When we share nourishment

20 01 2019



breakfast 2

The daily ritual of sharing food

Sometimes the simplest actions can reveal significant needs.  Our horses live together in a small family group and every day they share food. During the winter this means gathering around a huge fragrant bale of fermented hay, sweet as pineapple. I love to watch them pull mouthfuls from the warm core. I love to listen to their contented munching and hear their sighs of satisfaction. Watching them close their eyes, I sense that they have everything they need.

It is not always so for us. True satisfaction eludes us when we race through mealtimes or forget to pay attention to what we are eating. When we eat at our desks or in our cars or on the street while talking on our phones. We forget that one of the joys of eating is that it is profoundly social. A meal shared with others is an enriching experience, a time to appreciate the care that has gone into preparing the meal, a time when our way of eating becomes visible to others, no longer a hasty, private affair, but an act of nourishment.

When we are well fed, nourished and noticed, we thrive. Horses spend most of their time grazing. Sharing food in close connection forms a large part of their daily social life. When we enter their meal space, they will often nibble grass around our feet, even though they could move on to graze somewhere fresh. In winter, when they eat their breakfast of soaked sugar-beet, alfalfa, linseed and seaweed, they use touch, nosing from bowl to bowl, sometimes sharing one bowl together, sometimes eating singly.

Watching horses eating, there’s something deeply absorbing about the breath and sweetness of nostrils moist with feed, the cold raindrops in the bare trees, the small brown birds picking through droppings. Ordinary moments become extraordinary.

Watching another living being eat, our thoughts naturally turn to our own sense of what it means to be fed. Sometimes the knowledge of what we need is surprising. One little girl watching the horses said that she rarely eats breakfast at home. She would like to. She would like to have something to eat at the start of every day. Her small voice affirmed this simple truth, and as she shared it, her request was understood by someone who cared and who will see that she does not start the day hungry.

Small matters and small voices create our shared experience of humanity.  There is sometimes so much beauty and truth in what may seem so mundane. When I think of times when someone has helped me to feel more nourished, small gestures of kindness come to mind: the hot water bottles warming my bed; the loving messages and two-hour phone calls; the dog resting her head on my lap; the coffee in a warmed cup, the supper dish fresh out of the oven.

It’s easy to impoverish our own lives when we overlook what truly matters.



The simplicity of shared experience

7 10 2018



So many traditional equestrian pursuits involve competition, speed, performance and looking polished from the outside. It is no wonder that many people find therapeutic horsemanship puzzling. ‘What exactly is it, you do?’ is a question I’m asked fairly frequently.

From the outside looking in, a therapeutic session looks like nothing much. A field. Some people on camping chairs. A couple of horses moving around or eating grass. Sunshine. Simple ingredients from the outside. It makes me smile when our visitors suddenly catch themselves in the moment. Usually a look of wonder or delight gleams in their eyes as they question out loud: “What on earth are we doing here?”

One response could be to point to all the life events that brought them to this moment. So many people we work with have lived such through extraordinary depths of pain and suffering, it is heart-rending. Violence, depression, fear, doubt, insecurity and anxiety. One of the reason why I find this work so moving is that each person I meet will carry the weight of all they have been through until now, and yet still be searching for a new way of being.

Our horses meet people at the point in their life journey where they are asking questions of profound significance. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my purpose in life? Incapable of making  a judgement, or sympathising or asking for more colourful details, the horses simply share a moment. They take people into the present. Here the air is cool or warm, the trees suspended in stillness or moving fluently with the wind, the sky clear or clouded, the grass dry or damp with dew, the birdsong piercing or muted and all the sensations in between and there revealed is a subtle, nuanced world of feeling and perception. There revealed is a horse who experiences the world in a totally different way to you, and there you are, and that is all you need to be fully immersed in life as it is being lived.

A shared experience is a special thing. If we allow it, a shared experience with an animal can grant us a sense of looking at the world through the eyes of another. Shared time with horses can become a time when our noisy human concerns quieten and we can see past our preoccupations to meet the world through fresh eyes. It isn’t often that we can find a different perspective on our human world, and slow time with horses is revealing because there we may encounter who we are at the very core of our being.

