How a Horse Helped Her Overcome Fear and Self-Loathing

After a lifetime of struggling with anxiety and eating disorders, could an animal show her the way to self-acceptance?

Posted in , Sep 25, 2020

Joanna and Bronwen; photo courtesy Joanna Corfield

Had I made the right decision, getting these horses? I paced in our home near Norfolk, England, waiting for the horse whisperer to pull into the drive. I’d found his information in an equine magazine. He claimed to help people with difficult horses. I was desperate. My two horses ran from me or lashed out. What if I couldn’t make them feel settled? What if I failed with them as I had with so much in my life?

My son, Richard, then 11 years old, had convinced me to adopt a small pony, Gus, several months earlier. Richard had a Saturday job tending horses for a neighbor. “Please, Mum, please! I’ll take such good care of him,” he pleaded.

We had the land, and Gus had been abandoned. He needed a home. My friends, after they got over the initial shock, insisted that I adopt a second horse. “Horses only feel safe in a herd,” one said. So we got Bronwen, a dark bay mare, to keep Gus company.

What did you think would happen? I asked myself as I looked out the window for the horse whisperer. Perfect harmony? I wanted so badly for us to all get along. I’d always loved animals. But Gus, fiery little thing, kicked and bit. And Bronwen, who had been so loving and well-behaved in her old home, bolted for the farthest corner of her paddock whenever I approached. What could she possibly be afraid of? I was so small and meek. The only person who’d ever been afraid of me was me.

Fear had controlled my life for as long as I could remember. Fear of God. Of sin. Of my own nature. I’d been raised a vicar’s daughter. My family was Church of England clergy for five generations on both sides, very serious—almost puritanical—about religion and God. Every Sunday of my childhood, I heard my father preach the terrors of sin and damnation.

“Sin is intentional disobedience and rebellion against God,” he would tell the congregation. “Saint Paul clearly states that all have sinned and fallen short of God.”

I was horrified. I must be very bad, I thought. I’m full of sin. Why couldn’t I be better? Why couldn’t I be someone whom my father and, by extension, God, could be proud of? Someone they could love?

To punish myself, I started rationing food in my early teens. This was the mid-1970s. Nobody knew what to do with anorexic girls back then. I couldn’t imagine that someone as worthless as I was deserved pleasure, and certainly not happiness. I felt so bad about myself that I just wanted to disappear. I got smaller and smaller, thinner and thinner. My mother, fearing for my health, sent me to a psychiatric hospital.

Nurses stood watch at mealtimes and handed me a glass of milk every hour, along with sedatives. “Drink this, Joanna,” they said. The nurses weren’t unkind, but the patients scared me. I would watch them rock back and forth in chairs, lashing out seemingly at random. I was a sheltered teenager. I didn’t know anything about mental illness and trauma. I need to gain enough weight to get out of here, I decided.

In three months, I put on enough weight that the doctors let me go home. I ate in front of my parents but purged in secret, developing bulimia. You don’t deserve this nourishment, I told myself. You are bad.

I hid my eating disorder into adulthood. I got married at 26 to a man 20 years my senior. Did I love him? Or did I just want to be useful, to keep his home and bear his children? I didn’t do so well at that. We had Richard only after years of trying to conceive.

By my early forties, I was a shell of a person, trapped in a destructive cycle. Binge, purge, binge, purge. I agreed to adopt Gus and Bronwen not because I wanted horses but because I wanted to please my son. Maybe this was something I wouldn’t fail at.

Yet here I was, three months later, calling in the experts. The horse whisperer and his assistant arrived, and I walked them to the paddock. As soon as she saw me, Bronwen turned tail and ran to the opposite corner.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, biting back my tears. “How do I show her that I don’t want to hurt her?”

The horse whisperer opened the gate and walked calmly toward Bronwen. Her eyes, which had been wide with terror just moments earlier, softened. Her breathing steadied. “That’s it, girl,” he said. Within minutes, the man had Bronwen moving in circles, backing, stepping sideways and listening, her eyes fixed on him, mesmerized.

I was stunned. Why can’t I do that?

