It’s a cold one today in Hyattville, Wyoming. Four prepubescent boys pile out of a trailer to the edge of a neatly kept arena where, inside, four horses wait. The kids strap on their helmets, wipe their noses on their hoodie sleeves and make their way over to the fence that runs along the base of a large cliff.
Maria Eastman, the director of Rainhorse—a ranch devoted to equine therapy, herds the kids over into a semicircle just outside the arena. Each kid has come to Rainhorse for a different reason, reasons that are not disclosed with me for their privacy. What unifies these kids is evident in the first few minutes of this session—as Maria talks, all the kids can focus on are the horses behind her.
“Now, do horses have hands?” Maria asks in a singsongy cadence an octave above her usual throaty tone.
THERE’S AN UNDENIABLE AIR OF ANXIETY CLOUDING EACH BOY HERE. One refrains from talking at all costs. Another has withdrawn his arms into his sweatshirt.
“No!” the kids yell, in sync on this one and delighted by the easy quiz. “They have hooves,” says one kid.
“They have hooves!” repeats Maria. “And when a horse says ‘Hello’ to another horse, what do they do with their hooves?”
The kids are speechless—a trick question.
“They don’t do anything with their hooves, right?” says Maria. “They can’t go, ‘Hiiiii, how are you?’” She gestures in a petting sort of manner to one of the kids, the way a horse might try to shake hands.
“They can’t do that,” she says, and pauses. “So, how do they greet each other?”
One of the kids knows the answer. “Like this!” he says, sidling up and pretending to nuzzle an invisible horse.
“That’s right!” Maria explains that horses greet by grooming and sometimes even “talking” to one another. She signals to one of the ranch hands to open the arena entrance and start getting ready. “So we’re going to have you guys be more like horses than people when you go in. Say ‘Hi’ to the horses, but do not use your hands, okay? Put your hands in your pockets.”
One by one, the boys enter the arena with their hands in their pockets and walk toward the horses. They learned in their review session to approach the horses slowly, making no sudden movements and coming from an angle fully visible to the beautiful, immense animals.
When the kids re-congregate, all of them are anxious about getting paired off with their therapy horse as if it were prom.
There’s an undeniable air of anxiety clouding each boy here. One refrains from talking at all costs. Another has withdrawn his arms into his sweatshirt. Another, the demonstrator of the horse greeting, seems to be the most enthusiastic of the group, with coke-bottle glasses and a helmet that keeps slipping off. All of them, however, seem hesitant with just about everything. They’re not scared of the horses, that’s for sure. Perhaps they’re fearful of themselves, or what they bring into the arena with them.
I notice one boy showing an admirable amount of restraint, as a horse named Finnegan walks right up to him and positions his nose up against the boy’s helmet. The boy stands with his hands at his sides and chats quietly with the horse at a volume I can’t hear. But you can tell he is trying to be more like a horse than a human.
Much of Maria’s job, I’ve found, is helping people be more like horses. Especially in a session like this one, where empathy and trust are the keystones of this kind of therapy, the animals and the humans must meet at the same level, figuratively, as they cannot literally. When you are a victim of sexual violence before you hit puberty, when you have a crippling social anxiety, when you’ve had too many father figures, when you grew up in the home of an alcoholic or are a foster child, empathy doesn’t come easy. Especially empathy across species.
When the kids re-congregate, all of them are anxious about getting paired off with their therapy horse as if it were prom. One boy points to the tall brown horse with the long white diamond on her face. “That one,” he says.
MARIA TELLS STORIES ABOUT THE HORSES AS IF THEY WERE HER FAMILY MEMBERS, PROBABLY BECAUSE, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, THEY ARE FAMILY TO MARIA.
“Oh, but you have to remember her name!” says Maria, always fending for the horses’ respect.
“Irish,” says the boy.
In the arena, the kids lead the horses in a neat circle, walking and talking in an exercise later described to be about “letting people sort through what a connection feels like.” This exercise asks its participants to be present, observant, noticing. Grooming comes after—a series of different brushings for the horse’s coat—which establishes a connection you can spot in the boys’ eyes when they’re surprised by their own ability to express tactile affection. Maria stops the session two separate times on the horses’ behalf. Once to throw a blanket on Finnegan because she noticed she was cold. The second time, to clean out mud clumps from under Emmy’s hooves, which can be very painful for the horse.
