As I welcome the New Year, and all the promise that it brings, I want to look back at some of the highlights of the past year: gifts and lessons I hope to build upon in 2013. And that also means thanking you for supporting this work, sharing your wisdom, and making this world a better place for horses and humans. Whether you have faithfully read these e-newsletters, studied with an Epona instructor, partnered with horses to teach others valuable life skills, traveled to Arizona to attend one of my workshops, or simply visited the website occasionally, you are part of a growing international movement of people who are truly inspired by horses, people who are not just interested in more humane ways of training and riding them, but who are open to learn from these magnificent animals, and dare I say, be transformed by them.
The growth of this movement in recent years has inspired a name change for our own organization. In the next month, Epona Equestrian Services is making the official transition from what was originally a regional collective of riders, trainers, educators and counselors, to Eponaquest Worldwide as we acknowledge the nearly 200 instructors who now teach our approach on five continents. The name change, in part, expresses the need to distinguish our instructors and our approach from other unrelated equestrian organizations that also use the name Epona, who is after all, a goddess, and cannot be trademarked. From now on, educators, riding instructors, and counselors who have graduated from our multi-week apprenticeship program and uphold our rigorous Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice will be known as “Eponaquest Instructors.”
Scientists Officially Declare Consciousness in Animals
When I acquired my first horse in the early 1990s, my goal was to retreat from the complexities of human existence, to ride off into the desert and find a little peace. I had no idea that these graceful beings had something else in mind as they expanded my view of life, love, and power—not just by opening my heart, but by strengthening it.
For some reason I had the nerve to talk about the profound shifts they were inspiring in me, though people weren’t always receptive. Even after my first book was published in 2001, I continued to encounter a great deal of skepticism, sneers and jeers from people who thought I was crazy to even entertain the notion that an animal could think and feel, let alone teach a human being anything worthwhile. Luckily, I also met increasing numbers of kindred spirits who encouraged me to keep sharing the stories of horses who were, without a doubt, changing people’s lives.
Finally, this summer, those of us “eccentric” enough to learn from horses and other animals received a boost from an unexpected source. On July 7, 2012, during the Francis Crick Memorial Conference held at the University of Cambridge, a prominent group of international scientists publically proclaimed that animals are more than instinctual bio-machines. Based on decades of physiological and behavioral experiments with multiple species, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness stated “unequivocally” that “non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of consciousness states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” The document, signed in the presence of Stephen Hawking no less, acknowledged that “neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals.” This includes “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.”
Accepting that other species can think, feel, and make intentional decisions is a game changer for everyone. This does not mean, however, that animals always share our perspectives or priorities. We’re lucky that they often don’t, especially in the case of highly social, nonpredatory animals like horses, who offer alternative approaches to power, collaboration, and freedom-through-relationship, lessons they’re currently teaching people through the fast-growing field of equine-facilitated learning.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As we treat our horses as colleagues (rather than objects or naïve children), something even more interesting begins to happen: their capacity for consciousness strengthens and evolves. I’ve seen this in my own herd as the sons, daughters and grandchildren of my original herd members Rasa, Merlin, Comet, and Shadowfax come of age and develop their own unique talents as teachers. This new generation is braver and more gregarious, perhaps because they were not ripped away from their parents and siblings at six months, sold as commodities, and used as tools for some purely human agenda. Herd life with supportive, mature family members actually boosts their emotional development beyond anything I would have expected a mere decade ago. As a result, Spirit, Sage, Indigo Moon, Orion, and Artemis are fully capable of not just making decisions and expressing opinions; with careful training, they are learning to negotiate thoughtfully with their students and caretakers. This means, of course, that the human teachers of these intelligent, self-confident herd members must be more aware, considerate, creative, and empowered.
And so our consciousness, in turn, is evolving in response to these four-legged “indigo children.” A horse-inspired evolution of consciousness can be exciting, confusing, a bit scary, sometimes ecstatic, other times effortlessly joyful. There’s no doubt, however, that nurturing a sentient herd is a double-edge sword at times, requiring a hefty dose “emotional heroism,” a principle I discuss at length in my new book The Power of the Herd (coming soon). Emotional heroism is power combined with compassion. It allows us to keep our hearts open when we enter painful or threatening situations, allowing us to feel a kind of radical empathy for others, even as we may also have to hold strong boundaries with them or take action that is courageous and uncomfortable.
Losing an elderly horse, for instance, does not simply involve the personal loss of a “pet” or a lifelong friend. Other herd members exhibit grief and depression, which to me is more difficult than dealing with my own feelings. For a good three months after our beloved matriarch Rasa passed away in 2011, her second son Indigo Moon was despondent, lost, as if a part of him had died with her. Helping him to negotiate new herd relationships was heart-wrenching, though he did eventually come out of the ordeal with greater strength, poise, and confidence inspired by his own ability to transform that loss into wisdom.
