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A different kind of spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 March 2014
My obsession with spring continues, as the season shifts and a galvanic feeling of possibility seizes me. At the moment, this has moved from the mere fact of daffodils and oystercatchers to the human world.

The charity I volunteer for, HorseBack UK, is dependent on the weather. It runs courses for veterans and servicemen and women who have suffered life-changing injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, using horses as part of the recovery process. In the hard Scottish winter, the course work stops, and the herd goes out for its winter break, and the time is used for planning and organising and building new partnerships. There is a lot of activity, but much of it happens inside, in the office.

Now, as spring springs, the main work of the organisation gets back into its stride. The herd has come down from its winter hillside, and the horses are reschooled for the serious months to come. This week, there is a gathering of veterans who have come to learn to assist newcomers on the courses. This is a central part of the HorseBack ethos. Once someone has come on a course, they then become part of the rolling voluntary programme, and return to help their comrades in turn. Many of our veterans may never again have regular employment, due to severe mental and physical challenges. This work restores to them a sense of mission and purpose. It is very powerful and very moving to watch.

The returning veterans.The returning veterans.

The lovely thing for me is seeing the good work go on, and also greeting many familiar faces. It’s been a revelation, over the last eighteen months, meeting people who have seen and experienced extremes that I can hardly imagine. I now make jokes about being blown up by IEDs. (Service humour is famously dark.) I no longer feel embarrassed and distanced by my own feeble civilian existence, and the gap between my soft life and their incredibly hard one. Spending time with veterans is a privilege and an education, and it has widened my horizons in a way I can hardly put into words.

Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.

Quite apart from that, it is a simple human pleasure. They are so funny and so stoical and so interesting. They josh and tease and make those jokes which I once found shocking and now take in my stride. At the beginning, my admiration for them made me shy. They had shown courage and fortitude which I would never know. They were a class apart. But now, I am part of the gang. I may never know what hand to hand combat is like, but they graciously allow me to enter the group. I do not have to loiter on the sidelines, fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.

It’s interesting, working for a charity. I did it out of a rather clichéd, mid-life guilt. I wanted, in the hoary old way, to put something back. If you tell people that is what you do, it does sound awfully pious and worthy. But in fact, I get far more out of it than I can ever put back. You could say it is one of the most selfish things I do. Most of all, and perhaps most unexpectedly, it is tremendous fun. I get to see people who should, by any standards, be broken, coming back to life under the blue gaze of the Scottish hills. I get to watch beautifully trained Quarter Horses at work. I get to feel part of something bigger than myself, which is a profound human need. Mostly, I get to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Between perception and reality.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
On Monday, the Minister for Government Policy came to visit HorseBack UK, the charity for which I work. The whole thing was a great success. As the shouting about Scottish independence grew more raucous, here, in this quiet blue stretch of Deeside, under the benign gaze of the hills, a politician was doing something practical, on the ground.

It was a fascinating reminder of the perception gap. There is the famous old saw that when the public is asked about politicians as a class or government as a whole, it grinds its teeth and tears its hair and rends its shirts, despairing of the whole shower. The very idea of the Whitehall bubble makes people want to throw heavy objects. When they are asked about their own constituency MP, they are often full of praise. She actually got the council to do something about the potholes; he sorted out my benefits muddle. The approval difference in percentage terms, between the individual and the generality, is consistently wide.

With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.

The Minister, Oliver Letwin, was absolutely charming. He was quick, intelligent and polite. He got the point at once. He asked all the right questions. He was self-deprecating, making jokes at his own expense. It is not only politicians who have a bad reputation; the civil service is not much better. But his civil servant was delightful too: thoughtful, courteous, and clearly blindingly clever. For one morning, it was just two human beings, who happened to stalk the corridors of power, with a bunch of other human beings and some lovely equines, in the Scottish mud. Everyone stomped about in gumboots and looked hopefully at the sky, where the sun was struggling through the clouds.

Those men, I thought, will have to drive away and go back to the battlefield, where they must wrangle with impossible policy decisions and take flak from the papers and the opposition and every single keyboard warrior who has an opinion, which seems to be pretty much everyone, just now.

In the good old Scottish mud.In the good old Scottish mud.

