Learning from the Innocents
In the early hours of the morning it seems so clear. Those moments between sleep and wakefulness when there is absolute clarity and everything seems so very obvious. I couldn’t sleep, my mind was whirring and I didn’t want to use my usual mindfulness techniques to shut interfering thoughts away.
The stunning cedar tree marking the edge of the woodland seemed to beckon me.
A herd of about a dozen deer gathered at the wood margins, grazing alongside the horses. Dawn chorus was beginning. Glancing over the woodland the treetops swayed gently – almost imperceptibly. I paId closer attention and suddenly it seemed there was so much movement in the whole of the woodland – how could I not have noticed it just seconds before?
How much more, I wondered, do I not notice?
My attention was, as always drawn to the herd. They seemed so peaceful and yet… there was a time when they lay down far more than now. The new boy who had joined the herd had somehow shifted that peacefulness. When he first came, they still lay down to relax in the same way, encouraging him to learn this way of being and showing him how a herd could really trust and live naturally … but gradually things seem to have changed … was it the weather being so much hotter recently and so they need to spend more time in the barn, standing resting away from the intense heat, to escape the flies, to be near the water? Or was it something else? I wondered.
How could the energy of one being so affect the energy of the whole herd? Especially when they had been so bonded and peaceful? But his unsettled energy had done just that. I was deeply aware of how much more I still needed to do to help him release the past stress of his conditioning. He had so much more negative adrenaline in his system to release. This way of being which the herd had learnt has been so helpful to newcomers and had already greatly affected him but there is still more work to be done. I remembered how aggressive he had been towards me and to others before he came here. He’s done amazingly well and is outwardly incredibly relaxed – but there is still more help needed for him, more stress to be released and until he lets go of that it affects everyone.
I wandered out through the glass doors to be closer to them all, enjoying the bird song and hearing the wind in the trees so much louder now. The smells of the early morning engulfed me – a fox’s scent, the dew on the grass, the trees, the grass freshly grazed and that wonderful smell of horses warm breath as they gathered closer to me, sensing my deep easy peacefulness in my half awakened state.
I had learned a lot from them in the past few years of practicing mindful meditation, being in the moment, being intensely aware of every single thing, letting thoughts and mind-chatter drift away and noticing what was important for them. The more I noticed the minute details, the more they relaxed and became deeply peaceful. Every time they experienced this deep peace, they also were able to release whatever was ‘un’ peaceful within, which enabled healing and rehabilitation on a profound level. The more peaceful they became the more I enjoyed the effect this being-ness created between us and it encouraged me to hold this space more and more often. Every time I glanced around the boundary of the land the horses breathed deeply and relaxed more, knowing that they could hand over to me to watch out for them. Then one by one they lay down, heads lowering to stretch out fully on the ground, breathing deeply, some yawning before they did so to release tension they were holding on to. The herd lay down except for the newcomer. He was deeply peaceful and yet as usual he was hesitant to lay down. It was a combination for him of physical and emotional withholding and I trusted he’d get there in his own time. It helped them all, my holding of this space. Were they aware, I wondered, that it helped me? It didn’t matter in that moment to figure it out – all I knew was that it was a very special moment, all of us very deeply peaceful and still.
As I glanced from horse to horse I noticed muscles relaxing more and more fully. I became aware of the energy in their whole beings and was surprised that this was not obvious at first glance. Like the treetops earlier – it seemed so very obvious now. How much more we notice when we still our thoughts and hone our senses. Seeing this movement I was then able to drop deeper and be aware of my feelings and intuitive knowing – feel their emotions of deep relaxation. Focusing on the newest member of the herd l could feel his hesitancy and tension, pain in his body and stiffness, still unable to completely trust humans or sadly even other herd members. It takes them all different times to let go and trust, and there was no deadline, no expectation to be a certain way in a certain time frame. There would be more to release always for all of them, and for me. We all needed to let go more, none of us completely healed, or ‘zen’! As I held this intention of “no expectation” I felt, saw and heard the new lad release another large layer of tension as he exhaled and lay down, closing his eyes and stretching out his limbs in a way that was becoming more and more familiar to him these days. It was beautiful to see, and the herd visibly relaxed a little deeper too.
We hope to do our best.
Humans – we’re funny things. It was suddenly so obvious why we do the things we do. It’s our lack of empathy of understanding for another being. It’s far easier to just put our own thoughts, needs and expectations on to another being making assumptions about their needs.
Stabling is a good example of this:
For us, it feels good to lock our door and feel safe at night, to have a meal put on our plate, to be cosily wrapped up in our bed with a soft warm blanket at the end of the day.
So we give the same to those we love and have responsibility for.
We pride ourselves on this love and care, often feeling that they are ‘treated like royalty’ and that their every need is taken care of. They are ‘spoilt’ we think, but they deserve it.
How Does it Feel In the Wild?
So, putting ourselves into their ‘shoes’ for a moment – how does it feel to be a horse? Just imagine that you are the natural creature you were born to be….
