Magic in the Moment

3 05 2020

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Some mornings we arrive and the horses are busy grazing and barely acknowledge us. Other mornings, they are waiting by the gate. And on rare, magical mornings, they are both lying down and allow us to spend moments of wonder and stillness in their presence.

I arrived at the meadow yesterday to find Jo settled between the two horses. Returning with my camera, I captured this special moment on film. As you will see, the horses have very different styles of interaction. Dragonfly is calm, relaxed and grounded throughout. Even when Sheranni goes through his attention-seeking comedy routine, Dragonfly remains unruffled. They are aware of each other, but not drawn into the other. Each horse makes space for the other horse to be as he is in the moment. This doesn’t seem like much, but making space for another, especially someone you know very well, is an art.

As humans, we find this extraordinarily difficult. Imagine that you’re having a quiet morning sleep-in and your companion suddenly decides to get up and put on some loud music and start dancing around the bedroom or practising their juggling moves. How would you react? Would you allow your companion some space to do their thing, or would you tell them to ‘get lost’ as you burrow under the duvet in a clenched bundle of righteous annoyance?

As humans, we are very adept at being still and serene when things are going our way, when our companions are tiptoeing around us, holding our space and keeping our peace, but what happens when they are not? What happens when they do their thing at full volume? The tendency then is to accuse them of being selfish, of having no consideration, of being insensitive. Who hasn’t thought this when confronted with noisy neighbours?

The horses show us how we might hold space regardless of what is happening around us. We might not enjoy the intrusion – and let’s face it most of us would prefer to lie-in undisturbed – but when disturbances come, as they will and do, we might choose to remain in a state of presence, as Dragonfly is demonstrating here; we might choose to stay in our space and breathe more deeply into it, knowing that the present contains everything we need, expanding our awareness to include the annoying little clown in the background. It won’t make him go away, but it might make it easier for us to live with him.

Something to start practising anyway…





The Space Between

24 04 2020

Having more time at the moment means more time to wander, and to wonder. On a walk a few days ago, I wondered who first thought of the idea of putting book shelves into an old phone box? And then furnishing the shelves with a range of books – what was it about the phone box that said: let’s make a little lending library right here? 

I don’t know, but drawn to one delightful little time capsule on my walk, I opened the heavy door and was immediately transported to my teenage years. How many hours had I spent hunched up in boxes exactly like this one with the heavy black phone, mouth piece infused with some strong cheap perfume like Tweed, cradled on my shoulder? How long had I stood chattering in the cold, sometimes with a newspaper parcel of fish and chips to keep my fingers warm, waiting for the phone to ring at the magical chosen hour? The box opened the door onto my younger self and there I was, lying on my bed reading a novel instead of studying for my A Levels, counting down the hours until I could put on my warmest coat and head out to telephone a boy who had most likely spent the afternoon in his own desperate place of procrastination.

Inside this miniature library, there was no polite sign asking for payment or primly inviting people to take books to read and enjoy. No indication of who might have previously owned the books. Captivated, I chose one: a travel book by Rory Stewart (no, I didn’t know he was a writer either…) an account of his walk through remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan, entirely on his own, for no reason other than wanting to go there and see what the crazy place was up to. The title: The Places In Between seemed to resonate with the new identity of this individual telephone box, divested of its phone.

We’re all in a between place right now. A place that feels familiar and strange. Aside from open access books, I’m interested in all the other small offerings that are springing up. Take me home flowers for key workers, phone calls and well-being check-ins, group gatherings, including a book group who are composing haiku as a diary of this time. I’m heartened by View from My Window, a facebook group which has gone viral, and simply shares pictures of people’s views from their windows. From my front room, I’ve visited places I will probably never see: a stunning sunset over West Palm Beach in Florida; a herd of inquisitive nyala in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa; olive trees at a mountain retreat in Umbria, Italy. Some of the posts come with stories, and it’s intriguing to read how many people are reconnecting to their pasts through objects they have lived with for years such as an old rocking chair, but have never really properly looked at it before.

