Every one of our veterans has a story. Last week, one of them told us his.
When someone suggested he come to HorseBack three years ago, this veteran says, he was deep in the toils of Post-Traumatic Stress, and refusing to accept that brutal fact. He did know, however, that he was prone to sudden rages. He thought of coming to Scotland to spend time with a group of strangers, and he asked himself:’ What am I going to do with Mr Angry?’
It turned out that Mr Angry never pitched up. From the moment he walked through the gates and found himself among people who knew exactly what he was talking about, who had experienced what he had experienced, he felt a weight fall from his shoulders. ‘Here I can relax and be with my own kind. They talk my talk. They understand.’
This veteran’s PTSD manifested as ‘nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety levels off the scale. I kept people at a distance. I did not want to admit what was wrong with me. I was very judgemental. And I was very, very angry.’
It’s fascinating, hearing him say all this as he sits outside in the cool Scottish air. There is no trace of anger or anxiety in him, only a gentle confidence, tempered by that indefinable sense you get from people who have seen things that no human ought to see. There is something in their eyes when they cast them back into the past, like a shadow over the sun.
He says, in a very matter of fact voice, as if he were talking about going to the shop: ‘Between my wife Linda, Combat Stress, and HorseBack, well, you all saved my life.’
When veterans say ‘saved my life’ they are not being metaphorical. They mean it literally. Pretty much all the ones we see will have let their minds rove over the possibility of suicide at some point or another.
And how was it, working with the horses?
‘The only time I’d ever seen a horse it was in a field.’ Small pause. Deadpan look. ‘And it ran away.’
Was he afraid? Many of our veterans do find the thought of a half-ton flight animal quite alarming. We have had six-foot-four Paras who admitted that they were a bit daunted by the thought of a horse. Very occasionally, for a joke, we give those big burly fellas Jack the Shetland to start with. Although, as everyone who has ever worked with horses knows, a Shetland is possibly one of the greatest challenges of all. But that’s another story.
Not afraid, so much, as uncertain. ‘I didn’t know anything about horses. But then you start to work with the horses and you learn how to be around them.’ He thinks, looks at the sky, says something very profound: ‘If you approach a horse right it will inexplicably trust you with its life.’
This is not only true, not only profound, but also tremendously symbolic to anyone who has served. The entire foundation of the services is that when you are in combat, you are trusting those around you with your life. That is part of what builds those unbreakable bonds. That is why men who serve call those who fight alongside them their brothers. (And now, increasingly, there are sisters too.) That knowledge, that you can trust someone with your life and they will trust you with theirs, is one of the things that is lost in the transition to civilian life. It is a quiet loss, but it is a deep one. And now, this veteran finds that kind of mutual trust once more, here in the peaceful Scottish hills. With a horse.
He adds: ‘In the round pen, when you’ve got a horse’s head on your shoulder, even the roughest, toughest soldier gets hay fever.’ He looks at me, a little satirical, to see if I understand what he means. I understand exactly what he means. I’ve seen that head on the shoulder; I’ve seen the hay fever.
He says: ‘The horses don’t judge you. You can relax around them. Then you suddenly realise that you can relax.’ Relaxing, something so ordinary in most human life that it is taken for granted, can feel like a lost luxury to many veterans.
He smiles. ‘Then you go away and you remember what you did here and you know you can apply that to your outside life.’
A lot of people wonder why we use horses. It may not at once seem like an obvious combination – veterans with life-changing injuries, Western-trained horses. But good horsemanship is based on enduring principles which can extend to all areas of life – kindness, consistency, patience, belief. We always hoped that what the veterans learned by working with the horses would cross over into their daily lives. Now here was one saying exactly that,
Listening to his story was revelatory and inspiring. I had intended to write the whole thing in one blog. I would package it up and title it One Veteran’s Story and that would be that. But it’s more than one veteran’s story. It is so interesting and complex that I can’t fit it into a few paragraphs. It looks like this one is a bit of an epic. It will go to instalments, so keep an eye out for part two.
I send my thanks to this veteran, for telling me his story, for trusting me with, if not quite his life, at least his sense of self. If I write this wrong, I do him a grave disservice. And the most important thing, when you are given a great story, is to do the thing justice. These stories are as precious as diamonds, because nobody can express everything that HorseBack is about better than the men and women who come through its gates. This is not theory. This is practice, right there on the ground.