It Ain't All Sunshine and Buttercups; Sharing Ancestral Stories for Perspective with Kim Walnes (TW)
TW: This post comes with a trigger warning, as we explore life after trauma *******************************
If you watch the news, you will know: the world is on FIRE!
And while that may be true … there is another important truth right on the heels of this one.
It has ALWAYS been this way!
Truly. Ask an elder!
At a time when we are bombarded by images of war in the Ukraine, stories of climate catastrophes, and going through our own personal struggles and losses, it can seem overwhelming. You may wonder how it got to be this way and if there is any hope in this uncertain time. You may even long for ‘the good old days’, and something you perceive as ‘simpler times’.
Yes, the world IS in fire.
AND ... it always has been this way!
Turns out, the certainty you are looking for, my dears, is just a myth. And yes, sometimes life is a full blown shitshow. So how do we cope? How do we find hope? I like to turn to our elders.
What our elders show us, is that we CAN find joy again.
Hearing stories of what they have survived has never failed to alter my perspective. Recently, I got to share stories with my friend and mentor Kim Walnes, about her ancestors and what it took for her to find joy after the hardest tests of her life. Together, we looked for the commonalities.
Stories of other people surviving and thriving through heartache, pain and challenge, help provide perspective and hope to others stuck in the trenches of grief, or enveloped by the darkness of shame – they show us there is a way out! A way to a lighter, sunnier life even after trauma. Here is one of my ancestral stories that helped me.
When I moved into our un-winterized cottage in the woods after the loss of our dream farm to bankruptcy, it was a memory of my grandmother’s story that snapped me out of it, when I was prone to feeling sorry for myself.
My youngest son, Max and I moved into the cottage a week before the official move, to get him settled in his new school. It was mid-April and there was still snow so deep, it blocked the front door, and we had to chop a hole through the lake ice to bring water in for cooking and bathing. I tried to make that a fun thing for my ten-year-old Max to do with an axe!
One night, after putting Max to sleep, I was alone in the kitchen, crying while heating lake water on the stove for my makeshift bath, and feeling desperately morose over my losses. As I was waiting on the final pot of steaming hot water, which I was about to pour into the partially filled tub in our little cottage bathroom, I had a vision or a memory: not one my own, but one of my gritty ancestor's ... and it changed everything.
My grandmother Isobel's life story would break your heart ten times before Tuesday. She found herself widowed just before the polio pandemic, with four children under 14 years old, living on a hardscrabble farm whose well was not productive enough to supply the family with enough water for regular bathing and cooking. Shortly after losing her husband, she lost her 9-year-old son Lloyd to polio, then her beloved border Jimmy, to a hit and run.
In this memory, or vision, I was in my grandmother Isobel’s skin sometime after all these debacles. The kids were all in bed, and I was stepping carefully, quietly out of a glorified bucket - the galvanized wash tub they used for laundry that the family brought into the living room and filled, pail by pail, on bath night.
As I (we) stepped gingerly out over the edge of HER tub, toes seeking safe purchase on the wet, worn wooden floor beneath our tiny, tired feet, I compared our realities.
When my long legs stepped over the edge of MY tub in the same movement as Isobel’s, MY foot would be met with a soft bathmat. I would wrap a fluffy towel around myself. I would be emerging from an actual tub, in an actual bathroom whose cedar-lined walls gave off a soothingly familiar scent.
There was no fluffy bathmat for Isobel to step on, no cozy bath towel to wrap herself in, and no electricity for lights. Isobel heated the water on a wood stove, that night. The light she bathed by was from a smoky lantern.
It was a reminder, that while I had seemingly ‘lost it all’, I still had more than she had at the hardest time in her life. I sucked it up.
From that day on, I positioned us as ‘lucky pioneers’ to my boys! I would tell them, with a sense of adventure, “We are living just like lucky pioneers, out here in the wilderness! Lucky, because we have electricity! THEY lived in the wilderness without the benefit of electricity!” And I would leave them to hopefully marvel at all the things we would lose, or have to do differently, without the magic of electricity. I repeated the stories of hardship I had grown up hearing of my father’s life; of the sparseness of his Christmas days.and the uninsulated attic he slept in with his brother Art. I don’t know how much it helped my children to hear these stories … but it helped ME!
Later, when we lost the cottage too, and we moved into a tiny Co-operative housing unit, when I was stepping out of the moldy old shower stall for the first time and feeling sorry for myself again – boom! There she was! It was as if I was inhabiting Isobel's body for a moment – I was Isobel, stepping out of the wash tub and into her reality – a much starker reality than my own. I rallied again.
God love our less fortunate Grandmothers and their stories of hardships!
In my experience - if the rug has been pulled out from under your personal life through loss, illness, or tragedy - it is so often helpful and grounding to hear the stories of our elders. Knowing that someone else has lived through the darkness of our most horrific imaginings, to find the light, and sparkle again with a sense of purpose, can help us to buoy hope from the deep dark depths of fear and uncertainty it is buried under.
Today, I will introduce you to someone whose story has given me hope, through the uncertainty of rebuilding my life post train wreck of bankruptcy, divorce, cancer, and loss. Her name is Kim Walnes, a hero of mine from the world of Three-Day Eventing in the ‘80’s, whose inspiring story with her old horse The Gray Goose, I just know you are going to love!
I have been reading about Kim since I was twelve. Recently, I spent a few hours with Kim and her stallion Gideon Goodheart in a life coaching session at the farm where they help others with connection, communication, trust and resilience. Mine was the first in-person session since the onset of Covid two years previously, and I was honoured and excited to meet them both in person!
Meeting Gideon was like meeting the ocean.
I cried, just as I did in Charleston a few weeks earlier when I met the ocean , silently and without sadness or fear – just soaking in the importance of the moment and struck by vastness of the energy. Our session began a conversation about the reality of resilient living that grew beyond the bounds of our time together and Kim agreed to speak to me on my podcast.
The other day I got to speak with her again for the interview and of course, the twelve-year-old in me is still jumping up and down, finding all the things we have in common!
We both came from seemingly 'out'a nowhere' in the horse world, and had horses who rose above the limitations of their DNA to perform gravity defying acts of courage and FUN, in rigorous tests of partnership and trust, in the exciting world of international Three-Day Eventing! We were both SO LUCKY to be sitting on the phenoms that we rode.
We have both been under the tutelage of one of the world’s most iconic horsemen, Jack LeGoff; as well as other Captains and Colonels of that lost era, with all their military expectations of discipline and absolute 'obedience' to our superiors.
We both have stories of defying Jack’s direct orders, to do what we knew was right for our horses!
And we have both overcome a series of shitstorms, and want to help others do the same.
Although her early days could look from the outside like a fairy tale, Kim Walnes knows tough times. Her life story is worth a Disney movie, if not its own Netflix series! Of course, if you have lived a ‘Netflix-series-worthy life’, you will know that as the mixed blessing that it is. As Kim said;
“This resilience thing isn’t all sunshine and buttercups!”
Kim’s unlikely background and her intuitive approach with an ungainly, fearful horse .. .and the odds they overcame together to succeed in the male-dominated world of Olympic level Three-Day Eventing with her two small children in tow … is the stuff of legends!
Kim was affectionately known as ‘Mother Goose’ by our famous coach Jack LeGoff, for being the only competitor at training camps and selection trials with children. In fact, more often than not, they were right there with her - right from their play pen days, to their teen years.
She was also known for talking to her horse - something most of her team mates thought was pretty nuts! But Kim and The Gray Goose had an unusual start to their partnership - their lives leading to the top of international equestrian sport did not at all resemble those of her peers, and neither did her way of communicating with Gray.
In the early days, when they found one another at a small farm in the Irish countryside while Kim's husband was on a placement in Ireland, Kim and Gray both dealt with a lot of fear. Kim regularly found herself dusting herself off and walking back to the barn, after yet another fearful bolting session. She understood early that to partner with him she would have to earn his trust, and that earning Gray's trust, started with trusting herself. She communicated with The Gray Goose what her intentions were in picture-thoughts, feelings and words, and listened carefully for his responses. In this way, they were able to go from blindly bolting through panic, to developing a love of flying together over obstacles, testing their relationship as they galloped across the country and up the levels of eventing back in North America.
"I don't know why, but it has always helped me to communicate with them if I use words and speak out loud. There is something about the process that makes it clearer. I talk to ALL of the horses I meet in my clinics! Right away, I walk up to them and introduce myself and tell them that this is going to be different." ~ Kim Walnes
When Kim and Gray made it to their first national team training camps with Jack LeGoff, he was initially determined to mold them into the same program and approach he used with such success with their teammates. In those days, you didn't argue with success (The US Team won everything there was to win under Jack's tutelage) and you didn't argue with Jack.
In one session, after Kim suggested that his approach wouldn't work with The Gray, Jack asked to get on and show her how it was done. After an hour of frustration, he dismounted with both of them in a froth, handed over the reins and conceded that what she did was working, and left Kim and Gray to their decidedly quirky practices. Just before going out of the start box on the cross country phase, LeGoff got into the habit of calling out to Kim;
"Turn on your tape recorder, Mother Goose!'
and off she would go, talking out loud all around the course, telling Gray what lay ahead and how to prepare himself. Laugh all you like - it worked! And you can't argue with success, right?
That someone like Kim EXISTED - with her propensity for talking out loud to The Gray Goose with the absolute certainty he understood - shaped my own trajectory in sport, opening a whole other level of possibility when I aimed for ‘connection’ with my horses.
When I was eighteen, I watched Kim and The Goose playing in a grassy, hillside field full of show jumps. The jumps were set up for the afternoon set of top riders at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event and they were preparing for a special ceremony. It was 1988, and I was there with my Mom to watch my coaches and heroes at that year’s event.
On that day - after a successful career that included bringing home 2 bronze medals at the 1982 World Championships in Luhmuhlen (with a spinal injury!) and years of consistent top-ten placings at every international event they entered - they were being honored in an official retirement ceremony.
Kim and The Gray Goose - looking for something ‘legal’ they could jump on the championship course to show the world how happy and athletic Gray still was - bounded over a jump backwards and delighted us all! That day, we saluted a team that had reliably and steadily brought home medals for their country, against the very best the world had to offer, and they were showing us what it felt like to ‘play’ between them. I will never forget it!
At that point, Kim’s story seemed to be gilded in gold! Her daughter Andy had developed an uncanny ability with horses, and at 18 years old, she was planning to further her education in sport psychology and join Kim in a wholistic coaching business. Together, they would spread the gentler, heart-centered, trust-based horsemanship they had learned through working with The Gray Goose.
The Gray, once a fearful and mistrustful horse, helped Kim and Andy understand that when Gray said ‘No!’ or ‘What’s that?’, adding more pressure was never the answer!
Kim and Andy never got to tell that beautiful story. Instead, Kim lived through every mother's worst nightmare, when Andy went missing on a tubing trip gone horribly wrong. Although Kim knew instantly that her Andy was no longer here on this physical plain, it was four months of waiting for confirmation. Andy's body was found in the woods. She had been murdered. The following is from Andy's Story on Kim's website:
July 4, 1991: I woke up feeling like someone had kicked me in the stomach—that feeling of dread you get when you know something awful has happened. I could hardly breathe, and the feeling stayed with me the whole day until twilight when it suddenly disappeared. I was living and teaching in Lewisburg, West Virginia at the time. The whole thing was quite the mystery to me until the police tracked me down the next day in the middle of a lesson and I was informed by phone that Andy was missing.
I had to hand the phone to my dear friend, Annie Wood, for my world had just shattered around me. I, who had handled quite a few disasters with dignity, who was certain of my ability to hold it together no matter what, immediately collapsed to the ground. All strength fled me, for in that moment I KNEW that Andy was dead. My brain desperately hoped that I was wrong, but my heart and soul knew beyond doubt. I heard awful noises, but it was a few moments before I realized that they were the wails being wrenched from the depths of my being. I have never before or since felt agony like that. ~ Kim Walnes, Andy's Story
I asked Kim how she found the strength to carry on, and how it is she sparkles again, after all she has been through. In the aftermath, there were years of what felt like living in a gray zone. But Kim is here to say that she held on, and shared a story of what helped her, in the darkest hours.
A friend of mine who had been through some very serious challenges, told me; “In the times that were toughest, I would just look at the clock. And I would think, I made it through another second. I made it through another second.” And I held on to that in MY own darkest times, after Andy’s death. That was a tough one! I didn’t want to be there! I was not interested in being on the planet anymore. We were SO close! Our whole future was entwined. She was going to graduate from college in some type of sports therapy and we were going to work together.”
The loss of her daughter was one in a string of dastardly life blows. Andy's death had come on the heels of divorce, and just as Kim was climbing out of the gray zone that followed those years, she was in a car accident that left her body a wreck and Kim with a vivid near death experience. In it, she recalls feeling soothed, calmed and bathed in a white light full of love, and also full of Andy's presence. But to her outrage and horror, she was denied entry to this place she wanted so badly to join Andy in.
Apparently, her life's work was not over! While at the time, Kim was reluctant to be coaxed back to life to pursue her yet-to-be-defined path of purpose, today she is glad to be here. So many others who connect with Kim for life coaching and her one-of-a-kind riding clinics feel the same! The world is a better place with Kim in it.
In the deep depression that followed the car crash, Kim leaned on her horses for support. The Gray Goose once carried her broken body around a World Championship course, and then he helped to gently carry her though the recovery and teach his successor, Gideon, to do the same.
We talked on the podcast about that legendary ride; the day The Gray Goose carried Kim around the second half of the World Championships in Luhmuhlen, when two transverse fractures in her freshly healed back came loose MID COURSE ! She tells about landing from a jump with the knowledge that from there on she would be completely unable to help Gray balance and prepare himself for the jumps that lay head, as he tired through the remainder of this championship level endurance test.
Can you imagine?! These Championship courses from the '80s were some gnarly tests of endurance! The horses generally required our help towards the end of the courses as they tired. Kim did the best she could to stay out of his way, clinging to his mane, her left leg useless, and show him with her eyes where she wanted him to go next. Of course, she was also talking to him all the way, telling him what was coming, just like she always did around her courses!
It all happened so fast, and at one point she thought;
“I don’t know how we are going to get this done. But we’re just gonna keep going! Were just gonna go DO IT!”
And they did! Finishing 2 seconds over the time for 2 penalties, which cost her the Individual Gold, trading it for Individual bronze and cinching the Team Bronze for her teammates. An amazing story!
Kim's story has been known in the equestrian community for some time now, and I have dipped into every interview and article I can find of hers online. Reading about her trajectory through sport and how she helps others now, since The Gray Goose passed on his legacy to her stallion Gideon Goodheart, gave me hope. Meeting her and Gideon was grounding and balancing, as I face the challenges of redefining my own life and learn to trust myself and what may or may not come next.
It was the beginning of something bigger, at a time when I needed it. I am now attending online gatherings that Kim co-hosts with Tango with Horses founder Andrea Datz and another likeminded horsewoman, Diane Barret. Together, they help others develop the necessary ingredients for the trust and connection they are looking for within themselves and with their horses.
I keep saying Kim's life needs to be a film (if not a Netflix series!) and there is a movement underway to do that. You can view a short teaser trailer here. While the initial stages of a fundraiser were stymied by Covid and other challenges, I am happy to report that fresh energy has been poured into it with some fresh blood. Tabby, a student of Kim's who was so helped by Kim's life coaching and moved by her story, has vowed to take up the reins! BUT, she needs our continued help and support to see this through. Keep an eye on Kim's Facebook page to find out more and contact email@example.com to find out how YOU can help!
And if you want to geek out with me as I share stories of resilience with my childhood hero, look for my podcast episode with Kim and Gideon Goodheart at www.aleguppodcast.ca on May 20th. Kim has offered to do a follow up interview in the future, to answer any questions you may have. You can let me know, here!
In the mean time, chin up dear hearts! Connect with an elder and share stories. Watch the clock one second at a time, if that is what it takes, but you too will get through this, and as Kim's story shows us, you just never know what good lies ahead when you embrace a life a purpose and connection.
Take a chance,