24 May 2013

“Walk on!” Transforming lives through horses one step at a time

I took a day off from law last week to visit a British NGO called Circles Network. You can read about their person-centred planning on my previous OliverTalks post here. Circles Network leave labels behind, ignore impairments and discard deficits. Out in the Warwickshire countryside, non-human animals help humans learn about themselves and others. Listening happens but words need not be spoken. The extraordinary is rendered quite ordinary.

Circles Network participants are working with a Shetland pony


Taking the Reins

Circles Network’s most innovative programme is Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) which they deliver through an initiative called Taking the Reins (see what it’s like here). Team leader Rhianne is trained in EFL and led me into the paddock where I met some of the horses whom I was sure were having a giggle at me in my black city shoes walking round their muddy field wearing a hard hat.  

Rhianne introduced me to Mark, who works two days a week at Circles Network (Watch this brilliant video of Mark launched on World Down Syndrome Day 2013 to recognise his contribution to Circles Network). Mark helps out, tending to the ten horses, which range from two miniature Shetland ponies (barely bigger than Hudson the chocolate Labrador) to a gentle giant 15-year old horse called Reef. I watched as Mark had a ten-minute EFL session. “Walk on!” he said, encouraging Reef to get moving in the round pen.

Reef and Mark

Then it was my turn. Rhianne told me to approach Reef from his front so he could see me. I had to get to know him – talk to him, stroke his enormous chestnut-coloured neck, let him sniff me and figure me out. I looked into his huge eyes and didn’t quite know what to do. “What can you see?” I asked Reef quietly, in the same way I sometimes ask my dog a question fully expecting him to reply.  

“What do you think Reef is feeling?” asked Rhianne. I have never before thought about what a horse is feeling. “I don’t know”, I replied, “He looks quite calm, perhaps interested in who I am, perhaps a bit apprehensive? I don’t know!”

Rhianne explained that horses are pack animals and if you watch them in the wild they use their bodies and make sounds to communicate to other horses – from a simple “neigh” to that fluffa-luppa-luppa noise which they make with their expressive nostrils. Horses act as a living mirror, so that if you are nervous they will also be nervous. Rhianne then asked me which way I want Reef to walk: clockwise in the round pen or anticlockwise. I chose clockwise. Having just watched Mark do this, I knew I had to project my energy towards the horse’s rear end to make him move forward. So I put my arms out and remembered what Mark’s words: “Walk on!” I shouted at Reef, staring intensively at his handsome posterior.

Me and Reef

Reef started walking. He went round the circle a couple of times, and Rhianne asked me how I think he could go faster. I didn’t really know. “Show him you are confident, make yourself bigger!” she encouraged me. How do I make myself bigger when I already had my arms out? I didn’t know what to do so I put my shoulders back.

Immediately Reef started trotting. I actually thought someone else had told him to do that: I felt like watching a magician perform a trick and wanting to know how to do the trick. But there was no trick. Reef really was responding to me poking my chest out a little more. The word remarkable doesn’t do justice to this little transaction. I could sense that Reef was reacting to the energy I was directing over to him, so I zoomed my energy towards his head, and he stopped. I approached him and congratulated him and patted his nose. Adaboy! He lowered his head to mine so our eyes were at the same level.

I’ve only ever interacted with horses when I have been riding them, which is all about unilateral control and discipline. Being aside a horse and communicating with him is a completely different feeling for me (and presumably for the horse too).

Next, Rhianne told me to make Reef follow me. Horses are not like dogs. You can’t stare into their faces and shout COME HERE, ROVER! If I had said this while standing in front of him, my energy would have blasted into his face and he would have stayed standing or perhaps walked backwards. Rhianne told me to re-connect with Reef, then holding my energy within myself turn around and project it forward and walk away. I did this without looking back. “He’s following you!” shouted Mandy, the CEO of Circles Network. Halfway around the paddock I saw Reef’s giant head bobbing up and down right next to me. I continued to walk for a minute or so, and then stopped. Reef stopped beside me. “Fluffa-luppa-luppa” said Reef quietly. “You clever boy, Reef”, I whispered back.


Transformations every day

The children and young people at Circles Network are called participants – not clients or users. They learn about personal development, communication, respect, trust and relationships through the ways of the horse.  Taking the Reins encourages children who often have low self-esteem and self-confidence to, well, take the reins of their own life by achieving results and enjoying their time while working with an animal.

Mandy told me about a participant she had helped recently:

I worked with a seven year old boy who I will call Jack. This little chap already carries a few labels, with ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – being one. His energy levels are so exuberantly high that he is at constant risk of being excluded from school and other groups. We got straight to work with his choice of pony, Feorog, who, interestingly matches Jack’s enthusiasm for life and simply loves to run and jump and be as fully into the moment as he can be. We were having a lot of fun running around and over an obstacle course when at one point Jack decided he would like to stop and groom his pony. We collected everything we needed and tied the little horse still. Jack remembered from a previous session how to groom properly. As he continued to brush and stroke I asked him how he felt. "I feel calm, all the way down to my tummy" was his sweet reply.

Hmmm, ADHD I reflected to myself, it must stand for A Dedicated Horse Developer. We ended the session by taking the pony into the enchanted garden as Jack wanted to make a wish. I didn't hear what he asked for, though he shared his whispered and lengthy request quite happily with Feorog whose ears twitched responsively. Together they stood as he dropped a coloured-pebble into the wishing well. At the end of the session we met up with Jack’s Mum who instead of going off to read her book, had been watching, captivated by her son’s gentleness and studious concentration. She was almost in tears as she praised him for his fine work.

Moments like those happen in every session. Mandy has lost count of the number of times a kid labeled with autism who doesn’t speak has come to Taking the Reins, and said full sentences to horses during a session. Everyone seems to experience some level of transformation, if not immediately then soon after. “It’s impossible not to reflect on the process,” said Mandy, “this is matched by the horses who demonstrate it more obviously by licking and chewing!”

On the train back to London I reflected on my day and felt so sleepy. I closed my eyes... Walk on. Mark. Mandy. Rhianne. Reef. Change. Good luck. Fear. Does this hat fit? Trust. Warwickshire. Dirty shoes. Surprise. Love. Simplicity. Enchanted garden. Rain. “Please take all your belongings as you leave the train!” I woke up as the train pulled into London Euston station.

Having witnessed the extraordinary that day, I was back in the ordinary. Or perhaps the other way around.


Learn more about Circles Network

If you would like to find out more about Circles Network, please contact Mandy. If you want to donate to their incredible Taking the Reins initiative, you can do so here. You can learn more by taking one of the courses which they offer through their “Academy for Inspiring Inclusion”.