an interspecies
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Film: Horses & Humans in the Labyrinth

This film gives you an introduction to Whitewater Mesa Labyrinths against the backdrop of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. The film shows the things that we do at Whitewater Mesa Labyrinths besides riding horses in the labyrinth. Not only will you see footage of my horse Blake and another horse Bambi and rider Polly Tipton in the horse labyrinth, you will see Blake trying to negotiate my human scale Classic or Seed labyrinth. 

You will get an overview of my labyrinths and the sublime landscape in which they are situated. You will see my brother Ben Nicholson leading a Shuffle labyrinth to the music of a didgeridoo played by David Blonski. You will also see sixteen of us dancing the Maypole and weaving the ribbons as we follow the pathway of my Classic labyrinth. The question visitors most often ask is "What is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth" So Ben designed me a maze and I laid it out in plan so that people could feel the difference in walking the two. You can see how hesitantly people walk in a maze compared to a labyrinth.

I ride my horse Blake long distances and on steep, narrow, mountain trails in the Gila Wilderness. I use my labyrinth to keep my high spirited Arabian horse calm for when I lead a mule train, to pay attention to me, to be flexible for turning on switch back trails on mountain sides, and to be careful where he is putting his feet when negotiating rocks and other obstacles. I keep fresh the technique which seldom has to be used of turning 180 degrees on a narrow trail if it is washed out and one cannot go forwards. You can see this in the movie where I ask Blake to look behind himself before I give him the aid to make the sharp turn. I also teach yoga and find breathing with my horse to be a help in this matter of calmness and attention. Sometimes I ride Blake in the labyrinth to cool him off if he is still sweating from a trail ride.

My labyrinth was not made with horses in mind, I just saw the possibilities when taking a short cut across it and then I continued to use it. The labyrinth is made of rocks too big to hold in one hand but not so big you hurt your back when you pick them up. My pathways are dirt with trimmed grasses and weeds and are 30 inches centre of rock to centre of rock, the diameter is about 60 ft. The labyrinth is of quadrant type and is designed by my brother Ben Nicholson and is his copyright. Once I started using it for horses we made an entrance to the labyrinth and removed a rock from each of the very sharp turns to make it more negotiable for my 16.1 hand horse. We removed a ring of rocks to make the center ring big enough for a couple of horses to stand in. Because the labyrinth is perfectly circular and made of rocks, when I pat my horseís neck in the exact middle of the center ring it sounds hollow. Try clapping your hands across the diagonal of a circular labyrinth and see if your clap sounds hollow at the middle.

When introducing a new horse to the labyrinth I either lead them in on foot or have them follow my horse. Because the labyrinth is made of rocks, I would not like a new horse to shy across the paths and stumble. If building a new horse labyrinth for othersí use I would delineate the pathways with a material that can be tripped over or fallen onto without hurting the horse or rider. Colored snake like sand-bags would work well. Hay-bales are safe but tempting for the greedy horse. I cannot trot my horse in my labyrinth when we are following the pathway, the turns are too sharp and angular.   I only trot him around the outer few rings where he can well see to lift his feet over the rock divisions.  Depending on our pace he can lengthen his stride or jump over two lines of rocks rather than step in between.

There is a recent burst of interest in horse labyrinths. I knew from Ian Stevensonís book that his labyrinth is mown or trodden into grass which makes it so safe for the horses.  I also knew that Ian and Marty Cain made a horse labyrinth for the Baltimore Labyrinth Society Gathering. But that is all I knew. I have now heard of another being made from hay bales with flowers planted on the tops which would not serve my purposes as I like to be able to ride across pathways as well as along and around them. However a horse is a flight animal, so a horse unfamiliar with a hay bale labyrinth could be resistant to entering as he cannot see an immediate exit other than jumping the bales. Willem Kuipers mowed an ephemeral labyrinth into a winter field in the Netherlands. Mike Burnett has built a horse labyrinth in South Africa. I believe there are others in New Zealand and Texas.

As with all labyrinths, maintenance is important and can be time consuming. I lead my horses in the labyrinth to eat the grasses and thus weed it for me. I keep an eye open for hoof-catching holes as the clay ground surface expands and contracts. Ravens lollop about from rock to rock to entertain rather than weed as far as I can see. Lizards bask in the sun and eat insects. Deer come in the morning and evening to lick the mineral block I have added as an ever changing rock shape. Humans walk the labyrinth and sometimes replace any out of line rocks.

Now that I have realized that unwittingly I may have one of few horse labyrinths I incorporate a demonstration of horses being ridden in my labyrinth as part of our Labyrinth Walks & Talks workshop. In preparation for one demonstration a friend brought her nervous 4-year old Mexican horse to practice with me. The horse would not flex to the left at all. He stood at the entrance to the labyrinth with his nostrils flaring and his tail clamped down, he was coiled tight like a spring. By the time he made it to the centre of the labyrinth he was flexing to the left gracefully, had relaxed his body and his tail, and with a big sigh he stood quietly in the centre ring licking his lips. All signs of contentment. Three years later he is still flexing to the left as well as he does to the right.

The most riders I have had in the labyrinth with me is three and we tended to get in each otherís way. We knocked stirrups after we turned corners and distracted the now oncoming horse about to turn a corner. Also, riders who do not know the labyrinthís design suddenly appear in front of you on the same path if not following each other.

On one occasion the labyrinth helped a learner rider refine her aids and guide the horse more accurately as she negotiated the turns. She learned the importance of using her legs to bend the whole horse. On another occasion a terminal cancer patient brought her old Arabian mare and rode the labyrinth. I have never seen a horse turn so gently and walk so smoothly and take such good care of a person. The woman then walked part of my Classic labyrinth before she tired. When she had rested she told me she had so little time left but that this experience had told her that she needed to have as many new experiences as possible before she died.

My youngest yoga student wanted to do something different for her 9th birthday so she brought some friends to walk and run and hop and skip and jump in the labyrinth. I rode my horse in the labyrinth with the children and then gave them pony rides in the labyrinth.

I have a 40ft diameter circle of dug and raked earth in which I make ephemeral labyrinths by shuffling my feet to one of the designs I carry in my head. The group of people following me shuffle their feet and usually look at the ground so they do not step out of line or step on the feet of the person in front of them. When they get to the middle in a huddle, they look outwards and see what they have created and the last person in leads out. Ben makes Shuffle labyrinths with his students on the beach in Chicago for the lake to wash away. As you can see in the movie, erasing a Shuffled labyrinth with a good roll and a shake is a favourite pastime for my horse.

A copy of the film on DVD can be ordered from our online webstore.


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