Lessons Learned with Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado
Part 1: The Thing About Round Pens
I stood in a solid wood-fenced round pen, partially shaded from the August heat by trees that leaned over two sides of the tall fence. I couldn’t see, but I could hear Magali’s familiar cadences as she spoke to a rider in the arena just the other side of those trees. So lovely her voice was, I thought a bit forlornly.
In the round pen, I was of course not alone. The young stallion with me was tall for a Lusitano, dappled, and you could tell that he’d only recently left being mostly black for his more gray appearance this summer. He was eager to please, and a little worried. Pull it together, I told myself. But in spite of Frédéric’s instructorship and the presence of onlookers, there was an invitation there, a gestalt waiting to happen. The first time I’d been evaluated for a horse-training job, I stood in a similar close-walled round pen with a dark gray stallion, an Arabian named Daood. Then, I’d forgotten all but that stunning stallion.
There would be something to reflect on in this flash of synchronicity. That time marked the beginning of what I sometimes called the best job I’ve ever had as a trainer at a multi-million-dollar Arabian training, showing, and breeding facility where I worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was the kind of place, though, that I’d be happy to work in again; it specialized in horses for the amateur rider, rehabbing open show horses so they were safe and could take care of a less-experienced rider and offer that rider the thrill of the ring. It was my first time to be recognized as a respected, even gifted and a little magical, full-time equine professional.
But that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike Daood, this Luso stallion was a bit lost. He was getting no clear messages from me, and so of course he didn’t know what to do. But he wanted to, so badly. He wanted to perform for me, to impress and receive admiration and praise.
I wasn’t being clear because, unlike that time when I was 18 and in a pen with Daood, and unlike my daydreams, hopes and plans about this moment, I didn’t seem to know what I was doing. I mean, at all. So…was another gestalt taking over my conscious intentions?
Perhaps it was the cold I was getting, bizarre in the August heat and highly unwanted at the beginning of a month-long holiday in Europe, the first week of which began here, at Magali Delgado and Frédéric Pignon’s home in the South of France, training and spending long meal times talking horses over amazing food and, well, French wine.
I should know what I’m doing, if I could shake this gestalt that is clearly not just about that new beginning with Daood, but also about…an ending? My forlorn, blank feeling is a clue. And…I was torn between my reason for being there and my usual way of walking through any doorway into the unconscious. I felt into this emotion not suited to the moment, processed the horse’s body language of hope, potential, and worry, and… Frédéric was saying something. Unable to process his words, I turned blank eyes his way, pretending to listen, and really trying to shake myself out of it, to hear and comprehend. This wasn’t about his English, or his clarity. I could feel the underwater, super-real feeling of a soul message. This was about me.
His words ended. I felt a bit of dismay. This is not supposed to be a session about my emotional healing or past traumas, it’s supposed to be liberty training. I’ve done this, and even had my horses work with clients in modified liberty dance work; something, I had felt sure, was a particularly fruitful and unique offering. At that time, as I found myself working with a small handful of national nonprofits and individual leaders of institutions—the dance work promised to be the breakthrough into these kinds of clients—my ultimate dream was to get to train with the founders of Cavalia, Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado.
And here I was! So, what is this? I took a quick grounding breath, asking the gods to let me be a trainer now.
No good. As I raised my awareness to my physical experience, all my energy moved like honey down to my feet and out. A huge weariness overwhelmed me, and I knew now “where” I was. I’d gone back two years, to the months of dissolution of my life with my mostly-French-by-blood, English-by-accent husband. This confusion was about those months that had cut off my stability, my sense of being loved and a part of something bigger than myself and separate from my work, my hopes and dreams, and my ability to dance. There was information here, if I wanted to take the invitation.
I didn’t, in that moment. I felt how much I was responsible for the unhappiness of this beautiful horse, how my coveted time with Frédéric was being wasted, and so I was certainly not happy, either. This is not what I had come here for.
Later that night, as I sat under an awning in the rain at a quaint-gone-dingy little café outside my hotel, shivering with the feeling of a cold now in full force and sipping the broth of a cup of French onion soup, I despaired about yet another loss. It seemed to me I was losing the dream of learning from the people who made the connection between horses and humans appear so palpable, so undeniable, and so beautiful in their performances. What other conclusion could I come to? Because there seemed to be an unbridgeable divide between my work with horses and how Frédéric and Magali develop those magical performances.
It’s a divide, I think, our horses feel often. This work with horses in human wellness, learning, and mental/emotional healing is magical even as it is about connection and relationship. And, from the horse’s perspective, it can create chasms as big as the Grand Canyon.
The Thing About Round Pens
Around here, there’s been talk about the types of spaces we use in our work. Precipitated by one horsewoman who felt the round pen was part of training styles she did not agree with, this horse advocate asserted that the round pen was traumatic for horses if the person they were in there with was inexperienced in horsemanship. While I did not agree with this opening to the discussion, I saw that people in other Facebook group also began discussing the benefits and potential downfalls of the round pen. In that fashion, the discussion went global.
