Life on the edge

15 12 2019


Belinda at Beer 1

I have always been drawn to edgy places. Cliff tops, rocky promontories and river banks, inspire me and open my mind to new possibilities. My brother Stefan loved these places, too, and during his life found a form of freedom in living life on the edge. On a still, hot day this summer, we released his ashes from the cliff at Beer Head.

Ashes are not dignified; they fly wherever they want to fly, and on this hot August day, they did not fly across the sea as we had imagined. Each dipping fuelled the wind, which whipped the ashes into clouds that brought to mind tiny specks of birds amassing to migrate. Looking back over the photographs I took that day, etched into the sky was the smoky shape of my brother’s last flight.

That moment of release stayed with me for some time. Later after the ceremony, I went to see the horses and sat in the meadow for a long while, thinking of my brother and the conversations we had shared about death and dying. Stefan told me several times that he was not afraid of dying; in some ways he was almost looking forward to it, of finding out what lies at the ultimate edge. Before his final operation, one of more than thirty surgical procedures in his long struggle with Crohn’s disease, he joked in his usual edgy way that he might not come back this time. He survived the operation, but the strain of many infections and complications, including two serious episodes of sepsis weakened his heart and he finally lost his grip on life in July.

I reflected that day in the meadow that Life and Death are thoughts we can hold simultaneously. After releasing my brother to the cliff winds, I could climb to the top of another landscape and find there two horses who would purposefully come and stand on either side of me in silent support as I gathered myself for what would come next. I could feel the suffering of loss while felt I sustained.

Later in the year, I came across Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax and found a work that is such a gift of inspiration, I almost can’t believe it exists. The author, a social activist, medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, shares wisdom she has gained from working with people at the edge, including her many years running health clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas, time spent volunteering in a maximum-security prison and sitting at the bedsides of dying people.

“The education I have gained through these experiences – especially through my struggles and failures – has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties and ‘crises,’ might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive emergent and wise – as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”

I love this idea of living from the widest perspective possible. To live from this position takes courage and an edgy openness. My brother lived in pain for more than half his life and even though he would never have chosen to live with Crohn’s, the suffering he experienced sharpened his appreciation of life. When I look back over this year, it’s been a journey of intense loss and incredible gain and I know, thanks to my reading of Standing on the Edge, that I want to continue to investigate every bit of it.

Why am I living this way?

8 12 2019
horse eye

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on

Sometimes when Jake comes to the farm he spends the first part of the session with his head under a blanket. His comments, delivered with precise comic timing, show us that he is participating. Often, there will come a point when Jake can’t resist joining in fully and he will lift the blanket, fix us with a piercing gaze, and share what is on his mind.

One time Jake wondered why his life had turned out that way it had. Genuinely perplexed, he asked why he had faced so much difficulty, pain and suffering when it wasn’t what he truly wanted.

It was a powerful moment when Jake, who has been institutionalised for most of his life, examined, possibly for the first time, the question that confronts most of us at some point in our lives: ‘why am I living this way?’

What promoted Jake’s existential question was a simple encounter with a Dartmoor pony named Rose. When Jake met Rose he saw himself from her perspective, and it shifted something in the way Jake saw himself. After the encounter he reflected:

‘When I went into the stable, I could see my face in her eyes…I looked at her big eyes and fell in love with her, I could have poured my heart out to her. My heart was with her. They’re beautiful, lovely creatures. I wondered how they feel inside, how they feel about people, so much unknown beauty.’

Jake’s experience was transcendental and put him in touch with something universal. For a brief moment, he forgot his suffering, his situation and his disappointment and he touched something deeper, something that felt like love. And the feeling of connection prompted him to wonder if his life could be different.

The question of why life is the way it is perplexes human beings so much because we have no choice but to ask the question from the point of view of the life we have. Blinkered as we all are by our circumstances, adopting a universal point of view does not come easily. Which is why when we have moments of profound insight, we see things as if we were a different person, a wiser, more elevated version of ourselves, perhaps the mature version we would like to be, but just can’t because we’re too caught up in being who we think we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be.

Every now and again, life takes us by surprise and reminds us of who we could be, and who we have perhaps always been, but have forgotten. This idea of waking up to who we are and remembering our true nature shines through Plato’s ideas and Buddhist teachings. These very ancient ideas have been examined through fresh eyes, and interesting connections have been made, and are still being made, for example in the growth of interest in mindfulness, in the fields of Western Psychology and Psychiatry.

More than twenty years ago a young American psychiatrist Howard C Cutler spent weeks shadowing the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour of Arizona and made frequent visits to the exiled Tibetan leader’s home in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Their intense and spirited conversations resulted in a book: The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living. Two decades on, the book remains illuminating because it is essentially a conversation between ancient ideas and contemporary Western science. Understandably, there are moments of incomprehension and incredulity on both sides, for example when Cutler discovers that there is no word for ‘guilt’ in Tibetan, and when the Dalai Lama has to patiently explain to the psychiatrist that sometimes there is no obvious reason why people act the way they do.

