Let everything happen

7 08 2017

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What the horse knows: Life Lesson: No 10

What would life be like if we simply let things happen? If we allowed life to unfold naturally instead of trying to squeeze life into a container suitable for our own personal use? Letting things happen is not easy for busy-minded humans. We feel we’ve accomplished something if we squeeze as much juice as we can out of every day. Horses look at things differently; they live in what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls ‘the landscape of the now.’

Busy days, down days, difficult days, all are meaningless to a horse. For horses, there are simply days without judgement. Their lived days are rich with texture and meaning and create rhythms that move in and out of seasons. Horses weather their experience. We tend to think of experience as something we have set up, and if we’ve done well, a great holiday or family weekend or special meal, we feel a sense of satisfaction. We congratulate ourselves for ‘getting it right,’ and correspondingly, we feel low for ‘getting it wrong’ when our dream holiday disappoints and leaves us wishing we had stayed at home.

When we are prepared to let everything happen to us, we cannot be disappointed. We can stand the storms, the crazy times, the ups and downs, the grief. We’ve let life in and when we let it take its course without trying to divert it to a direction we would prefer, we see life itself, life in its startling fierce beauty. Life contains everything: pain, magic and the mundane are all mixed up together; it is never one thing and it is never ours alone. It is shared with every living thing.

A shared life is something horses understand. They don’t plot their lifescapes on charts or develop five-year career plans or business strategies or even make plans for the next day. They live moment to moment in full awareness. When I’m with them, I find I can let go of my relentless preoccupation with ‘the next thing’ (whatever it is) and stretch into a more elastic way of being.

I notice more. Coming down the hill in the meadow, I saw the fox, twice. The first time he ran across my path; the second time he moved past the horses, unafraid. I caught a good look at him. Long dark legs, heavy auburn body, neat head, nose to the ground as he high-stepped through the long grass.

Pillowed on the hill, the ground supported my back and held me together. The wind brushed my face. My body was warm, protected, the aches and soreness in my arm dampened by a wider feeling of an active aliveness. The skylark rose and released a braid of song, sequinned notes scattered into the air.

Tinker was resting when I came down from the hill. Her lower lip revealed a slim groove of pink. A single blade of grass clung to the side of her mouth. She has a lovely, neat muzzle. Soft, enquiring, yielding, it fits into the palm of my hand. Her neck was warm under the cover of her long dark mane, bleached in places from the sun. Her neck was smooth and shiny with her own conditioning grease. She looked polished, a light bay oak with gold highlights and darker ripples on her flanks and belly. Her legs were shining black to the knee, and finished in grey gleaming hooves. She glowed in the sun, a golden orb of health.

Sheranni came to me. I rubbed his head and behind his ears. Sometimes he’ll play this game for half an hour or more, but today he needed a stronger massage. He greeted Dragonfly with a kneading on his withers. Often Dragonfly will push him away, but he reciprocated. They swapped positions moving, bending their necks over their backs, splaying their legs so that they could stretch, using top and bottom lip to groom, lifting the skin, occasionally using teeth. Their lips gulped as they worked up a rhythm. The power and tenderness were compelling. At any moment they could lift their necks and break the flow and I expected some jousting, but they kept the rhythm going. This was boys’ work, masculine bonding, powerful, deep and strong. I held back.

Then an opening. The horses separated and cocked their hinds to rest. They half closed their eyes. A stillness. I saw that they had formed a circle with the others and I had been allocated a place. I stayed with them. Afterwards I felt altered in some slight but profound way. On the drive home, my motivation rose. I had ideas to follow. I could let them unfold. I was open again.

 

 

 





How to worry

19 06 2017

What the horse knows: Life Lesson No: 9

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Horses know how to worry. As highly sensitive flight animals, worry is part of being alive and aware and can be seen as beneficial. An exquisite awareness of danger is part of every flight animal’s existence. The more highly attuned, the more potential danger the animal senses. Growing up, Dragonfly, who is as highly strung as a rare violin, worried about birds twittering unexpectedly in hedges, bouncing balls, unpredictable gusts of wind, white lines on the road. One time leading him in from his field he encountered a feral cat eating from his feed bowl and his legs buckled underneath him in fear.

