At the end of April, a group of teen cancer survivors attended the Horse Power Retreat in the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve, where they were treated to unexpected revelations. The program was organized by Laura Williams of Humans and Horses-Russia and funded by the Grant Life Foundation, which has seen these youths through enormous trials with their illness and treatment.
The group of seven 18-20 year olds spent four days in a magical place seemingly at the ends of the Earth, though it was only in the Bryansk Region (500 km southwest of Moscow). They left behind their parents, their usual surroundings, and the Internet. They stayed in a cozy wooden guest house and gathered for meals around a large table. Twice a day for an hour and a half they immersed themselves in conversation with horses... Wait! What? Conversation?
“It really was a conversation. Laura’s horses roam freely, so you need to find a common language with them,” says Elena Rachkova, head of the Grant Life Foundation’s Rehabilitation Project. “From the moment these horses joined Laura’s herd, they haven’t worn bits or seen whips. To convince the horse to do something, force is out of the question. You need to think about what you can do for the horse, so that he or she wants to respond: either to come along with us or to stop doing whatever he or she is doing and join us instead. The kids observed, experimented, and studied their own reaction and the reaction of the horse in order to learn to express their intention and wishes without using force or reward. You can’t make the horse do anything, you can only find common ground. Of course you could watch Laura and try to replicate what she did, but that doesn’t always work. It is better to find your own way.”
Laura explains safety precautions, but doesn’t give instructions. She asks the participants to observe the horses and then share their discoveries. If something doesn’t work or the horse doesn’t like something, it is important to figure out why. What was it that you were doing or feeling at that moment? Were you afraid (and how can you not be when there is a huge animal in front of you without so much as a rope or halter?) Did you feel insecure? Did you try to make the horse do something, forgetting that – here – the horses are in charge?
“We had to consider the size, mood, and wishes of the horses. But the kids pretty quickly found a common language and understood what they needed to do to connect with a horse and begin to interact,” continues Elena Rachkova. “This is exactly why they are here. Laura offers them a well-structured program to go through step by step. But the participants decide for themselves how to go about it and how deeply they want to engage. I really appreciate that the organizers don’t impose anything on us, therefore the participants are free to create their own goals. They might aim to better understand themselves, or figure out how to go about something they plan on doing, or realize their dream. One might attempt to rid himself of something negative, while another might embrace something positive. But first each must become aware, feel into, and formulate the question: what do I really want?”
While the kids were figuring out their goals, unexpected discoveries were abound. Sofia Grebenchenko was unsure she would be strong enough before the program. But it turned out that her strength came from within, all she needed was to find it and release it. What did other program participants discover? Below they share their experiences with those for whom the adventure is still to come – as a new group will soon be on their way to the nature preserve, to be greeted by miracles, the horses, and their hospitable hosts.
Horses are like silent people
Lyubov Davidonis, 18, studying to be a restoration artist
“It was a magical time. This may sound strange, but I was able to see myself through the eyes of the horse Daisy. She and I created a special bond, something I haven’t ever experienced with animals, or with horses for that matter. I rode a horse once, but that was like riding a bicycle. Here we got to know each other and connected. It was more like I was with a silent person than an animal. No one told us how to talk to them, we were just given a safety talk, and everything else we had to do ourselves.
I tried to find an approach to the horse and observed how she reacted to me: what she would do when I approached her in one mood, then another, and a third. A horse can’t respond with words, she reacts with her body and movement. She showed me if she wanted to connect or not. I had to be completely calm and friendly. And I had to focus on what I was going to do – actually picturing it in my mind.
If the horse senses you are nervous, she becomes nervous, too. She is large and can be dangerous. Once Daisy bumped me with her head, but I managed to jump out of the way. In order to be calm and confident, I took a deep breath and then sighed, and relaxed.
What obstacles did I overcome? I am always dependent on the opinions of others, and not very confident in my own words and actions. It always seems that other people know better what is right for me. Now I am fully aware that only I can decide what I need. For me this retreat was a reality check, an opportunity to see myself, my life, and my inner world through a new lens, and to decide what are my priorities going forward.”
I sensed my own strength
Sofia Grebenchenko, 20, student at the Russian Customs Academy
“I was curious about participating in this program though I was quite surprised at the initial objective – understanding horses and our mental connection. But I couldn’t have imagined how much this would help me in life. So once again I am convinced that the most amazing things happen when they aren’t planned and that everything happens for a reason.
Thanks to this program I sensed my own strength and began to believe in myself. I was really lacking that. It all began when we were asked to choose a horse, I chose the herd leader, Dawn. After we got to know each other, I began to feel her strength (or mine?) within me. Horses are very compassionate to people and will listen to us. They are social animals, we can make friends with them and easily form a bond. And we can be on equal ground with them. They can also help a person to reach their goals - if, of course, the person is listening and trying to understand.
To achieve that connection, while Dawn and I were together, I needed to focus and be in the present moment, be aware of my thoughts and watch the horse’s behavior. This isn’t always easy. When I got distracted with other thoughts about my life in Moscow or about my studies, the horse dropped her head and walked the other way.
During the retreat I came to the realization that I don’t need to change anything in me. Everything that we need is already within us, we just need to develop these qualities, and gradually perfect them. Now, if I will have a hard time doing something, I will cheer myself on, remembering the achievements and little victories I had during the retreat. That’s the most important thing I brought home. And of course I found what is hidden deep inside me. Now I know what I need to work on.“
It was the best four days!
Konstantin Kirillov, 20, student at the Moscow Polytechnical University
“I wanted to go because it seemed that the nature reserve was interesting and I was hoping to gain new experiences, and to rest and relax. It was totally worth it!
I was able to form a bond with two horses – Daisy and Eaglet. Daisy is the largest horse. You can connect with her only at an intuitive level. When I was aware of what was going on inside me and mastered my thoughts, that was when we began to connect successfully.
I had set a goal for myself on this trip – to become a better person. To conquer myself, in a way. Before the program it was hard for me to pull myself together and move forward, and now I can. The nice thing is that I was able to set objectives for myself: I have an idea to write a book and even have written a draft. Perhaps I needed to come in order to write my book?
I think I changed - in some ways I changed my perspective on my studies and now I see them in a new light. Because of this program it is as if something in me woke up.”
Original article on the Grant Life Foundation website in Russian here.