Theology and biography belong together. We try to make sense of God as we try to make sense of our own stories, our own lives.
-Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, p. 3
One thing everyone knows about me is that I love animals, and they usually love me back. But a lot of people don’t realize there’s one type of animal that terrifies me so much that mere proximity sends me into a visceral, pulse-pounding panic.
That’s right, I’m talking about horses.
Unlike a lot of girls, I never went through a horse-obsessed phase. I wasn’t around them much as a child, and the few times I did ride, I experienced them as massive creatures who did what they wanted rather than what I told them, which was frustrating but also terrifying because they were just. So. Big. Then when I was a 15-year-old camp counselor, I saw a horse deliver an almost-fatal kick to one of our campers. As an adult, I realize the incident happened because of serious negligence on the camp’s part. Still, the image of that horse whirling to plant its hoof squarely in a boy’s chest will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Later a friend spent a summer working on a ranch that specialized in equine therapy. She told glowing stories about the healing she saw, how intuitive horses are, how they sense what people need and provide it in remarkable ways. Several of the horses at the ranch had been rescued from situations of neglect or abuse, and she said they seemed to recognize and instantly bond with people who had similar backgrounds.
I thought that if I ever had the chance, I’d like to try equine therapy, both for my healing and to deal with my fear of horses. Because I don’t like being scared of things; I went ziplining last summer to confront my terror of heights. And I really don’t like being scared of an animal. I once walked a rattlesnake across a road, and I’ve encountered alligators when I’m alone in swamps, and I used my ice scraper to relocate an injured cottonmouth. None of that was particularly scary, so it feels foolish that a prey mammal would evoke primal terror in the marrow of my bones. Plus I think horses are beautiful and intelligent and noble, and I’d love to have a better relationship with them.
So awhile back, when my counselor told me she was offering equine therapy with her horse, I signed up for a session.
I got to the barn and the horse was standing in the middle of a corral (I think that’s the right term?). My counselor and a colleague stood at one end. There were sugar cubes and brushes and toys, and they told me I could engage with the horse in whatever ways I felt comfortable.
Um…comfortable? The horse was huge. Lovely but huge. And wild. I knew he had to be trained well to be insured as a therapy horse, but those eyes looked skittish. And when he crowded up against me and I backed into the wall of the corral, let’s just say I felt very intimidated.
I fed him some sugar cubes and scratched his nose, and he didn’t try to eat me, so that was a promising start. (I have no idea why I expect horses to bite, but I do. I have needed medical care for dog and ball python bites, and I still live with a dog and a ball python and never worry that either of them will chomp on me. So it makes no sense that the idea of horse teeth is so terrifying. But I guess the definition of an irrational fear is that it’s irrational, right?)
The horse seemed pleasant, if not particularly respectful of personal space, and after a few minutes I actually started to feel a little bored. Like, was I just supposed to stand here for an hour and keep feeding him sugar? There were toys, but I had no idea how to play with a horse. Do they chase? Fetch? Kick a ball back and forth? Besides, getting to the toys would mean edging past the horse, who was still crowding me against the wall, and while I had finally decided my life was in no immediate danger, moving might change that dynamic.
I didn’t know what to do next, so the horse took charge. And that’s when I experienced my miracle…