There is no room for doubt of any kind when dealing with horses

4 April 2014

Jo Corfield, the founder of Hope Thru Horses, talks about her recovery from anorexia and bulimia after a thirty-year struggle.

For years I lived in a world that was shadowed by fear. My fear clouded everything; my thoughts, perceptions, feelings about myself and my judgments of others.

After living with anorexia/bulimia for over 25 years it became so much part of my life, I could not imagine a life without it, in fact the thought was as terrifying as the disorder. I didn’t deserve to be free and happy. I was a bad person and felt only intense self-hatred and feelings of failure and worthlessness.

Although I led a fairly isolated existence, it appeared to those who did know me, I was happy and in control. What remained unseen, even to the most probing eye was utterly disastrous. My mind was a battleground of negative and destructive thoughts and I was existing on a diet of fear, anxiety, doubt, starvation, biscuits, chocolate, endless ice cream and purging.

The catalyst which changed my entire existence and way of thinking was a beautiful, sensitive and very anxious black welsh cob mare. She shook the foundations of my world from the moment she set hoof on our drive.

She was and still is beautiful and almost black, with a gleaming coat and the longest eyelashes imaginable but at the time she seemed huge and terrifying. For days I had sleepless nights worrying about whether to have her at all and relented very much against my better judgement. Bronwen came into our lives when my twelve year old son was given a little rescue pony that was far too small for him and needed a companion.

I had never owned a horse in my life and had no experience other than a reckless knee gripping out of control gallop or two on an old horse as a child (picture left). I was now landed with the terrifying task of keeping myself from being trampled underfoot by two very large animals, who barely acknowledged my existence.

My doubts continued and I wished I had listened to my grave misgivings. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and my son was equally useless and almost immediately lost interest in horses shortly after Bronwen’s arrival. Strangely, it never once occurred to me to reverse my decision now it had been made, instead I went all out to learn how to become a responsible and enlightened horse owner. Being a perfectionist I was not going to settle for being an average horse owner. My horses were going to have a far greater quality of life and live with only kindness, sensitivity and insight. I was going to get into their world and see life through their eyes.

In theory my plan was flawless, in reality I was in for a shock. In her previous home Bronwen had been a truly biddable, delightful and genuinely well behaved horse. All changed instantly when she found herself being ridden and cared for by a self-doubting, self hating, fear-filled incompetent like me.

From the moment she set eyes on me she couldn’t get away from me fastest enough and would run as far as she could. All I wanted was for her to love me and be with me as much as I wanted to be with her. I was shattered. Every time I went to visit her, she turned tail and headed off to furthest corner of her paddock, when I finally caught up with her her eyes would harden with fear and she’d strain to get away from me.

I was scared of her size, power and energy. Nervously I persevered, grooming her tentatively, avoiding her feet for fear of being kicked and entering into hopeless struggles with saddles and tack. I knew enough about horses by now to know poor Bronwen was showing me her displeasure at having to tolerate my feeble attempts at horsemanship with her flattened ears and threatening facial expressions.

I felt utterly devastated but for the first time in my life I could see clearly and although the situation was hideous, I knew the problem was me and with no one else to blame but myself, I was in control. Bronwen was responding very naturally to my inner turmoil doubt and fear; being around me confused and scared her. She longed for someone to be there for her as her leader and I was failing miserably.

Weeks of battling went by and disaster followed disaster. When I tried to ride her she would constantly move away when I tried to mount her. Trying to go out on a hack was a nightmare; she would spin around in a desperate bid to return to the security of her paddock. If by some miracle we managed to get through the gate and onto the lane, she would find every opportunity to make her way home as fast as possible and being stronger, mentally and physically than me she almost always succeeded. I was so miserable and felt such a failure. I became obsessed; I was going to find an answer to the dreadful problems the two of us were experiencing.

Finally a possible solution presented itself; a man who called himself a horse whisperer was prepared to come and help Bronwen and I resolve our differences.

I was so nervous I almost abandoned the whole idea and only sheer desperation kept me going. I watched in wonder and amazement as this small insignificant little man had Bronwen watching his every move with adulation within only a few minutes. He barely moved and with the tiniest signals had her moving in circles around him, backing, stepping sideways and listening with both ears and eyes fixed on him attentively the entire time, her eyes never left him, even when she was supposed to be attending to me. His assistant explained to me that he had been communicating with Bronwen in a way that she instantly understood, because it emulated the way horses communicate with each other.

As they drove away leaving Bronwen and I alone, I realized the biggest lesson I had learned was that I had to change the way I approached every moment I spent with her. I had to change my thoughts, beliefs and my defeatist attitude.

There is no room for doubt of any kind when dealing with horses. Horses have to live with certainty to survive in the wild, a moment of doubt or hesitation could lead to their being eaten. If Bronwen was ever going to feel safe in my company I had to let go of the negative thought patterns I had learned over a lifetime and become someone very different, someone who could protect her. Without my beloved horse to monitor my progress and encourage me with her loving approval each time I got things right I could never have contemplated such a task.

Bronwen was an extraordinary teacher; she was so forgiving of my inadequacies and visibly softened every time she could feel how hard I was trying. Her truly loving nature forgave and rewarded my efforts over and over again even after all I had previously put her through. I had made her so unhappy by centring on my own inner fears and inadequacies instead of seeing how I could help her. It was as though she had been a reflection of the part of me I hated. Her discomfort, dislike and fear of me and her need to run away was like looking in the mirror.

As the months passed the two us worked together to find ways to completely reprogramme my destructive thought patterns. It was a matter of trial and error and sometimes we would have a breakthrough and at others we would slip back into the quagmire of old and damaging thinking. My self-punishing, soul destroying eating disorder had been created out of a need to attack and self destruct. My inner fears had ruled and tried to destroy me; they had overshadowed the vast majority of my life. We had a great deal of undoing to do, but with perseverance, forgiveness and patience we held on to faith and hope.

Slowly I learned to retrain my mind, with endless discipline and determination I began to recognize the positive, clear and focused thoughts that benefited and rewarded me. These were the thoughts that produced the loving response from Bronwen I had longed for.

Now with my Anorexia/bulimia well behind me and many years of experience using my knowledge and skills to help others, I can see how incredibly worthwhile it all was. There was something truly amazing to be gained from that period of my life. Without it, I would never have been able to fully appreciate the stark contrast, between living a life of fear and living one of true happiness and fulfilment.

Find out more about Hope Thru Horses.