Day 2 of the retreat was intense and good. The place we’re staying at continues to blow my mind, the women I’m getting to know are interesting and inspiring and hilarious and generally super cool, the horses are each SO unique that watching their training provides an overwhelming amount of information/learning, and the opportunity to apply that learning with one horse under Maddy’s careful and precise guidance — any one of these things would be amazing, but taken all together it’s truly transformative. We were warned on the first evening that we’d be undergoing an initiation through this process, and even already on Day 2 I can see the truth in that statement.
I worked with Mirror twice today, although Maddy started the day working with her so she actually got three training sessions. Mirror has the highest energy of the group and is working on some of the most advanced of the gentling behaviours, so it made sense for Maddy to start with her and demonstrate some of the behaviours we’re building towards at the same time as giving her an outlet for some of her excess energy, which made it easier for me to work with her later. Right now the two sessions are kind of blending into one another, but I’ll try to do a quick synopsis and reflection on them both. Both sessions were out of the enclosure in a larger paddock set up with what Maddy calls a reverse round pen — essentially a circle made from large traffic cones joined together with plastic poles (construction stuff bought from Home Depot). The trainer stands inside the circle and the horse is on the outside (no halters or ropes), and the cones and plastic poles provide protected contact from which to work on a variety of skills. Since Mirror has a lot of energy and is VERY motivated by the food (and easily frustrated if the rate of reinforcement goes down), we’re working on a combination of forward movement (with a little bit of backing up) and relaxation. The forward movement helps her burn off energy and allows for a good rate of reinforcement because she’s very willing to move — she even gave a couple of playful bucks (which my mare Mika also does occasionally when I actually get her lunging), and so we were working on matching pace. I got better at that in the second session with her in the afternoon, when I tried to be less focused on her (based on feedback from my first session), while varying my pace in a more exaggerated way. When I slowed down, I reeeaally emphasized the speed difference from when I picked up the pace, rewarding her for matching up with me. By the end of the second session, she was matching my pace within 2-3 strides, although I still occasionally lost her if I waited too long to find something to reward. So a few times (at least 3-4 times in the second session of the day), I lost her completely because I was waiting for her expression to soften and didn’t see it so didn’t click for too long, and she just kind of lost interest and drifted away from the reverse round pen into another part of the paddock while I had to just stand there and wait for her to decide to come back and try the game again.
So the forward movement/pace matching was pretty fun and cool, because there’s nothing really like the feeling of running (or walking) with a horse joined up with you at your side. Hellllooo endorphins. But because relaxation is also super important — especially for a motivated, high energy horse like Mirror, we interspersed the moving behaviours with the standing still behaviours: targeting the buoy (no problem), targeting her forehead to my hand (really good, holding duration now for about 3-4 seconds), TRM (treat receiving mode, holding consistently 7-10 seconds), targeting the mat (pretty good but not consistent with both front feet on the mat, and still a bit of pawing as she’s figuring out what the criteria is), and targeting the cone as start button for touch, which she’s now accepting on her neck on both the left and the right sides.
I realize that it might be boring to read about this, so feel free to skip over the training synopsis if you’re not a training/horse geek. I’m going to keep writing it all out in greater or lesser detail, though, because I know that so much of this learning will happen as I process and reflect on my sessions with Mirror. It’s amazingly helpful to have people watching and offering observations, and Maddy is an incredible teacher with that gift of knowing so intuitively when and how much to guide and when and how much to step back and let you work it out. Even though I still feel a bit awkward and clumsy at times, and I have lots of room to improve my timing and ability to keep Mirror engaged and within her optimal learning zone (not too much challenge, but enough to keep her interested), both sessions today felt like they really flowed, and left me feeling pretty amazingly energized. Horse medicine is some seriously magical stuff. I think that medicine is amplified with these wild creatures, but also with Maddy’s training methods which create this incredible feeling of connection when you find that 2-way communication and the horse you’re working with is choosing to engage in the game with you, and it’s not work but instead it’s this deeply mutually rewarding play. Such an entirely different mind set from the one that was keeping me in a permanent state of self-doubt and frustration when I was trying to work with Mika in those first couple of years and she was resisting/fighting me every step of the way.
We are keeping very detailed training logs, picking up where the first group left off, so there is a record of each horse’s training since the very first session that will accompany them when they’re adopted out (all of them except one have adopters from the first group, which is a relief to many of us who will inevitably fall in love but cannot take home another horse). Today I recorded Mirror’s 51st and 52nd training session, so she’s up to a total of 19 hours and 45 minutes of training now since July 12, although in reality she probably has a bit more than that because Maddy has been working with her as well and not all of those sessions are recorded in the log. However, since we are tracking their training hours, we need to make a note of the length of each session. I recorded the first session this morning as 15 minutes, and after the second session when I went to write the log entry I figured it had been a slightly longer session, maybe about 20 minutes… but then I checked the time and realized that it had actually been 45 minutes. Total shock — I felt like I’d been in a time warp because there’s no way it felt that long. On reflection, though, it makes sense. The training requires so much attention and focus that awareness of time literally slips away. You are just entirely absorbed into the presence of the horse — the right-nowness of the training process. I’ve never experienced something so grounding and so magical at the same time.
