Riding, Relationship, and Mutual Trust

I rode my horse the other day.

This sounds fairly unremarkable, but it’s been awhile. I wrote about this a while back – I gave up riding as a singular goal, or right as a horse owner, several years ago. Since then, I have been experimenting with ways to communicate with my horses; in an attempt to discover if riding can truly be a mutually enjoyable activity. It has resulted in a lot of, well, not riding, because when I’m honest with myself, even the gentlest of techniques still feel – to me – like manipulation based on my own desire to ride. This is not, by the way, a judgment on those who do ride: these things are deeply personal, and it’s my own person I am seeking peace with in this regard.

But the other afternoon, after polishing my lovely (and extremely underused) treeless saddle, I had one of my feelings. I took the saddle out to the barn, did my usual putter-and-cuddle with my herd of three, and then casually tacked up my gelding, Spero (better known as Spoo). Again, fairly unremarkable – except that the last time I tried to put so much as a saddle pad on him, he wasted no time in informing me that it was a terrible idea, moving away and eyeing it fearfully as I approached with it.

It’s all about the Spoo!

This was typical, and it was why I hadn’t pursued riding for a long time. It was the sheer desperation in his facial expression and movements, how he looked entirely wigged-out by anything tack-related, and his deep suspicion of me whenever I was at his left side – which, as I’m sure you know, is where most horses get tacked up and mounted from. Damage had been done to my boy, whether physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above, and I was not solid enough in any of my philosophies to try to force, manipulate, plead or demand a change through one training method or another. I just wanted him to be happy, and that appeared to mean not riding.

When horses have spent their lives with no option but to do as WE please, that stays in their nervous systems even after they are given a voice. Unlike my yearling, Firefly, who has always had a say and therefore always gives me the benefit of a doubt when I slip into old, pushy ways (“you’re kidding, right? yeah that’s what I thought,”) my older horses have years of conditioning that they are undoing slowly, messily, and beautifully – not unlike my own process. It means that my mistakes often result in setbacks, lack of trust, and time required to mend and reframe things for both of us.

So when Spero stood calmly for tacking up and mounting, it was indeed an incredible thing. I didn’t let myself do too much conscious thinking – his coolness with it kind of triggered a coolness in me, where neither one of us really admitted what a big deal it actually was. After moseying around in the barnyard, I gently asked for him to walk out into the front pasture, 12 acres of gently rolling grass and other forage, surrounded by birch and pine. The mares followed, and we moved at a walk and gentle trot along the fence line. I was struck by how much had changed, and how much hadn’t. For starters, he needed no refresher of cues, no reminders of how to be ridden. He seemed entirely unfazed and was the same, sensitive, responsive mount I’d known years before.

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Phone selfies are required for illustration purposes…

But he also communicated back to me, asking to stop and wait for the rest of the herd, or to eat this really tasty dandelion, or to point out where the cinch was itchy so I could fix it for him with an adjustment and a good scratch. Satisfied, he’d pick up my voice or energy cue and we’d stride out again. I could feel both of us wondering if the other one wanted to go fast, and also the mutual decision that we’d keep it safe and quiet this time so as not to scare either of us on our first real ride in years. But he also spoke out loud, verbalizing with these adorable squeaks to let me know I was sitting wrong, or holding too tight. Never once did he use his signal for “stop, please,” which is usually him turning around and holding my boot with his teeth, looking me in the eye reproachfully.

When I used to ride regularly, what distressed me most was that I couldn’t feel the horse. It was like the line of communication between us had been cut – extremely bizarre when you’re doing something so intimate, body to body. I wanted the talk to be two ways, but it was almost entirely me I could hear, and it took all the enjoyment out of it.

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We went back to the barn after a while and Spero graciously accepted my kisses, alfalfa cubes and complete adoration, otherwise not indicating that anything unusual had happened. The time I’ve been spending with my horses toward building our relationship on the ground – not with training specifically, but with love and conversation, exploration, and experimentation – felt suddenly, succinctly rewarded. It made the simplest ride into an incredible gift.

