Meandering alongside the Exe up onto Exmoor through lush wooded river valleys luminous with bluebells and suddenly I'm home – the moor and coasts of my childhood, though a bit further east and north as I'm about to head into West Somerset; and I can feel wings beating in my chest.
Exmoor is the softest most 'feminine' of the three moors of the Westcountry: not scrubby and bleak like Bodmin, not dramatic tor-crested little peaks like Dartmoor but altogether more flowing, if a little featureless, lines, stitched with beech. My dad had his little wooden cabin, the highest inhabited point of Exmoor, not far from where I'm heading. I feel a huge wash of emotion for my father: the wild man knocked down by a stroke, now in his soft care home instead of on his wild moor.
I'm coming up for a consultation with Cait, a horsewoman and coach who draws on her NLP and Tibetan Buddhist practices in her work with humans and horses.
I don't quite know why I'm here. When I booked, in February, I was clear about what I was looking for: a birthday present in the shape of an afternoon with Cait in the realms of natural, 'conscious' horse practice for my daughter; something we could share as two people who've spent their lives around horses who already use this approach but would like some extra input from a professional; and if there was time a consultation for myself, as I want to move towards horse-mediated work in my outdoor Ground of Being eco-soul courses.
At the time, a magical little piece of land next door had presented itself to me, and I was thinking of using my small inheritance from my mum to set up a small secluded place for retreat groups to work with me in the fields of eco-awareness and creativity, including a pony or two in the mix, and thinking to bring a pack-pony along on pilgrimage-type walks/camps and in counselling-mentoring outdoor sessions.
That fell through. (Part of me is still following that thread as if it's current: I was so sure that was 'my' land, to be under my guardianship.) E had different horse-related ideas about her birthday present, too. And yet something was pulling me up here to Exmoor.
I've had a bad week. I had a migrainous headache that lasted for 60 hours, I've had too little sleep, and my heart has been over-excitable again, erratically drawing attention to itself. It seemed a bit crazy to do a two-hour drive feeling like that; but I decided to anyway. I needed that gift to myself.
|my daughter's Spanish horse|
In the Celtic tradition horses can be associated with feminine power and wisdom: think Epona, the Horse Goddess.
It's only the last hundred-years odd that horses have stopped being natural companions to humans, their lives intimately entwined with ours. The Industrial Revolution took us further and further away from the interconnectedness of living alongside animals. Horses now are luxuries for rich people to enjoy for 'leisure and sport', right?
That doesn't have to be the case. They're partly about the soul. For me personally, they're a crucial part of my life, and largely absent the last five years. I breathe dry air at the moment, and I need spirit-horse wisdom to moisten it, to add fire. Many people have said to me that I resemble a little moorland pony; I smile inwardly, as they're closer than they might realise to recognising my deep bond with horses, my own spirit-medicine-animal.
Horses are benign and healing presences. Jamie Sams' and David Carsons' book on the first nation/native American Medicine Cards says of Horse: 'Horse is physical power and unearthly power. In shamanic practices throughout the world, Horse enables shamans to fly through the air' (and bring back healing). 'Humanity made a great leap forward when Horse was domesticated, a discovery akin to that of fire. Before Horse, humans were earthbound, heavy-laden, and slow creatures indeed. Once humans climbed on Horse's back, they were as free and fleet as the wind... Through their special relationship with Horse, humans altered their self-concept beyond measure. Horse was the first animal medicine of civilization. Humanity owes an incalculable debt to Horse and to the new medicine it brought.'
Horse medicine, say the authors, is to do with power, wisdom and responsibility. In brief, Horse medicine is about balance, and suggests the bringing of light out of darkness, the gifts of teaching and illuminating others, the importance of balancing work and play, the wisdom that is true power. 'True power is wisdom found in remembering your total journey. Wisdom comes from remembering pathways you have walked in another person's moccasins. Compassion, caring, teaching, loving, and sharing your gifts, talents and abilities are the gateways to power.'
I'm loosely mulling all this over in my mind (not that I remembered all the Sams and Carson teachings; once I knew the medicine cards intimately, but they've slipped from my conscious attention the last few years) as I wind up into the Exmoor hills.
And here, now, are the two horses I've come to work with: beautiful Arabians, one creamy-gold, the other fiery copper. I fall in love instantly with the latter; my previous and much-loved horse was also a chestnut Arab gelding, and enhanced my life beyond measure.
