When we were young, my sister and I would canter around our Chicago neighborhood on our imaginary steeds, blowing and snorting, whinnying, clicking our tongues to the rhythm of pounding hooves. Every few years, we would visit our grandmother in Colorado and get to ride a real horse, the elder, regal Helen. We were led around the yard by our grandfather at a quiet walk, but we imagined we were flyieng across the plains, hair whipping behind us.
When we weren’t being horses, we were dogs. Down on all fours, we wagged our tails, greeted our imaginary “masters” with sloppy kisses; we sat up, begged, “paws” at chest level. On one of our visits to Colorado, as we crawled around the living room barking, our grandmother said to my mother, “Alice Mae, these children need a dog!”
Eventually a sweet black puppy with a white throat came to live with us. We, thinking we were thrillingly original, named him Prince.
Although our parents were not animal people, we managed over the years to also have two parakeets (Parry and Beautiful), two turtles (Friskie and Grandpa), my beloved long-haired guinea pig (Dilly), several rabbits (one was our Mom’s, an Easter gift), and several crickets (also our Mom’s, which she put in a Japanese cricket cage for good luck but, being smart crickets, they just squeezed through the bamboo bars and left).
As a young adult, I was blessed with the beautiful dog Shambalah, who was left on the doorstep of my San Francisco apartment. She became my first true four-legged teacher, my friend, my spirit mother. Without her love and care, I would not be here.
Years later, one summer night in 1994, I was jolted awake in the middle of the night. I had somehow gone from sleeping to sitting upright in bed, wide awake. “Pegasus,” I said aloud, then laid back down and slept.
The next morning, I picked up the Sunday magazine section of the Chicago Tribuneand flipped to the last page, to a column appropriately titled “The Last Page,” which featured interesting professions. On that morning, the profession was horse trainer/instructor. I had taken a handful of riding lessons as a teen (a birthday gift) but hadn’t been able to continue because of family finances (a large family with five children). Since my early twenties, a chronic back issue had made riding seem impossible, so impossible that I hadn’t even considered it, but the woman in the article said that anyone could ride, that one of her students had recently undergone a hip replacement. Well, if she could do it, I could do it. I grabbed the phone book and started looking for riding stables.
Three weeks earlier, I had finished my studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts, graduating with a Master’s degree in fiction writing. That Sunday afternoon, a friend and I poured over mythology books trying to figure out why I’d been awakened with the name Pegasus on my lips. Pegasus, the winged white horse of Greek Mythology, had been lent out to many to fight a number of battles. But I knew that wasn’t my connection to him. Finally, we came across the information that made sense: Pegasus had belonged to the Muses, those beautiful mythological women who were said to inspire creativity, who helped painters to paint, dancers to dance, writers to write. I still wasn’t sure why Pegasus had come into my thoughts, into my heart, that morning, but I knew that I had found the connection.
The next morning, Yellow Pages in hand, I made an appointment for a riding lesson in a nearby suburb and began my journey back to the horses whose spirits had been entwined with my heart for as long as I could remember.
At that time, I was a freelance editor with no thoughts of helping animals to heal. But after returning to riding lessons, I was so smitten with horses that I wanted to find a way to spend more time with them and perhaps make at least part of my living as well.
And so I began my professional training, studying with certified Feldenkrais practitioner Mary Debono of San Diego. Feldenkrais is a type of movement re-education for humans. Mary had created an approach for four-leggeds that was based on the principles of the Feldenkrais Method. I just about instantly fell in love with the work. I studied with Mary for several years, earning my certification and becoming the only person other than Mary certified as an instructor of her method. (Ten years later, I made the decision to leave the organization so as to be able to freely incorporate Reiki healing into my movement work, which I now refer to as Neuromuscular Retraining.)
Three years after sitting up in bed and saying “Pegasus” and about six months after I’d begun my training in movement re-education, I met the Thoroughbred bay gelding I named Nikos. He was underweight, his back was tight and sore, when ridden he traveled with his head high in the air. But he looked at me, and he laid my heart bare. I fell deeply in love with him, could not stop thinking about him, and thanks to my generous family, several months later Nikos became my partner.
He taught me a tremendous amount about the subtleties of the movement work I was studying. And, in return, his body became supple, graceful, balanced.
Nikos then led me to Reiki. I studied with Master Diane Stammer of Brookfield, IL. With Reiki, Diane was cured of both MS and a rare type of lymphoma and for many years dedicated her life to teaching this sacred art to others. In addition to taking classes with Diane, I was also closely mentored by her for a year.
Soon after receiving my Reiki Master attunement, I began hearing the animals speak, something I at first wasn’t quite sure was actually happening. Wanting to know if I was just making this up, I participated in an animal communication class taught by Asia Voight of Stoughton, WI. Her class convinced me that I really was hearing the creatures.
The final class activity was to select a few photos of other participants’ animal companions from the sizeable pile we had made, practice communicating with them, and then talk to the human about what we’d heard, to see if we were way off base or somewhere in the neighborhood of accurate.
Because there were so many photos, not everyone’s animals were chosen, and so Asia briefly worked with some of the photos that remained on the table. At one point, I saw her pick up the photo of Nikos and me.
After class, I approached her to thank her for the class and to reclaim my photo. Holding up the photo, I asked her if Nikos had said anything to her.
“Oh, she said. I only checked in with him very briefly.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “Did he say anything?”
“He said, ‘Hi. I’m Pegasus.’”
She said something else about his loving the freedom of flight, but I was barely listening. My jaw had dropped at the first mention of Pegasus, and I began to sob. “He said that? He said he was Pegasus?”
Nikos was living at the barn where the class was being held. I walked out back. And there he was, head over the fence, waiting for me. His gaze said, “Do you understand now?” All this time, all this time, he had been waiting for me to figure out that he was the one who had shaken me awake over three years earlier.
My beloved Nikos took over as teacher from that point forward. This kind, loving, wise spirit showed me ways of being in the world that I had previously been blind to. He helped me to deepen my connection to Reiki, taught me to listen to the animals, to follow their lead when healing, to hold the sacred space at the time of an animal’s passing. I have always been able to feel Nikos’ presence as I work, both when he was still on this earth and since he has passed over. With his guidance and the guidance of other teachers, both two-legged and four-legged, domestic and wild (including my beloved little white dog, Elika, who Nikos insisted belonged with me and who assists with every healing and with every class), this life-affirming work became my profession.
The animals in my life helped to shape my life. They saved me from chaos and turmoil, they fed my spirit with love and kindness and lessons on how to live in peace. This work is my attempt to repay them.
Pam and Nikos