Primary aim of the workshop: To explore entering the ponies’ world and environment without agenda or need, and through employing self-awareness and self-regulation practices that engendered equine receptivity to our presence as a group.
Intended Learning Outcomes:
Our primary approach for the day was to go with the flow of the ponies in a more natural habitat, so our agenda was very fluid and spontaneously adjusted from the moment we arrived. This I think added to the overall feeling of calm and relaxation we all felt, myself included as facilitator, in fact I had never been anywhere near as relaxed while running a workshop before this experience. So it was very revealing how the felt sense of being immersed in this beautiful place with happy, relaxed free roaming herds, coupled with the very loose and flowing structure meant it was a hugely enjoyable, calming and healing experience.
With few physical boundaries around the environment and an abundance of space between those physical barriers that do exist there, we had a sense of immense freedom and space for both the ponies and ourselves. In fact, the only boundaries of the day we did have to maintain were those prescribed by my insurance company and the Verderers of the Forest who have a no touching or feeding policy, so this was a strict condition which was essential to get permission to work with the ponies. As well as of course, respecting the space and environment of all the animals who live in the Forest and the visitors and people who live and work in the Forest.
I have spent much time alone in the New Forest over the past two years and it has been a life-saving anchor for me, helping me come back up from the depths of some very dark periods, and being nothing less than a sanctuary on my doorstep. Without my own horses for over four years now, the ponies there have been the nearest ones that I can access at any time. I have also had the joy of honing my photography skills with these horses, as well as spending time walking in the woods to ground, nurture and heal my mind, body and soul.
Yet, to go into the Forest with a group of like-minded people, all seeking to step towards a freer way of being and a different way of being with horses, was a completely different experience. Being in a community or herd ourselves and having a collective rather than just an individual experience was a very powerful one for all of us who took part.
Obviously, running a workshop in The New Forest requires a very different approach to how we normally go about running EFL workshops, where we are static in one venue, with domesticated horses and in many ways still cut-off from the natural world, much of the landscape and in particular, the sense of wildness and space.
It also requires a completely different mindset and physical and energetic approach, as the main aim of the day was for us to enter the horses’ space and environment and be as respectful, mindful, sensitive and unobtrusive as possible. This is in contrast to the usual way humans enter and go about business with our domesticated horses in human-constructed environments, and indeed how people usually behave in the New Forest.
A Re-Cap Of The Workshop In Chronological Order:
We arrived and prepared in the morning at one of the National Trust car parks in the area of the Forest we would be visiting. After the workshop parameters and ground rules were discussed and set we set off in the morning to look for ponies.
From the very outset we began to set the tone for the day as we collectively decided where to start and allowed ourselves to flow with the rhythms of the ponies, ourselves and nature.
We had already spotted some ponies not too far away so we headed in their general direction.
We met with a beautiful and tranquil scene of a herd of ponies quietly grazing, spread out, yet in a distinctly connected herd, so we made our way to the top end of the large space they were in and sat in silence.
I suggested that we sit quietly and just observe the ponies, partly to get ourselves centred but also to allow the ponies to become comfortable with us near and just about “in” their environment. Of course, they had complete freedom to leave if they chose to, but instead they remained quietly grazing, with a number of them even edging closer to us and showing some interest.
One stallion with a collar on his neck had moved nearer little by little and was showing definite signs of being attentive towards us, he looked at us several times and had his head pointed towards us as he ate. Clearly guarding the herd as he put himself between them and us.
We sat for about 15-20 minutes watching them. I then asked the group to do a check-in (sharing how we are feeling) with one another which is what we always do at the beginning a group workshop. As we began talking and turning our focus back onto ourselves, our thoughts, observations, bodies and feelings, we noticed that the herd had begun moving. A number of them had already moved through some trees and into another area, but the rest of the herd now also began to make its way there too. Indeed the stallion and a couple of others at one point moved quite definitely and energetically that way, away from us.
As we observed this we commented how interesting it was that when we were focussing on them silently and on just being in the same shared space with them (sharing space with them and not talking), they were very content to stay near us, and indeed as I said, some of them had come closer. Yet, when we turned our focus fully away from them and onto us and began talking, they moved away, to the point that when we finally stopped talking and looked around, every single pony had left the area; it was a powerful lesson right at the very beginning of the day!
