by James Cassese LCSW
Long weekends can sometimes feel like chocolate cupcakes. If I don't have any for a while, I manage to get along. But if I have a couple in a row, then I want them all the time. Even though I'm lucky enough to love my job, I can still long for unscheduled days to enjoy the horses and play with the dogs and start a few of the books stacked on my night table. Sometimes, I'll even indulge in those lottery-winning fantasies where I'm free to do anything I want. Ironically, these fantasies seem to obscure all the really awesome things that already exist in my life.
One morning driving up to the barn, shivering while I waited for the heater to start blowing actually warm air, and longing for the freedom to just blow off my absurdly scheduled day, I remembered a Klaus Hempfling phrase that I adore.
"Horses carry their freedom inside them."
I often think of that phrase, enjoy its simple truth and admire the horses for that ability. That morning I thought about it in a different way. Although the stalls at Mistover are larger than my Manhattan office, I'm only there a few hours each week, while they spend a sizable amount of their time in, well, confinement. Admittedly, Trooper and Union have the good fortune of stalls with large windows, in a place where hay and affection are abundant and the bedding is so deep that they can burrow down into it like hamsters. Yet, huge as the stalls may be, they are enclosed with bars, and while the paddocks are ample, they are still surrounded by fences.
And here is the, ahem, kicker: the horses don't seem to complain. Actually, they are playful, humorous, gracious. They don't seem to suffer back-to-work Sunday night dread, or appear to feel deprived of vacations in the Caribbean.
One of the main players in the Equine Energetix herd illustrated this perfectly. By the time we began our equine-
nteractive work together, Carol Paterno had already retired her horse, Apple Jack. He'd amble over to you, so slowly, stiffly, as his tired joints would allow no bending, stopping in front of you, for the treat that--while he would never ask for--he very much expected.
It seemed absurd that a horse with that amount of prepossession could have that name. "A.J.", as many of us called him, was the kind of guy that Ed Asner would play in the movie version. He was a loveable old coot, who marched into the round pen to work with our clients, like Mr. Grant carrying a briefcase into his office with Mary Richards trailing behind him. While some of the horses in the Equine Energetix herd taught us with subtle mirroring, it wasn't that way with A.J.. You always felt like A.J. wouldn't mince words and he often punctuated his wisdom with an impossibly long trumpet-like fart just in case you weren't paying attention.
It wasn't until I realized how children seemed to fanatically adore him, that I appreciated how a horse like him could end up with a name like "Apple Jack." He loved when we painted him in workshops, and didn't seem to mind that it took forever to wash it off him.
The day before he died, I'd given him his customary piece of carrot, always slightly fearful that it might be too large for his jaws to chew. Our eyes met, as they always did, and he gave me that look that told me that despite his stiff shuffle, he was unencumbered. He didn't complain about his aching back as I sometimes do. One look into his eyes and you knew--inside that body, he was totally free.
It made me realize that, for many of us humans, our relationship to freedom is an abstract idea, a concept that exists outside of us. Freedom is something whose absence we lament, a right we fight to secure, a precious commodity we guard. In our human world, freedom is a commodity, whether we are held literally against our will or simply reside in a "gilded cage."
I know someone who is struggling with maintaining her sense of her own independence in a romantic relationship with a man who seems to deeply love and understand her. As marriage and children loom on the horizon, she fears for her freedom. This is not an uncommon concern-for many of us, commitment to a loved one, a child, a job, even a companion animal calls our freedom into question.
Sitting in my truck, feeling the loss of Apple Jack and crumbling under the realization that--inevitably--someday I will be feeling this ache again, I felt the constraints of time. Time with my horses makes me want, well, more time with them. I realized that I felt confined by the time that takes me away from them-because when I am with them... I feel free. And then it finally sunk in. If I stay in the present, if I nurture my own mindfulness, I feel my freedom. My freedom is something independent of an office smaller than my horses' stalls or a sore back or a daily commute. My freedom goes with me wherever I am, it doesn't need to ask permission, its only limit is my capacity to look inward and feel it. A.J. knew this all along, he carried his freedom with him.