What’s the point of walking?

27 07 2015


I’ll never forget a friend asking one day: what’s the point of walking, I’d rather read a book? I have to admit when I’m pressed for time, or when it’s really lashing it down, I’d much rather be curled up inside with a good book. My idea of heaven would be a library set in a tree house overlooking a meadow. There I would live in complete bliss with all the inspiration I need right before me. This week I’ve been forced to walk because an elderly dog I’m currently looking after detests going in the car. So in deference to his seniority, I’ve clipped on his lead most evenings, to his tail-swinging delight.

Because I wanted to make the most of our time together and make the walks interesting for us both, I made sure we took a slightly different route each time. One evening I took my camera to record some sights along the way, and was rewarded with good light and some wonderful work on a suitably ethical sculpture trail.

2015-07-22 18.41.00

My favourite was Walking on an Empty Stomach by Malcolm Gurley, an arresting image of a hiker with no middle, which was playful, but also poignant as it made me think of soldiers severed on the battlefields of the First World War. Its incompleteness was ghostly. I also loved the old goat made from recycled textiles and the giant plastic snail made from recycled milk cartons.

Walking is something I rarely do now unless I have a dog. I used to walk for miles along the cliff path when I was working on novels, and the process of walking helped to generate the rhythm I needed to write. I gave up proper walking when I started to train my horses. Most of my walks now involve the company of a horse and while I love these walks, I can’t really lose myself in the landscape or my own imagination because I need to be fully present for my horse.

Walking dogs doesn’t require the same focus or attention as walking horses. Walking dogs takes me to different kinds of places, and it allows me to notice what’s happening close to home. This week my walks have shown me that the town in which I am so fortunate to live is vibrant, social and ethically aware. Some seaside towns are tired and traditional, and don’t bother to welcome visitors with anything new. A sculpture trail is a good place to start people thinking about what we do with the stuff we chuck away. I’m glad that Teignmouth cares enough to engage with the question.

Adventures in Ethics

18 07 2015

File 18-07-2015 17 53 26

Is there anything you would be prepared to give up to save the planet from human excess? I put this question to one of my philosophy groups this week after admitting that I was trying to give up buying bottled water, not always easy when I’ve gone out in hot sun completely forgetting to take a drink with me.

Graham said that there were some things that he would be prepared to give up, but not at the expense of marital harmony. His wife was against any form of ethical living and his attempts to sort out their rubbish for recycling really annoy her. I joked that he’d have to start taking out the rubbish under the cover of darkness and he said that it was no joke. One night his wife caught him eating something perfectly edible from their kitchen bin, and went ballistic. He wondered whether ethical living was worth the hassle he would get from someone who thinks that people who care about such matters are basically nutters.

Painful as it was for Graham to be so compromised in his own household, antipathy and even downright aggression to people who want to live according to ethical principles is fairly commonplace. Judging by the amount of rubbish in my street and the road I walk regularly, there are more people chucking food wrappers and drinks cans out of cars than there are people prepared to pick up the litter. If I want to live ethically, I can’t walk past the grey, flattened bottles, the plastic bags and the drinks cans washed up along the hedge without picking them up, and most of the time I resent having to do so, even while I’m ranting at those who DON’T CARE.

There are many objections to living ethically. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones.

Living ethically is dreary

Living ethically is earnest

Living ethically makes others feel guilty

Living ethically is difficult

Living ethically will change who I am

Living ethically will make people dislike me

I’m too old for ethics

I’m too young for ethics

Ethics can’t make a difference, as the planet is already doomed.

I’ve decided that I can’t really teach ethics without at least trying to address some of these objections and practise some of the philosophical ideas I’m inviting people to explore.

So, I’m committing to a year of living ethically and I’ll be sharing my adventures in regular posts. For starters, taking the first objection on the list, ethics really needn’t be dreary. Ethics can be fun and it can also involve young people, who love to get involved, as long as the ethical is served up with a generous dollop of spontaneous play. I’ll offer an egg-hunt as my first example of how ethical living can be an adventure.

