Emotion as Messenger Part V: Negotiating the Waters of Grief

This article originally published in Equine Leadership: A model of peaceful and positive living for all ~ Issue 3 ~ March 2018

These thoughts on grief are based on a recent personal experience, and reflect my own meditations as well as lessons from many valued teachers.


“Grief is the last act of love we have to give those we have loved.
Where there is deep grief there was great love.”


It’s said that the act of grieving is like being hit by an enormous wave, or drowning in a deep ocean. Considering our emotions are mutable, flowing and changing from one moment to the next, this comparison seems entirely appropriate. Like emotions, water ebbs and flows according to the energy to which it is subjected. Since the human body is composed of up to 90% water this analogy is even more intriguing. For in effect each one of us is our own body of water ~ a continuously moving physiological sea inhabited by emotional creatures subject to the disturbances of outside events and environment.


Since the passing of my heart horse, Bear, this past November I’ve been negotiating the waters of grief. Introspection has led me to take the ocean metaphor one step further, something I’ll explore in this article.

Much as an earthquake strikes without warning, loss cannot be predicted. It rattles our world and in the process generates a swell of grief that rolls through our waters destabilizing and disorienting us in its wake. We lose our bearings. Our thoughts become muddled. We feel overwhelmed; vulnerable; fragile. Our deepest fears and anxieties re-awaken. How we ride this unnerving wave determines whether we’ll return to calmer waters or forever flounder in the dark depths inhabited by our unmet and unconsciously hidden emotional sea monsters.

In recent years science has demonstrated that water records and saves information; that it has memory. Dr. Masaru Emoto, respected scientist, researcher and best-selling author, discovered that water is deeply connected to our individual and collective consciousness. His experiments proved that energy and intention, individually and collectively, can alter the molecular structure of water for good or ill. e.g. With a powerful microscope and camera he showed that water molecules intentioned with love or gratitude altered to resemble beautiful, symmetrical crystal shapes ~ much like a snowflake. Conversely, water molecules intentioned with hate disintegrated into an ugly mass. Further proof that whatever we project, intentionally or absently, purifies or poisons our inner and outer environments.

So, how does this apply to grieving? Loss, like an earthquake, is a powerful change agent and grief is the potent swell of energy it generates that changes us. This overwhelming force manifests anger, fear, betrayal, denial, etc. which, if indulged unhealthily or not appropriately resolved, can lead to deep depression and dis-ease. Alternatively, wading grief’s troubled waters in the moment and with love, promotes healing and closure. In other words, over time our waters become still again.

Allow me to illustrate with my own recent experience of loss.

Dream Horse
Shakespeare (Bear) was my first horse; my dream horse; my heart horse. When he arrived almost 12 years ago I was 43, out of work, and beginning a mid-life transition. I was finally in a position to realize my life-long dream of a horse to call my own. Over the years, through training and experience, I built a bond of trust with Bear that supported us along our shared path. I had big plans for us to help heal lives and, of course, anticipated that we would grow old together. However, life had other plans.


Bear died Tuesday, November 21, 2017. Gone in a flash due to torsion colic*. This was the earthquake that shattered our world.

Grief rolled through my body of water the next morning. After a restless sleep I awoke early. My head hurt. My heart ached. I felt nauseous. My disrupted emotional waters ebbed deep into the recesses of my broken heart and flowed back in a deluge of despair. Too powerful to be contained within its usual shores, salty tears spilled down my cheeks. A plume of shock vomit released pressure. Still, that first day the wave rolled over and over trying to re-establish balance within the context of a harsh new reality. With each swell emotional debris polluted the love-imbued waters that had held Bear and I for so long. I felt overwhelmed; exhausted, and this continued in gradually dissipating waves as the days passed.

As soon as I felt able I scrambled back to a routine. Spending time with Sophi, my other horse, helped to ground me as she needed me to be grounded. She had lost Bear, too. This mutual loss deepened our relationship.

About the third week I noticed a pattern. Each Wednesday following the initial swell of grief an echo of that original disorientation rolled through. If I attempted to push through it I felt overwhelmed and debilitated. Recognizing the pattern allowed me to adapt my mid-week routine to one of gentle self-care and reflection. As the echo continued to weaken I realized this break worked well for me, so I incorporated it into my new life without Bear.

Of course, each person’s experience of grief will be different. Our emotional conditioning, life experience, etc. largely determine how we negotiate those unsettled waters. Still, common to all is the fact that grief dredges the depths of our consciousness asking us to recognize, resolve and release those dysfunctional elements of our lives that pollute our waters. It also asks us to heal mind, body and spirit so the turbulent waters can be made still again. An open heart and mind is key to negotiating our way through the waters of grief.

Something else I’ve discovered is that finding a constructive way to honour the memory of the deceased helps to distill the waters and allows us to move on. After my grandmother’s death over 20 years ago I vowed to honour her memory by living my best life. I can thank my gran for the wake-up call I needed to start down the healing path. With Bear, I honour the many important lessons of self-awareness he facilitated. This helps me keep my energy focused on the path of light and healing.

Official Portrait 2013

It’s been two months since Bear’s departure, and while the swells of grief still roll through my body of water, they’re also fading. I miss my dear equine friend, but take comfort in knowing that by being fully present and honouring his memory as an act of love, and focusing on extra self-care on Wednesdays when my waters feels disrupted, I can move on while holding Bear forever in my heart.


