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  • crissimcdonald


When I started learning about horses, it was from a place of deep and abiding love. The way of being with horses that I fell into came from a place of entrenched warfare. Not everything done to them was horrible, or drew blood, but looking back I can see how dominating it was. Between learning from cowboys (who, admittedly were patient enough to teach an eleven-year-old girl who was just happy to be with a horse) and people who were in the horse show world, my love of horses revealed itself in small moments. A quiet bareback trail ride. Feeding carrots. Burying my face in a furry, sweaty neck and inhaling when no one was watching.

But the other times, no matter who I learned from, it seemed to be some version of “make them do it,” and “show them who is boss.” Being both a beginner and compliant by nature, I did as I was told. Horses were, and are, also compliant, and so they would yield to my battering legs or yanking hands, and if they didn’t the more experienced person would “show them who was boss.”

By the time I’d reached my early twenties and got a horse of my own, the only thing I knew was to ask nicely once and then drop the hammer. Over thirty years of learning about horses, with many of those years spent deprogramming much of my previous learning, I now know that what I learned was how to be at war with horses.

After I was married, had a job and two horses of my own, a small barn, and decisions that were up to me and whatever equine healthcare professional advised me to do, it wasn’t too long before I wanted to go to war with others too. I wasn’t loudly argumentative. I didn’t hit anyone. But my own anxiety and unexplored inner landscape caused me to fight with people in the form of being overly controlling, judgmental, and passive-aggressive. Oddly enough (haha), this came out in my horsemanship too.

Two things happened in my late twenties that would change the trajectory of my life. I began therapy, and I met a cowboy clinician who worked with horses in a way I hadn’t ever seen before. If a horse chose to fight, he didn’t. He directed. If a horse couldn’t engage or didn’t understand, he persisted with quiet confidence until the horse was able to show up. He talked about lightness being on the outside, and softness being on the inside. He said softness was joy. I was hooked.

This was also the time I began meditating, walking, and the martial art of aikido. I don’t think it’s an accident that the word “aikido” translates to “the way of harmony.” I kept on with therapy. I had an established and strong network of wise women.

Piece by piece, I began to find moments of clarity and harmony. Oddly enough, this showed up in my horsemanship too. I started asking questions, instead of demanding. I began learning more about the intricacies of how the horse saw the world. I realized how little I knew, and how far there was to go. But horses didn’t care how much I didn’t know. Their peace with who I was on any given day started to influence my desire to also achieve their state of inner quiet.

Since then, I’ve spent many years practicing and teaching the art of softness, both with people and with horses. This art has to come from softness on the inside of myself – softness can’t be faked.

So here we are, decades later, after a monstrous year (if I hear the word “unprecedented” one more time…) and I’m realizing that I no longer wish to be at war anywhere. On the inside of me, the outside of me, with friends, family, people I dislike, people in general, governments, the pandemic, nothing.

What does this uneasy truce look like? Right now it involves a whole lot of acceptance, and I’m realizing that acceptance doesn’t mean I think things are amazing and don’t need to change. Acceptance isn’t passive. It’s actively seeing things for what they are and do what I believe to be right and true. It means that the worldwide chaos and death, along with the heaviness of the recent deaths of friends and my beloved 18-year-old cat has a place to be expressed that has nothing to do with shame or putting an end date on grieving. It means keeping my eyes open to the possibility of being kind.

This truce is, for moments, a restful place to be. In the time it takes to inhale and exhale, I can look outside the window where I’m writing and appreciate the blue winter sky and the wind moving the pine trees. The dog at my feet. The steam from my tea.

I don’t want to fight anymore. At 51, however, this has a completely different expression than it did at 11 when not fighting was more to feel a sense of safety, whatever the cost to myself. Now not fighting means looking for ways to blend with What Is-even chaos, even death, even the threat to our health and life. Not fighting means I call a truce with myself first, that I stop judging my aging body, that I stop being impatient with my grief, that I give myself and others the benefit of the doubt.

Horses started me on this path to ending the war with them. The end of that war meant calling a truce with myself, and the life I inhabit.