Why I Portray My Chronic Pain Through Drawing Horses

I see the world differently from most. Growing up, I had so many people lie to me and break my heart over and over, and it changed me. From the time I was young to now, the one thing I understand better than anything else in this world is horses and horse behavior. I spent hours sitting in a pasture in high school, studying the body language and interactions that went on with a small herd of horses.

Ears back means anger, ears up means alert, tail swish means frustration, lip smacking means, “Don’t hurt me.” It’s a language I can understand.

Horses can’t lie, they can’t say the wrong thing, and their body language screams out the truth when people mask their true intentions with a simple smile.

I relate to horses better than people, so it made sense for me to reach out to them when my whole world got turned upside down, set on fire, smashed to pieces, and burnt out to darkness.

For four years I swallowed the crippling pain of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), without even knowing its name. Two and a half years ago, I changed my identity from “injured” to “disabled.” A few months later that disability was given a name, but the name didn’t really help much except justify my pain. I felt so confused, lost, and broken. Everything that I knew about myself, my abilities, and how I saw the world around me were altered.

One day something in me said, “Enough.” I reached out for a way to understand all that was happening to me, and struggled to find hope. Horses always made sense before, so I asked myself what hope would like in a horse. From there, one idea grew into five, then 10, and so on. I began drawing my own “Horses of Life,” with each horse representing a different word or feeling in my life with pain. It started as a way to express myself and became a way to vent, raise awareness, and connect with others who could see a drawing and go, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel too!”

an illustration to depict all of my faces, not just the mask that most people see or the anger side that many assume is the only version of me

I can’t always put my feelings into words, but drawing them into horses makes them come alive and helps me feel more confident and sure in how I describe various aspects of my life. The drawings speak for themselves.

Currently, I’m working on a compilation piece called “Dependence.” There are three black horses (how I see myself), in the middle, each in a different state. One is an adult, lying on ground looking broken. Another is a baby, curled up tight. The third is a proud, strong horse standing tall with a phoenix on her back.

Often I feel like too many people see me as a burden, as a dependent, as a sick horse or foal unable to help themselves. It’s in how they phrase sentences, how they talk about me in the third person, even if I’m standing right there. I don’t see myself that way at all. though. I see myself as strong, proud, and standing tall despite the storm that wreaked havoc on my life.

Yellow horse of hope

The phoenix is for CRPS warriors every where — burning alive, but rising each day to fight for their life. When it’s all done, the piece will have other horses drawn around me, each representing a different person in my life, how I see them and their body language based on how I feel like they see me. Words don’t always do a thought justice. Pictures, however, will forever be stronger than words.

Drawing these horses makes me feel whole again. It keeps me connected to horses even when I can’t ride. More importantly, though, it helps me sort through complicated emotions that come with identifying yourself as disabled with pain. Pain is a subjective matter, and can’t be boxed in to numbers on a scale. Unless you live with pain, you can’t accurately describe it because healthy people have brains that protect them from remembering the gruesome details and the crushing side effects. With my “Horses of Life” project, I can bring pain to life. I can animate it, make it real, paint its gruesome curves, and capture the devastating side effects.

Horses have always been my rock. With this project, they have once more saved me. Their body language, and subtle cues to each other is the instrument for sharing my hopes, my fears, and my reality.

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