One the morning after their sleepover I’d promised Anna and Elen pancakes, but I had run out of eggs. We had a choice. I could either nip to Tesco Express and buy some and make the pancakes pretty swiftly, or we could go and feed the goats and ponies and buy the eggs on the way from a local farmhouse with a little roadside stall and a tin for the money. Guess what the girls chose? We went to the farmhouse, but the stall was empty. There are no guarantees of success with this way of shopping. I knew of another farmhouse with eggs and an honesty box, but it was two or three lanes away, and we were by now starving. The girls had to make another ethical choice: go to the supermarket or go to the second farmhouse. Guess what they chose?

The farmhouse had eggs, and what eggs they were, all different colours, from hazelnut brown to sky blue to olive green. We bought two dozen, some for us, and the rest as gifts. We admired these eggs. We talked about them. We wondered about the hens that had laid them. We put them on the counter and photographed them. And then we made golden pancakes and ate them.

If you’re willing to share, I’d be fascinated to know about your own ethical adventures.

To be an entrepreneur

29 06 2015

guinea pig

I started my first enterprise with my brothers and sister when I was around twelve and they were aged ten, eight and six. We spent a good deal of time discussing our vision, our goals and our plans for expansion. We built up stock and cut costs by accepting donations for our equipment and running expenses. We already had one long high-sided box with some chicken wire tacked to the top; it wouldn’t be difficult to make or find another. The guinea pigs we were breeding to sell all lived together in the box and seemed comfortable enough.

We were feeling really excited about finding customers and marketing our business. Who wanted to go to a dusty pet shop and choose a sad, caged guinea pig when they could come to us and select from a whole squeaking mass of the happy little creatures. Our guinea pigs were different. They had twinkly eyes and little twitching pink noses. They were irresistible. We shone with pride. People would be able to tell just from looking at us that we were doing this for love, as well as profit. We didn’t know any other children entrepreneurs who had bothered to start something so amazing. We were certain we had found a niche in the market.

The guinea pigs found their own gap and began escaping at night. First one or two would go missing and we would find them huddled under the tumble drier in the laundry room of the old hotel where we lived at the time. We plonked them back in the box, but every morning a few more would escape and we would coax them out from under the drier until one terrible morning we went to the laundry room and saw that every single one had disappeared. Dreams of our global guinea pig farm crashed as we realised we had lost everything.

We didn’t have the heart to start again. In any case it was much more profitable carrying suitcases up the stairs for the hotel visitors and occasionally washing glasses. We moved into a new league of entrepreneurship when the coach parties rolled in for cream teas. We put our collaborative skills to use by each taking a team role: one to take the coats and umbrellas from the elderly ladies, one to hang them up (the coats not the ladies), one to issue the cloakroom ticket, and the littlest, brightest, shiniest one to smile and say thank you as the saucer overflowed.

We recognised from an early age that entrepreneurs don’t waste time when one business fails to get off the ground; they instantly start another. Entrepreneurs like to live by their own efforts, and there is nothing more satisfying than building something from nothing and having people want to invest in what you have built.

I started a social enterprise knowing that I wanted to link philosophy to connecting with animals because whenever I taught philosophy I nearly always ended up having a conversation about animals and the so-called species barrier. As a child I never really saw any difference between myself and animals, or trees or beetles, or ticks, or stones. To me, it was simply life in another form, and I was always utterly curious about life, which is important if you are going to attempt to do any kind of work in philosophy.

After seventeen years of teaching philosophy it is being, the raw material and energy of philosophy that intrigues me. Being is a constant, fresh puzzle and this has been illustrated by some of the children I’ve taught this year. An essential part of being is having something to care about, if I’m getting all phenomenological, something for being to be concerned with. These children rescue greyhounds, they care about orcas being kept in captivity, they dream of music or menus or oceans. They’ve shown me that when you care enough, you have everything you need to become who you are.

