Feeling Safe during Uncertainty: Lessons from Lilly

Lilly came to our farm a few weeks, or perhaps a few months, ago when COVID-19 was just an exotic virus that did not seem to demand too much attention.  I hoped she would be a companion for my grieving miniature donkey Spencer who had lost his best friend of 13 years a few months prior.  Overweight, but tall for a miniature donkey with a delicate build and petite features she was the opposite of Spencer who was short and round in every way.  He was delighted when she arrived.  She was not.  He immediately mounted her to show his enthusiasm. Mounting was his usual way of initiating play with his prior buddy.  Lilly was not amused.  She either did not understand, or appreciate, his gesture.  She double barreled him in the chest- twice.  When he attempted to approach her again, she spun, glared, and lunged with teeth bared.  Spencer kept his distance after that, but maintained an optimistic outlook, ears forward, with a soft, hopeful expression on his face.  The glaring and kicking continued over the next week.  When I tried to approach her, she moved just out of reach.  When I tried to enter her stall which she was placed in against her wishes at night, she shoved me with her nose repeatedly or backed into me. I felt worry rising along with a bruising disappointment over what I was sure was false advertising.  I had been assured she was “a sweetheart.”   I called my friend in Arizona to de-brief.  She happens to be one of those people who is annoyingly insightful.  She listened, and then said “It sounds like she doesn’t feel safe.”  Of course, that was it.  It made perfect sense.  How annoying.

Feeling safe is often necessary for connection to occur.  It’s hard to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to make a real connection with another if we don’t feel safe.  I didn’t know all of Lilly’s history but from what I did know, I realized she had likely been put on a trailer and moved at least 7 times in her young life.  She was just 4 years old.  Imagine being taken away from everything you know, placed in a small metal box, driven to a new place and left there, not knowing whether you would be there short term or forever, with none of your friends or family, nothing familiar, and no say in your own destiny.

I wondered how I could help her feel safe.  If feeling safe fostered connection, perhaps the reverse could be true as well.  Perhaps achieving a connection in some way would increase her sense that she was safe here.  I spent some time just hanging out near her, breathing, smiling.  I played her music- New Age Instrumental, Dua Lipa, classical, Brandi Carlile, Billie Eilish.  She seemed to like New Age Instrumental best.  She came close with ears forward, sniffed, and then tried to eat my cell phone.

She slowly allowed me to do more.  She would stand for brushes and scratches.  She would not allow her feet to be picked up- a flight animal giving up its ability to run- the ultimate test of trust.  She would lead or drag me to places she wanted to go- green grass- but firmly and politely declined to lead places I wanted her to go.  In the dark cold morning trying to get to work on time, my frustration must have been palpable.  I needed a way of getting her to lead.  She made it clear that pressure was not going to work.  The old carrot or stick fable came to mind.  I don’t like to use treats, however it occurred to me that perhaps my thinking on this topic had become a bit rigid and outdated. Perhaps there was a time and a place for everything.  Perhaps this was the time and the place.  I broke out the low sugar treats, left over from ages past when my horses decided they tasted like cardboard and they would prefer to have nothing, thank you very much.   When I went to lead Lilly from the barn to the paddock I gave her a treat for taking a step in the right direction.  Lilly accepted this as a token of my good will.  She looked at me with new interest and followed with at least mild enthusiasm.  I praised her and then praised myself and made it to work on time for a change.

We continue to have some challenges to work through, but I am falling in love with this assertive little creature who can go from fight to flight in a blink.  As all great companions do, she is expanding my thinking, growing my patience, opening me to new possibilities.  She is exotic in so many ways, a beautiful little mystery for me to puzzle out and I admit that I fantasize about whether far back in her lineage she has some zebra.  Regardless, I enjoy thinking of her as my very own little Zonk-a-Donk.

Lilly has reminded me of the power of connection to build bridges across our fear and uncertainty. This pandemic has many of us on edge.  Our world is turned upside down, the future is uncertain, and we had no say in this massive change of events.  We will likely react differently depending on our prior experiences, our own well-worn neural pathways for handling stress, and our physical and emotional reserves in any particular moment.  Deepening our sense of connection to each other will calm our nervous system, return us to a state in which we can think clearly, function our best, and do what we need to for the good of all.  Well- connection, adequate availability of personal protection equipment, tests, and test results that come back in a reasonable amount of time.

We are all in this together, literally, across the globe.  During this time of social distancing, there is also deep community.  I hope that helps us all feel just a little bit less afraid.

Releasing Resistance, Flowing With

Riding my thoroughbred mare in a neck ring without her bridle is alternately frustrating, enlightening, and thrilling.  I love the feeling of using my body and energy to communicate with her rather than micromanaging with my hands.  It is exhilarating to let go of control (at least some of it!) and lean into this new experience.  Sometimes, with my eyes closed at the walk, I can feel where the edge of the arena is, where we need to turn.  Other moments, steering becomes more of a negotiation.  Make a suggestion, take a suggestion.

Often, it is in the canter that I feel most in sync, most connected.  One day, during the canter, I could feel Monarch’s energy rising, and suddenly we felt rushed and out of control, like a semi-truck careening down the highway.  I braced initially, holding my breath, and pulling back on the neck ring, but my ex-racehorse only barreled faster forward.  The words “relax and go with” floated up, something I had heard before in a moment of stillness.  I grabbed some mane and breathed and allowed my body to flow with hers. We were going fast, but it didn’t feel so scary anymore.  After a few seconds I imagined slowing my energy just a little, exhaling long.  Her energy came right down with me into a lovely rocking horse canter, and then down to the trot.

All this got me thinking about how maybe sometimes it’s necessary to find a way to “sync up” with people first as well before trying to change the energy in a room or the direction of a conversation.  “Syncing up” could look like listening first with an open mind, really trying to appreciate something from another perspective before perhaps offering a slightly different point of view.  In his book “The Five Invitations” Frank Ostaseski implores us to “push away nothing.”  He suggests that even experiences we don’t want have important lessons for us if we can choose to lean in and get curious, rather than immediately resisting, pushing, or heck, shoving them away.

I spend a lot of my days meeting with patients and families dealing with serious or chronic illness that no one wanted.  There is often a bracing against the illness, a sense that it is something to resist, fight, push away. The suffering that comes along with serious illness is staggering- physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial.  It’s natural to resist.  Leaning in takes a special kind of heroism.

At times, I feel the same resistance happening in me when we share different points of view on how to move forward.  But, when I can “relax and go with”, really listening to appreciate my patient’s point of view rather than bracing against and trying to shift it, I feel the most connected and the most fulfilled in my work.  Perhaps I need to offer another possibility gently, an invitation to slow the semitruck down, to pause and reflect on where we’re at, what is most important to them, and where they want to go from here.  Perhaps it’s my point of view that needs to shift.  Make a suggestion, take a suggestion.  It feels more like a conversation when it goes that way, and ultimately more of a shared decision about how to proceed.

Both my patients and my horses are teaching me that bracing, immediately resisting, or trying to convince another only creates more tension, dissolving the possibility of real connection.  By “syncing up” in a genuine way, through intentional listening and appreciation, relaxing and breathing through the brace, we can work together to find a stride and a pace that feels just right to both of us.