*Torsion is one of the more severe forms of colic, and occurs when the large colon displaces and twists 180 to 360 degrees. … Source: https://horse-canada.com/magazine_articles/unravelling-the-mysteries-of-colic/

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2018 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

Emotion as Messenger: Part IV … Anger

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more peacefully and abundantly.

My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

Part I … Fear
Part II … Sadness
Part III … Vulnerability


Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.

Louis D. Brandeis
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States


Everyone knows what it’s like to feel anger. Everyone knows what’s it like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s wrath. However, what most people don’t realize is that beyond this hurtful, inflammatory, uncomfortable feeling lies an important message. A message designed to return us to a state of peace if we just listen, honour and respond to it appropriately.

As with all emotions, anger has a specific role to play. In essence, this dynamic feeling warns when a personal boundary has been crossed. It tells us when our personal space has been invaded by unwanted attention or manipulation, and asks us to restore the boundary to a healthy status quo.

Most of us have been taught from early on not to entertain our anger or, at the very least, to suppress it so as not to make a scene. Of course, it’s important to manage our anger, however ignoring or burying it is not a healthy option. When we do this we not only miss an opportunity to teach someone how to respect our personal space, we give them permission to invade it again … and again. Also, we create an environment for emotional volatility.

Is there someone in your life you have to tip-toe around all the time? Withheld anger creates a powder keg that, with a seemingly random trigger, may blow at any moment. And if it doesn’t blow outward, it implodes. Many deeply angered people manage their feelings through addiction which, of course, numbs them to their emotional environment. They want to feel without feeling. Before I sought help my addiction was emotional self-battery through negative self-talk and the need to prove I was perfect. It almost destroyed me.

Anger’s healthy expression is more about explanation than explosion. Confronting the offender in the moment opens the door to understanding and solutions rather than unnecessary, escalated arguments. If, in the end, the other party refuses to acknowledge or accept responsibility for their actions we have, at the very least, allowed ourselves an opportunity to express our feelings. This helps diffuse the negative energy that accumulates when we stuff hard emotions down where they can fester. Acknowledging our anger in the presence of the one who has angered us is the first step toward finding our own peace. It also helps us to decide whether or not we want to continue being with someone who demonstrates so little regard for our space and such lack of empathy for our feelings.

Ultimately, taking care of our personal emotional welfare is our own responsibility. If others are offended by this, that is their battle. Why would we want to be drawn into their fight?

Boundary Dance

A lesson in boundaries

I first became aware of personal boundaries 10 years ago as an apprentice in Chris Irwin’s horse training program. I was approaching woman-of-a-certain-age-hood ~ 40+ years old with no concept of a personal boundary. I was angry and reactive with no idea why.

One afternoon I was engaged in a round pen exercise with an unfamiliar horse. While I don’t recall the exact details (due to my penchant to dissociate under stress), I remember finishing in tears, overwhelmed, frustrated and angry that the exercise had not gone “perfectly” as I’d envisioned it. I felt exposed and fraudulent. Another participant, a social worker/therapist, sat with me as I attempted to process my experience. When it seemed appropriate she shared her observations and introduced me to the notion of setting personal boundaries. Why? Because the horse had clearly shown me I had none.

I remember thinking at the time, “Setting a boundary? What does that even mean?”

This was the pivotal moment in my life that set me on the experiential learning path. Having uncovered this sad personal truth, I finally understood how I’d relinquished so much of my own power in favour of yielding to the agendas of others. The reason was, at that point, still beyond my understanding.

Through the years my continued study and participation in equine experiential learning has helped me realize that many of our individual challenges, and those as a society, arise from the fact that most of us are never taught the importance of setting, and respecting, personal boundaries. Attentive parents teach children to refrain from taking candy from/talking to/getting into a car with a stranger. Still, who teaches their child when and how to be appropriately angry after someone has invaded their space? The sad fact is that most parents have little or no concept of this themselves never mind know how to teach it.

Due to their open and trusting nature, children are particularly vulnerable. Abuse of any kind is a devastating violation of their personal space as they have no defence. Their mental and emotional world is so fragile that such an assault is a horribly traumatic experience. Without proper support to manage their overwhelming feelings, their normal emotional and mental growth patterns are hijacked. In essence, their healthy sense of self has been sabotaged leaving them primed to serve an ensuing line-up of advantage-takers who can spot just such a victim miles away. This paves the way to an angry, frustrated adulthood and the negative pattern persists until some force beyond them issues a wake-up call, or a series thereof. I know this to be true from my own experience. The round pen exercise was one of many.

Boundary Dance

Linda Kohanov ~ author, speaker, riding instructor and horse trainer internationally recognized as an innovator in the field of Equine Experiential Learning, and a respected writer on the subject of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy ~ describes boundary setting as “… the dance of respect and connection.”

From my own experience, and through observation, I’ve learned that taking back our power by learning this dance with horses is one of the most life affirming ways to understand the concept of a personal boundary and experience a positive shift in personal power.

Meet and Greet


 … horses approach each other; ears pinned slightly and tails swishing in anticipation, they begin the tenuous dance of respect and connection.

Linda Kohanov
from Way of the Horse

It’s fascinating to watch herd members set boundaries with one another. When a new horse is introduced the approach is cautious and respectful. “Who is this new guy?” everyone wants to know. “Who are these guys?” the initiate wonders. With many squeals and snorts and much stomping of feet ~ a moment of emotional elevation while they sort it out ~ the horses engage and establish the new hierarchy. If a boundary is crossed at a later time it’s quickly re-established with a squeal or a nip, or the threat of a kick. The anger released and order established, the herd goes back to grazing.

