One of the aspects of our work at HorseBack that we are most proud of is our Youth Development Project. This came from a fledgling idea, and grew into something which now exists at the very heart of what we do. We love working with our young people, and we especially love it when we can get our veterans involved too, so that we see those two groups learning from each other.
We are also huge admirers of the teachers we work with, who give their students so much care and time and encouragement.
So we are keenly affected by the current exam situation and we feel so much for what young people all over the country are going through at the moment. As if all the lockdown and uncertainty and not seeing their friends was not enough, many of them are now facing intense disappointment and the crashing of their dreams.
We’ve had a lot of experience with the end of dreams. We see it in our veterans all the time. The life they dreamed of is taken away – by the cruel randomness of fate; by forces beyond their control. That improvised explosive device that removed their legs, the tearing Post-Traumatic Stress that scrambled their brain circuits, the breaking point that a mind reaches when it has seen too much in a hot war: all these are beyond their control. The dream has gone, and a new and more complicated reality faces them.
You don’t have to have a missing limb to know the press of loss. If all you have ever wanted is to go to medical school or read geography at university or take up an apprenticeship, and suddenly you don’t have the grades to get there, that is a loss of your life dream. It is an existential blow, and we know how it feels.
What we have seen in our veterans is how human beings can deal with those losses, can build a new dream, can find a light in the darkness. We thought we’d write a little about that today, just in case any students are tuning in. We feel for you and we’d love to help.
The first and most important thing, in our experience, is awareness. All of our veterans who got into trouble did so because they could not find a way to face the reality of their new situation. The feelings were too painful, the change in circumstance too violent, so they would dive into denial, try to turn the emotions off, pretend they were fine when they were not fine. There’s a lot of pride in the services, so the idea of admitting any kind of frailty brought with it feelings of shame. Anger, frustration and fear for the future would be suppressed, and that’s where everything went wrong. The moment these courageous men and women stopped, and allowed themselves to mark their loss, and said that they were not OK, the healing started.
The second thing they did was reach out for help. When life gets hard, you need a crew. That’s why we are always talking about the importance of the team. It can feel frightening to ask for help, to admit that you can’t do everything on your own, but it’s a wonderful liberation. When our veterans turn to us for help, and turn to each other, they have that streaming feeling of relief that they are no longer alone. There are people who have been through what they have been through, and who are ready to share that experience.
When they get here, one of the first things they learn is stillness and mindfulness. That’s where the horses come in. To work well with a horse, you have to be completely present in the moment. There’s a kind of Zen to building a relationship with a prey animal. This is so powerful for troubled minds because worries and anxieties exist in an imagined future. The more the brain casts about for future catastrophes, the more the psyche becomes convinced that there is no hope for anything. Bringing the mind back to the instant is intrinsically calming, and can be the most potent mental practice. Yes, you did not get the grades you needed, but here, in this very moment of time, you are still alive, you still have your good brain and your good heart, you have all the talents and gifts and capabilities that you had before the algorithm swung into action. You are still you. It’s easy to forget that, when things go pear-shaped.
And then we apply our favourite, foundational HorseBack ethos, which is to focus on what is possible, rather than what is not. This all started because we’d have a lot veterans with prosthetic limbs at the beginning. They could not hike twenty miles with a pack on their back any more; they could not run or explore or serve. That is what they could not do. What they could do – and this was huge – was get on a horse and ride out into the Scottish hills. They could communicate with a half-ton flight animal. And in doing this, they could rediscover their confidence and their self-belief.
As we watched this, we knew that focusing on the possible was a transformational shift in perspective. Like everything we do here, it takes practice. But it’s so worth it. Start with the awareness, of all the voices in the head which are saying, ‘You can’t….’ Then take those and find an ‘I can’. Maybe you can use your vivid imagination to find a new dream, a new future, and new road. We have often found that our failures, our brick walls, our set-backs have turned out to open new horizons. We had to find another way round, and sometimes that way turned out to be better than the original path. There is always a way. It may be tough, and it may take everything you’ve got, but it is there. We’ve seen it so many times, and we know it to be true. That’s why we at HorseBack never give up, even when times are hard. We keep going, one small step at a time. We hope that you will too.