The Merens of the Pyrenees | Barbara Alexander
Beautiful memories captured in this video are from a life changing journey to the French Pyrenees with an American woman from Russia and her vision and heart as big as these mountains.
Stepping into the wild was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Laura Williams made this video before an accident took her life only a short time after our return. She opened a door for me to step into life more deeply, and I will forever be grateful.

The Merens Of The Pyrenees

The Merens Of The Pyrenees

A Gift Of Universal Consciousness.
Nine backpacks, eight women, and Jean Louise, our trusted guide, traversed the narrow roads that led to our adventure in the Great Pyrenees. John Lousie and his wife Christine were the owners of the B&B and caretakers of the Meren horses and us.

Centuries-old villages and charming French farms made of stone dotted the green and golden foothills as we made our way to the mountains in the backdrop. I was mesmerized by the charm of this particular land and the anticipation of the wilderness ahead. We had the perfect day, and as they say in France, the ‘air was fresh,’ meaning pleasantly cool.

Before I knew it, we had arrived; there was no sign or parking lot when we reached the secret entrance. Only a narrow pass between the ridges led up and into this paradise.

We parked the van and geared up with walking sticks, backpacks, and our heightened anticipation. Before we began, a Native American woman from the group offered a much-appreciated blessing for our journey, setting a quiet space as we honored each other and the spectacular nature. One by one, we zig-zagged slowly up the rocky slope, searching for the Merens that roamed free in these French Pyrenees Mountains.

Moss and tall grasses softened the rocks as we navigated the ill-defined path that led us up the mountain. Something new caught my eye at every turn, calling me to stop and to be. I wanted to soak in each unique form of nature and respond with my sincere gratitude for this incredibly peaceful place. But I had to settle for moments of awe as we kept pushing on if we were to reach the horses.

Above the first slope and higher still on a ledge above was the sentinel, a beautifully spotted white donkey that stood as the guardian of the entrance to this magical place.

We entered our first, somewhat level bowl within the mountains just past that rise. The sun was high as we crested the ridge warming us from the shady climb—vast open space of green grass and exposed rock. They fell away if there were scattered thoughts, leaving only the here and now.

We had hoped the horses would be here, but it didn’t matter. This was just the beginning, and it gave me the time to drink in the intoxicating whispers of the land.

Preparation and packing were a learning adventure in itself. In the beginning, we talked about the long drive into the mountains and the half-hour hike up a semi-steep incline to the first bowl where the horses should be.

Laura, our beloved organizer of the trip, shared that we would energetically try to call the horses in, and if that didn’t work, we may have to hike further into the mountains. It sounded like something I could do, and the excitement about this trip began to build.

Before I left home, I had discovered REI, an outfitter for everything outdoors, and with the help of my good friend Nancy and my great niece Claire, I was prepared for anything… well, almost anything. I learned two new mantras: layers, layers, and no rotten cotton, and I needed a crash course in wilderness preparation.

Then the second email came out instructing us how to pack and prepare. Laura said to be ready for everything from intense sun, to hours of rain and mud, along with possible flurries in the higher altitudes that range from 4,500 to 11,168 feet. We needed two pairs of boots in case one gets wet, full rain gear, a butt pad for sitting on rocks, and sun protection. Already feeling cold, wet, and exhausted just from reading the new information, I immediately wrote a kind but honest letter of cancellation.

I had begun questioning my decision, my ability to do it, and my sanity. What was I thinking? I wasn’t an athlete, a risk-taker, or a thrill-seeker. I had just turned 61, I had never done anything like this in my life yet there was something about this trip that kept calling me there. If not now, when?

Laura invited me to this special gathering and shared that she was most interested in my work and philosophy in equine-facilitated learning. We formed an immediate connection from Asheville to Russia on our first call.

She wanted to know what I had learned in my career that I felt was necessary to make a difference in this world. There was so much to share, but one of the most subtle and profound was difficult to teach. The difference between a good facilitator and a genuinely great facilitator was their ability to flow with the subtle energy of another without interfering. It was a skill that requires patience as the special techniques for learning unfold, knowing each of us have the answers within if we could learn to trust and listen through our vulnerability. My mentor called it holding the sacred space of possibility, but it wasn’t that easy. Those who want to help often interfere with natural growth, and the magic of the work with horses can get lost. There was a non-verbal exchange of energy that heals when it is allowed to evolve.

