Holding Space

This was written on Good Friday, 2020, during New Zealand’s full Level 4 lockdown.

Out in the paddock this morning there was a perfect storm of agitated Andalusian. Nishka is separated from the other horses because of an unresolved medical issue that causes her intermittent pain. We’ve had her back and forth to the Equine Hospital three times, and we’ve exhausted their arsenal of diagnostic testing. The thing that causes her sudden pain in her abdominal cavity, pain that causes her to kick out when touched and hang her head with a pinched and stricken look, remains a mystery. 

Today we had the farrier coming. Lockdown means we are obliged to take a lot of precautions – opening the gate when the farrier arrives, presenting the horses without standing too close, scrupulous hand washing. The hardest part is not being able to offer Winton a cup of tea or some baking. We like our farrier a lot, he’s talented and funny and we’re lucky to have him. 

At the beginning of Lockdown, the government didn’t consider farriers as essential service providers. If we had an urgent need for the farrier, we had to ask our vet to issue an authorised certificate. We have two horses with corrective shoes which can’t be left too long, and so we procured the special authority. Winton told us that once he was in the gate, he might as well see to all of our horses, so line them up we did. 

Dawn organised the horses and I took the dogs walking up the Gorge. We left early, just after 9 and, being Good Friday, there was even less traffic on the road than the new normal, which is not very much. I have been walking a little over a kilometre up the road and back most days, but today we pressed on further. Over the one lane bridge, over two rushing streams that feed into the river below. Past rich green fields with no animals in them, past the odd tidy post-and-rail gate with a well-kept lane snaking off into the hills to a house that is probably quite spectacular, while the houses near the road are mostly average and some are fairly ramshackle.

We came around a bend and I heard a horse calling out plaintively, with no answering call. The landscape on the South side of the road opened out into a massive paddock — probably 5or 6 acres — of lush grass. A lanky white horse was walking the fence in that anxious way that horses on their own will often do. No other horse in sight, in fact, no other animals at all. The horse was thin with ribs showing and poverty lines on his rump. In the midst of all that abundance. Stress will do that. It left me feeling sad, a hole in my heart for the big white horse up the Gorge. 

Dawn was still wrangling horses for the farrier when we got home, so I took the wheelbarrow and headed down to the empty paddocks to get the mucking done. I worked my way up to Nishka, who is currently grazing the back raceway. I was nearly finished with a very full barrow when all of a sudden Nishka noticed that several of her friends were missing. She started to pace and call out. The farrier and his apprentice came into the broodmare paddock to trim the foal and that was the last straw. Barney has become Nishka’s special friend and she seemed to feel that he was under threat with the stranger handling him. She leapt into a full-tilt gallop to the far end of the raceway, spinning on her hind legs and galloping back, hooves crashing into the ground and dirt flying. I pushed the barrow out of the way and ducked under the fence for safety. She was heaving and trumpeting, blowing air at the top of the race, spinning and barrelling away for another lap. 

I stepped up to the fence and cocked a hip. Gazed off into the middle distance with my eyes and shoulders soft. As she approached, I let out a long, audible exhalation. She stopped, frozen, eyes wide. I exhaled again. She blew out, ducked her head and took a quick drink. Then she went for another gallop. I repeated my exhalations every time she approached, and each lap became quieter. She was still very agitated, and yet she lingered near me a bit longer each time. I said, “yes” as I breathed out. And “good girl” before she took off again. Finally, she stopped and put her head down. Took a long drink from her water bucket and then she was still.

Did my posture and my breathing help her settle? I don’t know. But it felt good to hold space for her. It felt good just to be there when I can’t be there for my husband or my daughter or my friends who are locked down in Barcelona, or my brother who is holed up alone in the insane cesspool that is the United States.

The farrier finished up and Dawn brought some hay. She coaxed the mare and little Barney over to Nishka’s side of the paddock. Everyone put their heads down to the new sweet hay and all the world felt right again. 

Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

Nishka and Barney, grooming over the fence.

5 thoughts on “Holding Space

  1. Lucky horse to have you there.

    My favorite is this: “It felt good just to be there when I can’t be there for my husband or my daughter or my friends who are locked down in Barcelona, or my brother who is holed up alone in the insane cesspool that is the United States.”

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    1. To me this is the highest level of communion, and one we are lucky to experience even once in a while. It takes many forms, but it is always about a human demonstrating willingness to be present, and a horse demonstrating the value of that presence. Does one “cause” the other? No matter when our experience is synchronous. What a special moment!

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  2. “Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.” I may have to go back to my old ways and embroider that on something! I know firsthand that the power of mindful breathing works through us to affect peace and calm in horses, dogs, and people. At least! And we all need it more than ever. Thanks again cousin.

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  3. So what ever happened to that poor, lonely, thin horse all on its own? Breaks my heart to think of that. We always say what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving. I am thankful for your “blog” (terrible word, yes), as it helps me to feel connected to you!

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    1. I wish I could say for sure. The sight haunted me for days. A neighbour thinks it might have been one of a local farming family’s horses, and perhaps his mates had been taken out for a ride over the hills. I haven’t been walking up that way in several months now, but I never saw that horse again during lock down when I walked up there regularly with the dogs. Thank you for your kind words, cousin. I love to find a comment from you and know that you are reading …

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