Post teenage years, I overlooked red telephone boxes. They were obsolete, pointless in a digital age, smelly, ugly and slightly embarrassing like an elderly relative who forgets to wash and farts all the way through a smart family birthday dinner. They were awkward: I mean what do you do with a phone box, too small for anything useful like low-cost housing, too big and iconic to simply trash. So the boxes remain in our country lanes, sore relics of the past, that is until someone rescues a box on its last legs, spruces it up and breathes new life into its musty interior.

Within this small act of generosity lies the grit of all creativity. Being creative doesn’t have to mean doing anything grand or special or perfect. Being creative in its purest essence means to slip something into the world that was not there before, something that will delight, provoke or stimulate similar acts. Essentially, being creative is the art of looking at something with fresh eyes. Of course, the less romantically inclined might scoff that the unsecured phone box is bound to be vandalised. It is bound to have all its books ripped to shreds or stolen and never returned. It is bound to be used as a toilet or get a kicking or two.

Of course, to the person who found this box and bothered to keep it clean and furnished with books, none of this matters. They ignored the cynical voice that said: why? It’s just a smelly old phone box for goodness sake?

People all over the world are creating something small right now. They are filling the spaces between with tiny art-works: drawings, quizzes, films, choirs, photographs, poems, loaves of bread, friendships, heroic walks, pots of tea, walks, long rambling talks, silences, a beautiful lace fence (can you believe?)

Let’s be collectively delighted. Let’s make more. 

 





Wise oaks

19 04 2020

 

 

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As part of my recovery to health after a long bout of viral exhaustion, I’m taking slow walks in the quiet lanes. Often I take my camera, and for some reason whenever I see an oak tree, I have to stop and look at it. I find it difficult to pass by a particularly splendid specimen without stopping to pay my respects. I probably have hundreds, if not thousands of photographs of oak trees. Many images of the same tree.

It’s a bit of a strange obsession, I know, but I can’t stop, and whenever I’ve been ill the urge to be with oak trees is a siren call. So I go. When I find a tree I like, I hang out with it for a while and then I take its photograph. I don’t know why, but I always feel better after I’ve done this. The trees seem to be part of my recovery to strength, to sanity, to wholeness. Oaks are stoic and grounded. They have deep roots and the really ancient ones have weathered more storms than I will ever know. The trees cheer me on when I’m low in spirits. And there’s nothing like an oak for a power blast of motivation when you’re stuck on something.

Oaks work their magic on me. For others, it might be beech trees or holly or sweet chestnut that offer a sense of safety, softness or ease. Trees let us know that all is well with the world, that life has a shape and mysterious rhythm all of its own, and if you stand with a tree for long enough you will sometimes feel part of the flow of life that lies beyond thought. Trees are zen masters at living. They get to gracefully observe everything and remain deliciously detached from it all. They get to live and die in the world without ever causing harm. They are the wisest of living beings.

So I admit I’m a bit infatuated with oaks, which means of course in my eyes they are utterly blameless and perfect. I know someone is probably thinking: harmless? Oak trees are poisonous aren’t they? Especially to horses? It is my guess, however, that an oak tree can’t stop itself from producing tannin which may kill a very hungry horse or pony snaffling for acorns. The lethal tannin is natural and sometimes indeed useful in curing leather, deepening the favour of wine or sherry and smoking cheese and fish. The oak does not maliciously harm. It gets on with its big old life by spreading its branches, dropping its seed, producing a new family, then over time parts of it seize up and become diseased and gradually, piece by piece, it falls into decay. One great grandfather tree I’ve been visiting for a number of years, is starting to look a bit battered now. It was the first oak I called on this week, half-nervous that it might have keeled over and died, but it was still standing, jagged and tough, all whiskered and carbuncular. I have an entire album of pictures of this one tree. He is my tree great grandfather and I love him.

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Such is my obsession, I have thought about writing a book about oaks just to have an excuse to spend more time with them. I remember reading a beautiful piece about a woman’s recovery from depression and how the sound of wood pigeons soothed her back to health. Oaks are medicine for my soul. I love the way they seem to mysteriously inhabit my mind when I most need support. They arrive on call like a magic tree medic, all huge arms, deep beating hearts, full of compassion. We’re here, they say, you can relax. Whatever it is, we’ve got this. We’ve seen this. We know you can get through this.

And I do.

