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All you need is love!

Horses and Prasado on clean up duty
Horses and Prasado on clean up duty

This week we are busy getting ready for the first Exploring Horse camp in Portugal. Tents scrubbed and re-kitted, menus planned, paths cleared, we are a-bustle. Even the horses do their bit when there’s a good patch of grass that needs mowing. It’s exciting.

Throughout the activity I am in an introspective mode (partly the outcome of an injured knee, wherein lies another story!). I am not thinking, or planning  – my plan is always the same, to flow with what is.

I am burrowing into myself, allowing pictures, thoughts, memories to float by as reminders of subjects we might touch on in the workshop. Then I let them go and we will see what happens. You could say I am trying to clarify what it is I am hoping to share over the next week.

In this introspective mode, my partner and I have been talking. One of the subjects that has come up is the way horses respond to me, and why. It’s not something that is easy for me to see, “Nayana’s special touch with horses”. To me it is ordinary, the way things are, and my belief is that anyone can have that touch if they want it. It’s what I’m trying to teach all these years.

Prasado and I met on horseback, and a horse (MY horse!) caused me to fly from California to New Mexico for a weekend visit that has never ended. So, horses have always been a theme in our life. But his brain has never been eaten by the horse bug (his term) in the same way mine has.

He was a cowboy, the fun of horses was the unity felt when working with them, he didn’t really ‘get’ my constant fascination with their inner workings, although he has always been part of our various horse-caring set-ups. Anyway,…. he has been watching me and my horse craziness for over 30 years and often noted the attraction horses had to hang out with me, but thought it was something unique to me.

Now, after 8 months of living with the horses as a constant presence, ruled by their rhythms and needs, listening to them and learning their language more fully, he has the touch too! He is calling it trust, they trust him, which is one way of putting it. But why? Because we are an integral part of the physical and energetic function of the herd. Our neural networks are familiar to each other. Our flow is their flow. We are attuned.

I can tune-in very quickly to any herd anywhere I go, because ultimately we’re all one herd and I’ve had a lot of practice. But it’s easier in the beginning to attune yourself to one horse, or one herd. That’s what we invite you to do here, experience that feeling of harmonious flow that I am calling attunement, which is the key to good horsemanship.

So what is the key to attunement?

Sharing a joke with The Dood
Sharing a joke with The Dood

In me, for whatever reason – nature, nurture, being dropped in a pile of horse poo as a baby! – this ability to tune-in developed with no effort at an early age. I have spent my life nurturing and expanding and understanding this ability.

I have also been committed to helping others develop ‘the touch’ themselves, inventing games and exercises based on my own life experience. And I have trained horses to train people to have the ‘touch’ on three continents.

All the time I have been growing and learning, leaving behind what no longer worked for me, absorbing that which did. At this moment in time, as I review this journey, I see that the only constant, unchanging element has been LOVE.

It was this love, this heart expanding attraction, that led me to horses as a toddler. It is this love that has always caused me to look out for the horse’s best interest, and has driven me to learn what horses truly need in order to be healthy and happy. Because I love horses, they have been an integral part of learning about myself, which has led me to be able to know myself better, recognize my own self-interest and put it aside, or align it with that of the horse.

I could get into a whole discussion about ‘What is love’ here, but let me just clarify. When I say ‘love’, I don’t mean a pink hearts and roses sort of  love that carries you away, or the sort of love that wants the other to fulfil your emotional needs.  I mean lovingness, that truly sees the other without demands or projection. Love that is simply happy in the other’s existence.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t attracted to a person who loves them unconditionally and cares for them as best they can. I say as best they can, because my idea of what constitutes best care and how I work with horses has changed over the years, yet horses have always responded to me the same way.

Whether training Western or English, no matter what the tack or the method, the horses I work with end up happy, confident, and connected. So the conclusion I draw is that the intention, the feeling of lovingness, is what horses respond to.

