To be amazed

18 03 2018

Old Jon 2

Looking after horses in the winter months is routine and heavy-going at times. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been trudging through clay in my muck boots for weeks on end without much of a break, and so I welcome moments when I can gain a fresh perspective. Spending time talking to the farmer next door nearly always uplifts me. It’s become part of a spring ritual to hear about how each one of his new lambs made its way into the world. I like to listen to him talk about the ewes as if they were a flock of feckless daughters, the diligent ones obvious favourites; the lazy ones in their turn exasperating.

More than details of the labour of sheep, I’ve learned to listen to a way of life that is disappearing.  At the age of 85, this farmer still cares about the nuances of his work. I’ve heard him dragging new-born lambs, mimicking their bleating, across the orchard to encourage reluctant ewes to follow him into the warm shed. Most weekends, he starts up the chainsaw to work through a pile of timber for his wood burning customers. When I said I’d spread the word, he was wise enough to tell me that he didn’t need the extra work. He knows precisely how much he needs to keep him going.

Talking to him, I get a sense that he sees things exactly as they are. He has been through so many seasons and knows the intricate rise and fall of life. Through his eyes, I see the span of a whole life lived through close connection to animals and the land. His knowledge of the subtleties of growing grass is beautiful and poignant to hear because few people care for that depth of knowledge any more. Chemicals and mechanisation speak a different language. Nevertheless, every summer he insists on inspecting each new hay cut as if it were something personal.

The farmer drives his own car to the yard, and if you see him out on the lanes, he will wave and smile as if you have delighted him to the very centre of his being. He remains sharp, curious and engaged and even though he could put his feet up at home and sit by his fire, he prefers to be out in the world and to be amazed by what he sees.

So, when my shoulders are aching and I’m longing for a cup of tea and a hot bath, I just need to remind myself that I’m out where I most want to be. I can witness the world as it rises and falls through the seasons and through my own being and I can also be amazed.

snow March

 





The art of acceptance

4 03 2018

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So, you get home after two hours of crawling along a road you usually drive down in ten minutes. You’ve been listening to local radio all the way and the Red Warning means you shouldn’t be out in your car because your life is in danger. You tell the announcer that you’re doing your best to get off the road. The trouble is, everyone else is trying to do the same and some roads are already closed. Light cars designed for zipping around a coastal town are in trouble, wheels spinning on ice and snow. A woman gets out of her car and advises another driver to use second gear. Drivers cheer and wave at the sight of the snow plough. The atmosphere is giddy and tense and uncertain.

When you turn into your road, there’s nowhere to park and you end up leaving your vehicle halfway down the street, knowing that you probably won’t be able to move it in the morning. When you reach your house, your steps are immaculately felted with snow, which naturally you plunge your feet into, enjoying the crumpling sound and the sense of relief at having reached safety. The central heating is on, and you make tea and watch from your window the curious sight of snow drifts creating soft islands around the pots on your balcony. Later the lime tree fruits will be crystallised and the fingertips of the palm tree will flaunt perfect jewelled ice beads. Much later, the wind and snow and ice combine into a storm that takes your breath away and keeps you awake, your feelings skittering from awe to worry to incredulity.

You try to go out the next morning but the path around your house is too slippery and you fear that you may fall and injure yourself. You’d like to go out and buy some milk, as people are saying that supplies are running low and you want to feel prepared. You know that you already have enough food and don’t really need to buy anything. The radio is advising people to make soup from leftovers in the fridge. You’re amused because you make soup from leftovers when it doesn’t snow, so what should you do that feels different or special?

You settle into staying at home and try not to worry about the horses because you know they have lived through worse weather conditions than this so-called beast, but your mind keeps thinking of potential disaster such as the barn caving in and burying the big hay bale, or one of the horses twisting a fetlock on the hard ground, or dying of thirst or freezing to death or going mad with fear.

