When we connect

30 08 2020

Last summer I led a course for an amazing group of women. We were taking a break and sharing stories of connection. Spontaneously I started talking about my connection with Sheranni and as I finished I felt a rush of gratitude for all that he had taught me. The participants were on the edge of their seats and not because of my storytelling. Unbeknownst to me, Sheranni had during the telling of it walked from the far end of the field to greet me. Someone captured my look of surprise on their phone camera.

Horses understand connection. They read the feeling that is the basis of true connection and often they are moved to act and deepen their connection to us in moving and powerful ways. I’m still in awe of how they do this. What subtle minds they must have to distinguish between nuances of feeling when we ourselves, supposedly the clever species, cannot read each other at times.

Someone once observed in a session that ‘horses know everything there is to know,’ and the phrase struck home. Over many years I’ve studied horses and wondered what it is they know. The horses who serve our community at Horsemanship for Health know health and ease of living. Our team of six horses live without stress and not one of them has been traumatised or neglected. Our small herd of four have spent the past six years living in close connection with each other and that connection has created horses who are balanced and open to new experiences with humans.

The more I observe the flow of connection, the more I realise how important it is for vital health. Without connection, we become withdrawn, isolated and eventually ill. Loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics of our time and may eventually kill even more people than the current pandemic.

It’s much harder to treat loneliness, of course, or even to measure its impact although university researchers are now taking it seriously as a social concern. The pandemic has increased loneliness among many who have been unable to connect with loved ones during weeks of isolation. We have come to a new appreciation of the simple joy of putting your arms around someone you deeply care for and giving them a hug.

Because we are social beings who thrive on connection, we all know loneliness. We know how small and afraid it makes us feel inside. We know the field of belonging is our true home. We know we have lives that offer little opportunity for belonging. Lonely people are told to make connections, but when you feel desolate inside, you believe no one will want you. No one will want to connect with your abiding need for acceptance.

How this makes us forlorn. A child without friends is the saddest of little creatures. I can remember times from my own childhood when all I wanted was for the pretty girls with the neat homes and clothes – the ones who seemed to have it all sorted – to accept me for who I was and to adore me as I adored them. They were too preoccupied with their perfect appearance to care.

And so I turned to boys who didn’t care how I looked and to animals who cared even less and through these friendships I learned how to get along with most people. We find our style of connection through those who accept us in all our wonkiness and wobblyness and I suspect now that I was too unconventional for those prettily perfect girls who introduced me to loneliness. In a way, I am grateful. If I had been let into their world, that would have been even worse because I would have modelled myself on the wrong kind of people for my character.

Finding the right kind of people for our character is the work of a lifetime. In a balanced and varied life, a life which includes other species, there are endless opportunities for connection. In educating my young hound, I’m noticing just how affected he is by my moods and my energy levels. In the past couple of days I was unwell and he lay across my legs until I felt better. Today I am recovered and he is bouncy and filled with life.

Animals are an emotional barometer for me. They remind me to check in with my internal weather and understand how my feelings create a charge that ripples out into the world I inhabit. When I’m tuned into my feeling for the moment and not too focused on the other, I am balanced and when in balance I can truly connect.

Many women, particularly, have led lives driven by the needs of the other. We suspend our feeling for the moment to be sensitive to someone else. This is such a habit we don’t even notice it. We think we are being kind and caring. We don’t question this form of subtle conditioning. Horses are master teachers of emotional intelligence because they do not live socially conditioned lives. They live with feeling that is unfiltered.

It makes me smile to think of how our world might be if we stopped filtering our feelings. If we just walked off in the middle of a conversation without apology to go and have a snack or take a pee. If we just lay down when someone was talking at us for too long and simply closed our eyes. If we licked someone when we had merely shredded a waste paper basket.

Social convention is useful and culturally part of our human communication style. We stifle our yawns in a boring meeting. We don’t interrupt when someone talks for too long. We eat food that tastes awful and say nothing. We look away when we see a minor act of aggression in the street. We keep the peace.

