Back in Port Elizabeth, I find myself settling into the comfort of a solitary routine. I withdraw deep inside myself and, instead of seeking acceptance and love from men, I start to accept and love myself.
I decide to start horse riding again. I am nervous to start as I hadn’t ridden properly in seven years but I also know it is like riding a bike: once you learn it never really goes away. I take a lease at a rescue yard where the horses live outside in a herd. A lot of them are abandoned and troubled horses, some are old and some are unwanted. The yard is scrappy, with chickens and a sheep roaming about. The horses are underfed, with thick, clumpy coats, cracks in their hooves and ticks all over their skin. I can ride whichever horse I want to until I find my favourite. I’m immediately attracted to a Palomino pony called Shannahan.
At the same time, I start reading a book called The Tao of Equus, by Linda Kohanov, which speaks about the healing power of horses and about a woman who uses her horses in her practice of psychotherapy. She speaks about the transformative power that horses have, something that she has experienced time and time again in her work.
I park my car and walk up the sandy hill that leads to the stables. The morning sun stings my eyes while the birds sing in the bushes surrounding me. When I reach the stables, the horses are lazing around in the shade hiding from the relentless beat of the sun. One of the ponies, Prince, a chestnut, is always a little removed from the rest. He comes up confidently to greet me. Ears pricked, he touches my hand in a gesture of friendship and then starts to lick it – a peculiar habit.
I giggle. I go into the tack room and get Shannahan’s halter. He is a friendly pony, and once he caught onto the fact that I always come with apples he readily walks to me, leaving his friends behind once he sees me. I am fully aware of the fact that this is bribery and not affection. In order to show the other horses that I am not a threat, I approach them at a 45 degree angle, avoiding their gaze. When they reach out their noses to touch me, they are acknowledging me and accepting me into their space.
As horses can only communicate in body language and feelings, it is very important to be aware of what you are feeling at all times as they will immediately pick it up. As herd animals, they will always want a leader. When it is just you and your horse, he will always be testing you in order to establish who is the leader. For example, if he turns his shoulder or hind-quarters to you, he shows that he does not respect you.
Horse riding again meant that I had to teach myself to be strong, assertive and a leader. I couldn’t give in or back down. I had to face physical challenges head-on. I tackle Shannahan up, aware that he is a champion show jumper. I marvel at his energy. His friendliness borders on bossiness and he is not convinced that I am his leader. As we trot around the ring I start to smile.
Nervously, I cue him to canter. He takes off at full speed. I pull at the reins as hard as I can, aware that this won’t make any difference. He is out of my control. The only thing that will calm him down is to ride him in circles, but I’m afraid that the arena is too small. I have no idea what to do.
I finally manage to stop him, but by now my heart is in my throat and he is teeming with nervous energy. I wasn’t in charge. He felt my lack of control, my nervousness, and decided to run off. He didn’t want me off: he could have bucked if he wanted that. He just wanted to go faster. He was testing me and teaching me at the same time.