“I do my best to stay out of the way because this is all about the horses,” Maria says later, when chatting with me. “I firmly believe that they are the ones doing the work, the magic, and my job is to set it up and make it safe—for you and for them. But it’s all them.”
Maria tells stories about the horses as if they were her family members, probably because, for all intents and purposes, they are family to Maria. “This is kind of a last stop for some of these horses,” she tells me, “but they have a good life now.”
At the end of the session, the kids are required to tell the horses, “Thank you.” Their energy is different. Where at the beginning of the session they were cold, shy and reluctant to get excited about anything in that prepubescent-boy-way, now they’re jumping up and down, checking out horse books from the horse book library inside the Rainhorse trailer.
It crosses my mind that Rainhorse isn’t just a place where human kind find therapy through horses, but where horses, too, find some kind of solace...
“Was it nice to see your old friend, Finnegan?” Maria asks one of the kids, perhaps the shiest.
“Yeah, it was,” he says.
“Are you glad you came?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“Did it seem like she was happy to see you?”
“Yes,” he says.
“How could you tell?”
He pauses—one last quiz. “You could tell because when I was petting her, she was bending her back leg.”
Maria smiles and the kid runs off.
Something that’s championed at Rainhorse are the individual stories of the animal staff—the path that led them to equine therapy. “Sarah was a Premarin foal,” says Jessie Williams, Maria’s daughter, who at the age of 32 joined her mother in Wyoming to help with Rainhorse. We’re sitting in two plastic chairs in the center of the arena, which she entered leading three gorgeous horses behind her: Sarah, Jean and Elle. “They’re inseparable,” she says, explaining that Premarin, a drug prescribed to women worldwide as a hormone replacement therapy, which is collected from the pregnant mare’s urine, can lead to a whole assortment of health problems for both the mare and her foal. “She’s a very accomplished dressage horse, but she’s got a lot of anxiety now and can’t be away from Jean and Elle too long. I can’t take her in this arena by herself. She just screams for them.”
EXTERNALLY YOU MIGHT SEEM LIKE EVERYTHING’S FINE, WHERE INSIDE YOU’RE FALLING APART. WHEN YOU OWN IT, HORSES GET IT.
It crosses my mind that Rainhorse isn’t just a place where human kind find therapy through horses, but where horses, too, find some kind of solace in a world that may otherwise have given up on them.
“Jean,” says Jessie, “is an old eventing horse with a career-ending injury that led to some neurological damage. Now she has some troubles walking backward. And Elle is an ex-racehorse who ran in 76 races. Her struggle is in the arena, a place of great anxiety for her.”
Jessie goes on: “The big goal is to help these kids learn how to be open,” she says. “Some [of the clients] are really struggling inside and they have difficulty asking for help. There’s something about talking to a horse that’s much easier because there’s no judgment or fear of judgment, but empathy… And if I can help these kids tune in and say, ‘Oh wow, my horse really seems nervous right now,’ that will help them translate it back into the world.”
“It makes it easier,” she says. “You understand where you’re at because you’re saying where you’re at, instead of pretending like you’re not there. Externally you might seem like everything’s fine, where inside you’re falling apart. When you own it, horses get it.”
Jess herself struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, though she’s always thinking about the horses before she’s thinking about herself. She worries about the weight they carry, she says. When they work with the clients of Rainhorse, they can get nervous and exhausted, and check out. Jess and Maria make it their responsibility to tune into the horses so they can continue doing their job.
I ask Jessie to tell me a story that might convince a skeptic—someone who feels that horses don’t have any emotional lives at all.
“Well,” she says, “we had this horse I adored named Blue. And this female client who was [in rehab] for substance issues, she was working with him in the round pen and he wasn’t paying any attention to her.”
“There were other clients watching, and she was laughing about it and making light of it, but he wouldn’t even look at her. He had his back turned to her, and finally, [the therapist] said, ‘What’s going on right now?’ The woman said, ‘He won’t even look at me, he won’t even see me.’ And [the therapist] said, ‘Do you ever feel like that anywhere else in your life?’ She just started bawling, immediately. She said, ‘I feel like that in every part of my life.’ And as she said that, Blue turned around, walked to her and put her head down by hers.”
HORSES ARE OUR OWN SPIRIT ANIMALS,AND HAVE ALWAYS BEEN.