It is a powerful time when we allow our vulnerable selves to breathe and grow with newfound confidence.

This had never been more apparent then on this trip. Hadn’t I been learning that accepting vulnerability, in fact, embracing those vulnerabilities, can offer a more profound wisdom for life?

Was I willing to go there now, to experience myself and my fear, along with my intense desire to learn, grow and take this chance to follow my heart?

It may be that the journey to find peace within is to develop the courage and inner strength to face vulnerability. In so doing, we discover, with a compassionate heart, who we are connected, whole, and loved.

But I don’t want to jump to the end of this story so quickly.

The mystery becomes a necessary part of our journey because, throughout the exploration, it makes the discovery so much more profound.

Laura was sure that I needed to reconsider; having already made this trip several times, she was unwavering in her belief that I could do it. She had gone out of her way to seek me out and said once again how much she hoped I would be there to share what I had learned in my work with horses.

I knew this was an incredible window of opportunity, personal insight, and a chance to feel the call of the wild on so many levels. I re-enrolled.

Sure-Footed Balance

As it turned out, the challenge wasn’t as much about endurance as it was the sure-footed balance required to navigate the terrain – up, down, forward, and sideways on steep, narrow, rocky, and sometimes slippery slopes. You can almost begin to feel the real-life metaphors emerging throughout this experience.

Pre-trip, my greatest worry was my strength and endurance, I failed to consider the sure-footed skills needed to navigate the narrow path ahead.

It was just a second that I looked down towards where we had started our ascent. Funny what goes through your mind in those moments of doubt. I could feel my heart race.

My survival instincts jumped into control with a litany of inner dialog firing off directives.

  • Don’t look down
  • Focus on your next footstep and nothing more
  • Box breathe into my belly to slow my heart rate

I pulled my focus in, one foot securely on the tiny spot that would hold me until the other one found the next foothold. One sure foot at a time, I mused.

We were about three-quarters of the way when we went up another incline in single file to the second bowl. The path was uneven, with barely enough room for one foot on the path at a time. We switched directions back and forth every few steps to ascend the steep terrain. I was second to last in line, and thank goodness Laura was right behind me.

About three quarters of the way up a grapefruit-sized rock slipped out beneath my foot, and I lost my balance. If I had gone backward, I would have tumbled down the rocky slope, but Laura, right behind me, pushed me back to the ledge from behind. I twisted and fell on my back in a space between two larger rocks, my foot still stuck where it had settled in the hole.

My backpack cushioned the fall like an angel that cradled me in her arms. I lay there for a moment, looking straight up at the sky to catch my breath before realizing my predicament. The path I was on was only as wide as my shoulders before the drop-off, and once I found my bearings, I was too afraid to move. Then came the sharp pain of a severely sprained ankle that took my breath and made my body shiver.

Laura’s sheer determination gave me courage, supported me, and coaxed me forward; she knew I had come to find the magic and the Merens, and I had to complete the journey.

We were three hours into the climb, hadn’t reached the horses, and now I had an ankle that would soon swell beyond use. I began to worry about how I would traverse the slopes back down when one of the women in our group suggested I speak to my body and ask it to support me until I returned and could tend to my ankle. I am not my body, my body is the precious partner/vessel that carries me in this life. This was a time of surrender. There was nothing to do but open my mind and trust that my body would get me home, and it was one of the many lessons that day.

From that point forward, time and space began to shift. Walking in the bowl was easier because of the level ground.

Almost four hours after we left the van, Jean Lousie caught a glimpse of one of the horses high up in the woods. He said there were over 1400 horses who summer in these mountains, many different herds who enjoy their freedom, but this was one of the Meren horses, their beloved herd that makes a three-day journey from the lowlands to the mountains with him twice a year. These were the horses we had traveled so far to find.

And There They Were

At first, they just looked like tiny black specks so far up the mountain. How did they stand so easily on vertical slopes of grass that high?

We were careful not to move quickly or get too close, we wanted the horses to feel safe enough to come to us if they chose to. We spread out and found places to sit on the opposite slope so we could watch and wait.

It felt good to rest my ankle. I realized that this might be as close as we would get to the horses. I found such comfort sitting there on the mountain side, taking it all in with profound appreciation.

It would be another month before Jon Louise would return to make the journey back with the Merens for the winter, and he respected their wishes to remain in the wild without human interference unless they approached us.

One of our small group offered a sacred song that echoed through the mountains and it was magical.

