Living the questions

9 09 2018

 

steve-rusty-allegro

All over the world today, someone will lose someone they love to suicide. Their lives will never again be the same, and questions will remain, sometimes unresolved for years.

Today is significant because it happens to be World Suicide Prevention Day, and it falls on the day my friend Steve would have turned 57 had he not taken his life one summer morning seventeen years ago.

At 57, Steve would have lived through many more adventures than he had already packed into his young life. I imagine him, now, with his wry smile, even more weathered and seasoned with experience. We’re sitting by a wood-burner drinking single malt and he’s telling me tales of travel to remote places, the heights he has climbed: the air, the colour of the lakes and the sky, the astonishing trees, the warmth of the people he has met, and there is a soft, glowing light in his eyes. He’s loving this time in his life. He feels at ease with himself. He has found the most precious jewel. He has peace of mind.

For a long time, I had too many questions for Steve. Why would someone who relished life so much choose to leave it so abruptly? Why would he dismantle everything he had worked so hard to achieve? Why didn’t he tell us what he planning to do? And the most important question: Why didn’t he wait?

If he had waited…but he couldn’t. He was by nature restless, always keen to start preparing for the next trip, the next mountain, the next experience. Steve tasted adventure and the extremes of endurance early. On leaving school, he travelled with his friend Kevin across some of the most dangerous parts of South America, plunging down rivers in a dug-out canoe with a live pig strapped inside, existing on good-will, humour, bananas and the occasional Mars Bar. I had taken a different route and plunged into the world of local news with my first job as a reporter on the Honiton and Ottery News.

On his way home from South America, Steve called in to see me at the newspaper office. We went for a surreal walk up the High Street, me in my meek work clothes, him carrying a huge green rucksack which towered over his back. His skin was burned a deep brown and he had a beard. Still only 19, Steve looked like a man of ten or more years older. He wanted to know what I had been doing while he was away.

Being interested in others, not putting himself first, sharing what he owned were all facets of Steve’s greatness, his energetic spirit that drew people to him. Wherever we went, and we shared many adventures in our twenty year friendship, we honoured humour, honesty and a strong desire to be happy doing what we most loved.

On my desk is a postcard of the Musee Du Louvre with a message dated February 1999. That year we had decided as a spontaneous valentine to meet in Paris, each travelling from different places. The thrill of connection motivated us to live a little more vividly every time we met, and on that Paris trip we were elated as we renewed our vows, not to each other (there were often complications around that) but to life itself.

In his message, Steve’s hand-writing is bold, and slants across the postcard.

“Hoping our dreams will come true! Love Steve xx”

I notice he has underlined both our names. Ever generous, he wanted us both to achieve fulfilment, and it is achingly poignant that I have lived the questions of these past years without him as my travel companion.

When someone you love selects suicide, it carves a hole in your being. It breaks you into pieces, it slams you hard against the rock face of life. The pain is so bad you carry a rucksack of stones around, exhausting yourself with wondering whether there was something you could have done.

The last time I spoke to Steve, he cried. He couldn’t tell me what he was doing in the Psychiatric Unit in Aberdeen, only that he needed time before he could get out. He didn’t want me to visit. ‘I don’t want you to see me like this,’ he said and then he cried, long, silent tears. I stayed on the phone, listening to the sound of the swing doors opening and closing on the hospital corridor.

I should have ignored him and gone to the hospital anyway. But I also know that my unannounced visit might not have saved him. Nothing could have saved Steve except a new question that kept him curious about life. I wonder what questions Steve might have had on the day he took his life. I wonder whether he noticed the irony of preparing ropes to end his life in the crown of a beech tree, the same ropes that had saved his life many times in his work as a tree surgeon. I wonder whether he hesitated before he put the rope around his neck, whether at that moment he heard birdsong, or voices or noticed the clarity of sky and remembered that winter weekend in Paris.

Living the questions requires you to meet whatever life offers, and to understand that there might never be answers. We all must live the question of our being, and it is hard, it is challenging , it is tough, and it is beautiful, it is joyful and it is the life within us all.

Steve and Kevin after South America

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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





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.








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