Of course politicians have to take it. It is right that they do. Their decisions affect actual people in the actual world. They sometimes get it catastrophically wrong, and must be held to account. But I sometimes wonder whether the blanket condemnation and the endless tribalism help anything. The kneejerk negativity may not have much utility, and I am all about utility. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it was oddly pleasurable to see someone step off the public stage, out of the general herd, and just be a person. It might sound an odd thing to say, but I think it is often forgotten that politicians are people too. They have families and friends, hopes and dreams, griefs and joys. I admit it might help if they answered the question and did not speak jargon or hide behind weasel words, as some of them do. But they are as real as you and I are.

Lost in the dreich.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
I have now entirely given up my tragical attempts not to complain about the weather. Last week, I heard something I thought madly wise. ‘Experience the rain,’ said a clever man; ‘don’t wish it away’. Ah yes, said my inner hippy, who only wishes to be at one with the universe. That’s the ticket.

This blissed-out, Zennish acceptance of the weather lasted about 36 hours. Then the sloppy sleet started. With gales.

The thing about weather is that it is fine if you only have to go to the shop in it. In that case, the old saw about no such thing as wrong weather, only wrong clothes holds true. The trouble comes when you have to stay out in it for extended periods. Because of my work at HorseBack UK and looking after my own horse, I am outside for about three hours a day. This is nothing compared to the doughty farmers, but it is time enough for the right clothes to become laughable. The wet and the cold insinuate themselves, no matter how carefully one does layering. And I am quite proud of my layering. The chill gets into the bones and will not leave. My coat never entirely dries out, even though I leave it on top of the radiator. (Please don’t tell me to get an Aga, or I shall lose the will to live.)

Tania KindersleyThe determined red mare, wading into the shallows and striking out towards the deep water.

The other trouble is that it is relentless. It’s not a matter of a couple of days of storm and then a new front blowing in. Every day, the sky is the colour of despair. Every morning, my beloved hills are obscured in a dour, beige murk. Because of the horses, I have to check the weather forecast about five times a day. (Weather means discrete actions, in this house, mostly to do with rugging decisions.) Usually, this checking is just a matter of form. Now, it is like reading a Russian novel. It is an old-fashioned forecast, with little suns and fluffy clouds and a short description. For the next seven days it says: light rain, light sleet, heavy rain, snow, light rain, sleet, cloud. The heavy rain symbol is the most threatening: a black cloud with three fat blue drops falling from it.

And then, this morning, I go down to the paddocks to find a loch where my lovely fields once were. The water is so deep and comprehensive that it has a life of its own. It has a current, for heaven’s sake. It is actually flowing to the west, as if it wants to get to the Atlantic ocean.

I stand for a while, nonplussed. The horses watch me patiently. They have found a small piece of high ground, and are waiting there for me to tell them what to do. The friend whose Paint filly lives with my red mare arrives. She has got the whole right clothes thing to a high art. She is wearing a sort of cross between chaps and waders, lined with sheepskin. I regard them with envy.

There is nothing for it. We set off into the water. We are foiled twice, in places where it gets too deep for humans to navigate. We finally find a channel where it only comes to the knees, and wade on. The water is over the tops of my boots and I feel the gloomy squelch as my feet are drenched. We reach a stretch of field which is not under water, by the western boundary, and set up a relay system to get hay and food there. We have let the horses out into the set-aside, and they gaze at us from across the water. Just as we are discussing how we can lead them across, my brave mare makes her own decision. She puts her head down and strikes out into the deep flood, leading her little Paint friend behind her. She’s coming to me, and some absurd water is not going to stop her.

Tania KindersleyPart of the loch that now exists where our fields should be
When she arrives, I congratulate her as if she had won the Oaks. I’m not sure I was ever so proud of a horse. ‘You have the frontier spirit,’ I tell her. ‘You are the kind of horse who would have led the wagon trains to settle the west.’ This is what the weather does to my brain.

‘Well,’ says my friend, looking out over the drowned land. ‘We are lucky. This could be our houses.’

