Her dark brown eyes looked out at me from beneath short, light red eyelashes – a striking combination, it would seem, if it wasn’t for her hair, which shone the same strawberry golden hue, albeit wispily thin.
I stared at her freckled visage for what must have been 10 minutes. She was strong, yet somehow fragile. Beautiful, yet somehow crude.
Closing my eyes, I imagined her wading upriver with a spear in hand and only a swath of leather as clothing. Her bare feet gripped the surface of each rock as she searched for fish. She stopped occasionally to peer into the crystal clear waters running through the cave. A string of horse head pendants carved from reindeer antlers rattled softly around her neck as she moved. The horse spirit would help her to be swift and strong, her father always said.
I opened my eyes and returned to the dimly lit room of the Prehistoric Museum in the village of Mas d’Azil in the French Pyrénées. Around me was a collection of artifacts and bones found in the nearby cave of the same name, including horse head pendants, spearheads, and the skull of a young girl. An artist had recreated what she may have looked like – the red-headed girl in front of me, with features not unlike mine.
She had lived in the cave with her tribe of the Magdalenian culture about 14,000 years BC. The 500 meter-long cave is one of the most spectacular of the Pyrénées Mountains, and certainly the grandest I had ever seen.
The cave is so massive it has a river and a road running through it, as well as countless underground chambers and cathedral-like caverns. The unassuming Arize River carved its way through the limestone and clay over millions of years to form the cave.
Three distinct human civilizations inhabited the cave from 24,000 to 8,000 years BC, finding refuge from predators and the elements. Inside, archeologists had discovered drawings, carvings, and what became known as portable art – pieces of jewelry and talismans the tribes could wear, carry, or trade. Horses and bison represent more than 50 percent of the artwork found in this and other caves in the region. The portable artwork was carved from reindeer antlers or painted on stones and was traded throughout what is today southern Europe.
Since horses were thought to be domesticated only about 3500 BC, I find it interesting that, long before horses carried people, we carried them – on our bodies, in our hearts, and in our imaginations. The horse represented strength, fleetness of foot, beauty – all things admired by our human ancestors. The large herds of Przewalski’s horses that roamed what was then open steppe likely served as prey. Some believe that cave art helped people to connect with the herds to know where to find their prey. Horses fed ancient peoples and captured their imaginations.
Maybe that is why somewhere deep down I am drawn to wild horses – they link me to an ancestral time, a time when horses and all things wild were revered, a time when we depended on them for our survival. Nature resonated within us, our instincts helped us thrive, and our connection to the land and the animals made us strong, bold, and resilient.
A couple of days after visiting the cave, I hiked a mountain to spend time with a herd of free-roaming horses as part of the Wild and Wise Retreat I organized for equine-assisted learning professionals. As I stepped over the rocks, my mind found its way back to the cave girl. She must have traveled similar paths with her tribe, following herds of bison and horses.
Taking my shoes off, I began to step mindfully on each rock, each patch of moss, gripping the ground with my feet. I paused on the wet moss to let the dew soak into my bare skin. When the cold from the shady earth became too much to bear, I moved to a sunlit patch and soaked in the grassy warmth. I sensed the earth beneath me, vibrating and alive with every step. I was the cave girl, quietly connecting to the land as each foot instinctively found its place along the rocky incline.
The cave and my experience on the mountain hold a very special place for me. They confirmed for me the knowing that – like the girl from the cave – I was meant to follow the ancestral path of the horse. Along this path, I have found the way to my own inner landscape and have been able to light the way for others.
In my work with horses as teachers, I am fortunate to witness how horses bridge the gap between my clients and nature each day. When we immerse ourselves in the world of the horse, we tap into an energy much greater and older than we are. Horses awaken in us the natural world – one which recoils from our modern-day lifestyles. More importantly, horses awaken in us the wildness and wisdom of our own ancestral past.
When given the chance, horses patiently lead us on a journey to inner sanctuary – a place just waiting to be discovered in the caverns within.
Be wild. Be wise. Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary May 2019.
Escape with me and other equine-assisted professionals on the next Wild and Wise Retreat with Mustangs in Colorado, May 19-25, 2019. Let the mustangs guide you to inner sanctuary. Special guest and co-facilitator Rob Pliskin will share horse medicine from his indigenous teachers, as well as ways horses heal trauma.