A Conversation with Michelle Wagner-Yeatts
by Kerri Lake, Nov 26, 2020
Animals have a presence that opens the hearts of humanity.
Absent of judgment, never requiring you to be different than you are, they offer connection and awareness for its own sake. As humans, we have the ability to recognize and share this connection with one another, reminding each other how it feels to be connected, with an open heart.
Michelle Wagner-Yeatts knows that feeling well! Her “volunteer heart” was inspired and nourished by her mother who was always looking for more ways to help those around her. So, she is already tuned to notice situations where she might be able to step in and make a difference.
Michelle’s professional background includes years and years of administration in nursing homes and other care facilities, and through that work, she developed a huge passion for seniors! When she saw a post float across her FB feed sharing the story of a man in who was bringing his horse to visit seniors through their care home windows, the light bulb went off for Michelle, too!
“I can do that!” She knew instantly that she and Sonny, her very special “heart horse” would pick a day and start visiting local homes. Of course she recruited a few of her friends, both human and equine, to join the “window walk” visits. Soon they had a crew of four people and their differently-colored horses walking into town, calm as can be, just to share beauty and connection with those who are still being protected from potential health issues by lockdown-quarantine orders.
What touches my heart most deeply about Michelle and her action to bring horses to humans is the connection that’s possible. In the interview, you’ll hear Michelle talk about the obvious connection between the horses and the people. So many people love horses, or used to have horses, or dogs or other animals, and bringing the animals to them reminds them of how it felt when they were with their animals every day. Life and love flow through their bodies again, charged by an inescapable joy that takes over the room.
For humanity to create a new world together, we must begin to consider the perspective that humanity is included in of the harmony of life - not the keeper of life. When we include ourselves in the harmony that already exists, we can experience a profound and deep sense of connection with all species. It’s already present within us, evidenced by the joy we experience in the presence of animals or the vicarious joy we feel when we see others light up.
In an evolution of consciousness, we have the opportunity to recognize that the animal kingdom is still a poignant partner to humanity. Animals have been, and continue to be, food, sport, work, companionship, material for other products, and inspiration. Today though, more than ever as humanity continues to awaken, animals are guides for us to remember how it feels to open our hearts, guides to see one another without judgment for a very interactive, interspecies life where everybody wins. Ultimately, this is the goal and the movement of nature - there is always a greater harmony at work that wishes nothing less that a flourishing life for all. This same wish is alive and well in our hearts.
Michelle has taken action to bring that sense of inspired life and flourishing connection to people whose hearts are wide open to receive it. Their brilliant faces and effusive joy are rippling out to the world as we continue to open our hearts, to receive the connection for ourselves and continue to share with inspiration.
I’m so grateful that Michelle, and her sister Jo who brought Michelle’s window walks to our attention, is out there, doing her thing!
Here is a transcript of our conversation…
Kerri Lake: Well, I feel so happy and blessed to be here with you. My name’s Kerri Lake, and today I’m having a conversation with Michelle Wagner-Yeatts. Michelle has been doing some beautiful and generous things with her ponies, bringing her friends and their horses to visit people through the windows of nursing homes and assisted living facilities!
Michelle, thank you so much for being here!
Michelle Wagner-Yeatts: Thank you!
Kerri: You and I have already talked about this; my heart is all about horses, and the way animals and the animal kingdom is, just by their very beingness. You don’t have to tell animals to be “in service.” You don’t have to tell animals, “Do this because it’s a ‘good’ thing.” It’s just naturally what they’re about.
So will you please share a little bit about how you started taking Sonny, your beautiful horse, to go and visit people through the windows at care homes?
Michelle: Absolutely! I was scrolling through Facebook one day, and a friend had posted—I think this was from Illinois—a picture of this cowboy and his horse. He was leaning into a nursing home window and I thought, I can do this! Sonny and I can do this!
Kerri: [excited] “I have a horse! I have a horse!” So, had you and Sonny done anything like that before?
Michelle: No! Sonny and I had a rich history of trail riding and things like that. My path had led me from the healthcare world into the photography world. There was really no time to ride or do things with the horses, but all of a sudden, I’m in a different capacity in my work and I’m able to ride again.
Sonny and I had never done that particular “window walk” thing at nursing homes before, but I had done pet visits with a dog, back in my past. I remembered the love it had brought. So with Sonny, since we can’t get inside and people can’t get close, I thought, well they can see him through the window!
