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My Woollie Moment

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was something to do with sheep, or maybe knitting or crochet, but the story is about a donkey who taught me something important.

I was attending an Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) session as a client.  EFL is where the interaction between the person (client) and the equine (in this case – a donkey) allows gentle reflective learning.  The donkey acts as a mirror.  This happens under the careful supervision of the instructor / facilitator and a ‘watcher’ whose job it is to ensure that both donkey and humans remain safe and free from stress.

I was asked by Sally, my instructor, what I’d like to focus upon in my session.  This was easy to decide as I’d been finding it difficult to handle stress and pressure in my work and was consequently becoming increasingly reactive, which was hard to handle.

After being taken through a short mindfulness and grounding exercise, I was invited to observe the two donkeys who had joined us in the outside arena.  I was asked, “What do you think is going on with the donkeys?  What do you think they’re feeling?”

To me they both looked like they’d prefer to return to their paddock.  These donkeys regularly work in the Donkey Assisted Therapy Centre, where close human contact is the everyday norm, and I didn’t feel that they were particularly interested in engaging, although one of them did glance over at us a few times.

After a reminder about the health and safety aspects of staying within their field of vision and not standing right behind the donkeys where they wouldn’t see me, I was invited to approach whichever of the two donkeys I chose.  At this point Woollie, the larger of the two, appeared more interested than the other in that he was looking at me.  So I slowly approached being mindful of my pace and to ensure he could see me easily.  I went up close enough to say Hello and to stroke his neck, which he seemed to enjoy.  After a short while he moved away and I returned to Sally.  I was asked to reflect on the process.

Before the next step, I was reminded to go to a quiet place within myself, where I could be in the moment, to be with my awareness and to breathe slowly.  This time I was to go up to Woollie and simply stand nearby him without actually doing anything.

Again, slowly and mindfully I approached Woollie and stood quietly in his zone.  I stayed still, consciously bringing myself into what I call my neutral gear, reminding myself ‘to be’ rather than feel the pressure ‘to do’.  Woollie looked directly at me and then purposefully walked over to me, where I waited calmly, somehow knowing that all was well.

He came and stood right by me, so I quietly said Hello again and stroked him.  He moved around, walked off, and I stayed still.  He then came back, this time right up close, and then he gently snuggled his head into me, so we ended up in an equine / human embrace!  It felt incredibly special – he’d actually chosen to be with me – to share a few moments of mutual warmth and connection.

Afterwards, Sally asked me what I’d felt about that experience.  “I loved it!”

What had I learnt from it?  Having taken a moment, I reflected that it showed me how being in that quiet, calm, ‘neutral’ place in myself had allowed the special moment to happen.  Woollie hadn’t been put under any pressure.  It had just happened.

It taught me that I don’t have to keep trying to make stuff happen all the time; instead, I could put the pause button on, and simply wait – ready to response if I chose, without being reactive.  This was a revelation to me!

Sally continued to gently question me. “How will you take this experience back into your work situation?”

“Well, that is easy – when I start to feel stressed, I’ll remember to press the pause button and have a Woollie Moment!”

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Later, thinking back on the session, I could only wonder and smile to myself at how a donkey had taught me exactly what I needed to learn about the importance of inner stillness and calm.  Thank you, Woollie.

Equine Facilitated Therapy

Equine Facilitated Therapy (EFT) is described as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how you communicate, with the horses reflecting how you interact with others, affect other people and how others affect you. It all sounds good to me!

There was a nervous excitement in me as I turned up at the equine centre.  Ever since I had heard about EFT, I’d wanted to experience it, so here I was – ready with an open heart and open mind.

I’ve always sensed a depth of feeling in equines – no wonder they can form such enduring bonds within their herds, but also with those who care for them.  And I longed to get a bit closer in and to feel it for myself.

The weather that day was awful (following days of lovely sunshine) and not conducive to spending two hours outside in a field of horses. But there was no way I was going to be put off now that the EFT day was finally here.

The session started with a chat about how I was feeling, and what I hoped to gain from the session, and the obligatory health and safety check.  I confessed that I’d forgotten to bring my steel-toed work boots, but my instructor told me that my wellies were just right.  She explained that some of the horses are so big and heavy that if my foot was trodden on in steel-toed boots, the metal would be crushed into my foot.  Mental note to self: keep feet away from hooves!

I explained that the thing I hoped to gain from the session was a moment of deep connection with a horse; perhaps a soul connection.

I was taken through some preparatory exercises to sense what was going on in me and to slow everything down inside.  Having explained about how to approach each horse quietly and with respect for their personal space, and how to read subtle changes in body language, I was let loose into the field of horses.  They were all rather intent on eating, earnestly pulling at the grass or piles of hay, so they were not concerned or interested in my tentative requests to make contact.  But they didn’t mind me there, and I certainly sensed different emotions with the two I did approach.

The smallest horse was a young male.  I felt incredibly emotional in his presence, overwhelmingly so.  I found out later that he’d had a rough start in life.  The other horse, a magnificent Shire, gave me a totally different feeling – sort of quick and excited; he was altogether a more confident, mature horse.  But from both, I got the sense that they were very happy to be living there in that special Equine Centre.