Reading the book again this week, I’m struck by the psychiatrist’s willingness to expose his own arrogance and shame and rationalist-driven agenda. I’m also struck by the clarity of the Dalai Lama’s thinking on deep philosophical questions, such as the true purpose of life, and his ideas on happiness which mirrors the thinking of Aristotle.

‘Now we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness and compassion bring happiness. I believe that every one of us has the basis to be happy, to access the warm and compassionate states of mind that bring happiness. In fact, it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying or human beings is gentleness.’

During another session with the horses, when Jake was playfully invited to choose an animal he related to, he chose to our amusement a crocodile. Like the blanket he chooses to sometimes hide under, he wore his crocodile skin for a while, but we were not convinced. We had seen that Jake’s true nature was much more gentle. Rose had simply reminded him of what he already knew.

Note: Names have been changed.

Animals for life

1 12 2019

Paddy was the first horse I cared for and rode entirely on my own. He belonged to a local doctor, who didn’t have time to exercise him regularly due to his commitments as a GP. I’d already learned to ride, taught by a friend who became a professional equestrian, but mostly by galloping up and down green lanes on eager ponies, with the occasional outing to a cross country trial or show. Riding Paddy couldn’t have been more different.

For a start, there was his size. As a 13-year-old, I was just over 5ft, and Paddy was a dinosaur at around 17hh. Most of our time together involved me looking for gates or walls high enough to climb onto his back. Once onboard, though, I loved the feeling of protection he gave me. He lifted his huge feet carefully and glided along as if he were wading through deep water. His rolling rhythm was deeply reassuring and even though I probably would have preferred a perky pony of my own, I came to love Paddy deeply.

Paddy was the first horse I truly considered a friend. I felt Paddy was deeply lonely and that our time together somehow made his life seem a little brighter; I know he certainly brought warmth and reassurance to my own period of teenage anxiety and isolation. When I was with Paddy, I somehow felt less afraid, less churned up inside, and able to relax and enjoy each moment without worry. When I was stressed about something at school, I would think about Paddy’s huge presence and feel calmer.

This week I was privileged to attend a conference organised by the Blue Cross in London, during which the animal welfare charity launched a report on the links between tackling mental health, poverty and loneliness through animal companionship.

The report highlighted the ways that cats, dogs, horses and other animals could improve well-being through providing love and company, motivation and purpose, a sense of trust, distraction from symptoms, increased social interaction, exercise and humour. The report showed how pets bring meaning to lives and help people to maintain a positive view of the self, the world and their future.

During the day, there were many moving stories and films from people who had become homeless or had been in mental health crisis who shared that their pet was their only source of love and support. A poignant 56% of people said they considered their pet their best friend. For some people surveyed, without the need to live for their animals, they might have considered suicide. Animals are literally a lifeline for many. The report also pointed out that ‘shockingly people with severe and prolonged mental illness are on average at risk of dying  15 to 20 years earlier than people without such an illness.’

The Blue Cross supports pet owners in times of need, and their work is inspiring because they understand that looking after the welfare needs of animals means understanding the welfare needs of the people who care for these animals. The Blue Cross report makes many sound recommendations, including investing in more mental health training for their own staff and that NHS mental health trusts commission evaluations on animal assisted therapies, but the one that strikes me most is the recommendation that the mental health service user’s relationship with their pets should be included in any psychological and psychiatric assessments and included in any care or crisis plan by Community Mental Health Teams.

After the conference, I passed many people who will spend their winter on the streets of London with a devoted dog by their side. I remembered the story of Wully. After his girlfriend died and the council refused to pass on the tenancy of the flat they shared, Wully started living on the streets of London with his two dogs, drinking up to four bottles of strong cider a day. He was seen by the staff at Mayhew who persuaded him to put his dogs into their Pet Refuge Programme so that Wully could go into rehab. It took him two tries, but Wully ended up clean and now works as a healthcare advocate for the homeless.

Zoe Edwards, Head of Animal Welfare at Mayhew, said: ‘I remember going to see him a couple of years after, as he was one of my ongoing welfare cases, and he gave me £100 that he had raised for Mayhew, which was so good of him. I am extremely proud of Wully, he is a lovely kind man and it was a privilege to help him and his two lovely Staffies.’

This story inspires me because it shows society operating at its best. When a person has lost their relationship, their home and their livelihood, losing their dog or their cat, is utterly devastating and compounds their sense of loss and loneliness. A truly compassionate society must find ways to sustain the animal friendships that for many isolated and vulnerable people are a vital link to life.