Kerri: And it’s quite a thing to have a horse show up outside your window! I would turn into a six-year-old myself! I mean, I get to play with horses all the time, and a horse shows up outside my window, I’m like, “Look! It’s a pony!!”
Michelle: The staff members have fun with this as well.
Kerri: That’s amazing. How did you know that Sonny would be okay with it? I mean, when you were out riding, did you guys ever ride into town? Because it’s different than trail riding.
Michelle: No. He’s just one of those special horses in your life. He is that special boy. No matter what I ask him to do, he’s pretty okay with it. I think there’s a trust factor between us that if I ask him to do it, he knows it’s not going to hurt him. So he’s just very willing to do anything I ask him to do. He’s been a natural at it.
Kerri: For people who don’t have experience with horses, it might seem like a really scary thing to bring this huge animal into town where there’s cars and sounds, like what if Sonny gets scared?
So tell me about your experience. How do you know he trusts you? What does that feel like?
Michelle: Well, let me tell you what that feels like. I think the second event I took him on was a parade in Caldwell, a small town in the Bryan-College Station area in Texas. The nursing home was Coppers Hollow. They had some of their residents sitting outside. Of course, they were socially-distanced.
I knew there was going to be a lot of people and a lot of noise, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to react. I was going to get in before the fire trucks. So I got him in line and was moving on through, and they let the fire trucks in right behind him! So they are tooting their horns, and I’m like, “Oh my goodness!” If he’s going to go berserk, it’s going to happen right now! And he didn’t!
We just kind of backed off a little and let the fire trucks go on through. He was fine, and if he wasn’t going to react to a fire truck, he was going to be pretty good with everything else.
Kerri: You also did some window walks with a few of your human friends and their ponies. What was that like for you, asking your friends to come along?
Michelle: That was really neat, because everyone has that different relationship with their own horse. All the horses were different colors. I think we had a ghost-paint that was almost white; we had Sonny, a big sorrel; we had a gorgeous bay, and then we had another beautiful horse, a red and white paint.
The different colors of horses I thought would be fun, so that was all coordinated. Two of the horses that came, the lady who posted that picture was friends with them—and the ghost paint and I have been riding together for years. So we just kind of mixed. It was lovely. And I have a cousin with a paint who comes from Brennan, Texas, which is the home of Bluebell ice cream, if you’ve ever heard of that!
Kerri: Ooo! I haven’t, but it sounds delicious! Okay, I’ll have some!
Michelle: So, she’ll drive over and go to places with me, as well—which is fun.
Kerri: It’s so wonderful. I mean, it’s different than going inside and actually getting to touch hands with people, or bringing animals inside. How did you find the connection? Was it easy for people to connect with the horses through the window? Was it easy for you?
It was easy for me because my background of course is health care, and I was in and out of all of the skilled nursing communities and assisted living communities all the time. So I have a very deep, personal connection to the people. It doesn’t matter who it is in these communities. I would walk through the front doors and the first thing I’d do is hug every single person as I went by. I’d squat down beside them and ask “How’re you doing?” and just have a conversation with them.
Of course, now we can’t do that. It’s very different in the windows. So there’s a lot of things I say to them in the windows. One of the things I tell them is that Sonny wanted to come see them, that we wanted to tell them that we loved them, and that we hope they’re have an amazing and beautiful day. That’s kind of window-to-window conversation.
There’s a lot of other conversation that we get into, too, like so many people have had horses of their own; they’re remembering their names and talking about what color they were, and if they rode them or if they just petted them through a fence.
I think that’s really important, because when someone is in a community like this, sometimes I think we almost forget they’re human—that they had a past, that they had a beautiful life. I wonder where I’m going to be one day, and I hope someone remembers that I loved horses. Bringing these memories out, I think is really important.
There was one really spectacular moment from when I used to have my dog, Bentley. It was at an Alzheimers care community. We would go in, and there was a lady who was completely non-verbal. Bentley would get on the couch between us and lay down. She would bend over and speak to Bentley. The nursing home had never heard her speak!
What we found out from her family was that she used to train dogs. So there’s the history! There’s the connection. Animals don’t judge. People talk to them. They have no limits in their love.
