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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.

A difficult subject

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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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.


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