Monday, June 11, 2012

Strangely Fitting / A Visit from Dr. Claudia Notzke

Sorraia horses on the Ravenseyrie beach
Manitoulin Island, Ontario

"Listening, observing, sharing feelings--these are not just techniques but rather genuinely empathetic points of view that reach horses and win their trust...Here is where it all begins--in the freedom of open space."  --Imke Spilker, from her book, Empowered Horses

On those rare occasions when we accept visitors to Ravenseyrie, it is always quite interesting to see the manner in which the humans interact with the horses and the landscape.  Most bring with them only one perception of horses, which is the by-product of whatever previous exposure or experiences they may have had, closely knitted to the prevailing concept that horses are domestic animals who in one way or another are expected to be of service humans.  

Sorraia horses on the Ravenseyrie beach, along the North Channel of Lake Huron
Manitoulin Island
Ontario, Canada

It is difficult for these types of humans to listen, observe and share feelings with horses, and all too often a preconditioned fear creates an additional barrier to appreciating our horses are fully realized individuals capable of rich interactions.  When in the presence of such people, our horses (like most horses) withhold elements of their true essence and project either an attitude of aloofness, feigned ignorance or outright disdain.   

Some of Sorraia stallion, Altamrio's offspring wade through the shallows on the Ravenseyrie beach
North Channel, Manitoulin Island

Most often, I have found that those humans who have not had prior relationships with horses (i.e., they are not "horse people") tend to connect with them quite naturally.  They project no pre-conceived expectations of how these horses should respond, they do not approach them as human leaders with directives to be followed, rather--recognizing they are visitors to a well established horse society--they present themselves as passive admirers and allow the horses to decide whether or not they would like to interact.  When in the presence of such admirers, the Ravenseyrie horses are willing to share unique secrets that expand consciousness and generate a deeper connection with all of nature.

 This Sandhill Crane strikes a meditative pose on the Ravenseyrie beach
North Channel, Manitoulin Island

"Freedom for horses begins in us.  Instead of blocking their way, making them yield, driving and stopping them, instead of wanting to constantly and in every conceivable way manipulate them, we must open a 'feeling' place within ourselves for them.  The airier and more boundless this inner space is the more joyful and winged the horses become in our presence.  The miracle begins when we no longer demand anything from our horses but instead try to create as much freedom for them as we possibly can, particularly in our presence."  --Imke Spilker

As it happens, very recently, two amazing women came to see the horses.  One is a noted wild horse researcher from Alberta and the other is a fairly new inhabitant of Manitoulin Island.  The former definitely has a long history with horses, the later has not.  Both, however, have the type of inner spirits that were prepared to make no claims or demands upon the horses and were able to appreciate the equines living here are integral elements of a wider ecosystem, who also happen to enjoy relationships with open-minded, open-hearted humans. 

It was perhaps a year or more ago when Dr. Claudia Notzke and I found each other through her ties to the Wild Horses of Alberta Society.  We began corresponding and sharing our experiences and thoughts on wild and feral equines, which was quite marvelous for me as Claudia has traveled to some pretty exotic locales and would from time to time send me photos of the horses she met and documented.  Finding herself enrolled to attend a conference in Southern Ontario in June of 2012, Claudia (who had visited Mantioulin Island several times over twenty years ago) put in a request to schedule a visit to Ravenseyrie.  Kevin and I were very pleased that her interest in what we are doing for the preservation of the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs was intriguing enough for her to take the time to travel to meet the horses in person.

Wild Horse researcher and University of Lethbridge associate professor, Dr. Claudia Notzke, walking the grasslands of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada

Straight away, I knew that Claudia understood how best to approach the horses and it wasn't long before the members of the family band were surrounding us and eager to make her acquaintance.

Zorita and Legado seemed especially pleased to get to know this distinguished, yet down-to-earth (and adventurous!) academic professor. 