Eventually the rain and cold drove us inside to the stalls.  Housed in here were two of the instructors own beautiful mares.  I had been drawn to them earlier, but respectful of their need for space and privacy as they each had a note to say they had only recently arrived at the Centre and were still settling in.  However, the instructor said that it was fine to greet them, as the signs were there to ensure they weren’t overwhelmed by attention from visitors.

So I quietly approached one of the mares – then it all changed.  I gazed softly at the black Shire mare in front of me.  I let her sniff my hand and gently touched her neck when I felt she was happy for me to do that.   Her long, thick fringe almost covered her eyes but I could see the gentle spirit that shone through.  My instructor explained that she had been through a very difficult few months, having been grief-stricken with the sudden death of her two month old foal.  I felt an incredible tenderness and gently stroked her.  “You can go in with her if you want.” I was told.  Without hesitation, I entered her stall – there we were – one small human and one beautiful and impressively huge Shire mare, together in a few moments of quiet understanding and exchange.  She was incredibly sturdy yet gentle – what a warm, loving spirit.

A lump formed in my throat – her grief was palpable.  I sent her healing thoughts holding my hands on her.  A little later I quietly withdrew, knowing that something had passed between us.

As I walked away afterwards, I reflected on her grief, and on the depth of feelings that these beautiful ‘other people’ have – often not recognised in our world.  But today it was recognised, respected and revered.  What an honour.

The Story of Coco RIP

Mary Noble, one of the EASE Trustees, featured in our EASE News of July 2013 when she rescued and brought back to the UK a Golden Retriever (Pasha) who had been kept caged in an Istanbul hotel petting zoo. Pasha has since become a happy and affectionate dog, living with me and my other dogs in Hertfordshire. However, sadly Mary’s latest canine adventure was not to have such a happy ending..

Mary was recently visiting Greece, and shared with us this moving story about a street dog she came across while there. “We were staying in a lovely spot by the sea, very near the village where our two friends Theodora and Frits live (an hour and a half’s drive from Athens) and on most days we went up to the local taverna with the others for lunch. On the first day, we found a beautiful, but skeletally thin, female golden Labrador, huddled under the stairs in the car park, clearly starving, and with what looked like a very bad ear infection.

“She was so hungry that when we started to feed her she accidentally bit Bruno when there was no more food in his hand, so after that we felt we had to go back each day and feed her. So this we did for about six days, and she looked happier each day, her tail wagging furiously as we would drive up to the car park where she would be waiting for us. But she was clearly in a lot of pain with her ear, and didn’t want to be touched. She was wearing a small plastic collar and the taverna owner, whom I talked to, said that she was probably just thrown out and abandoned in front of his taverna – which is quite common. The sense I had was that she was used to humans, but also very hurt.

“So, of course, we then had to make a decision about what to do when we left. So I plucked up the courage to ask our friends just as we were leaving on Saturday if they would be willing to find a way to get her to a vet – at least to get her the medical attention she needed – and fortunately they were very willing to do that. They often look after strays, and have a very good relationship with the vet in their village – it is all very nearby and local.”

The dog had a nasty festering ear infection, and the vet was of the view that she was probably about two years old, having already had a litter of puppies, and was probably dumped by the road not long after giving birth. She was cared for by the local vet for some days before being taken home by Theodora and Frits, to be looked after alongside their own pets. For a week or so they took exceptional care of this lovely dog, whom Mary had named Coco, feeding her many times a day to build up her strength, walking her in the local area and building her a den of her own to allow her to feel safe. Coco responded to this attention very well, growing daily in confidence and affection, and clearly relieved at becoming more free of pain and stronger as each day passed.

Theodora, who is a teacher at the local junior school, kept her children up to date about Coco’s progress, and some of them were even able to meet her – offering them a first-hand living example of the kind of humane care that can be extended to the Little People.

However, after a week or so Coco started to go downhill rapidly, and further visits to the vet resulted in a biopsy being taken and sent to the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire, UK for analysis. The results of this were heart-breaking – it transpired that Coco had a huge malign tumour which was preventing her eating and walking, and the only option was to euthanise her to relieve her suffering.

This was kindly and carefully carried out, and Theodora made arrangements for Coco to be buried with respect and affection. This in its turn was also shared with the school children, giving them a great education about how people can treat animals with respect. In Greece a dead animal will often just be thrown away in the garbage, so for these children to learn that Coco was being buried with dignity became an important part of their education about the possible human/animal relationship.

We will never know exactly what happened in Coco’s short life, but at least we know that her last weeks were spent being graced with human love and kindness, and that she played a part in demonstrating to children how the Little People can be treated with respect and dignity. Her spirit will live on in the memories of all those she touched in those last few valuable weeks of her life.

Saving Grace

graceIt was a normal sunny summer’s day as I made my way up to the local farm shop with my little dog, Rufus, trotting along besides me.  We both enjoy walking up the track to the farm house, for me seeing the sheep with their lambs in one of the paddocks on either side, and for Rufus to sniff the many enticing aromas and the occasional chance of eating sheep’s poo!

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The Kindness of Strangers

dsc_9199-2I often take my Golden Retriever, Pasha, into work with me and then take him for a walk at lunchtime. However, I have to try to avoid places with water as there’s nothing more that Pasha likes than to take a dip, and then I have to come back to the office with a very wet and rather smelly dog, which isn’t always met with enthusiasm. But on this occasion many of the powers that be in the office were away so I thought I’d treat Pasha with a lunchtime swim.

Continue reading “The Kindness of Strangers”