We observe the horses. We pay attention to them and they reward us by becoming curious about us often in surprising and delightful ways. During a session they will  come and explore us, play with us or simply be quietly with us. We let go of trying to work out what went wrong. In this quiet space, the deadening and frightening weight of our accumulated experience drops away, and there revealed is lightness, playfulness and freedom. Ideas come to the surface and are shared spontaneously without fear.

The horses are grounded in their being. They witness extraordinary acts of human courage and vulnerability. At any moment, they could move away, but they often choose to stay and be part of whatever is emerging and unfolding. The feeling I often get at this point in a session is one of timelessness.

Here, there is time to reflect on what life might be like without the routines of a secure mental health hospital where everything is done for you. Here, you realise you have taken off your mask to wonder whether your true purpose is a life’s work with animals. Here, there is time to share some creative sounds and ideas you’ve been working on and to realise that you are accepted and loved as you are. Here, there is time to notice how much clutter we normally carry around in our thoughts on a busy working day. There is time to smile at one another and laugh and in spite of all the comedy, craziness and chaos in lives, to recognise that we are connected, and we are at peace and it feels good.

There are the horses, and there are we.  Nothing much.



Living the questions

9 09 2018



All over the world today, someone will lose someone they love to suicide. Their lives will never again be the same, and questions will remain, sometimes unresolved for years.

Today is significant because it happens to be World Suicide Prevention Day, and it falls on the day my friend Steve would have turned 57 had he not taken his life one summer morning seventeen years ago.

At 57, Steve would have lived through many more adventures than he had already packed into his young life. I imagine him, now, with his wry smile, even more weathered and seasoned with experience. We’re sitting by a wood-burner drinking single malt and he’s telling me tales of travel to remote places, the heights he has climbed: the air, the colour of the lakes and the sky, the astonishing trees, the warmth of the people he has met, and there is a soft, glowing light in his eyes. He’s loving this time in his life. He feels at ease with himself. He has found the most precious jewel. He has peace of mind.

For a long time, I had too many questions for Steve. Why would someone who relished life so much choose to leave it so abruptly? Why would he dismantle everything he had worked so hard to achieve? Why didn’t he tell us what he planning to do? And the most important question: Why didn’t he wait?

If he had waited…but he couldn’t. He was by nature restless, always keen to start preparing for the next trip, the next mountain, the next experience. Steve tasted adventure and the extremes of endurance early. On leaving school, he travelled with his friend Kevin across some of the most dangerous parts of South America, plunging down rivers in a dug-out canoe with a live pig strapped inside, existing on good-will, humour, bananas and the occasional Mars Bar. I had taken a different route and plunged into the world of local news with my first job as a reporter on the Honiton and Ottery News.

On his way home from South America, Steve called in to see me at the newspaper office. We went for a surreal walk up the High Street, me in my meek work clothes, him carrying a huge green rucksack which towered over his back. His skin was burned a deep brown and he had a beard. Still only 19, Steve looked like a man of ten or more years older. He wanted to know what I had been doing while he was away.

Being interested in others, not putting himself first, sharing what he owned were all facets of Steve’s greatness, his energetic spirit that drew people to him. Wherever we went, and we shared many adventures in our twenty year friendship, we honoured humour, honesty and a strong desire to be happy doing what we most loved.

On my desk is a postcard of the Musee Du Louvre with a message dated February 1999. That year we had decided as a spontaneous valentine to meet in Paris, each travelling from different places. The thrill of connection motivated us to live a little more vividly every time we met, and on that Paris trip we were elated as we renewed our vows, not to each other (there were often complications around that) but to life itself.

In his message, Steve’s hand-writing is bold, and slants across the postcard.

“Hoping our dreams will come true! Love Steve xx”

I notice he has underlined both our names. Ever generous, he wanted us both to achieve fulfilment, and it is achingly poignant that I have lived the questions of these past years without him as my travel companion.

When someone you love selects suicide, it carves a hole in your being. It breaks you into pieces, it slams you hard against the rock face of life. The pain is so bad you carry a rucksack of stones around, exhausting yourself with wondering whether there was something you could have done.