It’s not important to them whether the love comes from a kid feeding a pony stale bread in a muddy field in Wales, a cowgirl with a string of horses in a dusty Oregon corral, or a holistic health specialist with 50 acres of Portuguese hillside at her disposal.

So, what does it take to develop that magic touch, to attune yourself to horses so they are attracted to you and you are accepted into the herd without hesitation? So that whatever you choose to ‘do’ with a horse is based on mutual enjoyment? Three simple things:

LOVE, AWARENESS, UNDERSTANDING.

It’s not much, but it’s everything. And here, in this beautiful natural environment, with a herd of empowered horses, is the perfect place to supercharge your lovingness and nourish your soul. Horse lovers welcome any time, contact me for more info.attunement

Simple Pleasure

Lawn mowing duties
Spring greens

There are not many days in a year with weather as perfect as this. It’s Spring (always a good thing in my book), birds sing. The sun is warm enough for me to sit in the shade on a mossy rock (curiously dry moss here in Portugal), the breeze is coolish. Behind me the water tumbles down its gully with a perfect harmony of tonalities that soothe and uplift, lively but not rambunctious. In front of me the horses are lost in an orgy of greens, as they ‘mow’ around the tents. Bliss.

When it was raining and cold I had to coax the horses out of the shelter some days to go walk with me and stretch their legs, “Horses are supposed to move,” I said, “it’s good for you.” “So?” they replied, looking at this foolish human who doesn’t understand about conservation of energy and seasonal cycles. I, observing one herd, in one season, started to reformulate some of my long held beliefs and build new theories, thought maybe horses were perfectly happy to stand around all day and munch on hay. In which case why did we go through so much pain and expense to provide them this lovely natural environment? But formulating a theory on such limited data is never a good idea.

Early morning delegation of horses at my window
Early morning delegation at my window

Spring came and the rhythm of our days has changed. The horses are restless to leave the home compound where we have been keeping them at night. Ellie’s face peers through my window demanding I open the gates at dawn. So I do. They go round their “trackless track” twice in a day instead of going out and back on the same route, following their noses up and down the hills, up and down the hills. They volunteer to come play with me in the picadero or go for a ride. And they insist I open the gate to the green stuff, the delicious cold-weather grasses and herbs on our side of the fence. So here we are.

In all my long years and varied lives, I have never lived in such close intimacy with a herd of horses on a daily basis, although I have cared for small and large herds on three continents. I have been a slave to the feeding routine, dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn (or before) so they wouldn’t have to wonder for a second if food was coming. I have slept in the tack room waiting for mares to give birth, waking at every shifting foot and heavy breath – and still managing to miss the moment. I have spent nights in tents in the wilderness, listening to the horses munching; or wolves howling under a full moon, turning all of us electric with awareness. I have clumped out on dark nights, through raging gales on Exmoor, to beg my horses to come into the barn and get shelter. And many an evening I have sat watching the sun set over English hills and shared a beer with my horse. It’s not like I have been a distant stranger to them.

But it’s never been like this before.

At your service
At your service

Here, our lives overlap and intertwine minute to minute and I live in surrender to their rhythms. Our days are not organised for the convenience of humans. We have no schedules, no goals to achieve, no training to be done, no owners expectations to satisfy; just a herd of horses, boundless love, and an openness to learning. Every day, as we try to provide the best living space possible for the horses, our communications become more subtle, clear and direct and we figure out our common language. We humans learn to trust the intuitive, non-verbal nature of the conversation; the horses know that we are listening, so express more clearly what they need, or would like.

But I don’t want this to sound like some New Age, spiritual thing. It’s not. It is very down to earth, grounded in the simplicity of being. Horse-ness. Which can be Human-ness if we pay attention. When we sit at the stable block at the end of the day, all chores done, and the horses choose to hang out with us, even though their hay is waiting for them, it is a simple pleasure. And that’s what it’s all about.