You know what the hardest part has been? Not taking for granted that this is how it is now, just because it happened. A couple days later, I got the saddle out again. Spero came to his halter, but kept walking off and moving away from the saddle pad and saddle. I had to swallow my newly inflated expectations and put the tack away, because I’d promised him that if we did this, we’d do it together. He always gets a say. Still, I was disappointed and a little put off, until moments later, when all three horses stormed out of the barnyard toward the middle of the pasture. As I looked out, I saw a lone bear ambling towards us. I hollered “Hey Bear!” as we do to alert them to our presence. It looked up and saw us.

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They’re a long way off, but on the left of center there’s the horse herd, and on the right there’s a little black lump of a bear!

Spero took the lead and trotted strong and confident towards the bear, keeping himself between it and the mares. After several advances, the bear stood on its rear legs, then wheeled away and hurried back towards the woods. I marvelled at the sequence of events – how if I’d pushed my way into riding again, we would have had to face the bear together, both of us compromised by being attached to each other. Instead, Spero had let me know it wasn’t a good time, and had taken charge, and now there was no bear in my apple trees or my goat pen!

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, of ourselves and others, for our foibles and inconsistencies, for our misconceptions and our beliefs. It isn’t about our horses owing us their obedience, and it isn’t about us swinging entirely in the opposite direction and taking on responsibility for the destructiveness of all humankind. It seems to me to be more about meeting each other where we’re at and seeing what we can make of it. Spero and I allow each other our imperfections and idiosyncrasies, spend a whole lot of time expecting nothing of each other, and every now and then, magic just happens.

Riding, Relationship, and Mutual Trust

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24 thoughts on “Riding, Relationship, and Mutual Trust

  • August 28, 2016 at 1:56 pm
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    Love, Love, Love this post! I can so relate to your attempt to discover “if riding can truly be a mutually enjoyable activity”. I have an adorable mini as well as two big horses (Grace & Galicia). I always ride bitless, either bareback or with a bareback pad or treeless saddle. Recently I gave G&G several months off from riding & now feel strongly that Grace prefers to never be ridden again. I am honoring that and will not ride her unless she changes her mind. I believe Galicia will be fine with an occasional ride … but only occasional. At the same time … I dream of the day I can ride in an area where the rest of the herd can go with us at liberty…like your 12 acre pasture. But it looks like I may need to add another horse to my equine family, one that clearly communicates that he/she enjoys a riding connection!

    Reply
    • August 28, 2016 at 5:16 pm
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      Well good on you for listening to your sweeties! Sometimes I tell people, if you don’t think you’ll like the answer, don’t ask…

      What made you decide to pause the riding, K? And was it hard for you to stop or did it just seem natural?

      Reply
      • August 30, 2016 at 1:59 pm
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        Based on the way she was moving I suspected that 19 year old Grace (Palomino Arab/QH) was in some pain from arthritis, so initially I decided to give her a year off from riding. At the same time I was reading more about how to determine whether a horse enjoys being ridden. Grace is well trained & a very sweet, kind horse so even if she didn’t seem thrilled about being ridden she always “submitted” (I don’t like that word but it’s the only one that seems to apply here.) I’ve (mostly) loved our rides but once it seemed clear that she was soooo happy not to be ridden, it was not hard to stop. As for Galicia…big grey Andalusian…who I suspect is my horse twin because we are so much alike in so many ways…I’m not sure how our riding / not riding will unfold. But she is a GREAT communicator & I’m pretty good at listening so I’m certain she will let me know her preferences!

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        • September 6, 2016 at 9:07 pm
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          I love the excitement and positivity you exude about this usually fraught subject. It’s such a gift just to be game for the net adventure and the next…what fabulous horses you must have and how wonderful that they have you with them!