I hadn’t even noticed the first one, then three, then over a dozen Merens had started to make their way down the steep slope towards us. At least a hundred feet behind the lead mare a second few horses made their way, and then a third group followed far behind.

We moved down from our sunny spot on the adjacent mountain into the valley where the two mountains met.

The lead mare, the bravest and most trusted among the herd, approached our group of humans first, and she stopped, standing sideways halfway between us and the other horses.

A gentle wind blew her forelock and mane as she stood with one eye on her herd and the other on our group of women now spread out in the little valley. We all took a moment to rock back and breathe.

After several moments of stillness she cantered up the hill directly to where I stood. She stopped a few feet away, looked at me, and then stepped forward. She was so close I could feel the heat of her body like a bold inquisition that quickly shifted to approval and moved on.

Wrapped in her presence, I was utterly mesmerized. The other herd members were now moving among us before settling with the human they had chosen.

The Lessons Kept Coming

I was still tentative but less closed in, aware of safety yet curious about what we could be together. Another horse came up very close to me, I touched his back and he gently pushed into my hand for more.

After giving him a little scratch, I backed up a couple of feet and his head turned just enough to see me. First, he took one and then two steps straight back to reposition us just like we were, until he found my hands there to scratch him once again. It felt like a conversation. We were learning a new language and found a common ground of trust and joy together.

I was floating in time and had become immersed in the presence of this moment.

And then I there was an entirely new energy as another mare approached with an incredibly grounded and loving spirit that was palpable. She put her head within inches of mine but didn’t touch me. I had affectionately named her the healer horse because I had felt a gentle tingling inside that was relaxing every part of my body. I swear I could hear her ask, “Are you here with me?” For several moments I found myself embraced by the merging of our energy and awareness of this time and space. I stayed wrapped in the spell of connection until she released me.

Is this how it is with the horses in the wild? One moment of genuine presence followed by another?

The exploration continued.

A pushy horse moved into the mix, creating a clear imbalance. I noticed my body language became more rigid in response. Immediately the invasive energy softened, and he stood back more respectfully. So many lessons so quickly. Was this really happening? It was one after another until the sweetest energy of all came to my side.

She was a gentle, grounded spirit, creating immediate and mutual affection. She continued to stay with me throughout my remaining visit, and time stood still.

Her head gently raised as she moved in closer to my face. Her large black pools within her eye looked directly into mine. She was within inches of me, so still and clear that I could see the reflection of the sky and rocks around us. She never pushed on me. Instead, she waited for me to reach out to her. We stood together in this peaceful space for a long time, and I could feel my heart filling with such love and compassion. She followed me as I walked and it felt like we had made a connection for a lifetime.

I was entranced with her and then began to feel the energy of a second muzzle breathing on my back and then a third at my shoulder. I was surrounded with these horses and they were all touching me. I noticed the most curious thing, we were all breathing in sync. Here we stood, deep in the Pyrenees Mountains, it was surreal and almost beyond words.

I didn’t want to leave.

Suddenly the attention of the entire herd shifted to an emerging herd of mixed breeds high up on the adjacent mountain. A Meren in that herd called out as she galloped full speed down the side of the mountain. I worried she would fall because she was running so fast. The posturing of the horses quickly changed.

Half a dozen horses brought up the ranks behind the lead mare who quickly repositioned herself to meet the incoming horse.

Within seconds the three horses standing with me flanked my front, side, and back in a triangle. All of our heads were up and focused on the action. It was a strange feeling to be surrounded by such large animals, especially in the wilderness, yet I felt completely safe and protected, held in a way I had never felt before.

As quickly as she came down the mountain, she retreated. Later we learned that she had previously been part of this herd. We don’t know what happened, but there was drama among the horses, and it was clear she was not welcome back yet. With her retreat, the calm was restored.

These horses had accepted us, shared their energy of balance and peace, offered the sweetness of authentic presence and honoring, and gave us the experience of being held and protected. We didn’t want our day to end.

Our hike back went much faster than our initial trek in, but I had changed. I started walking with the land instead of on it. I felt an energetic connection to everything, and I knew the horses, this land, and my adventure had made impressions in my heart that would last a lifetime. I was floating in an experience that satiated my whole being.

It may be that the journey to finding peace within is to develop the courage and inner strength our vulnerability has helped reveal, and in so doing, discover, with a clear and compassionate heart, who we truly are… connected, whole and loved.