It seems obvious now how similar Bruce and I were. Anxiety overruled logic, we both cloaked ourselves in an armour of false bravado and we were both in permanent flight from our demons. Bruce might have four legs, but I was running as fast from cancer as he was from his nemesis. Kirsty’s ‘quiet place’ would prove as mind-quenching for me as it did for him.
How do you find a quiet place? I began by Googling ‘meditation Dorset’ and found a local MBSR course. Mindfulness Based Stress Release is awareness through paying attention, non-judgementally in the present moment, based on the teachings of John Kabat-Zinn, who ‘brought Buddhism to the West’. I’d got frustrated with meditation before and given up, but it’s easier to do something for someone else than for yourself, so I joined the weekly group to discover what a quiet place looked like, and how I could give it to Bruce. It was hard going! I abhorred silence and always considered my razor-sharp reactions a blessing, so why would I want to pause first? Mindfully chewing raisins wasn’t what I’d expected but I’d paid for the course so I listened to the reasoning, and gradually learnt how to unhook and release the tangle of what-ifs in my mind; when you stop paying attention to the voices, they stop chattering. Mindfulness gave me the simplest coping tool, breathing, and over the years mindful breathing has changed my life. Pause Breathe Smile. Yay raisins!
Breathing with Bruce was miraculous. While I groomed him I focused on my breath and spontaneously, great sighs of emotion rose from the pit of my stomach and fell from my mouth like forgotten prisoners fleeing their dungeon. At first, Bruce snorted and cleared his nose, then he yawned. Then he rubbed his nose on his knee, letting out a long out-breath and swishing his tail until it ceased. I thought it was coincidence, but each day I tried to do the same breathing pattern and sometimes he followed suit. Sometimes he just flapped his lips and sometimes he pawed the ground, but he made an action that acknowledged my breathing. (Writing this, I sighed those long out-breaths again without realising!)
With all the vigour of the newly converted, I practised groundwork with Bruce, trying to breathe steadily and stop my mind wandering to a million different locations. Kirsty had me holding the reins as if I was riding, making me aware of how my hands wandered alongside my busy mind. I was also confusing Bruce because I gave no forethought to my directives. Like a garbled phone message, he got snippets of conversation and had to guess the rest. To direct him clearly, I had to set him up not to fail. It sounded straightforward but it meant unlearning everything I knew. Along with Bruce I was also starting again.
After several weeks of practise and teaching sessions, Kirsty suggested Bruce might like to move on. I hadn’t ridden since the Tractor Dash and was determined to look good, but as the old saying warns us, ‘pride goes only as far as one can spit’. I did however learn the biggest lesson, the art of doing less. Kirsty stood by the fence as I walked and trotted Bruce around the paddock, changing direction and awaiting instruction. I hoped she’d tell me what to do, but as she just stood and watched I thought maybe the lesson hadn’t started yet. Then she walked into the centre.
“What are you asking for?” she said, as Bruce and I laboured around the arena in a vaguely defined circle.
“A loose trot,” I gasped between rising and sitting. “With a good bend,” I added, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing.
“And is it working?”
I rode two more laps while I fought the inevitable answer. “No.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because I don’t know what else to do.” The truth in those words stung me to the quick, my ego as flat as Bruce’s footfall.
“Have you tried doing nothing?” Said Kirsty, with the merest hint of smile.
Needless to say, I’d never considered doing nothing.
On our next lesson, Kirsty asked me to rise one beat and sit two at the trot. I understood the action but my body was clumsy. Sauntering round, Bruce seemed happy not doing anything strenuous but his mood suddenly switched, as if he decided he was being ignored and might just as well go home. He sprang into a gazelle leap and galloped towards the gate. I couldn’t see enough space to stop and prepared myself for a fall, but with cadence that would’ve impressed a dressage judge, he halted square from a gallop and stood quietly with his chest against the gate. I wriggled back into the saddle, open-mouthed and speechless.
Kirsty walked unhurried across the field. “Nice halt.” She said.
“Do you think I could get a stronger bit?” I asked her. “He can’t keep tanking-off with me.”
“Doesn’t matter what you put in his mouth you won’t stop him if he wants to go.” She replied.
I felt crestfallen, more at her seeming lack of concern than my predicament.
“But of course,” she continued, “you can always learn to turn him and that’ll stop anything.”
“Turn him?” I replied, puzzled. “He doesn’t turn.”
“Oh, I think he will if you ask in a way he understands. Tom Dorrance, who was the master of enlightened cowboy training had a phrase called double-your-colt. Basically, if you disengage a horse’s hindquarters and ask them to move laterally, they can’t go forward. It’s a way of directing when things start to go shit-shape. Instead of waiting for Bruce to gallop off and try to stop, be ready to turn as he lands from his leap, keep his quarters moving across, and you’ll slow on a circle and stop. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring his head round as soon as you feel the danger signs.”
I looked at Kirsty, she looked at me and we both grinned. “What are we waiting for?” I said. “Let’s get learning!”
Bruce didn’t stop running away, but with Kirsty’s help I began to see things from a different perspective. His running wasn’t an act of disobedience and it wasn’t directed at me personally. He was running because that’s what flight animals do when they’re terrified, and he was terrified; just because I couldn’t see the danger didn’t make it any less frightening. (Years later I discovered that when he was hunting, James galloped him up and down the field, beating him at every turn as a punishment for not standing still. The turn was the trigger, especially in open countryside, and for him it was as real as the days it happened).