Toxic Emotional Soup

Humans, for the most part, don’t manage their anger half as well. Because expression of anger, even the healthy variety, is frowned upon, negative emotions are harboured and left to stew. Most of us are unaware of the toxic emotional soup we keep adding to each day, nor can we connect with the moment someone put the pot on and told us to stir.

For example, civil wars and family disputes going back generations are held in the collective conscious of those involved for so long that most a) are reacting to a fight that isn’t even theirs, b) aren’t aware of their own feelings about it because they’ve been supplanted by the agendas of others, and c) are afraid (and don’t know how) to establish a boundary that says “this is not my truth.”  All they know is that this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it will always stay. It’s anger fed by hate fed by ignorance fed by anger, served up in double portions and force fed to the innocent all for the sake of an unresolved trespassed personal boundary which happened, perhaps, centuries ago.

When not dealt with in a healthy way, anger spins off into its noxious cousins ~ frustration, rage, fury, shame, guilt, boredom and apathy ~ a dangerous and debilitating posse of emotions that inflicts further trauma on the one holding the anger and crosses boundaries to wound unfortunate bystanders. Abusers have been abused; haters have experienced hate. Their feelings of pain and loss of control, as well as the underlying fear that there is no hope of change, perpetuates anger until it explodes all over the next hapless victim ~ whether family, friend, social group, country or themselves, it is the same.

Boundary infraction

The truth is that well-placed anger, in the moment, re-establishes the invaded personal boundary. Just as the angry horse issues a warning kick of trespass, we need to be aware of our personal space and protect it in a way that allows us to remain open and engaged with the fullness of life. Personal melodrama, often due to suppressed anger playing out through addiction and similar debilitating activities, is simply unacknowledged emotions repeating their important messages over and over until the intended recipient finally “gets it” and takes appropriate action to resolve the inner conflict.

Learning how to set a personal boundary and becoming aware of our impact on the world around us are two of the most important lessons of equine experiential learning. Horses as objective third parties with no judgement or agenda powerfully reflect who and how we are in the moment. They can teach us, with the guiding hand of a qualified practitioner, to understand how to set and manoeuvre our personal boundaries so we feel more in control of our lives without offending the boundaries of others.

A final word

With reference to the quote by Louis D. Brandeis at the beginning of this piece, I feel that anger is indeed born of ignorance ~ ignorance of our own, and others’, boundaries. I also believe that learning to turn ignorance into awareness helps to develop empathy.

I’m reminded of a quote in Charles Dickens’ classic work A Christmas Carol:

 … They are Man’s and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Ignorance flourishes in a closed heart and mind, and a lack of self-awareness in this regard spawns a terrible, destructive anger. Those whose boundaries have been violated and never restored harbour their anger and are most likely to cleave to ignorance as a means of false protection. They’re also more likely to become the predators among us because, having no empathy, they act out with no regard for the welfare of others.

Horses are perfect mirror for our emotions. That disconcerting experience in the round pen offered an awakening for me. It was the invitation I needed to begin exploring my inner world so that I could understand the hidden sources of anger crippling my emotional life. It gave me the awareness I needed to begin remedial action.

The fact is we cannot feel at peace with ourselves and the world around us until we acknowledge and respect the message of anger. By answering its call to action in a way that honours our truth without offence to others we re-establish the boundary crossed and teach others how to treat us.

Be the peace you so dearly seek. Let the horses show you how.

Be well,



Healing begins in the heart …



Next: Part V … Grief

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2016



Emotion as Messenger: Part III … Vulnerability

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.

My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

Part I … Fear
Part II … Sadness


Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.
Brené Brown


Every day, to one degree or another, we feel vulnerable.

Any change, transition or shift in our lives leaves us feeling as if we’ve lost some aspect of control over our experience. We may not like it, but it is so.

Many, if not most, people do not cope well with feeling vulnerable and, as a result, resist change.

The challenge is that every moment of every day, whether we’re aware of it or not, features some kind of change ~ in our surroundings, our mood, our cell biology, our experience. If we persist in our resistance to the natural unfolding of life we do ourselves the greater harm. We become stuck in dysfunctional life patterns that keep us emotionally incapacitated and make us more easily manipulated, preyed upon, conned and abused. This, in turn, puts us more on the defensive. We either lash out to protect what we perceive to be our everlasting truth, or curl up in an even tighter emotional ball in the shadows where we hope no one will find us. Either way, we are, to put it bluntly, screwed.

Resistance is futile

Is it possible that it’s not, in fact, the fear of change that keeps us stuck, but our resistance to our feelings of vulnerability?

If we feel we are in a rut, surely we want to get out of it. If we have a dream, are we not willing to do what it takes for it to come true? If we feel unhappy, don’t we want to find a way to embrace happiness? All of this requires change. It requires us to step into the vulnerable transition … and every transition presents uncertainty.

Uncertainty, spawned by triumph or tragedy, can leave us feeling powerless, upsetting our emotional equilibrium and knocking down our carefully constructed walls and perceptions. It challenges our beliefs and boundaries and forces us, often kicking and screaming, into opening our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking about, and being with, ourselves and the world around us. To most, this is a frightening proposition. Emotionally exposed and feeling helpless, we retreat to our preferred, and mostly unwitting, escape mechanisms, usually some form of addiction. This could be anything from demeaning self-talk, self-harm and repetition of negative life patterns, to binge shopping, alcoholism, gambling or any other form of unconscious self-flagellation we adopt to beat ourselves up for some perceived personal failure.

