Photo Credit: Dory Touhey Photography
"Awakening" is a very personal and honest story for me, as it is about the changes that I faced as a 47 year old woman who was longing to grow but was not sure where or how to wake up enough to do it. I never thought a horse would be able to awaken in me a new voice with fresh stories worthy of telling, maybe I should just change her show name to "My Midlife Crisis"...
I had noticed the same look on faces of women my age all the time, but I just didn’t know how to make that tired look on my own face go away. I don’t even really know my age by heart. By the time I figured out the math and put the number to memory, I was having another birthday. It seemed as though I began looking at a stranger in the mirror every morning when forced to look as a practical matter, and I found that I was unable to let go of the imprinted image of myself that was one of youth, of livelihood, of fun, of boundless energy. Holding onto this old familiar image had been my fall back plan up until now, and it was fading away with the days and years that I was leaving behind me.
My life seemed full, and I felt grateful for all of the countless blessings that were coming my way, but there was still a missing piece, and I knew that I was the only one who could fulfill it. I had drilled and drilled myself with the knowledge that I was the one who was in charge of my life, of my happiness, and I was always willing to take responsibility for it. I had successfully taught myself that to look outside of myself would never help me to find the answer to the mirror image questions: “Who is this woman? Have we ever met?”
The most surprising thing about the continual shift was that I didn’t even realize I was changing, as time had so gradually slipped through these once gorgeous fingers. Perhaps I had unconsciously decided to sleep through it all, and while I slept, life was still happening. I had become an expert at watching omnisciently, with a sort of looking glass, seeming to live outside of myself, and losing the ability to see the sweetness within a moment. I never really found the ability to be fast enough to leave the past in the past, to be slow enough to leave the future in the future, and I was seeking the wisdom to find the now, but had no idea where now even was. A seemingly thick haze had formed over my life, and was steadily muddying up my days and keeping me tired.
The soul within me helped me begin to recognize that I needed to awaken. I felt increasingly drawn to water and nature and I had an intense desire to find those elusive moments that were now. I sought to be surrounded near all that brought me peace, but I wanted to be surrounded in things, not surrounded by things anymore. “I need a vacation.” I kept thinking, and I had a burning desire to run away, to escape, to be somewhere else, somewhere warm, anywhere except with the woman that I no longer even recognized.
It had happened so gradually, but it seemed to have happened so quickly. As time began to come and go with a new kind of swiftness that had only been explained to me by my parents, by my elders, and it even seemed like whimsy when I could not relate, but suddenly the “time flies” metaphor made perfect sense to me because time was in fact flying, and I was quietly sitting back and watching. It felt like I was standing alone at a busy intersection as traffic flew past me. I was close enough to get my hair blown back, or get splashed by a nearby puddle, but not close enough to get in on the chase to the next great thing, the chase to what everyone seemed to be looking for or running to. I just couldn’t find the meaning in it. It used to look exciting to me. I used to want to jump right into that traffic and play in it, revel in it, even try to beat it at its own crazy game. Everyone looked so happy on the outside, but were they feeling the emptiness of forgetting how to be in the moment? Were they as caught up in the speed of life, as unsure of how to be present anymore?
Many days I found myself content staying at home, uncertain why I felt so tired. I felt a disconnect with my soul, I felt that I had lost my voice, a gift that had once flowed freely, though I understood and was resolved that it was a temporary state and it was safely hibernating somewhere, sitting quietly waiting for something significant to happen. I wasted time procrastinating the deep digging I knew I needed to do to awaken my inspiration again. I thought that perhaps I had run out of things to write about, so I asked for some answers, asked again for guidance, and I sat and I waited until it came.
I began to find glimmers of inspiration when I gave myself permission to notice small, sweet details in the landscape that surrounded me, and I felt comforted by small examples of life captured in the moment. I began to work on noticing the awe in the world and to look at it all with wonder again. I practiced using my eyes with the vision of a child. There is a tree near my house that is shaped like a peace sign that could catch my attention as I drove by it and it never failed to make me smile. I learned to allow the tree to stop my mind from racing restlessly, and I began to search for the meaning of the symbol that it represented.
I worked on alleviating my anxiety, which had been forcing me to have constant and exhausting thoughts that seemed to have no end like, “Get there fast, because you still haven’t …” or “Don’t forget to…”, as I stopped to take in the individual shapes and sizes of the leaves in our yard. I looked very closely at the parts inside of flowers when I felt hurried or stuck in a negative emotion. I stopped often by Lake Michigan and stood there looking out into the vastness of it taking in the size and breadth of its enormous body. I spent time swimming in a small local lake gazing away from its shore for as long as I could do it, as if the answers to my whole purpose could be found there. I found incredible and new beauty in these things as I practiced my new found inspiration, and I started to take in the moments of my life in an effort to wake up, and it was working. It was as though I was preparing for a great shift in consciousness, and I was slowly waking up to the possibilities of wonder in the beautiful life that I alone had designed. I was opening my vision to seeing great things that had always been there with a slow but steady shift in my thoughts that were trying so hard to stay present.
My life’s work, by design, had been to alleviate for others the very thing that I suddenly had been struggling with. As a riding instructor and horse trainer my only and most important job was to teach people how to use riding horses to help them stay in the moment. Horses have no understanding of time they only understand now. This unique perspective creates the perfect storm for people who live lives that are fast paced, caught up, never getting a moment to breathe or relax. People come to me seeking relaxation time with horses. The barn is a safe haven, to remind them that life is to be lived simply and one moment at a time. Many years ago I realized that I was not just a riding instructor, I was also a teacher of life lessons, but somewhere on my road to inspire others through these fantastic animals, I had forgotten to do the very thing that I had become so proficient at teaching. I had forgotten the simple and pure lesson of the horse, until the night she was sent to teach me the lesson again.
On the night of our rescue horse Sara’s arrival, my 14 year old son Ryan and I left his dad asleep at home, and alone together we set out to the barn where I worked to meet her. She was not to get home until midnight or later but we arrived at the stable a little before 11pm. The air was warm and windy on that July 30 evening, and there was a storm beginning to blow in. Storms in Wisconsin are beautiful and uncertain, they are edgy and foreboding, they move like fury right through you, and somehow this seemed fitting for our night full of uncertainties. We were feeling the storm rumble through so strongly, and the anxiety of awaiting the first meeting of the slaughter bound horse we had saved on a mere feeling I had from the look I noticed in her eye seen only in a photograph on facebook, was palpable. Her journey had been a difficult and sad one, but I knew that she would now be coming home to a life of unconditional love that she had only known from the 18 others in her herd that she had been torn away from, and that she would finally feel peace if she could accept a new and better life with us.
Ryan and I scurried through the barn with nervous energy, though we both were enjoying the familiar sound of horses rustling in their stalls, blowing air through their active noses, sniffing around for the last nibbles of hay from their evening feeding. Night time at a barn can little be explained to those who have not experienced it, as it is sacred time for horses, time for them to be alone without people, to have their talks with one another and share their hallowed experiences between stall walls and bars. It was a rare night indeed that we got to be a part of night time rituals with our family of horses, and I was enjoying the freshness of the smell of sweet summer rain, coupled with the aroma of fresh hay and shavings; a familiar scent that had a lifetime of history behind it for me. I had become complacent with the smell, I had forgotten how much it meant to me, but on that night I took notice of it, and I fell in love with it again, as I was reminded to smell with the nose of a young girl who loved horses and loved being at the barn. I smelled within it opportunity for a new life to be welcomed into our sanctuary, and I took notice that it was in fact a sacred place. The barn was a place that I had found so much peace throughout my life, and although I had chosen to work within it, it could always be a place of peace and joy for me, and I felt overcome with gratitude for the life I had chosen, and in that moment, as I took a deep breath of fresh barn air, I realized that I was being rewarded for creating the perfect path for myself.
Sara’s stall was pristinely clean, and Ryan placed four flakes of fresh hay neatly down for her. We attached her Himalayan salt lick to a rope, and added some candy to her licking treat that we hung carefully on the wall. Ryan looked for a ladder to stand on so that he could hang her treats properly. We installed a new red feed tub for her and gave her clean new green buckets to drink from. And lastly, we hung her new leather halter that had her name engraved in brass on it, a gift from a friend, and hung her stall plate meticulously straight to the front of her stall. We were ready for her arrival. I had thoughtfully cut up some carrots and apples for her with the hope that she would know that I understood that love and food are closely intertwined for a horse.