The horses, you learn, from reports from your landowners who can see them from their front window, have huddled together for warmth, ponies on the inside, horses on the outside, and they are quiet and calm. They have ignored the dried food put down for them. When you last saw them, they were settled and even joyful, each one taking a turn to roll in the snow. You learn that the ponies know how to unfreeze a spot of iced-over water with their warm breath and keep it open so that they can drink when they need to. You have been smashing the ice with a mallet, which sometimes doesn’t work. When you think of the horses in the snowy field you can’t help but make comparisons with how the human world is reacting to what is an utterly natural event.

When you next see the horses, they come forward for their feed, and their faces are clean and rain-washed. They are unhurried, beautiful and serene, and you feel a rush of gratitude to them and for them. You feel the layers of care from the past day, has it really been only a day, slip from your shoulders, and you are relaxed. You watch them eat as if for the first time. You want to do something more for them but there is nothing you need to do.

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Let everything happen

7 08 2017

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What the horse knows: Life Lesson: No 10

What would life be like if we simply let things happen? If we allowed life to unfold naturally instead of trying to squeeze life into a container suitable for our own personal use? Letting things happen is not easy for busy-minded humans. We feel we’ve accomplished something if we squeeze as much juice as we can out of every day. Horses look at things differently; they live in what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls ‘the landscape of the now.’

Busy days, down days, difficult days, all are meaningless to a horse. For horses, there are simply days without judgement. Their lived days are rich with texture and meaning and create rhythms that move in and out of seasons. Horses weather their experience. We tend to think of experience as something we have set up, and if we’ve done well, a great holiday or family weekend or special meal, we feel a sense of satisfaction. We congratulate ourselves for ‘getting it right,’ and correspondingly, we feel low for ‘getting it wrong’ when our dream holiday disappoints and leaves us wishing we had stayed at home.

When we are prepared to let everything happen to us, we cannot be disappointed. We can stand the storms, the crazy times, the ups and downs, the grief. We’ve let life in and when we let it take its course without trying to divert it to a direction we would prefer, we see life itself, life in its startling fierce beauty. Life contains everything: pain, magic and the mundane are all mixed up together; it is never one thing and it is never ours alone. It is shared with every living thing.

A shared life is something horses understand. They don’t plot their lifescapes on charts or develop five-year career plans or business strategies or even make plans for the next day. They live moment to moment in full awareness. When I’m with them, I find I can let go of my relentless preoccupation with ‘the next thing’ (whatever it is) and stretch into a more elastic way of being.

I notice more. Coming down the hill in the meadow, I saw the fox, twice. The first time he ran across my path; the second time he moved past the horses, unafraid. I caught a good look at him. Long dark legs, heavy auburn body, neat head, nose to the ground as he high-stepped through the long grass.

Pillowed on the hill, the ground supported my back and held me together. The wind brushed my face. My body was warm, protected, the aches and soreness in my arm dampened by a wider feeling of an active aliveness. The skylark rose and released a braid of song, sequinned notes scattered into the air.

Tinker was resting when I came down from the hill. Her lower lip revealed a slim groove of pink. A single blade of grass clung to the side of her mouth. She has a lovely, neat muzzle. Soft, enquiring, yielding, it fits into the palm of my hand. Her neck was warm under the cover of her long dark mane, bleached in places from the sun. Her neck was smooth and shiny with her own conditioning grease. She looked polished, a light bay oak with gold highlights and darker ripples on her flanks and belly. Her legs were shining black to the knee, and finished in grey gleaming hooves. She glowed in the sun, a golden orb of health.

Sheranni came to me. I rubbed his head and behind his ears. Sometimes he’ll play this game for half an hour or more, but today he needed a stronger massage. He greeted Dragonfly with a kneading on his withers. Often Dragonfly will push him away, but he reciprocated. They swapped positions moving, bending their necks over their backs, splaying their legs so that they could stretch, using top and bottom lip to groom, lifting the skin, occasionally using teeth. Their lips gulped as they worked up a rhythm. The power and tenderness were compelling. At any moment they could lift their necks and break the flow and I expected some jousting, but they kept the rhythm going. This was boys’ work, masculine bonding, powerful, deep and strong. I held back.