So it appeared that when we were quiet and ‘focused’ on them, yet with no intention or agenda other than to observe and internally reflect, they were happy for us to be relatively close and remained grazing in a relaxed state. Yet the moment we dropped our attention from them and instead became preoccupied with talking and processing our observations it was if a magical energetic connection between our human herd and the horses was broken.
After a brief discussion about where our human-herd would next move to, we chose to move back to the cars, and then drive on to another area and herd. This herd of ponies however had other ideas. (A good example of how things were going to unfold throughout the day, with us having an idea or plan but then flexing this as we took in what the horses were doing and flowing with them and their movements, rather than sticking to our “agenda” or even desires).
For as soon as we started back towards the cars, we were greeted with the beautiful sight of the entire herd standing in a group, resting under the shade of the trees right by our cars. This felt like a special opportunity to remain relatively close but again without intruding into their immediate space and disturbing their relaxation time.
On an impulse I suggested we stop there and do some Qi Qong, to help us get more into our bodies. We formed a circle and I began guiding the group through this gentle form of body and energy movement. I noticed that a couple of the horses were watching very intently and with great curiosity, a couple of them looked poised to move towards us. I was facing the ponies so able to keep an eye of their movements. While most of the herd peacefully dozed a couple of them were turned towards us and I could see were just about to come closer when suddenly, two walkers with a loose dog came bounding down a nearby path to the car park. The herd immediately scattered running across the road to another open area.
The contrast between the soft, quiet energy our little group were emitting compared to the energetic and loud movements of the walkers and their dog was very apparent. Not least of all because of the two ponies seemingly on the cusp of following their curiosity to approach us. I’ve experienced this before when doing energy practices such as Qi Qong, one time I was inside and could see a horse in the pen outside move from the far fence to the one closest to the wall of my room as I did my practice, he stood still and relaxed and I had a definite sense he could really feel my calm energy.
Following this already very rich opening experience, we then made our way to a different area and to some different herds. This was a much more open expansive space of common land, with at least three herds in it, plus a herd of magnificent black cattle, some sheep and more human activity too, walkers and the life.
We then continued with a guided seated body-scan (an Eponaquest mind-body connection practice) followed by a period of silent observation. However, this time we had suggested that people move around and find an unobtrusive place to observe the ponies on their own. This was because the herds were very spread out and not all in one place, and also there were many trees and shrubs creating lots of handy spots to watch them. So each person set off on their own, then afterwards when they returned they made notes in their journal and we shared and discussed our experiences.
Following a lunch break I suggested that we start to walk as I felt some movement would be helpful at this point and again, the ponies and herds were spread out and one herd seemed to have moved on from this area. So we decided to move silently as a herd and follow the direction of the ponies.
One of the herds had gathered underneath some trees just up ahead so we stopped spaced out and continued watching them. One of the group had brought a shamanic drum and they felt called to start drumming. Several of the ponies dozed closer to the drummer, a couple lay down and the whole herd fell into a peaceful relaxed state. Interestingly, the herd of cattle were very curious about the drumming and made their way over too so we were surrounded by horses and cows.
As we continued to sit and watch, the steady beat of the drum, the gentle energy and the sunshine all enabled us to relax even further, it was a very beautiful experience. Again a person with dog broke the spell as suddenly a man and his dogs, six in all, appeared and made their way to the nearby water trough for the dogs to have a drink, again bringing a much more active energy which caused some of the ponies and cattle to move away.
A small gathering of four ponies remained though, they seemed to still be enjoying the drumming which had continued almost throughout. When this last part of the herd began to make their way back to join the rest of their group, we found ourselves quite naturally drawn to walking back with them. Now, like part of their herd, and they part of ours, we walked together; silently and joyfully. Each herd respecting one another’s individual and combined boundaries, these last few ponies lingered a little while with us and then slowly moved around us to join their herd who were now sheltering from the sun under a tree.
With full, full hearts of gratitude and peace, I suggested we stand and each send out silent, prayerful thanks and gratitude to this herd, to all the ponies here, and the other animals and also the land and all that grows on her, for such a beautiful, restorative and peaceful day.
By the end of this day, we all felt free, rested, content, authentic, relaxed and happy. Beaming from ear to ear, we ended the day in a state of bliss.
