They have shown me the incredible power of being with them as they truly are, without projection or resistance. When we do, we learn to meet ourselves – and life – in the same way.
When I finally persuaded my father to pay for me to go on a pony trekking holiday at the age of 10 it wasn’t really the riding I was interested in, or which I remember to this day: it was the dawn walk to collect my pony from the field, which left my footprints in the heavy dew and me feeling so alive, and the scent of his coat as I groomed it in the early summer sunshine. What stayed vivid in my memory was the feeling of peace and wholeness that I had when I was with him although I did not really know how to describe it then.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realised my dream to own a horse. Her name was Delilah and she began to lead me towards what I have become and how I live today. Later she was followed by Gemma, Coop, Winston, Ruby, Ellie and Dawn who all unveiled little by little what my heart knew but my mind did not: the ability of the horse to invite healing at the deepest level. This is a gift I have received in abundance since horses became part of my life – and which now I endeavour to share with others.
The evidence for the true nature of the horse was always there of course but the opportunity for me to see it came as a result of my own pain, sadness and loss.
That was what opened my eyes and senses to what my horses were offering me and what I could offer to and alongside them. Their lessons are not always easy – often they are uncomfortable – but they are always what I need. At other times the herd surround me with nonjudgmental compassion and allow me to bathe in the warmth and oneness of their holding.
Thus it is for those who come to work developmentally with me and the horses I support. Horse-led learning is not “equine assisted therapy.” It is not they who assist me, it is I who assist them, as a bridge to their human students of life. I sink into a place of stillness, creating a safe space in which learner and teacher can begin their encounter, using as few words as I can to help define what it is the seeker seeks. Often the horse will cause something completely different to be revealed and I always trust their wisdom. Then the dance begins, to a rhythm of spirit, energy, untold stories, cherished fears and yearned-for hopes.
I find it hard to describe or explain the process which I call horse-led learning. The words we have at our disposal are inadequate, particularly the ones which I am told are recognised by Google search engines and which I should have in my website. Words like “feedback”, “self-leadership”, “personal development”, “coaching”, and “equine assisted therapy”. Horse-led learning, learning to truly be with horses, encompasses many of the things these approaches aim at, but it is more.
One approach that some equine assisted therapy practices take is to say that horses teach us by mirroring our own emotions back to us. Somehow this term diminishes the horses as well as the adventure which we have into self-revelation which can surround our interactions with them.
They do not blandly reflect the feelings, moods and behaviour of those around them. Far from it – they have a personal and valid emotional experience as a result of us interacting and communicating with them.
It is by our mindful observation and awareness of what they express as a result of this interchange that we can gain insights to help us be better at being who we are.
The recent passing of one of the ponies in my herd reminded me of this.
Ellie was old and died of heart failure which is not unusual in itself. What was rare was that she did so when I was with her, just a few feet away. Thus I was able to share both her final moments and those immediately following when the remaining three members of the herd, Winston, Ruby and Dawn, awakened to what had happened and processed this information individually and collectively. I was able to witness their incredible reactions, and they mine, and spend time with them after the event.
Each one of them reacted slightly differently but all with clear emotion, displaying vocal and physical behaviour I had not witnessed before. Ruby, the lead mare of the herd, responded most dramatically. She touched Ellie gently with her nose, walked away, then returned to explore again. After doing this several times
she dropped her head to the pony’s form and threw her head up with a spine-chilling, high pitched squeal, which she repeated again and again.
The other two also came one after the other and sniffed the small muzzle – Dawn shook from head to tail and whinnied loudly, Winnie silently turned to face away. Soon all three of them stood like sentries with their backs to where I sat with Ellie’s lifeless form.
While I will never know what went on in their minds and hearts, and have tried to give a factual rather than anthropomorphic account of what happened, it reminded me that horses (and other animals) possess profound consciousness and powerful emotions which are uniquely their own. In our human way it is easy to lapse into seeing the world through our eyes and to shape what we find to fit our world. But what of theirs? And how can we bring into our lives the richness, depth and empathy we gain by understanding them?
Horse-led learning does not speak in the terms of horses mirroring our emotions that some equine-assisted therapy approaches use. To do so is to deny them their validity and to deprive ourselves of potentially transformational experience. When we learn with horses, they are not our tool. Through horse-led learning we enter into a unique, vibrant, spiritual dynamic, which is the manifestation of all that is wondrous about the natural world itself.
And if we can lapse into seeing horses as reflections of ourselves, do we also fall into the same trap with other humans?
Is this why we fail to understand ‘the other’, because we are expecting them to be like us?
And when they don’t meet our expectations, do we judge, dismiss, become frustrated, try to bend them to our will or question our own self-worth?
Learning to honour and communicate with an equally valid emotional being of another species helps us to reframe the way that we perceive each other as well as how we might see ourselves. For whether we are projecting our inadequacies onto others or protecting ourselves with façade and self-defining stories, horses will always see us for who we are, and call us to be who we are able to be.
Bereavement, previously, had always been my domain – my mother, father, brother and stepfather – and I had been able to witness the impact of my emotions and how I managed them, on the horses. They had helped me to heal in many ways: guiding me to own my feelings, release my fears and shed the tears I needed to. Now our loss was shared. For me there was shock, sadness, guilt (could I have done more to care for my pony?) and worry (would the others be OK without her?) The horses looked for their friend and I could see too that their relationships with each other were reconfiguring. But there was no drama, no recrimination, no “if-only’s” or “I should have done’s”. They were simply and peacefully with what was.
And that perhaps, is the essence of the horse’s gift to us. How to be – together – with what is.
Pam Billinge, with Lindsay Fovargue, will be leading Horses, Sense and Soul: A Spiritual Adventure at the Findhorn Foundation July 15 – 21.