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Sharing Space

11 04 2020

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The pony breathes softly through her nostrils as she relaxes in the early morning sun. Skylarks, great tits and black birds sing their first songs into a sky clear and blue. There is a sense of stillness as the day warms into being.

Sharing quiet space with a horse completely at rest is a private joy, a privilege of looking after horses in a way that meets their needs for companionship, freedom and love.

We always take care to share space with our horses and ponies in a way that respects their feelings. We never expect them to simply accept us settling down in the grass next to them. We wait until they are ready for us to join them. Often they breathe a little more deeply and sigh when we meet them in this quiet space. Their acceptance is truly wondrous. It makes an ordinary morning in the meadow become something magical.

It might look as if we arrived to find the horses serenely waiting for us, but the reality of making a film with curious and intelligent animals means we had to work through their need to explore and examine every bit of kit we took into their home.

Creating this piece took longer than you would think because the ponies weren’t going to settle to order. They were going to sniff, paw, brush their faces up against anything they hadn’t seen before.

They weren’t going to pose or stay in one place until they had knocked over the tripod holding the camera. Twice.

They were going to exasperate my attempts to film them and test my patience. Just as I was about to give up and pack everything away, they moved off. The next thing I knew they folded their legs and slipped in slow motion to the ground. By the time I gathered up the scattered kit to start filming again, they were almost snoring.

I learned so much from this morning in the meadow. I learned to observe what was happening and to let go of my timeline. I learned to listen to the sounds of the morning and to forget about the pony trying to eat my coat. I learned to let the beauty of the unfolding moment arrive in its own sweet time.

Magic often happens when we least expect it.





Finding your niche

5 04 2020

 

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I used to worry that I’d become antisocial. After years of living in London when friends and neighbours would regularly came round for chat over coffee or a shared supper, I wondered why my social self seemed to have gone so quiet. My enjoyment of people was not any less, indeed I cherished my close friendships even more so when I returned home to Devon. Maybe it was simply a question of a slower pace of life. Maybe it was all the still and serene time I spent with horses. Then, I heard the author Susan Cain talking on Radio 4 about her book Quiet. 

This book confirmed something surprising: I was an introvert. Now for years I had worked in socially stimulating jobs that required me to think on my feet, present confidently at conferences, talk to people in positions of power and challenge injustice. I passionately loved my work as a news journalist, especially the connections and interactions I made with some extraordinary people, but I knew I also needed plenty of time after an intense interview or press gathering to find a quiet space to recover. I used to seek out dark, unfashionable pubs my cheerfully social colleagues would have avoided. This was my own version of after-work drinks, such a core feature of city professional life.

Thanks to the revelations in Quiet, I realise that my constitution means I need to decompress alone; it means I prefer one-to-one conversations about meaningful ideas than social stories or shared anecdotes. It means loud bars are exhausting. I thrive when the lighting is low, the music muted and the atmosphere is calm. Rather than moving from topic to topic, like a butterfly in search of social nectar, I prefer to properly explore a theme with someone equally drawn to diving in deep.

For a long time, I pretended to be an extrovert, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it. I just thought that being introvert was boring and a little bit lame. When I woke up to being introvert, life suddenly made more sense. I began to seek out quiet spaces in my life and to limit my networking. A sign when I have reached my limit of social contact is when I go to say something and my tongue feels pasted to the roof of my mouth. I used to believe I needed to try harder, to get unstuck by being a bit funnier, but now I recognise I can take myself home to a nightcap with a friendly book.

An unexpected delight of declaring as an introvert, has been the playful conversations I’ve had with family, friends, students and colleagues, who have naturally wondered where they fall on the extrovert-introvert spectrum. It’s not an easy thing to determine. Susan Cain first turns to Carol Jung’s enquiry Psychological Types, which suggests: ‘Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, extroverts to the external life of people and activities.’ But contemporary researchers point out that there are no neat categories. Saying you are introvert or extrovert is not like saying you have straight or curly hair.

“There are almost as many definitions of introvert and extrovert as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate. Some think that Jung’s ideas are outdated; others swear that he’s the only one who got it right.

“Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.”

Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Penguin 2012)

Returning to Quiet to prepare for teaching a course with the horses, I was struck not only by its scholarly depth and serious research, but its compassion and gentle humour. Susan Cain shares her personal journey in her warm and engaging TED talk, which I recommend to anyone wondering why it seems they are enjoying this period of retreat from society more than they want to admit.

For an introvert, being ordered to stay indoors is rewarding rather than punishing. It offers time for quiet pursuits such as reading, writing and bread-making. Of course, extroverts enjoy such activities, too, but a typical extrovert will actively want to fill their time and will probably spend more time skyping, zooming, face-timing and news scrolling than a typical introvert. For  introverts the phrase ‘lock-down’, means time to find a ‘restorative niche.’

This idea of a niche to restore and nurture your true self is explored by Cain in her lovely book, and it is particularly pertinent now and not just for introverts. For extroverts, finding your restorative niche might mean volunteering by shopping for others, delivering prescriptions or joining a telephone befriending service so that their social side is allowed to sparkle a bit; for introverts, it might mean limiting your time on social media so that you are free to make sourdough from scratch or study philosophy. Introverts and extroverts may have opposite ways of relating socially, but they do not need to live in opposition. As well as confirming my introvert traits, Quiet reminded me to really love the extroverts in my life, to celebrate the joy, loyalty and energy they bring.

Now in this time of being thrown together with our propensities so perfectly and perhaps painfully exposed, it will be tempting to become territorial over our perceived needs. Some will want to argue and defend, some will fight back, some will prefer to ignore the opportunity to get to know ourselves more deeply than ever before. But what a pity if we emerged from this, no wiser, no saner, no richer. Seeing ourselves as we truly are is a precious gift, coincidentally something we often long for when we are too preoccupied by daily concerns to even get close to the questions we might ask. Could we get quiet enough to start?





Starting to stare more?

29 03 2020

Have you noticed that you are staring at people more often? On my outing to the supermarket yesterday, I sensed that social conventions on staring seemed suspended. Browsing the shelves at a distance, I saw people looking at me intently, and, of course, I was doing exactly the same. None of this staring seemed threatening, more of a relaxed: check this person out, focused looks replacing the usual, awkward British muttered ‘sorry,’ if I accidentally got too close. After a while, I found I began moving out of the way automatically and even anticipating when someone was about to appear in an aisle.

We know instinctively that staring at someone from behind can make them turn around and many of us have had the experience of thinking about someone only to have them text or call. African bush hunters are known to be able to communicate over vast distances, starting supper preparations back at the home fires, long before they appear with their haul of fresh meat. Could it be that in these socially estranged times, communicating from a distance is an ancient element of our human experience that is now usefully coming into play?

Being more in tune with their senses, animals make use of stares more frequently than we do. I’ll never forget the time Dragonfly stared at me as I left the yard, forgetting to let the ponies out of their stables. The intensity of his gaze stopped me in my tracks and gave me time to remember what I needed to do. If I spend too long on the laptop, Rosie will stare at me to let me know my time is up. No matter what time of day I arrive, the horses seem to know when I’m coming and will magically appear at the gate when I walk quietly down the track to their meadow. 

Deer and many other herd animals are extremely perceptive at reading intentions. In his illuminating book The Sense of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake shares examples from  hunters and wildlife photographers, who know to keep their eyes averted from the ones they intend to capture. One old and very stiff horse I knew gave his owner the run-around for years. It amused me to watch this horse change from sedentary old man to sprightly colt the minute he saw this person come to get him in. Apart from making his owner swear a lot, his other favourite game was to taunt Sheranni by dropping a single pony nut from his feed bowl into the deep groove in the grille separating his space and then step back and stare as the young horse tied his tongue in knots trying to reach it.

As a biologist, Sheldrake is interested in studying the idea of mind as an extension of the brain rather than being contained within it. His case studies exploring what he names ‘the seventh sense’ include a detailed study of a parrot who was recorded speaking 7,000 different sentences and who had an uncanny ability to know and name what his human was thinking and doing even when she was in another room. These studies make for fascinating reading, inspiring a broader view of animal nature and human nature.

“If the seventh sense is real, it points to a wider view of minds – a literally wider view in which minds stretch out into the world around bodies. And not just human bodies, but the bodies of non-human animals, too…our minds are extended into the world around us, linking us to everything we see.”

The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Rupert Sheldrake. (2003)

This intriguing idea of stretchy minds seems particularly relevant now as we prepare for weeks of living apart from most of the human race. It could be that our survival depends on realising that although we are physically separate we are linked in mind. That might sound scary to some, imagining the thought police hovering over your car as you idly consider making a non-essential journey. Reassuringly, Sheldrake reminds us that most seventh sense conversations are between people who are already close.

With many people now living with a cat or dog for company, conversations between humans and animals have never been more important. The daily dog walk is no longer routine, but a focal point of the day. I know that I’m anticipating my daily walks with an excitement that is eagerly shared. Animals must live with our moods, whether it’s joy, fear or sadness. They read our emotions with a sensitivity that can remind us to soften our sorely worried hearts. None of us know what will happen next in our human world, but knowing our animals are safely by our side is especially comforting at this time. 

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Surprise! Captured during a group session last summer: the very moment I shared my feelings of appreciation for my horse, he arrived from the far end of the field as if I’d called him.





This extended pause

22 03 2020

The old safety net has gone and we are in free fall. When I forget my fear of heights (and remember to breathe…), the new view is exhilarating. Clean skies, clear beaches, quiet roads; the pulse of bird-song, wind-song, spring-song. The world is singing and I almost can’t bear it because it may not be long enough for us to hear it out and learn the lessons of this time.

We want the old noise back because we’re human and desire security, which for many of us (me included) means predictability. We keep calm, carry on, follow advice in the hope that one day things will get back to normal. In reality, the view from here is wide open. While those on the NHS frontline deal with the casualties, we wait in relative safety. There is nothing we can do except receive this extended pause.

If we will allow enough breathing space, we will see this pause as an opportunity to reset the imbalances in our ordinary routines, stretch into more open, less hurried, ways of being. We can learn from our animals who know nothing of daily news-feeds, panic-buying or social distancing.

We can find new encounters in the realm of the familiar. The scent and touch of horse is wondrously reassuring. I struggle to describe its peculiar intensity. Mushrooms on toast? Wood-smoked velvet? Fresh popcorn? There is equal delight at being welcomed into a herd that recognises you as a fellow feeling being, a sense of coming back to ground and returning home.

Naturally, our work will be changing to reflect the new times. Like many people who run small businesses, I’ve felt fragile as I think of the months ahead and what it means for our company and our community. But I’ve also felt a new shift in thinking around how we might do our best work in spite of the insecurity. In the brief space of a week, I’m sensing new possibilities, small green shoots, seedling ideas shyly appearing amid the creative challenges of keeping things going. In spite of everything, I’ve dared to feel hopeful.

I’ve also been inspired by poems and podcasts, by conversations with family, friends and colleagues, by simple acts of unselfish love. My reading this week has included The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, choosen because the sub-title leapt at me from my bookshelves: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

“At times almost all of us envy the animals. They suffer and die, but they do not seem to make a ‘problem’ of it. Their lives seem to have so few complications. They eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, and instinct rather than anxiety seems to govern their few preparations for the future. As far as we can judge, every animal is so busy with what he is doing at the moment that it never enters his head to ask whether life has a meaning or a future. For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate present – not in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.”

Alan Watts. The Wisdom of Insecurity. (First published 1951 Pantheon Books)

Being with the horses at the moment, it is tempting to envy their complete lack of awareness of the human crisis and feel even more isolated in fear, but I think the message I want to take from Alan Watts is the simple and timeless truth: pay attention to what is happening in the immediate present, and make that, fiercely and only that, my concern.





Women’s work

8 03 2020
Team spirit: Wendy, Jo, Belinda, Lindsey

For years, I worked in male-dominated professions where the atmosphere was often punishing. My Saturday nights were spent staring at a screen in an office with no windows. In between bursts of keyboard activity, I made trips to the nurse for paracetamol. One night she refused to give me my dose, saying I had taken enough. Snippily, I asked her how I was supposed to get through my shift. I had seven stories to write before the paper went to press. She sent me away without pills or pity.

I was in my element: a young journalist with a notebook filled with interviews, which I simply needed to work into acceptable news stories for a national newspaper. I worked hard, had little social life, but I was paid well and worked with incredibly committed and talented colleagues. Anxiety, stress-headaches and exhaustion were simply the price for working in a profession I knew was going to push me to the very limits of my capacity.