On day four in Wyoming, it's time for my own therapy session. But before that, a little background information: I grew up a brown boy in a beige apartment building on the South Side of Chicago among some of the poorest housing conditions in the United States. I had little access to nature or parks of any kind, and my family never allowed for pets, but in spite of all this I was, and have always been, a horse girl.
You see, my mom’s side of the family comes from a long line of horse farmers and cattle ranchers. I spent many of my summers on my grandparents’ ranch in Colorado, where I’d retreat after a full school year of being bullied while suffering crippling social anxiety and a traumatizing inner life due to the dormant understanding that I might enjoy having sex with men.
Without a therapy camp, horses were a small part of my healing. It is because of the time spent in the summers of my childhood with horses and with my family that I felt or understood any kind of love at all. Even as I grew older, few things made as much sense as the ranch made sense, and such is the case with many of my family members who come from all kinds of traumatic backgrounds—imprisoned, bipolar, obsessive- compulsive, outcast, queer, transitioning, homeless, divorced, twice-divorced, etc. Horses are our spirit animals, and have always been. I dedicated years of my undergraduate career writing papers about horses, checking out horse books from the public library and even owning some horse paraphernalia—a statuette here, a T-shirt there. I would venture to say my Patronus is a horse.
ON DAY FOUR IN WYOMING, IT’S TIMEFOR MY OWN THERAPY SESSION
But when Maria agreed to do a session with me, I hadn’t gotten on a horse in maybe eight years, hadn’t seen a therapist in four. I am nervous, like seeing a dear friend a long, long time after we met at summer camp. Before the session, Maria takes me on a quick loop around her property. As we wind through a thicket, down a hill, over a small stream and somehow back to her ranch house, she stops periodically, taking the time to point out and name different types of grasses and trees. “This is cottonwood.” “This, here, is timothy.” “This is Canada thistle.” I have a sneaking suspicion that she does this as part of the therapy, as I can feel the compressed cube of my city-born anxieties seeping out, as if from a sponge.
Maria’s ranch is home to eight horses. I can see them on the other end of the near field, all of them staring in our direction. “It’s time for the horses to choose who they want to work with,” Maria says.
That’s right, the horse chooses me. A few people at the boys’ session at Rainhorse had explained this part of the process multiple times, but I’d no real way to picture it.
How will I know if a horse has made its choice? What if none of them want me?
“They think they’re getting fed,” says Maria, laughing, and as she says that, all the horses start walking slowly in my direction about 30 yards out. My mind whirs in a slight panic. If these horses think they’re getting fed, they’re going to be very disappointed to find out they’re actually here to do therapy with a jumpy queer kid with a nasal voice and no hand-eye coordination.
The first horse to walk up is Emmy, a light gray speckled mare who walks up to me carefully and gives me a sniff. She takes her time sizing me up before moving ahead. Coco (after Chanel) barely gives me the time of day and holds her head up as she walks past me in thigh-high black boots. Brego, the largest gelding, seems interested but passes on by with Rosie and Mano behind him.
BARELY 20 MINUTES INTO MY SESSION, I ALREADY FEEL LIKE I’M GOING TO CRY.
The last one in the group is a tall white horse named Daylight—a bright and mystifying horse, the kind of horse you dream of as a little girl reading fantasy books in a pink bedroom. Daylight comes up and parks herself right beside me. My heartbeat accelerates as my body recognizes just how huge this thing is. Daylight’s face, roughly three times the size of mine, brushes gently against my shoulder. Her breathing is heavy, dragon-like, and when I try to talk to her, my voice is literally shaking.
“Hi, baby. Hiiiiiiii, baby,” is what I can muster. I start to pull my hand up to her neck.
“No no no no no no, nooooo hands!” Maria says with a kind intensity, and I quickly pull my hand back down. It was pure instinct, but I laugh at myself for making a mistake that even some of the kids didn’t make. Maria notices I’m nervous.
“If you come to a session and you’re not checking in with your anxiety and you’re not regulating your breathing, it’s likely your horse will start to show some signs of anxiety, too—they can pick it up.” Because horses don’t have verbal language, she explains, they tap into body language with greater magnitude.
I try to relax. I continue my cooing, “Hiiii, baby. How are you, baby?” The horse has been standing by me for a few full minutes now. Once Daylight seems relaxed, Maria finally gives me permission to touch her neck and rub her midline.
Barely 20 minutes into my session, I already feel like I’m going to cry.
