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: 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.





Life models

5 03 2016

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Aristotle believed that spending time with children was necessary and one of the ways to lead a happy life. Children could bring out the best in people, he thought. They could teach adults patience and kindness and deliberation. Aristotle’s no- nonsense practical philosophy encouraged people to look for activities that were good for their own sake rather than as a means to an end. Time spent with children was good and the parent, guardian or teacher who recognised this would feel the satisfaction of a job well done. No other reward was necessary.

In my early days of teaching before targets took the fun out of the job, I spent many lessons weeping not in frustration, but with the kind of helpless laughter that only a classroom filled with thirteen-year-old boys can generate. Their glee and game-for-anything attitude inspired me to take risks. One class acted out their own comedy scenes from Twelfth Night in makeup and hastily improvised costumes and I will never forget the boy playing Malvolio rolling around on the floor, school trousers stuffed into his pulled-up socks, so breathless with trying not to laugh he could barely speak.

Playing to the boys’ natural sense of irony and wit and wanting to puncture the competitive corporate male school ethos as well as liven up a drab temporary space, I put up fairy lights, lugged an old-fashioned typewriter into the room and set another group the task of making Valentine cards from Henry V to Catherine, the tackier the better, with chocolate prizes for the most schmaltzy. They went mad with red velvet, pink pens and glitter. Some of the boys were so determined to outdo each other they wrote their love poems in French. The cleaners complained all week about the mess, but we had the best fun.

Those boys have gone through university by now and some may even have young children of their own. I wonder if they remember those lessons as I do? It was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a more innocent time when there was no guilt attached in allowing pupils to play and improvise. Now that I have been so well schooled in lesson aims, agendas and learning objectives I know that were I to meet those classes all over again I would be a different sort of teacher: less spontaneous, perhaps, less experimental, less good-natured. More efficient, more measured, more professional. I wonder which teacher they would prefer?

I’m interested because few children forget their teachers. I still remember Miss Hayes, my teacher from infant school, who patiently showed me how to tie my shoe-laces again and again and ignored my embarrassment and frustration at not being able to tell the time. Miss Hayes was soft voiced, smiley and super efficient, which combination of virtues made her not only sensible but safe. I worshipped her. I loved my junior school and Sunday school teacher, too, Miss Smith because she took an interest in me and acted as something of an early mentor, gently drawing me out on my reading and my ideas. I even spent time at her home, unthinkable now.

My early teachers weren’t so interested in my fun, but they were interested in my welfare and my development. They became role models because of how they conducted themselves and I admired them for this. Miss Smith was tall and wore big square glasses and long wool skirts and flat shoes and she was the most sensible person in the universe. As a wobbly ten-year-old she was everything I needed in a teacher. She had weight and grace and dependability. She was a woman of virtuous character and I knew that I could trust her to show me who I was meant to be. For this is the real purpose of teaching, as Aristotle understood. This is education as it is supposed to be.

In ancient Greece, children absorbed knowledge from spending time with adults who had enough experience of life to explain things properly and clearly. The philosopher believed that children needed the right role models if they were to develop good character and that education was much more important than wealth. Our modern system of education with its emphasis on passing exams in order to achieve success in a well-paid career would make no sense to Aristotle. He believed that finding fulfilment is our life’s work, and if we are going to reach our potential we need to know where we want to go. I’m grateful to my early teachers for showing me the way.