The group stood in a circle outside the stable block, in front of the classroom where we had spent the past three days. There was a gentle breeze that swirled around us as we prepared to say farewell to each other, both horses and humans, holding gratitude and excitement about what each graduate would be offering to the world with their newfound skills and knowledge. As we settled into our circle, Opus walked over to us. He had spent the weekend connecting with us at liberty, during teaching sessions, and at break times. He had won our hearts with his steadfast energy and curiosity, and made us laugh with his fondness for Hob-Nobs (a very traditional English cookie). While technically “retired”, Opus was still eager to share his views, and chose to take his place as part of the circle. As each group member offered their closing remarks, Opus stepped into the circle and placed his head near each person, moving and turning as the next person spoke, before resting his head again. He touched his muzzle to hands, cheeks, and shoulders, and acknowledged each of us as we spoke, before finally resting his head by Jude, his guardian of the last 7 years. It was a touching moment, and we held space for this beautiful being, each of us knowing that this would be the last group that he would hold space for.
Opus was 31 years old, with no teeth, and was struggling to keep weight on. The decision had been made that he would be put to rest in the coming few days. In the end, he chose to lay himself down to sleep and cross the Rainbow Bridge unaided, two days after our closing ceremony. It was time, and as always, he had an opinion and decided for himself.
My heart breaks for Jude and her herd as they grieve the loss of Opus. Having been in his presence, I know that he was a willing participant in this work, and has helped many clients and participants by challenging them to show up authentically, and lead from their hearts. As he held space for others in life, I want to hold space for him in his passing by keeping his human and horse herd in mind.
But it’s not only Opus.
As guardians of our equine partners, it is our job to hold space for them as well as our clients and participants in the work that we do. This is why we emphasize the relational ethics of horse-human welfare and safety at The HERD Institute. Many of you have asked whether there will be hands-on time with horses at next year’s HERD Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. An interesting process has emerged for me in considering the questions “What about the horses?” and “Will they be there?”
I’ve thought long and hard about the pros and cons of this, and have had many conversations with others who have organized such events. It seems odd to have a conference about working with horses without any horses present. How can we effectively communicate the magic of what occurs without demonstrating our skills live? Surely if we want to draw attention to our programs, we need to show people what we can do with the horses present.
As I pondered these questions, I began to recognize that the pull towards including horses at the conference centered on the needs of humans, and not the horses. As someone who espouses the importance of the relationship between horse and human in the work that we do, it seemed counter to my values to set up a scenario where presenters would come into the space to work with horses who don’t know them, in an unfamiliar environment, with potentially dozens of people in attendance. With the theme of the conference as Sharing Space with Love and Compassion, it seems important to lead from my heart and stay true to the relational ethics that I have come to hold dear: that this work cannot be done at the expense of the horses.
So, what about the horses? Sure, I’m confident that the horses we brought into the mix would be able to manage their stress and anxiety in an unfamiliar situation. Horses will just do what horses do and shake it off afterwards, right? Maybe. Yet I found the phrase “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” popping into my head, because really, I don’t want the horses to simply tolerate what is happening to them/with us. Instead, I’d like us all to consider how we might hold space for the work that we do with all of our incredible equine partners, in the context of our relationships with them, and create an event that honors their spirit and willingness to partner with us. I’d like us to be creative in how we bring our horses “into the room” at the conference, and while it’s not the same as being able to touch, smell, and hug on a real live horse, it means that I can sleep soundly tonight, knowing that I am choosing integrity over comfort, and living into the values I hold dear.
So will there be horses at the conference? Absolutely. Just because Opus is no longer physically with us, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t present. Through our hearts, our stories, and our intentional way of holding space for them throughout our time together, we can bring our horses with us as we gather.
I look forward to connecting with all of you and the horses you will “bring” with you. If you are interested in presenting at the conference, please go to our website and submit a proposal before our September 1st deadline!
P.S. In the event that you want to go sniff some real live horses, the Kentucky Horse Park is literally ten minutes away from the conference venue!