When I first found the Positive Herd Project online I was so excited that a welfare-focused equine rescue existed just down the road from me. But I was also nervous that they wouldn’t want me as a volunteer, having only a long standing love of horses and a huge lack of experience. It took me a bit of courage to get in touch and offer my ‘help’, but my motivation to get involved and do something positive about equine welfare was so strong I managed to overcome my fears.
Beth and Rachel were surprisingly kind and welcoming (another thing I’ve learned does not always occur in the horse world!) and despite struggling to get everything done in the short and cold days of March 2018 (it was the Beast from the East – not the best time!), they made time to meet me, introduce me to the horses, show me how to do the basics and answer my endless questions. To start with I felt so inadequate, it’s a huge skill-set that I think horse people don’t realise they have – everything was new for me, and lots of jobs were really physically hard. I’m reasonably fit and I run regularly – but even getting the wheelbarrow up the plank to the muck heap without falling over was a challenge! I had to be taught how to muck out (harder then you might think if you haven’t done it before) – I’m still slow and not as dexterous with a rake as I’d like to be, but it used to take me hours! One of the things I really appreciated at the start was the balance that Beth and Rachel somehow managed to keep – between letting me learn for myself, and showing me when I needed help. They always kept me safe and were patient teachers and slowly I started to feel like I could be at least a bit of help. Knowing how to care for horses is a lifetime’s work and I know I’m a very late starter and way behind the curve, but I started to feel little bits of confidence, as I noticed small improvements.
I was a crazy horse-loving kid, the kind that would have to be prized away from hanging on a gate just watching them for hours, the kind that pesters for riding lessons and rushes to the window the sound of hooves just to see them go by. I did get those riding lessons but have never owned a horse, and once I left home I gave up on spending time with horses for many years – I had no spare time, energy or money. There also weren’t any opportunities to spend time with horses that didn’t feel exploitative or somehow unsatisfying. I did try a few riding schools, but I wasn’t able to make real connections with the horses, which was really my motivation, more than the riding. I didn’t know so much about equine welfare then, but I knew something was missing and it just didn’t feel right to me. That’s why I was so excited to find The Positive Herd Project, and determined to get involved even if I didn’t have any skills to offer. In fact, they told me they preferred volunteers who didn’t know much, as it’s easier to teach a blank slate than someone who has lots to ‘unlearn’ first.
To start with I noticed how scared I was of the horses, somehow in the intervening years I had lost my fearlessness and become a risk-averse adult. At first it was a shock to be around such a free and expressive herd. I realised that many of the horses I had known and handled in the past were shut down and it was a huge contrast to be with horses that were free to express their behaviour and personality. The horses at The Positive Herd are not dangerous but they did show when they were scared or not happy, and expressed choices - sometimes refusing to do something, sometimes very clearly asking for something. I had to re-learn how to understand them. The first time Missy (one of my favourites) swung her hindquarters round at me I thought she was planning to kick me – then Beth explained this is her slightly irregular way of asking for a scratch! I had never met horses like this before. It took me a while to understand that while they might jostle and pull faces at each other, they actually took great care of me while I was around them, and were gentle and polite when handled.
It wasn’t easy for me to feel so clunky and ‘rubbish’ at everything, it was like being a kid again, after years of knowing what I’m doing in so many parts of my life. It brought me close to my own insecurities, feeling inadequate, making mistakes and even getting in touch with shame. I realised how much I protect myself from shame in my life by being generally ‘good at stuff’. And suddenly I wasn’t good at much. I started to understand something about the power of horses to help us understand ourselves, as I experienced learning with the horses. There is something about their consistent boundaries, honest feedback and ability to be in the present, that makes everything so clear. I started to understand that they responded to me depending on how I was when I showed up at the field. If I was distracted or feeling emotional they tended to ignore me, if I was present and connected they were friendly and sweet. Whilst learning how to do chores I was also learning so much more about myself - the horses helped me develop my self awareness and it was uncomfortable at times.
But it’s also been so rewarding, and made possible by the consistent kindness, acceptance and patience of the team at the Positive Herd. I have learned how important it is to be in a safe and genuinely accepting environment in order to benefit from relationship with horses. If they are not feeling safe with all their needs met, it’s not possible to develop a true and meaningful relationship with them. And for me, feeling safe and having my needs met has made it possible to learn so much and build positive connections with them. So many equine establishments seem to be full of people telling each other off, shaming or bullying each other, and in this environment no one can learn or grow or feel safe. I have had so many rich and wonderful experiences whilst getting to know the horses and ponies of the Positive Herd and built bonds of mutual trust as I’ve spent more time with them. I’m so grateful to have found a place that makes this possible and supports people to do this.
Long term volunteer, trustee, EiT therapist