“Hi,” I hear from below. Looking down, I meet the young girl’s penetrating smiling eyes, she doesn’t move or look away.
“My name is Oriane,” I say. “What’s yours?”
“Samu,” she says, with a grin.
“May I ask how old you are?” I say, making the usual inquiries of someone you’ve just met.
“Twenty,” she says.
I climb down from the bleachers to sit on the ground beside her and ask if I may fan the flies away from her face. Samu can’t move her body voluntarily at all.
“Who is your favourite horse?” I ask.
“Pink Lady,” she says with a dreamy look.
“Samu, are you ready for your ride!” Evans Dzimati, the most enthusiastic of the horse handlers kneels down beside Samu, and with two others, lifts her horizontally onto the back of Pink Lady, the steadiest of all the therapy horses. All the while, community volunteers tend to the rest of the children who wait their turn, or recover, giddy and tired, from their ride. Later, I hear from Samu the story of her initial fear, which eventually gave way to absolute joy in the sensation of movement and freedom as she lies on the horse.
Some days the van brings able-bodied kids from the nearby orphanage and crisis centre, and they are all learning to ride with pride. I marvel at the six-year-olds, and the sixteen-year-olds, following one another in beautiful rising trots and balanced canters around the perimeter of the riding arena.
Then, in March this year I was led, by a serendipitous sequence of events, to a farm near the town of Bulawayo. Jill Burgess and Aileen Johnstone founded the “Healing-With-Horses-Zimbabwe” charitable trust on Jill’s farm in 2013, alongside their existing equestrian coaching and riding school. Forty-five horses, many rescued, live together on the farmland with six horsemen and their young families along with myriad goats, donkeys, geese, chickens, and four friendly dogs.
Healing-With-Horses relies entirely on donations from business and the community——the riding therapy and lesson programs are offered free of charge for the children. Therapeutic riding for people with injury or chronic pain is also given, gratis. The equestrian students do pay for lessons and coaching, but a very modest amount by Canadian standards. And by the way, I notice they don’t seem stressed or overly competitive, but simply participate for the love of the sport and relationship with their horses.
The new internship/volunteer program is for people like me——and you——who want to experience Africa in an economical and deeply meaningful way, behind-the-scenes. This is an unparalleled opportunity to learn something new and to contribute what we each know best. Our dream is that our program fees, two people at a time, become the bread-and-butter revenue that supports the continuing offerings of Healing-With-Horses-Zimbabwe.
As soon as I arrived, Jill and Aileen were curious and enthusiastic about Equine Guided Learning, wanted a hands-on introduction themselves and then began inviting their students, parents, volunteers, counselors and advisors to book individual sessions. A tree-bordered large grassy paddock became the meeting space.
Seventeen-year-old Rachel had been a leading show jumper, coached by Jill and Aileen, with aspirations to the national equestrian team and even the Olympics. But a series of health challenges means she’s not able to risk riding for the forseeable future. Her parents are deeply concerned about her despondency and withdrawal from life. Yet, she agrees to meet me in the field with her favourite horse, Moonlight, even though Rachel hasn’t been to the farm in months.
We start with the (familiar to us, dear readers) body scan: feet stable on the earth, focus our attention down the body from head to ground. Then awareness of sounds, smell, air temperature, breeze, and finally soft-gaze focus on the landscape——and always, breathing. We stand and look softly at her horse, who is grazing in the middle of the field.
“Now you know what it’s like to be a horse,” I suggest to Rachel. “Feel your hoofs on the earth, what do you notice?”
“Oh, my gosh, they’re tingling … all the way up my legs! My hands too, and my arms!”
I motion for us to sit down on the ground, close to the earth is my intention.
“Oh, my gosh, I feel a kind of pulsing!” Rachel says quietly excited. “What is that?”
“That’s the energy of the earth you’re tuning in to,” I say. “Everything on earth emanates energy.”
I tell her about a best-selling book called The Hidden Life of Trees. She tells me how much she loves her family’s camp in the wilderness, where she can be by herself in nature.
“I’ve felt nothing for so long and given up on horses. It was too sad to come to the stables and not be able to ride. Now Moonlight is the one bringing me back to life. I feel alive!”
We sit together on the grass for a long time, watching her beautiful grazing gelding. I tell Rachel about liberty horsemanship, about dancing with horses, and imagining what they need or desire, instead of what we want from them. I recommend some books and videos that will affirm what she’s experiencing right now.
The second time Rachel comes, we play with energy and Moonlight moves in response to Rachel’s thoughts. I show her a simple hands-on way of helping the horse relax by moving her hands alongside his spine, head to back hoof.
“I want to know him, who he is inside——more than just a-guy-to-ride!”
Rachel’s mother comes for a session herself, tears of relief and gratitude flow freely as she rests her forehead against Siverware’s neck. She also finds a way of standing back, observing, instead of stepping in and doing. We’re all curious, including Rachel herself, how her life with horses will unfold from here. She wants to come to Canada in her gap year——I happen to know some places that will welcome her with open arms.
Jill and Aileen are amazed with what transpires for each person and how this approach complements the therapeutic riding and equestrian coaching. I credit the combination of kindred-spirit horses and humans on the farm, the atmosphere of acceptance, love, and sanctuary——together with the principles and practice of EFW, flavoured by my own approach in Buddhist somatic meditation and non-interference. My new friends here love the terms Horse Wisdom and Horse Medicine!
Yes, of course, the fulfillment of our EFW work so well received, and the joy of the children in the therapy programs. More practically speaking, I’d been apprehensive about a horseback safari I’d booked in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, a bucket-list dream of riding with wildlife again. The trauma of a dramatic fall, on my first trip to Africa in 2010, had returned to unnerve me. I’ve done some trauma-release work with both horsewomen and therapists, yet I’m no spring chicken now, and I feel vulnerable in the possibility of another tumble.
Serendipitously (again!) both Jill and Aileen teach Balance-Seat Riding, and paired me with the generous-hearted Lancelot to prepare for my trip. In two lessons a day for two weeks, including outrides, both my riding ability and my confidence were transformed. I’ve just returned to the farm from the safari in Botswana, where I rode four different horses, walking, trotting and cantering through the treed bush and vast open vleis of the African wilderness——stopping to commune with elephants, zebra and giraffes, and with cape buffalo, wildebeest, warthogs, kudu, impala and painted dogs. Then, on the last early morning, a leopard appeared on the path behind my platformed tent.
Zimbabweans, black and white alike, “What can I do as one foreign visitor?” The consistent answer is:
“Show your friends in Canada that Zimbabwe is beautiful, show them we are happy and friendly, regardless of struggles——that we love our land, our country and want to share this beauty. Africa is so much more than the news reports of drought, starvation, disease, and corruption.”
Indeed, I know from first-hand experience, Zimbabwe is safe and truly hospitable for visitors with a heart.
“Bring your friends when you come back,” I hear. “We want to welcome them, to show them our country, to share our traditions and way of life!”