As I reach the final stage of my year at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I’m realising how important it is for an entrepreneur to hold on to the open mind of the child. To trust that your enterprise will find its own form and to trust that even if your box is empty one morning, you will still be able to go out and build something, not be someone.

I’m really sorry though about the guinea pigs we lost. We made some careless mistakes and we really should have organised a night watch, but we were beginners and I suppose we can be forgiven for that.


Trust the animal to choose

15 06 2015


Since I wrote about trust I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve had to trust my animals to get themselves out of trouble. This is what might be called high-stakes trust, when there are no other options than to submit to assistance. I think many animals are experts at assessing when to trust humans and they need to be, especially when their lives are at stake.

Tinker’s life was not at stake, but she was at risk of severe injury when she got both her front and her back legs caught in fence wire. She had been boxed in around the gateway by her bolshy aunt Bella and had tried to save herself by plunging forward, but in her rush to escape she had got caught between two strands of fence wire and stood wide-eyed wondering what to do next.

The scene from War Horse of Joey trapped in razor wire on the Western Front came into mind. That horse had no chance of escaping without tearing himself to pieces, and now this young Dartmoor pony was in the same predicament. If she lunged forward she would shred her chest and neck and shoulder on barbed wire. If she tried to move backwards there was a danger she would tear her legs all the way up to her quarters.

Her instinct was to push forward and she was breathing hard and straining with her chest trying to force her way through. Fearing that she would pull the fence down, I moved her back and she responded before trying again to free herself. My mouth went dry as I imagined the terrible wounds she could inflict. I saw her fine flesh torn like raw meat. I felt powerless to help her.

Just then the field owner arrived in his truck and my hope soared. I shouted at him to come and help us, but the wind took away my words. He had lost his mobile phone in the field around a year ago and so I couldn’t even call him. Unknowing of the crisis down at the far end of the field, he left with his usual cheerful wave, closing the gate behind him. In that moment I felt the horror of what I was sure was going to be disaster. Fear dried my tears against the back of my eyeballs.

Tinker struggled again, and I could tell that she was getting fed up with the situation. Any minute now she was going to shove her way forward through the fence. I knew that horses could still run with horrific injuries and not feel pain because of the adrenaline. I needed to act quickly to stop her.

Taking a few deep breaths, I explained to her that she was trapped and that pushing was going to cause terrible injury. She quietened and blew on to my hand. I then explained to her that what she needed to do was to help me to find a way to get her out of this situation. She became very still. Her eye was huge and dark and liquid. I wanted to help her, I explained, but I needed her co-operation. I needed her to help me find a way out of trouble.

What happened next was truly amazing. She arched her neck and then very slowly lifted her hoof up to chest height, like a dancer practising stretches. She continued to lift it and together we wiggled it clear of the wire and slowly, very slowly eased it over the top of the fence and down to the ground. Then with the same deliberate, careful movement she lifted her other front foot clear and together we moved that one down to the ground. I had a sense that we were working together as a team, choreographing each move. Eventually we got all her legs free and she sauntered off and began to graze as if nothing of any consequence had happened. By now I was shaking and needed a few whole droppers of Rescue Remedy.

Afterwards I was able to think about how resourcefully the pony had solved this problem. She had tried different ways to free herself and had to overcome her instincts in order to co-operate with me. She had probably never before been in the situation of having to totally rely on a human being to get out her out of trouble, but she was willing to give it a try. I don’t think she realised that it was her only option. I think she was so fed up with waiting that she was open to suggestion.

This is truly remarkable in a semi-feral animal who mostly thinks of survival.  It was fascinating to witness Tinker change from an animal committed to self-preservation to an animal making an informed choice about how she might preserve her being. She worked out how to lift herself out, and that saved her from injury and taught me a profound lesson about trusting the animal to find the best solution to a problem.

Since that incident my relationship with Tinker has strengthened. That day we found a greater understanding and respect for each other. We learned that we could rely on each other when things got difficult and neither of us needed to fight for the upper hand. I realise that this semi-wild mare is even more sensitive, aware and intelligent than I thought. I suspect that she will always be a little wayward and I’m sure there will be plenty more scrapes, but now I know her better I trust that she will work her way through the next problem with confidence.

