as a law firm marketing consultant. Desperate for a tune-up, I dialed 1-800-SPAFINDER.

When I explained my situation, the spa specialist didn’t hesitate. “Miraval. They cater to people like you.” She moved on before I could ask what she meant. “And they offer a fantastic workshop, where you attain enlightenment by grooming a horse.”

I laughed.

“Don’t laugh.” She sounded offended. “It’s profound. You learn a lot about yourself.”

With a Ph.D. from the Woody Allen School of Obsessive Introspection, I was skeptical. My psyche has been plowed, fertilized and tilled, and I hoped there wasn’t too much more to unearth. But this travel agent, whom I imagined in a warren of cubicles at some isolated outpost with an 800 number, had passion for her horse experience. I was intrigued.

Six months later, I ended up at Miraval, less than an hour from Tucson. My plan was to sleep, do yoga, and get a massage every day. Practicing mindfulness on vacation, once I arrive at mindlessness, I figure I’m there.

As a former lawyer, cross-examining other guests on activities they’d enjoyed to date came as second nature. Workaholic lawyers from New York gave two thumbs down to workshops where they were told to write about their work, then make believe they were their work.

“Are you from New York or California?” one asked. “California? You’ll like it.”

But even the most corporate, Ivy League, untherapized among them touted the Equine Experience.

It sounded simple. First you groom a horse. Then you get it to walk, trot, and canter, using nonverbal cues. Thinking I should do something beyond the vege, I signed up. There were just two of us, me and Val, a buoyant real estate broker. Wyatt, the therapist cowboy, would shepherd us through the experience.

We sat on bales of hay and got some basic facts. To the horse, you are a predator. But the horse is more powerful than you are. Horses don’t understand words including “whoa” and “giddyap.” They do understand body language. They pick up on threats and fear, and they will react.

Moving into the ring, Wyatt demonstrated how to groom Monsoon, a two-story ton of horse with a ticklish spot. He taught us how to approach the horse and where to touch him to establish rapport.

The first task was to clean Monsoon’s hooves. When Wyatt pinched the tendons of Monsoon’s foreleg, the horse raised his hoof and dropped it into the cowboy’s hand. Sometimes. Wyatt cupped the hoof in his hand and cleaned out the dry, caked mud with a sharp hook. On to the next hoof. Then, Lordy Lordy, he turned the horse around to get to the other side, by placing the side of his rib cage against Monsoon’s. Keeping a hand on the horse’s back, he walked around Monsoon’s rump, never losing contact.

When a horse feels fear, I’ve been told, it may kick out its hind legs and run. A comforting thought as I imagined sashaying around the beast.

Then Wyatt curried and buffed Monsoon, brushed his face, combed his black forelock, mane and tail. Piece of cake. Suddenly Val’s elbow was piercing my ribs, her eyes riveted to the vicinity between Monsoon’s rear legs.

Wyatt was on top of things. “What do you notice?” he asked. Briefed by yesterday’s participants, I went to the head of the class.

“His male organ is extended.”

We learned this is a good thing.

“That means he’s relaxed,” Wyatt commented. Very relaxed, I thought. And not Jewish.

Wyatt anticipated our every thought. “Don’t worry, he won’t urinate on you.” Well, almost every thought.

“Okay, choose your horses,” he said. “Who wants Monsoon?” Neither of us moved.

“What about Si Si?” he asked, indicating a horse half Monsoon’s size, a speckled gray. I paused.

“Maybe you don’t feel affinity for either horse,” suggested Wyatt.

Yeah, right. I don’t feel affinity for a horse named Monsoon who’s two stories high, has a ticklish spot you’d better avoid, won’t lift his hoof even for the master horseman, and when he’s groomed elongates his gelded organ so fully you could use it to measure hectares.

Val volunteered to take Si Si. I was led back to the barn. I chose a brown gelding, an Arabian beauty, tall, dark and handsome, reaffirming the wisdom that women are attracted to animals who look like them.