The last time I spoke to Steve, he cried. He couldn’t tell me what he was doing in the Psychiatric Unit in Aberdeen, only that he needed time before he could get out. He didn’t want me to visit. ‘I don’t want you to see me like this,’ he said and then he cried, long, silent tears. I stayed on the phone, listening to the sound of the swing doors opening and closing on the hospital corridor.

I should have ignored him and gone to the hospital anyway. But I also know that my unannounced visit might not have saved him. Nothing could have saved Steve except a new question that kept him curious about life. I wonder what questions Steve might have had on the day he took his life. I wonder whether he noticed the irony of preparing ropes to end his life in the crown of a beech tree, the same ropes that had saved his life many times in his work as a tree surgeon. I wonder whether he hesitated before he put the rope around his neck, whether at that moment he heard birdsong, or voices or noticed the clarity of sky and remembered that winter weekend in Paris.

Living the questions requires you to meet whatever life offers, and to understand that there might never be answers. We all must live the question of our being, and it is hard, it is challenging , it is tough, and it is beautiful, it is joyful and it is the life within us all.

Steve and Kevin after South America

Finding our way home

12 08 2018

Girl on horse

I’d so love to own this painting, an oil pastel by Rachel Ricketts, because it reminds me of my own Summer 11 when I discovered home on the back of a horse. I didn’t particularly mind which horse I rode at the time, although I felt most comfortable on a Chestnut part-Arab pony who could fly us across the lanes and through the woods and sometimes over jumps. Being in the stables, grooming the horses or simply breathing along with them, I felt at home.

When you’re eleven, you don’t question things. You’re drawn to people, animals, ideas, activities that either repel you, or reveal you by bringing you closer to yourself, and you don’t realise you’re doing anything remarkable. You’re just living your eleven-year-old life. Through you, your life expresses itself in ways that make complete sense to you, and seem utterly bonkers to other people. Why would you decide Brownies or television or girls in dresses are unfulfilling and instead choose to spend your time cycling ten miles on a bike too big for you with the sun in your eyes, your legs in sweaty long black boots already tired from pushing up hills to spend the day with horses someone else calls their own? Why would you wait so patiently to be asked which horse you wanted to ride, not daring to breathe his name in case you spoiled your chances? Why would you endure extreme cold, extreme hunger, extreme heat, extreme love, extreme fear to be close to a horse who will never be yours? Why would you develop such extreme patience to write down everything you have learned about horses, but fail consistently to finish your maths homework?

Because this is your eleven-year-old life. Because this is you in the process of becoming who you are, and you don’t know it. You know only that you feel good around horses even when you’re falling off and going to hospital and getting stitched up, sometimes unskillfully, and coming home to think only of recovering fast enough to be able to return to the horses as soon as possible. What some young girls of your age consider to be madness is your sanity.

In their remarkably lucid work Coming Home, Dicken Bettinger and Natasha Swerdloff say that home is where we feel most comfortable, where we completely let go and relax.

“In this context, coming home is a letting go of all pretences and just being your true self. It is the place inside of you where you feel most at ease.”

Their enquiry points to a ‘vast inner space,’ a place that is empty and yet filled with the potential of what is about to be born. Looking at my eleven-year-old life from this perspective, I see how I filled my empty space with nourishment. I was drawn to connect with horses, not because I liked them, although I did very much even when I was so very scared of them, but because with them I felt nourished. They fed my inner being.

I might have picked up a paintbrush or flute with the same feeling of reverence or watched the birds or became fascinated with fashion. Art, books, words, music, birds, the sea, fabulous food and clothes, I love them all, but not in the way I love horses, and really I can’t explain why. My love is beyond explanation. It simply is.

And the horses know. If they are fortunate enough to escape too many human agendas or demands, they live rich and textured lives that are at the same time uncomplicated They understand the power of the unspoken because their love is unspoken too, generous, light and free as the wind. Sometimes to their great detriment and in honour of their exquisite sensitivity, they stand and bear suffering in silence

In the words of Bettinger and Swerdloff coming home is ‘realising the deep quiet of your inner being.’

From this deep quiet, lives are created, shaped and formed. No matter how warped they may become, and most lives will buckle out of shape at some point, we are able to come back to the quiet at any time. No matter where we are, we can return home to ourselves.