Dragonfly’s worry was his way of meeting the unexpected. His hair-trigger reactivity meant that I had to be careful around him. I couldn’t be brusque or rush him or forget to take his feelings into consideration. I couldn’t make assumptions. I couldn’t expect him to ‘just get over it,’ either. I had to learn to read him and that meant taking his state of mind into consideration at all times. It meant taking him to places with ‘freaky’ stuff just so he could learn that he could handle buses, flyovers, farm traffic, road signs, ice, fallen trees, bogs, deer, umbrellas, bicycles, dogs, children in pushchairs, everyday sights in our crammed, colourful human world.

Over the years, Dragonfly matured from an anxious young colt into a gentle, soft and willing horse who remains highly sensitive. One some days, he gets into a state over something, which seems small to a human mind. He doesn’t like to be separated from his herd members, and frets when he can’t see the ponies. Wind still agitates him. Bicycles, buses and other big traffic he takes in his stride.

What he has learned is to rely on is his own steadiness. He has learned that when he perceives something dangerous, there is another option besides fear. He has learned that he doesn’t have to listen to his superficial thinking because there is a deeper understanding within.  This is a remarkable life lesson.

A worry-free life is impossible. Life without fear or danger would not be life as we know it, and would be strange, featureless and bland. A certain amount of danger keeps us awake and sharp. Nevertheless, we tend to want to eliminate danger because we blame an escalation of threat for our state of worry. We tend to forget that our feelings of worry come not from circumstances but from our own thinking. Sports coach Garret Kramer, explores this in his fascinating and insightful book The Path of No Resistance.

“A key difference between steadiness and inconsistency is that steady people become still and then find another option when they sense danger. Inconsistent people try to exhibit strength by plowing through it.’

 

Dragonfly used to try to force his way through his fears. Memorably we parted company once when schooling and I hit the ground so hard I couldn’t walk the next day. I wondered then whether he would become a ‘neurotic’ horse. It’s easy to see how horses and people with a tendency to worry acquire unhelpful labels that become defining. As Dragonfly grew up, he learned how to be more consistent and how to rely more on his inner sense. He learned self-reliance, resilience and steadiness.

Dragonfly learned that given time his fretful mind will self-correct. He learned that he could bring himself back into balance. His fearful feelings did not mean that he had to run or throw himself onto the ground. He did not have to react to everything he sensed or felt or imagined. His feelings meant that he had to wait for stillness and steadiness to return. This is mature practical wisdom in action and a true source of inspiration.





Wonder in the wild

4 06 2017

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What the horse knows: Life Lesson No 8

‘Animals know this world in a way we never will.’ The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue’s words are filled with simple wonder. He contrasts the deep quiet of the animal world with the distracted world of humans drawn by the lure of bright windows.

It’s true our world is colourful in comparison with the subdued natural world. We love novelty and change and noise. We lose ourselves in excitement. Sometimes it’s hard to slip away from the fairground and come back down to earth. We resist because doing nothing alarms us and makes us feel that we are nothing. Our restless screen-filled lives make it easy to be preoccupied. We forget that behind the demands of our do-lists there is a deeper purpose. Yet within our conflict we want our lives to mean something more than more things to worry about.

The horses remind us to listen. They remind us to move out of our worry-minds and into the unhurried world. It’s easy to forget that the world as we know it is not the only world. There is the grass world, the sky world, the bird world. There is the whole world from a million points of view, none of them ours. Observing the horses at rest, a spaciousness emerges from the rhythm of their breathing. When they are all together, they breathe in time and their breathing draws them closer. Being with them like this is more than merely relaxing; it feels like a invitation to wake up from a dream.

Our mesmerising thoughts take us away from the world of animal being, of sky and grass and bird. Forgetting we are animal, we dwell in a dreamscape of our own making. In our shadow world, we get obsessed with the things people say or do or think. We believe the worst because, somehow, it helps us to feel safe. When we’ve had enough of our own loopy thinking, we start to wonder how we might clear out some of these negative thoughts. Believing that we need to manage them, tidy them up, we file them into neatly labelled boxes, or drive them away with drink or drugs. We wonder why they always come back. We wish we could escape our own dullness.

