One of the best innovations at HorseBack over the last year has been extending the courses from one week to three. The weeks are staggered, so that, for instance, this group now doing their Phase Two will come back in September for their Phase Three.
This has achieved several things. First of all there is much more time for learning and gaining confidence and bonding with the horses. There is also the growing sense of familiarity: our veterans know the place, know the team, know each other and really cohere as a group.
The initial arrival through the HorseBack gates can be daunting: most of our veterans have never worked a horse before, and they don’t quite know what to expect or how they will cope. This is especially true for those fighting the long fight with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the classic symptoms of PTSD is a fear of new places and new people. The three week structure means that HorseBack comes to feel like home, and all those fears and doubts are left behind.
That new structure is wonderful for us too, because we see the veterans progress in leaps and bounds. There is a glorious upward arc of achievement. They have time to hone their new skills and space to blossom and bloom like flowers in springtime. (It’s not often that hardened servicemen and women get compared to spring flowers, but there truly is a lot of blossoming going on.)
Because of the extra time, our course participants get stitched in to the HorseBack family, and many of them will come back to volunteer as mentors and ambassadors for the charity. This is a vital part of the recover process: everyone who takes this path says that they get a vast satisfaction in helping others as they have been helped. It is what we think of as the HorseBack virtuous circle.
One of the greatest gifts you can give a horse is the gift of time. Time and patience lie at the heart of the way we train our herd. The gift of time is equally precious to humans. A single week was never long enough. Although the veterans on the old courses achieved an astonishing amount in a very short time, those days flew past too quickly and they were apt to find re-entry into their daily lives a bit of a shock after being with the horses in these magical Deeside hills. Now they know that they have their next phase to look forward to, and that makes a huge psychological difference.
There was a lot of laughter on the course this week. That is one of the signature sounds of HorseBack: great belly laughs flying into the bright Scottish air. Many of our veterans have not had much to laugh about in the last few months and years. All of them face mental and physical challenges which can wear at the spirit and bruise the heart. When we hear the sound of that laughter, we know that our job is done.