Jill Rivoli, the Horse Buddha, sits with her hands in her lap, palms up, at an old wooden table shaded by an oak tree, patiently waiting for me to explain why I have come to her.
"Horses intimidate me," I tell Rivoli, whom I've nicknamed the Horse Buddha because of her calm demeanor and otherworldly ability with her pack of horses. In other words, Rivoli is opposite me. I nervously glance at the small bay mare who has been inscrutably staring at me since the moment I arrived. "I used to love horses. But about 10 or so years ago I got thrown. Haven't been on one since."
Another horse, a white one, nervously dances along the fence, nipping at the flank of the bay when she passes. The white horse really makes me nervous - stamping her hooves, kicking up little clouds of dust. The bay ignores her. She and Rivoli are perfectly still. The white horse - and maybe me - are the only anxious ones.
In a stage whisper, Rivoli says, "What do you think of those horses?" I look over. "I don't like the white one," I tell her, explaining that she's too full of bluster. "She reminds me of people I know."
"What about the other one? What do you think of her?" The chestnut horse looks over with neither interest nor want. She is just there. Like a flower. Like a tree. How can you hate a flower or a tree?
"She's OK," I say.
"Does she also remind you of people you know?"
I think about this. "I guess she reminds me of my foster daughter. The way she just looks at me like … like she knows I'm not going to hurt her."
Rivoli tells me that the horse's name is Ladybug. "She's a rescue horse," she says. "I don't exactly know what happened to her, but it took her a long time to trust me. Horses are just like people, you know. What they want is to be loved and feel safe. If a horse feels safe around you, they'll do pretty much whatever you ask of them."
Rivoli, who is 46, has spent almost her entire life working with horses, from running a YMCA horse camp for kids to her current gig, Equine Perspective, a sort of horsey Zen class at Carmel Valley Ranch. As Rivoli explains it, "People, for the most part, are either Planners (living in the future) or Reflectors (living in the past). Horses live completely in the present. They're good for getting people to live in the moment."
I lean against the fence and gently reach out to touch Ladybug. She doesn't flinch, but the white horse raises up and takes flight. "You see?" Rivoli says. "Ladybug trusts you." She invites me inside the corral and hands me a brush. I stand with one hand on Ladybug's shoulder, the other holding the brush at my side, waiting for instructions. They don't come. Rivoli watches. Ladybug is still. I slowly start brushing her. Down the withers and back, over the croup, along the flank. I talk to her in a low voice. She leans her head into my shoulder as I brush.
The white horse sneaks nips at Ladybug's flanks. Frustrated, I wave my arm. "Get out of here!" The white horse gallops away. Ladybug doesn't move. Rivoli laughs. "Why don't you walk away and see if Ladybug will follow you."
I slowly walk across the corral. At first, Ladybug doesn't move. Then, she lurches forward like a child trying to catch up to her parents. Together, shoulder to shoulder, we cross the corral, then walk in circles, and finally in figure eights. Untethered, in sync without saying a word.
After that I spend a good half-hour cleaning her hooves, an activity that demands trust from both sides. She has to believe I won't hurt her, and I have to get over my fear of being kicked. As I lift a hoof, I'm aware of the breeze coming over the brown hills and the cawing of crows in the oak trees and the dust stirring. Mindfully present in the moment because of a horse.
The Equine Perspective
$125 per person for two hours; includes pick-up and drop-off from Carmel Valley Ranch. Ages 10-110.