We can learn from the animals. For them, brightness is already there. As Plato observes, there is light outside the cave of ordinary ignorance and superstition. There is knowledge beyond going through the motions and living life on auto-pilot. There is clear sky. It begins in wonder. All life begins in wonder. The horses know this, of course. Their lives might seem dull. They might look routine to us, but that is because habitually as predators we scan the surface for anything useful to us. We are fast fish on a feeding frenzy.

Truly bright living requires us to swim up to the surface and take a good long breath. And then a good long look.





The knotted art of being human

7 05 2017

What the horse knows: Life Lesson No: 7 Self-understanding

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Caught up in our own knots of thinking

Horses know when you understand something. They feel relieved when the mental clouds shrouding understanding pass over and clear weather emerges. Their licks and sighs and deep yawning breaths let us know we’re onto something they already knew a long time ago. In so many ways, they’re worlds ahead of us.

Perhaps this is because they have one foot, or possibly all four hooves, planted in another reality. They wait for us to catch up from a deeper space, a clearing where the knotted everyday human concerns count for nothing. In this unravelled place they dwell patiently and knowingly. For horses, this open place forms the fabric of their lives and they know it so closely they do not even have to think about it.

Our thought threads ensnare us hourly and by the end of a busy day we can end up feeling like a nasty ball of knotted baling twine. We unravel with screens, with wine or gin, with running in the dark, and reaching out to our family and friends. This contracted way of living is considered normal. We congratulate ourselves on getting through a day without stress or anxiety. We believe life will get better and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. This is the human condition. We endure it mostly stoically.

The horse has none of this. The free horse – one who is not trapped, neglected or abused – has presence of mind. A horse’s ability to fully inhabit his own spirit is compelling. Daily, I’m magnetised by Sheranni’s ability to draw on his own life force and totally, beautifully and without reservation live his day. I’m stirred by his capacity to see straight through the noise in my mind that threatens to limit me to half-days. I’m moved by his preparation to meet me on a deeper, quieter level.

Many people say they are humbled by horses and I think I now understand more fully why we humans admire the equine species so much. It’s not simply their physical grace, it’s also their complete lack of pretence. A horse cannot pretend anything. A horse has to be more or less how he is. A horse is truthful because he embodies his own being.

Wait though, I knew an old wily horse who used to pretend. He used to wait until Sheranni and Dragonfly were quietly grazing along his fence line, and then just when they weren’t expecting it, he would sharply ping the fence with his nose and watch them scatter in alarm. I watched the old horse catch out the scatty young Arabs countless times and it made me weep with laughter every time. What made me laugh most was the way he retreated behind a tree so they wouldn’t know he was doing it. The old horse seemed to enjoy having fun at their expense.

Was he pretending or just making his day more interesting? I don’t know, of course, but watching him made me wonder whether horses have a sense of humour. Now many years on, I realise there is so much more to understand about animals. The space between human and other is no long a place of division, but, I suggest, a meeting place where we can discover who we are.

I’m fortunate to work as I do with horses. Each time I’m exploring something or unravelling a knot with a student or client I feel as if I’m also on a journey of discovery through a place that feels both deeply familiar and strange. Observing the horses assist people of all ages who are overwhelmed, caught or stuck is awe-inspiring.

Lately, I’ve been particularly moved by Sheranni’s singular commitment to deep security. His effortless talent for leadership through protection and safety inspires me. Sheranni has shown me how the great homesickness of being human need not inevitably make us ill or lonely or afraid. The deeper understanding that we are already home lies within our grasp. To offer this understanding is the greatest generosity from one species to another. Does he know? In the words of one of our young students last weekend: ‘He knows. He knows everything there is to know.’

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Sheranni knows how to teach his own version of musical statues





Who do you think you are?

17 04 2017
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From: Instant Motivation Chantal Burns 2015

What the horse knows: 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

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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.