The shipper called saying they were still a couple of hours away and that they would be there a little after 2 am. It seemed I had waited a lifetime for Sara so why should I be at all alarmed by the fact that it was only 11:30 pm? So we sat, appreciating the storm, and I thought about how soon she would be here and how the waiting would be over. Ryan and I sat pensively watching the rain beat down on the ground through the opening of the large barn door, and we talked at length about her story, and how we were so proud to be a part of rescuing her. We told all of the other horses that she was coming, and we talked about how lucky we were to be able to take her in. We talked about the nick names that she would have, and the walks we would take with her. Ryan’s excitement to finally meet her was only matched by mine. We decided to clean the bars of her stall and dust the front of her stall just to keep busy. I arranged horse supplements in plastic baggies that I had marked with a sharpie with her show name “Saphira”.
As the gooseneck trailer finally pulled in the driveway, I took some pictures of it on my phone. Ryan teased me about the ridiculousness of those photos, so I stopped to notice that the storms had passed now and there was stillness and striking quiet as the trailer made its way. I looked up and spotted a very bright star in the sky that was cloud filled just moments before, and we both knew that it was a sign from our pony MacIntosh. He had died two years earlier, and he was known to send us great and perfect stars from time to time to remind us of his continual guidance, and it struck me just then that perhaps he may have had a part in helping to send Sara to us. I felt encompassing warmth, and a lump formed encircling my entire throat. “Look” I said to Ryan pointing towards the star, “Mac is here.” Ryan nodded noting his own lumpy throat, as he looked at me with a sweet watery gaze full of faith and hope.
“Here she comes.” I said, feeling the anxious sensation of a person arriving at the peak of a roller coaster hill just before it takes the big first drop. We both stood watchfully silent in the moment as the trailer made its way up the long driveway. The storms had passed us now, we could hear the sound of tires crackling over wet stone, and from the halo of the red and white running lights we could see the silhouette of horses’ faces inside the slanted trailer stalls through the side windows. The trailer stopped smoothly and the driver emerged from her truck with her driving partner, both looking exhausted. I gave her a lengthy hug acknowledging that her journey had been long, and I knew that brave and heroic sacrifices had been made on behalf of my horse, and of all of the other horses in Sara’s herd that she had been instrumental in saving.
As she opened the rear trailer door I heard Sara’s voice for the first time. It was a high pitched mare sounding tone, and she was calling frantically to her friend that she had spent years, perhaps her entire lifetime with. I felt the immensity of the pain of her broken heart for the first time. Her eye rolled back looking for her friend, and slowly I reached in through her trailer window and felt the side of her strong cheek as she shifted her gaze toward me. She seemed to know that I was the one she was waiting for; she seemed to know that she was safe, and I felt that we comforted each other at that moment, as she waited quietly to be unloaded while I stood on the edge of the trailer so she would not lose sight of me. I somehow knew that she needed to know that leaving her friend behind did not mean it was the end of love for her, that leaving her last and only family behind was okay, as it was a new beginning, and if she would just give me this moment, this chance, I could promise her that I would not leave her, that she would never face a day like this day again.
It seemed like we had known each other before, it seemed like we had known each other forever. Even through the bars in the window, I felt instantly and completely connected to her, and I felt her relax into my hand as I stroked her cheek. I had imagined for so long what she was like. The hours I had spent looking at her facebook picture could not have prepared me for the realization that she was even kinder, stronger, and more beautiful than I had even ever imagined her to be.
As the driver unloaded her, Sara paused and looked around. She held her head high and took in a strong deep breath of the air that she would soon come to know as the air which surrounded her new home.
“I have been waiting to see the look on your face when I dropped her off and you got to see her in person.” The driver said. But I couldn’t even focus on her words, as I was mesmerized by the enormity of the moment, and I was taken so completely with her and by her.
The driver handed me the lead rope and I felt Sara’s energy come through it and into my hand as I pulled it taut, encouraging her to follow me. I pulled only for an instant though when I realized that she needed me to stop, to wait for her, as she took in the moment and the significance of it. She took another long deep breath, as she stood in the realization of how much her life had just suddenly changed. I felt her strength both inside and out, and I thought about the vastness of her journey, and how she had been with the others for so long and how one by one they had all gone. Her family, the only family she knew, had been torn apart as if by a war, but still she stood strong and eventually, in her time, she followed my lead with a broken heart.