Recognizing that animals are conscious brings with it certain responsibilities, urging us to change the way we train them. When they seem confused or act resistant, helping them to understand the value of whatever we propose to teach them takes extra effort, as does encouraging them to collaborate with us, make choices, and compromise thoughtfully. (More on this to come in future newsletters.) Conscious relationship also involves addressing the horse’s emotional and social needs. One of the most uncomfortable needs for many human caretakers to address involves offering herd members the chance to prepare for death and to say goodbye.
In early 2012, the last member of our original herd, Comet’s Promise, had to be euthanized due to a painfully arthritic left front leg that was close to breaking. (Severe changes in her knee and cannon bone toward the end were related to a conformation weakness she was born with, exacerbated by the weight of two pregnancies. Various conventional and holistic strategies that kept her relatively sound for years were simply no longer working.)
A feisty, naturally dominant mare, Comet lived with a variety of horses over the years, but she was by far calmest and most affectionate with her son Orion. As the arthritis worsened in her knee, her lower leg began to curve inward at an increasingly dangerous angle. She found it painful to trot, then walk, and finally merely to stand, but that didn’t stop her from standing over her big boy when he slept, as she had done when he was a foal—though increasingly, four-year-old Orion was the one towering over his mother as she lay down for longer and longer periods of time.
Still, Comet’s transition from this world wasn’t an emergency. Unlike previous herd members who were clearly suffering from severe colic or founder when they were euthanized, Comet would perk up several times a week and enjoy her life, though the bad days were clearly outnumbering the good ones.
This, I discovered, was the hardest part of being a human among horses: To love Comet deeply, while preparing to end her life, took more courage than I expected. It required an act of emotional heroism—and not just on my part as it turned out. Cards, emails, phone calls, or flowers would have been a much easier way to show support, and very much appreciated. I was therefore surprised and deeply grateful when several colleagues and close friends took this heart-wrenching journey with me. They are MY heroes.
During Comet’s final week, I spent time with her and her handsome big boy, sending them waves of love, sadness, and appreciation. I also invited her former human students, colleagues and teachers to stop by. Kathleen Ingram, co-founder of our apprenticeship program, was recovering from knee replacement surgery. Even so, she made extra effort to travel to the ranch, driven by one of our advanced Eponaquest Instructors, Eve Lee.
Eve, who is also an experienced shamanic practitioner, not only said goodbye to Comet in person, she journeyed intuitively with the mare shortly before and then again after her release from this world, sending support and gathering information on Comet’s transition. Kathleen, who had studied riding on Comet nearly a decade earlier, had facilitated many workshop sessions with the mare during her stellar years as an equine experiential learning horse.
As Kathleen limped toward the corral, carefully negotiating the rough ground with a cane, my colleague realized that she and Comet had something else in common: they were both dealing with serious, long-term injuries to their left legs, exacerbated by age and arthritis. “Since I couldn’t go in with the horses, I sat just outside Comet’s corral and talked with her,” Kathleen remembers. “I reminisced and told her how much I appreciated her. I also cried, not only because she was leaving us the next day, but because as a human, I could have surgery for something that she could not.” Knee replacements in people, after all, are only possible because a human can lay in bed for extended periods and begin to move around through a succession of wheel chairs, crutches, and canes. Everything else about Comet was perfect on that last cool winter day, but the pain was clearly wearing as her leg shook, threatening to buckle, despite the best medication we could give her.
A number of people who came to say goodbye also volunteered to be with Comet during her final moments the next morning, sending her love and reverence for a life well lived. I cannot thank these dear, courageous friends enough: Elysa Ginsburg, Mary-Louise Gould, Kathleen McGarry, Carol Roush, and Sue Smades stood with me as Shelley Rosenberg held Comet’s lead rope and Dr. Barbara Page administered a relaxing dose of anesthesia, followed by that last, most potent shot. Fifteen years earlier, Comet had been born at Shelley’s barn, at night, under the light of the Hale Bopp Comet, with the same veterinarian assisting. It was Dr. Page who had first noticed that this magical little filly was born with a comet-like blaze on her forehead, and it was Dr. Page who sent her back to the stars.
After Comet stopped breathing, we all spent some time with her. We then brought out Orion, Indigo Moon and Spirit to say their final goodbyes, as all three had been members of Comet’s herd at various points in her life. Orion gently caressed his mother’s face, tugging on her ear to try to get her to stand up. After she was buried and everyone left the property, he called out for hours. I did my best to cry for all of us.
Orion’s journey through the grief, however, was eased by Indigo Moon, who stood close by his younger half brother with a gentle, knowing gaze. Indi, after all, had been in the same position a year earlier when his mother passed away. And I realized that horses, like humans, learn and transform through loss as well as joy, developing compassion and emotional maturity through those very hardships we would most like to shield them from.
As it happens, we also lost one of our human herd members this year. Eponaquest Instructor Mimi Meriwether passed away in September after a long battle with cancer. Many of her fellow instructors comforted each other through the grief by sharing precious memories. The death of this vital, compassionate woman was so inconceivable to me that I was unable to write a more formal newsletter announcement last fall, mostly because I felt that summing up such a life in a few paragraphs could never do Mimi justice. But as the year came to a close, I wanted to acknowledge what a gift she was to so many people.
I still feel so honored to have witnessed a truly masterful dance Mimi had with faculty member Mary-Louise Gould’s horse Timeless Trick. Their powerful, frenetic, graceful collaboration in 2004 ended in a moment of stillness, of prayer, captured in this photo by another Eponaquest Instructor present that day, Theresa Capozzola. This brief moment, frozen in time, is all the more significant to me now that both Timey and Mimi have left this world, flying free to other adventures of the soul.
In looking back on Mimi’s life, I’m grateful to Ireland-based advanced Eponaquest Instructor Yvonne Monahan who knew her best. According to Yvonne, Mimi began her own journey through the way of the horse when she became a member of a pony club based in Pebble Beach, California. On the backs of her two first horses The Quiet Man and Carnival Clown, she began a serious venture into competing internationally. Her sport of choice was three-day eventing. To follow this heart’s desire, she moved to England where the possibilities of competitive riding at a top level can more readily be realized. At this stage, her best horse was Indian Guide. She placed as leading lady rider at a top international event called Acshelswang in Germany. And with this success she went on to be placed on the long list for the Barcelona Olympic Games.
“Her life’s journey was also one of great faith with a special place in her heart for the Virgin Mary,” Yvonne reveals. “Amazingly it was through her connection to a Franciscan Priest from the Marian shrine of Medjugorje that her path with horses took another turn. This Priest, Fr. Svetozar, had been journeying in America when he happened to hear an interview about how horses were being used as facilitators in helping people with various problems. The interview touched him so much that he contacted Mimi to tell her to check out this new work with horses.
“The synchronicity of it all was that Mimi had recently purchased The Tao of Equus, and it was there sitting on her shelf unread. So she picked it up and started reading. She could not put it down. Before she even finished the book, she contacted Epona to see when the next workshop would be. It was soon, but also filled. Mimi was not one to let the grass grow under her feet so she asked to be put on a wait list, loaded up her car and headed for Tucson determined that she would be a part of the workshop. It was one of those life-changing moments for her.”
After the workshop, Mimi rang her good friend in Ireland to tell her all about it. “The excitement and wonder communicated on the phone line touched my very soul,” Yvonne remembers. “I thought this must really be something.”
And so Yvonne travelled across the Atlantic to see what the excitement was all about. Mimi arranged for Yvonne and four other friends to join her at an Eponaquest workshop held at Colorado’s Buffalo Woman Ranch, then owned by two advanced instructors: Robbie Nelson, who still runs the ranch, and Charlie McGuire, the first of our elder instructors who passed away (and perhaps, I like to think, was there to greet Mimi as she left this world for higher jumps and greener pastures).
“Mimi was always bringing people from one side of the world to the other,” Yvonne says. “It started when she would bring many, many friends and priests on pilgrimages and retreats to places like Italy, Turkey, Venezuela, Ireland and Medjugorje. She was the forerunner, the one who would check it all out before offering the experience to others. Now she was bringing others to experience the healing and spiritual side of horses. Her kindness and generosity knew no limits.”
I witnessed and experienced Mimi’s generosity first hand on numerous occasions. After graduating from the Eponaquest Apprenticeship Program herself, Mimi continued to provide scholarships for numerous friends to attend workshops by other Eponaquest Instructors over the years. She helped me to save my herd when I had to close Apache Springs Ranch during the economic crisis of 2008-9. And she was often the first to sign up for new workshops I was offering, most notably the July 2008 clinic Keeper of the Mysteries (now known as Black Horse Wisdom), in which horse-facilitated work is combined with creativity-boosting activities and intuitive journeying experiences.
The reason I bring this particular workshop up is that I’d like to close with something she wrote as a result of attending that event. In this regard, I’m grateful to Heather Taylor, another Eponaquest Instructor who attended that same clinic. In hearing about Mimi’s passing, Heather sent this amazing prose-poem that expresses Mimi’s soulful way of engaging with life’s mysteries—all the more poignant now that she herself has joined forces with THE Great Mystery.
Mimi’s left us far too soon, but during her time on this earth, she showed us how to keep our hearts open, to really listen, and to love without reservation. Ultimately, she encouraged us to let go of the habits and the “forms” that keep us from an expanded view of what life has to offer. Always positive, even in the midst of what would, from a more limited view, seem like an unfair, and most certainly debilitating, painful ordeal with the ovarian cancer that finally compelled her to let go of her own beautiful form, Mimi is another person whose emotional heroism continues to inspire me, especially as I read, and re-read, her life-affirming vision. I hope that this year, whenever I become impatient with earthly challenges, I will think of Mimi, and in her own words, “trust the dance of seen and unseen…shedding form fluidly.”
In one of her final emails to Yvonne, her closing words were “Live, love, and be happy.” In Mimi’s memory, may we all learn to ride the pace Spirit gives us….bridle-less.
by Mimi Meriwether
July 20, 2008
“How can I serve you best today?”
Spirit whispered: Can you Be Breeze with Eyes and Ears and Voice of Silence? (For that is what is most needed.)
“I have not met such a creature,” I replied, “but if you help I will try.”
Gather boy and horse, eagle and dove, saffron sari lady, whirling dervish, skipping stone, handkerchief, dancers: African, Indian and Balinese, and a Scot in kilts with bagpipes….That should do.
“Oh my! That’s quite a list. Where will I find all these, and will they come?”
Just sit quite still and close your eyes, pretend, and they will come when I call. Are you ready?
“I’m a bit confused; I’m not quite sure; perhaps tomorrow would be a better day.”
I need them NOW and you volunteered….
I need you to Be a little boy, 8. Now look up; see the Eagle? I need you to fly and See from Above. Now drop from the sky like a skipping stone: Activate the still waters below and push them over the brim. Good. Now flow down stream irrigating fields and breathe life into the parched land. A horse now, yes: Do take a drink for the journey is long and WE must deliver the handkerchief. A child has fallen, bind his arm little handkerchief. And oh, the woman crying at the altar rail: Quick, I need you to dry her tears. Spilt blood, little handkerchief, do absorb. Quick to the Ganges, do transform now. Saffron sari trimmed with gold for the young lady offering prayer. African drums beat, Indian feathers caress sacred smoke, and Balinese prayers dance, while Bagpipers, their mournful song laments another soul passing, another to be born.
“I am dizzy,” I cried, “I am but Me! It’s hard to morph so regularly, and I don’t understand at all.”
Oh little one, you are so much more than you can see. Leave behind the idea of form and let my Spirit breathe in thee. Dance with the rhythm spirit breathes. And leave all the rest to me.
“Spirit, I think I am cracking up, dizzy, with ideas too lofty for me. Let me just dream and morph while asleep and rest contented I am of service to THEE.”
MYSTERY PRAYER Part II
“How may I serve you today?”
Be Breeze with Ears and Eyes and Voice of Silence….
Attach no importance to form, no particular value.
Flow seamlessly as I direct you
in out through.
Let the Breath be your passage from one form to another and ride the In Between.
“Breeze All Ears,” Listen and Hear
“Breeze All Eyes,” Truly See
“Breeze All Feel,” Feel ALL
Ride the pace I give you Bridle-less
lightly flowing in and out of Being
Transform Seen and Unseen
Breeze, whispering new stories,
incorporate, incarnate, and release
Breathe what is coming into Being
though you do not see clearly yet
trust the dance of seen and unseen
visible and invisible
you are directed
to be form
as I, to form bring
and loosen from form
Allow, little ones,
stepping in and shedding form fluidly
at my calling
Guides ever present breathing in and through
growing ever deeper into
Temporary and Eternal
Form and Formless
Visible and Invisible
Breeze, Silently Voicing Way, Truth, and Life into Being
Now an Eagle, now Panther, Lion, Deer, Turtle, Dove,
Grazing Horse at rest, alone or as a herd,
swiftly covering ground or in stillness
All are messengers crossing lines drawn in men’s minds
(How they love to delineate, armoring “Self – Form”
Separate, eyes strain to see
Ears listen but do not hear
Castles built to honor and protect.)
Breeze calls and like the bird soul flies away
Empty castle where is your fire?
Spirit called from stillness to flight
Endless Breath Breathes in and out of form and formless, visible and invisible.
the Voice of Silence most eloquent
nourishing ALL with Presence.
Be as is.
Delight in form
out of form
I will form.