You’re a herd animal. Your safety is being with the herd. Your innate wisdom tells you that your very survival depends on staying with the herd at all costs. If you feel pain then don’t show it – for you could be taken down by the hunter who will single you out as the weakest in the herd and take you for their meal. This hunter may be a wild boar, a coyote, or a large cat … it will jump on your back and bringing you down. Safety is therefore both in numbers and not showing pain.
Safety is in open spaces, where you can see everything around you.
When it’s windy it’s safer away from trees or any upright structures that may creak and blow down in the wind. It could threaten your very survival.
Your senses are incredibly finely tuned. They need to be, as you depend on them for survival. You’re not like man who has dumbed down these senses and relies on words now to communicate. You rely on picking up on your feelings and those of your fellow herd members and awareness of any intruders. Some humans are still able to sense when someone creeps up behind them, or intuitively know when someone is friend or foe, even from across a crowded room.
As a horse your other sense that is highly tuned, apart from this ‘sixth sense’ of feeling, is the sense of smell. You literally smell fear. Your sense of smell is the strongest sense you have. It is the sense that is first processed by the brain and takes up a large percentage of your senses. Not only can you smell fear, you can smell peacefulness. When it’s not peaceful you are on high alert. Yes, peacefulness and calm have a particular smell. It’s something you were familiar with since birth when nurtured by your mother. She taught you the difference between that peacefulness and fear, and then all the different smells in between.
Your ears are pricked and move in different directions to sense sound. You are highly aware of sounds – wind in the trees to tell you to stay away from creaking objects. Bird, insect and other animal alarm cries or sounds, telling you an intruder is near. Deer cracking twigs underfoot in the woodland as they quickly move almost silently away from danger, or a rabbit scuttling for his hole in the ground when a fox is near. This backs up your sense of smell.
Sight comes next – you can have your eyes shut and be intensely aware of these other senses, but when your eyes are open you see anything unfamiliar to you and often this spirals you into uncertainty and fear. It’s hard to investigate new things as every fibre in your body tells you to flee anything unfamiliar as it may be an attacker who is about to jump on your back and bring you down.
Your hooves are like shock absorbers on the ground and act like a pump, circulating blood supply and keeping your immune system alive and healthy. Your digestive system needs near constant food passing through it in the way of grasses that are not too rich, leaves, medicinal herbs and plants which you innately know and sense, seeking them out and browsing whilst using your sense of smell and intuitive knowing. You are adept at selecting the plants that will assist any parasitic burden to stay at a healthy level, your gut flora to be beneficial and your skin to be able to resist flies and midges. Your organs – liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and so on are all regulated by the healthy selection and balance of the plants you graze.
You travel usually about 25 miles a day over mixed terrain, keeping your hooves trimmed and in perfect balance to aid your limbs and joints, blood supply and healthy tissue. You know where fresh clean water is by travelling near or along water ways and always have plentiful supply of fresh water to hydrate you, to splash in and to quench your thirst.
Your coat is thick in winter and short in summer, with its natural thermo-regulation of heat and cool with the way the hairs stand on end and allow a breeze through, or to protect from the wind and cold. In winter it forms a warm pocket of air between each hair, and in summer you use this hair to keep you cool. Your skin is able to modulate the way the hair moves. Your whiskers are like radar or bat sonar. Each individual one is able to pick up on every feeling and sense around you and they are especially helpful to you at night time. Your forelock, mane and tail protect you from flies and offer a further barrier from the weather.
The company of other horses is vital to your wellbeing. Not only the sense of the herd for safety but also for companionship and mutual grooming, – they are like minded beings with whom you completely resonate. Other beings cannot replicate this. You are relaxed in your herd and have no particular pecking order – this is a man made concept – instead you take turns at being look out, instigating fun, mutual grooming, hunting for good forage, sensing water or danger etc. A healthy herd takes turns. A healed and untraumatised, unconditioned and undomesticated herd does not normally have a ‘herd leader’ or herd bully. There are older and wiser ones but the young are also wise and have plenty to offer the group.
You need food, not only for sustenance, but also for your internal heat source in winter which acts a little like a compost heap! In summer too you need food almost around the clock to stop you from producing too much acid in your gut which will cause ulcers. This acid is produced to break down food but too much with too little food to process is also produced at times of stress.
You sleep standing up but also need deep REM sleep lying down, but you cannot do this unless you feel protected by other herd members looking out for you.
How would it be then if another being trapped you, put you in what would feel to you to be an unsafe structure on your own, if they trimmed your whiskers, clipped your hair, nailed metal to your feet, starved you of your supply of medicinal plants, restricted your need of constant food, so that you had acid eating into your stomach lining causing ulcers. How would it feel for you if you couldn’t access fresh grazing constantly so you had a heavy parasite burden that you couldn’t then throw off naturally? Then you were then given chemicals to kill that off; but those had their own side-effects for you. You might be given rugs to wear because your coat had been clipped. This could make you feel too hot if you moved about too much, so you stopped moving and this had an impact on your health of course. If you were separated from your herd and felt isolated, afraid and withdrawn, if you couldn’t get out of this “cage” you were locked into but knew that if you fought you would be tired … and you needed to conserve your vital energy to flee danger and so you resigned to submit. You shut down and accepted your lot. It was the safest way.
