I stand in the centre of a circle. My feet move a little; more of a pivot than a step. I am a slow motion dervish realizing mid-whirl that I am in prayer. Instead of a white robe whirling around me, a rope extends from my right hand, a long-lashed whip from my left. The rope is attached to a bit which is in the mouth of a horse that circles around me at an equal distance. His long strides swallow the ground as he trots one circle after another. In contrast to him, I barely move at all. The more still I can remember to keep my steps, the more potent my gestures can be. I whistle to the horse and he slows.
‘Ahhhh, good.” I tell him. This dance is half command and half praise, half assertiveness and half gratitude, half authority, half awe. And then- “Are you ready?” I pause in my own small steps; gathering momentum to- “C-an-ter!” I tell the gelding. “C-an-ter!” He ignores me. I snap the whip. Ask again. Nothing. I bring his running trot back into balance and then ask again: “Are you ready?… C-AN-TER!”
(“What’s the name of your ex-boyfriend?” Rupert asks from the porch. “Think of him and ask again.” And for some reason it works: The horse canters. Vestigial anger finding its way into my voice. Or else poise. Rootedness. Confidence.)

But that’s enough poetics. What is actually going on here is I am- we are, all of us, each and every day- putting the horses through a routine of equine yoga, strengthening their back and neck and butt muscles (what horse people refer to as a ‘top line’) so that they can carry a rider in balance, with the hindquarters taking their share of the weight. This frees the horse to be more mobile, more athletic and more expressive, not to mention sounder longer. Like an athlete going to the gym, this strengthening work is ongoing throughout their careers. Also, because many of the horses here are used for backriding (riding double with an autistic child in front of the saddle) and we can’t always help them as much as we’d like when our attention is on the precious cargo of someone else’s child- the lunging also repairs any damage that extra stain may have caused. Whenever a horse backrides, it gets lunged first to warm up and stretch its back, then again after to put the muscle back on. Horses are natural athletes, and will put on or loose muscle twice as fast as a human, so each and every session really does count. Like yoga instructors, we use an arsenal of straps and bits of tack to help us make the horse go in a certain way so he develops muscle where it will be most beneficial to him in helping him carry a rider. My first few days here were a bewilderment of leather straps and tack- a tangle I sought to sort out and tame by drawing each new piece and explaining its uses in my notebook. (The first few days I walked around too much and kept forgetting to be a fixed point around which the horse could spin. All of the dervishes spun into themselves and fell over until Brittney saved me by getting me a hula hoop to stand in. Suddenly I had no where to go if I was unable to step out of my little magic circle. My feet learned. Soon I could pivot neat little circles into the sand just like everyone else without running for my hula-hoop crutch.)
Lunging Equipment
At the same time as we’re making all these horses run around in circles, we’re also taking turns sitting on them to work on our seats. ‘The seat’ is basically the coupling point where your body comes into contact with the horse’s body- namely, your seat bones and your pelvis. Before you can really cue a horse effectively and with any sensitivity, the seat must be able to follow the movement of the horses’s back softly at all gaits. Softly, and at the same time independently: You want to be able to sit certain ways at certain times in order to influence the horse to move in a certain way. This is how fine riding appears invisible- it’s all done through subtle weight aids and cues that appear imperceptible. But to the horse they are an entire felt language. So maybe what we are doing here in with all of this ‘education of the seat’ is taking our bodies to school to learn a new language. A language that involves opening when every reflex says CLOSE!, that stays soft when every instinct shouts ‘TENSE UP! HOLD ON! YOU’RE GOING TO FALL!’ So we take turns trotting around in circles with no reins and no stirrups, not having to worry about where or how the horse is going (Because the person lunging controls all that) and take the time to breathe down into those tight hip joints, and play with some imagery of being trees with long roots dragging on the ground, or stubby amputees with no legs at all, letting the bones of our pelvis trust their own balance. We sit on each horse for 5 minutes and then switch, take up the lunge rope again or stand at the edge of the ring and gently bring a rider’s attention to her hips or her elbows or the tilt of her body when needed. But mostly this is a feeling exercise, a moving meditation, where nothing but time and repetition and sometimes the right combination of imagery can speed the process. While we work on our seats, the horses build muscle, and so we have this very efficient and symbiotic process, in which all things feed back into the whole.

So this is the bedrock. The completely unglamorous wizard-behind-the-curtain backstage glimpse at how you make kids talk by putting them on the back of the horse. This is the hours and hours of work and love, day in and day out, that lets this place transform the lives of families. This is the soil that feeds the work. And it’s funny, all of these circles. I imagine flying a plane over our ring at the end of the day, before the harrow wipes our tracks away. What you would see would be three perfectly spaced hoof-print and boot print circles, with the hooves circling the centre point made of human feet; a triptych of sand mandalas like the ones monks slave over for days and then destroy as a tribute to the ephemeral nature of beauty. I can think of worse things to be doing. This is the work that sweeps the floor of the monastery. That rolls the carpet out for what comes next.

About Kera Willis

Kera Willis is a writer, nomad and deep environmentalist who (as teacher/facilitator at Mountain Horse School in Pemberton BC, Canada) continues to share essays, bouts of myth making, and articles about the human equine relationship, rewilding our connection to the land, and the gifts of autism.
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