Spirit Horse Festival

It was a horse with ‘attitude’ that set the founder of  New Zealand’s International Spirit Horse Festival, Rosemary Wyndham-Jones, on her journey towards a deeper,  and more natural understanding of horsesI loved horses from an early age but we lived in London, so they were not readily available,” says Rosemary Wyndham-Jones, recalling days when she would trek to a suburban riding school to muck out stables, just to get her horse hit.

It would be hard to imagine a more different location – and way of being with horses – than where she is based now, at the Dune Lakes Lodge Retreat and Horse Inspired Learning Centre, in South Head near Woodhill Forest, not far from Auckland. Photographs of her herd galloping together on the beach, or stretched out in the early morning sun in their pasture, speak of an enviable freedom for the horse.

It’s this dream of freedom that attracted international speakers and 200 participants to the inaugural Spirit Horse Festival in 2016, but it may never have happened, if it wasn’t for one particular horse, Jodie. “I bred her in 1990 and by the time she was nine-years-old she had actually almost killed me several times. What I learned from Jodie, in a way made all of this possible,” Rosemary says. “She passed four years ago, but I still have Mary, her mother, who is 32 this year.”

It occurs to me that this means she took Mary and Jodie from the UK to New Zealand when she moved in 2003. ”Of course,” she says, matter-of-factly. “They’re my family.” 

As a young woman Rosemary first moved from London to the Isle of Wight, where, along with working in various different careers to keep her horse-habit afloat, she got her first horse at 27, competing in eventing, show jumping and dressage.

Horses and humans enjoying a Spirit Horse session.

“I think the first inkling that I might not be ‘conventional’ is that I simply couldn’t keep my horse in a stable, which is what everyone else did,” she says. “I leased grazing for him, and used to get a lot of criticism because people said you couldn’t compete horse kept on grass, but of course he was fine, and always healthy and fit. Then I bought a mare, Mary, and I decided to breed from her. The sire, in Rosemary’s words, had ‘attitude to burn’, and unfortunately or fortunately (whichever way you look at it) Jodie, a 17.00hh chestnut Warmblood mare, inherited her father’s proud and challenging ways, rather than her mother’s more easy-going nature. “By the time she was nine, she’d almost killed me a couple of times,” says Rosemary, “and I was really scared of her. I sent her to three or four professional horse trainers and she came back more aggressive, and even more dangerous.”

Rosemary didn’t know what to do. She felt in all conscience that she couldn’t sell Jodie, or give her to a dealer to sell, but for her own safety she had to consider the option of having her put to sleep. 

“It was a dark period of my life, and then, out of the blue, in the way the universe does, it send me an angel, in the form of a woman who had spent many years practising what you might call ‘horse whispering’.”

So Rosemary upped sticks, took her two horses and went to live in what she describes as a “muddy bog in Wales! I absorbed everything I could from her, and what happened was – which was such a huge lesson for me – that although Jodie stayed the same in her nature and behaviour, I changed. I gained confidence and skills in learning and understanding horse language. Jodie began to see me more as a partner, with me taking the role of lead mare rather than the other way around. This opened up a whole new world for me.”

It was while Rosemary was in Wales that she happened to see a friend’s holiday videos of New Zealand, and was prompted to put an advertisement in a New Zealand Yahoo Group (remember Yahoo Groups?!) to see if anyone wanted help or advice with their horses, so she could visit the country on a shoe string. “We didn’t pay for one night’s accommodation,” she recalls, “and I fell in love with New Zealand. After 9/11 I decided to move sooner rather than later, because I felt Aotearoa was a safer part of the world.”

Rosemary Wyndham-Jones.

Rosemary arrived in New Zealand to live in 2003 with her dogs, leaving her horses with a neighbour in the UK. When she got residency she brought out Mary and Jodie, and between buying up properties to do up, began the journey towards creating an holistic healing and educational centre for horses, with her charity the Equine Pathfinders Foundation gradually leading her towards the creation of the Spirit Horse Festival. Gradually Rosemary’s family joined her in New Zealand – first her daughter, then her son, and last of all her mother.

After her initial immersion into a more natural way of being with horses, and witnessing in herself the change it made to her relationship with Jodie, Rosemary threw herself into learning, studying in the EAGLA model in 2008 and then in 2014 studying with the legendary author Linda Kohanov (The Tao of Equus amongst other books), speaker, horse trainer, riding instructor and equine facilitated psychotherapy practitioner. Rosemary also studied holistic horse and hoof care management with Dr. Hiltrud Strasser. She became a Riding Focused Eponaquest instructor under Shelley Rosenberg, the ex-Olympic rider whose book, My Horses, My Healers was one of the early books to introduce the notion that horses could help heal humans, as well as humans horses. Everything began to come together and as Rosemary says: “Life unfolded for me to be able to live my dream.” 

Rosemary’s ‘dream’ has become a very clear definition around the idea of ‘riding’ horses. “I do still teach people to ride however it’s always barefoot and bitless with the aim towards liberty riding” she says. “Thousands of children have attended my residential kids pony camps – the more children I teach that bridleless and barefoot is normal, the more kindness this next generation potentially will show to horses in the future.”

This year’s Spirit Horse Festival, at Dune Lakes Retreat and Horse Inspired Learning Centre on 7-10 February, honours the alternative way to be with horses through teachers such as Judy Brightman and her ‘Shamanic Connection’ with horses, as well as the highly practical through presenters such as Jane Hemingway-Mohr and her session on learning how to creative a viable, ethical and sustainable client base. Rosemary will also be presenting ‘Holding Sacred Space With Horses’ (I am also honoured to be presenting on two subjects – ‘So You’ve Rescued a Horse’, and ‘Achieving Limbic Resonance with Energy Work and Essential Oils’.)

But there will be a deep sadness at the third Spirit Horse Festival, because one important herd member will not be there, Laura Williams. In November the Herd of Joy creator, passed away after a riding accident at her property in Russia.

“Laura was a shining light in the equine facilitated learning world, and she had an amazing ability to connect people to people and people with horses. She came to the first and the second Spirit Horse Festival, she stayed, she helped, she gave of herself for the humans and the horses. All of us who knew her loved and respected her very much.”

These days, Rosemary is not just living her dream, but creating more for the future, planning the next stage of her journey through a project she hopes to launch in New Zealand soon shortly, ‘Wild Boys, Wild Horses Gentling Programme’.

“I’ve been working with troubled youth for a long time now,” she says, “and it is very rewarding. One of the very best horses on the team was Jodie. She commanded respect and had exactly the attitude that a teenage boy needed to understand to be able to learn how give and receive respect, to be calm and quiet, and how to show ‘partnership’ skills.”

Rosemary is convinced that Jodie knew exactly what she was doing every time she was with a troubled young person. “After she died suddenly of a heart attack in January 2013. Saddened, I asked a psychic friend where Jodie wanted to be buried, and she told me that Jodie communicated that she didn’t really mind. She said: ‘I’m always going to be part of the place.’ She said to tell me that she had important things to do now, she had taught me everything she could. That just made me laugh out loud, because it was SO her, and so detached from the human experience of loss and grief,” says Rosemary. “She was a grand chestnut mare, she nearly killed me in the early days – and I thought I was a good horsewoman!! Her final lesson to me is that it’s not always humans who are the teachers – Jodie came into my life to teach me. I feel all horses are here to teach us something about ourselves, who we are and how to find our place in the world.”

To find out more about New Zealand’s 2019 Spirit’s Festival go here: Spirit Horse Festival and to find out more about Rosemary Wyndham Jones go to Dune Lakes Lodge.

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