As an example, a father abandons his young family and, feeling somehow responsible for his departure, his daughter grows up feeling like she must do something to win and keep the affections of a male other (usually a man as emotionally dysfunctional as her father.) One day way down the road of life, an emotionally intelligent man walks unexpectedly into her life and simply accepts her for who she is. He tries, without much success initially, to help her see that she doesn’t have to do anything to win or keep his affection. The concept is so foreign to the woman that her initial response is to resist and shut down emotionally to protect the old belief system. Her perception of her Self and an old, dysfunctional life pattern is being challenged and even though it represents a positive change, it’s a scary prospect. Relationships with men, as she’s known them, no longer make sense.

“What do you mean I don’t have to do anything? What does that even mean?”

After years of running herself ragged in a repetitive and destructive cycle of perfectionism while seeking validation in the eyes of men too much like her father, she has found herself in unfamiliar territory with a loving, committed man whose only desire is for her to be happy. The woman is caught between two realities ~ the old lie that she’ll never be enough, and the new truth that she is, in fact, enough as she is. In the end, she seeks professional help to release the old destructive life pattern and reconcile the new, healthier reality she believes to be her truth but cannot seem to integrate.

A life-altering experience, even a good one, can leave us feeling profoundly insecure about who we are for a while. Being open to the change and willing to work with it, however, is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.

MeditationThanks to a horse

As prey animals horses are, as Canadian horse trainer, Chris Irwin, describes: ” … victims waiting to happen.” Their hyper-vigilence is their protection. Whether a white plastic bag is flapping in the breeze 50 feet away or a more obvious predator is entering their environment, horses are able to identify a threat instantly and take care of themselves as necessary, meeting energy with energy.

This ability to reflect different energetic stimuli in their environment and capacity for non-judgment is what makes horses such valuable teachers in the arena of personal growth and self-discovery. In the presence of a horse we find the mirror of our truth. This can be uncomfortable, but more importantly, it can be revealing … and healing.

Horses reflect back to us the energy we emit. If we feel overwhelmed and mask it with a smile, it’s the energy behind the smile to which they respond. For a horse to feel comfortable in our presence we need to be our authentic selves, coming out from behind the mask and laying bare our true feelings. By doing this we demonstrate empathy for the horse’s own vulnerability and a bridge of mutual understanding and respect is built. Knocking down our defensive walls to allow ourselves to live fully in the moment, however, is key.

A personal story to illustrate:

For most of my life, due to early childhood trauma, I’ve felt vulnerable about speaking up. To avoid the threat of “feeling exposed” it was easier for me to hide behind the opinion of others; to linger in the shadows unseen; to put up with the bad behaviour of others at my own expense, and to blend in with the crowd than to stand up and say how I felt. When I did speak up I was usually shamed in some way, so I learned to keep my mouth shut. I fell into the role of “perpetual assistant” backing (and leading) other peoples’ causes, instead of championing my own. When it came to speaking up for my Self, I felt daunted and doomed.

In my middle years, I started working with an objective third-party to explore the emotional trauma that had kept me stuck in this debilitating cycle. While on this journey, I enrolled in the Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL) certification course offered at Horse Spirit Connections in Tottenham, Ontario. It was while I was engaged in an exercise with a horse named Paris that my healing journey was taken to a profound new level.

An epiphany occurred during my first reflective round pen experience. Part of the exercise is to identify, without thinking about it too much, a heart’s desire to share with the horse. What immediately came to mind was: “To be able to speak freely and without judgement.”

Upon entering the large round pen I stood in the middle and waited, feeling totally exposed and vulnerable. Interacting with Paris in front of a group of strangers, albeit a lovely group of supportive women (and a man), felt totally uncomfortable. Lovely Paris stood patiently some 15 feet away, waiting. I couldn’t speak. Eventually, she rattled the gate as if cueing me to “make noise,” but I didn’t get it. I was wound up in the pain of not being able to freely express myself. Frozen in an old pattern I just wanted to hide; be invisible. I started walking the round pen, feeling aimless, hoping Paris would follow. Of course, she didn’t.

After a few minutes I left the round pen, disappointed in myself. Feeling like I’d failed, the tearful, emotional self-flagellation began. During a supportive 10-minute de-brief a facilitator asked, “Why didn’t you talk to Paris?” I couldn’t say. She asked if I would be willing to go and try again. What had I to lose?

Returning to the round pen, I stood in the middle once again and gathered my courage. I did my best to ignore the observers and forced myself to talk aloud to Paris who was, again, standing by the gate. I said whatever came to mind: told her she was named after a beautiful city; explained that being unable to express myself was old; mentioned her black coat and how beautiful she was. And then I told her how her colour reminded me of the shadow I’d been living under all my life and how I so desperately wanted to shine; to be heard.

Incredibly, as soon as I gave voice to this vulnerable piece of my Self Paris began licking and chewing (a sign of acknowledgment). Then she turned and deliberately walked toward me. I couldn’t believe it. She’d heard me. I doubled over in sobs. This gentle, non-judgemental being was acknowledging the connection I’d made to my vulnerable Self.

She stopped beside me and held space for several minutes so I could embrace this pivotal moment. “It’s time to step out of the shadow and shine,” she seemed to say as she stood there, comfortingly. She allowed me to stroke her neck and then, after a few moments, moved away, her work complete.

This time as I thanked her and left the round pen I felt calmly empowered. Paris had shown me I could speak my truth without judgement ~ mine or anyone else’s. It was a magical experience that transformed my life in so many ways. Whenever I feel vulnerable about speaking up, I remember Paris and find my courage to speak/write again.

