Since creating my one-woman show, Rhiannon Unbridled, I’ve been thinking a lot about women and horses. Why is it that so many girls get wildly enthusiastic about ponies at a certain age? What is the connection between the way we control horses with bridle and bit, and the way men have sometimes tried to control women’s voices – witness the ‘scold’s bridle’ I speak of in my show? What, if anything, do women and horses have in common? And what can horses teach us about being women?
These are big questions, and I am only just beginning to feel towards them. I’m at that stage where I am sometimes finding a piece of puzzle, and wondering what the bigger picture might eventually look like. But I’m going to try. Let me start by telling a story about me and a horse called Harry. This is what happened when I worked with Dawn Oakley Wood and Anna Saqqara Price with Dawn’s small herd of horses near Stroud, for a three-hour session last summer.
I am sitting bareback on Harry. I feel a little vertigo – the world doesn’t feel very stable up here – and although I love horses, I’m frightened. I’m invited to lean forward over his neck. As soon as I do this, I start crying, sobbing uncontrollably. It’s a release I didn’t know I needed. (I learn afterwards that Harry yawned and moved his jaw a lot while I cried, which is a horse’s way of releasing feelings. He was doing this to help me, processing my feelings with and for me.)
My emotion has to do with the work we’ve just done in the field. I have identified Harry as the horse in the herd I feel drawn towards. And yet, each time I move towards him, he moves away. Over and over, he keeps his distance, but stays in contact with me, in a distant dance. With the help of the facilitator’s sensitive questioning, this becomes a profound revelation about my relationship with my father, who died when I was a baby. I am upset because I want him to be there, up close and touchable. He isn’t, and yet he is there for me, in contact with me, in communication, although distant. Somehow, in a very short space of time, this horse, and this woman, who knows nothing about me and my history, have just channelled a piece of important spiritual information for me. I can’t explain how it works, but I was very moved.
It was also grief for my friend, who was very sick with cancer at this point last year, and who died weeks later. If I hadn’t had this experience, leaning over a horse’s neck and weeping, I would probably not have been able to manage my own grief sufficiently to be of help to others when she died. As it was, when the time came, I felt able to hold space for friends who were grieving, and to find sufficient poise to speak, drum and sing at her funeral.
Next, I was invited to lean back, with my back and head on the horse’s rump. This was the scariest position. I felt I might fall at any point. But I began to predict when Harry might shift his weight from leg to leg, and micro-adjust my balance accordingly. Through this process I think we found each other’s rhythm and tuned in. Finally, I was guided to turn over, into a position facing Harry’s tail with my chest over his rump. A deep feeling of calm came over me as I felt Harry’s utter stillness and his deep horse breaths rising and falling between my thighs. I began to go into a flow state, like in a shamanic drum journey. I was flying on a hawk, or a dragon, and I heard an inner voice saying, “You can fly! It is safe! You won’t fall!”
When it was finished, I was helped down, and stood in stillness next to Harry, in exquisite intimacy. I was so grateful to him, so moved by his generosity, his deep presence. It was like the sensitivity that sometimes comes with making love: that attunement to another’s being, the meeting of souls perhaps. Something like that.
Let’s just pause here, because I think we’ve stumbled on a puzzle piece: isn’t the connection between girls / women and riding horses obvious? They feel good between the thighs; it’s a sexual thing, right? Well yes, but that, like so much that is said about sex in our culture, is missing the point. What if the physical sensation wasn’t considered base, but actually seen as a gateway to the divine? What if the body – the animal part of the human – was actually honoured as the source of goodness rather than feared as the source of all evil? OK, big topic there, let’s just place that puzzle piece somewhere nearby and think about it.
The facilitators pointed out several other horses who had been ‘holding space’ for me. They had stood still and tuned in while the session was taking place. These horses live in a small herd in a natural state and are used to helping humans. What exquisitely sensitive, spiritually advanced beings they are! Imagine the folly of trying to exert dominance over a creature like that – ‘breaking them’. It beggars belief.
Sitting afterwards and discussing the session with my facilitators, I still felt a huge amount of sensation in my inner thighs, where the horse had been. It was a feeling of power – deep, calm, strong – that radiated out from my base, and a feeling of safety in my core. Not safety because there is no danger, but safety in the midst of instability. I had arrived full of emotion, in the storm of feelings of grief and fear of loss. Now I felt peace, awe, and a sense of the numinous. I was, just as the card I had picked at the start of the session, at peace ‘in the eye of the storm’.
As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m an emotional person, ‘close to the water’ as they say in the German idiom. How useful would it have been if I’d been taught to respect and listen to my emotions as sources of information? Not to ignore them, and not to be overwhelmed by them, but to use the information they bring. This is what horses do – they, like other prey animals, must be alert to what’s happening in the environment, to avoid predators. This includes sensing what each other are alert to. When relaxed and feeding, they are so tuned into the ‘field’ of the herd, that if one of them hears a sound, or notices a vibration through their hooves, they all stop and look up, assessing the danger as a group. Then, having dealt with the danger, or decided there is none, they go back to grazing.
In order to notice our subtle emotions, we have to be alive in the body. In our ‘sit down and listen’ school system, we educate ourselves out of so much of this ability. We become over-functional brains, detached from hearts and gut-feelings. Not to mention sex organs. We are missing so much. And what becomes unconscious comes back to bite us.
So, horses can teach us about emotional release. They can teach us about telepathy and group mind. They can teach about flow states, leading to spiritual insights, experienced in a deeply embodied way. I say ‘can’ because only a horse being treated as an equal by a human can do this. A horse that’s overpowered and dominated will not be able to teach anything.
Being a particularly sensitive woman, I have needed to learn how to manage myself – my sensory experiences, my sexuality, my emotional life, my intuitions, my inner world – rather as I imagine people manage horses. Domination is possible, but it doesn’t end well. Instead, beginning from a position of respect, I can – sometimes – bring myself into a balance, where my mind can function in harmony with other parts of my intelligence. When I manage this, all kinds of creativity can result. Here is another puzzle piece. My eyes lit up when I read this passage in the Introduction to Linda Kohanov’s (highly recommended) book The Tao of Equus.
“Horses relate to the world from a feminine or ‘yin’ perspective. As a result, the species is a living example of the success and effectiveness of feminine values, including cooperation over competition, responsiveness over strategy, emotion and intuition over logic, process over goal, and the creative approach to life that these qualities engender.”
She also, of course, refers to the “thousands of years of masculine domination and the accompanying tendencies to emphasize thought over emotion, logic over intuition, territory over relationship, goal over process, and force over collaboration.”
Poor horses: powerful, emotionally literate, intuitive creatures forced to do the bidding of humans, their intelligence ignored, misunderstood, not acknowledged. Poor women: powerful, emotionally literate, intuitive creatures forced historically to do the bidding of men, their intelligence likewise ignored, misunderstood, not acknowledged. And poor humans, poor men, missing out on so much useful information, consciousness, collaboration and creativity as a result.
There is so much here to learn and puzzle over. Which is why I am so delighted that Anna Saqqara Price has agreed to join me for a weekend of putting together Rhiannon’s story with explorations with her ‘healing herd’ of horses in Glastonbury. If you are curious to experience more horse, and see what it might do for you in terms of understanding your own nature, and a more authentic way of being in the world, perhaps you would like to join us?
Unbridled Women and the Healing Herd is on Friday 9th June – Sun 11th June in Glastonbury (non residential). For more details and booking, please see Eventbrite.