This week sees the end of another dazzling course. We feel that we have been breaking out every positive adjective in the book lately, but each group this year seems to have got better and better. It’s not just that the new three week structure for the courses has enabled our veterans to hone and refine their skills. They have done that, to an astonishing degree. People who have never sat on a horse before, who were even a little afraid of horses, end the courses by loping about, Western style, like gnarled old cowboys. That is amazing enough in itself. And it’s not just that the veterans build up such profound and meaningful relationships with those horses, as they learn to handle them and work them on the ground. It is that over those three staggered weeks, their outlook on life changes.
This is a fairly strong claim. Can that really happen, in three weeks, from a bit of horsing in the Scottish hills? Yes, it can. We see it, time after time. We hear people who came to us in almost a fugue state, say, very simply: ‘This has changed my life.’
We have built up our HorseBack method over several years. Each year it evolves, and improves, and we tweak it and hone it and work on it. It contains many elements, which combine like alchemy to make it effective. The horses are at the heart of it. One veteran with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder said: ‘I know I have to be still inside because that is what the horse needs.’ The horses are kind, authentic, honest creatures, who do not care where you got blown up, or what medal you won. When the veterans work with them, they know that they owe those good horses their best selves. They feel a sense of responsibility, and this makes them raise their game.
There is also the teamwork. Many veterans suffer from a crushing sense of isolation. At HorseBack, they are part of something again, something bigger than themselves. As we watch the disparate group of people cohere into a unit, we see a huge change in them.
They have mentors on the courses who are fellow veterans, who have been through what they have been through, so understand them completely. They don’t have to explain themselves. There is no civilian with a clipboard asking them questions they can’t answer. This, we have found, is an absolutely crucial part of the recovery process.
There is the great outdoors. The beauty of the Scottish landscape plays its part. Almost everybody mentions how much these hills and valleys come to mean to them.
And there is the mission. It’s hard work, at HorseBack. We set our sights high, and expect the best, which is exactly what we get. It’s not a trekking holiday; it’s a steep learning curve. The more we ask of these veterans, the more they give. And when they finish their course, they have a real and enduring sense of achievement.
All these elements combine and cohere to make this programme work. It didn’t just happen by magic. A lot of thought and care went into its crafting. And yet, as we say goodbye to another great group of smiling men and women, we do slightly scratch our heads and wonder quite how it is that it produces such startling results. We are very, very happy that it does.