“She’s mirroring his behavior,” the assistant said. “Horses respond to calm with calm, fear with fear.”

A lump caught in my throat. How had I been communicating with Bronwen these past months? I imagined how I must appear to her: a woman whose fear and pain followed her into the paddock, whose whole body screamed “Danger!” No wonder Bronwen is scared, I thought. She’s only reacting to what she sees in me. Gus too. He was responding to the part of me with no self-respect. If I couldn’t approach my horses with peace and positivity, how could I expect them to do the same?

I tore through books about horses and healing. I paid close attention to how I approached Gus and Bronwen. No more rushing into the paddock, tense with anxiety and shame. Instead I would walk slowly toward Bronwen, studying every twitch of her ears, every ripple of her muscles, every shift in her energy. Becoming more aware of her body made me more aware of my own.

How am I feeling? I focused, step by step, on my head, my heart, my stomach, my arms and legs. Every sensation was related to my fear, I noticed. I breathed out my negative feelingsyou’re bad, you’re worthless—and Bronwen let me come a bit nearer. Day by day, over many months, she and I became friends.

One morning, I got nearer to Bronwen than I’d ever dared. Would she let me touch her? I centered myself with a deep breath. I’d spent decades convincing myself that I didn’t deserve a moment like this, a chance to feel peace, closeness. Could I break the cycle? I put out my hand. “That’s it, girl,” I said. Bronwen didn’t bolt, just watched me and waited. No fear in her eyes. Only curiosity. I glided my fingers gently down her mane, grazing her neck.

“Good girl,” I said, slipping my arms around her. I felt a great whoosh pass through us, almost like a divine spirit. Bronwen wrapped her head and neck around me, embracing me. Such love and kindness! She and I were part of the same herd, the same great universe. I felt from Bronwen the goodness I’d pushed away my whole life, that I’d punished myself for feeling. Is it possible I’m not so worthless after all? Bronwen didn’t seem to think so. Maybe God didn’t think so either.

I practiced meditation and breathing exercises daily to help manage my defeatist feelings. In, out. In, out. Was I really so bad? Did I need to punish myself? Pain and fear began to dissolve in my body, replaced by a new ease. I purged less and less until, two years after Bronwen came to live with us, I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was as if God had used Bronwen’s love to give me permission to live without fear of judgment. To just be.

What if other people could benefit from horses like Bronwen? I wondered if I could create some sort of program to do that. I started working on what would later become the Natural Herd Model, an equine involvement therapy that I pioneered.

I’d learned from Bronwen and through my reading about an amazing phenomenon: Though individual horses can carry trauma, the herd naturally dissipates fear. If a horse—or even a human—enters the herd with fear, the others determine whether that fear is useful. Is danger close by? Does the herd need to protect itself and run away? If not, the herd lets the fear go. The fearful horse is reintegrated into the group, and the herd as a whole rebalances to its natural state of calm. A miracle of social equilibrium.

The numbers in our herd grew. Nine horses, then 15, eventually 21. I left my marriage and moved to Wales, to a place with enough land for my horses to roam freely. I found clients, people searching for healing from their traumatic memories. I brought them to the paddock. I wanted to help my clients sort through their fear and shame and negative self-worth. We’d walk in together, and the horses would greet us.

“When we enter the herd, we become part of their natural rebalancing cycle,” I’d say. “Isn’t that amazing? How does it feel to let go of what you’ve been carrying?”

Over time, i saw that my own body was filled with the same loving energy I’d shared with Bronwen that day in the paddock all those years ago. I wasn’t worthless. I didn’t deserve punishment. I was just a human being, imperfect as all humans are. The horses knew that and didn’t judge me. I could let go of the self-hatred I’d carried for most of my life. I didn’t have to fear. Not my father. Not God. Not my own nature.

God wasn’t an external force of damnation but a light inside that made all things possible, even a recovery from a 30-year battle with anorexia and bulimia. If ever I need a reminder, I only have to watch Bronwen and the other horses roam the paddock. Happy and free and at peace with themselves. The way I am and deserve to be. A miracle in the making.

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