We pause and contemplate the horror of a flooded home. People in the West Country have been going through that; they must be drawing on a stoicism beyond the call of duty. My friend is right. We are lucky. We could be in Australia, where forty-three degrees of heat is baking the country. Huge swathes of America have been entirely frozen by the terrifying polar surge. It could be so much worse.

I think of the look on my thoroughbred’s face as she stalked through water that came over her hocks. It was a dauntless look. As always, I take my example from her. We are British, after all. We shall keep bailing.

A difficult subject

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 07 August 2013
I’ve written here before about the work I do at HorseBack UK. It is an organisation which takes wounded veterans, puts them together with American Quarter Horses in the wide Scottish hills, and builds confidence and hope for a meaningful future. It’s very difficult coming out of the institutional nature of the services into civilian life at the best of times; if there are legs missing, or Post-Traumatic Stress so acute that sleep is a fleeting luxury, it is even harder. HorseBack addresses some of those difficulties.

I’ve been volunteering for them for about eight months. I am used to things which once disconcerted me. I’ve never been good at disability; I even dislike the word, although I cannot think of a better one. I had all that very British embarrassment when faced with a person with bits missing. I always felt as if I were in a Bateman cartoon, constantly on the verge of making a shattering gaffe. It’s a don’t mention the war scenario. Now, I am quite accustomed to talking to men with no legs. I know not to do the pity face; I no longer have the acute uncertainty of where to look.

But occasionally, even though I have grown used to the rhythms of military jargon, the sensibilities of those who have served (the blackest of black humour is a trademark), I get brought up short. This morning I spoke to a gentleman who said, quite matter of factly, as if he were remarking on the weather: ‘I was blown up three times.’ It’s not just that; I work every day with a Royal Marine who was blown up twice in Afghanistan. It’s that the being blown up three times was the least bad thing that had happened.

Not all of the veterans can tell you their story. Some of them still cannot give it words. It’s too hard. Some of them will, though. This particular story was so relentless, so filled with horror, that I did have to remind myself to keep my face still. They don’t want a big reaction. They don’t want open mouths and frowns of shock and wide eyes of outrage. As I hear things which make my very brain stretch and snap in incomprehension, I breathe slowly and stand still, and let the thing unfold. I think, and I am guessing now, that what some of them need is just to be heard, to have a witness.

I use my imagination for a living; it is the muscle I work every day. It’s in pretty good shape. What I am hearing is so far beyond my imagining that it makes my puny neuronal paths look like amateur hour. I keep my voice low and ironic and matter of fact. I nod and let the story come. ‘Sometimes,’ says the gentleman, ‘it is easier to talk to a stranger.’ At least I understand that. I want to say I am sorry, but that is beyond inadequate. I want to say I feel privileged that he chose to tell me all this, but that would sound girlish and stupid.

‘Everyone has a story,’ he says, at last. ‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘But you sort of win the story Olympics.’ I pause. I say, with another dose of low irony: ‘It’s not a very pretty prize.’

The blue Scottish hills

As he tells me all this, we are standing in peaceful woodland, with the blue Scottish hills stretching away to the horizon. Every day, I go out under the benign gaze of these mountains, surrounded by quiet and beauty and the gentle sounds of nature. This morning, as I rode my mare, a buzzard was circling, letting out its mournful cry. The swifts and swallows flew low over the paddock, letting out their own sweet song. Crickets jumped in the grass, the dog found a thrilling stick, the horse let out a low, contented whicker. My daily life is about as far from the dust of Helmand as it can get.

I don’t quite know what to do with this sort of story. But I wanted to record that it was told. The war is not on the front pages any more. There are other more urgent headlines. But the fighting is still going on, its effect is still rippling out, the lives which have been changed by combat are still being put back together. There is that haunting line in the Ode of Remembrance which goes: at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. I think it is important to remember.

A week of festivals

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 31 July 2013
It is festival week in this house. There is the wonderful unfolding of Glorious Goodwood, the most scintillating gathering of top thoroughbred horseflesh since the Royal Meeting at Ascot. Each evening, the storied Galway Festival carrries on its joyful way, a giddy mixture of jumps, hurdles and flat, over one of the most eccentric racecourses found anywhere in Britain and Ireland. Up hill and down dale they go, with only the most balanced horses able to keep their galloping stride. The ongoing festival of the Ashes is about to get into gear again, and even in my own little village there is a party mood, as the green begins to prepare for our annual highland games.

