After my good news collapse, it was salutary to go back to my voluntary work today. Working at HorseBack reminds me of many important things, mostly my own luck, as well as the capacity of the human spirit to rise above almost unimaginable lacerations and set-backs and troubles and wounds.
Today, they were working in a new partnership with the Venture Trust. Usually at HorseBack, I see veterans and servicemen and women, as that is their main focus. But the effect of the horses is so great that they have started branching out – in the last season, they have worked with young teenagers who are having trouble at school, and women who, coming from a background of often terrible abuse, have ended up in trouble with the law. The Venture Trust, which is a dazzling organisation, is devoted to giving second chances to people who have got lost in the criminal justice system, who have been labelled and written off. This week, they have brought a group to HorseBack.
I am always in a rush at the moment, because I am insanely attempting to write two books at once. As the agent line-edits one so that she can send it back for a final polish, I turn back to the other, which is at the third draft stage. One is fiction and one is non-fiction, so I have to stay sharp, and keep my brain versatile, so it can turn on a sixpence like a London cab. My professional life was dealt a blow a while ago, so these are effectively comeback books, and the odds are high. This is why I get stretched and panicked, and am always cantering about like a befuddled brumby.
I was going to do my usual dash, snap, chat, and depart. But the women were so magnetic, and the people who work with Venture were so fascinating, and the morning session was so transformative, even in the short hour I watched, that I forgot to be in a hurry. This was time well spent.
The kind of abuse in the people that Venture helps is sustained, inescapable and profound. Its victims are in a prison cell before the actual jail door slams. For many of them, the only analgesic that works is a fatal combination of drink and drugs. They lose any sense of agency. Venture takes them and shows them that they do have choices and they do have selves, underneath the layers of cruelty and judgement that has been heaped upon them.
They were so nice and smiling and brave. They admitted that they did not know horses and were pretty terrified of them. But they followed the good steps of the HorseBack method, squared their shoulders and made themselves the kind, reliable leaders that the equines need, took heart at the response of the gentle animals, and triumphed. One woman, who said her stomach was in knots of fear, did a hooking on exercise in the round pen, and managed to get her half-ton flight animal going round nicely on her cue, changing direction, turning in to her, following her steps, all at liberty. It was a perfect display, and the look of elation and amazement on her face was beyond price. I whooped and hollered, unable to help myself. It was such an achievement. I felt like crying.
I’ve faced a bit of adversity in my life, but nothing above the average. I have the usual middle-aged scars of death, divorce, loss, rejection and heartbreak. I’ve had failures and humiliations. But, unlike these people I saw today at HorseBack, I’ve never had to deal with sustained cruelty or unending despair, or that kind of awful invisibility suffered by those who are not considered by society to be a conventional success. Unlike the men and women who have served, I have never had to face hand to hand combat, or lurking IEDs, or a hidden enemy filled with fanatical hatred. I have never had to watch my best friend die.
Volunteering for a charity sounds like the kind of nice, cosy, middle-class thing that women of my age do. You get to the stage where you are conscious of putting something back, of needing a bit more meaning, and so off you go. It’s very expected and very ordinary. I did not really anticipate, when I embarked on it, that I would see people and hear stories that are so out of the ordinary that they make my very brain feel as if it is reconfiguring itself, as if the neural pathways are mapping new, unknown routes. My eyes have been opened to experiences and pain and courage I did not know existed.
I bang on all the time about my sweet red mare, and how she has changed my life and given me hope and solace, and how, when I am with her, the sea of troubles is swept away, and there is only goodness and calm. She loped today, a real Western lope, on a loose rein, out in the open grassy spaces, so relaxed and collected within herself that I fell on her neck with love and gratitude. She’s always held a tension in her canter, and today it was gone, and we damn well were The Green Grass of Wyoming. I imagine that when I recount these red mare stories, some readers might think there is an aspect of hyperbole, that sometimes I am getting over-excited and imagining something that is not there, and perhaps I am. But three miles west, along the wide blue valley, under the gentle gaze of these eternal hills, there really are horses who really are changing lives. And I get to see that. That is a gift more precious than rubies.
One of the brave women, after her triumphant turn in the round pen:
My own little life-changer, having an extra-special treat after her glorious performance this morning:
She really was very pleased with herself, and she’s got a bit of a look on her face as if to say: yes, I really do deserve this. And so she does.