I call 1988 the year of my 180. I was 30 years old and my goals at the time were simple: build my skills and reputation as a horse trainer and riding instructor. I was willing to work hard to succeed in an equestrian career. I loved horses and they had been my refuge, a resilience factor for a lonely youth. When I embarked on a career as a horseperson, horses also became a stage on which my abilities, and vulnerabilities, were displayed. And that was not always easy.
In the spring of that turnaround year, I went to evaluate a small sorrel mare as a potential lesson horse for the riding stable I managed in Issaquah, Washington. A lifelong horsewoman, I knew what to look for and what questions to ask. Noting the irregular muscle development in her neck I asked, “Does she have any problems-head tossing, for instance?”
“No, nothing like that.” The young woman didn’t meet my eyes. When I asked her to ride the mare before I tried her myself, she sat passively on the horse, with no contact from her legs or reins, allowing the horse to wander at will. There was something suspicious about her actions and what came out of her mouth. It didn’t add up.
Irritated by the waste of time, my mind rushed to judgment: She can’t even ride. The longer I watched the more obvious the problem appeared to me. I knew what good horsemanship looked like and she didn’t have it. Though my instincts told me the mare wouldn’t be a good fit for our lesson barn I wanted to make a point. “Let me ride her.”
If I knew then what I know now about emotion and behavior as it exists in all mammals, (starting with myself) I’d have never gotten on that mare. But I was a tough cowgirl, confident that I could impose my will on the horse and the situation. It took only moments for a contest of wills to become a wreck-the horseman’s term for a dangerous accident. The mare reared high, flinging herself backward and falling on top of me. In a flash I went from confident horse trainer to hospital patient.
As I lay in that hospital bed after my accident, pelvis broken in three places, one thought played over in my mind: What made me get on that horse? For the first time in my life I felt whispers of something new and impossible to ignore. I felt fear, but not of the horses. I was afraid of feeling helpless, and of allowing others to help, afraid to have my strong body physically disabled. I was afraid that my willpower would not always protect me; I had to admit it contributed to the wreck.
Later in that same year, 1988, I received a phone call from my brother, Chris. “Leigh,” his voice was steady, but I sensed an emotional undercurrent. “Mom got hit by a train. It’s, uh … not really clear that it was an accident.” As he talked I had the sensation of living outside my body. Later we found Mom’s suicide note and matter-of-fact statement that she wanted us to simply accept her decision to die and move on. At the funeral people spoke about her inspiring life and strong character while I struggled to make sense of it all. What happened to that proud, independent and self- possessed woman?
Despite my emotional baggage, there were horses to ride and train. High on my list was a young bay mare named Frieda. Athletically talented, Frieda was aloof and independent. She didn’t trust or submit easily. Day after day I worked with her, but her defiant behaviors escalated. When she started rearing high to avoid forward movement I stopped riding her altogether and began working her in the round pen using techniques of trainer John Lyons, with the horse at liberty. I memorized the steps used by Lyons, one by one, to get the horse’s attention and practiced them on Frieda and the other horses I worked with. Some days I felt success with every horse, other days I felt as stuck as Frieda herself.
The round pen steps were simple, yet despite following them closely there were days the horses resisted. On one such day I contemplated another independent spirit, a BLM mustang called “Stang,” brought to me for gentling and starting under saddle. Though Stang would not approach, from across the pen his deep brown eyes were honest and penetrating. A new thought filtered into my brain: Could he be reacting to me? Stang lowered his head, and took a tentative step toward me.
After that I noticed a pattern. On the days I was emotionally receptive the horses responded favorably; on the days I was angry and hard they mirrored my internal battle. The horses seemed less interested in the outward techniques I used and more aware of the emotions I tried to hide. They appeared to perceive what was going on deep in my spirit. How could that be possible?
In the year 1988, something “turned me around.” Suddenly I was looking inward, encountering myself instead of trying to master outer circumstance. A decade of healing followed, exploring many of the threads of mind-body-spirit connection that are part of the HEAL Model today. The horses that I owned and trained during this period played an important role in my healing and liberation. Encouraged by my success with them, I began to connect with a wider circle of people using the feeling-based, in-the-moment methods I was learning from the horses.