Taking the Reins On My Recovery

Lisa riding a horse

This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.

Lisa Whalen, a former Emily Program client, has a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education, and an M.A. in creative and critical writing. She teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Her essays have been featured in An Introvert in an Extrovert World, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, and MotherShould? Whalen is working on publishing her memoir, Taking the Reins. In the meantime, she is a regular contributor to The Feisty Writer and maintains a blog called, Writing Unbridled.

On April 6, 2018, I stood in a college auditorium and scanned rows filled by my faculty colleagues, students, family, and friends—the people I most admire and want to respect me. Then I said something I never thought I’d utter aloud: “For more than a decade, I battled an eating disorder and depression.” That sentence began my faculty lecture series presentation, where I discussed a memoir I’d written about recovering from the eating disorder with the help of an Emily Program therapist and 12 special horses.

That I could address an audience—any audience—showed just far I’d progressed in my recovery. The perfectionism that drove my eating disorder had also made me terrified of speaking in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school. Similarly, when my therapist suggested group therapy, I’d panicked and almost stopped seeing her.

In hindsight, I wish I’d been more open-minded. I’ve discovered in the years since completing individual therapy that the more open I am about my eating disorder, the less power it wields. But I’d never have talked about it if I hadn’t written about it. And I’d never have written about it if I hadn’t stumbled into a life-changing discovery by signing up for what I thought would be a handful of horseback riding lessons. From my first introduction to a Thoroughbred named Angie at Seventh Farm riding school in River Falls, Wisconsin, interacting with horses became a practicum where I embodied what therapy taught me. Six years later, I’m still garnering insights from every lesson.

My first insight was that horses don’t care how I look; they only care how I treat them. Whether I roll out of bed and head straight to the barn or arrive in makeup and mousse from teaching classes, they regard me the same. Their constancy soothes like a balm from the second I step into the barn. It also encourages me to practice new and better ways of being in my body.

Horses communicate with their bodies: Every tail swish, ear flick, and lip lick makes a statement. To converse with them, I must pay attention. I must stay present and listen with my eyes and heart so I can hear what they say.

Horses establish relationships by giving and taking personal space. To partner with them, I must set and maintain boundaries. That means claiming—and even expanding—my physical presence. It means staying calm and projecting confidence—whether I feel it or not. It means convincing each horse that I will take charge, lead, and keep him/her safe. As I learned during my first groundwork session with Angie, earning a horse’s trust can create magic: I can get her to move when, where, and how I ask without physical contact. I simply aim my core (solar plexus area) at the part of her body I want her to move, channel my energy through the space between us, and step forward. Just like that, Angie moves. She also licks her lips—a signal that she feels connected to me and trusts my leadership. I, in turn, feel powerful. The more I lead horses on the ground this way, the more comfortable I become leading students in the classroom.

Climbing on a horse’s back has shifted my bodily priorities. To control a 1200-pound animal with a mind of her own, I must be healthy. Feeling weak, lightheaded, or nauseous puts both the horse and me in danger. Early in my lessons, when I struggled to care about myself enough to get well, I always cared about Angie. That care bolstered my efforts toward recovery. Soon, I cared about myself, too. And I became more interested in being strong than being skinny.

Learning to jump fences on horseback requires me to be in my body, to pay attention to how it feels, because it tells me everything I need to know to stay safe: our speed, approach, takeoff, jump height, and landing. The only close calls I’ve had while jumping resulted from getting lost in my head—a holdover from the eating disorder and a pitfall of working in academia. But when I stay grounded in my body, the horse and I not only remain safe, we have fun—a lot of fun.

Horses remind me with our every interaction that being in my body can serve as a source of pleasure rather than pain. They also show me how good it can feel to be myself. Now that I know, I want to help others discover how good it can feel to be themselves, too.

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