“I’m going to cry, probably,” I say. Daylight’s positioned herself for optimal belly-rubbing. Her eyes close. Her back leg bends, and she is relaxed. I realize she has chosen me, with something of a slow immediacy.
We take Daylight closer to Maria’s arena and she explains to me how she goes about a session with her students. “Usually I give the students the halter and, without any instruction, I say, ‘Okay, now put on the halter.’”
THE EFFORT OF AN ANIMAL TO JOIN AND WALK ALONGSIDE YOU IS A KIND OF EMOTIONAL RECIPROCITY.
I laugh holding the halter in my hand, thinking about how that is a very funny and sly therapeutic tactic, but then I realize Maria is kind of looking at me expectantly. I was supposed to put on the halter.
I try and take this confusing handful of ropes and slowly bring them up to Daylight’s face. It feels wrong, like handcuffing a friend.
“Is this OK?” I ask her, somewhat involuntarily.
When I find what I think is the hole where the horse’s muzzle goes, I bring it up to her head. To my surprise, she dips her nose into the hole and helps me out. In the one and a half minutes it takes me to put on the halter, I’ve said “I can’t do this” about 20 times. But I get it on with some success, and Maria points out that even though I externalized my doubts about doing it, I was able to do it without any instruction. With a kid, she says, this belief in the self can be huge. With me, admittedly, it was still huge.
“This is all about cooperation,” says Maria. “If [Daylight] didn’t want to cooperate, she would leave and we couldn’t do anything to stop her. That’s part of the respect. She has agreed to put on this halter and now she’s gonna work with you. You can’t control the horse unless the horse agrees to be controlled.”
In the words of writer and theorist Donna Haraway, the effort of an animal to join and walk alongside you is a kind of emotional reciprocity. They see you, you see them. And I suppose I'm thinking about that, as I stroke Daylight's mane and prepare to lead her around the arena. Words from my undergraduate studies on horses come back to me, and later I search them out online:
“The French ethologist Jean-Claude Barrey’s detailed analysis of ‘unintentional movements’ in skilled riding,” writes Haraway, “show that homologous muscles fire and contract in both horse and human at precisely the same time. The term for this phenomenon is isopraxis. Horses and riders are attuned to each other. ‘Talented riders behave and move like horses....Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse’s body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other’s movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other’s mind.’ Reciprocal induction; intra-action; companion species.”
IN THAT MOMENT, IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE THERAPY—I JUST FEEL LIKE A 25-YEAR-OLD TALKING TO A HORSE.
Understanding this intra-action, I found, is essential to me relaxing as I lead Daylight. I am not leading her; rather, we are “influencing” each other’s movements.
Maria tells me to walk with Daylight around the arena and talk a little bit about myself. As I fall out of earshot from the rest of the Rainhorse crew, I tell her a story about a recent date I went on—a terrible one in which the boy insulted my hair, clothes and field of work.
“I think you think I’m just some stupid city boy,” I say to her. She is quiet, but I suspect I’m right.
After a few laps around, Maria notices some pelicans flying over far off in the sky. “Inland pelicans,” she says. She can recognize them because of how they glide. “Cranes,” she explains, are down, with a sharp up. Hawks kind of float. Geese always look like they’re trying so hard.”
After walking and grooming, there’s the round pen. Removing the horse’s halter, we enter a circular pen that is roughly 50 feet in diameter. I watch Maria give a demonstration of what I am to do, which is stand in the middle of the pen and guide the horse without a lead rope in a trotting circle by using energy. Maria is focused, and calling out to Daylight with little effort, she guides the horse in a circle around her, pointing out to where the horse follows as if by some mind power.
When I try this, my voice is timid. I feel everyone outside the pen looking at me, more convinced than I am that I can do this. On the first try, Daylight somewhat follows my guidance, but with less conviction—or at least that’s what it feels like. I try to spin and call out to her, but she is a tad defiant. In that moment, I feel incredibly vulnerable and foolish. In that moment, it doesn’t feel like therapy—I just feel like a 25-year-old talking to a horse.
SHE WAS AMAZING TO WORK WITH, JUST A CADILLAC.
But Maria tells me to drop the halter on the ground and to talk like I mean it, keeping up the pace. And as I do this, Daylight finally follows me—I am guiding her without touching her, merely through energy.
