Oak at Sunset
Autumn for the horse rider is often a time of extremes, some days the wind whips around you and dances in the treetops scattering leaves and twigs as you pass. Any horse you are riding is convinced there are trolls or horse-eating dragons lying in wait in the hedge – not for nothing do more experienced riders say ‘sit tight’ to younger ones when the wind gets up. Last sunday had been typical contrast to that, bright, sunny and almost completely still, with slow mares tail clouds drifting across the sky forming patterns that told of an silent current higher up in the stratosphere. A lovely slow day of taking time to notice the small things, to take it easy and spend time in reflection and contemplation… at least that’s the excuse I am using to explain why – when the weather was perfect for riding – I STILL didn’t manage to get up to the ‘Loan Horse’s yard until nearly sunset!
In case I haven’t mentioned her before the Loan Horse is known as the ‘Huge Black Mare’ (actually her name is Aurora or Rori for short, but in keeping with the other idiosyncracies of this blog she’s also the ‘huge black mare’, mostly because that’s what people generally say when meeting her for the first time) she’s over seventeen hands, nearly coal black, of a type that is described as ‘weight carrying’ (just as well!) and can either move like the clappers or progress along with all the urgency of molasses being tipped out of a jar. She loves people and hates cows. Ollie the Red Horse adores her and one of these days I’ll post a pic of the two of them greeting each other, it’s like a scene from romantic movie. I ride her twice a week so Partner and I can ride out together since the Red Horse is singular and the Little Red Pony is far too small and dedicated to pulling her little exercise cart not carrying weight around the countryside.
Anyway – I was late, the light was fading but I reckoned I could get maybe an hour’s riding if I didn’t waste any time tacking up and getting on my way. The HBM was agreeable, huffing happily in my face as I bridled her and bustled off down the road with a jaunty step despite her field mate yelling abuse from behind the hedge declaring loudly that ‘HIS Mare was being Abducted!’ – he’s a character. We were riding alone that night, the Red Horse enjoying a day off while my partner worked on a project that needed attention.
It turned out to be one of the best rides of the year. The mare is often lazy herself and early on she’d changed her mind about the idea of being ‘out’ suggesting through slow plod and ears flopped sideways like a donkey that ‘molasses ooze’ was the speed we ought to be going, with me in contrast trying to wake her up and insist that if we want to get back in reasonable light, she’d better get a move on. It was still bright with the low sun throwing long shadows across our path. It being a sunday evening, all was quiet, most (sensible) people are at home mourning the end of the weekend and preparing to face the encroaching week. Some farmers are still out in the fields completing the last of the ploughing while the weather holds, such is the nature of farming. Their engines a companionable, distant hum that contrasted nicely to the silence around us. The pale spun gold of stubble fields being transformed to neat brown plough framed by the dark green hedgerows and trees not yet into their autumnal flame. Hawthorn and blackthorn, oak and ash fading out to yellows and deep though muted greens. As we ride up steep inclines with the landscape spread out around and below us the land is a changing patchwork that has moved from corn gold and bright summer foliage to browns, dusty greens and yellow.
I was reminded of the time that all of this farm work was accomplished by heavy horses, the Shires, Suffolks and Clydesdales that are rarely seen outside of agricultural shows these days. Ploughing then would cease at sundown with the horses being returned to warm lamplit stables for a feed and a good grooming (perhaps the HBM remembered this since she is of a breed that used to work the land in Holland) The pace of life slower and more companionable. In England the Ploughman held a status within rural society that was all his own, not a ‘landowner’ nor a ‘tenant farmer’ nor even a labourer insomuch as on he and his team’s existence relied the fortunes of the farm. Without the working horses nothing could be achieved on the land in in the quantity required to see the farm, village and community through the winter. All work, be it ploughing, spring sowing, turning and harvesting was accomplished with horsepower. We owe them a lot. As I rode through the evening sunset I pondered on what those ploughmen of old would make of todays intensive farming methods, of bright almost laser beams piercing the night as tractors growl their way across the much bigger fields at an hour that would have been sacrosanct to relaxation – or sleep – two hundred years ago, their livelihood now remaining alive only as a competition – for fun – at agricultural shows. With that thought in my mind we rode along the darkening tracks. The light was fading much faster now, with the clouds making dark, looming patterns across the sky, and the sun flaming it’s last fiery blaze over the distant horizon, burnishing the sky with gold while the deep blue of night chased it to ground.
There is a point during dusk that is time between time. Between the worlds. The sounds of day, of birdsong, of buzzing insects, rustling of tiny creatures about their lives, slows then ceases, even the wind seems to ease off on days when it makes it’s presence felt. A silence descends. It’s a time of magic, a time Between, it feels like a time of waiting, very similar in fact to the moment of full Eclipse when all creatures hush and the world waits for what comes next. It’s also a wonderful time to be out riding. The light may not quite have gone, the sky still bright enough to see the path dimly ahead, but even so, those creatures of the earth and air know that now is the time to take cover in silent hedges and trees, to wait out the night in safety and sleep.
Hedgerow at Dusk
Horses are very much creatures of emotion, they take fright easily, that fleeing movement is fast, frenetic, they can whip around and run before their rider is even aware of the first ear twitch, or by contrast they can laze away sunny days in tail swishing comfort and pollen dusted grazing.
