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shaman+acebuchal-500The shutters, they are rattling … the balcony … bugger, someone’s trying to break in. Banging … it’s the glass doors. They must be bloody serious. And now the bed. The whole bloody thing is shaking. No, don’t tell me. I slide a foot down to the tiles. Oh, bloody hell, the floor is shuddering too. “Vicki, an earthquake. Get out of bed. Under the table. Now!” We are not even halfway to the table, when the world stops moving and we stand in silence. I am in awe. Here is something so far out of my control, I may as well just let go. “Aftershocks!” Vicki hisses. “We’re going to get aftershocks.”



For a moment I am tempted to act on that but just for a fleeting instant. Then it occurs to me that aftershocks are almost invariably weaker than the first jolt. Anything weaker than what we had just experienced is going to be easily manageable. It is twenty-two minutes past five in the morning. Back to bed. It is Monday. I will have to work. Sleep, I need it. So we do and start the day again on a slightly less jolting note a little later.

6.1 on the Richter scale. Now that is a little statistic that makes you sit up with a start, especially when you are acutely aware that it is not something that has just happened on the other side of the world where that sort of thing is par for the course. Fortunately, the epicentre was well off down to the south-west just off the Moroccan coast. But still, 6.1, now that is an aftershock! I mull the sense of it all. There is not much that I can do about. May as well just let go and accept it.



There is that word again. I think back a few months to the time when it was emblazoned big, bold and capitalised across my senses. In the ambulance, the siren howling above my head, an uncanny calm had settled itself upon this body of mine. The pain in my chest had subsided somewhat but there was no telling when it would come roaring back. Yet the real heart of the matter was not the organ itself or its possible failure but the realisation that there was absolutely nothing I could do. May as well accept it and let go.

Acceptance.... What else?

Acceptance…. What else?

And when you do, there is a huge calm that nestles you in its soothing cushion and opens a door to an awareness you would not have deemed yourself capable of at a time, just a few hours before, when the entire experience would have seemed to be utterly surreal if you had contemplated it. As I lay in the swaying vehicle, my glance chasing the sliver of setting sun glinting through the crack of the back door, I recall now, the huge sense of gratitude which bathed me, that I had been given this massive chunk of life, whereas others, millions much younger than me, were already gone or going long before they might have had a chance to turn green with time.

Almost incongruously, this was accompanied by a bizarre preoccupation with the practice of dying in a material world. Vicki. Had I done everything to ensure that my passing would not burden her? My will, the insurance, all had been tended to. Right then, bring it on if you must. Yes, I was scared but it was not of what but of how. I do not know if it was the utterly calm, contentment of acceptance which did it but I was given a reprieve, time to reflect and write about it, amongst other things. See my post entitled Lessons from the Heart.


Another move

The day before we acknowledged the passing of another year, we moved the horses. Yes, again. Since May 2013, a little over a year after Pip joined us, she and Anaïs have moved five times and the mares are now experiencing their fifth different livery yard with us spread over three different countries. Four of those moves were “forced” in the sense that either what passed for livery services ceased to be provided or conditions were simply not up to scratch.

We are now but a few months short of five years since Anaïs joined us in the Netherlands following her exhausting trip from Australia. During that period Farinelli and Gulliver, our geldings in Australia, have not moved from their livery yard. There has not been any need for them to go. While conditions are not perfect – Are they ever? – they receive a decent level of care, their living conditions are superior to those of the vast majority of horses that we have encountered in Europe and they are mentally and physically healthy.

Gulliver and Farinelli in the same livery yard for almost five years

Gulliver and Farinelli in the same livery yard for almost five years

I am particularly sensitive to this discrepancy between the lives of our geldings and those of our mares, for there is a bitter irony to it. Amidst all the wanderings of our mares Vicki and I have been present and by far the biggest move of all – to Spain – is the one which we instigated. Yet where our geldings fared well, we have been conspicuous in our absence. It is a hard realisation and one which I am still trying to make sense of, not with a view to past regret or future fears, but rather to discern the path that is opening to us now.



For our mares have ended up where we had rather they did not, or not initially anyway. Rancho Acebuchal has an extraordinary array of facilities for horses and humans, including a few walk-in, walk-out shelters, an indoor and an outdoor manège, and a café. Yet it is a challenging environment, not merely because of the difficulties, and there are quite a few, but more because of the enormous potential it offers, potential which is still largely unrealised.

When Vicki and I first visited Rancho Acebuchal some time last year to see if it was worth considering as an alternative to Equinatural, our impression was anything but favourable. Some of the horses were kept in conventional livery, being stabled at night and turned out for part of the day. The rest were divided into two herds, a smaller and a larger one, commensurate with the size of the fields in which they were permanently kept.