I’ve had my own thoughts. But beyond well-thought-out stances, I can say this. In that experience with the young gray stallion, one thing I found impressive about the round pen was that I could not shake the emotions and flashbacks that came swirling in. There’s something about that small round space that really hits that associative part of our central nervous system. The layering of associations left me with well over 2 months’ worth of material to go back, feel into, and gain information from. Even better, the experience was so intense that it’s easy to reflect on and return to those moments, thereby through reflection, gaining information on a number of topics in my life.
There is much to say about this kind of associative learning. The flashback is not meant to be a return to that moment; but it does bring with it a message. This way of processing is a mode of enquiry that, when learned through practice and dedication, can make life so much richer as the inner world is honored as a key participant in what is perceived in the outer world. Facilitating this form of information gathering deserves its own playful sort of rigor and skill in empathy, respect, intuition, projection and somatic knowledge and could be the topic of many articles such as this, so I won’t go into it now. The point here is that, while this experiencing can happen in spaces of any size or shape, I was struck by how powerful–and inescapeable–it is in a round pen.
For new clients or those who are having trouble connecting to their inner stories and experiences, this is quite a compelling point.
And now, let’s see this whole thing from the lens of the other being in that pen, the horse. If a round pen creates such a powerful experience even for a person who does not want to go there, imagine what the horse experiences. When we ask our horses to work with clients in round pens, we are asking them to:
- feel what that client feels, in an amplified, intense space,
- experience, cope with, and respond to the behaviors and emotions that come up for the client as, from a flashback or strong emotive place, they project onto a horse that which troubled them and blocks their emotions,
- experience no escape from the intensity of the feelings, even if they want it,
- guide that person through the experience to a new perspective and response,
- do it over and over again with different people.
Now, horses are uniquely qualified to do this. They live in this realm of relating to the world; it’s like their first language. And for many horses, the fact that they are being seen and listened to as they guide with the support and structure of their human cofacilitator(s), is incredibly empowering. It’s like a reversal of their human interactions to that point, and the process can be positively transformative. Given multiple spaces to choose from I’ve seen horses literally push clients from a larger space into a round pen, stand outside the round pen gate and stamp their foot as an invitation with no uncertain terms about what the horse is asking, and stay in the space even when the gate is never shut. I always let a horse out who asks, and so my horses know to ask. This is not, in my eyes, a bad space.
The point is simply, it’s intense.
No facilitator needs to stop what they’re doing by any means. But we can stay attuned to the reality of the amplification power of this particular space, and realize that many horses, like many humans, can get so into their work that they don’t take breaks. Part of our jobs as practitioners is to always check in, be mindful, and recognize when either a horse, or we ourselves, need to rest and reset.
As we would no matter what space we use, we also may want to take into account the horses’ ages and their own journey in wellness. If the horse has learned to dissociate, for example, in intense situations, can that horse serve a client and itself in the situation it is in? We won’t have the answers to these questions, but a mindfulness is key. It can be most helpful to communicate with, and tune in, to the horses. About what we suspect could be intense, as well as what they suspect could be a particularly intense session. We may adjust things like the spaces we use; the number of horses in the session; and the amount of attention we put into grounding exercises, as well as which exercises we might use with the clients.
I ask my horses about these things and set up my facilities and situations for horses to leave or come in to sessions, to make their input heard, and always keep in mind each horse’s own personal journey and personality so that I help them help themselves. And I try to be open to their reminders to me, too, about these things.
This doesn’t mean I don’t close gates. I do. The horses guide this as well as my own intuition. Usually these two things happen together. There is value in metaphor to an open gate, and a closed one. And often a horse asking to be let in or out is not overwhelmed and leaving the session altogether, but needs to move to a different space in order to communicate a shift in energy or a new perspective that will deepen the session.
The point is, ANY assumptions I hear people making, any “This means…” or “Does that mean…” about what a horse did or is doing or will do in the future, leads to a long pause as I try to figure out how to answer the “it depends on…everything else” that would otherwise be my constant reply. ANY assumptions may lead you to miss your equine co-facilitator’s guidance, and block their ability to communicate a deeper layer or a shift, or misinterpret that communication in a way that creates a feeling of being judged to your client (as having been too much for a horse, for example).
And now we are moving into Part 2 of this “Lessons Learned in France” series, “The Thing about Knowledge”.
For now, I invite you to think about the spaces you use and the way they hold energy. If you can, try out different places in your facility, as well as spaces with different sizes and shapes.
And I invite you to share your experiences with round pens and other session spaces and places in the new Healing with Horse guest blog series. You can email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next part of this article will talk about the messages I learned about horse training. So if you like this article, be ready for the next section: