People, Horses and Other Animals

Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Living | No Comments

The premise that animals can motivate humans to be better people is not a new one. Over millennia the bond between “man and – insert animal of choice here –” has been the stuff of history (think of the Egyptians and their mummified cats) and has inspired characters such as Gentle Ben, Lassie, or Flipper the dolphin. I vividly remember watching “Born Free” during my early years in primary school, and ending up in the bathroom sobbing my heart out after Elsa the lion died. Ditto with Bambi. Today I refuse to watch animal movies – although I love horses you will never find me lining up to see a movie like “War Horse,” and although I am a huge admirer of natural horsemanship, I have gone out of my way to avoid watching “The Horse Whisperer”. And if you think I have somewhat trigger-happy tear ducts, then just consider the many people who have confessed to tearing up just by looking at the photographs of the wild horses of Sable Island by visual poet Roberto Dutesco. (

What I realised back then as a child is that animals have a very special power over human emotions and lives. Just by being themselves, animals often seem to find a quick way to our hearts, something which is a testing ground for human relationships (and in some cases a substitute for it), and a testing grounds for the “what-ifs” of life. Animals, essentially, are our teachers – they can fulfil this role although they have never actually volunteered for it, and remain unpaid and often unacknowledged.

With that in mind I have spent the last couple of months on a mission to meet and find out about the stories of people who are keenly aware of this special power of animals, and who have been able to live their lives acknowledging and harnessing the instinctual relationship between human and animal.

My first stop on this journey was Otaki, a small, beautiful coastal town on the Kapiti coast of the New Zealand north island. Having left Auckland via plane at an ungodly hour in the morning, I drove up the coast from Wellington to Otaki just as the sun was coming up – for those who have never done this drive I can only recommend it as a most serenely awe-inspiring moment: rugged coastline on one side, lush hills with the sun peeking up behind them on the other side. By the time I pulled into the driveway of “Horse Sense” I had already decided that no matter what else happened today, it had definitely been worth getting up at 4am.

Horse Sense is a farm owned and run by Jenny Gibbons, who specialises in what is called ‘equine assisted therapy’. If you’re thinking person on couch while horse sits in armchair with a notepad quoting Freud – think again: equine assisted therapy works on the premise that the uncanny sensitivity of horses and their instinctive herd behaviour unlocks something within a person suffering from issues ranging from low self-esteem to some serious mental health disabilities. This has nothing to do with riding a horse, and everything to do with what happens when the person is put into a paddock with a herd of horses, a clinical psychologist and two equine therapists.

I spent a day with Jenny and her horses, watched several of her clients with the horses, and listened to stories of many more people who had come to heal something within themselves, and found questions answered that they didn’t even know they had, simply through the natural interaction with the horses. Here I saw first-hand that animal language afforded a safety net in which to tackle issues that may have just been impossible – or at least very hard – to tackle in conventional human-to human therapy. Jenny emphasised that every day herself and her team of experts learned something new about human behaviour (including their own), courtesy of the horses. I left Otaki with a sense of wonder, but also with the conviction that everything I personally saw and experienced made perfect, unspoken sense.

The next place I visited with questions about people and animals was the farm of Elder Jenks, who is the chairperson of the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses,an organisation that is dedicated to saving New Zealand’s wild-living population of Kaimanawa horses from unnecessary slaughter. The bi-annual cull of the horses living on Army land in the Kaimanawa ranges is organised by the Department of Conservation, and if it weren’t for people like the Kaimanawa Heritage Trust, all 200 horses would be rounded up, separated from their equine families and sent to the abattoir. Instead, the Trust works hard to find suitable owners to adopt these horses, and offer them another chance at life. Elder has a dozen or so Kaimanawa horses on his farm himself – he and Vanessa Randell, a horse trainer, look after Kaimanawa horses who have been “rescued from being rescued” – they come to his farm doubly traumatised, and together with his team he takes the time to make them feel safe again. When I asked Elder – who up until 15 years ago had nothing to do with animals, especially horses – what it is that makes him put so much of his time, effort and resources into these horses, he replied that the horses have taught him about patience and resilience:

“It’s the heart of these little horses. They are so loving, and they are so generous, they really are. I get lots of rewards. Daily I get them. And not just from our horses. I actually get reduced to tears when some people tell me things. I must be old, aye?”

The highlight of my day was getting to lunge Daisy, a very fearful and shy Kaimanawa who had come to Elder after being taken in from one of the musters and then put into a paddock by herself and left there for 13 years. It sounds trite, but I wanted to be a better person for that horse – I also wanted to rush out and buy a large farm so I could adopt all 200 muster horses single handed by myself. The muster is coming up at the beginning of month, so watch this space!

The final stop on my journey was 2623 kilometres across the ocean, in Ballarat Australia. I flew into Melbourne on what seemed to be the wettest day of their mid-autumn; once I arrived at the farm there was no mucking around – the sound of barking, whinnying and baaing was enough motivation to don a pair of oversized gumboots and raincoat immediately to help feed the ninety odd animals that have taken refuge at Anne Young’s “Nine Lives Farm” (Noah’s ark like, except there are more than two of each species). It was originally called “Nine Lives Farm” as Anne’s intention had been to save 9 lives on her 20 acre block; the farm is now home to alpacas, sheep, goats, horses, dogs, cats, geese and many others, most of whom have been rescued. I travelled to Anne’s farm as her story had intrigued me: a high-flying executive by day and animal rescuer at night – Anne juggles two very contrasting, and potentially highly stressful worlds, but she swears that without this juggling she would be a much less balanced and happy person:

“I love going into work, it’s been a big part of my life. But I REALLY like the country, because it’s so slow, frustratingly slow at times, but so different, the pace is different. The animals are not checking in or checking out, and so I think your decisions on both sides are much better. I think because of that, being around the animals, I am able to make good business decisions – I know good balance.”

Over the next two days I followed Anne around the farm, and got to see first-hand how the animals fill up each moment of the day – and while that may seem like a laborious time to spend the weekend, the many different little interactions between the humans and the animals make it all worthwhile. There is the triumph when the miniature pony – once too intimidated to even look at a person – comes up and starts nuzzling my hair; or the goat that was saved from an early death by being hand-raised inside the house, wearing nappies, following me around looking for pats; or watching the fluffy back mother hen and her little new born chicks, whom she insists on raising in the corner of the very busy goats’ house.

Like Jenny from Horse Sense, and Elder from the Kaimanawa Trust, Anne’s life provides an example of the rich beauty and the sense of joy and poignancy that can exist simultaneously in relationships with animals. In any event, there are many stories from my visits waiting to be told – watching Jenny, Elder and Anne, and their horses and other animals, has made me think about the value of being brought back to a fundamental place, and how maybe, just maybe, inspiration and learning about ourselves can as simple as interacting with our cat, dog or goldfish. Or in the words of A.A. Milne:

“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”


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