Coming Home cover

A summer storm

13 05 2018

Meadow 2

As the evenings linger longer, I love being with the horses in the summer meadow. There’s a feeling of space and quiet here that refreshes my mind and allows all the thinking of days that seem to get busier to simply drop away. Just a half hour in the meadow, listening to the horses swishing through the long reedy grass, the drowsy bumble of bees and the bright notes of the skylarks spiralling into the blue, returns me to a more balanced and peaceful place.

It took me a long time to realise that looking after horses could be so natural and calming. In the early days, I would wake with a feeling of knotted anxiety as I drove up to the yard, convinced that today would be the day that I would have to call the vet for an emergency. I mentally prepared myself for all the incidents that could have happened in the night, such as a horse getting trapped in a corner of the stable and not being able to get up, or an eye pierced by a rusty nail I had missed removing with my claw hammer, or a gust of wind taking off the roof, leaving the horses exposed and shivering from cold. None of this happened. It was all in my imagination and in the early days, my imagination concocted such lurid dreams of disaster, I was convinced they had to be true. Unbelievably, I was sometimes disappointed when I arrived to find all was well.

Around a year into looking after my two fine-coated, highly sensitive Arabian horses, I received one of many life lessons that helped to shift my thinking. A summer storm broke in the early hours, and I was immediately awake, pulling on my jeans and boots in the dark, dashing for the car in torrential rain, blaming myself for not checking the forecast and putting on waterproof rugs even though it was July.

I drove like crazy, wipers on full, barely able to breathe as I clung onto the steering wheel, imagining the horses soaked and terrified. As I got out of the car, aluminium jagged lightening split the sky. Heart racing, thoughts tumbling in my mind, I ran to the field, climbed over the gate and another thunderbolt shook everything. In the metallic flash, I saw the horses with their backs up against a hedge looking into the spectacular theatre show of light and rain and noise. They were soaked and warm and perfectly quiet and still. They looked at me in wonderment, surprised I had come for them so early, and in that moment a whole layer of misunderstanding fell away.

“Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our wisdom mind.”

Pema Chodron

In the middle of the storm, we can find a point of calm, a place of deeper understanding. Indeed, the storms can show up what it is we need to see. Mental health awareness is having the courage to see what we need to see unflinchingly. When we know that we need not turn away from any experience because that experience is an opening for us, we can compassionately use whatever life gives us. And in this knowing, there is peace and freedom.




Being seen as we are

29 04 2018


One of the most curious things about being human is our inability to see ourselves for who we truly are. We must rely on others to act as our witness. As we know, being witnessed is often an uncomfortable experience. To sit within the gaze of another is to feel unmasked.

And yet when we are working in the fields of coaching, writing or education we are keen to lift the masks and peer at what lies behind. In our enthusiasm to educate, heal or interview, we may innocently come across as intrusive or unaware of the fear we are generating by simply asking someone to come out of hiding.

Last weekend, I experienced a way of witnessing that was simultaneously bold, searching and beautiful. I watched people from many different fields of experience from professional film-makers to therapists, a funeral celebrant, a pediatric consultant and an ontological coach practice sitting still.

People had travelled from Denmark, Finland and other parts of Europe as well as many parts of the UK to sit and watch another human being wrestle with being human. So many busy, highly accomplished people from all over Europe gathered together to do essentially nothing for a weekend. I found it absurd, provoking and utterly absorbing.

The frame around the weekend with film-maker Nic Askew presented it as a course on authentic story-telling for the video camera. We actually did quite a lot. There were plenty of technical tips on lighting and framing and all the usual elements of  making something look and sound great on screen, but that wasn’t what I learned.

I learned how to wait. I learned how to stop evaluating. I learned how to watch. On the first day, I hunkered down behind my writer’s mask and played around with my notes to make poems of the words that fell into place when the faces being filmed appeared on screen. The sitters were all nervous at first, but after a while their expressions cleared and their emotions shone through like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. I felt as if I were witnessing some sort of secret transformation. I composed my list of words: dignified delight; powerful focus; playful knowing; strength; kindness; quietness; intensity; timelessness; relief; wonder; acceptance, and I fell in love with the extraordinary beauty of the human face.

The emotional geography revealed an undulating terrain of knowing; it was fascinating to see life come to light through the lines of experience, every one a mark of the interior self, pointing to the soul. I saw people come out of hiding as shyly as young children, and in the act of being seen they met themselves, some for the first time.

Those present spoke of their joy at having been seen, of freedom, of respect, of a multi-faceted diamond turning its faces of turquoise, yellow and violet light.

I came away wondering why it is that we don’t love the world and each person who shares our world more than we do because when we see one another, we see life itself and that must be worthy of our full attention.

More about Nic Askew here: http://www.nicaskew.com



Shades of blue

25 03 2018


Blue 1If we are human, we have suffered depression. We’ve been disappointed, discouraged and disillusioned. In the darkest, most painful times, we’ve touched despair. Depression visits us in many shades: some days we might be feeling a little off-colour, other days it’s the full spectrum. Each one of us has the ability to paint depression in hues of our own making. Everyone who has suffered through depression longs for relief.

Animals, too, suffer alongside us. Dogs who are treated without compassion grow listless or angry and afraid and sometimes need years of patient handling to gain trust in humans who have no interest in prolonging their suffering. Monkeys who have been used in laboratory testing are forever twitchy. One of the saddest things I have seen is a rescue laboratory monkey neurotically pacing the exact dimensions of his lab cage in his new open enclosure.

A few  years ago Dragonfly, our super sensitive Arabian horse, went through a prolonged period of depression. He lost his vitality and became deeply introverted. Walks out did not interest him. He picked at his food and hay. The vet could find nothing wrong. The farrier checked his feet and found them sound. We spent time with him and tried to work out what was causing him to be so subdued, but nothing was obvious.

One afternoon I arrived and saw the horse in the stable opposite had not been turned out. His head was hanging low almost between his knees and looking at him I felt close to tears. I learned that his owner often left him in all day and all night and rarely spent much time with him. Dragonfly was effectively sharing a home with another being who was profoundly depressed. I wondered then whether Dragonfly was mirroring the mood in that sad stable block. His vitality returned when I moved him to a new place where he could bicker with his neighbours.

Few of us would choose to be depressed, but depression is inescapable if we are to live as feeling creatures. What if we could learn to view depression differently, as something that protects us from greater harm? The view of depression as a defensive protective strategy in Paul Gilbert’s work The Compassionate Mind is intriguing and perhaps ultimately consoling. Professor Gilbert, a clinical psychologist, reminds us that our brains are still not really that mentally advanced to keep up with the pressures and stresses of contemporary life, and so when we reach the point of overwhelm, we shut down. We retreat into ‘the back of the cave.’ We ruminate on our feelings of despair and weave a negative, blaming, shameful circle around our state of mind. The rumination can keep us depressed for years.

Professor Gilbert explores with great luminosity the idea that depression is a normal, natural response to trauma of any kind, to being bullied, rejected, threatened or abused. Depression steps in to keep us safe. It protects our minds from further harm and allows us time out of life to heal. With this understanding of depression, it makes no sense to blame ourselves for being depressed or try to fight it. It makes little sense to medicate against it either because medication dulls the very system that is doing its best to keep us well. This is a beautiful example of the mind being designed through evolution to heal itself.

Nevertheless, the healing process, as we know so well, is horribly painful. And just as you wouldn’t expect to go through life-saving surgery without medication to support you through the physical pain, medication will often support you through the pain of a mind that needs to mend. It’s blaming ourselves for needing the medication that causes more suffering. And to blame a mind already in agony is to compound real suffering.

As Professor Gilbert argues so eloquently, we need a more compassionate approach to healing the mind. We need to understand the mind as a system that serves us so well and most of time acts in our best interests, when we remember to step out of the way. Here is an idea that might be too difficult to accept: if instead of blaming our tendency to go down when we are threatened, we could reach out to depression and see that it is trying to be our friend, our wise companion through the darkness, maybe that would change our experience?

I was going to finish with another shade of blue photograph, but have included this one instead because today in this hemisphere, we mark the Spring Equinox.


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