Then an opening. The horses separated and cocked their hinds to rest. They half closed their eyes. A stillness. I saw that they had formed a circle with the others and I had been allocated a place. I stayed with them. Afterwards I felt altered in some slight but profound way. On the drive home, my motivation rose. I had ideas to follow. I could let them unfold. I was open again.

 

 

 





How to worry

19 06 2017

What the horse knows: Life Lesson No: 9

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Horses know how to worry. As highly sensitive flight animals, worry is part of being alive and aware and can be seen as beneficial. An exquisite awareness of danger is part of every flight animal’s existence. The more highly attuned, the more potential danger the animal senses. Growing up, Dragonfly, who is as highly strung as a rare violin, worried about birds twittering unexpectedly in hedges, bouncing balls, unpredictable gusts of wind, white lines on the road. One time leading him in from his field he encountered a feral cat eating from his feed bowl and his legs buckled underneath him in fear.

Dragonfly’s worry was his way of meeting the unexpected. His hair-trigger reactivity meant that I had to be careful around him. I couldn’t be brusque or rush him or forget to take his feelings into consideration. I couldn’t make assumptions. I couldn’t expect him to ‘just get over it,’ either. I had to learn to read him and that meant taking his state of mind into consideration at all times. It meant taking him to places with ‘freaky’ stuff just so he could learn that he could handle buses, flyovers, farm traffic, road signs, ice, fallen trees, bogs, deer, umbrellas, bicycles, dogs, children in pushchairs, everyday sights in our crammed, colourful human world.

Over the years, Dragonfly matured from an anxious young colt into a gentle, soft and willing horse who remains highly sensitive. One some days, he gets into a state over something, which seems small to a human mind. He doesn’t like to be separated from his herd members, and frets when he can’t see the ponies. Wind still agitates him. Bicycles, buses and other big traffic he takes in his stride.

What he has learned is to rely on is his own steadiness. He has learned that when he perceives something dangerous, there is another option besides fear. He has learned that he doesn’t have to listen to his superficial thinking because there is a deeper understanding within.  This is a remarkable life lesson.

A worry-free life is impossible. Life without fear or danger would not be life as we know it, and would be strange, featureless and bland. A certain amount of danger keeps us awake and sharp. Nevertheless, we tend to want to eliminate danger because we blame an escalation of threat for our state of worry. We tend to forget that our feelings of worry come not from circumstances but from our own thinking. Sports coach Garret Kramer, explores this in his fascinating and insightful book The Path of No Resistance.

“A key difference between steadiness and inconsistency is that steady people become still and then find another option when they sense danger. Inconsistent people try to exhibit strength by plowing through it.’

 

Dragonfly used to try to force his way through his fears. Memorably we parted company once when schooling and I hit the ground so hard I couldn’t walk the next day. I wondered then whether he would become a ‘neurotic’ horse. It’s easy to see how horses and people with a tendency to worry acquire unhelpful labels that become defining. As Dragonfly grew up, he learned how to be more consistent and how to rely more on his inner sense. He learned self-reliance, resilience and steadiness.

Dragonfly learned that given time his fretful mind will self-correct. He learned that he could bring himself back into balance. His fearful feelings did not mean that he had to run or throw himself onto the ground. He did not have to react to everything he sensed or felt or imagined. His feelings meant that he had to wait for stillness and steadiness to return. This is mature practical wisdom in action and a true source of inspiration.





What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

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Life lesson No. 3: Truth

One of the most honourable qualities about horses is their inability to tell lies. So remarkable is this quality that two renowned horsemen authors chose to highlight it in the titles of their books. Interestingly, both titles of these two excellent books expressed the idea in the negative. Horses don’t lie and horses never lie because, obviously, horses tell the truth.

