Sunday, 23 September 2012

A remarkable day

It’s Sunday, so this is going to be a nice long post. Have a cup of tea and put your feet up and slowly read.

The sun is shining, the horses are happy, the dog is settled, so I finally have time to tell you about my day with HorseBack UK.

I’m looking for the right way of expressing my relationship with them. Working for them sounds far too grand and official; volunteering a bit holy and pious; affiliated just awful. I think you could say I am writer in residence.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer in residence. In the old days, when I was swanky and on the hunt for glamour, I used to long and long to be asked to be writer in residence at the Savoy, as Fay Weldon was. Oh, how I yearned to lounge about in my own art deco suite, dashing off a polished sentence from the hurly burly of the chaise longue. Now, all I want is mud and authenticity, so this is really much, much better. Savoy, Schmavoy.

Actually, writer in residence may even be too posh. The idea is, apart from other forms of writing they need, I shall set up a blog for their website. I will go and see them once a week, and give a little behind the scenes glimpse of their work. As they say to me, smiling: I can become part of the furniture. I shall not be lying on the chaise longue; I am the chaise longue.

Their very clever new notion is to bring extra revenue into the organisation by applying all the techniques they use with returning veterans to the corporate sphere. They have ex-soldiers working there; they have the brilliant Quarter Horses. These two invaluable resources can be used to inspire leadership, to show business people how to run a team.

I was fascinated to see how this would work. So up I went to watch.

I could sort of see the army bit. Military ethos must surely be brilliant for leadership. Although even that surprised me. Listening to two ex-soldiers give their talks, I was struck by how broad and philosophical and even, at times, poetical their view of good leadership was. All human life was there. They did not use the dead words of jargon or management-speak; they used lovely existential words, of the heart and the spirit. They talked of courage and humility and character and integrity. They were funny and self-deprecating, but at the same time, I was conscious that they had seen life and death, and they knew of what they spoke. I was so interested my ears practically fell off.

Then, they took all this, and moved it into the equine sphere. Although I bang on practically every day about how my horse teaches me life lessons, I was not quite sure how an equine could teach a corporate honcho anything. Of course, the moment I saw the course in action, it all became clear as day.

You can’t fool a horse; swagger and bombast mean nothing to it. An equine responds most happily and willingly to a good, kind, firm, consistent person, someone who is confident but not arrogant, determined but not aggressive. Possibly the most important thing when working with a horse is to build up trust, a capacity which must be very valuable if you are a boss.

With horses, you can see immediately and in very simple ways how this sort of confidence works. For instance, if you walk on smoothly and with sureness, not looking back, a horse will follow you. If you take ragged, uncertain steps, constantly turning for reassurance, chances are it will not. They also show you the profound value of things like patience, and perseverance, and clarity, and kindness.

There was an old school of horsemanship which maintained that the only way to deal with a horse was to show it who was boss, using sound and fury. You had to break its spirit, went the thinking, and then it would never dare defy you. There were certain disciplines where all kinds of aggressive methods were employed: tying up with ropes, whipping, yelling, spurring, driving the animal through fear and pain. It was a horrible sort of dominance, and sometimes the horses did give in, through sheer terror and exhaustion. But that way, no partnership was ever developed.

I imagine that there was an old school of human management which maintained the same sort of thing. Yell at the underlings; keep them in line by striking terror into their hearts. The new school of horsemanship is much more about empathy, and attention, and working with the grain, rather than against it. By being gentle but not wimpish, kind but not a pushover, you may persuade rather than hector. My suspicion is, just as this gets the best out of equines, it will bring the best out of humans too.

So it was a revelatory day, and I loved it. There is so much thought and cleverness there, and so much that is good and true. I start to think it should not be confined to wounded servicemen and women, or business leaders; everyone should go, and learn something about life.



Here they all are, teaching and learning, under the gaze of the wooded hills:

23 Sept 1

23 Sept 4

23 Sept 5

The views beyond the sand arena:

23 Sept 9

23 Sept 10

Team-building exercise, involving an entirely idiosyncratic and very, very fast Shetland pony:

23 Sept 12

I wonder how many leadership courses involve a Shetland pony. Watching the thing in action, I grow convinced that anyone who does not use this faintly unexpected tool is missing an absolutely enormous trick.

The professors, in this wonderful University of Everything:

23 Sept 14

23 Sept 16


23 Sept 16-001

23 Sept 17

And my own little professors, who teach me something good every single day:

23 Sept 20

23 Sept 21

Reading back over this now, I think: I have not quite captured it. There is something missing, but I am not quite sure what. This happens in writing, sometimes. You find yourself almost there, but without a cigar. You circle around the point, rather than nailing it.

If this were professional writing, rather than the amateur sort, done for love, I should go back and whack away at it, with a second, third, fourth draft. I should reframe and rewrite; I should, as I almost always do, slash away the first three paragraphs. (Huge writing rule: if in doubt, cut the beginning, especially if you have, as I do, a fatal tendency for what my friend the Man of Letters calls throat-clearing.)

As it is, this is an amateur enterprise, in its most true sense. It is the place I can come not to be perfect. It is where I can be a bit baggy and shaggy and goofy and blah. It is where I can have a bad day, and it’s not the end of the world. This thought in itself feels like some kind of life lesson, although I’m not strictly sure what it is.

Maybe it comes back to something that is true with horses. You can learn much more from a ragged day, when everything does not go quite right, than when the work is immaculate. It is not the shining ideal that teaches us; it is the shuffly, muddly, faintly farcical screw-up that leaves a lesson in the mind.


Link to HorseBack UK here:

They really are a tremendous outfit, and if you have, as I have, recently won some money on the ponies and are feeling generous, there is a donation button on their website. Even a fiver makes a huge difference. But most of all, I want them to become better known. Apart from anything else, what they do is so interesting. So if the spirit moves you, do tell your friends.


  1. Aboyne Music Lover23 September 2012 at 17:02

    Good for you, Tanya, This is a great organisation which deserves as much support as it can get.

    1. Aboyne Music Lover - it really is wonderful. The more I see them at work, the more impressed I am.

  2. Really interesting post Tania. I have recommended to a few organisations that I have worked for, team building/leadership days but have often ended up disappointed. The leaders having missed the point and dragged us off shooting and off road driving. This sounds just like the sort of thing I would be interested in. I will go and investigate. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    1. Moonboots - am so pleased. I had not thought that of course some of the Dear Readers would be interested in actually using or recommending the courses. I can't tell you what a fascinating day it was, and all the participants looked so happy and interested, and you could really see that they were having fun and learning things at the same time. I could not have been more impressed by the whole thing, and you are right, so much better than roaring off into the woods in some off-road monster. Do pass the word on, and let me know if you need any more information.

  3. Tania, that's wonderful news! You will be such an asset to their organisation as Writer in Residence.

    Two beautiful pics of your girls; Red is so elegant and the Pidge should be in a hair commercial. :) xx

  4. great article and gorgeous horses and ponies too! i own an apaloosa. so many people say they are stubborn and mule like (and i have nothing against mules either!) not mine. he just won a novice A dressage test, beating an imported warm blood from little spotty hoss...was SO proud. you can never TELL or FORCE a horse but you can ask him...nicely...he's taught me that. horses are the best teachers on the planet. they give us a great opportunity to learn about ourselves, particularly about trust and fear. sometimes i feel for them, having to absorb all our human complexities. they are a noble species, for sure. thanks for your wonderful blog. best x janelle


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