In 2008, a small brown Quarter Horse called Coop changed my life. Lost and anxious after a destructive marriage, divorce, redundancy and multiple bereavements, I needed to get away. I signed up for an intensive two-month course in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to learn natural ways of interfacing with horses. Coop reconnected me to myself in the most affirmatory way possible. I learned how to be fully in the moment, to let go of fear and to dare to dream. The ways in which I saw horses, my work as a therapist and coach, and indeed myself, were changed forever. I write about this transformational experience in The Spell of the Horse.
In my final days at the ranch I made myself two promises. The first, that I would find a way of integrating the healing power of horses into my work as a psychotherapist and a leadership coach. I had no idea how I would do it, with no facilities to work at and only one horse at home in my ‘herd’. Yet excitement bubbled under my skin in a way it had never done before. However crazy it seemed I knew this was what I must do. I vowed I would find a way – if one horse could change me so much, then why would others not be able to do the same for my clients?
The second part of my vow was that I would one day have my horse, or horses, living with me at home. Since I bought my first, Delilah, 18 years earlier, I had always been obliged to use livery yards. If I was lucky, my horse would be a few miles away from home, but sometimes they were much further. I fitted into someone else’s rules and decisions about their care, and tolerated the fallings out and judgemental opinions of my human stable-mates. In Colorado I lived alongside Coop for 6 weeks, lodged in a log cabin a stone’s throw from where he was kept. I had come to know the closeness which is possible when sharing the same space and interacting throughout the days. Being a daily visitor to my horse on someone else’s terms didn’t feel enough anymore.
The great surprise was that it was the first of my commitments which had been the easiest to manifest. Within a year of returning from my adventure in the mountains I was running successful leadership development programmes for my corporate clients centred around experiential interaction with a herd. I was also offering horse-led psychotherapy to private clients of all ages and walks of life. (I describe what I do as being ‘horse-led’ rather than ‘equine assisted’ because I feel it is I who assist the horses in their healing work, not the other way around.)
As this business grew, I developed a collaboration with a farm based in Wiltshire to host programmes and formed a team of like-minded professionals around me. The materialisation of this collective seemed almost miraculous such was the synchronicity of events. There was an indisputable ‘rightness’ to the enterprise. Changes in my personal circumstances left me needing a new base, so I relocated to a beautiful county in South West England to make my home and start afresh.
Wiltshire immediately felt like the right place for me to be. But with land prices beyond my reach the second promise faded into a daydream, gathering dust on the ‘if only’ shelf. When in idle moments I browsed the internet looking at equestrian properties which I could afford, in far-flung parts of the United Kingdom or in France, it was with the longing of a window shopper who feels she will never be able to step into the shop. It was the same feeling I used to have as a child when I would ask my parents for a pony, knowing that they would never buy me one. My mum would always say kindly, ‘Yes of course you can have one … one day … when we are rich.’ And I got used to that day never coming.
Being able to see my herd from the garden, being able to create an environment for their optimum health, whilst building a therapeutic workspace which suited the way I wanted to welcome my clients – all this became a fantasy. I stopped believing that it would be possible, at least for me.
Don’t stop believing
These patterns which we grow up with, whether it is expecting that you will never have what you long for, that you are not good enough to deserve it, or that you will fail so it is better not to try, stay with us into our adult lives without us even realising it. We receive in life what we expect to receive, and these often-undetected belief systems limit our ability to be happy.
The important thing to understand is that if your dream doesn’t go away, if it still beckons from the shelf you have put it on, then it is more than a wistful fancy and you close your ears at your peril.
And this promise of mine, it did keep calling. The Spirit of the Horse tells the story of where it took me, what I learned and am still learning on that path – about myself, the profound nature of horses and about life, love and leadership.
Along the way I have worked with many inspiring people. They have often left me wiser and always left me feeling blessed. I thank them for trusting me and my horses to walk beside them for a little while. I share, too, some of their stories with you. To protect their anonymity identities have been fictionalised, but what happened between the person and the horses are just as described. Individuals whose personal stories are featured have given permission for, and many have contributed to, the narrative.
may be a horse-lover who simply wants to lose yourself in the deep affection for the species which lives in these pages. You may be asking questions about the nature
of your relationship with your own horse or be interested to learn about my professional approach. You may not know horses at all, but are exploring our bindings to nature and how it might save us, the human race, from ourselves. Or perhaps you are a business person, parent, teacher or spouse looking for new ways to love and lead those for whom you
are responsible. For whatever reason you come to The Spirit of the Horse, know
that I held you in my mind when I wrote it. I created this book, which soon I will set free to find its way to you, for the joy of sharing the many gifts which my life
yields. It is a privilege and pleasure to be a small part of your journey, and I am grateful to you for inviting me in.
Late October 2018
The lorry had been left a quarter of a mile up the rural track to facilitate a nocturnal departure. In the full moonlight the autumnal canopy running its length shone in sepia tones and the stones beneath my feet glistened. It was so bright I didn’t need the torch bulging in my pocket. The horse transporter and his assistant were already at the gate waiting for me to arrive with the key. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or not to see them. In some way I hoped that I would have time on my own with the herd to ask them once again if I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t sure if I would bitterly regret this one day or be eternally grateful.
The three horses were more than surprised to see us emerge from the shadows at 2am that October morning. I had no time to reconsider my decision or say a silent goodbye to this beauty spot and the memories it held. The transporters were cheerful, efficient, swift. They didn’t say much which was just as well because I couldn’t have spoken through the wad of emotion in my throat. Before I knew it the doors of the large lorry were creaking shut with the horses inside. This chapter in my life was closing, the next had not yet begun.
The White Horse Watches Over
The incessant rain forced me into my car rather than my walking boots to go out exploring. Gingerly I drove, the water lying on every bend concealed potholes and soft verges which I knew could really spoil my day. And then, teetering over the crest of the single-lane humped-back bridge, I saw it. A huge prancing equine figure, dug into the hillside, rising before me.
I had seen pictures of the various chalk horses which adorned the rolling downs in this part of the country but I had not realised that there was one so close by. This turf carving had graced the Pewsey Vale for two hundred years, emblematic of the tranquility which oozed from the landscape. Commissioned by a Victorian landowner it was not archaeologically significant in itself, but it piaffed on the site of a Neolithic long barrow, guarding the souls who had walked there four thousand years before.
A new home
A failed relationship and a year of grief following the unexpected death of my older brother had set me adrift. I needed to throw down an anchor and chose this verdant corner of South West England, known for its ancient history, pagan roots and swathes of hill and heathland. I had the beginnings of a network in the area to support my transition and a venue where I would be able to develop my horse-led learning business. What did I have to lose?
I settled in a hamlet a few miles from the great white horse which seemed to have called me that day. I bought a small house which with love would become pretty. When I heard of a field coming up for rent a mile away I made sure that I became the next tenant. My herd of four, Winston, Ruby, Dawn and Ellie, would dwell in the heart of this exquisite vale, watched over from afar by their symbolic counterpart.
To access the field where the horses were soon installed involved a long walk along a track. It was lined with hedge and copse, stony in some places and muddy in others. It took me away from the village into farmland abundant with wildlife. In March there was enough wild garlic to keep me in pesto for a year and in September there were blackberries for jam. Occasionally walkers passed along the footpath but most days I would be alone there with the herd. It was a place where I would find healing, quietude and space, where melancholy dispersed and appreciation took its place. For the first time since I had owned horses I was able to create an environment which I didn’t need to share and soon this five-acre field became an extension of my home.
In the Liverpool suburb where I was raised neighbours often visited each other uninvited, sometimes even in their slippers, whether to drink tea, feed pets or monitor children. It had taken me a long time to grow used to the privacy (or might I say distance) maintained in other places I had lived. Over the years there had been few of my neighbours I could have called friends.
But here under the eye of the White Horse it was different. I found a bag full of home-grown lettuce leaves on my step. A jar of marmalade followed, then runner beans and soon an invitation to a Meet your Neighbours gathering. This was a locality with heart and in the following months I was enfolded within it. Companions came forward for dog-walks, rides, shared meals and drinks. Lifts were offered when cars broke down and shovels emerged when the snow fell. Here I felt looked after. There was a giving and taking of care founded on common humanity and kindness. This was a place I felt safe. ‘Here I will stay’ I vowed quietly to myself. Why would I ever leave?
c. Pam Billinge 2021
All Rights Reserved
Waterstones UK £9.99
Amazon worldwide £9.29
Ebook Amazon Worldwide £2.49/$3.99