So if you’ve skimmed over the horsey part, this is the part of the post where I write about a totally different topic on something that I’ve though about a lot but that struck me powerfully once again after a good but hard FaceTime call with my folks & the kids. It was our first call since I left on Wednesday, and I’d been mulling over the possible consequences of dredging up the missing of the kids (on both my behalf and theirs). Au was her usual ridiculously adorable self and didn’t show any signs of distress — she is clearly having the time of her life (how could she not — they visited a kangaroo farm the other day), but Atl was another story entirely. When he first saw me on the screen he had the hugest, happiest, most fantastic smile ever which made my heart melt on the spot, but after a minute or two he figured out that I wasn’t actually there — and friends, that smile just crumbled and was replaced by a look of such absolute sadness and dismay that my melted heart instantaneously shattered into a million pieces. The saddest face ever was quickly followed by wails of distress, shock, disbelief, and utter betrayal and I knew that his little heart was breaking too, for the first time ever, because he could see me but I wasn’t there.
I broke my baby’s heart.
I know he will be completely fine, and as one friend commented, he won’t even remember this first heartbreak. But that doesn’t really lessen the agony of knowing it for me, and I realized that this is precisely one of the reasons that being a mother is such a hard, hard thing. Because the first time our babies hearts are broken is always, inevitably, when we leave them. It’s not always that dramatic, perhaps, and maybe it’s not true in ALL cases — or maybe it’s true in different ways and on different timelines for different mother/infant dyads — but I really do believe that the painful and wrenching trauma of separation that happens in greater or lesser increments from the moment those little beings come screaming out of our wombs is one of the deepest and hardest and most heart-wrenching inevitabilities of being a mother. Or an infant. So basically, being a human being — because we all experience it from one side or another.
I’ve reflected a lot on this over the years — watching in awe and amazement (and yes, grief) as my two boys grew from those completely dependent sweet babies that hardly felt like separate beings, into men — MEN!! — with lives more separate and independent and unfathomable than I ever imagined possible. I’ve reflected a lot about how this one of those slow and steady process that is almost imperceptible until you have the benefit of hindsight and the burden of nostalgia for how fast the time slipped away. If you are lucky and strong and self-aware enough, you will focus on gratitude for having had those babies and toddlers and children and youth and not on the grief that comes with the realization that you’ve lost them too. Because even if you are one of the lucky ones and you never have to suffer the death of a child at any age, parenting is necessarily an act of letting go as much as (and sometimes more than) it is a process of holding on. And that act of letting go leaves a terrain scarred with the heartache of realizing that we don’t get to keep our babies forever — that their journey to independence necessarily includes the pain of separation and longing and loss. And that, inevitably, we are the ones who first break our own children’s hearts.
So right now my heart is breaking too, not just because I saw the devastation on my baby’s face and heard his cries when he realized I wasn’t there — it’s also breaking for the 3 other babies I’ve had and had to let go of. It’s breaking because I only had 21 years with my oldest, and I will never have the solace of seeing the man he would have become. For the rest of my life I will miss the baby, and the little boy, and the incredible, beautiful young man that he was. I will live with the pain of knowing that even though I was a source of comfort and love, I was also the one who broke his heart in all of the little and big ways I had to leave him — and his brother, and his sister, and now, for the first time, the baby brother that he never met.
If at this point, dear readers and friends, you feel the need to scold me for such a depressing perspective on the inevitability of loss — an observation that perhaps clouds your sunny view of the joys and infinite blessings of being a parent — I’ll thank you to step aside and take a breath. I know (obviously) that life is multidimensional and complex, and I’m commenting on only one of an almost infinite array of experiences wrapped up in this process of having children and letting go of them enough to allow them to grow into who they are meant to be. Most of the experiences are mind-blowingly amazing & exciting & magical and all that jazz. But I’d be lying, and so would you, if we were to deny that there is a thread of loss, a shadow edge to that happiness, and you don’t have to actually lose a child to feel it. It’s there, tangled up in the mix no matter what the details actually look like in any given story.
And like any other tragedy of life, no matter how grave or how mundane, the only way to really live with it is to look at it, and consider it, and accept it in any way you can fathom. For some of us, that might mean diving into the things that give you the most joy, that keep you present enough in the moment to lose all sense of time, that keep you attuned to the mystery and magic and sheer luck of your improbable existence in this often frightening and incomprehensible world. I’m convinced that we all have lessons here, and often they are hard ones. The only way to grow through them is to let go — of expectations, grief, fear. The pain of hurting the ones we love. All the things that hold us back. That’s not to say we don’t acknowledge these things, because naming and articulating things is a powerful and necessary way to process them, understand them, and let them flow on as we flow on and our loved ones both living and dead flow on, to a destination we can’t know until we finally leave everything behind, and arrive.