It is Mental Health Awareness Week, something that is very close to our HorseBack hearts.
When we started HorseBack, we were focused on men and women who had suffered life-changing injury in the service of their country. At that time, these were mostly physical injuries. The war in Afghan was still hot, and soldiers were coming off the battlefield with limbs missing. They faced a long and gruelling rehabilitation programme, and the places they knew best were hospital corridors. We wanted to get them on horses and out into the open air. We wanted them to see the wide, serene Scottish skies over their heads. Mobility with dignity was our cry.
We understood physical injury, especially because our own Jay Hare had had a run-in with a couple of IEDs and lost a leg, eye and a few digits for good measure.
But as time went on, we welcomed more and more veterans whose wounds were not visible. They wore their scars on the inside. Post-Traumatic Stress is an insidious and mysterious entity. It could lie dormant and strike at any time. We were getting veterans from Bosnia and Northern Ireland and even the Falklands – warriors who had buried their symptoms and carried on for years, until suddenly they couldn’t. We found ourselves on a steep learning curve. We started to understand about anxiety, and isolation, and hypervigilance. We saw all the self-destructive coping mechanisms, like alcohol and drugs and – possibly the most destructive of all – the profound reluctance to ask for help.
We also discovered the acutely individual nature of what we now think of as brain injury. Just as every horse is different, so that you cannot apply a blanket method of training to every equine, so every human experiences a mental health crash in different ways. We learnt to adapt the courses as we went along, tailoring each week to each group of participants. Generalisations went out of the window. Each human was suffering in her or his own way.
What we did find is that there are some common themes. Shame is a big one. We now think of trauma and brain injury and extreme mental stress as you would think of a broken limb. It’s not a question of weakness. You can’t just pull yourself together and roll out the stiff upper lip. You are not at fault. You have a condition, as real and painful as a set of smashed ribs.
But it’s very easy for people with such a condition to feel embarrassed and ashamed. Many of the ones we worked with would take themselves away from the world, remove themselves from friends and family, try to find some kind of solace in an enforced isolation. The irony is that so many of our veterans were social distancing years before the coronavirus crisis was even dreamt of. Some of the team have been checking in on the extended HorseBack family, asking how they are dealing with the lockdown, and quite a few have said that this is a way of living they know only too well.
We went from a fairly low awareness of the complexities of mental health to a comprehensive knowledge. Our veterans have taught us so much. We have a sort of new normal now, because we’ve worked with so many people over the years who have struggled with the injuries to their brains. In fact, we slightly wonder whether there is any such thing as normal, when it comes to human beings. The men and women who come to HorseBack carry deep scars, and their symptoms are various and sometimes overwhelming. But you don’t have to have been traumatised in conflict to suffer in your head. Some studies suggest that as many as one in four Britons will face mental health problems in any given year. The fact that awareness is growing and understanding is deepening can only be a good thing, shining light on something which can feel very dark.
The current state of uncertainty and the loss of all the consolations of ordinary life must take their toll. Even some of the most stoic members of the HorseBack team are having moments of excessive fed-upness. (And you know how we love to stick to the positive!) There is no disgrace in feeling rotten or getting a bit grumpy or battling to maintain emotional equilibrium. What we have found, over the years, is that admitting your feelings, reaching out for help, simply being honest is a huge step on the road to recovery. The veterans who come here can speak about their mental state without, literally and metaphorically, frightening the horses. And the reason that the horses are such a powerful healing presence is that they don’t judge. They don’t think a human being is failing because that human has undergone trauma. They take the person in front of them, in that moment, as she or he is.
Even when a person feels broken, there is always a part of them that is still whole. When our veterans work with the horses, they learn to access that part, however deeply it is buried. They discover that they are steadier and sturdier than they think. The kindness and authenticity of our wonderful herd encourages them to dig deep into their own kindness and authenticity, to rediscover their true selves. We think it is that which they carry away with them when they leave us.
This is what psychologists describe, rather wonderfully, as an anchor. Everybody has an anchor, a vivid memory or sense of a time and place when they feel at their most complete. (We at HorseBack get this feeling when we are working with our horses, or seeing a group of veterans find their mojo and start to fly.) When the seas grow stormy, as they are now, that anchor is the thing that can bring a still, small voice of calm to the turbulence. It is like that great line in the REM song – hold on, hold on, hold on.