Having a full highland games at the end of the drive is one of the most delightful privileges of living in this place. I can walk down with Stanley the Dog and find the quiet grassy space transformed into a wild medly of pipers, caber-tossers, hill-runners and Scottish dancers. All the clans gather, with their tents, and their quiet, unspoken rivalries: the Gordons eye the Frasers, the Hays stare beadily at the Farquharsons. (The ancient clashes and sackings and castle-burnings are not forgotten, despite the fact that everyone is very polite and smiling on the surface.)

The greatest moments are the two tours of the arena by the local massed pipe bands; when they march past you, you can feel your heart banging in time to the drums. I never thought I would find myself entranced by a hard-stepping phalanx of pipers and drummers, but each year I look forward to it as if it were Christmas morning.

In the middle of all this, I try to do serious work, and keep up with the voluntary job I do for HorseBack UK, just up the road. But even there the festival mood persists, as the dear old Scottish sun shines down and the new foal, almost three weeks old, is so inspired by the thought of Goodwood that she shows off her newly-discovered galloping skills, hurtling round her clover field as if she were practising for the Sussex Stakes.

I wish I could take the whole week off, deck myself in bunting, and become a one-woman festival myself. But I must sharpen my wits and concentrate and stick to my word count. It is quite hard, as the blue skies shimmer invitingly outside, and the best horses in the kingdom roar over the emerald turf in their jewel colours, and, just occasionally, I can hear the faint, distant sound of a lone piper, practising.

In praise of small things

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 29 May 2013
It was a day of very, very small things. I love the small things. I am in severe danger of becoming a small thing bore. People will start avoiding me at parties, on account of my banging on and on about how it is the things which are almost invisible to the naked eye which really matter.

I’m not quite sure where all this came from. I can’t work out if it is a natural function of middle age, or whether I was always a secret hippy and it’s just that I don’t have the energy to hide it any more. My small things are all in the love and peace category, so that I feel like one of those people in tie-dyed t-shirts from 1968. They often revolve around trees, and sometimes hills. Sod the books, I think; as long as I have planted enough trees, I shall be able to go gentle into that good night.

Today, among the things that lifted my heart, were the antic cries of the oyster catchers. They have been very subdued this spring, as the weather continued frigid and unfriendly, and the snow gates slammed shut on the high roads, despite it being May. Usually they sing and cry like drunken sailors, all night long, but this year they have taken a vow of omerta. This morning, suddenly, as if someone gave them a secret cue, they broke into rowdy song.

The HorseBack swallowThe HorseBack swallow

Up at HorseBack UK, where I went for my daily visit, a pair of swallows was dancing in the corral. They swooped and flirted and soared, making their own little swallow cries, so delicate and tuneful compared to that of their heftier cousins. I watched them for a while, and then lifted my eyes to the hills, where the entire herd was grazing gently at the good spring grass, which is finally coming through. There is something about watching a herd of horses at rest which soothes the spirits like nothing else. If I did not have a manuscript to write, I would stand and watch them all day long.

Back at home, the old farmer went out to bottle-feed one of his lambs in the south meadow. He makes a special cry as he approaches them, which sound like ‘yup yup yup’. Lambs normally run like crazy things from moving humans. But they know and love this human, and the chosen one skipped happily towards him and took the bottle. Even at a distance, I could see the tenderness and care in the simple act, and I smiled like a loon.

The Amazing Jumping GirlThe Amazing Jumping Girl

I wrote my daily number of words and then went down to ride my mare. Every single thing she does makes my heart expand, from the merest wibble of her lower lip to the faintest flutter of her aristocratic eyelashes. Today, though, we actually jumped a jump, which was fairly headline-making, in my own private newspaper. She raced on the flat and then played polo; almost certainly she has never leapt over an obstacle in her life. Admittedly, the jump was about eight inches high, and cobbled together from old trees, but still. ‘Ha,’ said the remarkable trainer who comes and helps me, ‘it’s the Grand National.’

