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.

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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.