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My body experiment: equine therapy

Jelly galloping in Wadi Rum with two of her horses, Gamar and Nour. Photo courtesy of Sandra Jelly

How the hell did I get here? I wonder, at once amused and a bit embarrassed. Am I just another cliché traveler, trying to Eat, Pray, Lovemy life? Doubt sets in and I scan the desert-scape, quickening my steps to catch up to my companions. Sandra’s wavy, cropped hair bounces with her stride as she guides the group along the side of the stable.

We near the fenced paddock and a chocolate-colored horse stretches her head out to greet us. A few of my fellow travelers reach up to stroke her neck. The horse’s warm welcome thaws some of my skepticism. Recent memories flash through my mind, reminding me exactly what drew me to this Arabian horse stable in the desert.

Chest pains. Panic attacks. Dread that held me hostage in my own home. I’d been suffering silently with this secret for months. Or had it been years? Anxiety didn’t knock politely on the door and announce her arrival in my life, so it’s impossible to say when she showed up. Maybe she snuck in a window with the wind when I wasn’t looking. Or perhaps she’d been hiding under my bed all along, her darkness creeping out across the floorboards until she’d filled every corner of my life, choking out the light. If I dared to leave the house and her behind, she’d always find me, no matter how far or fast I ran. Even on the other side of the world, I couldn’t escape her. The more I ignored her, the louder I laughed, the freer I lived, the more brazen she became. On my final day of a work trip to India in April 2017, after my travel mates left for the airport and I stayed behind to catch a later flight, Anxiety swooped in and shoved me down with a panic punch so powerful and a dread so heavy, I was certain I would never stand again. I was sure I would die there—alone, bones and soul smashed under a thick slab of darkness.

Fitzgerald wandering the ancient city of Petra. Photo courtesy of Sunny Fitzgerald.

That was the day—a sunny April afternoon in India—I stared Anxiety straight in the face for the first time. And swore to her that if I made it out alive, I would find her fuel and drain her dry. Whatever source she was drawing her power from to steal mine, I’d snuff it out.

Nauseous, exhausted, and trembling, I dragged my bags and aching body onto my flight that night, running solely on sheer desperation and the strength my sister sent across the many miles with texts that read, “It’s a panic attack. I know it feels like you are dying. But I promise it won’t kill you; it can’t. You’re going to be ok. I’m here.”

I knew there’d be more days ahead when I’d be far from home. Travel wasn’t just my love and my life; it was my job. I couldn’t fathom a world in which I would stay forever trapped in my house. But the fear of another paralyzing panic attack was real. It made me take pause and carefully consider my next steps. I didn’t want to focus on the symptoms anxiety caused; I needed to get to the source.

So when the hosts of the travel conference I was scheduled to attend in the Middle East in May offered a choice of adventure activities to try, I was immediately drawn to travel company In2Jordan’s “Inner and Outer Adventure.” It offered a combination of activities intended to challenge our bodies and minds while acquainting us with lunar-like landscapes, ancient sites, cuisine, and local culture of Jordan. That is how I got here. This was what I signed up for, and it was too late to turn back.

They don’t overthink the way humans do. They feel you and respond immediately, acting as a mirror, reflecting your feelings and fears.

Jelly

Sandra slides off her shoes and sits down in the Bedouin-style tent facing the paddock, instructing us to do the same. A local Bedouin gentleman passes around hot tea while Sandra briefly introduces the soul session she and her horses are offering us.

“Horses’ minds are pure,” she says. “They don’t overthink the way humans do. They feel you and respond immediately, acting as a mirror, reflecting your feelings and fears.” Flies buzz about, zipping in front of our faces and diving into our tea cups. Some land on Sandra’s chin and cheeks as she speaks, but she remains poised. “When you enter the paddock, choose a horse you feel called to,” she says. “Don’t initiate contact. Just mentally set your intentions and wait for them.”

Her instructions seem vague, yet deliberately so. The horses are, after all, the leaders of this soul session. “Take notice of feelings and thoughts that arise, but don’t force anything,” she adds. We spend a few moments in silent meditation, connecting to our body and breath before she sends the first group of three participants into the paddock to join the horses. I remain seated in the tent, aware of my own medley of fears and feelings of skepticism, hope, shame, anticipation, and self-doubt already bubbling to the surface.

I observe the range of interactions between my fellow travelers and the horses already in motion: playful, tearful, aggressive, gentle, indifferent. Each horse’s behavior is noticeably distinct to each individual. A familiar panic consumes me.

Fitzgerald's powerful connection with Remaz. Photo by Alper Ertübey.

I stand alone, wondering whether I did something wrong.

Fitzgerald

Could a horse expose my inner world for everyone to see? What will they think of me? Sliding one leg over the bottom bar of the rusted fence and ducking under the top one, I step into the soft sand of the paddock. Before my back foot has even hit the ground, the chocolate-colored mare Remaz is making her way toward me. Recalling Sandra’s instructions, I stand still and try to focus my mind on my intentions. But as Remaz approaches, a wave of anxiety surges through my body. She is tall and wide and strong. She has hard hooves and huge teeth. She could hurt me if she wanted to.

I formulate an escape plan, mentally measuring the distance between me and the fence. I contemplate diving back through to safely place a barrier between us. Against my instinct, I hold my ground, reminding myself to breathe and try to trust the horse. She inspects my hips and hands with her nose, then moves on to my ears and hair. Her whiskers brush my neck and I let out a nervous laugh. The tension in my body melts and I drop my shoulders. Just as I am beginning to feel comfortable and curious, Remaz suddenly turns and walks away. I stand alone, wondering whether I did something wrong. I watch as she moves quickly toward another woman that has just entered the paddock.

Am I not interesting enough to keep her attention? Is she easily distracted by new things? The sun has become a spotlight magnifying my humiliation. I am convinced everyone saw Remaz abandon me. And I want only to hide anywhere but here.

Take notice of feelings and thoughts that arise. Sandra’s words echo in my ears, and against my desire to run, I stay planted in place, watching Remaz affectionately nuzzling another, and acknowledging everything that surfaces inside me.

Jealous. Alone. Abandoned. Afraid. Untrusting. Unseen. Unloved. I wait a moment more, wondering whether Remaz will come back to me or I’ll remain alone. She appears to be comforting the other woman, and my tendency toward compassion for others ahead of myself takes over, silencing all other emotions. I climb through the fence and walk back toward the tent, dejected and wondering if a few moments with a horse could really provoke such powerful and conflicting emotions. They act as a mirror, reflecting your feelings and fears. Sandra had warned us. Remaz didn’t provoke powerful and conflicting emotions; she simply showed me that they were there.

Sun sets over the stables in Little Petra. Photo by Michelle Grosz.

We gather together in the tent again and Sandra expands on the experience. “Horses help us to become more present in our bodies,” she says. “They help us become aware of the subtle messages we are carrying—messages we may ignore in our busy day-to-day life, but that are influencing our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.” She invites us to reflect and share. When it’s my turn, I part my lips to say simply, “My horse walked away, so nothing really happened. I’ll pass.” Instead, hot tears and pained words of past traumas tumble from my face to the tent floor before I can stop them. I cover my mouth with a trembling hand, but it’s too late. I can almost see the shards of my soul lying on the floor in front of me.

I look up, expecting to be met with uncomfortable laughter, judgement, and disbelief from the other travelers. Instead, I find eyes filled with compassion, welling up with tears of their own. The burdens shared somehow feel lighter. “She’s waiting for you,” Sandra says, looking past me toward the paddock. “Turn around.” I stay seated in the tent, turning only my head. Remaz is there, resting quietly on the sand. “Do you want to go to her?” she asks.

Sandra and I climb back through the fence and squat down beside Remaz while the other travelers remain in the tent. Despite the horse’s size and strength, Remaz exudes a steady calm. I reach my shaky hand out and connect with her shiny coat. A wave of warmth flows to me. My hand steadies and my heartbeat slows. Joy fills the darkness and a childlike laughter bursts through my tears. Sandra backs away, leaving me to sit silently with Remaz. “You do love me,” I whisper, words once again escaping from my lips, surprising me, rising not from my head but somewhere hidden. Whether those words are meant for Remaz, my mother, ex-lovers, former friends, others, or even myself seems to matter less in that moment than the realization of complete acceptance expressed in them.

When emotions from traumatic experiences can't be fully acknowledged, their energy gets stuck in our bodies.

Jelly

You do love me. I feel love. I feel lighter. I feel whole.

I stand and return to the tent. Remaz also stands, but remains close to the fence, as if to reassure us she is still there, should we need her. “When emotions from traumatic experiences can't be fully acknowledged, their energy gets stuck in our bodies,” Sandra explains as we rejoin the group. “That stuck energy creates limiting beliefs and we unconsciously recreate the same painful experiences over and over again. It is only in connecting to these emotions that we can learn from them, release them, and change our beliefs and our life.”

It is said you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. In the same way, it seems horses can lead us to our demons, but they can’t make us deal with them. Remaz revealed some of the root causes of my anxiety: Painful memories and limiting beliefs I have been carrying—some since childhood. In reflecting my inner world with such unadulterated honesty and loving acceptance, Remaz created a nurturing space for me to do the same. She effectively led me to the water. But she can’t make me drink. Taking that sip—the work of sifting through the darkness, acknowledging past traumas, releasing toxic thought patterns, and creating healthy, new ones—is up to me.

Upon arriving home in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald felt her body was in LA but her heart was still dancing in the Jordanian desert. She immediately began making plans to return to Jordan and headed back there in July 2017 to continue the soul work she had started, prioritize her health and well-being, and explore more of this country that had so positively and powerfully impacted her. Her love of Jordan has led her to become a Jordan destination expert for Lonely Planet and kimkim, encouraging others to travel to Jordan and experience its magic for themselves. Her next adventure: a 400+ mile, 40+ day trek across the entire length of Jordan that she will begin on March 2, 2018.

Fitzgerald's final moments shared with Remaz. Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald.