By Erin Rogers
My first week at Paul Smith’s College my new roommate Bre asked me if I’d like to join her to go see at the draft horses at the barn. I responded with raised eyebrows, “Oh no I’m good thanks, I’m not a horse person.” She gave me a surprised look. “But they’re so pretty!” “I’m actually afraid of them,” I admitted. “WHAT?! They’re so sweet! How could you be afraid?”
Let’s go back to a small farm in Dutchess county where 6 year old me was visiting. My babysitter Suzie had brought myself and her two small children to her other job, which involved taking care of some horses. Unfamiliar with the barn and only having experienced a birthday party pony ride or two, I stood in the barn while Suzie was busy with some things outside. Through the large open barn doors I saw her kids looking at the chickens in the coop. Losing focus in a gaze, I leaned up against the stall door, unaware of much else. After a brief moment of quiet zoning out, there was suddenly a loud neighing accompanied by a rush of air above my head that blew my hair into my eyes. Startled to say the least, I fell down shaking and curled up on the barn floor. I looked up to see what I now know was an average sized horse (don’t ask me the breed) standing in the stall I had been leaning on. It looked immense to my tiny self. Finding my breath and moving away from the stall as I stood up, I felt tears on my cheeks. I backed up as far as I could, moving to the opposite wall of the barn as I stared terrified at the horse, before running out of the large open doors.
Innocent as this horse was, I have never forgotten the fear that shook me as I ran out of that barn. After that, I wanted nothing to do with horses. I didn’t care if they were gorgeous, rare, strong, gentle, or old. If there were horses on the side of a road my parents’ car was on, I’d look away. You know that classic troupe of a young girl asking her parents for a pony at her next birthday? I was never that girl. By the time high school was in full swing, friends knew that I was afraid. They would question why I wouldn’t “just try to pet one and see that it’s not scary” but I dug my heels in. “Nope.” It doesn’t help that everyone says horses can “smell fear”, because it only confirmed that if I did get near one, it would sense that I was terrified and kill me. Yes. I believed this.
The week I turned 20, I was driving past a farm with a friend where two horses in a field stood close to the fence. One was white with light brown markings that reminded me of freckles, the other a smooth, shiny black. He convinced me to stop and get close to the fence. My heart was pounding but I reached out, touched the nose of the white freckled horse. It let out a short sigh and I jumped back. “Okay, I did it. Let’s go!” That was the extent of my interaction with horses for the first 20 years of my life; Shaken, anxious, and in a rush to put more space between myself and these massive creatures.
After college, I worked at a drug rehabilitation center where they would have equine therapy. Patients in treatment would get a chance to work with the horses brought over from a nearby farm. They’d lead them around the pasture, brush them, feed them. I never went out, always volunteering to stay in the building with the rest of my unit. Dozens of the patients who participated would tell me how wonderful it was to work with the horses, how refreshing it was to be around animals during this difficult emotional journey. They described the connection as being exactly what they’d needed to get through the next few days. As glad as I was for them, I resisted that connection myself. What did I need it for?
In the fall of 2017, I took Intro to Forestry with Sally. If you’ve done the same, hell even if you haven’t, you know that it’s not a typical college course. This is not a typical college. Near the end of the semester, one snowy Thursday afternoon, our lab required us to be at the horse barn in steel toe boots. Before we left the classroom, Sally confirmed we’d followed directions by gently tapping our toes with a hammer. At the barn we learned about hand tools, cross cut saws, etc. Sara, the barn manager casually asked me to help put the halter on one of the horses and my internal panic set in. I nervously assisted a classmate and backed away as soon as I could. We then walked out into the woods to fell a tree using only these tools, and once on the tree was on the ground, the draft horse class brought in Fee and Lady, the powerful mother/daughter draft horse team. I steadied my breathing as these wildly strong girls moved 8 foot long trunks through the snow and brush like it was nothing. “Still scary,” I confidently whispered to myself. Then Sally explained that the National Park Service occasionally hires students who’ve taken the draft horse management class as they’re looking for someone who knows how to work with horses in the back country. That’s all I needed to hear.
I spent the next few months speaking with other students about the class. To my disappointment, they all loved it. Not a bad word to say. Fine. I resigned to face my fears. I registered for my last semester and put FOR 270 in my cart. “How are you going to do that?” a friend asked, “you’re afraid of horses, Erin.” Duh. I know this.
The first time class met at the barn, Sara, now my instructor, explained that horses have a “sixth sense” and will pick up on emotions. “Shit.” I thought. I have a lot of emotions. As I felt the anxiety rise, Lady and Fee walked into the barn from their pasture and suddenly I was standing only 2 feet from them. I took a deep breath and reached out my hand determined to shake over two decades of fear. I placed my open palm onto Fee’s shoulder, her head turned toward me quickly and our eyes met as the next breath got caught in my throat. Then I moved my hand down her back and felt relief wash over me. My lungs worked again. We looked at each other as I pet her for another minute or so, all the while conscious of my breathing and focusing on being calm. Before long, I was petting Lady as well. The next class, we led them around the pasture, getting familiar with the commands while the girls got more comfortable with us.
In a recent class, the farriers came to re-shoe Lady and she stood (mostly) patiently in the barn for over two hours as our class asked questions and tried some techniques of the process. I hesitantly got under 1,200 lbs of muscle and tried to force her hoof off the ground and onto my knees. It wasn’t easy, and I worried about what it would feel like to be crushed under her. But Lady is a trooper and after I leaned into her with all of my weight, she reluctantly lifted her leg for me. For most of the process, I stood at her shoulder with her neck against my mine quietly telling her that she was the best girl and would look fancy as hell after her mani-pedi. Then I began to feel her weight leaning into me. Her large head rubbed against my hat and I smiled. We stood there for a bit leaning on each other and I asked out loud – to myself and Lady – “What was I so afraid of all those years?” I was not shaking. I was not anxious. I was not scared. Completely the opposite. I was relaxed, calm, content.
I’ve had a handful of classes at the barn now, and with each one, I find that I am better able to easily set aside the old fear I grew up supporting. When I get near Lady and Fee now, I can feel the stress of my day subside. I can sense the energy and the power they possess, and it doesn’t scare me. I look forward to seeing them, to learning more about their care and personalities. I’ve sent pictures of me in class to friends and family who respond with excitement and comments of pride. I know that to many reading this, I must sound ridiculous. Most people don’t give it a second thought, but imagine overcoming a fear you’ve embraced since you could barely read. It’s not progress to anyone else but me and that’s fine.
I’m not about to start shopping for a pony, nor am I claiming to be a hero. All I’m saying is that it was easy to perpetuate a fear for 25 years because I barely allowed myself to be uncomfortable. I resisted the challenge and opportunity to try something new for so long only to finally accept it and understand what I had missed. As I wrap up my third and final year at PSC, I’m grateful to get the chance for weekly equine therapy not only because the stress of Capstone and a job hunt haunts me at every moment, but because I owe that scared little kid a chance to feel better. It’s redemption for her, and vindication for horses everywhere. Who knew progress could smell like shit?