Sink or Sing?

9 03 2015

Michael leaping

My heart sinks when I go to turn on the laptop these days. If I can avoid turning on the laptop at all, I will now take that option and it feels like a painful rebellion against the tyranny of work. Just tonight I’ve realised that not turning on the laptop doesn’t mean that I’m not working. Avoiding coming home to my desk doesn’t mean that I’m not out there building something I can be proud of. Spending time with horses makes my heart sing on so many levels and when my heart sings I feel alive. I feel like my best self, and my best self is who I want to be without compromise.

Horses are never less than themselves. They don’t fret about all they have to do in a day. They take care of their needs naturally and easily. If they want to go for a walk, they take a stroll down to the far end of the field, only pausing to watch a raven lift off a tree. If they need a scratch, they find a fence post or a willing human to relieve the itch. Every action has meaning and purpose. As social animals horses spend a lot of time doing what social animals are meant to do – socialise with each other – and the more time I spend with them, the more I want to be with them.

To work I must sometimes cut myself off from other people and that is difficult when you are naturally sociable, when what you do best is learning through being with others. My work with people and horses never feels like work. It feels more like play. It feels like the work I’m meant to be doing.

Horses have profoundly changed me as a person. In the twelve years I’ve worked with my own Arabians I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have believed possible. This morning I made a list of some of the key lessons I’ve taken from being with horses. Here are the first three:

That I can hold my ground and stand up for myself without fear or aggression

That respect comes from within

That I can live with honesty

I’m still learning especially since taking on two semi-feral Dartmoors over the past year who have taught me about more wildness and having fun than I thought possible. You cannot train a wild pony to be civilised or follow the rules because a wild pony thinks instinctively and acts out of self-preservation. A wild pony does not understand electric fence tape as I discovered in the second week when both ponies ran through a fence line that had taken me over an hour to assemble. They were just escaping horse flies. When I lifted the tape and waved my arms to try to get them to reconsider, they ran faster, pulling the tape with them which somehow pushed against my chest and flung me backwards on the ground.

It marked the end of a long time since I was floored by a horse. In my early days of learning how to work with highly spirited young Arabians there were a few trips to casualty. Even though I had ridden horses since I was a child, training horses was another matter altogether. Early on I realised that I had to up my game, or be killed. Discovering that there was a whole realm of horsemanship and way of being with horses that didn’t mean pushing them around or forcing them into obedience was the beginning of a completely new way of experiencing the world. Twelve years on, the biggest surprise is how differently I now view humans.

The idea that animals have something to teach us about being human remains controversial because humans are supposed to be the rational, thinking beings. Humans are supposed to have all the answers, but my experience of looking after large social animals daily over the past twelve years has taught me that my human actions are sometimes gross, offensive and excessive. It takes a more subtle, gentle intelligence to show us supposedly rational creatures that we don’t have all the answers. In this respect, horses have refined my thinking.

I’m fascinated when people change through their connection with horses, when the animal enables the human to learn something new, often in a wondrous, thrilling way. Looking at it Socratically, these lessons are insights, recollections of knowledge that we have forgotten as we have evolved. I remember one young man, who had little support in his life, lit up after working with an untouched pony on Dartmoor. He had learned how to help the pony to trust the touch of a human hand, an alien feeling for a prey animal, and in teaching that simple lesson to the pony this young man had learned how he could be valued himself. For the first time he had felt deep in his being the precious feeling of self-worth and he was radiant with it. He was dancing as he told us about it.

It still seems strange to me that animals can give humans, the so-called higher mammals, feelings of self-worth and of value. But if I turn to Socrates again for help, I’m less puzzled. Socrates believed that the way to fulfilment and happiness was through self-awareness.  Because they are both like us and utterly different to us animals can help us to study ourselves. Animals reflect back insights which we can so easily ignore from another person who may not always have our interests at heart.  Animals are self-interested without being self-absorbed, and this applies particularly to highly sensitive and self-aware horses. Horses know instinctively what feels good and that is of enormous benefit to us in helping us to know ourselves, and ultimately feel good about ourselves.

I found this clip of Ulrika Jonsson working with a horse and I’m sharing it because it’s so brave and moving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnb0eM8WohA

A short clip showing some of the work we’ve been doing at the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre Community Interest Company. http://youtu.be/5QzKHjNaeN0





Making a mark

26 02 2013

Image

Over half-term last week I went for a walk with a friend to check on some calves. The animals heard us coming and called down to us from the high path. It was bitterly cold and not the sort of weather for standing around even though we were protected from the worst of the wind by some sheltering trees. It was a short walk, but one I wished were longer because my friend asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

‘What motivates you?’

At the very least, that’s a five-mile question. My friend had already mentioned the idea of legacy and that had got me thinking about what I would wish to leave behind once my life is spent. A legacy is different from a memory, from merely not being forgotten. A legacy is more than a single act. A legacy requires something like a body of work, or at least consistent effort in that direction.

When I first started to write professionally, I didn’t think about what it would all amount to. I just poured all my energy into the current writing project and came up for air months, or more often years later. Since I completed my last writing project, I’ve given myself a bit more recovery time than usual because I now want to write only when I have something worthwhile to say. I’m no longer interested in writing for the income alone. I now feel that whatever I write next will be written out of passion.

‘Passion motivates me.’

All the books I adore, all the art I love, all the films that mean something to me, all the people I admire have passion. I’m reminded now of another friend who lost her art a few months ago and has spent this winter working on new beautiful, intricate, extraordinary work, in an ecstasy of relief that she is still able to find the motivation and the heart to not reproduce but fully recover her art. I, for one, can’t wait for her first exhibition because I know that the work has been created through passion. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said when she showed me her work. ‘But I just love it.’

Loving what you do is a legacy as long as you love it and practise it even when you feel disheartened. Even when you feel that no one is listening. After the walk to see the calves, we settled down in front of the fire with a pot of tea and some fudge brownies. We talked about philosophy. One of the benefits of my job teaching philosophy is that it immediately encourages people to talk about big stuff.

A theme emerged: how to find meaning in life. No matter how far you stray in philosophical enquiry – and it is possible to wander quite far and get lost in the woods – this theme turns up nearly every time to guide you back to what’s important. What life is for is the ultimate philosophical question. Socrates built his career around it; Plato was preoccupied by the best way to organise society and Aristotle was keen to find the answer to lasting happiness or eudaimonia, a state closer to well-being or what we might call fulfilment.

What fulfils us also brings us closer to well-being. The difficulty lies in finding a job or a cause or a way of life that allows us to become fulfilled.

‘It’s just so difficult to get heard.’

This from a teenager who was joining in the fireside debate. Already he recognises how hard it will be to make his mark in his chosen field of engineering. Here is a teenage boy with a passion to build something great. Does it matter if he doesn’t get heard?

I think his point about competition is sobering, but only part of the story. If you choose to build or create one of the first things you must do is to ignore the competition. Not because you don’t care what has gone before, not even because there is plenty of wonderful work out there that totally inspires you, but because you are creating your own legacy. When you are ready to build, you will find people who are ready to listen.








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