This illuminating talk by Caroline Ingraham explores some of the reasons why we should give animals choices.


Trust comes from within

7 06 2015

Belinda and Beau

I’m wondering about trust at the moment because it seems to underpin every relationship and every communication. It’s emerging as a theme in my work with horses and people. The line of thinking was inspired by a brief conversation with master horseman Mark Rashid after watching him work with a traumatised horse.

The dark, powerful gelding was rigid with fear as he approached the lorry and seemed to be holding his breath. The horseman didn’t ask the hose to step closer to the lorry. He admitted to the audience that he didn’t care if the horse went into the lorry or not. He was not looking for a result. He was looking at helping the horse to overcome being afraid.

Watching Mark Rashid work with the horse was unremarkable. He did little more than lead the horse a few paces away from the lorry and then back again to a point near the wall of the arena where the horse felt comfortable. It would have been easy to miss the teaching and powerful shifts in behaviour that were taking place between the man and the horse.

At first the gelding was too afraid to trust and wanted to flee as fast as he could from the lorry, but through a series of small steps the horseman worked patiently and thoughtfully with the horse. During the lesson the horse learned that he could rely on his handler and that alone helped him to feel more comfortable about just standing near the lorry. The horse also learned that the handler remained consistent and clear and fair. When the horse was ready to explore further the handler noticed and gave the horse an opportunity to sort out the problem for himself. Mark Rashid didn’t need to comfort or reassure the horse or talk in soft tones. He simply communicated to the horse that he was someone who could be trusted, and the horse was able to believe that he had found the right help. That gave the horse confidence.

I found this simple lesson so moving because the horse was given time to think through the problem and to solve it. I also got the impression that Mark Rashid was utterly absorbed in what was happening with the horse so much so that he almost forgot he was giving a clinic to people who had paid to watch him work. This level of professionalism I find spellbinding.

Afterwards I mentioned to him that the horse clearly trusted him within a few minutes. Now the horse didn’t know that Mark Rashid has decades of experience of working with horses all over America. The horse had worked with Mark Rashid on a previous visit to Britain, and so possibly remembered him as someone he could trust, but this wasn’t obvious as the horse was clearly terrified when he entered the arena. What the horse found was not a friend, but someone who trusted himself. We know that fear is contagious, but maybe trust is, too. The turning point in the lesson came when the horse recognised that Mark Rashid trusted himself.

‘But what if you don’t trust yourself?’ I asked him. ‘What if you doubt your own ability, what can you do?’ He smiled and shook his head as he mulled over the conundrum. ‘That’s the real question,’ he said. In order to enable others to trust us, we first have to trust ourselves. To reach the point of trusting ourselves could take years of practice, years of mistakes, years of trial and error, or it could take a commitment to truth, to understanding, to finding out through observation and deep listening.

The intention to offer help to another living being must be communicated mindfully. We may have years of expertise, yet that still means we can’t impose knowledge or assistance. I’ve been on the receiving end of inappropriate offers of help that made me feel jangly and unsupported. A neighbour once cleared out her cupboards and dumped a load of kitchen items on my doorstep with a note saying she thought I might use them. She was being helpful. I felt pained and strangely guilty as I packed up all the unwanted plastic containers and took them to the tip, hoping she wouldn’t see. Her lack of observation and understanding was embarrassing.

If I were a horse with a problem I would want someone like Mark Rashid to help me out. I would be able to tell that he was fair-minded, consistent and clear. I would be able to tell that he had my best interests at heart. How often, though, do we meet people who pretend to have our interests at heart? People who offer help without bothering to find out where we are and what it is we actually need? Watching Mark Rashid made me understand how essential it is to take the time to work out what is required before we leap in with our problem-solving skills. As busy-minded humans we are often tempted to do too much. We find making a lot of effort satisfying. When we do less with horses (and people) we often get so much more. This means for me: less assisting, more listening.