Horses have taught me that social harmony sometimes means giving someone a nudge when they are being annoying. It means being faithful to the group and never letting your own needs take precedence over the needs of the whole. It means never bearing a grudge. It means being open, affectionate and curious every single day.

Just when I think I understand about connection, the horses show me there is so much more.

Early bird

16 08 2020


Looking after horses means getting up early. Over the eighteen years I’ve cared for my horses, the mornings have become the best part of my day. This morning when I arrived at the meadow, the herd were grouped together nose to tail on top of the hill. My arrival created a ripple of interest and each horse came forward to acknowledge me. Once greetings had been exchanged, the horses calmly returned to their huddle, swishing flies from each other’s noses. Before they did so, each one stood apart in absolute stillness for a moment, as if soaking in the quiet.

How simple it is to live like a horse. How freeing to get up from your bed of grass and greet your family members with interest and curiosity. How wonderful to greet the morning with nothing on your mind except grass and company. For a horse, each morning is a new terrain to explore, a new enquiry through the senses, a fresh unfolding landscape.

The horses are my first thought when I wake. In the very early days of teaching full-time and looking after horses, I would leave home before five am, drive through the dark lanes, lit only by the brilliance of the stars, a flask of hot tea sloshing about in the car. After turning the horses out to their field and mucking out their barn, I’d eat a bar of chocolate for breakfast, dunked into hot tea. On those mornings, in those moments before I reached work and all its numerous demands, I was utterly content. I realised that motivating myself to do something physically demanding every day was creating an inner change in me, although at the time I didn’t quite know what that inner change was. I just knew that I liked pushing wheelbarrows up a muck-heap in the dark and filling haynets in a barn while the owls called outside.

I’ve been getting up early for so many years now that it has become a habit. Even when I don’t need to be up by 6am, I find I get restless staying in bed. The other weekend I went to visit friends in Somerset, and my young whippet, unused to sleeping in a strange house, got me up at just before 5am. We went out the field with my friend’s dog and because I had forgotten to bring my wellies and didn’t want to soak my sandals, I walked barefoot across the wet grass. This is how we used to live and there was some ancient part of me that relished the tingle of drenching dew. 

Since the pandemic, many people have chosen to rise earlier and in the reports of their experiences, I’ve noticed a near universal sense of gentle euphoria. Fellow early birds say they feel more alive, more focused and calm and ready to face the challenges of the day. They are able to get more done. For me, the early part of the day is when I feel most connected to the world itself and less caught up in my own mundane thoughts. I love the easiness of the mornings when each moment feels charged with meaning and all I need to do is pay attention and listen. 

Sometimes when I’m up especially early, I’ve thought about all the other people in the world who are looking after sick children or elderly relatives or working a night shift and feel connected to the world in a particularly poignant way. A lot of caring goes on unseen throughout the night. Also an abundance of creativity. Well-known early risers include Charles Darwin, who was certainly a man who had a lot going on in his day with his meticulous research observations and the Origin of Species to design and write. Contemporary creatives who get up at dawn include Oprah Winfrey, who walks her dogs first thing, and Tim Cook, the Chief Executive officer of Apple, who is up at 3.45am to check email, exercise and drink coffee.

It’s tempting to think that a super early start means a punishing push through each day, but I’ve noticed how animals regulate their days with plenty of short rests when they aren’t doing much at all. When I’m bent over my laptop, working at a stretch for hours at a time, it’s easy to forget to look up and breathe, to remember that there is more space in each day than my narrow perception allows. The pandemic has reminded me to do what I must do and to let go of what is not important. Early mornings are a time to check-in when my mind is quiet and uncluttered. Later in the day, when there is much more activity: meetings, messages, meals to prepare, the morning calm and clarity often fades and I find myself searching for it. The horses remind me every day  where it can be found. 

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