Two images from that intense time have stayed with me: the first is of a young man, one of the most talented of the team, counselling me on my anxiety by sharing that when he first started in this news-room, he regularly threw up before conferences. The second: another young man, lifting his head from his keyboard to share that he had been too exhausted to go home, and so had decided to sleep at his desk.

At the time I thought there had to be another way to get the best from people, but I was too junior to do anything about it. Nevertheless, those scenes burned into my mind when I began to think about creating a different kind of professional culture. What I longed for was a working environment where everyone had an opportunity to thrive; where work itself was the way to flourish. I carried this vision in my mind, and continued working at jobs where competitiveness, shaming and rigid thinking were the norm.

Today, my working life is enriched by colleagues, both men and women, but the core of our organisation just happens to be a group of wonderful women. Jo, Lindsey and Wendy are talented, wise and so wholly committed to making our social enterprise a success, it warms my heart. The energy from our connection with each other and with the horses is the solid fuel that fires us to keep working from the heart.

A visitor remarked not long ago that he was impressed at the professionalism of our team. On that day, we just happened to have had a morning melt-down, a late finish and an early arrival, but we worked around it. His observation made me appreciate how everyone on the team responds so intuitively when events don’t go to plan. We are nimble when we need to rebalance. We don’t have heavy meetings. We drink a lot of tea, check in when we need to and focus on doing our best possible work.

From our light-touch approach something wonderful has emerged. On days when we fully and wholeheartedly show up without worrying about the car that won’t start, the torrential rain, the last-minute change in participants, the work flows and seems to find its own level without us having to push ourselves to exhaustion.

On International Women’s Day, I want to wholeheartedly and proudly thank Jo, Lindsey, Wendy and all our wonderful women colleagues and partners in the NHS and other organisations (you know who you are!) for working in a way that honours the human spirit. Heart-felt actions are not always appreciated, and many women long to do more work that inspires them rather than enslaves their souls. We undoubtedly face more challenges ahead, but we know how we want to face them. We know that when women look out for each other we are all stronger for it.





How not to make things happen

1 03 2020

It always fascinates me when people first arrive at the farm. They way they get out of the vehicle reveals a lot about their state of mind. These young people had travelled with their teachers from a Community College in Cornwall. They were curious, shy and a little anxious as they clung to the sides of the minibus, changing from clean trainers into boots and outdoor shoes. On hearing the rule for working safely with horses was to watch their feet, they all glanced down. When invited to move more slowly than they were used to, and to be quiet around the horses, they instantly dropped their natural temptation to banter, and spent the entire two-hour session in near silence.

Now anyone who has worked in a school knows that the classroom is a vacuum of noise. We just don’t expect young people to be quiet. As I led our new visitors to meet the horses I was surprised at their immaculate behaviour, following every instruction like model students. Glancing at each other, their eyes were alive with intrigue as we walked across the paddock and stood watching the horses. As we entered and began working, it was almost as if these young people were ambassadors for consideration, courtesy and composure. Particularly interesting was that this group had been referred because some were at risk of exclusion for challenging behaviour.

It could have been the effect of taking them out of school and bringing them to the farm; it could have been the effect of removing them from an audience of peers; it could have been that they were learning in a very small, select group, or many other contributing factors but I watched something emerge that had little to do with the environment and everything to do with the way these young people were showing up in that moment. Without even trying, they were giving each task their total concentration and effort. In opening up to try something they had never experienced before, they forgot who they were supposed to ‘be.’ Instead, they allowed themselves to connect and learn how to influence a horse with the most subtle of signals. It was a joy to witness.

Their comments after the session were reflective, insightful and inspired. One boy said: ‘When I calm down, things can actually happen. I don’t have to make it happen, it can happen all by itself.’

When coached on leaving some slack in the rope to get a better feel between him and the horse, another boy commented: ‘It’s like that with people, if you give them a bit of slack.’

On the surface, it looked like nothing much was happening. We were showing these students how to handle and lead a horse and get a nice, flowing feel between them. We had created a container for their curiosity to emerge. We didn’t have to try very hard at all to ‘make’ these students see the links between how they were being with the horse and how they were behaving at school or with other people. With honesty, courage and commitment, they filled in that gap by themselves.