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

The story of the old trough

14 01 2015

old trough
Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places. Not so long ago I was clearing out this old stone trough at the field where I keep my horses. Accompanied by a young Dartmoor Tinker who needs to check out all new activity, especially if it involves a possibility of food, I spent a morning sweeping the dead leaves at the bottom of the trough into a dustpan, which I then emptied out into a hedge. It was one of those rhythmical field maintenance tasks that I find curiously satisfying, and the company of the pony who easily settled into my working rhythm, mirroring my pauses and bursts of sweeping and scraping activity, made what could have been a simple, mundane task a delightful chore.

At some point in my emptying of the old mushed leaves from the dustpan I noticed a dull gleam of metal at the back of the trough. With the pony nosing at my elbow, to check that I wasn’t laying down a tasty trail of sugar beet as I cleared away the leaves, I worked until the stone floor of the trough was clear. I emptied my final pan of debris and then I saw that the metal gleam came from something solid and round. Leaning over to inspect it more closely I saw that it was a fist-shaped ball that had rolled against the back of the trough where it had probably remained hidden for years.
old trough corner detail
The idea that this metal ball had lain under cover for a while led to a curious associative train of thinking that went something like this: that ball looks like a small artillery shell. I wonder whether it is a shell? Could it possibly be a shell? I know that shells from the Second World War have been discovered in fields. This trough obviously hasn’t been cleaned out in years. Maybe no one has realised that there is a shell behind it. Maybe (getting excited) I’m the first person to discover this shell? Maybe (getting worried) I need to do something about it? Maybe (looking at Tinker who is trying to lick the new discovery) we need to get out of here, or call the army to come and safely defuse it. Maybe…
field view Netherton
Looking up I saw someone coming towards me that at first I didn’t recognise, so enraptured was I by my mental narrative. He was waving at me and in my state of alarm I thought that he had broken into the field. Another problem to compound the problem of the unexploded shell that I needed to deal with: how was I going to get this crazy trespasser off the land? He got closer and I saw that it was Brian, the owner of the field. Our conversation went something like this.

Hi, B, I’ve left some biscuits in your shed.

Oh, thanks Brian, you won’t believe this (he didn’t), but come and have a look at something. I think I might have found a shell behind the old trough.

What sort of shell?

Well maybe it’s left over from the war, but you would be able to tell me, what do you think?

Brian leaned over the trough and his eyes shone as he retrieved what he promptly announced was an old brass ballcock. ‘I’ll take that, useful bit of metal.’ He had the shell in his hands and I still couldn’t quite believe that it wasn’t going to explode in his face. I still needed time to reset my thinking. Brian read my expression ‘Boom!’ he said as he pocketed the ballcock and wishing me a good morning strode up the field.

I laughed with him, but the discovery stayed with me. What I had uncovered was an insight into a habitual and superstitious way of thinking. Why did I assume that the ballcock was a Second World War shell? Why was I convinced that I needed to go to great lengths to sort out a problem that was not even a problem? Why did I fail to recognise Brian?

Interestingly madness was my first thought (you can see how this habit of catastrophic thinking is totally ingrained) of course I thought it was a shell because I’m going mad. Those headaches I’ve been experiencing are part of the madness and the fact that I didn’t recognise Brian confirms that I’m going mad.

What I needed to do was to get a grip on my loopy thoughts and stop believing in them. Taking our random thoughts seriously is something we all do. We habitually try to give a shape or narrative to our random thoughts because we can make sense of randomness when it becomes a story. Telling stories is an ancient way of thinking. Ships didn’t exist for islanders until stories were invented to describe them. Maybe nothing exists without a story. I’m still slightly disappointed that I didn’t have to call the army.My story didn’t end in the way that I expected.

The point of this story, though, is that it has made me realise how easy it is to believe in the story rather than seeing things as they are. Boom!

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else prepared to share their own random thought stories.


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