Out in the world, the news is bad and frightening and very very big. There are stories of hatreds and massacres almost too huge for the puny human brain to take in. But here, in my own minuscule world, the small things stacked up like existential dominoes and gave me solace and joy. I don’t know quite how this works or even if it should work, but that is how it is with me now. The smaller the thing, the more profound the pleasure.

Another world

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 20 May 2013
I am a day late with this post, ostensibly because I have taken on more projects that I can chew, and my time management is shockingly inadequate. I gallop around like a distracted pony, with To Do Lists tumbling in my head. But it is not just to do with lost time. It’s also that the thing I want to write about is a hard thing, and I’m not quite sure I have the good words for it. It’s a difficult subject, and I’m not even sure it is quite an appropriate one for these gentle pages. Yet it is the thing that fills my head at the moment, and I can’t really fall back on sheep and blossom and the return of the swallows.
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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.’
Tania-01-382
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.

In which the law of unintended consequences comes into play

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 01 May 2013
Doing voluntary work is really interesting. There is a fascinating disconnection between what it sounds like, and what it really is. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, and, now I am deep in it, I raise my head and sniff the wind and discover all the unexpected elements that I would never have foreseen. Horseback UK
Volunteering does not sound thrilling or sexy. It is a low-profile occupation, with no red carpets or front-page headlines or glitzy razzmatazz. For some reason, I remember the words of Thoreau: beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Voluntary work in my case certainly does not require new clothes, only some sturdy, muddy boots and fingers to type.

I think I may have associated it with kind old ladies who ran Oxfam shops or held jumble sales for a fine cause. It can also have a faintly pious, holier-than-thou aspect to it: look at me, with my Good Works, whilst you lesser mortals indulge your voluptuous pursuits. It may carry an older whiff of the churchy, the preachy, the stiff dictates of the chapel.

In fact, I discover, it is none of those things. For a start, I get far more out of it than I put in. I get the priceless feeling of looking in the glass each morning and knowing that I have done one small useful thing in the world. As I roar into middle age, I find that daily knowledge is beyond rubies.

It is also really good fun. I laugh a lot; I meet fascinating people; I have unexpected conversations. The charity for which I work, HorseBack UK, helps those who have been wounded in the service of their country. I knew hardly anything of military life before this. Now a curtain has been raised for me on a whole world of which I was almost entirely ignorant. (For a writer, this too is beyond price.)

The other thing is that there is no time to feel good or holy, because the overwhelming sense is of frenzied activity. I have to learn to fit my paid and unpaid jobs into the hours of one day. I have to develop new muscle memory: that of efficient use of time. This is entirely new and stretches me to the limit. There is no moment to pause in any kind of horrid self-congratulation.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the law of unintended consequences is that it serves as a most potent antidote to vanity. All writers are a little vain, and there is nothing particularly wrong in that. It is one of the fuels which keeps the engine of ambition firing. On the other hand, too much ego, excusable and even faintly charming in the very young, is rather revolting in the lady of a certain age. This work drowns ego in one cold bucket of water.

It’s partly because all the writing I do for HorseBack is not under my own name. If I do manage to turn a finely honed sentence, I will get no public credit for it. The reward is not critical praise, but the private knowledge that something useful has been achieved. In the case of grant applications, my words may translate into actual, countable cash.

There is also the acute consciousness that none of this is about me; I am subsumed into an organisation which is much, much bigger and more important than I. I find this a chastening and refreshing corrective.

It also helps marvellously with first-world guilt, an idiot condition from which I have suffered from a young age. I used to assuage it with direct debits and purchases of the Big Issue. Now I can put this slightly neurotic tendency to some pointful use.

The funny thing is that all this came about through the merest shimmer of chance. It was not part of my life plan. Through whim, circumstance and the mere fact of geography, this thing arrived, almost gift-wrapped, at my feet, and I feel profoundly lucky. Fortune spun her wheel, and came up smiling.

Looking for spring

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Usually, by this stage, there are wild signs of the Scottish spring. The earth stirs from its dormant slumber and all the portents are of life and growth. This year, everything is still cold and dark. The oyster-catchers have come in from the coast, for their annual visit. This is usually a moment of hat in the air celebration, as I hear them singing like drunken sailors all night, but even they are subdued at the moment. They wander dolefully about by the burn, looking at each other in bafflement, as if to say: Where is the joyful April sun? The other birds, who would normally be singing their heads off, are silent.

