Sometimes our greatest teachers come in a form we don't expect. My most recent life lessons came from a horse.
Meet Nellie. She was my companion and teacher for a week while I traversed the countryside of Ireland on horseback. She's part "Gypsy Vanner," which is an Irish breed with feathery legs and serious dreadlocks on the mane and tale. Like a draft horse, Nellie is sturdy and strong, but luckily short, making it easier for me to launch myself on her back. Her coloring is an intermix of brown and white (called Blue Rhone in horse lingo). My riding companions chuckled when we realized that my head of hair and her body hair were all too similar!
My coaching friend Trish Lemke of Joy Rides organized this trip for seven of us. We flew to Western Ireland via the Shannon airport and then took a quick trip to a town near Ennis. An Sibin Riding Center was our destination and home for the next four days. After a day of riding on the trails near the riding center, we headed for the Western Coast of Ireland and the stunning Cliffs of Moher.
Each day we rode about 13 miles. We had a break for lunch along the way, then ended our day at the pasture where the horses spent the night. Our host transferred us back and forth to the riding center for four nights until we got too far away. Then we stayed one night at a bed and breakfast in Corofin and a boutique hotel in Lisdoonvorna for two nights.
At the riding center, we awoke each morning to the bleeting of two hungry lambs (kind of like a rooster crowing but cuter). After some yoga stretches, we ate a full Irish breakfast then tacked up our horses at 9:30. Our morning ride typically lasted 2-3 hours and took us through the lush, emerald countryside dotted with ancient ruins and rock walls. Our hosts met us mid-day with a picnic lunch (salad, cheeses, and breads for the humans, grain for the horses). Then we finished the day with 2-3 hours of riding.
It was a long day in the saddle, but our sore butts and legs were soothed with a stop off at a local pub on the way home for a pint of Guinness. After all that riding and the pint of beer, I usually needed a nap before a beautiful Irish dinner was served.
Our evenings were filled with conversation about our day and what we were learning from our horse teachers. The summer solstice meant the sun didn't set until after 10:00 pm giving us plenty of time to process. Trish helped us engage a new sense each night as part of our coaching practice together. Then we'd hit the hay to prepare for our next day in the saddle. Being outside all day long meant deep slumber in the night.
We got quite lucky with our weather for this trip. Only one day (the last one) graced us with the typical weather of the region --- cold damp intermittent rain. The rest were primarily sunny or overcast and unseasonably warm (upper 70s). My wardrobe was more prepared for cold and rain than sunny and warm, but I made do.
It took a bit to adjust to so many hours in the saddle. I was thankful for my purchase of a "seat saver" -- a sheep's wool pad that topped my saddle. It literally saved my ass.
Six days in the saddle is no light undertaking. And I'll admit to not really understanding what that meant when I signed up for this riding extravaganza. I had been riding two times per week since December, but that barely scratched the surface of what my body would need to endure through this trip.
I find in my work with horses, that usually the "right" horse shows up for me. Nellie ended up being a great choice for me in the end, but we did have a rough start -- a stumble on Day 2!
As Nellie and I transitioned from a gravel hiking path to a paved road, she and some of the other horses started losing their footing on one hoof or another. Their horse shoes would slip on the pavement where it was particularly worn down. It didn't seem to be problem because the other three hooves were on solid ground and we only walked on the pavement (trotting and cantering on the gravel hiking paths). I was thankful horses have four legs and can spare one occasionally...or so I thought.
But then right before lunch, two of Nellie's hooves slipped at the same time as we were walking. Down we both went. Luckily she placed me on the road as softly as possible. Her short stature meant I didn't have that far to fall. My bruised hip and scraped hands were minor (thank goodness for riding gloves), and she didn't hurt herself. So, we both shook it off (literally) and kept on going. There really wasn't room for panic or a refusal to get back on. I let fear go as fast as possible.
By the end of that day (despite and maybe because of our spill), Nellie and I were in sync. And by Day 6, I had developed new riding muscles I didn't know I had -- hello inner thighs of steel! It's amazing what riding six hours a day for six days can do to advance your skills in the saddle and build your body strength and stamina.
Overall, that experience pushed me in ways and reinforced me in others. By not making my fall into a "story," I was able to move past it quickly and not let it ruin my trip. Oh sure, when I would hear one of her hooves slip my gut would tighten. But that noise always brought me into the present, and then I carefully moved her to the grassy edge. No story. Less fear.
I also received an excellent lesson in "herd dynamics" as I observed our constantly shifting line of horses. Nellie is a pretty low key, laid back horse, but she definitely has some trail mates who do not prefer her presence near them in the line. The other mare in our mix (Cara ridden by my BFF Kerry) did not care for Nellie on her rear or in front of her.
Nellie could cause quite a ruckus when she would decide to move to the front of the line and briefly take the second position behind our lead horse Paddy. Her slow plodding walk changed the pace. I quickly learned it was a lot easier on everyone when we traveled in the middle surrounded by geldings (male horses).
Nellie's slow walk, however, did not mean her trot and canter were pokey. She was quite fast. We usually fell way behind when we were walking, but always caught up lickity split when we moved to a quicker pace. It was quite a lesson in speed management and spacing with the other horses.
Like with all new relationships, I hesitated to be too bold in my requests at first. And thus Nellie didn't know what to do, so she stayed the course as she had planned it. But by Day 4, I had learned what worked and what didn't with my leg pressure and reigning, and I was a lot clearer in my requests. Surprise, surprise, she responded better. Funny how clear communication works with both horses and humans.
In the end, I learned that I have a lot more physical and mental stamina than I thought I did. My love for horses and what they teach me --- whether I'm riding or working with them on the ground --- grew by leaps and bounds.
I'm even more excited about the next phase of my life & leadership coaching practice -- to coach with horses as my partner. I'm about half way through my training program with the Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching. And I have a lot of ideas on how to support my coaching clients as they go to the next level of healing and happiness with my equine-assisted coaching methods.
With my 50th birthday a meer seven months away, my adventure in Ireland cemented the role of horses in my next phase of life. I'm feeling a bit more confident about the "second half of my life" with horses along for the ride.
You could call this new obsession with horses a mid-life crisis I suppose, but I'd rather call it a mid-life awakening. I'm certainly more awake today than I was three years ago. And everywhere I turn there's an opportunity for more. I'm thankful the student in me is ready and my horse teachers are appearing.
Thanks to Joe Boyden for sharing his amazing pictures of our trip!