His name was Adieu. Perfect, given my state of relationships.

Time to groom. Now picture this. I’m standing in the middle of the ring, afraid to get near the horse. I’m a successful business owner, a mature executive at the top of my field, and I begin to cry. Fearful he’ll kick me in the face or pick up his hoof and slam it into my delicate hands.

“What’s your fear level on a scale of one to ten?” asked Wyatt.

“Six,” I said. Liar, liar.

“What’s it about?” Power, authority, the obvious answers. The people who kick you in the face, metaphorically. I couldn’t admit I knew it would ruin my manicure. “That’s good,” said Wyatt. “He knows you’re afraid; now he doesn’t feel threatened. Back up and approach again. With confidence.”

I backed up, approached, retreated. Three times: marched forward, touched Adieu’s shoulder, pinched his foreleg, ran away. If there had been a larger group that day, watching, I might have maintained my composure, kept the armor on. But there was relief in letting a four-legged, non-English speaker trigger a release of fear and stress deeply buried under archaeological layers of business success.

Finally, I got the hoof in my hand. Now I was afraid I was going to hurt the horse. I imagined soft little doggy paws, as I prepared to dig in the sharp hook.

Wyatt took the hoof and dug deep, fast, and hard. Thwack, whomp. I stood amazed. “It’s as hard as ram’s horn,” he told me.

I cleaned two hooves, turned the rump around, and cleaned the other two. When Adieu tried to pull his hoof away, Wyatt showed me how to pull it back. Apparently a horse responds to boundaries. What a concept.

Then I curried, buffed and combed, now totally in love with this beautiful, cooperative horse.

As Wyatt led Adieu to another ring, Val confessed she was jealous that I could cry. Her fear, she allowed, was a nine out of ten.

Adieu was free to run. “When you meet a new horse, observe. Let it run out pent-up energy first,” Wyatt advised. A good policy beyond the horse.

He showed us how to move Adieu around the rim of the arena. Standing 45 degrees behind the horse, Wyatt’s body faced the animal squarely. The horse was motionless until Wyatt started to walk. Adieu picked up his pace as Wyatt picked up his, occasionally flicking the whip behind the horse, but not touching him. Through body movement he got the horse to walk, trot, canter, and stop. He showed us how to turn the horse around by repositioning ourselves.

Val did it. I did it. There was a certain thrill, though I was still skeptical, believing that the horse was trained, merely going through his paces. “If you think that, take a breath and pause,” said Wyatt. I did. Adieu stopped. “Now make him canter.” I sped up my pace and Adieu responded.

I felt powerful, though Wyatt was quick to point out that the horse could pulverize me if he chose to.

Back on the bales of hay, Wyatt described the typical response of corporate types who do this for team building. Some root for their colleagues to succeed. Some hope that they will fail. The most common fear of CEOs is that their covers will be blown. Underlings will see that they are shams, Wizards of Oz who have tricked others into thinking they are competent, powerful human beings.

At the spa that night, I soaked in the hot tub with the workaholic lawyers from New York.

“What did you learn?” one asked.

“Horse sense,” I replied. Reminders important for work and love. That how you hold and use your body communicates more than words. Pick up on the energy. Boundaries are appreciated. An animal that doesn’t speak can express more affection than many humans. When you want to get someone big and powerful turned around, put your rib cage against his and walk slowly around his rump.

* * *

Laura Deutsch’s personal essays, features and travel adventures have entertained readers of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco magazine, More magazine, Psychology Today, and many other publications. Her essay on surviving Tuscany appeared in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, and her piece on surviving a hip New York hotel was anthologized in I Should Have Stayed Home. Laura’s book, Writing From the Senses, will soon be published by Shambhala, and she is currently writing an irreverent memoir about her spiritual journey around the world. Laura leads writing retreats from Tassajara to Tuscany. For more information, visit her web site at www.lauradeutsch.com.

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