I pick my way through the muddy paddock, trashed after the hard winter, looking for tiny green shoots of grass. The horses, still on hay, dream of verdant pasture. The daffodils resolutely refuse to come out and the snowdrops, which are flowering, lower their heads apologetically. I stare very hard at the garden, looking for signs of hope. The geraniums are poking their green leaves up from the black soil and the cheering hellebores are blooming, but everything else is still shut up for the duration.

Looking on the bright side: the great advantage of there being no grass yet is that there is at least some delightful mud in which to have a really good roll.Looking on the bright side: the great advantage of there being no grass yet is that there is at least some delightful mud in which to have a really good roll.

Spring is having to be internally generated this year. There is no actual blossom, so there can only be the metaphorical kind. I start a new project, dream of the tree-planting programme which is growing in my head, and plot for the summer riding with my mare. I go up to HorseBack UK, where a group of Personnel Recovery Officers are visiting, to see the work at first hand. They shrug off the Scottish dreich, caring not a jot for the rain and high winds. They are so excited and delighted by what they have seen that a bit of weather cannot dampen their spirits. This kind of rampant positivity is contagious, and I come away heartened.

Our one moment of blue sky, with the last of the snow finally coming off the mountain.Our one moment of blue sky, with the last of the snow finally coming off the mountain.

The sun will return eventually. The birds will sing and the flowers will flower and the grass will grow. The heavy winter rugs will finally come off the horses’ backs and they can kick up their heels. In the meantime, I have my sturdy boots and my most excellent rainy day hat. There is no such thing as wrong weather, only wrong clothes.

Admittedly, the sun did come out on Monday. As if embarrassed by its own exuberance, it ran away again pretty quickly, and crazed western winds blew in to threaten the Wellingtonias. But at least it reminded us what it is capable of. There is blue sky in there somewhere, behind the dour clouds. In the meantime, I’m going to generate internal sunshine by having a little bet the lovely Hunt Ball in the 3.55 at Cheltenham. Spring springs for all of us in its own way.

The Western Way

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 10 April 2013
One of the things I like most about the work I do for HorseBack UK is that I get to meet a dazzling variety of people. One day, I may find myself talking to someone who served in the dangerous streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; on another, I may discuss all aspects of the art of farriery. Today, I met a remarkable woman who is a Western riding champion.

Western is not a discipline I know anything about. I was brought up with racehorses and show ponies. Western was something I saw in old films with John Wayne in them. It was as distant from the wide downs of the Lambourn Valley as science fiction.

They use Western riding at HorseBack for many reasons. One is that, for a beginner, or someone with serious physical challenges such as prosthetic legs, the saddles are amazingly comfortable and easy. They are big, raised fore and aft, so that they cradle the body, giving a wonderful feeling of safety. On a very basic level, it’s much easier for someone with no knowledge to get on and go.

HorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western styleHorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western style

This can give the impression that Western is somehow cheating, the mimsy province of the phoney cowpoke wannabe and the rank amateur. According to my riding champion, other disciplines like dressage can be very snooty indeed about the Western way. It’s not considered proper.

Proper be damned. I grew up with a bit of dressage and eventing, and know all about those. But my new exposure to Western has shown me that it is as delicate and nuanced as anything the English have produced. It may have its roots in ranching instead of the military, but there is nothing inferior in that.

The other thing that is enchanting about it is how relaxed and sensitive to guidance the horses are. They respond to the merest shift of the body, and move along gracefully on a loose rein. It is instructive that instead of talking of the canter, Western riders speak of the lope.

The Western saddle, in all its gloryThe Western saddle, in all its glory

I love the idea of loping. It opens whole new horizons of delight for me. I am seriously considering re-training my thoroughbred mare in the discipline. I think: how glorious it would be for her, after her years of racing and polo. We can become cowgirls together, and ride the trails of Scotland as if we were in the green grass of Wyoming.

In which HorseBack UK has an important visitor

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Yesterday, I met the Secretary of State for Scotland. I must admit, I was really thrilled.

