Kera Willis has a secret agenda. In any of her students—whether they're a child coming under the guise of taking horse-riding lessons or attending a Pro D Day, spring or summer camp, or a parent taking riding lessons with their child, or attending a day long workshop—she's hoping to lodge something more than good posture and horsemanship.
"I'd like to see the little seeds of awareness that I share give them a way to belong to the natural world for the rest of their lives. And through that belonging, to become an activist on behalf of the things that they love," confesses Willis.
For not quite two years, since relocating from Squamish, Mountain Horse School has operated on the fringe of Pemberton, in a modest barn up the Meadows, with a helpful cast of critters—four horses, a sheep named "spinny" Vinny, Rosie the pig, several ducks, the dog, and sometimes a curious neighbouring cat. As of March 1, the crew has moved to town, to take up residence at their new base in the beautiful barn at Cricket Song Farm, on the corner of Highway 99 and Harrow Road, the property that is most easily identified as the alpaca-filled field that corner-posts Vinyl Village.
Mountain Horse School offers "relationship-based riding lessons"—horse riding where the emphasis is on the whole process of being with horses, as opposed to just becoming a rider who can do well at shows. "People catch their own horses, they get them ready, they tack them up. No one just hands you a horse and off you go. That's not a thing that happens," says Willis.
But thanks to her intuitive genius, (and decades of experience teaching kids with a full spectrum of needs and abilities, including two years as a special education assistant at the Whistler Waldorf School), it's more a kind of wizardry school for how to be fully human, which means being in a genuine relationship with the natural world. And the gateway is wonder, which Willis courts as if the two of them are regular dance partners.
Willis' desire to create a horse-riding school arose out of two things: a hope to make horses functional and practical for her life, and a strong reaction against unsatisfying riding lessons from her own childhood.
"There's not a lot of opportunity to build true relationships with horses," she says. "When I grew up riding, the instructor stood in the middle of the ring and shouted instructions. You had 10 minutes to get your horse ready and you handed it off to someone at the end of the lesson. As a teenager I had a horse for three years and did a bunch of showing, and there was never any consideration given to how horses think or feel, or what are they here for. A horse was just like a bicycle, except you had to put more time in to train it so that it would do what you wanted. I wanted to create something that was—not that."
In her four-day camps, she collects kids together with a diverse skillset, so they learn to help each other. In the mornings, they focus on the horse. Afternoons, they wander into the wilder world and forage fruit to make fruit leathers, wild treasures to transform into paper or crafts, dandelions to brew into fruit gummies. "We can start kids who are super scared and by the end of a couple of days they're holding the reins and steering by themselves. Yes, I'm teaching riding lessons, but I'm also teaching leadership and empowerment and inclusion and social skills and emotional intelligence and all of these other things. I've kind of woven it in, in stealth mode. Because I don't want to stand there in front of a group of kids and say: 'Today we're going to talk about anxiety!' Who wants that?"
If you want to listen more deeply to the world around you, you have to be a bit tricky. You have to outplay the rational mind, you have to slipslide and use poetry, metaphor, trees, masks, ceremony, ritual, animals. This has been known. It has been forgotten. It was been reclaimed. It has been covered up. It's a strange place to venture. It's a world Kera Willis inhabits frequently and the horses are a huge part of that.
"I think there's something really beneficial for us in having to interact with an animal that is so much larger than us and has the power to kill us in an instant but chooses not to. I think in a world where as humans we're so bent on controlling everything, there's something that you automatically bump off when you encounter a horse, sort of like looking at a mountain—it's a little bit unfathomable, a little bit mysterious. You've got to pay attention. You've got to know where your feet are, which puts people in their bodies in a different way than if you're working with ducks. It doesn't really matter if a duck steps on you."
Being in the world, in right relationship with the ecosystem that we are embedded within, starts with being in our bodies, and then expressing that "beingness" outwards, through relationships and connection, into the larger body of the world. A kind of magic. Sometimes achieved through a horse's whisper. Slippery and sticky and wonderful, at the same time.
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