Starting Over

Oh, I so don’t want to write this.  And chances are, by tomorrow I’ll delete or, or bury it in the back of a file to never see the light of day, but it wants to be written, and I won’t get back to sleep until I do…  Its 3am, and the earth gently shook us awake – I’m currently sitting in the middle of the “Ring of fire”, and little shakes are a very common occurrence.  In itself, it probably wouldn’t have woken me, but, just dozing, my brain was racing and flighting with my heart, so any excuse to get up, right? (P.S. #1.  It wasn’t such a gentle little shake – at 4.7 it was a big enough bounce…)

This whole Covid 19 thing has every one a little shook up.  But it strikes me from a different angle.  I don’t see people scared to die, but people who are scared to live.

Mr Grey – the heart break and trauma this little horse caused me…
Mr Grey – the heart break and trauma this little horse caused me…

I helped to treat a cat yesterday / today (depending on how you see 3am, it really is the middle of the night in my books….)  He looked dead, lying in his cage, and part of the reason I’m sitting doing this is to wait for light to go and see if he is a dead patient or a live patient in his hospital bed.  He’d been brought in, badly dehydrated, eyes and nose pus-filled and gummed shut, very weak and skinny.  My friend said – he won’t live and went to get the right drugs, and as I sat with him, I said, please can we try…  A saline drip, some anti-biotic, clean swabs to wipe his eyes and mouth.  My heart agreed, give him the magic blue stuff and let him sleep.  My brain got in the way – we can save him; he deserves a fighting chance. (P.S. #2…..  The cat didn’t make it.  I went to check him this morning, but he’d gone in the night.  I’m a little bit sad…)

Years ago, a friend and I were working in a yard, where there were some ancient, almost blind and toothless old ponies who were still wheeled out for the tiny kids lead rein walks.  We, privately, called them “The Walkers”.  As in, the walking dead.  The mind and the brain – they aren’t the same thing at all.  The brain can make the heartbeat, and the gut digest, the legs move.  But, just because the brain is functioning, doesn’t mean the mind is at home.

In horses we have a name for this – learned helplessness.  The horse has tried to work out the world, he has tried to fight back against too much pressure, an unfair workload, or a bad situation, and been forced through his literal kicking over of the traces.  He can’t fight back anymore, and so slips into learned helplessness, where his body complies, but his eyes betray him.

I don’t think I’m scared to die.  I’m not about to jump off the roof – don’t worry – but when my time comes, it’s ok.  The secret is – we’re all dying, right?  Death and taxes.  And, sadly, this virus is making an awful lot of people face this awfully fast.  But, it isn’t just the fear of dying.  It’s the fear of financial collapse, and the fear of losing someone close to you, the fear of the unknown, the fear of…?   The fear of thinking, maybe you’re not bullet proof.

What makes me sad, is how many people out there are walkers already, and it’s those people who are most scared about this.  They get up in the morning, they get dressed, they go to work.  They come home, they have dinner, they go to bed.  And in the morning, they get up, they get dressed and they go to work.  Their brain is driving them, but they have lost their soul.  Someone recently was telling me about the difference between motivation and inspiration.  The motivated keep being motivated to get up, get dressed and go to work.  The inspired, live.

I’ve been involved with many, many horses and animals who have died.  When you rescue them, many don’t survive.  I understand why the suicide rate in vets and animal rescue is so high.  Often, more often than people realize, my threat to go hammock testing and give up on horses isn’t a joke.  As I sat, holding that cat, there is a huge internal conflict – let him die peacefully, with two people who care, or stuff him full of drugs that probably won’t help him and leave him alone in a cage, to die without someone near.  And when I deal with a horse who is shut down because his owner is too competitive, or a horse who is sore because someone hasn’t noticed how bad his saddle is – I could walk away and not come back.

want to come hammock testing with me?
want to come hammock testing with me?

But if I do walk away, how much will I become one of the walking dead myself?  For whatever reason, animals and I are so intrinsically connected.  Recently I was talking to someone about how often I come into contact with animals, just to help them die.  She said, it’s an honour, like being midwife to their soul.  I can’t go that far – but sometimes it’s the gift you can give them when they’ve suffered too much already.  And, if and when I do walk away from the horses, I know I’ll disconnect with a part of me.