Horse heaven
Horse heaven

Who do you want to be?

horses eat
Jessie can eat with anybody

I was watching the horses the other day (just for a change!), it was early evening and they were making their way down the terraces to the shelter, as is their habit, munching on hay as they went. I was looking down on them from the terrace above, which is a fabulous vantage spot as it allows me to see the pattern of their movement, like watching the rise and fall of waves on a beach.

The hay is spread in small piles and the horses flow from one to the other, either pushed or pulled, one by the other. Sometimes the calm is disturbed with a little flurry of movement when one of the top horses comes close to a horse they have to assert themselves over, sometimes the movement is smooth and natural, hard to tell who moved who. Some horses like to eat together, others are possessive of their pile, the top horses like to move all the time to make sure they are getting the best bits. As I watched, enjoying the harmony, I realised that of all the horses, the one I want to be is Jessie.

Jessie can share a hay pile with anybody, even Negev, who pulls horrid faces at any horse who thinks of coming near ‘his’ pile. He has experienced life without enough to eat and will never be convinced those times are over, but he cant say no to Jessie. Even when he tries she takes no notice; she is not impolite, she yields fractionally with body and energy, but rarely moves her feet, barely stops eating. Negev might give her the bad-eye a couple of times, but she does just enough to defuse his push, and carries on regardless till he relaxes with her there, even appears to enjoy it.

Jessie can get along with anyone
Jessie can get along with anyone

And it is not just that she can eat with anyone, she has a unique relationship with each herd member. She plays with GG and Sensei, she has girly gossips with Q, and sometimes I see her standing quietly with Starling, doing nothing very much. She is always working on her relationship with the other horses, flowing with the moods and rhythms that are an intrinsic part of herd life. She is not ashamed to runaway with her rump down on the days when GG is intolerant, though it doesn’t take long for her to come back and invite him to play again, or just graze side by side. If Ellie’s feeling grumpy she leaves her alone,  if GG decides to have a go at one of the other boys Jessie intervenes, literally comes between them to defuse the energy.

If I call them up to go on a herd expedition, Jessie’s is the first face I see coming to join me, the other horses all tag along behind her. She is the courageous pathfinder and the others are encouraged by her confidence and clarity. She is courageous and curious but a lot of that comes from the support of the herd moving with her, and she is always listening to them.

It is a common theory in the world of horses that you must ‘show them who is boss’, make yourself their leader, emulate the behaviour of a dominant horse. And I guess that is sound advice if you want to control your horse and have him do exactly as you say at all times. But that’s not what I want. I want to hear what my horses have to say, I want them to make me laugh, to point out when I am being rude or insensitive, let me know if they are in pain, or if they don’t understand me; I want them to want to figure out what it is I am asking, even if it seems a bit odd to them. It’s hard to have a two way conversation if I’m the boss and what I say goes.

Horses face
Jessie, young, beautiful and everybody loves her.

So I want to be Jessie.

Anyone can push Jessie around, she’s nobody’s boss, a two year old filly, bottom of the hierarchy (as seen from a human perspective). She can’t push any of the older horses, but she influences their movement and direction in other ways, ways that create willing participation and a feeling of connectedness, and that’ll do for me.

A walk in the woods

Spring is sprung

It’s starting to feel Spring-like around here, the grasses are a bright edible green, dandelion leaves are juicy and irrestible, Lesser celandine sets yellow sparks in the undergrowth. Everyone shouting, “Eat me, eat me”. Unfortunately for the horses they are mostly on the other side of the fence. The land the horses live on is in the process of regeneration, most of the grasses were ripped out or crushed in the process of clearing out old tree stumps and they have to search hard for the juicy bits.

Give us a choice!

L1070866Now, hardcore, fundamentalist, barefoot horse practitioners would say I am in an enviable position, that horses are not meant to eat grass at all and great that they have to work so hard for their food. In many ways I agree. Horses fed on industrial-grade mono-culture grass (which is what modern farming practices have condemned us to) are getting too much sugar and protein, not enough variety and no choice. All of which leads to laminitis, metabolic syndrome and a host of other ‘normal’ equine illnesses. But is all grass bad?

