Spirited Away

 

Whilst I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work and study classical horsemanship here in Wales, sometimes I get an itch for the wild that I find difficult to scratch amidst the fabulous, well-polished dressage horses. It appears to be a reoccurring itch that needs a regular scratch, and one I am wise not to ignore.

Last month I had the great fortune of being able to join a fabulous group of friends on Inshriach Farm in Aviemore for a long weekend away (great accommodation, highly recommend). Aviemore, with the spectacular Cairngorms and Caledonian forest, is a rather wild area. Big box ticked! But a weekend without horses? I genuinely find it tough. It had been playing in the back of my mind for a while that Bonny Mealand, an equine podiatrist friend of mine, was involved with some intriguing work in the area. I’d thought how wonderful it would be if it was going on during that particular weekend. The chances were slim, but I popped her an email just in case…. and was answered serendipitously.

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The last time I spent time with Bonny was when I had my two young horses in a remote-as-hell spot at the head of Loch Treig. Tools in tow, I whizzed her off down the Road To The Isles on the back of my quad and by her reaction knew for sure that she was a kindred spirit. This would be considered quite an off-the-wall day for your average horse professional. Bonny, however, is not your average horse professional! Amongst all the incredible places her work has taken her, she has been trimming the hooves of feral Eriskay ponies on the Isle of Coll for a number of years. The hoof trimming itself is a straight forward task, but taming ponies who have had little-to-no human interaction, to a point where they can be handled in a relaxed and safe manner, is a completely different matter.  In situations like this, Bonny is in her element.

Feral horses, by definition, are not true wild horses. Their domesticated ancestry can be traced back to around 4000 BC when humans first began to domesticate horses. 6000 years later however, they still hold onto many of their original instincts and this is what makes interactions with them so fascinating.

With this work, Bonny’s already keen interest in equine behaviour grew. In turn, she grew increasingly aware of the lack of information available in the wider world on the true nature of horses. Just as a human’s character is shaped by their experiences, so is a horse’s character shaped by their experiences and interactions with the world around them. Meaning? Human influence. 6000 years of human influence… and this is reflected in the vast majority of equine literature out there.

So, where does a gal with an interest in wild horses go when feral doesn’t quite cut it? Throw back to 45,000 years ago, when a primitive species of horse diverged into two separate sub-species. The first being the species that was to become the domesticated horse we know today, and the second being the Przewalski’s horse. The only true wild horse still alive today.

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Native to the Mongolian steppes, Przewalski’s horse (also known as Takhi) was extinct in the wild by the 1960’s, with only 13 (!!) remaining in captivity.  But, thanks to some special people out there and a successful captive breeding program, they have since been successfully reintroduced to the wild.

To think that every single Przewalski living today, including the 300+ free roaming in the wild, has descended from those 13 held in captivity is quite something. And today you’ll find a small herd of these remarkable horses a bit closer to home than the Mongolian steppes… in the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore. And, in her quest to study equine behaviour at its most pure, Bonny has found herself involved in a special project with them.

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The herd of 10 (soon to be more by the looks of some of the bellies) are free within 80 acres of moorland. Prior to Bonny’s entrance, the horses had to be darted for any required veterinary work, hoof work etc which proved to be quite an ordeal for them. After hearing of her experiences and talents, the head zoo-keeper offered Bonny the chance to interact with and gently tame the horses so as to be able to handle them without the need for darting and stress. She’s now been working with them since September. And lucky me was able to join her for the day!

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There were 3 of us working with the herd that day: Bonny, Marc (a very knowledgable and passionate keeper) and myself. It is hard to remember exactly how long we spent with the horses, as time ceases to exist in those moments when you simultaneously need to be of low, calm energy plus highly aware of yourself and everything around you. If you’re looking for a lesson in mindfulness, look no further than wild horses. They are small, stocky creatures… built like zebras yet the colour of the Gobi Desert, with wispy reminders of their black-and-white cousins visible on their legs and chest. Their strong-will is apparent by the look in their eyes. The presence that somehow reminds you of that same wild part of yourself… Przewalski’s are captivating, tough wee beasts.