Part of the Equinatural herd arriving at Acebuchal after a long trek

Part of the Equinatural herd arriving at Acebuchal after a long trek

Although we are drawn to the concept of herd-living and the approach advocated by Kevin, the yard operator, it was clear to us that the actual conditions of the horses in the herd had yet to go some way before they would match his vision. The huge field in which the larger herd was kept was cluttered with rocks and large stones, while there was evidence of feed remnants intermingled with manure and urine in the high-traffic areas. The two shelters that were available were clearly insufficient and one with a relatively narrow dead end was potentially even dangerous, as was the entrance to the enclosure housing them. The horses themselves, to many of whom Kevin had given refuge from the hardships of crisis-ridden Spain and the cruelty that masquerades as horsemanship in many parts of Andalusia, could also benefit from better care or so I felt but then I realise that this is heaven compared to what they must have experienced before they found refuge here.


Another challenge

And now our mares are here for want of better accommodation and again we are facing another challenge together with them. How do we turn this situation into a home for them, one in which they are safe, healthy, cared for and content, enough so that we will be able to leave them during our regular stays in Australia? The question is graphically posed within 24 hours. Pip must have come down on one of those large stones, leaving her lame on her left hindleg. She has clearly strained her fetlock. Hopefully, it is not too serious.

And hopefully it will not rain. We have heard horror stories about the winter rains here in Málaga province, non-stop for weeks on end, flooding, cold…. The big field which is home to Kevin’s herd has been halved to accommodate the Equinatural herd, until the horses get to know each other well enough over the fence before they are allowed to mingle. There are 16 horses on the other side of the fence. They have access to shelters, albeit not enough and the gateway too them is so narrow that it has already shown itself to be dangerous. On our side, we have 14 horses in total and absolutely no shelter, just rocks and stones in a field in which manure has never been picked up and removed, or so it seems.


The first step

The first step is always acceptance, isn’t it? Letting go. Not acquiescence in or resignation to the inevitable but rather acceptance of the situation as the first step towards doing something about it. We are here for the time being, Pip needs care and we need to make this place safe for our horses. So after treating Pip’s leg Vicki and I start hauling rocks and stones. We build a pile. Then we move on a bit and start another pile and then another. Within days people start noticing the piles and the flat areas in between from which we can start removing the manure.

Kevin sets up WhatsApp group to keep the Equinatural crowd informed. Soon the whinging starts. Can’t the stones be removed? Can’t the manure be picked up? Can’t we have a shelter for the horses? Can’t we….

Acceptance and then action ... the first few piles of rocks

Acceptance and then action … the first few piles of rocks

Yes we can but for the relative pittance we are paying by way of a livery fee, can we really expect someone to do it for us? Whenever we visit the mares – and that is virtually every day – Vicki and I continue to pursue our field clearing mission. Another former Equinatural horse owner sees what we are doing and joins us. So does another soon after. And then another … and so it goes. Before long the field is well into being cleared of potential sources of injury and ill-health. Not too long after Kevin instructs his staff to pick up manure.


Another herd

Two weeks after we arrive, Kevin feels that it is time for the herds to merge. I help him remove part of the fence. Anaïs and Pip are the first to cross the line. Following a brief reconnaissance of what has been “enemy territory”, they return to the safety of the known and retire to a safe distance to watch how matters unfold.

The reconnaissance of "enemy territory" completed, Pip leads Anaïs back to safety

The reconnaissance of “enemy territory” completed, Pip leads Anaïs back to safety

The Acebuchal herd is not in a hurry to meet the newcomers. Shaman, the Equinatural herd’s top boy, a gelding for far less time than he used to be a stallion and a phlegmatic appaloosa who has long since wormed his way into my heart, does what only he can do well. He walks the earth as his own and now that the fence is down, what is his has just been extended to twice the size he had grown accustomed to. It is time to familiarise himself with his new territory and those who inhabit it. So he does accompanied by one of his sons the dark, spirited Twister who will soon be leaving us.

Would-be challengers accost the proud appaloosa and are promptly sent packing. Some mares pique his interest but they will have to wait. The appaloosa knows who he is looking for. He finds him, an upright, lordly grey whose presence in his herd is as emphatic as that of his Equinatural counterpart in his but who is as flamboyant as Shaman is not. The appaloosa throws down the challenge. The grey does the same. Yet they appear to be evenly matched and each seems to recognise the essence of what they are in the other. The dance they choreograph for themselves is mesmerising, until Shaman gets bored and heads off to round up some unfamiliar mares.

The merging of the Equinatural and Acebuchal herds

Not too long after the Acebuchal herd begins to move and they do so as one. They head into the part of their field from which they have been banned for the past fortnight, seeking to reclaim it as it were. Like a river breaking its banks, they rush across the field, swirl and settle. Yet the herds remain apart, only their macho males daring to cross the divide. In the distance I spy our mares standing apart, cautiously monitoring events from a respectful distance.



There is a restructuring programme afoot at the yard. Physically challenged in his ability to get around and keep pace with the level of maintenance the Acebuchal project requires, Kevin has wisely decided to delegate tasks. A manager called Laura has taken over the conventional livery side of operations and Monica, a Venezuelan currently running horse-related activities in England, will be taking over the non-conventional operations at the end of February.