They can also tell you when the Dark Time comes. When the ploughmen of older centuries were tucked up in bed that was a time when The Dark was full of dangers and fears, a time of belief in malevolent unseen forces (the horse brasses on the harness a charm to protect against such things) This season – Autumn – brings that feeling starkly to the forefront as the wheel turns and the veil begins to thin. Death and sacrifice have already been seen in the harvest, the cutting of the corn and the ploughing of the remains back into the earth to await their own transformation. The realm of the Underworld is brought forth.
The Underworld, represented by the night – dark – the Shadow, is a place of unknown and of going Within. It is not something to be feared although a healthy respect is recommended. No need to be a ‘Fool’ on the journey! A healthy respect is also what is shown by the Horse when the dark comes. As full dark descended on our ride she showed me, in her own way, how to go forward. She quickened her pace – unasked – from a relaxed walk to a purposeful march. Her ears flicking back and forth as she continuously monitored the landscape about her. She was prepared to meet what she found there and take evasive action if necessary. The sound of cawing crows that had accompanied us early on ceased, to be replaced by the hoot of a Tawny owl hidden in the dark of the wood, their calls echoed over the valley and hill as we descended towards the wood. We heard the shriek of a Little Owl on the hunt. In one dark field I saw a white shape, tall and erect standing motionless on the plough, a grey heron stood guard on our path, he watched us for a minute or two then rose into the air and flapped off like some huge throwback to the pterodactyl! Heron, standing on Earth, a creature of the Water removed from his domain, the nearest large body of water about a mile or more away, but yet part of the landscape still, a creature of the West and the Mysteries of Death and Rebirth, guarding our path and finally allowing us passage. HBM knew full well he was there, his pale form a phantom in the dark, a few seconds later in leaving and his flapping would have alarmed her and we may well have been forced to turn back.
We continued on our way, suddenly both of us jumped when a pheasant, either disturbed by a hunting fox or unexpected hoofbeats near his patch let out his raucous challenge, an unusual night sound. HBM startled, then gave a huge derisive snort and walked forward again. I laughed. Something small in the undergrowth panicked and fled. I thought it kinder to remain silent after that, my communication with the mare now mere whispers and nudges from seat and hands as we made our way through the night. Another lesson ‘Keep your Nerve’
We pushed on for speed to try and get home before her people missed us and began to worry, moving faster over firm ground, there is nothing like cantering a big black shadow through the dark. Her hoofbeats muffled by grass as she powered along. For a mare who shies and takes fright at many seemingly unassuming things during daylight she showed herself to be brave at heart. A horse has far better night vision than man although it’s different of course, but we’d been transformed from horse and rider to One. A single being with two minds journeying through the darkness, each relying on the other to see us home safely. Her eyesight, my guidance on her rein, each other’s presence a reassurance, and both of us following instinct and watching for familiar landmarks to choose our way, working together to keep us safe in the Unknown of the darkness that had been somehow transformed into a representation of the Underworld. At any moment any unfortunate event would have sent us plunging off the path and into true unknown, riding is often like that, even on a placid animal one knows one is only an unlucky moment away from panic. Another lesson, ‘move forward for fear will hold you forever in one place if you do not face it’
The unseen dangers of Wolf and Boar that haunted our ancestors are present in spirit, and in the racial memory of horses. Equine fear of moving into dark overhung places stems from a very real danger of something large and predatory dropping from a tree onto their backs, their fear of being alone in the open stems from being caught away from safety of the herd by wolf packs, in the minds of humans fear of the Ancient Forest, of the Unseen are still there, still present even in todays age of computers and illumination. The urban world has largely lost it’s ability to deal with darkness as every nook and cranny that still harbours the shadow is thought dangerous and to be illuminated with stark halogen rays as a deterrant to the modern ‘wolf packs’ – the gangs and malevolent individuals who would harm us. Light used to overcome the dark.
On the path we as witches, Wiccans, druids, shamans and pagans walk we remember that the dark is part of the light, the Yin and the Yang balanced as one. We do not walk blindly into the dark any more than we would walk blindly into a quiet alley in the middle of a known bad area in town. Equally we do not expect the light to overcome the darkness at every turn. The dark is a place of rest and rebirth, the moon is renewed each month during her dark phase as a new life is created in the darkness of the womb. The Underworld is merely the facing of your own personal demons, it’s part of your unique journey. Respect the darkness in your life but don’t fear it, try to learn to work with it.
The journey that the HBM and I took that night ended as we made our way to the road, leaving behind the hidden world of the night dark fields, and re-entering the realm of Man. Steel shod hooves rhythmically clopping on the tarmac as we trotted for home (not far, less than 150 yards) the lights of the four cottages and one farmhouse shining brightly as beacons. The HBM’s familiar home gate and the welcoming neigh from her fieldmate, the rote of evening stables, grooming and bedding down, the smell of hay, horse and damp earth from recently turned fields all served to ground and centre me in the ‘now’ of routine.
Outside the circle of light from the stables the inky sky hid the first phase of the moon, only just turned from Dark to New – and bringing with it the promise of the season and a touch of the Underworld. May your own musings on this tide bring you enlightenment and the truth of Self Knowledge.
The HBM in brighter light!