Since that session, I’ve thought about how often, especially in my early days as a teacher, I dreaded certain classes. Not even whole classes, usually individuals who pushed my buttons. I let them because I didn’t know any better. I thought I had to ‘make’ my young pupils behave and if they didn’t, I was a failure as a teacher. Now I would love to have that time again and be able to see my ‘misbehaving’ pupils understand how acting with composure, consideration and courtesy is their natural state, and the other ‘behavioural stuff,’ is just noise blocking out the quietness all young people secretly seek. Knowing I didn’t have to make them do anything, knowing that I could just allow them to be who are they are, would truly melt my heart.

Evie and Rose are pretty laid-back teachers while Jeff is the master of ‘less is more,’




On laughter

23 02 2020

As many people who have visited us know, we love to laugh in our work. It’s not something, we consciously plan for. The way we are with our horses gives them the freedom to make choices, which often results in hilarity. If you think that a very intelligent horse is going to take you seriously just because you have two legs instead of four, you will be surprised and outwitted, over and over again.

There are many different ways to understand animals, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being with horses is their incredible curiosity about the human species. I often think that if you looked like a unicorn with sculpted features, elegant limbs, dreamy eyes and flowing mane and tail, why would you bother with slow-moving, boggle-eyed, clobber-clothed people? What could they possibly offer you except regular fodder?

It remains remarkable to me that in spite of our human tendency to lumber about like the apes we are, we can offer a horse a meaningful connection. When we extend an invitation to the horse to join us in something that truly matters to us, they will choose to join in. For example, a group of guests seated in quiet meditation often proves irresistible to our horses and ponies. Even though they are free to eat grass and wander, invariably they will come and be with us, selecting to stand and quietly breathe with someone they have never met before. Why they should choose to do this remains an exquisite mystery to me, but when I witness it, I am always moved to tears.

It is not simply the quiet life they seek. Our horses are also moved by laughter. Often, if Jo and I are laughing uproariously about something, one of the horses will come over to investigate. It amuses me to think that maybe the horses really do share our signature sense of humour, as extended family members who have grown up in a particular shared culture, which includes regularly laughing together.

Laughter is perhaps more important than we think. Psychology Professor and author Dacher Keltner makes an intriguing case for laughter as vital for social harmony in his book Born to be Good. I know I always feel lifted after a bucket of tea in the shed with my fiercely, funny friends who laugh long, hard and true. Sharing my sorrows and disappointments inevitably means laughing at my own tendency to get caught up in my woes. Sometimes the worst, most awful things that have happened to me have generated the biggest laughs months or years later. Keltner’s deeply fascinating enquiry about the impact of laughter, based on longitudinal studies of bereaved participants, elevates it even further.

“A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition.”

Born to be Good. The Science of a Meanginful Life. Dacher Keltner (2009)

I love this idea of laughter as piercing wisdom, as another form of knowing. And I also love the intense creative energy that is generated when a group of people work with humour and goodwill on something new and untested. Instead of striving to pin down new ideas on charts, notes and sheets, allowing time for the freefall and counter-play of light-hearted ideas is the way to make magic happen. It’s certainly a lot more fun. We often say that our best business ideas pop into our minds when we’re grooming or taking the horses out for a walk.

The liberating effect of laughter cannot be underestimated. I don’t think Keltner is being provocative when he says ‘laughter may just be the first step to nirvana.’ The original meaning of the word nirvana means ‘to blow out,’ which makes Keltner wonder whether the term means not only blowing out the flames of self-interest, but also having a good exhale, blow-out, belly-laugh.

“When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state, incapable of flight or fight. People see their lives from a different point of view, with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds, through the firing of networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play.”

This makes me see why our laughter feels so good to our horses, who are naturally drawn to living peacefully. When they’re relaxed, they frequently enjoy a good blow-out, too, and are often quite playful afterwards. Laughter, I’ve learned, is older than speech and is part of a repertoire of emotions forming a universal social language. Chimps laugh, rats squeak with joy when their tummies are tickled, and horses just wait for humans to get serious.








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