"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."
Mr Churchill was so right! I have had many profound experiences with horses—and one of the most amazing and unforgettable was a trip I took along South Africa’s southern Wild Coast with a friend from Wales.
We flew from Cape Town to the small coastal city of East London, and spent our first two days at the Endalweni Private Game Reserve. There, we rode for about three hours every day, watching game. This helped to get our riding muscles in shape for the epic 27 km trip across the Pont over the Kei River to Wavecrest Hotel. [The Pont is a large wooden structure that take cars, horses etc across the big Kei River (see photo)].
My friend was not an experienced rider. Fortunately, she was allotted a wonderful 18-year old mare, Starlight. On beach canters and over rough terrain like rivers and steep banks, this mare pretty much did her own thing. My Welsh friend kept her cool admirably and survived all the ups and downs with great success; she managed to stay on Starlight without falling off once!
I am an experienced rider with a jumping background, so I was given a super-fast gelding called Asante. This beautiful white horse was an ideal mount for me. He and I had some awesome, thrilling canters on the long stretches of white beach we traversed on our journey.
We spent one night at the lovely Wavecrest Hotel before saddling up our mounts again. The wind was so strong that day, it was whipping up sand storms on the beaches. So on our way back to the Kei River we had to head inland, making the return trip a few kilometres longer. This new route involved some arduous climbs and downhills on very rough terrain.
When we finally arrived back at Morgan Bay after this long and taxing trip, I raised a glass of champagne to my Welsh friend’s courage, the expertise of our two horses, and our excellent guides. It had been one of the most special and memorable holidays I have ever had. It’s hard to imagine anything I’d rather do than be outdoors for four days on such a great horse!
In June 2012, I took a sabbatical from my university lectureship in Cape Town and headed for England. There, I had the privilege of seeing the amazing movie Buck in Ludlow. This 2011 documentary follows the life of Buck Brannaman, a 49-year-old American cowboy who was technical advisor for Robert Redford’s 1998 blockbuster The Horse Whisperer. Buck won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. The Los Angeles Times called the movie “extraordinary ... an exceptional slice of Americana about the kind of unsung hero that America loves to love”.
I liked the “unsung hero” aspect, but what really spoke to me was how Buck worked with the healing power of horses. I felt a thrill of recognition when he said, “Your horse is a mirror of your soul. Sometimes you would not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Two articles in Kindred Spirit last year addressed the healing power of horses. One of them echoed Buck Brannaman’s approach: the horse mirrors the owner’s feelings, so anyone wanting to master a horse should first master themselves.
In my work as a part-time behavioural kinesiologist, I help clients on their journeys of self-discovery. So I found especially compelling those scenes where Buck told the owner of a misbehaving animal, ”This horse tells me quite a lot about you”—a remark that would often reduce the owner to tears. Little wonder, then, that Buck says, “I am helping horses with people problems”!
It seems that horses were an important part of Buck’s own healing path. Another uplifting aspect of the movie was to see what a wonderful and peaceful man he has become, despite childhood abuse by a very angry and violent father.
Horses are such beautiful and intelligent beings! When I was a young rider in the Modern Pentathlon event for South Africa in the 1980s, they taught me some exceptional lessons.
One of many such lessons came about while I was training at the United States Olympic Centre for Modern Pentathlon in San Antonio, Texas. One morning I was given Flash Cadillac, a lovely chestnut horse with a flowing white mane. Flash Cadillac was very energetic—he just wanted to canter, and kept trying to run away with me. ”This horse doesn’t want to listen!” I thought. So I took him into a nearby paddock and tried to ride him to exhaustion. I think Flash Cadillac must have been laughing at my vain attempts to control him. For about half an hour we cantered, first to the left, then to the right—but of course, the horse was much stronger than I was. The next morning I was stiff as a rod. I literally had to roll my body out of bed for the running session on the golf course!
In our high-tech world, we are so used to controlling things instantly with the flip of a switch. Learning how to ride a horse can teach us (and especially children) invaluable lessons about relationships. Trying to dominate the horse simply doesn’t work, as Flash Cadillac taught me, and as Buck Brannaman kept having to tell his clients. The only way to get a horse to do what you want is to work with it, rather than getting into a power struggle with it. It was only in my forties, after a few workshops facilitated by the Breakthru Institute situated in Florida, USA, that I could relinquish my own controlling behaviour. I think the urge to control largely stems from a fear for the future; once one can trust the unknown, one can relax and just be.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn says the same thing about our intimate human relationships. Love is a process, he tells us; we should work to understand the other instead of trying to exert control. And to really understand another person, we have to establish genuine communication. (I was privileged to sit at the feet of this remarkable Zen monk in 2004 when I visited his retreat centre at Plum Village in Bordeaux.)
The bond between horse and human demonstrates a long and moving history of real communication. Buck puts it beautifully: “Everything you do with a horse is a dance”. Our centuries-old dance with horses is a genuine treasure and should be enjoyed for its richness.
I really hope that 2013 will bring the human race back to the now, as when one is on horseback. May it also bring us acceptance and greater compassion for each other. And may we also like what we see in our interaction with this magnificent animal i.e. may we love all aspects of ourselves and reflect a new light into a tumultuous world.
- Endalweni Private Game Reserve, East London, South Africa
- http://www.wildcoasthorsebackadventures.com or email Juliefirstname.lastname@example.org
- Buck, a movie produced by Julie Goldman: http://www.buckthefilm.com/goldman.htm
- Talk on Love by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn on 16th of May 2004, Plumvillage, Bordeaux, France.
Dr. Sibis Mouton is a practising behavioural kinesiologist, inspirational speaker and former world champion in the Ironman distance competition. She facilitates the ZEST4LIFE courses in Cape Town, South Africa; at Quest in Devon, England; and on Mahe Island in the Seychelles. For more information, visit www.zest4life.co.za or email email@example.com.