This virus, I think, is asking people to reconnect with that part of themselves, the part that I’d lose.  The part that many people are scared to wake up.  It’s asking people to sit quietly.  (Oooh, that’s so my challenge…)  It’s asking them to re-evaluate.  It’s asking them to ask, if I don’t do my normal, what else is possible?  It’s asking you to sit still with your horse, your cat, your dog, your family, your own mind, and reconnect.  Years ago, a bank had the slogan – “Where will your spark take you”.  I’ve always loved that concept.  The virus is asking people to find their spark, because so many people have lost it.  I, personally, need to process some stuff, I need to see what is possible, and, in coming to a little speck of a tropical island, I’ve got time for debating what is possible.  The timing, for me, couldn’t have been better.

What’s possible for you?  Where is your spark going to take you, on your new adventure, post Covid 19?

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Staying Home …

I’ve thought about this before, began writing it, stopped, started again, deleted it.  And at the moment, it’s fresh in my mind again.

I don’t actually live anywhere – most people know that.  No house, no rent, no furniture, no ties.  Which I think is perfect.

“Where do you live?”

“Well, now, this week, I live in Gili Trawangan, but last week I lived in Bali, the week before that, I lived in Singapore.”


“Where did you come from?”

“Well, do you mean which airport?  Or last week?  Or last long-haul flight?  Or???”

And, what’s really blown me away this past week, is the number of messages that I’ve had, saying, are you OK?  Please come home, your bed (and Cat) are waiting for you…  So many people saying that their home is my home, and that if I need somewhere to hold up, their house is open.  Which, I find incredibly humbling…  Someone asked me a while ago if I consider myself wealthy.  My reply was, if I look at my bank account, no.  But yes, I am incredibly wealthy, as this week has proved.

Another friend said, please get to England as fast as possible – you need to be with family and friends.  That’s a challenge, with my mom in South Africa and brothers in UK and Kenya, as well as cousins in every corner of the globe – family is not place, anymore than home is.  When people have been forced from their native country due to politics, and have scattered worldwide, “home” is no longer there, so, where is the new home?

And so, my reply to her – well, I am home.  I have ponies, and I have the sea.  In every country, wherever you go, you walk into a stable yard, and you could be anywhere.  Any yard, has the same routine – you count the number of pony legs and divide by four…  Is everyone alive and healthy, does everyone look happy and anticipating breakfast?  Is the grumpy mare putting her ears back, is the greedy one nickering for his feed?  Top up empty water buckets.  Take around the hay.  Mix breakfast feeds.  Open paddocks, unlock tack rooms, muck out stables, scrub out water buckets, empty wheelbarrows, put horses out…  In any yard, I can just get on and help with yard work, because horses are horses, no matter where they are.  And yards are yards, mucking out, sweeping, scrubbing feed bins, it’s all the same.  Same same but different, as they say in Asia.

Horses and stable yards
Horses and stable yards

Horses speak the same language, no matter what dialect the words come from.  They need the same things, they offer the same things.  You can move them backwards or forwards with a gesture or a glance, they co-operate with the human, the human co-operates with the pony.

In big yards, grooms are bantering, yelling light-hearted abuse.  In racing yards, the appies touch their stick to their cap – “mornin’ m’am”.  The sun comes up slowly, horses start moving out, hooves on concrete, horses calling, bits being crunched.  In competition yards, the first strings go to the horse walker, or out hacking with the grooms, the trainers head to arenas.  In riding schools, lessons begin, the words of the instructors always follow a familiar cadence, no matter the language.  Which country are you in?  It doesn’t matter, welcome home, welcome to the familiar, the feel of routine and peace.

If you think you’re lost, or far from home, the horses will welcome you and remind you that they create home, it’s not a place, it’s a feeling.  It’s the sounds, sights, smells of the yard waking up, ready for another day.

In normal time, my usual life before social distancing and lockdown, I’m generally at home, even though my passport will show that I’m in a far-off country.

In a couple of yards where I go often, I’ll be standing talking to a human, or watching a horse work, or teaching, and I’ll hear a whicker, or feel a bump in the small of my back, as one of my four legged friends sees that I’ve arrived and hauls their human over so they can say hi, or nickers until they call me over.  They replace being able to pop to a familiar coffee shop or visiting a childhood friend.  They hold the space, and always offer a “welcome home”.

The Value of the Plastic Pony.

