It’s hard to put into words the feelings we have on the Friday of a HorseBack course. This week, we’ve been with a group of veterans and those who are still serving, and it’s the first time they’ve been here, and as we say goodbye to them it’s like saying farewell to old friends.
That’s what this place does: it takes strangers and it makes them into friends. They’ve made friends with each other and they’ve made friends with their horses and they’ve made friends with our team. And perhaps they’ve made friends with these Scottish hills too, even though today the view is shrouded in mist.
As we walk away into the weekend, the sound we hear in our heads is the sound of laughter. Anyone who knows the services knows the banter, the jokes, the endless ribbing. But the thing that makes us smile, even more than the memory of that laughter, is the sense of privilege. We get to work with people who are in, some way or another, busted. Some of it is combat-related; some of it isn’t, directly. But something in them, mentally or physically, got broken.
There’s a great line in the film Seabiscuit, about a little horse who lifted the hearts of Americans as they struggled through the Depression. Tom Smith, Seabiscuit’s trainer, is played by Chris Cooper. There’s a moment when Cooper is putting a poultice on an injured horse, and he’s asked why he doesn’t just let the horse go. That animal will never be good for any hard work. What’s the point? And Cooper looks up from under his hat and says, thoughtfully, ‘You don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a little.’
That’s what it’s like, at HorseBack. We see people who got banged up. Many of them won’t be able to do what they once did, when they were trained and fit and at the peak of their powers. But they still have what no mental or physical wound can take away: their spirit, their hope, their life. Those things can get buried, under all the rubble. Our job is to clear that rubble away, and remind them who they still are, what they still can do. We’ve had horses come to us who were banged up, horses whom nobody knew what to do with. We give them back their own sense of belief, so that they can work with the men and women who come through our gates. We always say that we have faith in second acts, and that’s what we strive for, with the horses and with the humans.
When we get to watch people find themselves again, lift their heads and rediscover their laughter and fix their gaze on that second act, we feel the privilege of it like nothing else. We are so lucky to do this work. It means everything to us.