Kerri: It’s the presence. And when people have the opportunity to feel that connection again, their bodies feel that energy of love moving through as they talk about what color their horse was. Whether they’re connecting with a person or an animal, they’re feeling their life moving through their body again!
MWY: Amen to that! Yes.
Kerri: The animals don’t have a consciousness that would judge. They don’t evaluate who you are or how you show up. They just simply show up and sit next to you and say, “Well, here I am, and there YOU are!”
Even as humans, the part of us that doesn’t judge feels activated by love. It’s so absolutely wonderful.
Kerri: There are so many things we could talk about! So, do you notice the horses responding to the people through the windows?
Michelle: Yes! You can tell. I’ve got a picture of Sonny’s eye; it’s dead-focused on a gentleman on the other side of the window. And he had been talking to Sonny. But there’s this eye contact between the two of them that is pretty magical. I don’t really know if horses know they’re doing that much magic, but Sonny was certainly listening to what this man had to say. Sonny was really focused on him. I think animals do know when someone is a kind spirit. I think they can feel that, maybe even better than humans can.
Kerri: Whether or not science would say it’s proven, to me it’s empirically evident—or to anyone who is willing to stand next to an animal and actually experience the animal.
MWY: I agree.
Kerri: For people who are not compromised in some way—who are not elderly or have been through some sort of traumatic event—and even for people who are “healthy.” You take “healthy” people and ask them to feel what moves through them when they’re among animals—it’s really an experience unlike anything. You can let yourself be touched at such a deep level. To me, that’s what’s common among all of us as humans, and also common between humans and other species. It’s that place of connection.
Kerri: To me, this is what’s so valuable about sharing the presence of animals with humanity in many different ways. It really does let people remember what it feels like to not be alone—and to not be judged. And to be among other beings with nothing to prove!
And I think people feel safe when they experience that connection. There’s a safety there.
Kerri: And maybe they can feel safe with themselves, like what “safe” actually feels like, whether it’s safe next to a dog or a horse—or if it’s just safe sitting still, because they can feel it a little bit more now. Does that make sense?
Michelle: Yep! Sure does…
Kerri: Would you talk about the years you spent in hospice work? What is it like being with people at that last adventure of transition? Is that in any way like bringing animals to visit people who are moving toward death?
Michelle: I’m not exactly sure of the question you’re asking me, but I will tell you that animals have this ability to understand people’s last days and last moments. When I was in hospice, there was story after story of pets being turned loose in a nursing home that would be drawn toward someone’s last day. They would either sleep on their feet, or in their room—or just get as close as they could to them. I think they know, and they can feel even better than we can.
But as far as being in the hospice world, what a gift! What an absolute gift. People have varying reactions to the word “hospice.” Truthfully, hospice is a glorified home-health situation. You know, you have the ability to be the last hand that someone touches. It’s the closest you could ever be to heaven. That’s my belief. How much closer to God can you get but to touch someone’s hands as they’re slipping away? I think that is a beautiful situation. It’s sad, too, because we don’t want them to go.
But hospice is a gift. Hospice is love and friendship. It’s a continuum of care for people that meets all of their needs: from a chaplain standpoint to a counseling standpoint—counseling for families, comfort and friendship, or respite for family members. And then, of course all the medical care that goes with that.
Kerri: I totally agree! I was never deeply involved in the whole hospice system. I did some volunteer work sitting with people who were very close to their transition. Man… It is so rich and so beautiful.
My experience sitting with people when they are close to death is that there’s no reason or need or desire to judge anything! You’re simply in the presence of love sitting next to another who is moving more purely every moment into the presence of love.
Kerri: When I was the one sitting and holding the hand—or holding the knees up so the body wouldn’t be wrenched as the knees fall over in bed, or whatever level of kindness I could possibly share—it felt, to me, so close to what it is to be an animal with no judgment. Just sitting, and sharing love for the sake of love, while life is happening. Even though it seems like life is ending, life is just continuing to happen, and this is what it looks like. In my experience, this is what animals offer humanity all the time, the absence of judgment, the absence of desire for you to be anything other than you are.
Kerri: I brought the question up because, to me, it’s really a beautiful thing to remind people that we have that capacity in us all the time. That’s what’s common among us, the capacity to be without judgment for one another. I love bringing the questions forward, because I love hearing people articulate it differently from their experience, you know?
Kerri: I know you have a lot of support to continue doing the window walks. You’re going to keep doing them, right?
