Since I started volunteering for HorseBack UK, I have encountered people whose stories would only have ever been a distant newspaper headline to me. A new world has been revealed. In some ways it is a dark one, but it is also filled with inspiration and rays of light.
I hear conversations I never thought I would hear. Just this morning, a gentleman said, as matter of fact as if he were talking about going to the shop to get the paper: ‘Bob was blown up in Afghanistan, and Pete was blown up in Ireland, and I was blown up in Iraq.’ A few months ago, I would have had absolutely nothing to say to statement like that. My brain would have yelled: Does Not Compute. Now, I make a joke. That’s what they all do, the serving men and women, and the vets; military humour is dark as pitch. I don’t shuffle my feet and get crushed with a very British sense of embarrassment and try to change the subject. I say, with heavy irony: ‘Well, that’s nice.’
I have learnt to put away my pity face. Pity is a distancing device; it is a good and true human emotion, but it makes people other. No one here wants pity. They have no use for it. They want, I think, ordinary humanity. They want to be able to look you in the eye and tell their stories and be heard. I’m learning to do this, and it’s a damn good lesson.
This week, the HorseBack course is for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a complex condition which can strike at any time. I met a paratrooper yesterday who told me that his came out of the blue, thirteen years after his service in the Falklands and Northern Ireland. It can have many symptoms: agoraphobia, depression, insomnia, intense rage, nightmares, flashbacks. One veteran said, as he looked up at the blue Scottish sky: ‘There is blackness, inside and outside.’
In some miraculous, almost inexplicable way, the work they do with the horses seems to open and calm these troubled minds. No one can really categorise how it works, but it does. I see men arrive with tight, uncertain faces, and by the second day they are standing tall and laughing and smiling. What HorseBack does is not a cure, but it gives a sense of hope and possibility. The veterans bond amazingly with the animals, who really don’t care where it was that you were blown up, but how you are in that moment. (I sometimes think horses are like little Zen professors, like that.)
It is difficult, to see close-up what war can do to human beings. At the same time, it is an odd privilege, to hear these stories, and to see the changes which can be wrought. There is a lot of damage, physical and mental, but there is great resolve, a determination not to dwell on past scars but to look for future possibilities. ‘Be kind,’ said the Reverend John Watson, in the 19th century, ‘for everyone is fighting a hard battle.’ I think: some battles are harder than others, but there is a lovely optimism which infects everything at HorseBack, the idea that those battles can be won.