What the horse knows: No 6

17 04 2017
Diamond use

From: Instant Motivation Chantal Burns 2015

Life Lesson No 6: Motivation

As living beings, having thoughts is part of what it means to be alive. As far as we currently know, stones and rocks don’t have thoughts in the way we do. A pebble doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking: Gosh is that really the time? Why is it so blinking dark and oh, groan, I haven’t got any milk. Can I get away with going to Tesco in my pyjamas? A non-sentient stone exists in a state of readiness for whatever life throws at it – be it rain, wind, hail, or the passage of hooves. Stones have a pretty comfortable existence because they live without angst.

In spite of having to cope with one annual season of sometimes harsh weather and perpetually irritating summer flies, our horses live without angst nearly all of the time. They are at ease within their own skins. As they browse and roam and play, they naturally socialise and when they’ve had enough interaction they can take some time off to doze in peace. Still, they are most unstone-like. Horses have strong feelings and desires and needs which motivate them to act. A stone can’t take itself off for a bit of quiet time under an oak tree.

It requires motivation to live a sentient life. Horses express their motivations in individual ways. Sheranni needs to know that the way ahead is clear and free from danger. Many times, I’ve suggested cantering along a winding track and he’s suggested we wait until the invisible person with the dog coming around the corner has appeared. I know from experience not to urge him on when he’s waiting for the coast to clear. He’s motivated by keeping everyone (thankfully including me) safe.

Yesterday morning, I received a lesson in a rather different kind of motivation from our Dartmoor pony Bella. Now Bella likes to take things easy. She’s not motivated by excitement or danger. Tranquility and peace of mind are essential to her well-being. Life wasn’t always serene for Bella. Born feral, she first came off Dartmoor an anxious young filly and it took her a while to get the hang of people. Now she adores people and will approach and ask for scratches and grooming.

Bella’s total ease with life sometimes creates problems for her humans because when she lies down she is so peaceful, she sometimes looks stone dead. She has been checked for laminitis this week and her feet are clear.  Yesterday, approaching her in the warm spring sunshine she seemed glued to the ground. Trying to motivate her to get up proved useless. The thought occurred that she might have colic. I urged her onto her feet. She ignored me. Wondering what to do, I walked away. Bella groaned. She released a belly full of gas and slowly and deliberately hauled her body off the grass.

Watching Bella calmly join her herd and return to grazing, I understood that she didn’t have colic or laminitis or any other pony problem. The problem was my own thinking. Bella wanted to lie down because she enjoys relaxing. Her sides were heaving a little because she still has some winter coat and she was simply hot. She was not motivated to get up because for her there was no emergency.

As over-thinking humans, we can learn much from observing the simple daily routines of animals. The tendency to cloud our busy minds with self-perpetuating problems so that we can we pick away at them all day and become the heroes of our own dramas can become so habitual it becomes a way of life. Our problems can easily overwhelm us to the point that it becomes difficult to listen to our true motivations and know who we are.

Leadership coach Chantal Burns – http://www.chantalburns.com – in her useful book Instant Motivation shares this metaphor from her friend Paul Hunting who works with horses and people.

   Imagine that we’re all born as a beautiful diamond – this represents who we really are. Then we cover it up with horsesh**t. This represents our self doubts and insecurities based on who we think we are. Then we cover that up with another layer of shiny varnish which represents the ‘I’ that we want to project to the world – who we pretend to be in order to compensate for who we think we are. We all have different varnishes. They might include status, material wealth or just ways of behaving. An example might be ‘the joker’ or  ‘the reliable one’ or perhaps ‘the shy one.’ We might use other varnishes such as our family role or our job position. But our true nature is the diamond. Everything else is made up.

When we pretend to be other than we are horses see straight through us because they want to reach the diamond. ChantalHorses value what is most clear in us. The beauty of working with horses who see beyond our insecurities and anxieties is their ability to point out how light and sparkling we can all be, if we could just drop the pretence.