Michelle: Oh, yes! Absolutely yes! When we first started it, I don’t think anyone in the group knew the reactions that we were going to have at the windows, and the emotional catch it was going to give us. We were all sobbing at the first window because of the joy on the other side. It was their reactions that told us we were doing something good.
To make someone feel that happy—it’s almost like a guilty pleasure feeling that good! I got to go to “work” today, but was it really work? How can you be that happy at work? It was awesome. But the emotion that we felt outside paled in comparison to the emotion they were feeling on the inside.
When we did pictures at the first window walk we went to, we did them all from the outside. The second window walk we did, one of the staff members started taking pictures from the inside, and she posted them to me. It was at that point where I could actually see the faces, see the cupped hands around their faces in happiness, and see the residents trying to kiss the windows and pet the horses through the windows! I mean, that’s where it all hit home! And that’s when it became less about what’s going on outside the windows and more about the inside in how I was thinking about what we were doing. I almost don’t know how to explain it. Do you know what I’m saying? It was a total difference…
Kerri: Well, and especially for you! You’ve already got so much experience being inside, among the people, right? So you already had that experience to draw from and have the experience be that much richer. That’s got to be just life-changing!
Michelle: It was amazing. Every time it’s different. But every time it’s amazing. We do huge nursing homes where we hit probably 30 windows. In every one you feel the joy, but there’s always just one or two where I go home talking with whoever’s with me like, “Oh, my gosh…did you see her?”
There was one that we did at Peach Creek Assisted Living. A woman had had a stroke and was pretty non-verbal. But her reactions to Sonny were of complete joy and completely verbal—you just had to understand what she was saying! And you could. What she was saying was completely communicated to us. Her arm would go out as she reached toward the window. Then she’d draw it back and she’d say, “Ohhh…!” Then she’d reach out reach out again and pull her arm back and go, “Oohhhh…!!” And it was amazing!
Kerri: [laughter] Amazing… Do you find the horses get tired? Do they let you know, “Okay, I’ve had enough?”
Michelle: No. Sonny doesn’t get tired; actually, he gets better! Like with this last one we went to on Tuesday, we had a pasture of goats next to us, and Sonny doesn’t really know what goats are. So in all the pictures where he’s got his ears up, looking at the camera, he’s actually looking at the goats! They’re all doing their little “baaaa” thing in the pasture!
I had to get off the porch with Sonny and walk probably 75 yards to this pasture and I think he floated half way there, looking at these goats. I was waiting for him to bolt, actually, because he was looking so hard at the goats. But once he got up there, he just relaxed and started eating grass like, “We’re okay now.” So I knew we were okay to go back to the porch and visit with the people.
Each place we go now offers its own new experience for him, but he’s so laid back once he knows what he’s looking at. He’s just awesome. He likes to dip his head down below that middle bar of the window so people can see a full view of him. He wears a little hat, and he has a little mask; I mean, he’s just super-cute.
Kerri: It’s so beautiful, you know? Animals have such a capacity to understand what we’re doing—especially when what we’re doing is about connection. They’re just right there.
Kerri: It’s absolutely remarkable to partner with them.
Michelle: When I used to take Bentley to the nursing homes, he would ride in the back seat of the car, and he would know when we were on property of a community. He’d start his exciting whining, wanting to get out of the car right now! When it was safe, I’d let him go and he’d run across the parking lot, find the first wheelchair and sit down next to it and wait for that first hand to reach down to pet him. He loved it!
It’s kind of harder to tell with horses, but I think with dogs, there’s such a huge reaction to that love. He totally connected with it! Totally.
Kerri: I love what you were saying about the woman who’d had the stroke, and how she was just saying “Oohhh…” to communicate her excitement. But you can feel what she was communicating; you don’t need the words to articulate it. It’s in the tone of her voice; it’s in the carriage; it’s in the energy around her.
Michelle: I think it’s dependent, too, on what they’re capable of, and what the nursing home staff knows they’re capable of. Like, there was another woman who never smiles, but she was smiling on Tuesday when we were there with the horses.
Kerri: I always draw parallels between humans and animals and when we’re listening to animals, whether it’s a dog or a horse, or even a fish—when we’re tuned in to recognize the feels that come through—that’s when we can really know that the horses are enjoying themselves, or when they say, “Yes, let’s keep going.” It’s all in the feels. That’s where real communication happens.
