Emancipation. A large word for a horse, you might think. But, as an educated equine, I am allowed to take such liberties. And today, as I stepped out of the stable into the clean air, under the blue sky, this was the word that came to me. I have been emancipated.
It began some months ago, when she put down the whip. No longer will I use this implement to instruct you, my friend. Those words, and the way her shoulders relaxed and her eyes lowered to the ground ever so slightly, meant the world to me. A portion of her tension visibly evaporated, her breathing slowed, and never again did she pick up the whip.
The next implement to go was the bit. This second gesture of freedom was not attended by words, but rather by a meeting of our eyes. She had placed it in, as always. I had long grown accustomed to the metallic taste and the way the metal sat uncomfortably against my teeth. But after turning and taking two steps away, she sighed. I could see her whole body droop, even with her back turned. She turned back around to face me and looked me in my eyes. Wordlessly, almost reverentially, she reached up, undid the buckle and removed the bit from my mouth. Her eyes still looking deep into mine, she kissed my nose. The semi-gag was gone forever.
The stirrups were next. The reins. The crupper. The saddle. Eventually, before I had even adjusted to the way her bareback weight pushed differently against my spine, she told me she was no longer going to ride me. When she told me this, I was confused. I could sense two different emotions welling up inside her – she almost had two separate smells. One: sadness, tears, a loss. The second: calmness, joy, a weight lifted. Over time, only the latter feelings remained. She never climbed on top of me again. I welcomed this. Her instructions, her emotions were just as easy to read, if not easier, when she stood alongside me or in front of me. Our connection, I felt, was deeper.
And this is how it continued. A life led for me. Being valued for who I was, not for the riding services I could provide. Walked, spoken with, groomed, and scratched behind my ears. A friend of my owner would stop by, perhaps, and share a cup of tea leaning on the fence. I would stand close by as they talked, whinnying softly. Her friend was tense, sometimes, her voice rising and falling erratically. A tear would roll down her face and into her forgotten tea, and I would become slightly anxious about why her emotions were so heightened
But the conversation soon meandered to calmer tides, and I would rest my head on the fence and feel a light kiss upon my muzzle. And another, from her friend. Her tension had visibly lifted; her breathing seemed slower and, could it be? I even felt I could sense her heart beat that little less intensely. Perhaps it was just my imagination. A moment shared between the three of us. No saddle, no bridle, just three persons in a field as the breeze stirred the buttercups and the sun shone warmly on my withers.
I’m not sure when the yard became so busy. Perhaps it happened gradually, and I didn’t notice. I am in the riding school more frequently again now. Not to ride but to meet people. My owners friend once more, she of the forgotten cup of tea, as well as others. Ladies, men, teenagers. Some in wellies and some in boots, some in hoodies and some in suits. A few seem to behave towards me as if they have been around my kind for many years; others as though I were the first horse they have seen. Yet the one thing they have in common are their emotions. Or should I say, their inability to control them.
Eyes that dart from here to there and footsteps towards me that falter, turn, begin again, retreat. Almost as if they were a predator. Often there is the smell of sweat or of tears. It leaves me wondering: what is there to be afraid of? Is there something I am missing, something I should be concerned about? A clenched hand here, a tightened jaw there. Sometimes it seems as though my owner cannot see these cues, yet how so? They are so obvious – all you have to do is observe. Anger and sadness, frustration and relief, happiness and fear – almost daily these emotions have played out in the faces, bodies, smells and voices of those who have shared my space. This has only been for a week, so perhaps things will soon calm.
My owner has taken down her riding certificate on the yard door and in its place sits a new one: Equine Assisted Learning. Mostly I meet people in the school, but more and more they will come into the field with me and the other horses. I don’t mind so much when they are in the field because, if the way these people are feeling and behaving worries me, I can move further away. Often, as in the school, they will follow me. Other times they will leave me alone and continue to another horse. In the school there is limited space to remove myself from their sounds, their smells, their emotions.
The same words keep cropping up in conversation. Journey, life skills, empathy, connection, emotions, healing, natural, animal bond, self-awareness, teacher, facilitator, friend. I’m not sure what they all mean – I wonder if any of them are being applied to me? I’ve noticed that some people are coming weekly, now. Others come just once. Some don’t seem to want to leave, others don’t always want to approach.
Some have been children who scared me when they approached too fast, another was a man who couldn’t stop crying. My owner, of course, reassures me every day – scratching behind my ears, grooming me, using kind and gentle words as before. Coupled with the heightened emotions of the others, however, can mean it is often confusing. I’m not asking to be ridden again, you understand. It’s just that the messages before were… I don’t know… clearer? Three or four people in a day with such differing behaviours, smells, breathing patterns, voices, feelings, speeds can be… daunting.
My owner has bought me a nice new rug, however. She gets paid by each of these people who come to talk.
Don’t get me wrong. I get a day off. There is a day that my owner is with me in my stable, in the field, leading me down the bridle paths. I followed her around yesterday as she fixed some broken fencing. Sometimes I think she, too, feels the burden of the emotions of others. Some days, after someone particularly passionate has visited, she seems pre-occupied, almost worried. At times like these she becomes more difficult to read. She tells me we are both empaths. I know this to be true and I believe this is how she earns her money. Maybe, now riding is a thing of the past, it is how I earn my keep?
They don’t just talk to me, these people. Sometimes they groom me, other times they lead me around. I walk with them along a ‘life journey course’ they build from poles, cones and random objects. I stand as they stroke my back, yet they are blindfolded and ‘exploring their senses’. I watch them place coloured cloth, or words, or pictures around the school and talk about their feelings, aspirations and insecurities. I am referred to as a guide, a companion, a symbiont, a metaphor, a healer, a teacher, an empath… I thought I was a horse.
Five times I have ‘worked’ alongside a group of people. I heard two groups referred to as ‘family sessions’, one called a ‘college group’, another a ‘mindfulness session’, yet another ‘team building’. These days are trying. The other horses and I find it difficult to locate where certain smells, voices and movements are coming from in the cacophony of emotions that fill the field. Some members can be forthcoming, others hang back. Some argue with each other; others ignore my owner and chat amongst themselves. Others beckon me over with their posture, whilst making noises I have been taught mean ‘move away’.
There have also been ‘sessions’ with individuals, but my owner and I were watched by people along the fence line, or from the balcony alongside the school. Some have clipboards, others have cameras. My owner seemed filled with expectation and apprehension; although I could see she tried to hide it from the crowds. This time, when I walked away, she and her friend followed and she seemed desperate for me to make some sort of connection with them. The onlookers watched expectantly.
I am tired today. More people. More emotions. I feel them go away happier, fulfilled. They pay. I am given a pat, a scratch, sometimes a treat. Always kind words. “Can you describe the relationship between owner and horse?” Asked a lecturer today, to the group of spectating university students. “Mother and daughter” said one. “Two best friends” said another. “Facilitator and teacher”, said a third. Yet one quiet girl at the back looked at us quizzically. Only I heard her whisper… “Pimp and prostitute?”