Horses always tell the truth. Perhaps this is because they don’t have to lie. They don’t have to file tax returns, phone in sick or fake ID documents. Horses don’t have to return items to shops or buy tickets or order online. They don’t meet people in secret or make phone calls they shouldn’t. They never put anyone down out of spite, insecurity or envy. They never complain or write snippy emails. In comparison to most egocentric, digitally-distracted, sensation-seeking humans, horses live lives of simple harmony.

Given the vast differences between them and us, it’s extraordinary then that we can learn so much from each other. Yesterday, Sheranni marked his fifteenth birthday, and while I filled the hay-nets in the spring sunshine I reflected on some of the lessons he has taught me along the way to this milestone.

He was born true and good. He was born to run and indeed as a young colt whenever he got up from his straw bed after a long afternoon nap he would canter over to his dam for another feed. One truth he taught me early on was how important physicality is for young male animals. He also taught me that horses need more space than I ever realised. The idea of an acre per horse is ludicrous as is the idea of educating any young male in a confined space for long periods of time.

Looking back over a decade and a half together, it seems that we spent the first two years of Sheranni’s life simply allowing him to let off steam. I’ll never forget those times he enthusiastically charged towards me just missing me by a paper-breadth because I had just walked up the hill to visit the yearlings. I’ll never forget advising one of his early riders to hide in the cowshed because he would become extravagantly exuberant at the sight of her holding the halter. I’ll never forget him running around the lanes with my step-dad and pausing to take a nap on the second lap because he had released all his pent-up energy. I’ll never forget the daily fly-pasts and races with young Dragonfly and the times I stood in churned up clay and decided it was time to move yet again to bigger pastures.

I learned from looking after young Arabian horses that physicality is as essential to them as air. They need to stretch and grow and run at their own pace, which means often that they need to go for the burn. I think the horses were around eight years old when I finally admitted to prospective land-owners that they were full (on) Arabians. Previously, if anyone enquired about their breeding I’d say they had a ‘bit’ of Arab in them, and hoped that the ‘bit’ of them that needed to explore any new territory at top tail-high speed interspersed with impressive rearing play-fighting, dubbed horse-wrestling by one stunned observer, would be miraculously subdued the day we moved in.

In respecting their need for physicality, I looked for homes where they would not be bored and when I saw that they were getting fed up with a place for whatever reason, we moved on. This meant that over the years we moved about twelve times and that in itself was another revelation: horses like variety and change just as we do. Too much down-time dulls their spirits. Too much time, in the words of one of our students, ‘spent staring at the walls is not good.’ All active, intelligent animals need to move because to move is to be true.

dsc_0318Sheranni and Dragonfly on the move.





What the horse knows No: 2

5 03 2017

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Friendship between species is special. Sheranni with Rebecca.

Life Lesson No 2: Friendship

For most people, life without friends would be a treacherous place. Social species need others not simply to survive, but also to thrive. Our friends and companions enrich our lives in ways that can surprise us. A close friend once cycled from Kent to Devon because he missed me. Stamina aside, we value friends who show loyalty and kindness and with whom we can be at our best and worst.

Horses are especially skilled at friendship. As herd animals, they need to live in groups in order to feel safe, and like us their capacity for friendship goes beyond survival. Friendship for horses is as much a matter of preference as it is for humans and horses display their sociability in myriad ways. Some bond for life with one companion while others might easily make new friends wherever they happen to live. We have a pony who is close buddies with a goat.

Sheranni happens to be a highly sociable horse and when he was younger I used to play a game with him to try to get him to ‘unfriend’ me. This was in the days when he used to come into a stable at night and if the horse in the neighbouring stable got too interested, Sheranni would direct mean looks at the intruder. If I happened to be in the way of the grrr-get-lost gesture, Sheranni would immediately switch to being charming. The first time this happened I was amazed at the speed at which he could navigate between the two emotional extremes. Back and forth his expression would go: nasty-nice-nasty-nice. Smile-scowl-smile-scowl. No matter how quick I was, he was never caught out and he was never neutral either. I like to think that this is because we were such fast friends he wouldn’t or couldn’t unfriend me.

Not a game I would recommend with one stallion I knew whose super-mean gestures told me to give him a king-size berth. I led him out to his field a few times and it was like taking a cobra for a walk. One day he lunged over his stable door and grabbed a young woman by the neck. Her injury was shocking, as if someone had pressed a hot iron against her skin. Even more shocking was the seemingly random nature of his attack. She had not spoken to him or looked at him as she passed. She had simply been in the way.

Not long after this incident, I happened to walk past his stable. Normally, he would be hanging over the door, snaking in his beautiful, venomous way. The stallion wasn’t there. From my position, I could see that he was inside and, with a quickening in my stomach, that he was not alone. Another young woman was grooming him. She smiled up at me. ‘I just love this horse,’ she said. ‘When I come, I really love to spend time with him.’ The stallion was at ease, his head low with a soft and dreamy expression in his eye. It was the most relaxed I had ever seen him.

Over the years I’ve often thought about this scene. The young woman just happened to be someone who was born with Downs Syndrome. Of course, this made no difference to the stallion just as it made no difference to him that the young woman he attacked just happened to be a qualified horse professional. He preferred the young woman who wanted to spend some quiet time with him. Most people were too scared of him to try, and that meant he was condemned to a lonely life. It was incredibly moving to witness the tenderness between him and the young woman who trusted him and who had his best interests at heart.

We currently work with another young woman who also just happened to be born with Downs Syndrome. She is shy and has learning difficulties. She also recognises that friendship with animals is incredibly special and that horses respect all kinds of people.

A short time ago, she played her own game with Sheranni by taking his rope when she thought no one was watching and inviting him to partner with her. He moved so sweetly. They were completely connected and synchronised. It was one of those moments when my best friend surprised me, as if he had slipped off to dance with a professional.





Body Talk

25 10 2016

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Goats know about presence. An irritated goat lifts her chest, arches her neck, stiffens her gaze and may tip her horns toward the source of irritation. An irate goat tucks her chin to her chest and charges with her forehead, horns angled to wound. She might also stomp with both front feet and grunt. Get on the wrong side of a goat and she will use persuasively powerful body language to insist that you change your mind.

When she is not sleeping in the sun, staring at the feed shed or snatching blackberries from the brambles, the life of a goat is pretty much taken up with power, influence and control. Observing Betty, as I do most days, and her companion Bill, I’m often amused by the sheer physical energy they will display when riled. ‘Back off’ in goat language means feet planted and head held high. What’s interesting is that ‘back off’ in human language also amounts to pretty much the same thing. We talk of ‘standing our ground’ when we want to get our point across and it turns out that a simple occupation of space can be far more effective than a strongly worded argument.

Presence is now a subject for serious academic study. Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk

 how our body language shapes behaviour has been viewed by millions and her ideas have been shared by individuals and in colleges, schools, sports teams and businesses. Amy Cuddy showed how adopting power poses including the dynamic Wonder Woman hands on hips pose alters our thinking and improves performance. Her research shows that just a couple of minutes adopting this expansive pose especially before a stressful situation such as an audition or job interview is enough to prime the body to feel strong, grounded and present. On the other hand, collapsing the body by hunching over a device (labelled the ihunch or text neck) has the opposite effect. Constricting body language, it appears, limits our ability to think clearly, act decisively and even has an impact on working memory.

