Heartbreak, Healing, and a Wizard Horse in the Desert

I am no stranger to self-help and personal growth. As a certified kundalini yoga and meditation teacher, I’ve completed hours upon hours of introspection and I practice yoga and meditation daily. These disciplines have kept my life running smoothly, yet in spite of all of this ongoing work, I found myself stuck on a particular event that happened in April 2015. One Friday evening, my then fiancé suddenly announced that our relationship was over. I was floored and I felt completely ambushed. I had no idea he was that unhappy in our relationship; we were even scheduled to go on vacation together the following weekend. In that moment, my heart broke so deeply and completely I knew I would never be the same again. I left the next morning and instead of working on my tan in the Caribbean, I spent that week packing up boxes and decoupling our lives. Within two weeks, I moved out.

After the initial shock wore off and the feelings of sadness and betrayal dissipated, I began to realize the opportunity in this situation and my higher-self would make an occasional appearance. This part of me reassured me with sayings like “rejection is God’s protection,” and “love doesn’t always mean forever.” Nine months later some healing was happening but it was excruciatingly slow; progress happened in fits and starts with what seemed like plenty of setbacks. I had the same internal dialogue happening on a regular basis, wondering how could I have let this happen to me? Why didn’t I see it coming? I was confused and angry at myself. Despite this, I longed to move forward. While my daily spiritual practice was definitely helpful and I was not planning on abandoning it, I had to admit I was looking for a something new. Something akin to a defibrillator to jump start my heart and bring me back to life.

Horses have meandered in and out of my life for a variety of reasons, and I’ve been a horse lover as long as I can remember. Almost everything horse related, from trail rides to show rings, the United States Pony Club, and the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association have all been part of my past. I’ve experienced the potent combination of horses and vinyasa yoga through Cowgirl Yoga on Big Sky Yoga Retreats with Margaret Burns Vap in Montana. Over the course of which Margaret introduced me to the following books, The Tao of Equus, by Linda Kohanov, and She Flies Without Wings: How Horses Touch a Woman’s Soul, by Mary Midkiff. Both of these books explore the concept of horse as a mirror and healer. These books led me to find Devon Combs, an Equine Gestalt Coach based in Colorado. 

I’d been following Devon and Beyond the Arena Equine Coaching on Instagram and randomly one late afternoon, saw she had once space left for a women’s retreat happening in February at a dude ranch in Arizona. I signed up immediately on instinct. Then as the date neared I encountered my old friend, resistance. Suddenly I didn’t want to go, I didn’t know what to pack, and considered canceling and forfeiting my spot all together. My heart had answered the initial call, and now my mind was trying to back-peddle out of it. Looking back, I think my ego was trying to protect me; growth and real change often come with a price paid by no longer avoiding the truth. Nevertheless, I got on the plane and flew to Arizona, telling myself that if got there and it didn’t feel right, I could just come home.

When my plane landed, I felt a sense of relief. The dry warm air, sunshine, and cacti, were a welcome change from the bitter cold and dreary February I left behind at the Philadelphia airport. I sat and waited at the baggage claim but my shuttle to the ranch didn’t show up. After an hour and a half and a few phone calls, I was on my way. Then my luggage disappeared; it was just a minor mix up in delivering it the correct room but it was undeniably clear the universe was sending me a message. I needed to surrender and relinquish control and expectations this weekend, and above all else, trust that everything was going to work out.

The next morning, I arrived at the arena for our first session of equine coaching. A paint horse was already in the round pen and several horses were curiously milling about the adjoining paddock; however, I was immediately drawn to a handsome, flea bitten grey gelding with kind eyes tied to the rail. His name was Merlin; I assume after the wizard that appears in the Legend of King Arthur. As I approached, he turned to get a better look at me. Something about him called me in closer. Standing by his shoulder, I placed one hand into what was left of his southwest winter coat and reached out the other. He brought his soft muzzle to my outstretched fingers and sniffed hello. The warm air from his nostrils blew across my skin. I looked into his deep brown eyes and he looked back at mine. His calm demeanor appealed to me and I was happy to stand there stroking his neck, scratching his throat, and rubbing his ears while a breeze blew and the sun shone. Time stood still for a little while and soon it felt like Merlin and I were old friends rather than new acquaintances.

Then, it was time to begin and Devon called us into a circle to get started. All of the women and all of the horses, including the ones watching, had an air of excitement. The electricity was palpable and the horses in the surrounding paddocks danced back and forth along the fence line; their whinnies and snorts reflecting our energy back to us. They were eager to get to work. Devon guided our group through a meditation, a series of prompts that dropped us into our bodies and grounded our energy. When we opened our eyes, everything surrounding us had settled, especially the horses. There was no denying the connection between us all.