In a natural environment a horse’s diet changes throughout the year, they can choose which plants they want to eat, and counteract toxins by eating clay or charcoal, or a neutralising plant. Given a choice (which our horse are) horses do not necessarily choose the greenest grass, in fact, will usually avoid the greenest grass in favour of longer, more fibrous grasses. Our horses also like to eat oak leaves, heather and gorse.

Watch and learn

I often sit and watch what the herd is eating when I let them out on to the lusher areas of the property. They go through the mass of greenery, noses twitching, carefully selecting exactly the blades of grass and leaves they want. It reminds me of the way I load up a fork from my plate, a little of this, a little of that, a mixture of all the good things, ‘just so’, to please my palate.

I have noticed that as we move into Spring, the time when Chinese medicine says we should eat green things to support the liver, the horses seek out the bright green stuff more avidly.

A walk in the woods

L1070875So on days like today, when the sun is warm and the birdsong provocative, the Call of the Green gets too much for us and we have to go for a walk. It would be impossible to leave anyone behind on such an outing, so we take them all. We put a couple of key characters on a halter so we don’t have any unfortunate incidents with the neighbour’s hay field (it has been known!) and off we go, down to the woods for a picnic. There are few pleasures greater in life than this sort of walk together. To catch a glimpse of it click here.

Shared activity builds bonds

My problem child

The other day I went for a walk with GG and Sensei, gathering kindling. GG is my problem child, he has issues – his story is a whole other blog – but, he is basically terrified of life. On one hand he is a big softy who loves a cuddle, on the other, he is so reactive and un-trusting that he can be dangerous to people. He already broke my partner’s ribs. Prasado had a moment of unawareness at the end of a long day passed a little too close, in the dark, at feeding time (all exonerating circumstances, nobody’s holding any grudges, least of all Prasado) and GG double barrelled him. I may never ride this horse, but I do want him to be comfortable in himself and the environment he lives in and safe for the people that work around him. So I have to help him feel secure inside.

I have been told over and over by various helpful horsepeople that he needs to be de-sensitized. Personally I dont think that ‘sacking out’, in other words repeatedly scaring him until he stops reacting, is the way to go. I think this approach will teach him to repress his natural reaction, – to flee when fearful – however it will not teach him to assess a situation and react appropriately. Ultimately it would just make him more insecure and less trusting of himself, and more dangerous.

two horses eat hay together
Shared activity builds bonds

Everyone learns differently

I get the feeling from him that he needs context and definition in his work, something that I am not so good at my self, precise or repetitive work is not my forte. He wants to be told what to do, I like my horses to develop their intelligence and think for themselves; I flow with the moment and work mostly in freedom, he is most comfortable when on the end of a rope being told exactly what to do. He is a fine example of someone who would like to shut down and be a good soldier/bureaucrat/slave because self-responsibility looks too big of a task.

In my nature I am a collaborator not a dictator, I want to liberate not enslave, and sometimes I think it would be kinder to hand him over to a more authoritarian trainer. I won’t of course, I love him and what I am learning from him. To help him move forward I am forced to let go of some of my dearly held ideas, especially, “Everyone wants freedom”. This is a masterclass in finding the balance between telling and listening, and I am immensely grateful.

Gathering wood

So why did we go gathering firewood? My partner – who is not a horse trainer per se, but often has creative solutions to problems of all sorts, and a rather special relationship with this horse – had the idea to use an old Tantric method. The method sewed two people into one garment, binding them together physically so they could learn to live together in harmony and become one being. Prasado suggested that he tie GG to him for a few days, so GG could experience new situations in a relaxed, ‘no big deal’ fashion and draw strength from Prasado.