Maria tells me to drop my hand and guide her outside the pen. When I do, Daylight turns to me and walks up. I back up, and she follows me, and continues to follow me. She does so without being told to do so. She goes with me simply because she wants to be led.
When we finally part, and the session is over, I tell her, “Thank you.”
That night in Maria and Skip’s ranch house, we have a steak dinner over candlelight and red wine with Neil Young playing in the background and dogs barking at foxes somewhere in the yard. When the dinner is over and most of the candles have burnt out, per Eastman tradition, we read poetry out loud over dessert.
It’s after dinner that Maria is asked about Daylight’s story. She seems slightly hesitant, but takes a sip of wine and explains that Skip gave her Daylight as a Christmas present, a huge gesture, especially in dating, as she viewed it as something of an engagement gift. They’d done some training and “she was amazing to work with, just a Cadillac.”
Maria pauses, and I realize she has a few tears coming down her eyes.
They were preparing for a local horsemanship show at a clinic, and Maria was going to ride Daylight in the colt starting. They got “too busy, too busy, too busy,” she says. A good hand was helping her prepare the horse for the ride, but the saddle wasn’t cinched on properly and it slipped underneath her, which “blew [Daylight’s] mind,” she said with discomfort and distrust.
“She never got better after that,” says Maria. She was unrideable. “That line of horses, you can’t betray ‘em,” said Skip. “Once you betray ‘em, it reverses. They don’t get over it and they never forgive you. There are some horses that are softer and can forgive better, but not that horse.”
They tried sending Daylight to a trainer who many people had referred them to. They asked the trainer not to rush it and to not ride her on the first day, but the trainer didn’t listen and she bucked him off and cracked his head. After he got out of the hospital, he kept her and wore her down. Maria and Skip suspect she was starved to exhaust her and keep her from bucking.
“So we sent her to another trainer,” says Maria. “And that was so dumb. We were bad, bad parents.”
Maria pauses, and I realize she has a few tears coming down her eyes. “And he really tortured her. He did—terrible things to make her rideable. I went up there to ride with him and rode her for a couple days, and it never felt right. There was never a connection, she was just—static.”
“So we rode her home, I had her a couple days, and when we were moving cows, I was gonna ride her real easy in the back. I got on her right here on the frozen ground and—I don’t even remember what happened after that. I started to swing my leg over her and that’s all I remember.”
After Maria was sent to the hospital suffering a traumatic brain injury from Daylight’s buck, her and Skip thought briefly about sending her to be put down. How could they trust her again? When both the horse and the rider are living in trauma, what point do they have working together?
AND 25 YEARS LATER, ON A RANCH IN A TOWN IN WYOMING WITH A POPULATION OF 72, A HORSE NAMED DAYLIGHT DECIDED SHE WANTED TO WORK WITH ME
“But we betrayed her, and that wasn’t her fault,” says Maria. That’s when she thought Daylight could work in the Rainhorse program. If she couldn’t be ridden, then she could teach.
“And you can see how brilliant she is in her job now,” says Maria, still through tears, gesturing to me. “She is so serious about her job—I mean, what she did with you today, Fran, that is her job. That is her job and she honors it, and is so serious about it.” She explains Daylight has worked with kids who were in the prison, kids who were handicapped, completely nonambulatory and nonverbal, and that she has saved lives. Now she can trust Daylight with anyone.
I guess what’s important to note here is by the end of Daylight’s story, I was crying, too. Not only because I was moved by Maria’s conviction, but because I felt she was telling my own story back to me. In my life, I have never, not once, felt at home. I came out when I was 18 to parents who, I found out, would have preferred I didn’t. Parents who asked me to reconsider my identity and who tried placing me in a conversion camp. I felt, at a very young age, betrayed by the people who raised me, the people who’d promised me unconditional love only to rescind it.
I ran away to another city when I was 19, and another state when I was 20, another country at 21, to New York at 22. I have been passed between addresses and homes, groups of friends, couches and floors. I have run into the arms of bullies, of friends who never had my back, of boyfriends who turned out to be monsters—boyfriends who were far worse than any of my abusers because they could kick me down and jump into bed with me after.
And 25 years later, on a ranch in a town in Wyoming with a population of 72, a horse named Daylight decided she wanted to work with me; that something she couldn’t identify, but could pick up on, was drawing her to me, and vice versa; that we are companions, affecting and teaching each other in a way that can only happen because we are different animals, and because we are trying, brave and reformed, to learn how to trust again.