As part of this reorganisation, another large shelter and yard have been freed up for the large herd. The shelters are far from being adequate though. We have about 30 horses in the herd now and, if we do not need more shelter from the winter rains soon, as seems likely for the season has been very dry, the horses will certainly require shade from the demanding heat of summer and, in the absence of trees in the field, they will have to rely on shelters, of which there are far from enough.

The herds' top boys checking each other out with the shelters in the background

The herds’ top boys checking each other out with the shelters in the background

A new, large shelter which Kevin had announced would soon be built has now been put on hold. My impression is that he has already left the building, as it were. It will be up to the new manager, if the herd’s living conditions are to improve, as they must, if Acebuchal is to be a safe refuge for horses, including ours. I have checked out Monica’s various internet pages and there would appear to be grounds for hope. In the meantime we continue to pick up stones and do anything else that we can to improve the lot of our horses.



The mares themselves are doing fairly well. Fortunately, Pip’s sprain cleared up within a few days. Somewhat out of sorts emotionally for a couple of weeks, which expressed itself in a bit of crankiness with me, she is now far more relaxed and we have picked up where we left off before the move. Anaïs still has a bit of itch on a section of her mane, something which she developed shortly before we returned from Australia. We are hoping to address it successfully with combination of regular cleaning with an appropriate shampoo and applications of pawpaw cream on the recommendation of a friend in Australia.

Anaïs is also beginning to develop physically now, thanks in part to the influence of the Belgian trainer, Antoine de Bodt and his partner, Jidske, who have spent some of their holiday helping humans with their horses here at the yard. Although we have different views on how horses should be kept, Antoine has an approach to straightness training which draws on the horse’s natural instinct to find its own balance rather than attempt to move the horse into a balanced frame. Anaïs has responded well to this approach, although it does involve riding, as there is only so much you can do on the ground.

Pip casting a wary eye on Antoine de Bodt training Anaïs

Pip casting a wary eye on Antoine de Bodt training Anaïs

Although I am tempted to consider this approach for Pip, I am not yet totally convinced that it would help her. My initial feeling is that riding properly can definitely do much to avoid the abuse which passes for much of the horsemanship that we witness at our livery yard almost on a daily basis. Although I am sorely tempted not to ride, I am aware that horses in captivity require extensive movement and the facilities which are available to the vast majority of them do not permit this. Yes, we can take our equine friends for walks in nature if we are fortunate to have access to it but is it enough?


The next step?

Vicki and I have knocked this question around ever since we heard that our horses had to leave Equinatural at such short notice shortly before we left Australia just before Christmas. There was a time when I would have taken a bull-headed approach and would have tried to force the issue one way or another. Now I try and see the signs of the direction in which we are heading as the present constantly unfolds in all its day-to-day minutae.

Out on a walk in the Acebuchal countryside with Vicki and Anaïs ahead

Out on a walk in the Acebuchal countryside with Vicki and Anaïs ahead

Again, I look at our horses. Apart from Anaïs’ minor mane rash, overall the mares are healthy and relaxed. Anaïs has just come into season, so I expect Pip will be quick to follow as they flirt over the fence with a handsome rig. And then it occurs to me that perhaps we should take a lesson from the horses. Perhaps the next step is as small in its doing as it is huge in its implications: acceptance, letting go. For the time being this is home for the mares and for the time being we do not dare to leave them on their own. As far as we can, let us turn it into home, while we keep our senses alert to the movement of the earth and the direction of the wind.



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3 Responses to “Letting Go in Another Herd”

  1. Sue reeve says:

    Interesting blog Andrew, beautifully written as always! Your Spanish journey seems to have been a very mixed bag, you and your mares have faced the many challenges with courage and humour. Layla is my first horse so my experience of livery yards is limited to one, but certainly rocks, flies, downpours and dust seem ubiquitous. Perhaps I am lucky, in that my pony is a native bred, sturdy type, easy to please as long as her lunch is on time! Good luck in your new yard, love to you and Vicky! X

  2. Kelly Bick says:

    You touch on so many valuable and pertinent points in this post. Acceptance of situations, being (or in this case initiating) the change you wish to see, tuning in to your horses and being guided by them. I am endlessly grateful for all we and out horses have here at home, especially when I read of all that the four of your need to navigate in this journey called life.
    Perhaps you need to win, or inherit, a huge sum of money and all come home to Australia……
    Smiles Kell 🙂

  3. Patrick says:

    well….letting go in another herd…..seems to be only sensible if the herd setting is safe, secure, healthy, disciplined. The impression that I get having read and viewed this latest entry in your blog is that this paradigm may not be in place. Yet.
    How does the local office of OCA view the circumstances wherein the stock density has suddenly more or less doubled ?
    Now that you have been in Spain more or less a year I think, how is the original vision panning out, so far?
    Thank you for briefing us through this blog. Separate from all ongoing trials and tribulations, I hope you continue to enjoy good connection to your horses and development in the way you choose. But finally my feeling is that letting go in another herd, this herd as is, does not read well to me