After we checked in and reported how we were feeling that day, Devon called for the first volunteer for equine coaching. Without thinking about it, I closed my eyes and raised my hand high in the air. As hard as it was to get here, emotionally, I had come to do the work. A tightness across my chest seemed to always be there and I had so much sadness buried inside. I was afraid to cry and I thought that if I started to cry, I may never stop, but I was tired of being this sad, shell of a woman. I was tired of holding it all in, pretending I was OK. I was determined not to live the rest of my life feeling this way.

Devon and I began by sitting across from one another eye to eye, surrounded by a semi-circle of the other ladies. I cannot remember all of the questions she asked, but she patiently worked to have me connect to the source of the hurt. What did I feel in my body? Tension and tightness in my chest. How long had it felt that way? A long, long, long time. Was there ever a time it didn’t feel that way? No, it has been there most of my life. Before long, tears started to stream down my face. I couldn’t hold them back any longer. As embarrassed as I was to breakdown crying and appear vulnerable in front of strangers, letting it go was better than holding it all back. Keeping these feelings repressed had become exhausting, and at that moment it didn’t matter who was sitting there watching, all of these tears were going to fall.

Next it was time to share my story with everyone. Between uncontrollable sobs and deep breaths, I reiterated the unpleasant details of the day my heart broke, the day my dream died, and how it took my confidence as a woman and a human being along with it. With Devon’s hand at my back, I found the courage to speak aloud secrets that I hadn’t ever told another soul: what happened, what he said to me, what I felt when he said those things about me, and what I did. These incredible women stood strong rooted into the earth, they held my hands in theirs, looked into my eyes never turning away, and cried with me because my story, on some level, was their story too.

Feeling raw and broken open it was time to step into the round pen for the equine coaching. Devon intuitively switched out the paint horse and replaced him with Merlin. She knew I needed a strong and steady male presence. She instructed me to walk into the center of the ring but before I could even get there, Merlin walked towards me so I stopped and let him approach. He put his muzzle against my heart, against the spot where the tightness lived, gave me a gentle nudge and then turned and walked away. My soul leapt with the initial contact and then my heart dropped as he moved further and further away. I made the assumption that he, just like my ex, was rejecting me. I felt the sadness swallow me whole.

Devon guided me back to the center of the round pen and told me to face the group, close my eyes, and ground my energy. She asked me a few more questions of which I cannot recall but we essentially got to the following point. At my core, there was a belief that my ex discarded me because I was worthless. I knew logically, the idea that something was inherently wrong with me didn’t make sense, yet there I was feeling small, insignificant, and invisible. The rejection I felt during and after the breakup had unearthed a hidden chasm of pain, deep seated feelings of unworthiness that were buried under years of seeking and receiving external validation of my worth because I didn’t feel it within. All those years spent on the back of a horse chasing ribbons came into focus. I’d been compensating by over achieving for most of my life because who would love me if I wasn’t perfect?

Devon told me to open eyes and to turn and look at Merlin. He had laid down behind me. In horse world, this is a big deal. As a prey animal, lying down is risky behavior as it goes against a natural instinct to be ready to flee any danger or predator. I felt he was acknowledging me, and letting me know that I was OK, and that it was safe to feel this pain here and now. Then Merlin stood up and began to release, almost a coughing, a leeching of the heavy energy I was feeling. When he was through, he approached me once again and wrapped his strong neck around me, a bona fide horse hug. He affectionately groomed me with his big horsey lips. Now, my years of horsemanship education told me never to let a horse do that, but in that moment it felt right. Merlin wasn’t bossing me about as much as showing his interest and acceptance.

As long as I stayed in my heart space, feeling all the feelings, Merlin stayed near. The minute my mind would take over with endless thinking, trying to figure everything out and make sense of it all, he would move away. This taught me the importance of remaining present to myself and knowing that I have inherent worth. This knowing and intelligence lived in my heart, which I had stopped trusting after the breakup. The minute I moved to validate that heart knowing with logic and my mind, there was a discrepancy. Devon explained that horses don’t reject but they seek congruence and Merlin was coaching me to understand the difference. This was a big breakthrough and experiencing this knowledge through an interaction with a horse was so powerful. It was something you couldn't reason with the mind alone, it just was true, beyond words and thoughts.

I’ll never forget my time with Merlin, Devon, and other women, supporting me while I stood there vulnerable in my authenticity. They all saw and accepted me for me. I felt acknowledged in a way that was true. I walked away from our session knowing that I am safe to trust my heart again. I felt stronger, more determined, and at my very core, good and worthy of love. I began to see possibilities where once I only saw obstacles. Merlin had worked magic indeed.

It’s been a year since I had this experience. I imagine that arena full of tears has long dried up and evaporated in the desert sun. What lingers is a renewed sense of self, freedom, and direction. Six months later, I was able to fully step into my dharma work as a yoga teacher without fear. It’s been said that relationships are our greatest teachers and having the opportunity to experience relating to a horse in this way was unbelievably profound; it left me forever changed and filled with gratitude.

“Two feet move your body, but four feet move your soul.” – Anonymous