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Finally, A “Free Rein Moment” Happened To Me!

During the week of the Grand Prix Gala, it was all hands on deck!

Calls for volunteers to help with the entrance parking were coming daily and then, sadly, Douglas, who is our incredible Volunteer Coordinator, lost his Mom to cancer.

Everyone responded by picking up the enormous weight of responsibilities that Douglas handles and coordinates for the Free Rein Foundation. That included me, marketing gal and computer nerd. I filled in my name in the empty slots of the Parking Attendant Duty, and I gladly left the safety of my computer room for the open and dusty space near the arenas at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center.

Day one went off without a hitch. I am up at 5 am so the 7 to 9 am slot was a perfect way for me to help out the volunteer team and support the incredible week ahead for our Annual Gala Event. Day two, however, was not even close.

The backstory is that I had taken an actual vacation two weeks prior. Not the check-my-phone-every-hour and work-on-projects-in-the-hotel kind of vacation that I usually make, but an actual turn-off-my-phone-and-be-present vacation. Lots of family came together, lots of emotions, activities, cooking, cleaning, and shifting of people and schedules. When I returned home, I was elated that there were no business emergencies or delays in projects, but I hadn’t anticipated the full-blown family get-together would turn into some texting drama. I should have known, we are Italian after all, and that means that things will eventually get loud and emotional. But the texting thing doesn’t really translate well when you are used to using your hands to communicate, yell, and then hug after its all done. So the week I volunteered to do parking duty turned into an all-out texting war between sisters.

So day two of my scheduled time slot, I showed up to an empty chair.  “What?” I thought.  “Who was scheduled from 9 am to 11 am and why didn’t they show up?”

I was annoyed.  I texted Katy, responsible and passionate, and on the schedule after me. “Katy!” I texted in desperation. “Who was scheduled?” She didn’t answer me. So I set things up and then as I was turning around, there was Katy. I was already hyper and emotional from a morning of back and forth passive-aggressive texts between myself and two sisters. There was finger-pointing, complaints, and long texts trying to get things calmed down.

“Who was supposed to be here?” I asked her.

“When?” she asked.

“From 9 am to 11 am,” I said.

She had no clue and in my fury to access the Google Drive schedule, I noticed that Katy was setting her things down by chair.

“Uh, what time is it?” I asked her as everything started to go in slow motion.

“It’s 11,” she said. “I am here until 1. How about you?”

The number eleven twirled in my head for a moment, and I lifted my phone to look at the time and realized the person who had failed to show up at 9 am was me! Katy was a good sport about it, but I could tell she was wondering what was going on with me. “Not enough coffee,” I said as I started walking over to the Grand Prix tent in the distance. I felt really off my game and was glad that I hadn’t missed setting up the raffle table too!

At 1 pm, I headed back to the parking entrance. It was warmer now, and I hadn’t dressed very mindful of the marine layer lifting. As I drove my car down to a closer parking spot, one of my sisters called me to lecture me about my earlier text response. I was trying to be the logical voice of reason by texting out some communication guidelines about “triggers” and “reactions,” and instead of coming to my defense, my sister started to lecture me about letting things go and just forgetting all the nasty comments that had been flung my way that morning. I know that she was trying to keep the peace, but in the process, she was not acknowledging my hurt over texted words, and I did something I hate to do—I hung up on her.

By the time I got to the parking attendant chair, I was totally stressed out. My hands were shaking, and I felt like I had awakened in some alternate reality today. I was still reeling from the shock of totally missing my 9 am time slot. What had I been doing anyway?

I sat down and began to type out a message to the sister I had hung up on, but before I could, there was a voice that came from behind me, from the arena where riders and horses were warming up for the show. At any one time, there might be four or five riders warming up. They were far enough away that I had barely noticed them at all, but when I turned around to see who was calling me, I noticed that were quite a few out at this late hour.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” the rider said as I walked closer to the fence. “This is the strangest thing,” she continued. “My horse cannot seem to concentrate on anything but you!”