And again, this is part of why I feel so blessed to be bringing this conversation to more people, just to hope they wonder what it’s like to really connect. If it takes connecting with an animal first, let’s do it, just for the experience of it. It’s so amazing.
Are there any other particular stories you love that you’d like to share?
Everyone is a unique, particular experience. There was a lady who couldn’t get close enough to the window. She kept trying to reach and trying to reach and trying to reach. The staff are so kind in these places, and they want to help the residents enjoy this experience as much as they can. I asked one of the staff if they could help put her in a wheelchair and meet me at one of the glass doors; would that be something that we could do? And they said, “Oh, YES!” They jumped right on that!
My profile picture on my Facebook page right now is that lady. You can just see her hand reaching for Sonny’s face and him dropping his head so low so she could get close to him.
We were talking about horses, and whether there is that moment where you can tell they’re enjoying themselves. Horses, if they didn’t want to do this, they wouldn’t walk through bushes and under overhangs to get close to a window. I think that may be showing me his willingness. And he does that over and over and over again.
Kerri: And his understanding of what’s really going on, why he’s there in the first place.
Michelle: Right, I agree.
Kerri: It’s so beautiful. Michelle, thank you for everything you’re doing! Do you have plans to continue doing more window walks?
Michelle: I try to get at least one or two window walks in a month—in-between work schedules and things like that. That’s about all I can do, unless someone calls and needs something else.
I had someone call and ask for a birthday visit. The woman’s sister was at a nursing home, and she loves horses. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was one of my high-school classmates! So the connection there was pretty beautiful, too.
I’m in a hometown situation, and running into high-school friends—that was another story! I had a high-school classmate whose dad was in one of the communities. We were able to get to a window for him.
I have people messaging me all the time. In fact, at Peach Creek, I had a guy who is one of the real estate agents I do photography for. He said, “You see the lady in pink in this picture? That’s my grandmother!” And that to me is special, too, because I connected something beautiful and amazing for someone else who loves a person we got to visit.
Kerri: The ripple is immeasurable, isn’t it.
Michelle: It just goes on and on.
Kerri: It goes on and on, and people are touched every time someone tells the story; every time someone even thinks about it and smiles, and their heart opens! Then someone else asks, “Why are you smiling?” And they get to tell the story all over again.
Kerri: And hearts open, and the ripple keeps happening, and it’s so absolutely beautiful.
Michell: The absolute love. And I wish I could hug every one of them! That’s been the hardest for me having to stay away from people and socially distance, and all that. I’m a hugger! I feel like part of my soul is missing.
Kerri: Touch matters. We’re made to touch each other.
Exactly! Which is why they’re touching this horse through the window! I think touch spurs memories. Like, the lady who would touch Bentley, who had trained dogs in the past. It brought back all those memories for her, even though her dogs had been gone for so long. Touch is huge.
Kerri: It brings life back into our experience, and into our bodies. I’m completely with you. It’s 100% about the love. Like, how many ways can we invoke the feeling of love, just for its own sake, you know?
Kerri: I so appreciate your passion, for the seniors in particular. I know it comes from the experience you’ve had working in those environments and getting to know people who are walking through that stage of their life. It’s such a beautiful thing to share, so thank you for that.
Michelle: Absolutely! You’re welcome! Love! Love, love love!
Kerri: [laughing] Wait. Let’s make that point one more time! Love, love, love! And ripples!
Kerri: So, the last couple of things I want to ask is there anything else in particular that you would like to say or share while we’re here? And then the other part is, what can the ServiceSpace community do to support what you’re doing and help ripple out the love?
Michell: I think what you’re doing is perfect. A lot of times we run short on ideas of what we can do. The guy I saw in Illinois parked outside that window with a horse was spur enough for me. I was like, “I can do that!”
I challenge people to think outside the box. It doesn’t have to be big. It could be a little love. It could be holding a door open for someone. It could be a smile for someone. You know, people aren’t touching anymore, but people don’t even make eye contact with each other anymore. So, I think there’s a lot in the eyes behind the mask that say, “Howdy, I hope you have a great day!”
I challenge people to reach out to people who are isolated and to help those staff members who are doing their best to take care of your loved-ones in communities. Just get out there! And love, love love! Love on everybody!