Wonder in the wild

4 06 2017

File 04-06-2017 11 10 33

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.

Advertisements




The knotted art of being human

7 05 2017

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

baling twine

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.’

DSC_0404

Sheranni knows how to teach his own version of musical statues





Who do you think you are?

17 04 2017
Diamond use

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

DSC_0342

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

File 12-03-2017 17 09 15

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.