Sunday, November 15, 2009

Touching Encantara

Living with a family of atavistic horses in a wilderness setting provides me with amazing opportunities to experience a variety of non-traditional interactions. The wide open landscape here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, while an excellent environment for the development of natural herd dynamics, poses challenges, however, for human/horse relationships.

Because I do not separate the horses or keep them in small paddocks, my capacity to influence interactions with these semi-wild equines rests entirely with them. Ravenseyrie is under equine rulership. These horses hold the power--they determine whether or not I am allowed to groom them, play with them, train them, doctor them, etc.

I could change this, have thought about changing this, still may change this--stack the deck of cards a little more in my favor, if you will--by imposing restrictions, from time to time on the autonomy these horses experience. Rational, pragmatic voices certainly suggest I should...after all horses ought to be under our control, if only to allow us to provide them better care and training, all designed with their best interests in mind, or so the thinking goes. I can appreciate the merit of this--but, something strangely inexplicable holds me back from actually doing it myself (at least in the usual way things are done). Reasonable, sensible voices may be quite right in telling me if I am not willing to assert control over horses--for their own best interests--I have no business being with horses. I wouldn't dare argue with rational thinkers...

...but over the course of the next several journal entries, I will offer some examples of the purity of interactions which have emerged, providing a little insight into why I am reluctant to break this primal connection by introducing too many man-made restrictions on these horses just to make it possible for me to have more human-centered, traditional interactions . Perhaps there is something here that the universe itself desires me (us) to learn?

My most recent example involves Encantara. You might recall Encantara was Altamiro's firstborn for the year. Belina delivered this exquisite "zebro" filly on a chilly spring day in early May. Mother's Day to be exact.
Belina is an exceptionally protective mare, and would not allow any one except Altamiro to be within touching distance on the first day. She was the same way when her first filly, Fada, was born. This cautious reserve of Belina's is something her foals immediately took into their behavioral development. With Fada, it took four days before she reached out a tentative muzzle to touch me with and allowed me to touch her back.

To touch Encantara took a bit longer. Days went by, weeks passed. Spring became summer, Encantara lost her foal coat, engaged in long mutual grooming sessions with her herd mates, rubbed on trees, mingled confidently with every element of her environment--all the while curious enough to come near me, but not yet ready to bring herself to touch me or allow me to touch her. And oh!, how I longed to touch her!
I began to wonder if the price to pay for her striking primitive markings and ancestral morphology was a concomitant avoidance of anything that wasn't wild like her. It didn't seem to matter that her mother would come to me for itches, caresses and grooming, or that her younger brother, Silvestre would engage with me not just for itches, but mini-schooling sessions where he tested out the feeling of a makeshift leather halter and wore proudly my woolen shawl. Encantara wanted none of this...but I could see her eyes following me, always, and I had hope that one day she would willingly come to physically interact with me.

Weeks stretched themselves into months. Vegetation began dying back, biting-cold winds swept all the leaves from the trees and Encantara exchanged her summer sleekness for a thickly layered winter coat. She is now six months old.

Now that the grass isn't as delectable, Altamiro and his family band have discovered that if they come around near the house later in the day, us humans will hand feed compressed alfalfa cubes. Encantara quickly developed an appreciation for this nutritious treat and decided it was okay to take a thin sliver of these "cookies" from a human hand. After a week, she allowed me to softly cup her chin as she munched on her cookie. One day, I reached out to stroke her cheek and she moved away in alarm. But I tried it again the next day, and this time my touch on her cheek was accepted. And one day, I trailed from her cheek and laid my hand against her neck. She did not leave and I felt a little closer to heaven!

And so it began that when I would hike out the far fields, Encantara would walk right up to me, perhaps thinking I might have some of those alfalfa cookies. I don't carry cookies with me, and she soon discovered this, but began to poke around to make certain, nuzzling my basket of brushes, my pockets and my camera bag, my hat, the toe of my boot, the hem of my skirt. She found no cookies, but all that exploration seemed to really relax her and she allowed me to cup her chin and lay my hand on her neck briefly before shrinking away from my presence.

On Sunday, November the 8th, I was out among the family band, pulling burrs from Altamiro's tail, and also the mares'. Encantara was grazing, but keeping an eye on me. When I was mostly done with the others, I noticed she had now taken up a dozing position, I walked nearby her and stopped. She came right over and sniffed to see if I had any treats. Not finding any food reward on my person, she began once again to nuzzle my basket of brushes and camera bag while I gave her a little itch on the neck. Then I tentatively and carefully worked my way down to her chest. I was thrilled that not only did she not shrink away from this action, but she soon realized how good it felt to be itched there! A mental connection was made, and I could actually see it in her facial expression, like a sort of new sparkle in her eye and a softening of her nostrils.

