A couple of years ago, Dorian became very aggressive. Not toward people, but certainly toward other horses. He’d bite them, pin his ears and make sure they stayed out of his way. It was uncharacteristic—I’d never known him to be aggressive at the rescue.
It got so bad, he was moved from pasture to pasture because he couldn’t get along with other horses. Finally, after he took two chunks out of a sweet chestnut gelding, he was banished to the “bad boys” pasture where he got injured day after day.
After six weeks of trying to be patient with the herd sorting things out, and giving Dorian a good talking to on a daily basis, he went lame. Looking back, I realize it was his way of saying “Get me the heck outta here!” Which is what I did. Into a stall he went with a stone bruise so bad the farrier had to put special padded boots on his front feet just so he could walk. And I had to hope, every day, that he wouldn’t develop an abscess with boots on where I wouldn’t be able to see it.
He came through all that fine, but it wasn’t until over a year later, that I really understood what had happened.
Dorian was doing pretty well in the gelding pasture. He played with his friends Spike and Saber all day, and ate hay contentedly with the other horses.
But then the injuries began again. First a large bite on the rump, then a kick to the chest which caused his upper leg to swell. Then the barn owner texted me a photo as I was teaching my college class, asking if it was Dorian—the photo showed a cut beneath his eye. I asked that he be put in his stall and I’d be there as fast as I could.
Worried sick, I rushed to the barn after classes and found him bright-eyed in his stall, doing his favorite thing—munching hay. Relieved, I pulled him out, cleaned both his eye and shoulder wound and applied an arnica poultice to help with the swelling.
I drove home feeling both grateful and deflated—here we go again, I thought.
But finally, the light would dawn.
People say horses are telepathic. I’m not sure what that means, but I do know I talk to Dorian all the time, no matter how far we’re apart. I feel his presence, I feel him listening to me—I can’t explain it any better than that.
So finally, after having gone through more than one of these injury prone episodes, on a cold, snowy, sloppy day in January, I sat on my couch ready to hear what the real issue was.
I’d studied equine herd behavior, equine behavior, and horses' relationship to us, both on my own over the years and in my EAL certification training. I knew that horses are adept at providing us information that can result in life-changing choices. I realized that Dorian had been trying to communicate something to me for over a year, and I hadn’t been listening.
Horses often mirror back to their owners unacknowledged issues that need addressing.
What popped to mind was Dorian’s trauma, and how he’d let that horrible image come to the surface during a massage session. And how he’d allowed it to be present and then pass away into nothing, leaving him free to be the sweet, joyful boy that had always been his true nature.
I wondered what that and his injuries had to do with me.
After sitting quietly on the couch for a long time, in a flash, my own abusive childhood came roaring to the surface, with all its trauma and hateful messages, which I'd worked through for many years. And on the heels of that came an image.
Just as with Dorian's trauma, it had been submerged way below the surface until that moment, and it was--again like Dorian's--a serious assault. But mine was a sexual assault at a time when I was too little to even know what was occurring.
My whole body began gyrating on the couch as I relived the experience. It was a memory I’d completely repressed. As a much younger woman, there had been therapists who’d tried to regress me, but I realized in the midst of my painful, body-wrenching turmoil, why they’d had to halt the sessions time after time, and bring me out of it. The pain was overwhelming, both physically and psychically.
But I think because of Dorian’s courage, I stayed with it. I literally rode out reliving the assault, insisting in the midst of the pain that it didn't have anything to do with me, and like Dorian, I could put it out completely. I repeatedly insisted I could let it go.
After a long time enduring what seemed so real, just as suddenly as it had arrived, it vanished. I sat there, sweating and shaking, but free and present in the cold January light streaming through the window.
The road back from that realization would be a long one, with many more realizations and letting go of old habits in thought and action. But at that moment, I felt nothing but freedom and gratitude.
I gazed around me, taking in the peace enveloping us both.
I realized Dorian’s acts of violence—to others and to himself—were, at least in part, messages to me about what I had experienced but wasn’t acknowledging.
My subsequent research showed this incredibly discerning ability was not unique to Dorian; horses often mirror back to their owners unacknowledged issues that need addressing. As Linda Kohanov notes in her groundbreaking book The Tao of Equus, horses and their owners are drawn together because they resonate with each other deeply.
And, as I've discovered, horses can use that incredible intuitive ability to facilitate life-changing healing in humans.
As for me, in my moment of clarity I felt ashamed for taking so long to learn what Dorian was so desperately trying to teach me.
It seemed imperative to get to the barn. I wanted to tell him I’d heard, I’d understood. I threw on my coat, grabbed Lily, and raced over to the barn, all the while speaking to Dorian mentally, apologizing for taking so long to hear.
As I drove, I felt increasingly exhausted. The emotions and the stress of the experience had depleted me. “Please boy, please don’t make me wade through the boot-sucking mud to find you,” I mentally said as I sped over the Poplar Street bridge and into Illinois.
When I turned off South Moreland onto the barn road and headed slowly up to Dorian’s paddock, I saw him in the distance standing at the gate. As I drove closer, I saw he was turned toward the entrance, not toward the pasture as was usual--he was watching for me. I parked and covered my mouth to stifle my sobs of acknowledgement.
He’d heard me.
I haltered him, tears in my eyes, and apologized. He lowered his beautiful head and indulged me. He was so gentle, so patient, letting me whisper into his mud-caked mane.
“You don’t have to hurt yourself any more,” I told him. “I heard you. I finally heard you.
He heaved a big sigh and began licking and chewing, his way of letting me know he was right there with me, and all was well. He was relaxed and letting go of all the angst he’d been carrying around.
Carrying around for me.
After I got him out of the paddock that day, we took a long, slow walk. Dorian grazed and Lily trotted around the pasture. I gazed around me, taking in the peace enveloping us both.
I leaned against Dorian's warmth, and watched the stark gray sky cut by a lovely flock of graceful birds swoop as one, down and up, undulating across the sky like a great wave. A few moments later, they banked, then winged away into some distant, benevolent future.