In Singapore, I teach some of my clinics on a simulator horse, called Plastic Jack.  And, honestly, I think Plastic Jack is worth his weight in gold.

A lot of people will have seen them – life size “horses” sitting atop a platform and computer, allowing them to halt, walk, trot and canter.  The movement feels similar to that of a live horse, although not exactly the same since he isn’t swinging his weight along with all four legs.

A few times now, I have gone simulator indoor skydiving, mainly to figure out exactly how I’m using my core and how I can influence my direction and stability with nothing to reach out and hold onto, or floor to push off.  Last time, I chatted to the dive instructor and asked him how lifelike it was.  Similar, was his reply.  You get the upward push of air, but you don’t get the pockets of turbulence, the sudden rush of up or down draught, and you certainly don’t get the cross wind.  When flying through the air outside, you get wind from all directions, in a simulator tube, it’s all one way.  (As I write this, sitting in a plane, I can certainly vouch for what happens with up draughts, down draughts and cross winds).  A wind tunnel is too regular and even.  And, that is similar to what happens on Plastic Jack.  He’s very safe.  No one has fallen off, you don’t even have to wear a hard hat, and there isn’t any tilt through his corners, or falling in or out around the circle, but it’s as close as.

Now, some people sit on a version of Jack for 5 minutes, use the pressure sensors and get a read out of what the pony’s sensor panels have to say – you are 56% to the left, and 63% tipping forwards.  And that, in my opinion, is a bit worth less.  A fun joyride, sure, but does it actually teach you anything or help?

Where Jack comes into his own, is when we can play.  Before the rider gets on, we work through a whole variety of exercises to understand and experiment through tensegrity and alignment.  We’ve sat on Styrofoam or polystyrene balls, blown up balloons, and pulled each other around.  We’ve thought of how balls bounce, how violin strings are tensioned and how our diaphragm works.  And, we’ve watched videos of Charlotte and worked through photographs of the last Olympics.  Now, finally, we get on Plastic Jack and we play with low tensegrity, high tensegrity, having both seat bones, stability of the fascia spiral lines using bands, and the way in which blowing up a balloon activates the core.  By having Jack cantering along in one place, I can stand next to the rider and place my hands where I want them too, asking them to push one side of their pelvis, fill in their back, breathe to their kidneys or rest their head against the head rest in their car in a much clearer way than they ever could sitting atop a real live, moving horse.  The proof comes in the next day, when their regular coach says – Oh My, I can see a change in your riding…

So, you up for a challenge?  Find out if there is a local version of Plastic Jack and go along for a lesson.  It can be tricky to find someone to actually teach you on one, rather than just getting a printout, but if you can find a horse and a trainer, magic will happen!


My reading list …

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.
–John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

I am a reader – I always have two, three, sometimes four books on the go.  There’ll be something light, easy fiction to waste time in an airport.  A horse textbook of some description, and something technical, on coaching, or physics, or anatomy, or philosophy or, or…  And so, when asked about a book, it’s always tricky – oh, where to start?

One of my first favourites, obviously, was Black Beauty, way back when.  I recently found an old copy of it, and re-read it, just to see.  It’s like sitting down to tea and conversation with an old friend.

We read it now, almost 150 years after it was written (1877) and are fairly horrified at some of the things in it.  Taking horses into war.  Carriage horses hauled up into a frame with bearing reins.  Horses working as pit ponies.  All things that most people now are not so happy with.

(Yes, bearing reins still exist, now, more politely called overcheck or side check, but hopefully (naïvely?) they aren’t over tightened as they were for poor old Black Beauty).

But, as I was reading, I wondered, if someone re-wrote Black Beauty now, what would people in 2170 be thinking?

Rolkur, or LDR jumps up.  Is that as bad as sending horses into war?  Cranking shut nosebands, the need for blood rules at competitions?  Western classes and races for 2-year olds?  Will riding horses at all be frowned upon – there is already a group of people who say that any work on horses is cruel and unnatural.   Will we even still keep horses as companions, or will the only horses be those who live wild?  Will there still be horses at all, the rate our green spaces are being consumed.  Or, will we still have them, but only living in high rise apartment type blocks.

If books can truly change the way we think, can we not take a few lessons from Anna Sewell.  What worries you now, that will be looked at in a few years to come, and have our descendants asking, just how did they get away with that???

So, what else is on my list?

What’s on your list?