Helping with horses

A couple of months ago I started volunteering at the stables where I have my riding lessons. The idea to do this came initially from the thought that I don’t know anything about horse-care and it seemed weird that I was learning to ride horses but not how to be around them on the ground (incidentally it’s safer to ride them than be on the ground looking after them – most accidents happen when you’re not mounted). So I wondered how you learnt how to look after horses and I came up with the idea to ask if I could work there as a volunteer at weekends.

No sooner had I formed the idea than I realised how this was a sign of how much I’ve changed in recent years – to have the energy to consider volunteering as well as working a full-time job was a new concept for me and to approach a new working environment by choice is something I would never have done in the past. You might assume that having been riding there for nearly a year I would be fairly at ease in the yard and with the staff, but that would be incorrect – I always used to feel awkward standing in the yard before my lessons because I didn’t know how the yard worked, what I was allowed to do or whether I was in the way. But I was ready for a challenge. I was ready to test my new self and find out how I would cope with working in an environment where I was more ignorant than the 5 year old Pony Club members.

With many warnings that there was no discount on my lessons and no tangible reward for doing the work, the yard manager agreed to permit me to volunteer for 5 hours every Sunday morning. She warned that I would be in at the deep end, that if I couldn’t keep up I’d have to go and that I’d get shown how to do things once and then left to do it.

So since then I’ve learned loads about horse care but also confirmed how far I’ve pushed the boundaries of my comfort zones. I’m having great times in close proximity to horses and ponies and I’ve learned how to handle them confidently but I’ve also been handling humans confidently. Sometimes literally handling them – last week a little girl was the recipient of my first time giving a leg-up onto a pony. (Unfortunately, as she was as inexperienced at receiving a leg-up as I was at providing one, we didn’t manage to get her in the saddle first time and so she was also the recipient of my second attempt, at which point we succeeded in getting her on board. Hurray!) Of course there are not-so-great moments mixed in, such as when I was removing the horse poo from a field and a horse making trouble overturned my wheelbarrow of poo tipping it back onto the field again, but, irritating moments like that excepted, I’m having a really positive experience. And when riding instructor no. 2 left suddenly I wasn’t shaken by it because I’d got to know the other instructors through working on the yard.

So here’s a few things I’ve learned so far:

  • Bad weather makes horses and people grumpy, so assume that everything you do in bad weather will be wrong.
  • The day you don’t wear steel-toe-caps is the day you’ll get a hoof on your toes.
  • Little girls can be acceptable company if you manage to separate one from the herd, but shrill squealing packs of Pony Club kids are best dealt with by hiding behind the largest horse you can find until they’ve gone away.
  • Darker coloured horses are more practical because they don’t show ‘the mud’ (i.e. poo stains) like greys do.
  • Horses have extensive wardrobes, but hot-pink rugs are not flattering to any pony.

Image: Tina Phillips /

On insides and outsides

The difference between the inside and outside of people (including myself) has been occupying my thoughts recently.

I probably look much like I did 12 months ago. Perhaps a few more grey hairs, a few more wrinkles and possibly a little lighter in weight, but otherwise, much the same. Yet in the past year I’ve made a lot of internal changes and feel completely different for them; they just don’t show visually.  On the other hand, a friend changed externally by dying her hair this weekend but, I  imagine, will not feel that different inside afterwards. Unless she lets the dye fumes make her ill again…

I’ve always been bothered by friends drastically changing their appearance because I fear that the external change might be reflected by an internal change. Maybe they won’t want to be my friend anymore? I realise this is an irrational fear – I have never had anyone decide I don’t match their new haircut and ditch me as a friend, but that doesn’t take away the concern. They don’t look quite like the person I know.

I don’t know whether it’s worthy of mention that I am not observant when it comes to subtle visual changes or, in fact, anything about people’s appearances at all. I will not notice if you don’t wear makeup today, if you are fat (unless you’re so obese you need a mobility scooter), if you are moderately tall (I start noticing height at 6’4″) or if you are wearing a new top. I will notice if you are covered in cake crumbs and chocolate smears but that’s because food interests me more than people’s appearances.

As well as our physical appearance our “outsides” encompass the way we project each ourselves to the outside world. Most people wear a filter between themselves and the rest of the world. For some people this is just a thin barrier designed to keep them from telling their boss what they think of them and reminding them not to swear in front of small children. For others it is a full suit of armour, a strict censorship department and a rigid system of behavioural rules for all occasions. Most people have variable filter settings which allow different aspects of their personalities through in different situations. This is different from trying to project a false image of oneself, although most people do that too from time to time, if only to appear more confident in, for example, a job interview.

In the film 28 days the characters talk about trying to make your insides match your outsides. I’m not sure quite what’s meant by it in the film, but this is what it means to me: It’s about not trying to be anything you’re not, but being comfortable being yourself. It’s about not being artificial, not second guessing yourself and not putting a thick, censoring barrier up between your insides and your outsides.

In the film the addicts go to equine therapy and try to pick up a horse’s hoof. They’re told that they won’t be successful at getting the horse to let them pick up the hoof unless their insides match their outsides. During writing this post I’ve considered many of the people I know and was quite interested to see that everyone I’ve met who works with horses does seem to match inside and outside, as far as I can tell, so perhaps horses are good judges of this.

I think as a result of the changes of the last 12 months my outsides may be more like my insides than they used to be. I’ve taken off some armour, revoked some behavioural rules and relaxed the censorship. It’s a shame the internal work doesn’t show in my physical appearance, but I’m sure that it shows in the way that I face the world and the people in it.