Belinda with Paddy

Taking in the Good

24 11 2019

DSC_0018I don’t have the heart to leave Sheranni and Dragonfly without rugs all winter because I have seen them shiver through the mildest of rain-storms, and come running towards me for cover when the sky breaks open unexpectantly. Their mud-spattered waterproof coats protect them and keep them well-insulated from the wind and cold.

I remember, though, a winter a long time ago, trudging through thigh-deep snow to check on some Arabian horses who had been left out. They were sheltered under a hedge and they looked surprised to see me. Their eyes were large and bright against the backdrop of snow-covered fields and their coats were long, soft and white, luxuriant as Arctic foxes. I’ll never forget the look these horses gave me. They seemed to ask: ‘And just why are you here?’ I left that snowy field feeling humbled and aware that these horses needed nothing from me. They were perfectly adapted when it came to living in nature.

Horses who live in nature are exquisitely attuned to shifts in the seasons, which means little adjustments all year round. Even rugged Arabs have beards and belly fur at this time of the year, and by the end of the day they are making encouraging noises when feed is served. After a cold, wet afternoon, they love to dip their noses and mumble their lips around something soft and nourishing. I enjoy watching them eating in the twilight because it satisfies my need to see that they are well-cared for, even though I know they would work out how to survive a snowy night by sheltering under a hedge.

As a human who cares, I’m drawn to doing much more for my animals than I really need to. Because they don’t have the daily ritual of feeding and because they started life without humans on the horizon, our Dartmoor ponies Bella and Tinker need human intervention even less than Sheranni and Dragonfly. Nevertheless, these ponies certainly know what feed is, and if offered soaked sugar-beet they choose not to turn it down! When the light is fading and time is short, it is tempting to think that feeding the herd is more important than spending time with them.

I have come to realise, though, that sharing time with a pony is an opportunity to tune into what is happening in my own interior world. If I’m busy and distracted by yard jobs, Tinker will be fussing with my coat and asking for her chin to be scratched. If, however, I take a few deep breaths and choose to savour the moment, she relaxes and lowers her head. Just by taking my mind off ‘the next thing’ has a powerful impact on her.

In my reading this week, I’m learning from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson that slowing down and taking a few seconds longer to enjoy brief moments that feel good is good for my own well-being and can over time actually influence the neural pathways in my brain.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson outlines four simple steps of taking in the good: 1. Have a positive experience. 2. Enrich it. 3. Absorb it. 4. Link positive and negative material. This process does not mean using positive thinking to somehow drive away the bad, which we all know doesn’t work. If you’ve ever shared something that was stressing you out only to be told: ‘you need to think more positively,’ you’ll know what I mean. Taking in the good doesn’t mean you ignore the stress, sadness or suffering surrounding you. It just means you use a tiny bit of your attention to focus for a tiny bit longer on something that makes you feel warm, supported and connected as and when it happens. It might be something as simple as noticing the moon, or tuning into the warm feeling of someone offering to give you an extra pound coin for your parking ticket as a kind gentleman did for me last week, or savouring the aroma of a small cup of coffee.

Hanson points out that our brains have evolved with a negativity bias, which means that we’re constantly scanning for threats, criticism and problems just in case we need to run or club someone. It’s not our fault our brains are still stuck in the Stone Age, and given the nature of the cauliflower nestling inside our heads, we are doing the best we can:

‘Our reptilian, mammalian, primate, and human ancestors typically spent long periods in the responsive mode punctuated by brief bursts of reactive stress followed by another long stretch of responsive recovery, Modern life violates this ancient template with its pervasive mild to moderate stressors. Consequently, the reactive mode has become the new normal for many people, a kind of chronic inner homelessness that has harmful effects on mental and physical health and on relationships.’

We don’t have to live our lives in a state of hyper-vigilance, on alert for the next worst thing, snapping and snarling at all who get in our way. Hanson writes: ‘Peace, contentment and love are important aims for most people.’ Achieving these aims is possible. By practising taking in the good, moment by moment, we can transform our brains because taking in ‘the sense of feeling safe, satisfied, or connected, you stimulate responsive circuits in your brain. When you stimulate a neural circuit, you strengthen it.’

Looked at this way, pausing with your coffee to watch the sun come up over the sea, noticing the honeysuckle in sweet flower in late November, or teasing tangles from a resting pony’s mane are not incidental moments to be swiped through on our way to the more important, hard stuff; these ordinary moments are vital for well-being, the rewards we harvest by not letting the good slip through our fingers before we’ve had a chance to notice it. Hanson says: ‘It’s just a few jewels each day. But day after day, gradually adding up, they become the good that lasts. It’s the law of little things: lots of little bad things take people to a hard and painful place, and lots of little good things take them to a better one.’

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

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