In summary, life by its very nature feels vulnerable. The sooner we learn to accept this fact and work openly with it, the sooner we’ll find the courage and strength to stop self-sabotaging with old negative life patterns and start finding the confidence to live and speak our truth.

And the horses can show us how …

Be well,



Healing begins in the heart …



Next: Part IV: Anger

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015

Emotion as Messenger: Part II … Sadness

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.

My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

Part I … Fear


“Sadness is often a part of grief or depression, but in its purest form, it’s a healing agent that motivates us to let go of what no longer serves us so we can embrace the next stage of growth and creativity.”
Linda Kohanov


Denying our feelings is a dangerous coping strategy. Choosing not to feel our feelings keeps the emotions behind them alive (and not necessarily well). These unreleased emotions block our ability to move forward in life and generally leads to more debilitating feelings as we unwittingly self-sabotage.

We need to feel in order to heal. We need to feel … to be real.

Sadness, like grief or anger, is one of those withering emotions that can trap us in a negative downward spiral. While it must be felt, it must also be constructively released if it’s to do its job properly and allow us to advance to the next stage of personal growth.

By definition, sadness, is an uncomfortable, often painful feeling that accompanies some kind of impending loss. Any significant approaching change can be a catalyst for sadness.

Autumn's GirlRecently we lost our beautiful, old rough collie, Sass. In the weeks leading up to her death it was sad to witness this once vivacious girl, who used to love to herd my husband and I around like sheep, sleep away the day and hobble on wobbly legs for a short walk down the street. Watching her slow demise gave me pause, remembering all the happy times we’d shared. I realized, again with sadness, how old age had been creeping in on her for some time and inevitably changed the dynamic of our relationship. Recognizing this made letting go of our dear girl less traumatic for me. I wasn’t terrified of losing her. I’d already lost the youthful essence of Sass to the ravages of time. My commitment to her was that she would not suffer from her own loss of quality life.

Feeling the sadness as the difficult decision to let Sass go approached helped to cushion the blow struck by the impending change. It allowed me to transit from a chapter of my life with her in body to one more with her in spirit without a lot of personal suffering.

When we resist our feelings we unwittingly impose limits on our potential, which ultimately leads us to become stuck in a rut of self-loathing at our inability to move forward. We get in our own way without realizing it.

By embracing the passage of sadness for what it is ~ a messenger marking a shift in our lives ~ we give ourselves permission to enrich the meaning of our experience and move into the next chapter of our potential.

The avalanche of despair

Our inability or unwillingness to feel sadness as it enters our experience (or, yes, our choice to harbour in it) leads us directly to despair. Despair is an avalanche off a mountain of built-up sadness ~ that is the complete absence, or loss, of hope. Since despair plummets us so powerfully, it is more destructive than sadness; more gut-wrenching; more debilitating. It swiftly carries us into the valley of dark despondence where courage and enthusiasm for life become buried under a devastating rock pile of hopeless depression. Buried in the unfelt feelings, our lives become burdensome and claustrophobic. Lost.

How can we dig ourselves out from under the weight of a debilitating emotional load we had no idea we were shouldering until life took us out at the knees?

Horse-inspired healing

Earlier this year I faced a time of profound sadness with the diagnosis of a career-ending injury for my horse, Shakespeare (Bear). I was devastated. All my dressage dreams with my beautiful equine partner gone with a single injury, and he confined to stall rest indefinitely while he healed. For two weeks, as I came to terms with this new reality, life felt surreal. I functioned in a fog of bewilderment and immeasurable sadness.

Riding was going on the back burner. For how long, I did not know. All I knew was that Bear deserved a chance to get well, and that I needed to experience this time with him, allowing my sadness to prepare me for the new path he and I would walk together, whatever that would be. I knew that in order to go forward I needed to release any attachment to what was and open my heart to new possibilities.

My inspiration for renewal was, amazingly, Bear.

For a horse who loves his paddock time this turn of events might have proved devastating. Most horses go stir crazy confined to a 12×12 stall for an extended period of time. Bear, however, adapted quickly to his new routine as prescribed by his attending vet: 120 days of stall rest with 10-15 minutes of hand walking per day. As well, I had to work at my nursing skills, sweating the injured leg and changing his leg wraps daily ~ an intimidating prospect for one with no confidence in her ability to administer first aid.

Chillin' copy 2At first it all felt overwhelming. However, as time passed and I observed how well Bear was adapting to this radical change in his routine, I learned to move through my sadness and embrace the new reality as well. With each day my heart became more resilient and my mind more open. Watching Bear take his confinement in stride gave me the courage to do the same. Instead of resisting the notion of learning how to take care of his injury, I embraced it. As I opened up to the opportunity of caring for my horse differently the pain and sadness I felt gradually subsided and our relationship deepened.

Bear needed me and I needed to be there for him. As it turned out, Bear was a model patient throughout the entire treatment period. Perhaps that had something to do with my ability to be there for him, but I believe it was more about his own instinctive need for down time. Witnessing his acceptance invited me to do the same. In the process, I released my need to suffer and stepped boldly into the new reality ~ a much healthier way of being than walking around feeling sorry for myself, at Bear’s expense.

Beyond the sadness … a silver lining

Always at the back of mind too, however, was the notion that every dark, voluminous cloud is lined with silver.

An icy paddock was all it took for a career-ending injury to a lateral suspensory ligament, however the ensuing veterinary work-up confirmed that Bear’s hind suspensory ligaments were dropping and he was not structurally sound enough to continue in training. Had he not been injured and I’d persisted in our training, his injuries might have been much worse. His injury was a wake-up call; an invitation to shift focus.

The silver lining?

Bear is confirmed as the lead horse in my new Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL) practice. As well, after a six-month search we finally welcomed lovely Sophi into our herd. It is with this lovely mare that I may more realistically pursue my dressage dreams.

Eight months have passed since the fateful diagnosis, but taking it head on and working through the sadness has helped me to avoid the avalanche of despair into the valley of despondence into which I could so easily have descended. Instead, Bear and I have deepened our relationship and created room in our hearts for expansion.

Feel the sadness; release the suffering

In summary, by feeling our sadness and recognizing this emotional messenger for what it is ~ a chance to release and rejuvenate ~ we give ourselves permission to be free of suffering and move to the next chapter of our experience. A lot of lives are wasted unwittingly dwelling in the sad place. Making the decision to feel our emotions, including sadness, allows us to open our lives to new horizons and possibilities for growth and expansion. The only other option leaves us stuck, unhappy and unfulfilled.

Do you find yourself mired in sadness? If so, perhaps it’s time to allow the horses to help guide you out.

Be well,



Healing begins in the heart …



Next: Part III … Vulnerability

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015

Emotion as Messenger: Part I … Fear

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.

My references are The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.


“The fastest way to freedom is to feel your feelings.”

Gita Bellin
Facilitator, Mentor, Coach


Recently I was at the barn with a client facilitating a session of Wu Wei ~ the Taoist practice of “non-doing.” The purpose of this exercise is to spend a prescribed amount of time simply “being” in the environment and going with the flow. It is a wonderfully grounding and stress-reducing exercise, providing a way to escape the confines of our chaotic minds to dwell more solidly and knowingly in our bodies, in the moment.

I had assigned my client 15 minutes to sit on a picnic table located on a berm beside the paddock and observe, without judgement, the horses as they went about the non-doing business of grazing. Why non-doing? Because the horses don’t think about it, or make it happen … it just is. As the sun rises and sets effortlessly in a day, so too the horses wander the paddock in search of sustenance … effortlessly.

There were, actually, two paddocks within view ~ the closest with two horses (including my own horse, Bear), and the paddock beyond with four horses, all peacefully grazing by the fence beside the quiet country road.

Within moments of starting the exercise there was a commotion in the far paddock. The horses, spooked by a cyclist sprinting past on the road, galloped as one across the open, descending terrain to the gate, bucking and leaping and squealing in fright, their flight instincts kicking in full force and carrying them to a place of safety. Once down by the gate, there was much head tossing, pawing at the ground, trotting in circles ~ a general shaking off of the incident. Then, in a matter of moments, the horses had settled again and were going about their quiet business of grazing.

For my client this was a great opportunity to watch the change in energy as it went from grazing to flight to grazing again. A flow of non-doing. Nothing calculated; no judgement ~ just the horses going with the flow of energy as it moved in and out of their space. The horses felt the fear associated with the perceived threat, fled to a position of safety, shook off the stress of the experience and then, relieved of their anxiety, went back to life as normal.

This lead me to wonder, how good are we at processing our own emotional disturbances?


My MuseHorses, with their finely tuned nervous systems and focus on self-preservation, can teach we silly humans, who have drifted away from listening to the body’s innate intelligence over the centuries to focus on the mind alone, much about processing our emotions.

Over Millennia most of humankind has been conditioned, by a variety of influences, to deny what we feel and to stuff our emotions away where we think they can do the least amount of harm. The only trouble is the more we stuff them down the more damage they can do ~ to us and everyone with whom we come in contact. Emotions left unaddressed in the moment ~ feelings not felt and processed ~ live inside us indefinitely, creating another kind of physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual debt which we eventually must pay.

From my own experience and observation the mid-life crisis in all its guises marks the tipping point. In our middle years, when our physical body starts to show its wear and tear, old emotions rise to consciousness. Stored emotional energy must play itself out; must be respected and released. When it isn’t a crisis of identity can occur. We feel stuck. We panic for no apparent reason. We get sick. And we delude ourselves with the notion that if we just work harder and appease the unforgiving ego, all those unprocessed emotions will simply go away and we’ll be okay.

Sadly, for most us, it isn’t until we are forced by circumstances beyond our control, i.e. some form of personal tragedy or “wake-up call,” like a chronic illness, accident, death of a loved one, etc., that we are forced to take a good look at our lives and, if we are wise, take the necessary steps to release old, negative, stagnating emotions and the events attached to them. Events and feelings which have had a hold on us, perhaps for a life time, and influenced all of our decisions and how we’ve lived our lives, without us even realizing it.

Through my many years of personal therapy and from working with wise teachers, I’ve learned to understand that emotions are, essentially, energy messengers on a mission to bring us through an event or experience so we can come out the other side of it feeling whole again. Emotions and feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, give us the leg up we need at any given moment to move forward with life. When we ignore or disrespect their messages inner chaos ensues and we become stuck in patterns of negative, debilitating behaviour that get in the way of our ability to thrive.

Evidence is being gathered by organizations, such as the HeartMath Institute, to demonstrate how heart resonance i.e. the electromagnetic energy generated by the heart that creates a powerful energy field around every living being, allows the body to experience incoming information a split second before the mind understands and puts meaning to it. That is to say, we feel through heart resonance first and then the mind interprets the message of the feeling according to its pre-conditioned responses as determined by environment, upbringing, and life experiences. This is why we can see and experience the same thing as someone else and yet have such a different reaction to it.

So, what about fear?

By definition, fear (and we all know what that feels like) is an “intuitive, focused awareness of a threat to one’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well being.”* Fear is a warning bell; an alarm; a siren signalling a need to seek safety.

What happens when we ignore this important messenger?

Consider, when was the last time you were afraid? Did you think fear first, or feel it?

Everything happens in a split second, but if we’re in touch with ourselves and with the visceral, we are aware of the fear energy ~ subtle or tsunami-like ~ as it waves through our body. The thumping of the heart; the sweaty palms; the racing pulse; the nervous system energized to run. The body feels the emotion ~ the energy as it moves in ~ before the mind knows what’s in the environment that creates that emotion.

Once we feel fear the mind searches for the source; asks the questions: What is the threat? What must I do to move to a position of safety?* What are these feelings telling me? Once we receive the answer, usually by way of an intuitive thought or gut feeling, we must honour it or suffer the consequences. The trick is to be in touch with those gut feelings.

A Tsunami of Fear

In late October 2012, my husband and I were in Waikiki for a four-night stay to break up a long trip from Toronto to Sydney, Australia. At the time I was deep in adrenal fatigue mode and long-distance travel was hard on my nervous system. On the second full day we rented a car and toured beautiful Oahu, ending the day at a restaurant across the street from our beachfront hotel. The place was busy, but we were fortunate to get a table with an ocean view and, after taking our order, the waiter returned with a basket of bread before getting our drinks. Moments later he returned, somewhat pale, and said with alarm:

“I’m sorry, you have to leave. There’s a tsunami warning for the islands and … .”

I didn’t hear anything else. A tsunami-like tidal wave of fear whooshed dramatically through my body landing electrically charged in my feet telling me it was time to move. We didn’t panic, but we certainly didn’t waste any time getting back to our 24th floor hotel room where we ordered room service and awaited the worst.

With visions of the the Japanese tsunami of only 18 months earlier crashing through my mind I ate little, saving the rest in case we were to be holed up for a few days. I filled the bath tub. Put on my most comfortable clothes. Washed my face. Brushed my teeth. Basically tried to get comfortable for an event over which I had no control and which was forecasted to unfold at 10:27 p.m. We had the TV on to follow reports. Regular announcements from the hotel manager filtered into the room through the hotel sound system every half hour or so. I played Angry Bird to channel my angst. My husband hung out on the balcony, filming with his iPad the bright sparks standing at the end of the wharf waiting for the first wave to arrive. Car horns honked. Whistles blew. Sirens wailed. People yelled. We were all in it together. The anticipation was jarring. The wait interminable.

As it turned out, there was no tsunami at 10:27 p.m. Only a one-foot wave lapped the shore line bringing with it a collective sigh of relief. Still, the fear response had been activated, and my experience with adrenal fatigue had made me aware enough to know that to release the fear energy I would need to find a way to shake it off. The next morning I booked an early (and wonderful) lomi lomi massage to encourage my body and mind to release the stress of the night before. It was wonderful and it worked!

The bottom line ~ within the experience itself there was only so much I could do: get to higher ground and wait it out. Had I not taken action my initial fear response might have escalated to more intense feelings of worry, anxiety, confusion, numbness, panic, terror or dissociation.

Feeling the fear of that evening was not a pleasant experience. Still, by being present with the emotion and taking care of myself, I was able to flow with it and shake it off when the danger had passed.

In Summary

Learning to be more horse-like in how we deal with disturbances that create fear can help us to deal with our fears more effectively. Being present enough in our bodies to ask the appropriate questions during a time of crisis instead of over-reacting and creating unnecessary panic is crucial if we’re to maintain our equilibrium and promote long-term health and vitality.

By working with the horses, who so naturally reflect back to us our energetic truth, we can begin to learn about our own patterns of crippling behaviour and create awareness for change. We can learn to be “in our bodies” and allow its too oft ignored messages to help us function more fully in a modern world all too willing to de-sensitive and exert control over us.

Horses don’t lie. They know when we carry fear around with us. When a fearful person puts a brave face on and approaches a horse, the horse doesn’t see the face, he feels the fear. The horse doesn’t understand that he’s the source of the person’s fear. His awareness tells him that there is something in the environment of which to be afraid, and he feeds off of that energy.

It isn’t until we acknowledge our fear, thus releasing any accompanying tension, that the horse can relax and be with us. Simply acknowledging our fear allows us to experience our authenticity. Horses perceive the energy behind a lack of authenticity as a threat and will always move away from it. Conversely they will always honour the intentions of those who move in truth.

Learning to honour our emotions and their messages will, no matter how unpleasant in the moment, protect us in the long run. What we don’t face today we inevitably face tomorrow in a more amplified way. Fear, when honoured early allows us to act without over-reacting, and gives us the opportunity to take care of ourselves without bringing harm to others and perpetuating bad feeling.

Confront and release fear and feel your freedom.

Let the horses show you how …

Be well,



Healing begins in the heart …



Next: Part II … Sadness

*The Power of the Herd: Guiding Principle 1: Use Emotions as Information (Linda Kohanov)

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015



Every hidden, blocked feeling is like a chunk of frozen consciousness. Until it thaws, you are saying “I am this hurt” even as you refuse to look at it: it has you in its grip.

Deepak Chopra


Perhaps the most hope-filled time of year is during the spring thaw.

With the frigid winds of winter behind us we look forward to a time of colour and creativity; of the warmth and joy of feeling fully alive again.

The transition between freeze and feel, however, is a messy one.

As the snow melts a dirty, barren wasteland is revealed. Ugly. Colourless. Neglected and abandoned remnants of a time now past and never to be repeated.

For a while we wonder when the landscape will start to change and reveal to us the hope for which we have yearned for so long. March winds blow through stirring up and removing the remaining detritus of the dead season. Spring storms clarify the air bringing with them rains to cleanse and replenish the earth. Sunshine blankets the landscape to nurture the precious new growth beginning to germinate away from the unseen eye.

And still we wait.

And then one day …


Have you ever felt stuck? Do you feel stuck now? Frozen in a way you don’t understand and don’t know how to change? In the grip of a virtual winter of personal discontent that constricts your life experience so much you almost physically can’t breathe?

You want to be different; feel different. Welcome the spring of new growth, but the weight of your life experience, much with which you can barely connect, has you snowed under to the point of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion. Even to hope for the spring is overwhelming.

For much of my life I knew this feeling only too well, but I didn’t understand it. I thought numb was normal. Snowed into a dysfunctional life by avalanches of trauma from a variety of sources and from which I could find no way to dig myself out.

Occasionally a helping hand, as a stalwart soul stumbled upon my predicament and recognized a way they could draw me out. Gradually, the cold constricted space around me began to melt, but in my heart I was still frozen. Emotional self-preservation the only thing I knew.

Then the BIG one. The wake-up call at age 48 that told me it was time to claw my way out of the frigid snows and begin the serious business of thawing. It was that or suffocate to a slow and painful demise.

Do … or die.

It took one week in beautiful Bosnia-Herzagovina in 2009 to shift my awareness. Three major panic attacks for no apparent reason all but paralyzed me. I saw my Self in the trauma of that war-torn country. The devastation still visible in areas of Sarajevo and Mostar resonated so deeply with my own overwhelmed internal landscape I was forced to look at this unlikely reflection and make an important decision.

It was time to change. Time to dig out. Time for the trauma to be released. Time to heal; to rebuild; to thrive.

At the time I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but it didn’t matter. Something had to shift. I had to move if I was to have any hope of prospering in the spring of middle age and beyond.

Within weeks I put myself in therapy, and the serious business of thawing began.


The transition from freeze to feel is, indeed, a messy one.

Like the spring thaw it happens gradually and in stages so as not to overwhelm and re-traumatize the fragile landscape. With emotional release comes physical liberation. Planes of the body frozen in time find their way back to life, too. Some change with a seismic shift while others trend more gradually to renewal.

It is heave and hell and hope in one. It is the frozen life force re-awakening and moving beyond limiting beliefs and behaviour patterns to find a new vitality. It is the germinating seed seeking the warmth of the sun and the nourishing rains to the fullness of its potential. The evidence of what is past will still exist, but its power will have changed from destructive to creative. Our true nature revealed.

The Self.


Enter the horse … a sentient and majestic being who has partnered with humans over millennia in the building of civilizations, in the playing of sport and as valued companions.

Our modern society doesn’t need them the way our forebears once did, but we still need them. And they still need us. As French author and philosopher, Antoine de Saint Exupéry famously wrote in his book The Little Prince:

“We are responsible forever for the things that we tame.”

Horses are still considered valued companions to many. We still partner with the equine in sport and recreation. Some still toil on farms or serve and protect while on police duty. Still, within the last several years, a new and perhaps the horse’s most profound role yet has been added to his repertoire ~ that of healing partner.

Horses have been my saving grace … and one horse in particular ~ Shakespeare.


A big horse with enormous heart, I call him “Bear.” He’s the horse who rocked my world ~ who invited me to thaw. The blow torch to my frozen heart; the one who helped me find, recognize and live in my truth.

Horses read us like books; our body language the words inscribed across our energetic page. They read between the lines we don’t even know we’ve written to understand the heart of our intention. They are fooled by no one. They reflect back to us the truth and nothing but the truth. They show us a mirror image of ourselves we’d often rather not see but which, if we accepted it, would put us in a position to change our lives forever … and they would help us with that, too.

How do they do this?

Well, that is the subject of this blog.

Heart lessons learned through horse wisdom.

In this blog and on this website I plan to help expand awareness on the subject of heart-based living, through my own experiences and through the expertise of practitioners in the field of equine experiential learning and other relevant therapeutic modalities.

It is my pleasure and privilege to deliver the lessons I and others have learned, and will continue to learn with the horses, in a personal and dynamic way. Whether through my own healing experiences with them or those I have facilitated with others (names changed to protect their privacy) it is my intent to demonstrate another way to “thaw” and reclaim our lives.

In his book It’s Not About The Horse, Wyatt Webb, therapist and founder of the Equine Experience at Miraval Life in Balance™ inTucson, Arizona, quotes Logan, the counsellor who helped save his life, his mind and his very soul …

If you’re to achieve the peace, joy, and spiritual fulfillment that you want so badly, it depends upon one thing and one thing only–your willingness to simply do something different.

Being stuck, frozen, traumatized is not a life sentence, yet so many of us treat it that way. We have the power to make decisions that help us to thaw and move to a new, fluid way of being. And the horses are here to help us.

And I am here to help share their wisdom.

From my heart to yours …

Dorothy Chiotti
Practitioner, Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning


Healing begins in the heart …



Copyright Dorothy Chiotti 2014