I stopped calling Bruce’s escapades bad behaviour and re-named them ‘expressing his opinion,’ and they became a lot less scary. I didn’t know if I could actually alter a situation by approaching it differently, or if I was sidestepping the obvious to avoid misery, but I felt I had a choice. I couldn’t change the situation but I could change the way I looked at it and labelled it, and that was something to being going on with.
Mindfulness helped me clear my head and make room for response, instead of disciplinary reactions towards Bruce. To help him relax I had know what I wanted to do, and I began visualising my request so he received clear instruction. When he got anxious and needed to move his feet it was more sensible to direct him somewhere than try to stop him, and working with my breath meant my hands didn’t grab his sensitive mouth. I also tried to take emotion out of the equation, but that’s still a work in progress. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all panacea, but it helped, and our confidence grew. Kirsty lent me Mark Rashid’s book Life Lessons from a Ranch Horse, and as I read about Mark’s experiences with his horse Buck, thoughts I’d had back in the nineties with Teddy began to re-surface. At the time I’d wanted to make my horse feel better about his life but I didn’t know how. Monty Roberts burst on to the scene in a blaze of join-up glory, along with Parelli instructors in cowboy hats, and I’d watched clinics, read the books and bought the halter, but that new environment was alien. I lacked the courage to travel unfamiliar paths back then, but the seed was sown and now those thoughts were ripening. They might even bear fruit.
In one lesson I rode Bruce bareback; I slid onto his vast, naked back, and as we gradually overcame the trepidation and found our balance it became intensely intimate. Kirsty asked me to focus on my legs being his back legs, and two bodies – one trying to summon intent and stillness, and the other trying to respond and relax – moved as one, like a centaur. At the end of the session Bruce stood still and listened while Kirsty and I chatted, and I loved him even more.
Kirsty always began lessons by asking me what I’d like to do or aim for. Initially, it surprised me because she was the teacher, and I thought she should know what to teach me, but it gave me focus on what I wanted from myself and Bruce. On our next lesson I asked if we could jump.
“What would you like to jump?” She asked.
“I’ve put some branches by the hedge, and there’s some buckets for stands.”
“One jump or a course?”
“Just one will be enough.”
“Okay, you shorten your stirrups and ask for a nice forward trot on a circle, and I’ll set it up.” She quickly arranged a row of poles along one side of our working space, with a small brush jump in the centre. “Trot over the poles a few times from both directions, and remember, not any old trot but the trot you want!”
Bruce pricked his ears as we trotted over the poles, raising his back and lowering his neck. I tried to make my breath slow and steady because I was horribly nervous.
Once she was satisfied we were ready, Kirsty gave instructions. “Next time, come round to the brush after the row of poles, still trotting,” she said. “What’s your plan after you land?”
“Err, I don’t have one.”
“You’d better think of one before you try. We haven’t done this before and we don’t know what he’ll do.”
“I’ll be ready to turn him” I said smugly. “And then we’ll stop.”
Kirsty looked up and smiled. “Good plan.”
I never thought we’d do it but we did, and Bruce carried me like I was precious cargo. It was only a little jump but to me it was like jumping the moon. As we landed, Bruce shot into the air with ears flat back and I sat still and brought him onto a circle because that’s how confident I felt after jumping the moon. The second time was in canter, and he didn’t panic afterwards. Kirsty’s word rang in my ears, “know what you want, set it up and let it happen.” Jumping branches balanced on buckets, in the corner of a sloping field, on a horse who had been written-off meant everything I had wished for this horse came true.
Emboldened by new-found confidence, I entered a local in-hand show. On the morning of the show I got to Sheila’s at the crack of dawn, bathed and polished Bruce until he shone, and plaited his tail to show-off his wonderful backside. He was an Adonis and I was a nervous wreck. Sheila drove us to the show in her battered old trailer, and regaled me with showing stories from her youth. She’d lent me her ‘lucky’ tweed jacket with assurances it had never let her down. It wasn’t the jacket that worried me.
The other entrants in the cob class were all gypsy cobs with flowing manes. Their naturally hairy legs feathered out at the hoof like seventies bell-bottoms, and Bruce was the only maxi-cob, with a traditional hogged mane and clean-shaven legs. His paces were faultless, but he obviously wasn’t the type of cob the judge favoured. As we came out of the ring proudly clutching our 5th place rosette, an elderly countryman stopped us. “Excuse me,” he said with a broad Irish accent, putting a hand out to my arm “I hope you know you were the real winner there.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, slightly confused.
“Yours was the only horse who moved like a cob should move. The horses above him only shuffled. Judge didn’t know what she was doing. She should see more proper cobs. Don’t get many like yours these days, he’s made like they should be. Like they used to be.”
“Oh THANKYOU, how very lovely of you to say that!” I was truly overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t the only one stood here who thought it.”
“Thankyou, you’ve made our day. But the judge was fair, she said he had hock spavins. Mind you after nine years hunting he’s entitled to have arthritis in his joints.”
As the stranger studied the offending pair of hocks, Bruce stood as still and square as he had for the judge, flicking his ears backwards as the man spoke. “They don’t look too bad to me, and they’re far enough from his heart not to cause any trouble. As I said, judge knows nothing about cobs.” He ran his hand softly down Bruce’s neck and looked him in the eye. Bruce held his head by the man’s arm and smelt something familiar that he couldn’t place. Then he flapped his lips.
Bruce and I were on a high, after a fearful first year we were finding our way of working together. I couldn’t say I trusted him, and he certainly didn’t trust me, but we had compromised to find a way to keep moving forward and still breathe. My next goal was riding a walk-and-trot dressage test. But once again, cancer got in the way of plans.