I entered my internship at the Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies (GEIR) as a completely blank slate. I had no real Gestalt group work experience and even less horse experience. All I knew is that I loved animals and wanted to help people. The latter is what got me into the field of counseling in the first place. The Gestalt modality of psychotherapy, with its focus on the here-and-now moment, creativity, and fostering client genuineness, had become one of my preferred ways of conducting therapy. This internship signified the beginning of the end: the start of the final clinical portion of my master’s program, and I was ready.
Or so I thought.
I entered the scene with what I thought was a real willingness to learn. But underneath, lying latent, was a stronger desire, perhaps my true intention behind my time at GEIR—to appear competent. Like many other counseling graduate students, I came to GEIR armed with a deep-rooted tendency for perfectionism and an excruciating desire to be effective. My “willingness to learn” was very much contingent on my ability to remain in control and appear competent. I was only willing to bear the emptiness of my blank slate if it was clear to the other interns and group members that I had other slates, all plenty full with wit and wisdom.
From the get-go, it was clear to me that Happy Dog Ranch, the home of the GEIR trainings, was a special place. The ranch itself is a stunning landscape bursting with life. I had hardly stepped out of my car before bumping into Fritz, one of the ranch cats. I looked up to see the spacious paddocks housing the ranch’s 45 beautiful horses, whom I would come to deeply love in no time at all. The attendees of the GEIR training greeted me with a tangible warmth, clearly connected by their passion for equine psychotherapy. I knew I had stepped into something special.
On my second day there, we got into small groups to practice the technique and headed out into the paddocks. I was working with a client when I learned that the supervisor, Duey, had been observing me. He asked if he could give me feedback about the session, and then invited me to join him in an “experiment”—a signature intervention in the Gestalt psychotherapeutic theory.
Duey took a big step toward me, mere inches from my face.
I took a big step back.
Duey said, “Why didn’t you ask me to move?”
I was confused. I thought about it before responding.
“Well… because this is a problem that I can solve on my own. I don’t need to inconvenience you when I can take care of it on my own.”
“But I got up in your space and invaded your boundary. And you moved. Why didn’t you ask me to move?”
“I guess…I’d rather just take care of it on my own.”
Duey looked me square in the eyes.
“It deeply saddens me that you would rather be lonely than ask for what you need.”
Beneath my sunglasses, I could feel the tears start to well up. I was silent.
Duey spoke again. “It is uncomfortable for you to feel powerful. Isn’t it, Carrie?”
I nodded yes.
The tears began to fall.
From 50 yards or so across the paddock, a beautiful Paint mare looked up at me and began to trot my way. Passing a hay bale, other participants, and no less than a dozen horses, she came straight to me, approached me slowly, and pressed her nose into my heart.
Surprised, I started to stroke her neck, and Duey invited me to try another experiment. He told me that my new horse friend, Hollywood, was a powerful mare, and that the owners often use Hollywood to move the feet of other horses in the herd. Duey invited me to lead her and do the same—to move his feet.
Still crying, and still feeling uncomfortable, I practiced leading Hollywood toward Duey until he felt the impulse to move. At first tentatively, and then with more power, Hollywood and I teamed up to move Duey. After several successful rounds, Duey asked how I was feeling. He asked what it was like for me to experience being powerful. My only reply was “Weird. Good, but weird.” The tears had stopped, and I felt a little more like myself again.
At that moment, Hollywood stepped in front of me, almost like a shield.
Duey said, “Keep leaning into Hollywood’s power while you work on finding your own.”
The blaze on Hollywood’s forehead looks strikingly like a large semicolon. I cannot deny the symbolic meaning of the semicolon in this situation: the ability to end, but the choice to continue. That’s exactly what she did. She knew, from far away, that I was failing, and that I needed help to go on. Hollywood and her semicolon blaze shielded me and let me lean into her power so that I could continue.
Later, I read Hollywood’s bio on the ranch website and learned that Hollywood will come to you when you call her name. I had done just that. I called Hollywood with my vulnerability. I called her with my authenticity. I called her when I let my guard down, surrendered my desire to be competent and effective, and allowed myself to truly be, exactly as I was, in that moment. Hollywood embraced me as I embraced my own authenticity. She started where I stopped.
I now know firsthand that horses have a way of seeing what is unseen, of calling us into the present moment. They call us to be ourselves and demand we step into our own power. And if that power is frail, they will let us borrow their strength to look deep within ourselves and find and foster the courage to keep going.