Far From the Madding Calgary Crowds …
by Lynne Palmer
Ravenheart Farm, just northwest of Humboldt, Saskatchewan is owned by former Calgarian, Carol Marriott, who left her frenetic city life behind two years ago to pursue a lifelong dream of living in the country. Today, as an Equine Assisted Learning specialist, she conducts workshops and individual sessions offering participants a peaceful country encounter and the opportunity to experience personal insights by interacting with gentle equine companions.
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Leaving the maze that is Calgary in the summer – road closures, detours, barriers, heavy equipment. Leaving the energy of irritation – impatient drivers, line-weary shoppers, overworked retail staff. Leaving the constant prattle of electronic media – the price of oil, economic uncertainty, Obama this, McCain that, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. Leaving the noise….
We are sailing across prairie waves, across green fields of young wheat and barley, across the patchwork of fluorescent yellow canola and soft cool inviting fields of periwinkle flax. The hawk, the red fox, the antelope watch without judgement as we pass; their grace eliciting an instant response of pleasure and gratitude. The immense sky of my Saskatchewan childhood still immense, still mesmerizes – a canvas huge with colour and texture and power. The kilometers pass and I feel the soft energetic shift as the city seeps from my body.
I was drawn by the title of the workshop, Horses, Spirit and Play, intrigued by this trinity. No horse experience necessary. No riding involved. I have read about the growing practice of using horses as a means of experiential learning and personal growth, teambuilding. I’d read the work of acclaimed author and instructor, Linda Kohonov (The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse and Riding Between The Worlds: Expanding Our Potential through the Way of the Horse).
I was also intrigued by Ravenheart Farms and the story of a former Calgarian pursuing a lifelong dream in Saskatchewan’s farming heartland.
The Courage to Act
Two years ago, Montreal-born Carol Marriott, a long-time Calgarian known to many through her roles with Spruce Meadows, the Calgary Humane Society and Canadian Blood Services, simply decided she’d had enough of city life.
“It was July 6, 2006 – 666,” she says with a smile, recalling her decision. “It was the perfect date to make a major life shift.” Carol, then 49, sold her Airdrie condo, gave her notice at work, put everything in storage and jumped in her car with no particular agenda in mind.
After a few months of exploring – Canada’s west coast, and the Pacific Northwest and Midwest in the U.S. – she drove through Saskatchewan to visit family in the small town of Quill Lake. “I was feeling so open to nature after just spending a week in Yellowstone National Park and as I drove through the grasslands and farmlands, the beauty of the prairie struck me at a very core place,” she said. “The thought began to percolate like a gentle epiphany – I could live my dream here.”
Within a few months Carol was settling into her new home, a lovely old five-bedroom farmhouse on 20 acres, 15 minutes from Humboldt. She had her long-time companion, a 16-year-old Welsh Cobb Pony, named “Raven”, transported from Alberta and she dubbed her acreage “Ravenheart”. She soon added a quarter horse, Sugar, and two Welsh ponies, Brownie and Lacy, to create the small Ravenheart herd that is now at the core of the work she does as a certified Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) specialist.
From the beginning, Carol held a vision for her country home. It would be a place of peace, respite and healing to share with others, a place for seekers, artists, writers. She continued to hold that vision through the most severe Saskatchewan blizzard in the past 50 years, through the endless farm chores – fencing, feeding, clearing, planting — through the harsh realities of country life. It was a lot for one city woman to take on by herself, but her vision included help!
Where There is a Will…
Recognizing the need for extra hands to help, Carol registered Ravenheart Farms with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, also known as Willing Workers on Organic Farms).
WWOOF, an international movement that began in England in 1971 and now has programs in some 35 countries spanning the globe, links people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help. WWOOF hosts provide food, accommodation and opportunities for volunteers to learn in exchange for four to six hours of work each day. There is no payment involved.
Carol’s inviting description of Ravenheart drew two enthusiastic WOOFERS from Germany, Chris and Bianca, who have spent the past four months with her, experiencing life on the Saskatchewan prairie and helping her create the peaceful retreat she envisioned from the start. She now offers a variety of workshops and one-on-one sessions for individuals looking for a peaceful country setting with the opportunity to experience the intuitive spirit of the horse.
Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) involves a collaborative effort between the facilitator, client and horse. As an EAL specialist, Carol is trained to recognize the natural language and reactions of horses as people participate in gentle, reflective exercises with the herd or individual horses.
Learning from Equus
I am standing in the round pen facing Raven, his jet black coat shining in the brilliant Saskatchewan sun, his eyes soft and at the same time intent. Unfettered by even a halter, he is, in a word, exquisite. I am reminded of my own writing about my lifelong passion for horses: “Sometime between birth and puberty, I fell in love with soft brown equine eyes…and still I am undone.”
He is wary yet stands firmly, directly in front of me, fully engaged. There is no agenda here; we stand and look and feel suspended in an intuitive encounter, a dialogue without words. Time passes. I am not sure if I have taken a breath. Then, without urging, he lifts his hoof and offers to step forward, and then again. He licks his lips and sighs. I feel a soft tingling in my body and inexplicable gratitude in my heart. I gently bow, and leave the round pen. Namaste Raven.
During a period of quiet reflection and discussion later, I understand that my experience in those moments with Raven was one of life’s elusive treasures. I was “in the moment”. In the moment, in my body and, somehow, in my own knowing.
As horses go, Raven could be termed “aloof”. .I learn that he was abused with unethical training methods as a youngster. Carol purchased him years ago, knowing the emotional damage he had endured and she has provided a loving home ever since.
Do I relate to Raven, damaged by what I perceive as negative experiences and disappointments in life? In the round pen in those quiet but intense moments, I am intuitively aware of feeling emotionally protected, and, at the same time, of a deep-rooted desire to feel connected. In taking a tentative step forward, Raven reflects my own knowing: “It is ok to trust. There is no need to move quickly. One small step is enough. There is such joy in even small moments of connection.”
Carol explains the theory. “As prey animals, horses naturally live in a state of heightened awareness, keenly attuned to one another, their environment and their own instinctual needs. They are intensely intuitive and naturally resonate with humans when we are in touch with our inner feelings,” she explains
“A slight shift in a person’s attitude, feelings, or body posture is immediately reflected by the horse. Horses can bring out the “authentic” in us and provide us with more awareness of our vulnerabilities and our strengths.”
And ah…the Country Life
Others in the workshop have similar experiences to mine; each of us taking steps – large and small – towards a new self-awareness. We spend the day sharing, laughing, reflecting, eating (delicious, organic country fare, lunch and dinner served around the kitchen table) and, quite simply, enjoy the serenity of the country.
Carol’s property encompasses a ducks unlimited preserve, home to a variety of marsh birds that serenade throughout the day. We walk through the “woods” along a meandering path through the large shelterbelt of native trees and bushes. The shelterbelt hides discarded historic treasures such as old metal tractor wheels. Overhead we are treated to a cacophony of prairie bird songs. Later that evening as we sit, laughing and reflecting on our day around a blazing fire we hear the haunting calls of the resident ??? owl.
Before bed we enjoy a final walk with farm dogs Polly and Charlie. I am aware of an overwhelming, soft silence and marvel at something I have not seen for a long time – stars. Thousands of them, brilliant in the sky, perhaps millions, the moon lighting our path. I am aware of a feeling that so often eludes me in the city…I am quite simply at peace, connected to the earth, connected to the others who walk with me, to the animals and to me.
The signs, literal and figurative loom large as we return to Calgary. Heavy equipment, road closures, construction cranes. This is the landscape of my city, always bursting at the seams – a city continually under construction. Crawling along the road, four red lights to get through the intersection, and tension rises in my body. I close my eyes, see Raven before me, take a deep relaxing breath…and make room for the car beside me the driver anxiously attempting to change lanes.
It strikes me that my experience of the last few days, in the city and at Ravenheart Farms in the country, is a kind of metaphor for life. We are always under construction. We encounter roadblocks, disappointments, detours and distractions. And, if we seek them, we experience delicious moments when the noise stops – moments of peace, rejuvenation, personal growth, and insight. (Some might say these are delicious moments of deconstruction.)
The Horses, Spirit and Play workshop at Ravenheart Farms, the peace of the country and quiet encouraging compassion that Carol Marriott offers to her visitors have provided me with those delicious moments of life. And as for Raven…well, he simply took my breath away…and still, I am undone.
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Lynne Palmer is a Freelance Writer living in Calgary, Alberta