Earlier this month, Circle Yoga Shala hosted an Equine Inquiry retreat facilitated by Holly Krepps and Zoe Schaeffer. The two of them led the intimate group of retreat-goers into a weekend of yoga, work with horses, and connection to nature.
On the first night, attendees gathered around the fire with the retreat leaders and shared their goals for the weekend. Most came to treat themselves to a few days of relaxation and escape from their daily routines. Most didn’t expect that in learning about horse psychology, they’d also learn about their own.
Day two began with a gentle asana practice. The students learned what it means to be present by observing the breath, the body, and the mind in yoga postures. They learned how to stabilize their bodies by aligning the joints and to observe more deeply by bringing their attention to sensations in the body, sounds in the room, and the quality of their breath. Then they took those lessons to the round pen.
Horses are prey animals and creatures of flight. Constantly alert to threats to their survival, they are aware of subtle changes in the environment and are highly attuned to the energy of any other animals or people nearby. When we work with horses, we’re asking them to trust us. By asking a horse to move its feet forwards, backwards, and away from us, we remove the horse’s ability to run and instead ask it to work as our partner. Horses crave leadership and are eager to work with people cooperatively, but they can sense when we are afraid, unsure, or not in command of our own emotions. To work in harmony with horses, we must be present. We must be aware of our inner experience and the energy we’re bringing to the task. Horses require absolute consistency, which requires extreme sensitivity—no easy undertaking.
The retreat attendees first learned the basics of groundwork, including how to position themselves near the horse and direct their energy in order to lead the horse, back it up, and manipulate the position of its feet. Meanwhile, they were instructed to observe their own bodies like they had that morning in yoga practice.
“Do you notice that your hand is opening and closing on the leadrope?” Zoe asked one of the attendees. She hadn’t. Her horse was resistant to leading forward. Zoe cued the student to pause, feel her feet, come into her body, and place her attention on her hand, which had been giving the horse mixed signals without the student’s knowledge. By coming to presence, the student could calm down and better observe herself. Her pressure on the leadrope became more consistent, releasing only when necessary. She became more confident. The horse began to follow.
Later, the students rode bareback while they were led around the ring and given the opportunity to close their eyes, hold out their arms, and observe. They learned to trust the horses as much as they had asked the horses to trust them. Many were surprised that they could relax into their fears and find joy and new awareness underneath.
By the last day, the students felt comfortable working the horses on their own. They could feel how coming to presence improved their relationship with the horses and themselves. In presence, their stories about fear or unsureness dissolved.
We love working with the horses here on the farm because of their special ability to reflect students’ inner experience back at them—an instant feedback loop for mindfulness. To us, horses are a natural extension of yoga, which is a lifelong learning about relationship. When we’re present, we can be in relationship—with ourselves, with other people, with our environment—in a new way, and horses are a powerful way to experience that shift.
Curious about retreats and other opportunities for continuing education at Circle Yoga Shala? View our calendar here.