The art of horse-whispering

Bonding with equine companions amid the wilds of Dartmoor, Devon

There’s something magical about the relationship between humans and horses. Over the centuries our equine friends have helped us to farm, hunt, ride and holiday. But wild herds or retired horses aside, rarely are horses allowed to roam freely and to live as a herd animal, as nature intended.

By the same token, rarely do we get to spend time with horses without jumping into the saddle. Happily, hidden away on the edge of wild-feeling Dartmoor National Park is a place where you can do just that. Here you can ‘join’ a herd and learn the compelling art of horse whispering. Turn up on the winter or summer solstice, and you might find yourself on a sunrise walk on the moor. Horses and humans quietly bonding or walking shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence. What could be lovelier?

Harry, Arthur, William and Tristan are the handsome (also cheeky and noble) quartet – the ‘healing herd’ – who help to make the magic happen. They work with their human companion, Sue Blagburn, who spent her childhood hanging out with horses in the New Forest. A qualified riding instructor, she was once a trainer and high-level competitor and is trained in natural horsemanship – and a whole lot more. But connecting with horses in their natural environment is her passion, one she’s keen to share with riders and non-riders alike.

Late one spring afternoon I head to Devon to learn about horse culture and language first-hand. I clock the White Horse etched in chalk on Westbury Hill as the train speeds past. It feels like a good omen. I’m not a total novice in matters of the horse: I’ve – ahem – watched the Horse Whisperer, read The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson (unputdownable) and as a child I obsessively read and re-read Christine Pullein Thompson’s Riders from Afar. I’ve taken a handful of riding lessons and once, a riding holiday in Italy. Alas, I was thrown twice whilst trying to canter so I chose to cut my losses. Au revoir saddle.

Many years on and I’ve no great desire to get back onto it. But forging a bond with a horse, learning how to invite acceptance and even affection without having to resort to carroty bribes is irresistible. The ‘boys’ have led a colourful life. Sue has raised gorgeous New Forest ponies William and Harry from the time they were six-month-old foals and sleek thoroughbred Arthur from birth.

More recently she bought Tristan, a dapple-grey Dartmoor hill pony, from her landlady. Back in 2008, facing hard times, Sue had to sell Arthur. Four years later, he’d had a fall and injured his back, putting an end to his eventing career. Sue bought him back and decided to film the equine reunion. The result went viral, with over seven million views to date (just try googling ‘Horse Reunion’).

“Horses and humans quietly bonding or walking shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence. What could be lovelier?”

‘My goal is to connect people with horses without using dominance or force,’ says Sue, when she collects me at my B&B. She’d recommended the 500-yearold Lowertown Farm, owned by a young farming couple. (In the morning they’d sweetly asked whether I’d like ‘chicken or duck’ eggs with my full English, before giving me a tour of the farm.) On our drive over a grey, blustery moor to meet the horses we pause to take in the sweeping views of the Dart Valley from Combestone Tor. It’s one of the many granite outcrops on Dartmoor, thought to have been used by Druids for ancient ceremonies. Horses would have witnessed them.

‘There have been native ponies roaming the moorland of southern England since the last Ice Age,’ explains Sue. ‘In the New Forest and on Dartmoor, ponies still run wild in herds. Tristan spent his first six months roaming Holne Moor, on the slopes of Dartmoor, with his mum. Harry’s father roams wild in the New Forest and William spent his first six months with his mother in the New Forest.’

‘Horses don’t respect dominant or bossy behaviour from us,’ Sue continues. ‘They are highly sensitive, ego-free creatures. They don’t judge. But they are gifted at reading our body language and will communicate through their own body language. Horses go straight to the heart of who we are. You can’t fool a horse.’ Once we reach Middle Stoke Farm, Sue’s home and the base for her courses, we head past the horse shelters, through the arena, and beyond a gate to the four-hectare meadow where the horses graze. It’s an oasis scattered with primroses, bluebell clusters and hawthorn, oak and horse chestnut trees. It also borders Holne, a National Trust woodland, and overlooks the wild expanses of Dartmoor. Somewhere beyond the line of trees, I can hear the rushing of the River Dart. At first my hopes for a horsey love-in evaporate. Harry is busy munching on grass on one side of the field whilst William, Arthur and Tristan are doing the same on the other. All of them are giving me a fine view of their swishy tails and rumps. Hmm.

“‘Horses go straight to the heart of who we are. You can’t fool a horse.’”

Clearly, the transformation from awkward, eager horse lover to graceful ‘whisperer’ isn’t going to happen in an instant. You must slow down and relax if you want to get into a horse’s good books. You can’t just barge in there patting away, whilst silently pleading ‘like me!’ or ‘obey me!’ That’ll just send you straight to gee-gee purgatory. ‘Be sensitive to the horse’s mood and your own. Try to feel the horses instinctually, through your gut and heart. Connect with them as sentient beings. Approach them softly and be respectful of their space,’ says Sue. ‘Just because they’re not coming up to you doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Not inspecting you is a way of being polite,’ she adds, pointing out how the ears of all three horses are pricked up attentively. Given the green light, I amble over to Arthur, and he carries on munching, unperturbed. According to Sue he’s inviting me to join him in eating grass. Should I?

Feeling a tiny bit silly, I crouch down low and begin to pull up grass. Within moments, a lovely horsey face has drawn close to mine. Before long William trots over and rubs up against me ‘He loves having his belly scratched. It’s his party piece,’ says my guide. ‘He’s telling you this by presenting his body to you.’ This is all rather good fun. Less is more when you’re trying to connect with a horse. There’s no pressure to perform as you might on a riding lesson: it’s just you, a meadow, birdsong and the horses.

Now that I’ve been broken in, we head for lunch in the farmhouse. Later Sue walks me to the arena. It’s time for one of the horses to decide if he wants to work with me. To my amazement Arthur nods his head vigorously and comes bounding up, mane flying. Can I lead him round some obstacles in the arena without using a lead rope? How will I do it? Will he follow me? Directed by the horse whisperer, I resolve to connect with Arthur while he nonchalantly munches on the leaves of a low-hanging branch.

I give it my all. I exercise zen levels of calm, attempt telepathy, cast him meaningful glances, walk on confidently and retrace my steps. Arthur stares at me, and stops and sniffs the ground before – Hallelujah! – he takes two short strides in my direction. In this yo-yo fashion (I’m the yo-yo), we proceed round the arena. Perseverance wins the day and before long he is trailing behind me.

Calm, trust and patience are crucial to connecting with a horse, I learn. The next day I return to the farm and join a group session. In the morning we hang out with the herd in the meadow. In the afternoon, I lead Tristan, the eager Dartmoor pony with a fetching fringe, round the ring. He’s on a lead rope but I’m under strict orders not to yank it. ‘Remember – this is a partnership,’ says Sue. ‘If he pulls the rope first, you’re allowed to gently nudge him back with it but no more.’

Achieving the optimum state of inner calm and focus that’ll get me onto his wavelength is a tricky business. When I get it right and Tristan follows without being asked, it’s a thrilling experience. Even better, whilst I’m basking in the afterglow of my efforts, Arthur, the big-hearted thoroughbred strolls over. He bends his neck, gazes straight at me with his lovely, big brown eyes and rubs gently against my face. I can feel him blowing into my nose and my spine tingles. It’s a moment I’ll long cherish.