Friday, 5 October 2012

A few bullet holes

Another visit to HorseBack UK. (They cannot keep me away now.) Many people come and go; there are always new visitors to meet. Happy family members have arrived, all the way from Sussex; they gaze out over the blue hills with keen pleasure.

A tall man I have not met before approaches. I stick out my hand, smile, introduce myself. We shake. Small pause.

‘Are you...’ I ask, a little tentative, ‘military?’

He nods. ‘I have PTSD,’ he says.

It is very matter of fact, as if he had said I have brown hair or I am wearing black shoes. Those short initials represent an entire existential state which it is quite hard for a soft civilian like me to imagine, although I am starting to get glimpses of it.

The people I have met with the condition tell their stories with unflinching honesty, no self-pity, and a straightforward generosity. I don’t really like to ask (I am British, after all; Britons are generally more at home with the unspoken) but it is part of the work I am doing for the organisation. The asking must be done.

Also, I think the unspoken is the enemy here. Cool, clear information is important, because it banishes reticence and fear. Almost all humans are alarmed by anything to do with mental health. I think it’s a perfectly understandable reaction. It’s to do with fine lines and hidden fears. Our mysterious brains contain an essential fragility. Years ago, Scott Fitzgerald wrote that one day he simply cracked, like an old china plate. My own greatest secret fear is that I shall go mad in the night and wake up believing that I am Queen Marie of Roumania. It’s a there but for the grace of God thing. Clinging to sanity in an often insane world can occasionally feel like a Sisyphean task, and I suspect that is why people don’t like to think of it too much. Let us just pray that the dear old brain keeps bashing on, and does not get overloaded and go phut.

What interests me most is how easily the veterans speak of something which is not easy at all. It is not something which can be cured with a pill or a nice couch in Hampstead. It has to be managed; those with it learn to fold it into their new lives and find a place for it where it will not vanquish them. In particular, for them, it seems to be the horses who help the most with that. There is something so essentially still and honest and true and unjudgemental about these lovely equines that they transmit calm. One ex-soldier told me last week that when he works with the horses, he gets the first proper night’s sleep he has had in months.

The gentleman I am talking to laughs, wryness entering his voice.

‘PTSD,’ he says, ‘and a few bullet holes.’

I laugh too. I match his dryness and wryness. ‘Just a few?’ I say.

Later I think: before this, I have never met anyone who has actual bullet holes in their body. It is an illuminating education for me. It teaches me something you can’t learn from a book.

The sun shines. The autumn colours are starting to sing. People remark, happily, on the weather. Even in a place where extraordinary things happen, there is still the lovely ordinariness of people speaking of the weather. The horses doze and shift in the sunshine. This week’s group get ready for their ride. As I leave, they head off into the indigo hills, easy in their Western saddles, like a bunch of motley cowboys, smiling in the dazzling Scottish light.


PS. On a slightly different note, the owner of the splendid pigs I met yesterday would like to make it clear that, as well as being very beautiful, they sit on command. I cannot think how I came to overlook this vital information and can only apologise. (It was indeed very, very impressive. I shrieked in delight at the porcine cleverness.)


Today’s pictures:

Love this Posy Posington getting ready for her close-up:

5 Oct 1

Whilst someone else takes the opportunity for a quick forty winks:

5 Oct 2

This is one of my absolute favourites:

5 Oct 3

The saddles, which are a work of art in their own right:

5 Oct 5

The intensely forged relationships:

5 Oct 6

5 Oct 8-001

5 Oct 22

A visiting dog showed off his paces in the arena:

5 Oct 8

I start to think that everybody should really wear a cowboy hat:

5 Oct 7

Grazing horses and view:

5 Oct 10

My own girls:

5 Oct 14

5 Oct 15

Completely out of focus Red’s View. I like it because even though it’s a terrible photograph, technically, I think it looks like a painting:

5 Oct 16

And the hill, also a little blurry:

5 Oct 20

Happy Friday.

And, as always, HorseBack UK link here, if you are interested:


  1. Beautiful! All of it...

    We had a couple of Gloucester Old Spots who'd roll onto their backs to have their tummy tickled, but I'd dearly love to see a pig who sits on command! What a fabulous sight!

    I think, when you've seen the worst humanity has to offer, there's something profoundly healing and reassuring about the uncomplicated honesty animals project. HorseBack UK sounds like an amazing charity.

    1. Rhiarti - how very kind you are. Love the sound of the Gloucester Old Spots. :)


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