We took nothing from these ponies, instead we shared their space and environment for a few hours, and they graciously and happily allowed us to do so. I believe this was so because we approached the place and them with a gentle respectfulness. In such an opposite state of mind and therefore energy to the other humans we encountered that day, who all seemed to be in more of a hurry and going somewhere with a purpose. Rather, we had chosen to flow like a herd and because of this I felt we had almost became part of an inter-species herd that day.
One of my favourite writers John O’Donohue says that when you bring your body out into the landscape, you are bringing your body home. He adds, the body needs space, and that most of the time we confine ourselves to built-up environments and man-made houses, offices, cities, etc. Our bodies are not made for such tightly confined and crowded spaces. The sense of space and freedom that hits you when you simply enter the New Forest area is what I feel makes the place so appealing for people.
Indeed, a couple of us commented on how we were now feeling part of the landscape, immersed in it, and not just because of the horses. But the trees, the shrubs and prickly gorse bushes, the soft sandy soil and the grass, all seemed to be holding and supporting us, and inviting us into her body.
Further EFL Workshop Observations:
We all also made some important observations about what had happened on this workshop and how the ponies seemed to us compared to our domesticated and regularly handled horses that we live with and work with each day. Four of the group were also EFL practitioners so it gave us much food for thought about how we usually go about our practice and what we can learn from this much more free-flowing set-up and hands-off approach to our horses, in light of this experience.
Particularly where the horses have complete choice as to whether to be near, and whether to engage or not, rather than us choosing particular horses and confining them in a particular physical space all makes a tremendous difference both to the horse’s well-being, freedom and equilibrium, but also highlighted our very human need to touch, be physically close and directly engage with horses in order to have a rewarding experience. This day showed us all very clearly that this is not the case, the opposite in fact, it can be hugely satisfying to simply be in the same environment, observe, self-reflect and adjust our inner states accordingly which felt safe to the many ponies around that day. In fact making such gentle connections at a distance and receiving deep learnings in this way seemed to open up the space inside of us too, like we expanded within as we reached out to the ponies.
Further Horse observations:
In terms of the horses, what was most strikingly clear to us was that these ponies need nothing from us. They are perfectly content, self-sufficient, secure and balanced. My overall sense whilst watching them was that of equilibrium within each horse and the herds as a whole.
We reflected how we inadvertently create a dependency within our domesticated horses on us that these ponies just don’t seem to possess. They are fully self-contained both as individuals but importantly too as herds. They keep each other safe, yet they are free to be themselves. They share space and experiences together and yet have their own individual experience too in each moment. They have so much more freedom to choose and respond than our domesticated horses that they are so much less burdened by minimal human contact and demands, it seems.
Through their lack of confinement they can afford to be peaceful most of the time, conserving their energy for when they really do need to move quickly, as in the case of the walkers and dogs coming into their space. Horses kept in paddock don’t have the same peace of mind, if something potentially threatening comes into their vicinity they can only move around as far as that paddock allows, whereas these ponies know they have the choice of many more options in terms of space and direction. They can therefore react much more instinctually and readily without having to navigate fences s our horses do. This must in itself bring a greater peace of mind and I imagine have to spend less time deciding where to go as their options are vast in comparison to most domesticated horse environments.
During the drumming that day and also on a previous occasion when I had taken my drum to the Forest, it was also striking to notice just how little releasing went on in the horses. There was a small amount chewing and yawning, and a couple of ponies did roll after a while, but in comparison to other domesticated horses and herds that we had drummed with in recent weeks the amount of releasing was miniscule.
Overall it was a hugely enjoyable day and one I’d love to repeat and explore more in the future. It felt a true blessing to be allowed to spend such peaceful time with a safe human herd among the New Forest equine herds and I can say with no uncertain that we all left that day feeling greatly relaxed, at peace, calm and in a state of equilibrium. What a joyous contrast to how most of us end up spending our days! With the additional lessons and understanding of how little we need to ask of and take from horses, or indeed be in their immediate space, in order to have a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
© Angela Dunning, 31 July 2015, updated November 2022
With thanks to the management authorities of The New Forest land and ponies, and special thanks to my co-facilitator Lynda J. Watson of Horsetouch
All content of this article and workshop description is strictly copyrighted to Angela Dunning. Please do not copy or use any part of this article without my written permission, thank you.