“What?” I said, not fully grasping what she saying.

“She has never done this before,” the rider continued. “For some reason, she keeps bringing me over here, and if you don’t mind just talking to her for a minute or two, I am sure she will get back to our practice.”

I am not a rider of horses but admire them from afar. In recent months I have read so many books on “horse senses” but had never really had an experience where any of the horses in our pasture even took notice to me. I figured that I was always lost in thought about something but today I was really distracted by all the texting so as I approached closer I noticed that this lovely white horse with paintbrushed black spots was looking directly at me.

“Well, hello!” I said, not knowing what else to say. “How are you beauty?” 

Our eyes were locked on each other in a way I hadn’t thought even possible. I stopped dead in my tracks and just began to talk to her about how beautiful she was and then asked what it was that was so interesting over here. I didn’t once take my eyes off her intense stare, but as I was babbling off, I could feel a heavy weight begin to shift off my shoulders, through my body and then dump right out in front of me into the ground. I was mesmerized by the stare and intense feeling of all my anger being washed from me. My arms hung at my side, and my feet were firmly planted into the ground; then, all of a sudden, this beautiful horse broke her stare with me and began to lead her rider away from the fence.

“Oh,” said the rider as they started to walk away. “I guess we are done!”

“I guess so,” I said chuckling.

“Thank you so much,” the rider said as they picked up speed and headed for the exit to the arena. Before I even knew what had happened, I tried to find them in the mix of other riders, but couldn’t see them. So I turned around and went back to my post under the yellow umbrella.

There was a driver who turned into the entrance just as I got to the chair. With a big smile and my usual cheery self, I asked them what they were looking for, and as I turned to sit down in the chair, it dawned on me. I had just had a “Free Rein Experience!”

Somehow all of my stress and anger over texting was gone entirely. I wasn’t angry or upset anymore. I felt lighter and more present in my volunteering duties. I turned off my phone and told myself that all this nonsense could wait until later and as I spent the next few hours directing cars to the event parking lot I thought about the whole situation very differently. My sisters were not listening to me, and that was what felt so hurtful. Locking eyes with this beautiful horse, she made me feel as if I was the most important person in the world and that she cared so much about how I was feeling that she disrupted her warm-up just to come over and let me know that everything is going to be alright.

It took me the rest of the evening to understand what had just happened to me. In the broad scheme of things what I was feeling was only painful to me, but this horse felt all of my deep pain and hurt and somehow opened the drain so that it could just flow right out.

I have read hundreds of stories of people who experienced these special moments with a horse. I have heard their excitement as they described them, and I honestly began to think that all this horse sense was just something only others could feel. But now I felt it too.

Since that afternoon, I have drifted into that memory of locking eyes with this beautiful horse. I don’t remember her name and I tried in desperation to find her through the rest of the Grand Prix, but could not.  I couldn’t believe how incredibly happy it made me feel to know that this horse had felt my struggle and helped me to let it all go. She and I shared a moment of real healing, and not a day goes by that I don’t recall the feeling of peace and kindness she gave to me.

What the Free Rein Foundation does for kids and veterans has always been deeply embedded in my heart, but now I have a keen insight into the real magic that happens up in our pasture. Now I understand how standing in a dusty field surrounded by enormous animals can make a person stronger. Not by any words of wisdom but by the presence of a deep understanding of what is churning around inside of us, in silence, and in pain.

I feel incredibly blessed to have been given this incredible moment between a horse and a human. Finally, a “Free Rein Moment” of my own to cherish and understand how it is that horses heal humans like nothing else in the world can.

Written by Maria Bereket

ABOUT: Free Rein Foundation rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes horses that have been abused and enlists their incredible “horse sense” in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) programs. The use of horses in the treatment and training of humans is a non-traditional therapeutic approach. Activities provide opportunities to explore ways of managing difficult situations, fears, attitudes, and ways of being in relationships and society.