As we walked into the barn she snorted as she stepped onto the cement, and she cautiously tip toed onto it as if it was polished ice. She moved slowly and fearfully, trying to understand the sound and the vibration of cement beneath her feet, and she looked around at the walls and the ceiling as she tried to find herself in time and space. I patiently helped her across the barn aisle, though her fear took my breath away, and for the first time I realized that this horse may have never even been inside a building before. She may have never lived in a barn, or walked on a cement aisle. She had slept outside under those same stars sent by our pony for her whole life, and she most probably had never slept under a roof with four walls, and she was afraid. The moment, the shock of this overcame me, as I stopped with her for several moments to allow her to look around, and I patiently gave her time to try to understand walls and doors, and a ceiling, and other horses that lived behind barred stalls.
When we arrived at her stall, she went willingly and trustingly inside. I closed her door and she rolled right away in the clean dry mountain of shavings we had carefully fluffed for her. She shook herself off and looked around seeming composed, so I left her there while I went to pay the driver, and I could hear her calling frantically for me, for someone, anyone who she could bond with. She was afraid to be alone, she had never been alone conceivably, and perhaps she felt the fear of solitude for the first time.
Sara's first day in her paddock As a herd member, there was never solitude, but now she had to experience what lonesomeness really meant, another first for Sara. It must have felt so foreign, so isolating to her. As she looked around, she was surrounded by others but she could not touch them, and she could not be with them in a way that was in any way familiar to her. She could not introduce herself to them in a way that she was accustomed to meeting new herd members, as show horses are kept separated for their own safety, but she could not have understood this peculiar practice which at the moment must have felt so barbaric to her.
Fear and loneliness seemed to live within her now and I felt called to help her through it all, but I had no idea where to even start. It was an experience I had not anticipated, as I was so stuck in the fact that she was coming to a better life that I had not considered the loss she would experience from leaving the comfort and familiarity of the life she had known before. After all, she did not know that she was a slaughter bound mare, to her she was a member of a very strong herd that understood the meaning of strength in numbers, but the number one was not even in her repertoire, individuality was not a part of her twelve year life experience.
Ryan and I went into her stall to be with her. She was quickly quieted by our presence, and her sweetness, the warmth of her spirit showed through her expression so strongly that tears just rolled down my face when I realized just what she was facing. Her forward pricked ears, and a sweet willing eagerness to know us was overwhelming, and I felt that we were immediately accepted and looked upon as her new herd, perhaps because there really was no one else.
The feeling of unconditional love overcame us as we struggled to help her understand her new surroundings. I remember thinking that I easily could sleep with her in her stall and that I could stay there and never ever leave her. I remember feeling the immense pain of her loss with such empathy, as she quietly smelled my hand with trust and reassurance that she was most certainly the horse that I had imagined her to be, and in fact she was the horse that I had asked for while I was asleep, and that the manifestation had exceeded my expectations of who she was by such margin that I was literally weighed down by a parallel moment of overwhelming happiness for her arrival, and unfathomable sadness for the loss that she was experiencing.
We hadn’t spoken in a few minutes when Ryan in his sensitive way quietly asked, “Can we try a carrot mom?” As he crouched down in front of her showing her where her hay was and trying to show her the treats, she gently bent down toward him and sniffed the carrot in his hand. She sniffed side to side along his hand and looked at him sweetly, wondering what he was asking her to do. She did not take it from him though, as it looked nothing like a rolling green pasture with a group sized feeder for everyone to collectively share.
Her new leather halter was loose fitting and comfortable against her skin, but it did not cover the scars that her old nylon one had left on her face where her hair had worn down to the skin. I imagined that halter must have been left on her perhaps for years as she was probably difficult to catch. She looked like one who could have spun quickly around lush pastures away from people whom she had no interest in knowing.
She seemed to be searching to understand the language we were speaking to her, but she was not able to immediately recall it from memory. I had wondered if any of her former owners had ever spent any time with just her, if she had ever even known human love before. The driver had handed me her Paint Horse papers that had a tiny picture of her as a foal. The photo showed a wanted and loved baby, and I wondered how she ended up within such loss. I noticed a yellow sticky note with the name “Sadie” tucked carefully within the plastic sleeve that held the paperwork with her extensive lineage on it. I thought about the person who must have held her in their heart too, I wondered if she too had loved her like I did, but had to let her go. I couldn’t imagine letting her go.
I was certain that she had never seen a treat or a carrot, as she continued to politely sniff them and look curiously into Ryan’s hand. Ryan bit the top of the carrot and chewed it up for her, spitting it into his hand to try to coerce her into trying it. He crouched low to see if she felt more comfortable trying it closer to the ground thinking that if he showed her near the ground she may decide that it was food worth trying. She sniffed it harder this time and then looked at him again with puzzlement. “She doesn’t understand us mom.” He said sounding concerned.
“She will honey,” I reassured him, “She just needs time.”
We sat with her for a while longer and I let her sniff into my ear for as long as she needed to, and I allowed myself to trust her. I felt like she was taking in my entire soul with each breath and trying to distinguish and initiate me into her new herd. She was so curious and so innocent, I felt like she wanted to identify and understand every inch of who I was. It seemed as if she wanted to trust me, and she was so accepting of us, that I felt invited by her to stay there. We each hugged her dozens of times, and felt called to do so. I felt her long neck stretch around me as if she understood how to communicate with love even if she did not understand our words or our offering of treats yet.
First Day of her new life (photo credit Sarah Townsend)
It was 4 am when I finally noticed my watch, and the sun was beginning to rise through the windows in the barn, and although I was reluctant to leave her, I knew it was time to let her work out her fears inside the barn alone for a few hours. My heart ached as I listened to the quickness of her hooves circling the stall frantically, and she called anxiously for us as we turned and walked out. I could still hear her as we drove down the driveway, and I could even hear her in my restless sleep which I struggled to get through so that I could get back and be with her again the next day. I remembered my mom telling me so often that life always looks better in the light of day and I had hoped that it would be true for Sara, as my heart was full of love and so stricken with empathy at the same time.
When I woke up the next morning I went straight to the barn to meet her. She was standing in the center of her paddock looking stoic and sure of herself though I knew she had suffered through the early morning hours after we left. Many of the early days were spent letting her meet the children of the barn, and letting her observe what daily life in a training barn was like. Every day I watched her try to be a part of our world with great success and begin to immerse herself in the joy of the love and pampering that we provided her. She works at finding her way among us all, and fitting in, but she is a mare with conviction, and with a full heart that is slowly healing.
I found interesting parallels when we both took a step back and looked around at the walls and the bars that seemed to hold us back. As the days and weeks passed I realized that acceptance had been a large part of her healing, as it was in my own. As I awaited her arrival, when I spent all of the hours staring at her photograph, I had not considered that I would be aiding her with the transition into a life of acceptance. Within my own struggles and my own evolution I recognized this very longing, and knew that she too would help me to accept my daily life as I was awakening and learning to accept what is now, and release old dreams and promises made to myself so long ago that those promises no longer needed fulfilling.
I was surrounded by beautiful horses every day, and had built a life around loving and training them and the people who ride them, but I was missing the whole point of the meaning of horses within my own life. I have always had the gift of being able to compare the content within teaching riding lessons with life lessons, but somewhere along the path I had forgotten that the most important student was me. I laugh inside when I think about how I rescued this horse, as it was me that was the real rescue. Today I can teach from my heart again, my message feels authentic and fresh, and I genuinely cherish every horse and rider in my care more than I had ever imagined possible.
The woman in the mirror looks much more recognizable now. I see the lines and the not so perfect body, but I know that I have grown into this image, and that sleeping through my life would not lead me to the beauty of the days that lie ahead for me. Watching the strength of the character of this horse has brought me back to this moment of gratitude so quickly. I have lost the need to seek happiness outside of myself, as she reminds me by example that healing and happiness is within me and within reach. And although the heart of this horse was wounded, she would repair it in her own time, accept life at her own pace, and she has begun the process of owning her role as a human healer among horses.
As I watch Sara mend herself and become so sure of her place in our world, in her new life, I feel incredibly proud to follow her example of great strength and acceptance in my own life. I have long believed that a person’s horse is a clear reflection of the best of who they are, and I aspire to be more like her each day; for she is a fear facer, a heart healer, and a strong individual who can be anything for anyone. I am awakened by the flow and strength that Sara renewed for me, and the lessons that she gave to me. Gratefully today I live contentedly, and I am experiencing life from the voice of my soul perhaps for the first time. I can find “now” so easily these days, and I watch Sara with great pride, as she eats carrots from her red feed bucket, and enjoys a daily smorgasbord of apples and sweet potatoes along with them.
Sara one year later...
(Photo Credit: Dory Touhey Photography)