The only time you were let out of your “box” (Yes humans even call a stable a box) was to be put into a ‘field’ which consists of a fenced area with nothing much to explore, sometimes no shade or even anything to scratch on, often lonely without companions there either. This area, often full of rich grasses with too much sugar which causes too much fat, an unhealthy immune system and even excruciating pain in your hooves and legs. In this situation you would be unable to fight off illness easily or regulate the effects of fly and midge bites that would react badly on your skin. What if your water supply wasn’t fresh and running and was even stagnant and smelly. You would have to drink it or you would die. You would have to accept what you were given for survival. Survival was your aim. You were threatened with pain and fear and had to accept that you had no choice…
Under these circumstances it would feel as though man was able to act like your predator and sit on your back – at first every fibre of your being of course reacted to this, but eventually if your will was broken you just accepted, were conditioned to having a saddle tied tight around you, a hard piece of metal in your very sensitive mouth, tight pieces of dried animal skin (“leather”) tied around your soft and sensitive facial structures which tightened onto every pressure point, shutting you down into greater and greater submission. Sometimes you would fight back and then these restrictions would inevitably become more intense… stronger bits causing more pain in your mouth and on the tongue, nosebands and chains around the nose, muzzle and lips and closing your mouth to keep you from ‘avoiding the bit’ or being able to breathe properly. Then when man sat on your back it caused much pain on your muscles and pinched nerves, but you had to just accept this or you would be punished, shouted at, jabbed in the mouth or even kicked or whipped. You learned it was safer to submit or things would just get worse.
The Racecourse, the Polo Field, The Events.
Sometimes man raced you. The only time you galloped flat out like that in the wild was when you were in absolute terror and fear for your life and so the adrenaline surged uncontrollably. You knew when you were in that much fear that you couldn’t show pain … it was imperative that you stayed with the herd at all costs. And so often you bled from your nose because blood vessels had burst, but still you galloped. Sometimes tendons ruptured in your legs, but still you galloped on. Fear kept you going and you couldn’t feel these other senses much in that adrenaline surged fear. It wasn’t until you stopped that the uncontrollable pain took over, but people stood around you making a huge noise and so you learned to shut down further. Shutting down and submitting was your only way of coping this insanity and control.
There were many things man did to you apart from race you – making you jump objects which naturally you wouldn’t consider jumping, being ridden along roads with frightening vehicles coming towards you and from behind, passing objects unfamiliar and scary, but these humans were scarier than the cars, lorries, tractors and busses, and unfamiliar objects and so you obeyed – it was just easier and safer.
Rectifying the Wrongs.
All this trauma, fear, conditioned acceptance, abuse and isolation, lack of the right food etc takes its toll and a long while to rehabilitate from when horses are rescued from this unnatural life.
I don’t profess to give them totally what they need, for they are still domesticated here and don’t have access to the rugged terrain that will self trim their feet or all the medicinal plants they would naturally be able to select for themselves. They are confined into an area of woodland, grazing, open barns and heathland which gives them a lot of enrichment but isn’t equivalent to what they’d have in the wild. Because we aren’t (yet) able to just turn horses free to live safely on national conservation land, we are restricted in what we can offer them, but I am learning from them daily and giving them the best I am able to give.
This means as much choice as I possibly can provide – an open door policy where they are not isolated from each other, not shut into stables (cages), not ridden, not worked, but are given the freedom to exercise themselves, allowed to release past trauma through our unique rehabilitation methods and allowed to feel peaceful with their feet being trimmed, teeth being rasped, herbs being offered on a self select basis, constant access to non rich grasses and unsprayed, organically grown meadow hay, a constant supply of fresh water and of course the company of a ‘forever’ herd. We no longer have ones coming and going, so that it replicates the bonds they’d be able to form in the wild.
I’m learning every moment of every day with them, usually subtle nuances now rather than the big things, but always questioning.
When seen through the eyes of a horse, it makes what man generally does to them seem barbaric doesn’t it? Scary then isn’t it that we feel we are ‘treating them like kings’. So much in our lives is like this. Our perception just doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.
One of life’s great tragedies is that many wonderfully kind, well meaning and gentle people who genuinely love their horses and truly believe they are doing their very best for them, are daily perpetuating a way of life that is so unnatural for the creature they love and cherish, that they are unaware of what in fact is happening.
We used to keep slaves in England, it seemed a natural way of life. In many parts of the world sadly it is still common practice, which the majority of people in this country abhor and wish to eliminate. Any right minded and law abiding citizen in our country would wish this vile practice to be eradicated from society.
Do we not owe the same freedom for our equine community?