Open the gate….and let the learning begin!

During my journey as a Feldenkrais Practitioner, I have had the opportunity to teach to a wide variety of populations in many different and sometimes challenging environments. One of my favorite experiences took place two years ago, when I was invited to teach a workshop for a friend of mine who was also a psychologist who specialized in Equine Therapy.

It sounded interesting as well as intriguing, so I agreed, even though I reminded my friend that I have very little (if any) experience with horses. He assured me that it didn’t matter; he simply wanted me to give a workshop to a small group of his colleagues regarding Feldenkrais. Okey-dokey. Now that is a subject I am comfortable with and have some experience.

I met the group at my friend’s ranch high in the Rocky Mountains. What a perfect learning environment! I guided them through two Awareness Through Movement(R) lessons. After the lessons, we had a discussion regarding our experience as well as how the Method could be applied to the practice of psychology. It was great, and the workshop had concluded. Or so I thought.

Just when I was gathering up my materials and about to make a graceful exit, I got a surprise. A really big surprise. My friend announced that we were going to take the workshop to the horses. Giddy up. I hadn’t planned on that little development. I love animals. I love all animals, including horses. I just prefer to admire them from a distance.

My apprehension about getting up front and personal with horses was exacerbated by the knowledge that I know nothing about horses except that they are big. I was way out of my league, and I simply didn’t know what to do with them. What in the world did this have to do with Feldenkrais, anyway? Since my friend was a highly trained therapist, he was acutely aware of my discomfort, but he erroneously thought I was afraid of the horses. Okay, so maybe he was half right.

In an attempt to reassure me, he said, “You’ll love Jake. He’s a really gentle horse. Just don’t stand directly behind him, because he’ll kick you. And don’t let him butt you with his head, because he’ll knock you flat. After all, his head weighs twice as much as you do.” For some reason, I did not feel reassured. Now I had even more to worry about above and beyond my ineptitude and inexperience with these huge, beautiful beasts.

I looked for a way out, but there is no back door at a ranch. I took a deep breath and reluctantly followed the small entourage through the gate. Three horses walked toward us, and the biggest one made a bee line right to me. I involuntarily stepped backwards. He stepped forward. We repeated this little routine until I ran out of room and he had me cornered. To take one more step back would have put me up against the electrical fence that I had also been warned about. The horse lowered his head. Uh-oh, here comes the head butt.

I braced myself. But instead of knocking me over, Jake gently nudged me with his head several times until I finally reached up to pet him. He solemnly looked into my eyes and I felt my nerves and my heart melt. I started to pet him and he pressed his enormous head against my arm, just enough pressure to give me the equivalent of a horse hug, but not enough to knock me over or into the electrical fence. What a sweetheart!

Satisfied that I was now at ease, Jake backed away and gave me a look. It was time to get to work. I swear he was winking at me. Suddenly I knew exactly what to do and how to progress the lessons and apply it to the horses. A magical transformation took place within me, and information just effortlessly flowed out. I don’t know where it came from. I never faltered, and a few times I noticed Jake looking at me and nodding his head. That’s when it hit me; which one of us was teaching the class? Suffice it to say, it was a collaborative effort.

When we were done, I was simply overwhelmed by the experience, and so grateful that I walked through that gate and discovered what was on the other side. I knew I had a new best friend for life. I was even rewarded with horse kisses at the end of the day, which was certainly another new experience for me.

I said goodbye and drove down the mountain toward home with the smell of horses filling the car, and I had plenty of time to reflect back on that remarkable afternoon of teaching and learning. What a shame it would have been if I had given in to my insecurities and stood on the other side of the gate that day.

The point is, sometimes you just have to through caution to the wind, step through the gate and see what’s on the other side. You never know what experiences are waiting for you. You may even make a new friend or two along the way. I still get all warm and fuzzy when I remember that day and I think about the magic of being with the horses, especially Jake, my new BFF.

Most of all, I keep returning to the same question that pops into my head after a rich and rewarding teaching experience. Am I learning to teach, or teaching to learn? I’m pretty sure it’s a little bit of both. What do you think?

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT