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