Claudia Notzke engages in a pleasing conversation with the yearling Sorraia colt, Legado (Altamrio x Sovina's Zorita)

I am always delighted and amazed that these "wild" horses are truly interested in interacting with certain humans without being lured by treats or confined in small enclosures--especially humans they have never met before.  Their ability to read the inner intent and authenticity (or lack thereof) of those humans who desire to approach them is incredibly fine tuned.

It was a special treat for Claudia to get to meet Interessado.  Like many others who have felt a strong attraction to Interessado after reading stories about him and viewing his photos here in the Journal of Ravenseyrie, Claudia had given thought to purchasing him for herself (during the time we had him for sale as a stud) and had she been in a position to bring a second horse into her life, she would have not passed him over.  On the first day, Interessado was a bit reserved, but on the second day, he showed Claudia all the charm a handsome Dark Knight possesses.

 Claudia Notzke, with the  four year old, black grullo half Sorraia, half Sorraia Mustang gelding, Interessado (Altamiro x Ciente)

After Interessado's full brother, Silvestre, greeted Claudia, she said to me, "He is pretty impressive, too, isn't he?"  Indeed he is!

The three year old gelding, Silvestre (Altamiro x Ciente) with Claudia Notzke

Ever the gregarious greeter, Gosto (Altamiro x Bella) provides a nice photo opportunity with Dr. Notzke

We spent hours hanging out with the horses, sometimes just quietly being absorbed into their world, other times discussing the state of affairs of wild and free roaming horses, their symbiotic relationship with wilderness ecosystems and the potential for sustainable tourism to raise awareness of and appreciation for their essential roles in the overall biosphere.  We continued these conversations over a home cooked vegan meal at our house the first evening and on the second evening, Claudia treated us to a wonderful meal at the Café on the Bay, down on the Gore Bay waterfront.  

Kevin Droski, Lynne Gerard and Dr. Claudia Notzke at the Café on the Bay on the Gore Bay waterfront.
(photo taken by our waiter, Adam Hayden)

I asked Claudia if it would be okay to write about her visit here in the Journal of Ravenseyire and include her impressions if she had time to write them down to share with readers.  Once back in Alberta, Claudia sent the following summary:

7 June 2012

I would like to thank Lynne, Kevin, Altamiro, Interessado, Gosto, Pinoteia and all the other equine, canine and feline members of the Ravenseyrie family for making me feel so welcome.  After this visit it really does not feel like I spent barely two days at your little piece of paradise!

Something fascinating is happening here - a rare subspecies of equus caballus is being brought back from the brink of extinction.  Ravenseyrie is making a major contribution to an extremely worthy cause, namely the restoration of the Sorraia horse.  Thankfully, the preservation of rare domestic breeds of animals has lately enjoyed increased attention, but the recognition of the Sorraia horse on a par with the Przewalski horse (or Takhi as the Mongolians call this animal) as a "true" wild horse is long overdue.  Like the Thaki the Sorraia has experienced a dangerous genetic bottleneck, which has rendered its prospects of survival challenging at best.  It is strangely fitting that it should be the Sorraia mustang coming to the rescue.  Like the Sorraia, mustangs have experienced the dominance of Man, but have successfully regained their wild heritage.  For centuries they have been subjected to the same harsh forces of natural selection and survival of the fittest that shaped the Sorraia.  At Ravenseyrie the trueness to Sorraia type of the Sorraia/Sorraia mustang offspring in the first generation is almost shocking - a testimony to the Sorraia vigour and prepotency of Sorraia sire Altamiro (though he is a bit of a tyrant!).

I was really intrigued by the way Ravenseyrie's horses are being managed.  They are allowed "to be horses,"  not just in a physical sense i.e. with full access to grazing, but in a social sense, being permitted to realize equine society to a maximum degree within a limited though extensive landbase, with human support being available when and if necessary.  This approach generates socially competent and confident horses, which makes for "happy horses at Ravenseyrie" but also bodes well for those animals who may have to leave Ravenseyrie.  These horses are competent to interact not just in equine society, but they are also well equipped to respond to humans, provided that these human partners are willing and able to embrace and engage with strong equine personalities.