It’s a most gauche and unfashionable reaction, but I’ve always held the idea that most politicians are pretty decent, at heart. Of course there are some knaves and fools; of course there are some who cause one to throw heavy objects every time you hear the maddening voice on the Today programme, not answering the question, or talking in robotic soundbites. But there are knaves and fools in every profession; it’s just that one usually does not see them on the Ten O’Clock news.

I genuinely think that most people who go into politics do it because they have a desire to do something of use. Everyone bleats about too much Oxbridge, but a lot of the parliamentarians could have taken those fancy degrees and parleyed them into seven figure salaries in banking or big Pharma or the kind of accountancy that salts away company cash in the Cayman Islands. I rather admire the fact that they chose public service instead.

I’m also riveted by the kind of people who get to high office. I’m not just a politics geek, but a bit of psychology nerd too. It takes a very particular mind-set to climb that greasy pole, and I am fascinated to see it close to.

Michael Moore, it turned out, was rather impressive, highly intelligent, and keenly focused. When I say I met the Secretary of State, it was only the briefest of handshakes and a couple of words. He was visiting HorseBack UK, the charity for whom I volunteer, and I was there in my capacity as their recorder-in-chief. I stumped around in my muddy boots, as the grave man in the suit was shown the facilities and all the marvellous work they do there. (I had attempted to get the worst of the horse off my outdoor coat, but it was rather a losing battle.)

He did not showboat about, or attempt to ingratiate with spurious charm. He was there for a serious purpose, and he got the job done with politeness and efficiency. One of the things that interests me about HorseBack is that whilst they have a very practical programme for the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen and women, carefully planned and thought out, there is a nebulous, extra factor in their work, which cannot be recorded in clinical terms. It is partly to do with the fact that the injured work with horses there, and there is something about a horse that touches the places that no amount of pills or therapy can. It is also to do with the fact that HorseBack lies in one of the most ravishing natural landscapes in Britain. It can be slightly astonishing to hear a tough warrior talk, almost lyrically, of the part these rolling hills play in the long road to recovery.

For all that the Secretary was purposeful and businesslike, he absolutely got the thing about the beauty. He mentioned it more than once. It did help that after weeks of skies the colour of old socks, Scotland pulled her sunniest, most dazzling day out of the bag for him. The great lighting director in the sky was on golden time. But still, I was quite surprised. I liked him very much for that.

The visit was a huge success and it will make a big difference to a small but brilliant operation. Politician does decent thing for Good Cause will not make any headlines. All the same, it was a headline for me.

The law of unintended consequences

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 06 February 2013
About five months ago, I started volunteering for a local charity. I did not just wake up one morning and think: I must now do Good Works. It all happened quite organically.

Three miles up the road from me is a remarkable organisation called HorseBack UK. I have mentioned it here before, but it bears repeating. It does the rather amazing thing of using horses to rehabilitate wounded servicemen and women. It works with people who have everything from double amputation to acute post-traumatic stress. I run out of adjectives when I think of what it is they do there. I want to shout and hang out flags. They are absolutely bloody brilliant.

A veteran working with one of the American Quarter HorsesA veteran working with one of the American Quarter Horses

I met the people who set up the charity, quite by chance. I liked them; I was interested in what they did. I went along to visit. I started thinking that just sending a donation was not enough. I wanted to do something. I know a bit about horses, but they did not really need that sort of help. In the end, I offered them the one thing I can do, which is words.

It turned out, by happy chance, that they really did need words. They have to do grant proposals, produce promotional and informative literature, develop a website, and a myriad of other things that require sentences to go with them. Oh yes, I said, not a problem; of course I can do that.

The law of unintended consequences is something in which I have an enduring interest. This blithe offer had two, for me. One is that it turned into easily the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. It’s one thing writing a book or doing a blog or producing an article, in your own name. That is just about personal success; I’m afraid to say it is almost all ego. It’s quite another to produce words for an organisation which touches the actual lives of actual people.

If I get the words right, they may translate into cash, for a new project or a further programme, which may have a material effect on a person who has been blown up by an improvised explosive device. This is a very serious thing indeed, and I frown and struggle and squint over each sentence; each phrase really matters.