          Reply
  • August 28, 2016 at 6:42 pm
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    Beautiful – I feel this way about riding too, which is why I haven’t ridden in a long time! It’s so nice to know that the possibility may still exist when the time is right 🙂

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    • September 6, 2016 at 9:09 pm
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      Hi Cynthia! Yep, if there’s anything I’ve learned through all this it’s that anything is possible…especially when it’s up to the beings and not the goal or method.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2016 at 5:34 am
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    Thank you for your posts. I have just discovered them and feel I will learn so much from your experience. I own a gelding called Embrujo who was born to my daughter’s mare 13 years ago. Now I have him nearer my home so I can go twice a week. It happened that after riding for a long time together in the fields without any company suddenly he did not want to go. I rehret having asked a man who is in charge of this place to try and ride him again. Before he had done this and our riding had been great. Now Embrujo would not even let him ride him. So I decided to restart our relationship on different grounds and counseled by other horsewomen like Jenny Pearce in Australia, Kirsten Bergemann in Germany and Carolyn Resnick in the USA, I started on this new path. Suddenly it all started to change for both of us. I also attended a one day workshop with a Chilean horseman called Patricio Muñoz Barrios who is an expert in equine ethology and was able to understand his behaviour more and also my own patterns.
    Stopping the riding proved very hard but was what made ME change and we are having a great time together on the ground.
    I saddled him again and we had a little time going round the paddock but I know we are not yet ready to go to the fields. I have put aside all bits spurs and the like and feel there is something that hurts him when I put the saddle on him. Not that he reacts to this but he does not want to go out into the fields. I can ride him with just a pad to the fields where the rest of the herd is and leave him there so I am pleased we can do that.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences I am now ready to listen to him more attentively.
    I was surprised the other day, I had very little time to be with him but I felt he was very p,eased to see me, we did some being together in the round pen and when I took him out to set him free we danced together in circles! I had him with a halter but he never towed just followed my trot and dance.
    I know I have a lot to learn from him.

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    • September 6, 2016 at 9:19 pm
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      Gorgeous stuff, Alice! I’d be very intrigued to hear more about what you have learned from such a great roster of human teachers…what is your favourite insight from your studies, if you can even pick one? And oh that feeling when they are actually happy to see you! Sounds like you have a real buddy, as he has in you.

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  • September 12, 2016 at 4:46 pm
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    Great article. I gave a home to an Arabian mare who is just delightful but it became clear riding her was not pleasurable for her. I have spent a couple of years just getting to know her and letting her get to know me. From being stand-offish she is now my very dear friend and once every week or two the rope halter goes on and we have a bareback walk around the pasture. She is now striding put willingly and has her happy face on and loves the scratches and cuddles that follow. Another little mare I rescued from a bad situation took a long time just to communicate with me. After lots of patience and kindness this gorgeous little mare is always first for cuddles and is a breeze to handle. She will never be ridden but will enjoy the rest of her life as our very special girl.

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    • September 13, 2016 at 10:21 am
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      Lovely lucky horses you have 🙂 Such a gift for you, too, to be able to love and enjoy them for who they are instead of what they do.

      Reply
  • September 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm
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    Wow just found your blog & I have only read about five …….so I have a long way to go as I can see you are an amazing writer… Your information, pictures, videos & links are so interesting & it so great to hear from like minded people. I feel like sometimes I’m the only one who feels the way I do for horses & then I find this and it feels great☺️

    Just wanted to say wow and I’m so glad I found your blog look forward to reading all the old and new stories to come!

    Good on you for taking the time to put it out there ????✌?️

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    • September 25, 2016 at 10:12 pm
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      Hi Michelle, I know that Kesia’s on the road this week so thought I’d butt in here and say THANKS so much for reaching out. And yes, we wholeheartedly agree with you – the more those of us who BE with horses in this way can share our stories, the more positive vision we can create for being in relationship with horses. We look forward to perhaps hearing some of your stories/experiences!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 6:16 pm
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    Kesia (and Jini)! I found you again! And I really appreciated the timing of this post. The horses and I have been going hard this summer in the very much riding-based culture we have created together. I feel I have lost a lot of the nuances that used to be present in my listening… and yet there is still an undercurrent of connection and a sense of give and take and reciprocity and flow between myself and the horses. We are very much a team in the teaching, and it is often the horses that tell me what they need me to say to the students next in order to keep the flow of the session going. There are times when I take too much from them in certain moments. There are times when they give me a hard no to something I have asked for. And then that tells me that something has become damaged, and that I will have to go into that spot later, and make a repair. The thing that I notice that does really do damage is when I don’t put my own time into riding them; when I am pushing myself too hard to teaching too much, and then they stop talking to me. Or my listening becomes damaged. And it’s been an interesting dance to see just where the balance lies. I don’t think I will ever have it perfect, because there is too much dynamism on both sides. But there is the feeling that we are a team here, these four leggeds and I, and that I can make mistakes and make it right again to my horses and we can keep creating these moments together as offerings to others. At least, that is my hope, and where I am right now in the process.

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    • October 8, 2016 at 6:28 pm
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      Kera I took a look at your site too (congrats!) and as you seem so aware and in tune I just have to ask: Do any of your horses actually LIKE to be ridden? If given a clear choice, do any of them choose to come teach people to ride, rather than grazing in a field (for example).

      I ask this not to pass any judgement, but because I am exploring (for a long time!) this issue myself. I ask the same question of Equine Assisted Learning or Therapy practitioners too. Because if you have to halter the horse, or enclose it in a round pen, then the horse has not actually chosen to work with that client.

      I had this same conversation with Diedre West (who heads an organization of EAL and therapy practitioners) and her setup is this: Her herd of 15 are loose in a big pasture (at least 10 acres). Within that pasture she has a smaller field – say 1/2 acre, then inside that is a large arena, then inside that is a round pen. ALL gates to all areas/fields are left open at all times.

      So what she said happens is that a horse chooses to work with the client and the horse then chooses which size space to work in – she and the client follow the horse (unhaltered). All gates are left open during the entire session – should the horse choose to take off, s/he can. But they never do. They may work with the client in different sized spaces, over the course of the session, but whoever has chosen the client stays with them.

      So with riding horses – which I see also as a gift or service of the horse to the human – how does it work for you? What do your horses say to you about their role? And what do you say to them?

      Kesia has written another article on the positivity gleaned from good work under a good master/sensei:
      https://www.listentoyourhorse.com/do-horses-really-enjoy-working-with-us/

      And I wonder how much of that factors into a set-up like yours where your horses are doing work that many say they should not (anatomically horses are damaged by riding, etc.)? And I wonder where you put all this? I would love to hear whatever you feel like sharing… 🙂

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      • October 8, 2016 at 11:08 pm
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        Hi Jini:
        Whhhooooaaaaahhhhhh those are good questions. And they have made me think about a number of things. I’ll try to get into some of them specifically but the big one that came up out of your response is choice: is it possible to give a being entrusted in our care true freedom? At what point do our own desires for that being obscure the truth of his/her communication with us? If a child (for example) was left to his/her own devices, and not ‘educated’, would they grow up naturally into fulfilling the gifts they have been given? What right do we have to shape the life of another? And at the same time, what right do we have not to? Is that not the essence of relationship? (As Kesia pointed out below) Even if we can set up the ‘choosiest’ environment for our horses, if they are enclosed at all, where is their element of choice? How does freedom dance with domesticity?
        To be honest with you, I am not sure if my horses ‘like’ to be ridden. I think given the choice they would prefer to stand around in the field all day and not move and stuff their faces in the hay bags and not ever come out, not ever. I would also probably stay in bed and eat chocolate for quite a while too. But this feeling comes up out of each horse at different times that more movement is needed; more directed movement; enough movement to make endorphins release, and muscles relax and really work, similar to how i would imagine a runner would feel, or a dancer who has not danced. It is a feeling that comes out of them. (If I had the ability to put them in a 10 acre field, I feel this would decrease, as they would move around more.) And so we go out into the world and we move together. About 75 % of my riding and teaching is not in a ring or field, it’s out in the woods or along a river, where we have a destination that is bigger than a circle.
        I spent 2 years on the ground with a percheron rescue mare doing EGL type work; reflection; wu wei; being. And it taught me a lot , but I just had this sense that I was missing the point of something I didn’t quite understand. I don’t think that riding should be the end point of our relationship, but I do think it has been such a tremendous interface in the nexus of horse/human culture that there is a association there. New things are emerging; and as we become more open the horses are showing us new ways to be together. If we go out to the field with the intent to ride, we are taking a gift from the horse. Usually, if the horse has not wanted to offer it, part way through the ride her or she will open to us, and then the gift is there. Sometimes that does not happen, and I am riding, as Stephen Jenkinson calls it it ‘on the take’- and I will need to become grateful real fast, and teach my student to become grateful real fast too.

        As for the ‘horses are anatomically damaged by riding’ school of thought- I feel a little adrift in this sea. I have a german dressage/ classical dressage background, and then threw that all out the window for a long time and didn’t ask for a frame at all, and then got really into the school of developing topline when I started learning the Autism work, which often has the kid up in the saddle in front of you, so you need working muscle on your horse. I did a lot of (perhaps misguided) in-hand work and lunging and then started riding with an old school eventing dude who put me back on the road and trails doing lots of really slow work. And I feel like there are pieces missing in my knowledge base that some of the more anatomical based schools can fill (Jean Luc Cornille’s Science of Motion stuff is brilliant) but I am not quite there in terms of assimilating understanding yet. The gap lets me know what I am working towards; that there will always be some kind of reaching there.
        My biggest hope in this exploration- this trying to account and allow for sentience, while still having a job for my horses to do- and it is a prayer, actually, not a hope- is that I see rightly. I pray to see, and hear, and feel rightly what is truly coming from my horses, and from the moment as it is happening between us; that I an not manipulating the situation to be what I want it to be. That the lens can stay clear. And it is tricky, with expectation in the picture. The horses are earning a living, and I am earning a living with them. And it is again my prayer that we are in it together; that there is a mutuality here. Reciprocity.

        Reply
        • October 15, 2016 at 11:16 am
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          Hi Kera, Thanks so much for this fabulous, honest reply. It’s taken me a while to reply back as you gave me a lot to think about and also I had to go investigate Jean Luc Cornille! This is one of my favorite before/after pieces I came across on his site:
          http://www.scienceofmotion.com/documents/photoblog.php?entry_id=1332456884

          But it also shows why learning his method could easily take a lifetime 😉

          I love the way you are so aware of the pros, cons, difficulties, dilemmas, hopes, etc. of what you are doing with your herd. It will be interesting to hear how this all plays out over the next 5 years. All the facets of learning and discovery and growth.

          I talked to a woman who worked at hunter/jumper stables for over a decade and she ended up leaving the horse world altogether. She said as soon as you monetize horses it all turns to shit and the horse’s wellbeing no longer takes priority. She morally couldn’t be a part of it anymore.

          Ainsley Beauchamp (who also writes on this blog) ran a trail riding operation for a decade or so. But only for experienced riders – a decision she made after working as a ranch hand and seeing how the beginner riders unknowingly abused the horses day after day. I’ll have to tag her to join this discussion – but I’m pretty sure I recall the working days as being a positive experience for her horses. I think they came in to work each day of their own free will… I will have to ask her to confirm or elaborate.

          I also muse about ‘different strokes for different folks’ as applied to horses. Just as not all humans are here for one purpose, or are not all at the same place in terms of what we need in order to develop or explore our creative (source energy) potential– why should we assume that all horses are spiritually or energetically in the same place, with identical desires or needs?

          For example, Joe may have come to this lifetime to meditate in the Himalayas and do all the internal work needed to be done on himself. Jane may need to develop an alternative energy source and market that on the global stage in order to meet her needs/desires for this lifetime. She would be unfulfilled and frustrated sitting in a cave turning inward every day. Joe may be beset with anxieties and depression if he tries to start a business and take it global.

          So likewise, with horses, why do we need to divide up into camps planting a flag about “this is who/what horses really are (spiritual beings) and this is the only way we should treat them”. How about listening to each individual horse? And how about trusting that our horses have come to us for a purpose – they are part of our destiny, to lead us further, deeper into whatever each of us is here to explore/develop in this lifetime? And neither we, nor our horses, are resonating at the exact same place/destiny as all the other thousands of human/horse partnerships on this planet.

          So rather than judging each other, or looking to ‘prove’ that our way is best for ‘the horse’. How about we just each walk our own pathway, in connection and dialogue with our particular, unique horses, and then SHARE our learning, insights, eureka moments with each other?

          And as you illustrated so beautifully in your comment, be cognizant and accepting of the fact that each of us (and our horses) will learn, grow, shift, change, over time. What we enjoyed and what fulfilled us last year, may not work for this year, or the next five years.

          I think you sum this up brilliantly:

          “I pray to see, and hear, and feel rightly what is truly coming from my horses, and from the moment as it is happening between us; that I am not manipulating the situation to be what I want it to be. That the lens can stay clear. And it is tricky, with expectation in the picture. It is again my prayer that we are in it together; that there is a mutuality here. Reciprocity.”

          Reply
  • October 6, 2016 at 2:51 pm
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    Dear dear Kera! Hallooo!

    Yeah, the ebb and flow of awareness, communication, all these enormous and subtle things – you know, sometimes I think in our earnestness we sense a lack but in reality it’s just that we’ve integrated some piece deep enough that it’s not a conscious effort anymore. This ability to make mistakes and bounce back from them without causing lasting damage to those around us, I think that’s the core of relationship. When conflict becomes a creative opportunity rather than just a shitty time.

    I’m so glad you’re up and away with your Mountain Horse School (http://www.mountainhorseschool.com –> in Squamish BC, check it out folks)! I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to and how you’re finding it all… love aplenty from me and my bunch!

    Reply
  • February 3, 2017 at 8:29 pm
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    your writing was posted in horses and humans fb page. today, feb.3/17.
    I love your writing, I feel as if I am a go-pro inside your head! I love how tender you are with your horsies, and I especially love how tender and honest you are with yourself, your transparency shines thru so sparkly-like in your words and word-pictures and word-feelings. thank you, you are a De-Light in this crazy world! I’ll look forward to reading more,, love, from Sheila in bc canada.

    Reply
    • February 3, 2017 at 9:12 pm
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      Sheila thank you! If you feel like a go-pro then I’m doing my job right – that’s actually one of the most marvelous things I could think of hearing! xoxo

      PS where in BC are you??

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      • February 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm
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        Hi Kesia, langley, bc. . renting 16 acres xoxo sheila

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        • February 5, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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          Very cool – just emailed you!

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  • January 1, 2018 at 12:58 pm
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    I review my self and my horse beliefs in your words.. there is subtil and equanimity communication between human and horse.. the Magic is real 🙂
    It`s good not feeling alone about my feelings when I read you..! Thank you!
    Gratitude (from Portugal)..

    Maria João Matos

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    • January 1, 2018 at 9:05 pm
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      You are most definitely, definitely not alone, Maria!

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  • July 22, 2019 at 11:28 pm
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    Kesia and Jini, I love this article! and you guys! Whats treasures you are!
    Big hugs
    Erin 🌳🐎

    Reply

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