Right now, I'm exhausted, a bit scattered, lacking focus. I say something along these lines when Cait asks me what I want from the session. I don't really know. I think it's about my working life. I love the work I do; I know it's what I am here for. But there is too much of it – I mean I am putting my energy into too many different aspects without reasonable enough returns, and I need to bring the scattered bits together.
Perhaps I want some form of consolidation? I start to try and explain this to Cait; I'm looking for a theme that we can focus on with the horses, who faithfully reflect our 'issues', if we know to read the language they speak in (for anyone interested in following this up, see Linda Kohanov's books, starting with The Tao of Equus).
Hmmm. Maybe it's around confidence, slightly shaken recently by an encounter with my daughter's huge young stallion who goes through phases of being very bite-ful, something common in stallions but something I'm not used to, and didn't know how to handle with someone else's horse, especially my daughter's. Truth is, though, I doubt very much whether it's affected my confidence with horses; I'm with them as I have been since riding the milkman's horse age 2 in Wales (yes, milk really was still delivered by horse and cart) – as I am with the air I breathe, the water I drink. And confidence generally: well, life has shaken me around a bit the last few years but I still know what my path is, and that I can walk it, and walk it well.
Finally I say to Cait hesitantly 'I'm burnt out'. And that's the truth – my fire wavers; not the passion or vision, but the fire in my belly, the ability to stay strong and centred and sure and healthy and focused.
'Hey,' I say lamely. 'Kind of an exploration and a sort of consultation.' I've been around horses all my life; we both work with the natural compassionate co-operative approach with horses; we both use mindfulness practice. But. Beginner's mind. 'Forget what I already know; let's start right in and see what happens. Treat me as a beginner. I don't know why I'm here. I've no expectations.'
'OK,' she responds. 'The horses will let us know. Let's go and see.'
And they do. We sit down in the yard near them. Rowan, the chestnut, comes over and stands very close, soaks up the affection. He has a gentle eye. I stroke his face, his neck. Already, I'm feeling better.
Twenty minutes later, with mutual attention between Rowan and me, we decide to work with Rowan 'at liberty'. That is, we'll work in an area that's fenced, but we'll not use anything other than words and body-language to ask him what we want: no headcollar, lead-ropes or any means of physical contact, let alone coercion; it'll be the psychic relationship between him and me that creates what happens.
I put myself in the centre of the fenced area and bring my attention to being firmly in that place and in my centre, fully present and grounded. Cait notices that my energy is 'upwards' when it needs to be stiller, so I focus on my feet in contact with the ground.
And the connection happens. This beautiful fiery chestnut horse walks and trots and canters around me in a circle, whichever way I wish, as I ask, keeping my attention on him, with words, encouragement and movements to explain what I want of him. I slow him with gestures, I bring him to a halt similarly, I bring him towards me, I start him off again. I notice how important it is to keep my body-language messages clear and simple and direct – how much we must muddle horses with all the unconscious mixed messages we give, we who are so rarely really aware of inhabiting a body.
He's beautiful, a dream of a horse. All the time he's clearly enjoying himself and enjoying our praise. And I am completely in the moment, all my attention (bar a fraction for Cait as I'm aware he's not 'my' horse and this does add a different dynamic) focused on the exchange between horse and myself.
An hour later, leading him back to his field, I suddenly realise my headache has gone, and there's a lightness in my chest. Something has happened to me.
'What word would you use to describe the experience?' Cait asks afterwards. I hesitate. I want to say 'reconnection', but that's such a cliché, so obvious. 'Re-established,' I say. 'That's not quite right but there's something about re-establishing my ground.'
It's not till I get out of the car at home, a manoeuvre which has recently been excruciatingly painful due to very severe to the point of incapacitating backache for the last 4 weeks, that I realise I have no pain at all in the lumbar area.
And some fire has rekindled, although I don't really realise that till the next morning. 'You look different,' said M, meeting me in the lane. 'You look wild and bright.'
Yes. Ah yes – 'rekindled'. That is exactly what I needed.
I belong to myself and the world again, and this wonderful wild tribe of animals and humans, horses and humans, together.
So – that's what I was there for: Horse medicine, healing.
Cait is here: http://www.naturalmindmagic.com/horse-facilitated-coaching.htm