My work at HorseBack is almost always done in a hurry. I dash up, canter about taking pictures, make some bad jokes, shout with laughter, wave and grin at everyone, yell ‘GOOD WORK’ a lot, give my favourite horses a good rub on the neck, make some more bad jokes, and gallop away again, in a rush to get back to my desk and knuckle down to my day job.
Today, there was such a great group, and some very welcome visitors, and people I really wanted to talk to, so I thought bugger it, the day job can wait. As I was chatting to one veteran, and admiring Red, my favourite HorseBack mare, I suddenly found one of the great stories being told.
I learnt, early on, to keep very, very still when I am privileged with this kind of information. I’ve heard stories which were so extreme that I could not write them. I’ve been taken to the limits of human endurance, and, sometimes, when the sights and sounds and horrors are unrolled before me, I have a visceral reaction, as if all the atoms in my body are so outraged that they must rearrange themselves. It’s like a kind of existential pins and needles.
I stand back, taking the pressure off, just as I would with a horse, listen hard, and keep my face utterly straight. I do not exclaim or interrupt. I do not let my eyebrows shoot up into my hairline or allow my mouth to fall open. Most importantly of all, I do not do the pity face. These men and women do not want pity. I’m not even sure they want empathy. I think, although nobody has said this in so many words, that they need a witness. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to be chosen as that witness.
In conversation, these veterans are, variously: courageous, wise, angry, philosophical, fatalistic, stoical, and wounded. They are always funny, with the gallows humour that runs through the forces like a black seam of obsidian. They are searingly honest, utterly straightforward, and almost painfully authentic. Many of them have seen things which no human eye should have to see.
Today’s story started off bad, got worse, grew ridiculously awful, and went back to bad.
I stood still and listened. I employed a bit of heavy irony. (Irony is much, much better than sympathy.) I asked a couple of questions. I am very sparing with my questions, as I don’t want to be intrusive. I did not cry, although that would have been a correct reaction. I did what they do. I laughed. I hoped there was human companionship in that laugh.
Then, the gentleman smiled, and looked at his horse. The mare was dozing gently behind him, her head by his shoulder. She knows nothing of Afghan or Iraq or Bosnia, where he had been. She knows nothing of the roaring torrents of post-traumatic stress, or what too much hot war does to the human brain. She knows only this man in front of her, as he is in that moment. She likes him. They have forged a fast and deep bond. This does not always happen, but, in an amazing number of cases, it does.
The veteran gentled her and tenderly pulled her forelock. She blinked at him, at peace in her world. The little atoms in my body moved and shifted. ‘She does not judge me,’ said the veteran.
Some people don’t get it about horses. They regard with bemusement my love and admiration for the gentle, brave, beautiful creatures. Perhaps they ask themselves why anyone should be filled with admiration for a half-ton flight animal. I can talk until my ears fall off about honesty, and courage, and generosity, and heart, and it may mean nothing.
This, this is why. That moment: that wounded human, that fine mare.
‘We are a partnership,’ said the veteran. Yes, they are.
My own fine partner:
I did say one thing, as I was listening to that story. When the gentleman got to the part about the horse, and how she made him feel, I burst out, because I could not help myself: ‘They do bring out your best self. They require your best self.’ He nodded, as if this was perfectly obvious. I have too many flaws to count, but when I am with my red mare I hear the wings of my better angels flapping.