The second consequence is that I have become obsessed. I am in danger of becoming a charity bore. I understand now why there are those people who devote their whole lives to guide dogs or the RSPB or Amnesty International. I am like those old ladies in Agatha Christie, who are always going round the village asking for subscriptions for the church roof fund. I think about HorseBack all the time; everything else seems a tiny bit insubstantial by comparison.

It may also be my time of life. As I motor into middle age, I am falling into the platitude of wondering what it’s all about. Time is rushing past me, and I must decide what mark I wish to leave on the world. I’m not a Nobel Laureate or a stateswoman, so it will only be a tiny scratch. But I’d like it to be a good scratch.

Last year’s plan was to plant a lot of trees. I thought that would do. Someone, years after I had gone, would sit under the shade of a rowan or a beech I had planted, and take their ease. I loved the idea of that. Now I think, there is this other thing, that will mean something.

Charity is an interesting paradox. Giving to one or helping one is seen as an act of generosity or altruism. In my case, I cannot claim goodness or selflessness at all. Quite the opposite. It is they who are giving something to me. I get to feel as if I am doing something that counts a bit, even if it is only in my very small way. I get the glorious gift of feeling that my days are not wasted. And that, it turns out, is worth more than diamonds.

Dog days

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 01 November 2012
My darling old dog is in her last days. She has developed an incurable condition and the vet has said the dread words: she shall have to be put down. It may be this week, it may be next, but it is coming.

I fall at once to pieces, overwhelmed by idiot grief. Her sister died last year, and the thought of an empty house, with no glorious canine presence in it, is almost unbearable. It never ceases to amaze me, the animal love. The four-legged creatures trot and canter their way into my heart, and set up shop there, and it doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that it is not the same as a human, that there are much greater griefs out there, the sense of loss is dark and deep.
tania nov1
Then I pull myself together, because life must go on. In order to distract myself, I write some grant proposals for HorseBack UK, a local charity which I support.  It does sterling work with men and women who have been wounded in war. I can’t remember if I have told you of it before. It is an extraordinary organisation. The veterans come and work with American Quarter Horses, in the blue Deeside hills, and the combination of the beauty and peace, the equine therapy, and the fact the courses are run by those who have been injured on the front line themselves, produces an amazing healing effect. Working with the horses in particular seems to restore a sense of self. Men with no legs can get up and ride out into the hills; a veteran with acute post-traumatic stress told me the other day that he had his first proper night’s sleep in six months.

This proposal thing is a new kind of writing for me. My default writing mode is quite emotional and even, on occasion, a little flowery. If in doubt, I go for the poetical. If I can cram in some Shakespeare or Eliot, so much the better. But if you are asking a serious organisation (in the most recent case, the British government) for money, you can’t do hearts and flowers. In my own personal writing, I dare risk people thinking I am a bit of a flake, but if someone in the Ministry of Defence thinks it, then the jig is up.

I have to learn to rein in my excesses, and be businesslike and empirical. At the same time, because what HorseBack does is so out of the ordinary, I have to try to express that. The sentences cannot be bog-standard, because the organisation is not standard at all. I flip back and forth between the extravagant and the workaday; I ruthlessly examine adjectives for utility.

I am so impressed and enchanted by this operation that I have become quite zealous on its behalf. I dream of meeting a billionaire at a party, and so bewitching him with tales of horses and soldiers that he will at once donate half his fortune to the cause. This is unrealistic on several levels. I rarely go to parties, and I have never met a billionaire in my life. There aren’t too many of them running round the Aberdeenshire hills. Still, that appears to be my new dream.

In the meantime, I apply to foundations and government departments, hoping that if only I can get the words right, the cash may come. It is the most serious form of writing I have ever done. Until now, all that was at stake was my amour-propre. Now, something I type on a page may translate into an actual good, for actual humans, who really need it. It is the best corrective I have ever found for a burdened heart.

The old dog is sleeping beside me. She chased her stick this morning. As long as she does that, I know there is a little life force left. I shall make these last days as sweet for her as I can. I am profoundly sad, but she has given me so much joy. She owes me nothing. I wish she could live forever, but when the time comes, I must send her gentle into that good night.


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