It has been a real privilege to spend time at Ravenseyrie.  This place appears like a social experiment/exploration of sorts - a realization of a harmonious coexistence of equine and human society!  It seems to be working.

Claudia Notzke, Ph.D.
Wild Horse Researcher, Geographer, and Associate Professor
University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, engaged in one of his favourite pastimes, chasing birds!  A "bit of a tyrant" indeed!

This report meant a lot to Kevin and me on many levels:  First, that Claudia could appreciate the importance of bringing the Sorraia and the Sorraia Mustang together to generate a vital hybrid vigour to offset the dwindling diversity of the highly inbred European Sorraia populations.  Second, that Claudia could readily see how true to type the offspring here are--something that didn't take years of recombining select generations to achieve, but that has happened and continues to happen each time Altamiro and the foundation mares bring forth a new foal.  In my estimation, this is proof that the retained genetics of the Iberian variant of Equus ferus are as viable among select North American mustang horses as in the remaining Sorraias in Europe, making for a highly relevant and important resource that we do right to nurture and preserve!  And three, that Claudia was able to recognize that the way we interact with the Ravenseyrie horses in their own world, enhances rather than detracts from the preservation effort.  This later element has come to be probably the most important element that we appreciate ourselves on a day to day basis, and has taught us much about engaging with horses in non-conventional ways.

Claudia Notzke with Interessado and Michelle Hrynyk with Pinoteia

On the afternoon of the second day of Dr. Notzke's visit, we were joined by Michelle Hrynyk, and what a treat this turned out to be!  It had been brought to my attention (through correspondence with Manitoulin Streams coordinator, Susan Meert) that Michelle and her husband, Mark Seabrook, were perhaps interested in participating in establishing a secondary preserve, likely a small group of bachelor colts, as a means of helping maintain the grassland habitat of the abandoned farm they have been restoring on the southern part of the island.  Their highest priority is to be good mindfully-holistic stewards of the land and, as such, have so far turned away from the concept of leasing their land to crop farmers or cattle ranchers, feeling the need to explore an option that has less an element of domestic use and one more wilderness friendly and spiritually enriching. 

Michelle Hrynyk and the two year old Sorraia Mustang filly, Pinoteia

Kevin and I were very impressed with Michelle and will soon be scheduling a visit to their farm to meet Mark and their daughter and get a feeling for their land.  Stay tuned for a potentially new chapter in the Sorraia preservation efforts here on Manitoulin Island.

Kiger Mustang mare, Ciente, of Sorraia type with her two colts by Altamiro, Silvestre and Interessado
 Summer 2009

I have to agree whole-heartedly with Dr. Notzke's notion that it is "strangely fitting" that a vital component to saving the Sorraia resides among some of the North American mustang horses.  It is something already that Hardy Oelke has tirelessly brought to the attention of the world and is still not fully appreciated as it ought to be, though now, two more people will be spreading the word.  It is also "strangely fitting" that both Claudia and Michelle could appreciate the multi-layered benefits opening the land up to wild horses provides.  

"If we want to keep our planet worth living on in its diversity and endless facets of life, we must try to preserve the genetic diversity of all living species.  In this context it is almost secondary if a population is 'wild' or 'feral'.  Wild horses are adapted to their habitat, in which some have lived for centuries.  Each adaptation represents a contribution to that big cocktail we call diversity of life."--Dr. Thomas Jansen, Molecular geneticist 

(from the foreword to Hardy Oelke's new book, Wildpferde Gestern und Heute / Wild Horses Then and Now, available via email:

It is my hope that through the work Claudia and others are doing on behalf of free roaming horses and the sensitivity with which Michelle and Mark are approaching their lives on the land they have acquired, more people will be made aware of how important (vital!) it is to preserve those horses already living wild and free and to likewise create more situations similar to Ravenseyrie, where horses can live a virtually wild existence while at the same time develop unique relationships with humans.