 

 

 





What the horse knows No: 5

26 03 2017

Life lesson No: 5 Forgiveness

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Horses are forgiving. They know when someone has made a mistake and they are prepared to overlook the mistake to save the relationship. The human tendency is to blame when things go wrong. Resentment and misunderstanding are such familiar landmarks in our emotional geography, it’s easy to see how they can become ingrained. Some people lug grudges around for years like overstuffed holdalls and we all know the lesser burden of finding fault.

Skilled at building resentments, we have created a significant time in life to let them all go. Unfortunately, it’s often at the end of life that we have enough perspective to contemplate forgiveness, or perhaps we simply run out of the energy required to tend to our grudge. We ‘nurse’ grudges as pet illnesses. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has written movingly of visiting the sick and dying and waiting for the moment when even the ‘hard-knuckled ones’ release their pain. He describes the relief it brings. The faces of those near to death become younger and smoother, as some experience for the very first time, a lightness and ease with life.

In the animal world, perhaps because life is simpler, forgiveness is more ready to hand. Unless a horse has been calloused through abuse, forgiveness comes through clearly. When Sheranni was a colt he forgave the mistakes I made in  his early education, and there were many attempts to try different methods and pieces of kit. Memorably, after one useless training session which bored him within five minutes, I took a break under a tree, tempted to shred all the pocket booklets which made this particular method sound so easy. Sheranni wandered down the other end of the field. Caught up in self-recrimination, I didn’t hear him tiptoe up behind me.

Moments later I felt something soft land on my head and then dry beads of earth began to rain down into my eyes and mouth. My young colt had just dumped a heavy clod of earth right on top of my head. Wiping my face, I laughed. Not only had Sheranni forgiven me for my lacklustre teaching, he had shown me the utter absurdity of what I was trying to do. I’d got caught up in the details and lost sight of the bigger picture. Standing up, I dusted my jeans down and decided to start paying more attention to my bright student and less to my lesson plan.

It was the beginning of a journey that continues daily. Just when I think I can take a break, the horses remind me of the need to pay attention to what is happening right here and now. I get it wrong; they forgive me, and so it goes.





What the horse knows No: 4

19 03 2017

dsc_0373Tinker: learning work.

Life Lesson No 4: Generosity

Horses know and understand generosity and often choose to show this in surprising ways. Tinker is a young Dartmoor pony, born free on the moor, who is currently being educated as a working pony. When she is fully prepared, her job will be to work with people and assist them as they learn their own life lessons.

Tinker enjoys her lessons and will rattle the chain on the gate to attract attention if she thinks she is going to miss out on anything interesting. As a semi-feral animal, her instincts are sharp. There is little that escapes her fierce attention. Walk across her field with a basket or a bright orange shopping bag and she will immediately come over to investigate.

Tinker’s curiosity is rather more refined now than in the early days. Like many toddlers, trashing was one of her favourite ways to explore. Tinker has trashed just about everything she can grab from wheelbarrows to water buckets to storage boxes. One day a farmer ill-advisedly left an immaculate vehicle in the field and the ponies explored its shiny new surface with their teeth.

Living with mature Arab horses has helped to smooth some of the rough edges. Tinker has learned equine etiquette from her aristocratic mentors. Like children, horses learn through observation and she imitates their behaviour. The horses are polite around food and water and she has learned not to push, but to wait her turn. She now steps back when she sees her feed bowl arrive. When she sees the rope halter, she softens and lowers her head. She lifts her feet. She waits quietly at the gate. She comes when her name is called. She walks on the road and stops when asked. These are small lessons she has learned.

One larger lesson Tinker has learned is generosity. She has a short attention span and so during a lesson designed to get her thinking and problem-solving, she was given regular breaks from having to listen and concentrate. These brain-breaks are essential to assimilating new information as anyone who has ever sat through a whole day of meetings knows. During the third mini break, when I was thinking of drawing the lesson to a close, Tinker did something surprising.  She left her break time and came and found me and asked for more as if to say: you might be finishing, but I’m just warming up here. Let’s go again! When an animal spontaneously offers more, it shows something much deeper than imitation or observation or obedience. It shows a truly thinking, open mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

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Life lesson No. 3: Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dsc_0318Sheranni and Dragonfly on the move.