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Mention that you’re working with wild horses to some people, and they conjure up images of bucking broncos and sweat and dirt. Truthfully, and humanely, that is far (or at least should be far) from the reality. The aim should be to gently and gradually build their trust, without domination or force. The result, a horse who seeks out your company rather than being left with no option, is immensely gratifying. The herd was quietly encouraged into an enclosed area, which could be split by gates in to 3 spacious pens. Us humans remained in one pen, the horses in another. If any of the horses approached our pen with curiosity, we’d give them the chance to come in and interact with us. A couple of individuals were already well on their way to trusting people through Bonny’s work and so were able to be scratched all over, others had not yet dropped their suspicions. The latter would never be forced into our pen, but interestingly Bonny has observed even the most aggressive (a fear response) of horses begin watch her interactions with the other horses with more and more interest each time, her eye subtly softening. Can horses learn by watching? It would seem so.

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The most valuable thing to realise is how absolutely incredibly sensitive the Takhi are. In order to survive in the wild, a herd’s physiological responses will be totally in sync. A raise in one heart rate, a raise in every heart rate – time to run!  My understanding is that horses will sync themselves to our physiological responses too, hence the mirroring effect.  To hold their curiosity, attention must be paid to your breath. Relaxed, deep, steady breaths (harder than it sounds when you’re simultaneously in awe AND trying to be very still). Alongside steady breath should be a low heart-rate, slow, fluid movements and soft eye focus. Shifting your gaze from one part of the horse to another at the wrong time could break your connection. And even cooler? Thoughts. Every time a negative or self-doubting thought would come into my head, I would lose the connection with the horse I was working with. Repeating positive thoughts in my head would very quickly spark an interest and softening. Not very surprising when you really consider it, but remarkable nonetheless.

That there is the lesson to take home to each and every horse we interact with. Domesticated as they may be, their physiology and true nature remains far more similar to their wild counterparts than we often realise…

Imagine a creature who is so finely tuned to the environment around them as to pick up on the change in energy that a negative thought brings. Imagine a creature who is able to communicate perfectly clearly through the blink of an eye, the twitch of an ear; who is able to sense the presence of another creature not even within sight. Then imagine this same creature contained within an environment with a lot of unnatural stimuli. People coming, people going. Busy minds, stressful jobs, hurried movements.

Have domesticated horses had to shut down many of their senses in order to cope with life with humans? Would they open up if we began to have more mindful interactions with them?

I’m so grateful to have had the chance to join Bonny that day. My work down in Wales is veritably special but intense and disciplined. The approach to training is very much academic. The horses are athletes and are treated as such. If one were to look into the evolution of horsemanship from Xenophon in 350BC to present day, it would become clear why any dedicated horse person would choose this path. But the feral girl inside me still yearns for glimpses of the untamed spirit that made me fall for a life of horses in the first place. The glimpses I had that day made me come back to work with a new found sense of respect for the generous horses that I interact with on a daily basis, and some insights into issues that I’m working through with my own horses (mindset, mindset, mindset!).

It is worth noting that the word Takhi means ‘spirit’ in Mongolian. And spirit they have! Bonny understands their spirit, and is working with them in such a way as to keep it intact. She is an inspiration to me, and indeed this style of interaction should be an inspiration to all of us in our interactions with animals, and with each other too.

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(“We start out as wild horses, all of us, and life is the process by which we are tamed. Some of us are civilised by gentle masters who teach us restraint without breaking our spirits. Others were brutalised by cruel circumstances that taught us to trample everything in our paths. Most of us have encountered both types of master; some days we gallop, and some days we trample” April Elliot Kent, Big Sky Astrology.)

Gently gently, slowly slowly. XXX

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