I couldn’t see how this would work logistically, as Prasado is mostly busy on a tractor pulling up tree stumps at the moment. But I took that principle and let it sit in my belly until it became an idea. GG is mostly Quarter horse by breeding, son of working cow horses, born on a cattle ranch, his morphogenetic memory is set for having a job. Like many Quarter horses he doesn’t really ‘get’ abstract principles, he needs to learn on the job. I cant ride him yet, but maybe he could help me with various chores around the place as a pack horse. And shared activity builds bonds, hence gathering firewood.

I strapped the bareback pad to his back and added big flappy saddle bags for collecting kindling. I long-lined him with heavy ropes attached to his halter (all things we have worked on in the arena), and off we went. At the last minute Sensei chose to join us when he saw we were having trouble crossing over the scary new drainage gutter. GG stood there frozen for five minutes, eyes glazed, processing the feeling of the girth and facing the fearful ditch – but he didn’t blow up (that was BIG!) and when Sensei bustled across it he went with him.

Learning through doing

At the first pile of deadfall we stopped, lines trailing, to eat grass and load up. Surprisingly he had no problem with me tugging and banging at the bags as I stuffed in the sticklets, not even an ear twitch, you just never know with him what will be the trigger. Then off we went again, and without noticing it GG was doing a little haunches-in or shoulders-in as we went. I would stop and pick up pine cones and load them into the bags as we walked along and he quickly he got the idea that when I bent down to pick up a pine cone he should stop and let me put it in his saddle bag, I didn’t tell him to do it, he just figured it out, which means he was ‘with’ me and voluntarily sharing the activity, yeah!

horse investigates tractor
Everybody likes to feel useful sometimes.

As we toured the perimeter of the property, which took about 45 minutes, the look in his eyes became softer and he became lighter and lighter in the controls. We returned through the front yard of the house, where builders worked on power tools and various vehicles were parked haphazardly. I expected GG to be concerned, or refuse to go past, but he floated calmly through, looking with curiosity but no fear; unlike o-Sensei who danced through on the tips of his hooves, doing dragon impersonations.

We all felt good for so many reasons (a lovely walk in beautiful nature, shared activities with friends, a sense of accomplishment…) but for me the main one was the renewed trust that we will be able to liberate the wise and gentle nature that hides behind the fear and aggression, and GG will be free from his demons.

Moving to Portugal, five month review

mare and foal unloading from horse transporter
Unloading in Portugal, the truck could go no further down our drive so we walked home.

It’s five months today since the horses and I arrived here in Portugal, exhausted, dislocated – and relieved. At least I was relieved. The horses simply shook themselves off, snorted, and checked out the local grass as they came off the truck. Then we set out on the one kilometre walk that would complete our journey (the truck could go no further down the dirt road).

The journey begins

Three days earlier six horses and myself had set out from Israel on an epic journey. Six unsophisticated, backwoods horses who had never been on a horse lorry before, let alone a plane, and me, their over-protective, natural horse-keeping, essential oil wielding chaperone.  I chose to travel with the horses to ease their journey in any way I could, to protect them from being treated like just another pallet of cargo; and to share this experience with them, a sort of penance for what we were putting them through. 

Flying horses

The transport business doesn’t see living beings, just objects in transit – as anyone who has flown on a low-cost airline will agree. To me each horse is a special individual whose needs and comforts must be considered. Explain that to the man on the forklift as he screeches and crashes and jerks along with my frightened horses in a container… I think he got the point in the end, or maybe he was just terrified by the mad-eyed woman yelling at him!

We flew from Tel Aviv to Brussels on a Monday evening. In Brussels we were met the horse transporter – and my horse from England. Three days previously the transport guys had whisked him out of the grassy, Cotswold field, where he had lived a quiet life of semi-retirement for the last five years, loaded on a horse transporter for the 3rd time in his life, and ‘poof’, his old life was gone. The only uplifting moment for me on the whole journey was when I called his name from outside the lorry (I wasn’t allowed on) and saw his ears rotating keenly, trying to find my voice. I hadn’t seen him for over a year. 

Onward!

