So it's happened: my weekend on Exmoor, outdoors facilitating a workshop with horses (handled so skilfully by my friend Cait who owns – if that's ever the right word for our co-habitation with animals – several very beautiful horses and works alongside them in her coaching and therapy work). I've been building up to including hands-on work with horses into my Wild Ways programme for a long time, with a few false starts along the way.
Friday began with mist sliding in over Dartmoor, then a brief burst of heavy rain as I drove along the very beautiful Exe valley from Tiverton to Dunster, stopping off at the Rest and Be Thankful (I was) pub at Wheddon Cross to meet my sister for an hour or two on a rare sighting – she lives in the north of Scotland, but has work down here sometimes in connection with the South West Coast Path, and Exmoor National Park.
As I pulled in at Cait's the rain had eased, but the saga of the campervan hadn't – a pipe was drooping onto the ground. I tucked it back behind a strut (or something); I've no idea what it's for, but the brakes and fuel delivery seem to function fine still, so I'm not too worried. At least the water issue seems to have been fixed – hooray.
And on Friday evening the sun slipped into view, and one by one the participants arrived, having travelled from Wales, Cornwall and Devon. The horses watched.
I realised almost immediately how crazy it was to think we could possibly cover my theme, Animal Archetypes, in a two-hour session, even as an introduction to the hands-on work we were doing the next day. We needed a whole weekend at the very least; so it was a bit of a crash-course in what I'd put out as publicity:
'The intention behind all this work is to bring together felt experience of the natural world with our imagination and some psychological exploration to re-vision our relationships with self, other (including and especially the other-than-human), and the wild – as well as to produce new and inspiring pieces of writing (no previous skills needed in any of this). Think of it as ecotherapy plus – the ‘plus’ being a reciprocity: shifting our centre-of-attention from the needs solely of humans to the needs of other species and the planet as well.'
We looked at our relationship with animals in the outer world as other species sharing a journey with us but in their own way within their own sphere of consciousness, and with so much to teach us of emotional and multi-sensory awareness, instinct, co-operation, altruism, loyalty and herd principles. Henry Beston in his book The Outermost House puts this so well:
'We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.'
What a great and magnificent collaboration might take place if we could learn to look more deeply, listen differently and relate more consciously, in a more egalitarian way, to animals.
We looked, too, at how animals (also) live within us, in our individual and collective psyches, as archetypes: symbols of particular qualities of energy that we might draw on.
Myth and fairy tale are full of 'helper animals' who guard a threshold, or arrive when a human needs help: for instance, in the myth of Psyche and Eros, ants arrive to help Psyche sort through an impossibly huge mountain of grain when she is set the task of doing so; an eagle arrives when she needs help picking out something specific from rushing waters, each offering their own particular strengths that she may find her own inner equivalent in response.
Then there is the shaman's calling-up, or shape-shifting to, a particular animal or animal spirit: animal-as-mediator to move between the worlds; journeying into subtle states of non-ordinary consciousness where non-verbal communication, reading body-language, and the skills of intuition, emotional intelligence, playfulness, spontaneity, telepathy and imagination are stimulated by our association with a particular animal. Then there's the whole field of animal lore, augury and synchronicity (and Jung's thinking in relation to these subjects) – far too big to go into here.
So what with exploring this and my leading of a visualisation the two hours passed intensely and swiftly; and later I slept deeply in my van up on the heights of Exmoor near the horses, Porlock and Dunkery Beacon flanking us just ahead; the sea an imagined glimmer just out of sight.
Saturday, the horse day, began with my reiterating the intentions and motivations behind the day:
- An experiential awareness of the fine, subtle and strong threads that bind us, all of us, human and other-than-human, in this web, and how our relationship to it, the all of it, needs such urgent re-visioning. This is the perspective of deep ecology.
- The therapeutic agenda: relating to animals, perhaps especially horses who have shared our lives for so many thousands of years, giving us so much that has changed our relationship to the world (an equivalent to the discovery of fire, or invention of the wheel), can bring so much healing.
I wanted to emphasise that this needs to be two-way: as we are healed, so we also need to heal the wounds our species have inflicted, often in the most unimaginably brutal ways, on animals in general, and horses in particular (and still do: most people who work with horses still take the 'breaking in' attitude: breaking the animal's spirit with force, coercion and punishment).
- Then there is creativity. It's my experience that deeply immersing myself in an animal's presence, particularly a horse's, can stimulate new ideas and imaginative responses; there's something, for me, about being jolted by presence out of my own light and out of the rational judging mind into more of a flow.
- And there is too a release from the chattering of ego-mind into a deeper collective soul-mind in which there is no longer 'I, me and mine' in the usual way.
Cait had decided not to set a task or have an agenda; rather to let the process unfold and evolve. Since we had a couple of experienced horse-people with us, I was slightly anxious that they might feel restless simply being around a horse doing nothing in particular. I needn't have worried, of course: all three horses partnering us that day are very tuned-in to humans, very engaged, trustworthy. And this kind of 'time out' with the horses was invariably a deepening.
Each horse is very different. Here's William, a big French ex-racehorse who didn't cut it, according to his owners' agenda, and was rescued in quite a dramatic way from a particularly horrible fate as 'bait' for bullfighting:
He's only been with Cait for a month, and behaved impeccably: one of the sweetest, kindest horses I've ever met, and with such sensitive intelligent eyes.
One person fell in love with him big time, tearful when she had to leave at the end of her turn. Another person who'd rarely spent time with horses spent most of her 20 minutes with him cheek-to-cheek: very moving to watch.
Then there's Freddie: an inquisitive mischievous cheeky little Welsh B pony with attitude, guts and playfulness. Because of numbers and time I hadn't expected to have any time with the horses myself, and if I had I'd thought perhaps I might see if I could spend a little while with William and his capacity for quietness. I thought that'd be good for me. Once I'd focused in on this I felt so strongly about working with William it was all I could do not to elbow C out of the way to get there first! – all that restrained me, in addition to basic if nearly-forgotten politeness, was the fact that C had paid me for the experience!
So it happened that there was time for me – with Freddie.
Of course, it always works out; and what I took away from my time with Freddie was the importance of playfulness – life has been very intense and in many ways very demanding lately, and I so easily fall into taking myself and life far too seriously, and forget how to swim, let alone play, in it all. Freddie doesn't let that happen: first thing he did was lift my leg up (I was lying on the ground) by my boot.
Rowan is a bit of a star: he's the one with whom I worked when I first came up to Cait's feeling not at all well a few years ago. I wrote about it here.
Rowan's an Arab; in my view a breed unrivalled for beauty. He's spirited and kind, and stood over M and then J-A when they lay and sat, respectively, in his pen, with attentive kindness. It was good to see over-stretched N able to let go of all the rushing and demands that had accompanied her, and simply to immerse herself in grooming Rowan – time for herself, as brushing a horse is a two-way nurturing process.