What the horse knows No: 2

5 03 2017

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Friendship between species is special. Sheranni with Rebecca.

Life Lesson No 2: Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





What the horse knows No: 1

26 02 2017

dsc_0315Ready for Resilience: Sheranni in action.

Life lesson No: 1: Resilience

There was nothing out of the ordinary about this Sunday. It was drizzling and the ponies were waiting for their feed on one side of the field while the horses were on the other side. Then I noticed Dragonfly waiting right up against the gate and, unusually, Sheranni, standing in the middle of the field. Further up, the hay bale had collapsed on its side. As I looked over, I sensed that something was wrong. Sheranni’s rug was gone and his head was low. Instinctively I scanned his body and saw a dark patch on the top of one of his hind legs. When I reached him I was already looking for further injuries.

The damage looked pretty extreme – long gashes and slashes down the inside of both hind legs, and a deep cut on his fetlock. Bloodied and wounded as Sheranni was, he lifted his head and called to me in recognition, but did not move. Trying to stifle my panic, I realised what had happened; he had caught his rug in the galvanised metal feeder around the bale and had tried to free himself by dragging it, probably at high speed, down the field.

Everything became very clear and simple. I needed to see if Sheranni could move and I needed to call the vet. Walking might be easier for him if I brought down his food. As I turned to go, Sheranni began, painfully and haltingly, to follow me. With relief, I saw that he could bear weight on his ambushed leg, which meant that it was probably not broken.

The vet acted swiftly. He was loading the syringe as soon as he left his vehicle, not stopping to put on a coat against what was by now heavy rain. Sheranni took two ten-inch needles without flinching and fulsome praise for his stoicism and co-operation. After handing me an industrial-sized bottle of antibiotic, a dozen painkilling sachets and advice to keep Sheranni moving, the vet left.

Over the next week, I relived the accident and lay awake at night imagining that I was entangled in the feeder. I was weepy and forgetful. I felt oddly bereaved. Each morning and evening as I bathed Sheranni’s wounds with salt dissolved in boiling water, I was grateful and relieved that he was still standing. The accident showed me more than anything how much I value him and how important he is to the work we do. Each day I noticed some small improvement. Even so, I still thought that he would take months to recover, and need my careful nursing for a long time. I projected his journey to healing into the future, imagining all sorts of scenarios and setbacks. Infections, chronic lameness, post-traumatic shock, I went through them all.

Sheranni showed me something else that is easy to forget under the pressure we so often feel to do something when things go wrong. He showed me how to prepare for recovery. After the accident, he took the day off and stayed quietly with his herd members who gathered around him. His favourite mare Bella nosed his wounds and breathed gently over his injuries. Tinker, who had become quite excitable, was moved in with the goats. Watching their active concern, the feeling I got was something like: this is unusual and we can tell that you are not yourself, so we will stay close until you feel better.

As the days and weeks have passed, Sheranni has got better and better. He is healing. Within ten days of the accident, he was back to work with people. His wounds are less livid and he is sound in body and mind. His resilience is remarkable. Such an accident could so easily traumatise a horse. I took longer to recover emotionally than he did. Now, I’m able to reflect on what happened, I think that he has overcome this experience because he is ready for resilience. As a strong, powerful herd leader, he is built for survival and that is as much his character as his physical status.

Sheranni got through this because he has courage and determination and is cool in a crisis. He’s been called Iron Man and James Bond. He’s the kind of horse Napoleon liked to ride into battle. The lesson for me is to recognise that resilience for him is innate. Once I stopped the all too human compulsion to make a catastrophe out of an accident, I caught a glimpse of my own inner resilience too, waiting to work with me to truly help him out. He continues to inspire me in ways I never thought possible.





Body Talk

25 10 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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