Listen to the Horse-Whisperer


By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: July 29, 2015

IT’S AN indelible memory of a sensation: Kera Willis can still feel the warm breath of a 1,000-pound horse on her little hands. She was three, or perhaps four, when her dad took her to feed the horses in a farm outside Ottawa. Willis says she had felt an instant connection, as if the horses recognised her from somewhere — as if they were part of a forgotten tribe that had been brought back together again in a small-town Ontario backyard.
“Those horses were so big and yet so gentle, and it felt like I was being recognised by these enormous but beautiful creatures,” she says. That day was the beginning of her love for horses. She now runs the Mountain Horse School in town where, besides regular lessons, she also teaches how to forge a deep connection with horses that can be healing and therapeutic.      
From the farm in Ontario to Squamish, Willis has worked with horses for more than two decades. She started taking riding lessons when she was seven and read every book in the library that had anything to do with horses and especially loved true to life stories such as King of the Wind and Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West. Besides reading on horses, she was also working at a barn in Merrickville, Ontario, mucking stalls, cleaning tack, feeding and cleaning the horses — all in exchange for riding lessons. When she was 17, she worked four jobs while in high school to pay for her first horse. She sold it for a travelling trip to Europe to be a ‘normal’ person, she jokes. But she came back to work in a barn in Quebec, where she first realised what she really wanted was to work on building a close connection with horses in a way that would be instructive to humans. In 2011, she moved to Squamish and bought a horse named Dublin and began to offer relationship-based riding lessons to a few students.
Willis has also trained as a Facilitator of Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL), and has recently co-authored a book, Healing with Horses, with other FEEL graduates. FEEL practitioners work with the primary healing energy of the relationship between the horse and the human being and base their learning on an emotionally intimate partnership. Willis, who will soon start working with autistic kids and adults, says horses can teach humans a lot about themselves. For beginners, when you are riding a horse, you are in touch with a vast amount of energy that isn’t of your own making so you learn how to channel and focus that energy, she says. “In the business of our modern lives, horses have the ability to remind us of the importance of slowing down, becoming mindful, and really and truly being in the moment, as well as activating intuition, leadership, and authenticity within our lives.”
Willis says horses are primarily prey animals and are always looking for a leader, someone who will keep them safe and make decisions for them so establishing trust is important. And one of the biggest ways to build this trust is by being present in the moment with the horse.
“If you are riding or working with one of these animals and your mind drifts off, most horses will make it clear to you right away. And then you need to come back into the moment,” she says.

By rooting us into the present and helping us channelize our energy, a horse can also help us teach trust and confidence. The simple act of merely leaning on a horse, for example, can be a powerful way of reconnecting in a relationship, she says. But this connection isn’t one way and often takes practice and patience to build. For Willis, that happened in Tottenham, Ontario, where she worked in a training centre with a wild mare named Rowan, who was rescued from a meat auction. It was with Rowan, she says, that she jumped into the deep end of exploring a way with horses, where behaviour is communication, feeling is language, and thinking is done with the heart and gut as well as the head. “Instead of sitting on their backs and commanding them to do things that I wanted, I was learning to communicate — and live — from their level to learn what their way of being had to teach us humans as a species,” she says.
Horses respond to and work with energy. Whether we choose to sit on their backs and direct them, or work more subtly from the ground to learn the nuances, there is much humans  can learn from them. Science, Willis says, is beginning to show us more and more that we are living in a world that is made of living, swirling energy. Working with horses can take us into the centre of this living swirl, and they can help us map a way back out.