For the first time, I was able to run my fingers over those zebra stripes on her lovely neck--the feeling was absolutely sublime. Let others brag on about how they have shaken the hand of royalty, or kissed the Pope's ring--those mean nothing to me and pale in comparison to touching the Enchantress herself, Encantara!

The next day, I was most interested to see how things would go...would Encantara seek me out again? Would she remember our connection and desire more touching, engage in more explorations of each other? I wondered even if perhaps Encantara might be asking these very same questions, hoping and wondering if I would come out and see her.

When I found the family band, Encantara was the first to come to me! Notice how soft her expression, how hopeful and trusting her body posture is as she approaches me in this photo. And as I caress her with my voice and hold the camera in one hand I am able to take a photo of my touching her with the other hand. The effort was noisy, clumsy, peculiar...but she stayed with me, no longer distrustful, no longer suspicious...A friendship was born!

It was my day off, and so I was able to hang out for several hours among the family band, grooming, composing paintings and poetry of them in my head and otherwise "dawdling" away a fine morning. Throughout this time, Encantara would go off with the others to graze, but frequently came back to spend time with me. Like new lovers, we couldn't seem to get enough of each other! What a high I was on...did she feel the same way, too?

No doubt if I had placed Encantara and Belina in a smaller paddock or a box stall I would have been able to establish a physical connection with this ultra-shy filly in far less time than six months. Taking away a horse's option of leaving our presence if they are uncomfortable, gently cornering them, desensitizing them to our touch, etc. has been the way many horses come to accept the ministrations of humans. While imposing ourselves upon horses like that sometimes intensifies their distrust of humans, most of the time they "give in" and in doing so (if among kind people) find that there are some pleasures to be had by allowing us to touch them. I do not consider this means of gaining a foal's trust and acceptance inappropriate, and if done empathetically its an excellent way to help a young horse learn to accept so many things in the world humans have designed. For myself, even though it is much more challenging (and certain potentials are vastly limited) this wilderness approach is presently the only acceptable way of developing relationships with our horses here at Ravenseyrie.

As mentioned earlier, I'm planning to devote a string of journal entries to experiences I've had that have arisen within this wilderness setting where the horses rule the land and I am a guest in their territory. What I am discovering is that there is some kind of primal connection between us that at times makes the step by step training methods seem utterly unnecessary. What I am calling the "primal connection", Imke Spilker refers to as the "inner language". Carolyn Resnick has named it the "magnetic heart connection". Other terms attempting to describe this phenomenon are, "heart entrainment", "resonance", "gnosis", "universal logos", etc.

To close today's entry, I'll share another recent experience with Encatara which demonstrates this peculiar, magnificent, cross-species understanding that stands apart from the means of communication that must first be trained into each of us. This experience had no training, it simply emerged, effortlessly with complete, mutual understanding.

During a recent visit with Encantara, just a few days after our big "breakthrough" in physical touching, Silvestre joined our group of two and in no time it all the "three's a crowd" expression became obvious as I simply could not keep focused attention on two inquisitive foals, each pressing their rumps into me for itches. I cooed them my apologies and turned to leave. Of course they followed and I had to shoo them back to their mothers.

When I was about seventy feet away, I turned back for one last look at these beautiful semi-wild Sorraia horses. Encantara had positioned herself next to a Cedar tree and was rubbing her rump against it, all the while looking intently at me. I mentally "threw out" the idea to her that if she wanted to come over to me I would definitely itch her bum for her and do a far better job than the tree could. Then I motioned with my hand for her to come.

She immediately left the tree, walked by all the others and came and stood in perfect position to receive the promised rump itch.

Such is the potency of the "inner language" and the untainted quality of the primal connection.


Kris McCormack said...

Perhaps Encantara's opening up to human touch is a factor of age. 6 months is the age at which many traditional breeders wean their foals, taking them away from their mothers and putting them with other youngsters their own age. Perhaps it is an independence milestone in a horse's development. Of course there will always be great variance in individual levels of curiosity, courage, and maturity.. It will be interesting to see if Segura opens up as she hits the half-year mark...

Lynne Gerard said...

Kris, you'll be interested to learn that once Segura saw how much Encantara now likes me, she has suddenly taken an interest in me herself! She will come up to me and nuzzle me briefly, and let me softly touch her there, but isn't ready for any real laying on of hands yet. I'll keep you posted!
(Segura was born August 21.)