There’s a slightly strange feeling in the air at the moment, as there is lockdown but not lockdown. People are going out again; schools are back; many non-essential worker have gone back to their jobs. And yet, there is a hovering sense of limbo: a glimpse of normality, but sudden reminders that everything is not normal at all.
The initial crash-panic-shock of the coronavirus hitting seems almost consigned to history, a thing of myth. It is faintly absurd now to look back on the mad stock-piling of loo paper. (Did that really happen? Were there really viral videos of people fighting over the last packet of Andrex in the supermarket?) Many people, especially those in vulnerable groups, are still acutely aware of the threat of Covid, but there is now the great British sense of Getting On With It. Life is a little strange, and perhaps more alarming than it once was – we do dream of the halcyon days when you could hug another human being without thinking twice – but most of us have adjusted to the new reality.
This makes us think of the great human power of adaptability. There is a slight paradox to this, two competing human traits trotting alongside each other. Most people are resistant to change. They like what they know. They adore the familiar. They cling to old habits and known beliefs. At the same time, there is an incredibly resilient streak in the psyche of sheer, dogged adaptability. Humans have in them a kind of spirit level, which they reset when their world is turned upside down. It takes a while, and it is an effort, but it is there.
One of the best examples of this is part of the great British folklore. It is the Blitz. When the Germans started bombing London in the Second World War it was because they thought they could literally send Britons mad. No civilian population could survive massive bombardment, night after night. The people would go insane and Churchill would have to surrender. (This was not the only part of their strategic thinking, but it was a driving force.)
And at the beginning of the war, there were signs of the kind of panic that is not normally associated with the British character. Children were evacuated to the country, leading to those heartbreaking lines at railways stations of tiny youths with their gas masks and their identifying labels, as if they were parcels being sent through the post. Hundreds of thousands of pets were put down. Invasion scares were rife. Anyone who looked a bit dodgy or a bit foreign was regarded with suspicion.
But when the Blitz hit, and the full horror of war was no longer just a rumour, the plucky Britons did not turn lunatic. There was fear and despair, of course there was, but there was an extraordinary resolution not to let this kind of violent intimidation win the day. One of the most iconic photographs from the whole of the war is that famous shot of a cheery milkman carrying his bottles over the bombed-out rubble of an unrecognisable street. That, like all simple snapshots of a world-changing moment, does not tell the whole story, but it tells a lot of it. Britons did adapt, and they did carry on, and they did, in the end, survive. Not without pain and not without sacrifice, but they kept going, despite everything that was thrown at them.
As our lockdown continues, with operations still suspended, we think of that power of adaptability. It is something we have seen in so many of our veterans. So much of what they have relied on in their lives has been taken from them – a leg, an arm, a pain-free body, a brain that is not fritzed and scrambled by trauma. The thing about the forces is that they are trained to be very, very good at their job. They operate at a stratospherically high level of capability. They can’t fudge a report or call in sick on a gloomy Monday; their ability to perform well is a matter of life and death. And then, after that IED or that ambush or that firefight, they are left without the confidence that high competence brings. Their ability to function in the world is entirely changed, and that truly is something to which it is hard to adapt.
As we watch them come back to equilibrium, to their sense of themselves, to a new confidence, we see adaptability in action. In the HorseBack ethos of concentrating on what people can do, rather than what they can’t, we give them something else to be good at. It’s why we like to set challenges. We don’t coddle or baby our veterans; we often throw them in at the deep end.
One of the most transformative parts of our courses is when we get the veterans to work a horse in the round pen. This is where they learn to guide a half ton flight animal at the trot and the canter on the ground, without rope or halter, and then invite the horse in, using only their body language. As they connect with the great animal, they end up walking about the pen with their horse at their side, connected only by thought and belief. (If they believe the horse will stay with them, it will.)
This is a pretty difficult task for a person with all their mental and bodily functions unimpaired. Yet every single one of our veterans will achieve it by the time they reach the end of their course. It gives them a visceral sense of what is possible. If they can do that, they can do anything. And this breeds hope: the hope that they truly can adapt to their changed reality, that they can find a way through, that they are not finished.
Our experience has taught us that it is by leaning into the difficulty, by pushing outside of the comfort zone, that the true adaptation lies. We don’t help our veterans by asking them here for a gentle riding holiday; we ask them to do things they don’t think they can do. When they burst through on the other side, they are left with the vivid memory of scaling the peaks. That’s one of the things they carry away with them, and that is what helps them keep going, through the dark days and the difficult days.
We are training ourselves to adjust to our own new reality in the same way. These times are tough for small charities like ours, but instead of shying away from that we are stepping in and adapting to it. We are thinking of new, more ambitious HorseBack projects, and working towards them, and that is what keeps our heads above water. We don’t just want to survive this time; we want to push ourselves to thrive. It’s not always easy, but it is possible. And as we watch the people around us, in our own community and in the country at large, changing, adapting, trying, we take courage and we have hope of our own.