The majority of the conversations we hear at the moment concern uncertainty. How long is this thing going to last? Have the lockdown rules changed? (Does anyone actually understand the rules? It feels as if they grow more complex every week.) Will there ever be what people wistfully refer to as ‘normality’ ever again?
One of the things we have learnt in our years at HorseBack is to break down complex and demanding tasks into single, simple steps. When our veterans arrive for their first course, they often carry a whole load of trepidation with them. Many of them have called on a lot of courage just to get here. Then they are faced with the horses, who can also feel daunting to people who have not met one before. (Although the horses are our most potent therapeutic tool, we often have to get the veterans over a few initial doubts.) The aim is to have the group ready for a big ride out into the Scottish hills by the end of the course; on the first morning, that ambition can feel like putting a man on the moon.
So we simply show the veterans how to give their horses a good brush. We don’t talk about riding or even what will happen tomorrow. That first step is just to be able to connect with the horse, be at one with the horse, give the horse a gentle groom. That’s how the foundation stone of a partnership is laid.
We’ll move on to equally straightforward steps – how to lead the horses, how to guide them on the ground, how to get to know them. Each small move forward builds confidence and ease so that, very quickly, our inexperienced handlers start to feel like proper horsemen and women. The big ride then becomes not an alarming high bar, but a joyful inevitability.
When we work with the horses themselves, we apply the exact same principle. If we’ve got a young one, or an ex-racehorse who only knows speed, or a novice who will never have encountered the kind of work we do, we strip everything back to the bare essentials. We don’t think about how they will be on the courses; we only concentrate on teaching the very basics.
We’ll show them how to stand still, how to follow a feel, how to focus their attention. Our ambition, at this stage, is not to create the most brilliant therapy horse in the world, but to get each individual happy and relaxed and at ease with themselves. Just like the humans, they need to build their confidence before they can graduate to the next step. We take a lot of care not to overwhelm them or to ask too much of them. Slowly and surely wins the race.
We think perhaps we can apply these principles to this strange time. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. It may be that our daily lives are going to be changed for a long time. Instead of looking down the road and wondering what the outcome may be, we try to keep our eyes on the single, simple steps of meaningful daily existence. This is not always easy, because the human mind so easily races ahead, fretting and questioning and imagining the worst. Very gently, just as we would with our horses, we try to bring our minds back to the present. What can we do today that will keep us grounded, make us feel we have achieved something, and maintain our spirits?
Small steps don’t sound very glamorous or transformative, but we believe they are. One foot in front of the other, literally and metaphorically, and we will get there in the end. We hope you will too