Today is Armed Services Day, and we pay tribute to all the men and women who have served, at home and abroad. We’ve been lucky enough to work with many of them over the years, both veterans and those who are still serving. It has been our pleasure and our privilege.
There has also been a focus this week on mental health, especially amongst our partners in racing, as the industry mourned the loss of Liam Treadwell, a much loved and admired jockey whose struggles with his mental health finally overwhelmed him. Part of the reason we formed a partnership with Racing Welfare was that we saw so many parallels in their work and ours. As with the services, there is a premium on courage and toughness in the racing world, and this can make it very, very hard for people to ask for help. Even now, in these more open days, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety, and all the traumas of the mind. Reaching out can feel like weakness, when it is in fact the very opposite.
Quite soon after we started our work at HorseBack, we started to think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its attendant symptoms as a form of brain injury. In our early days, we saw a lot of veterans with physical injuries. Those were obvious hurts – the scars were all on the outside. As we moved more into the area of mental health, we realised that the invisible wounds were as real and pernicious and life-changing as the visible ones. The delicate circuits of the mind had been damaged and scrambled by the extreme stresses of combat.
Nobody felt ashamed if they had lost a leg. But there was a lingering sense of shame about a mind going wrong. To us, these were absolutely equal injuries, and we treated them exactly the same. We applied our enduring ethos: we don’t see the injury, we see the person. We don’t think of what a person cannot do, but what they can. We very quickly stopped using the word disability, because we did not find it descriptive or useful.
One of the symptoms we saw most often with brain injury was severe isolating. We worked with people whose visit to HorseBack was the first time they had left the house in months. We knew one veteran who found the outside world so daunting that she would go and shop for food at three in morning. She’d find a twenty-four hour supermarket and go in the empty hours so that she did not have to face crowds. (The irony is, as we’ve remarked before, that many of our veterans were doing lockdown before lockdown was even a word.) One of the things we could do for these veterans was to give them a safe space where they could rediscover comradeship. They learnt to be part of a team again, both with their horses and with each other. There is no stigma here, because everyone we work with is a little bit broken. The humans in the HorseBack team do not judge, because mental health problems are our daily reality. And the horses do not judge, because they take the person in front of them as they are, in the moment. They don’t care what your diagnosis is, or what medications you are on, or what trauma your brain has suffered. They are authentic, instinctive creatures, and if their human can make them feel secure and confident, that’s all they mind about.
As lockdown starts to ease, we are very conscious that people in communities all around the country are going to know some of the stresses and strains that our veterans do. Even if you avoid the news, the permanent hum of living in a pandemic can wear on the spirit. The world can start to seem like a threatening place. As our co-founder, Jock Hutchison says, ‘even going out of the door can be an act of everyday bravery’. This especially applies to those who are in the vulnerable groups.
We know all about vulnerable at HorseBack, in all its manifestations. And we know about bravery too. The men and women who come here show a courage beyond the battlefield – the courage to ask for help, to say that they are not OK, to admit that they can’t do this on their own. There are no medals for doing it on your own. Absolutely everybody, and especially those who are in the dark places of depression, needs a team. Luckily, there are many incredible teams who can help shoulder the load, organisations like HorseBack whose minds and hearts and doors are always open.