According to Cuddy: ‘The Body shapes the mind, and the mind shapes behaviour. But the body also directs itself.’ In her book Presence, Cuddy tells the story of how she nearly missed out on an academic career after a car accident left her with a devastating brain injury. After months of physical and cognitive therapy, she was told that she shouldn’t expect to finish college. She ‘never in a million years’ expected to become a Harvard professor. ‘I just wanted to make it through each week without losing hope. To make it through a class without thinking about dropping out…I had no concrete goal in mind. I just wanted to feel a bit more like myself, a bit sharper, a bit less like I was watching from inside a glass bubble and a bit more like a participant in what was happening.’

As children, we participate in the world naturally, partly because we don’t find it nearly as difficult to fully inhabit our bodies as we do when we eventually become adults. Children walk, run, climb, swim, dig around and throw things with much less effort and deliberation than their more self-aware adult selves. As adults, we are generally more careful and less spontaneous with our physical movements. For example, it is rare for a grown man to throw himself on the floor of a supermarket and demand a chocolate bar, even when he is desperately hungry, or lift his legs and swing between the arms of two indulgent friends just for the fun of it.

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed that the world is more problematic for adults because grown-ups mostly have to take into consideration other people’s perceptions. The child has ‘no knowledge of points of view. For him men are empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world where everything takes place, even dreams, which are, he thinks, in his room, and even thinking, since it is not distinct from words.’

At some point children learn that they are separate from the world, and this separation creates distance and a point of view, coloured and shaped by many different experiences and influences. Instead of living within the world, fully enfolded in being in the world, adults become more detached from the world. Perhaps one of the many reasons why we enjoy watching children and animals at play is that this reminds us of what we have lost. Often as adults we must relearn how to fully experience the world and we often choose to do this through ‘play,’ physical and creative means such as sport, dance or music.

Merleau-Ponty reminds us that we experience the world primarily through our bodies. Indeed there would be no perceived world without our bodies to experience it. All our thoughts, perceptions and experiences are filtered through our senses, which are embodied. We don’t have to live in our heads all the time; we can recognise that the body gives us direct access to the world. Merleau-Ponty’s arguments are revitalising because philosophy and much of psychology have long been viewed as disciplines of the mind alone with the question of the body being side-lined. Philosophy in particular has found it hard to escape the straitjacket of thinking that regards minds as pure and bodies as messy.

Plato’s solution to the problem of the body was to claim that it corrupted the mind and needed to be controlled like an unruly horse needing the guiding hand of the charioteer of reason. The body was inferior because it couldn’t think in the abstract; the body couldn’t understand the nature of goodness. The body was simply the vehicle for the highest part of us: the indestructible soul, which would eventually be reborn with another body. In other words, we didn’t need to bother with the body because we could always get another one.

As he sat in his dressing gown in his Bavarian cabin one cold winter, French philosopher Descartes infamously separated mind and body through a process of elimination that reduced the fundamental part of all that makes us human to thinking itself. The body was cast off like a snakeskin, an inconvenient truth that Descartes chose to ignore, stepping over it on the way to the more scintillating ideas of the mind.

Merleau-Ponty returns the body to the human condition by reminding us that the body takes us through the world. We cannot navigate without it. We experience life through our bodies and what we come to know and understand is lived experience instead of reflections or abstractions of the intellect. If I understand him correctly, and his work is not easy to read: there is no little us inside our heads doing all the mental processing of our daily experience like a superfast computer delivering data. There is only us in the sitting room or the car or the bath. ‘Truth does not inhabit the inner man, or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.’

This means – I think – that the world is not a blank slate upon which we project our carefully-constructed human dreams, dramas and demands, but rather a living field of existence of which the body is an expression. Perhaps given these ideas, we could adjust our mind-set to allow more priority to our bodies as a way to make sense of the world. Maybe we could even use this strange way of thinking to build a stronger, more resilient, less anxious and self-doubting way of life. I’m hoping that the goats will be my daily reminder not to forget my own body and to power pose when necessary. Thank you Bill and Betty








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