Dancing Mare by Pam White
I wrote this about 3 months ago, but did not publish it. However, having just returned from the Body-Mind Centering Conference, and then a workshop on the autonomic nervous system with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, I thought I would share a personal experience with balancing in the nervous system.
It was not exactly warm, but underneath the coolness, I could feel the edges of spring, and hear birds that I had not heard for many months. The snow in the big field had receded, and the ground no longer had that lumpy, frozen quality that makes me worry about the horse’s legs. I decided to walk Sanne, my 20-year old Friesian, out into the field and savor the expansion of heart and mind that comes at the end of a long winter. Sanne has been with us since he was 3. His name means “lily” in Dutch, and we call him, lovingly, “Sanne the Lily of Holland.” Besides being a wonderful ride, Sanne has performed in several of my dance works with horses.
The path to the field was deep rutted mud, and it was a relief to get onto the turfy grass, still brown, damp and soft. We turned right and began to walk up the slight incline toward the woods. I let Sanne walk on the buckle and gazed to my left at the far end of the field. Suddenly, Sanne spooked – a huge startle that sent him flying backwards and sideways. Sanne is a big guy, and the kind of horse that invites you relax, because his nature is so kind and his temperament so even. I have felt him spook before, but it was never a big, unseating event. Once when we were out in the woods, a huge stag leapt high to our right, parallel with our direction of travel. Sanne did not even flinch.
Now, as he spun, I remember thinking “going off” and have a vague memory of seeing my left foot coming out of the stirrup, and then I hit the ground. I landed hard on the right side of my back.
The next part is still so clear. I did not move. I lay still and felt the sack of my body and my breath. Sanne stood next to me and cropped some old hay that had been spread during the winter, unfazed and settled. Good. The last thing that I wanted was to see him running. I moved my legs just slightly and slowly turned my head to see if anyone had seen me fall and was coming to check. No one in sight. I did a slow inventory. Ribs could be broken, but probably not because breathing was not too painful. I gingerly shifted onto my hands and knees.
In that position, I remember laughing out loud, probably with relief that I could actually move, that everything seemed to be where it belonged. I stood up slowly and waited to see if I was steady, then took the reins and walked to a granite block on the other side of the field and got on. I could feel the deep pain of my ribs and a sharp pain in my right groin, but managed to get on. Sanne carried me back to the indoor arena. We picked up a trot and within about 30 seconds it was pretty clear that was probably not a brilliant idea.
Halfway home, I pulled over and got out of the car to feel if I should go to the hospital. By then I could not bend at the hip or flex my leg up at all. By the time I got to the ER, I could not walk. CT scan and x-rays confirmed that nothing was broken, and no concussion. The next three or four days in bed, my whole body a map of pain.
Not every fall is an opportunity for mindfulness. Some falls are catastrophic, and take one completely out of body and mind. This fall, though, allowed me to see myself as if I was looking down from above, and at the same time to clearly feel the moment-to-moment landscape of myself from within .
A number of years ago I suffered a great personal loss – a trauma that completely rewrote the landscape of my life. One result was that I studied Somatic Experiencing®, the trauma healing work of Dr. Peter Levine. That 3-year training basically re-wired my nervous system. Over time I became more resilient, steadier, and mostly free of the panic and anxiety that resulted from that loss. And now with this fall, I had a very clear, bodily experience of how differently I was able to navigate a shock.
Many of our experiences with horses offer opportunities to become more aware of ourselves, more deeply attuned to self and other. Often though, because the horses are big and fast, and because we are afraid or surprised, those openings are lost – we default to anger or fear – fight or flight. We may not fall off, but we fall into the old patterns.
Each ride, each day, is a chance to begin again, to practice not what we know, not our automatic reactions, but what my friend and mentor, the composer Pauline Oliveros called, “the unique strategy.” What that means is that this breath, this moment is unique, unlike whatever has gone before. We can practice this awakening anytime, anywhere. Right now, breathe in softly and feel the exact contours and qualities of this singular breath, this exact moment.