I had chosen this transport company, despite them being the most expensive, because they had promised we could decide on arrival in Brussels if my Israeli horses were fit to travel further, or if it would be better to rest close to the airport and continue the next day. Sucker! It immediately became clear that the well-being of the animals was less important than the well-being of the owner’s bank balance. After a useless, tearful tantrum outside the customs terminal we loaded up my tired and accepting horses, so brave and trusting, and set off into the night. Me and my friend Zena, who had also met us in Brussels, in a rental car.  

We drove till mid afternoon, overnighting somewhere in rural France, set off before dawn, drove through the day, overnighted in rural Spain, started out again at 4 a.m., and arrived at the quinta by mid-morning. As I said, exhausted and dislocated, despite the cheerful reception from the rest of the crew (my partner Prasado, and Bill, Gali and Yulie, who own the quinta and four of the horses), who had arrived the day before.

Arrival

Still, we had arrived. The hardest thing I had ever done was already starting to fade away into memory, like childbirth, as I walked beside my beloved horse and led the herd down the dusty track towards their new life.

At the top of the hill, just as we passed the boundary to the quinta, we paused and surveyed the view, my first view of our new home: the Serra da Estrela mountains to our left; tree dotted hills sinking and rising around us; the track before us heading on down the hill between aromatic pine, eucalyptus, lavender, cistus and rosemary – an aromatherapists shopping cart. A deep breath, an inner smile, we are home.

But that was just the beginning…..
Natural horses share companionship with woman

Where are we today?

Five months later, I sit here on the hilltop as the herd munches happily all around me and it is good. The horses are relaxed, healthy, well-fed, the herd dynamic is ‘right’, no-one lives in fear. But gosh, it’s been a journey to get here. For me it has been fascinating, stressful, joyous and educational as I watch this group of horses, each one with his/her own history (and baggage), form a coherent herd living an ‘as natural’ lifestyle – with a little help from the human herd.

The horses have adapted to their new environment, we humans have figured out how to provide them with enough food and shelter, nursed them through maggot attacks and lameness, slowly allowed them to roam more freely over the sort of landscape that most people would consider unsuitable for horses. And we are thriving. So many stories, so many lessons, I will share them with you in other blogs, alongside our continuing adventure. But in honour of the 5 monthiversary here are:

Five heartfelt memories!

1. Going down to the belly of the cargo plane, where the horses stood 3 to a crate, stacks of boxes piled all around, whickering at me as I step in to check how they are. Such a contrast, their quiet kindness against the harsh metal and hellish noise.

2. The horses have shown such trust throughout this whole process, from the days of preparing for the journey, through those 4 long days on the road, and the times of uncertainty, as we tried to provide the feed and shelter they needed in a land we knew nothing of. The trust has never wavered, only grown as we continue to Explore Horse and expand our horizons.


3. The way O-sensei, the English horse, picked up with Prasado and I as if we had never been apart, even after 5 years of not living together. We were his herd in those first hard days when the other horses chased him and refused all his polite and gentle overtures, he would have moved into our tent if the deck would have held him!


4. Those first days of freedom, when we cautiously opened the fences and I escorted the horses around the property to see how they handled the steep hillsides, strewn with deadfall and forestry litter, such pleasure to explore their new world together.


5. Today, not quite a memory yet, but a significant moment, they all stand in the shelter munching hay, having chosen to rush home from the oak valley when the rain started to pour, and I know I have listened to them as faithfully as I can and am providing the best of both worlds, domestic comforts and natural needs and the freedom to choose what they prefer.


So, here at Quinta Regadas do Seco life is good and I would love to share our beautiful space with you. I invite anyone who would like to learn about horses in a natural environment to come to one of our workshops. You will learn about natural horse care, how you can be your horse’s most trusted friend and refine your horsemanship skills on many levels. For more details on workshops and what you will learn go to the Exploring Horse Camp page here, or for dates and to reserve your place go to the Essential Animals website, or leave a comment here and I will answer any questions you have

.Natural horses eat all the time

The herd today, calm and connected, eating together at the top of the hill