Horse Reflections; Equine Mirrors

From pages 111-114 in my book, The Alchemy of Self Healing, the following essay incorporates working Craniosacrally with a horse, and Direction of Ease, Inner Wisdom and leaps on all Three Awareness Levels that are worked on in the book.

Essay: From Tolstoy to Degas in Orange County

I’m perched on the metal fence of a riding ring, in Silverado, California, staring at a thoroughbred named Degas. I’m studying an energy-based modality developed by Dr. John Upledger in the 1970s. It’s called Craniosacral Therapy, and it worked so well on my endometriosis years ago that I took a class to find out more about it, then another class. Now I’m pushing fifty and have completely changed careers, from television costume designer to craniosacral therapist. But I have never before worked with animals.

Gail Wetzler, P.T, teacher of our group of ten bodywork therapists, has chosen horses at this barn for us to work on. Degas has been chosen because none of the veterinarians can figure out why he won’t jump for his owner. The owner is thinking of getting rid of him if he won’t.

Degas is 15 years old, around sixteen hands, and as I watch him in the ring, he seems impatient. I wonder if he has any idea that his fate might take a quick twist if this therapeutic effort doesn’t help. He’s watching us, waiting, one ear cocked, his right hoof raised with only the tip on the ground, as though en pointe.

This afternoon we will be using several techniques on Degas. Rock and glide, for example, is a way of gently nudging free restrictions found up and down the spine. Craniosacral techniques can also address emotional constrictions that present as physical issues. This week 10 of us are here to learn to apply this body/mind modality to horses.

We form a loose circle around Degas. All of us are focused on Gail Wetzler, a thin, intense physical therapist and Craniosacral teacher with piercing eyes and a no-nonsense history of working with high performance horses and impossible diagnoses. Her teaching assistant, Sally, demonstrates hand positions in the air, showing how to modify craniosacral protocol for horses. We will use multiple hands on Degas to assess his condition.

I am new to this and nervous; suddenly I begin to think  how funny it is that the term hands describes the height of a horse and now we are going to use our hands to keep him tall. Well, maybe it’s not that funny.

Changing careers mid-life was an enormous leap of faith.  I haven’t always seized chances that come my way, but I have always had sensitive hands, have been tactile in a detailed way.  I don’t fully understand what I’m doing in Silverado, but maybe I don’t have to.

It is true that 30 years ago for one year on Broadway I danced the role of a horse in a play with music based on a short story by Tolstoy. This, I think, is my link. To prepare for the part, I had to closely study horses. I am good at observing them, so maybe I can use what I know to find my way into Degas’ cranial rhythm and palpate my way down his spine. Advanced therapists encourage neophytes to use what they know. And how many therapists have portrayed a Tolstoy horse on Broadway?

As one of the original cast of Tolstoy’s Strider: The Story of a Horse, one minute I was toiling Off Broadway, and the next minute I was toasting our Broadway debut with a thin vial of chilled vodka at the Russian Tea Room. In the play we dancers portrayed both horses and people which may be why the moment I saw Degas, I wondered whether he understood the importance of this session. Was he aware that his fate was not his own to decide?

Strider follows the life and tragic death of a piebald horse. In his youth he is torn from his mother and sent to auction where his life will either be saved or he will become horsemeat. At auction he snags the attention of a prince.

At the time, I related to the role of the young damsel and the filly being wooed by three males—Darling, the perfect thoroughbred whose alter ego was a handsome Count; the Prince who represented Imperial Russia; and Strider, the outcast.

Strider, born with piebald markings not superficially suited for a great lineage of horses, was the shunned outsider, but he dreamed big. He exhibited none of the Russian gloom and lingering question marks about the purpose of life. He had an altered perspective and here in Silverado 35 years later, so do I. Circling Degas, I relate less to the damsel than I do to Strider.

In the play, there is a split second when the Count tosses a rose to the damsel, but Strider catches it in his mouth, walks to the stands, bows on his hindquarters, and presents the rose to her. He inspires laughter in the powerful Prince who buys him to annoy the Count. Strider becomes the Prince’s favorite horse.

Now 10 pairs of open hands have a chance to change Degas’ life course.   I stand beside my colleagues and hear my intuition which sometimes speaks so clearly to me. My hands on his flank blend and meld with Degas’ inner wisdom. As a dancer I would have been catching the rose; as a healer I am the one offering it. Under my hands, I feel Degas’ body offer up a therapeutic pulse. I mentally image my way through the emotionally charged superficial fascia to feel the play between it and the deep fascia. What is each tuned to? I layer my awareness down to the organs, to the heart. What trapped energy is held there?

Thirty five years ago, I thought I understood the darkness of the play and its politics, but now, recalled from the flank of a horse, the story sparks something different in me. How many chances do we get? Is everything predestined so we might as well down that vodka and write poetry or go quietly mad? Can we reconcile politics with humanity? I feel the urge to cast the Food and Drug Administration as Imperial Russia–imperious and cloaked in authority.

Whoa, I tell myself; I am getting carried away. I need to sit; my arms are going numb. But Degas is in healing mode, his body working hard to unravel restrictions.

I add another five grams of pressure to the black flank and continue to blend and meld with this powerful horse. Waves of energy that I can only call sadness rush from his body. I have learned to trust my hands and to allow the client’s body to let me know what it needs. The questions disappear; Tolstoy floats away as Degas’ inner wisdom takes center stage. Degas won’t jump. The vets say there is nothing physically wrong with him. How will we explain a horse’s sorrow to an owner who wants only a jumping machine?

Alternative therapists are not branded piebald, but we might as well be. We reveal ourselves as unique health facilitators to a society that seeks double blind studies. Still, more and more people are turning to alternative care because the way we facilitate healing offers an investigation of the whole body, and we all live in our whole bodies, not in individual parts.

Degas takes a step back and drops his head. All 10 of us move soundlessly in sync with him. We are all in tune with his cranial rhythm and with each other. Degas goes into what in cranial work is called a Stillpoint, a divine space, a therapist-assisted pause in the Craniosacral system of the body that allows for self-healing. I feel a palpable shift in the air around us. We are all exactly where we are supposed to be, and we all feel it for one elongated, elegant second.

Here I am in Orange County, piebald instead of a damsel, owning my calling, standing in the grace of Degas who is now very still, intent on the feel of a facilitating miracle, 10 pairs of hands on his 16. There’s hope. There’s hope all around.

I never got to see Degas jump, but in my mind’s eye I see us taking our separate leaps, both of us landing with ease.



The Alchemy of Self Healing



Don’t have a copy of my book? You can get your copy here.

And it makes a thoughtful, body-full gift!






Share Your Thoughts