The #PrettyHealthyProject has always been, in part, an effort to regain my mental health following my difficult first year at university. This summer, and the project, has largely been a recovery and strengthening process to support me for my return to York this weekend(!). A number of things have aided me in this process, most notably spending so much time with my family, G, and friends, taking the pressure off, and working on my body image and confidence through this project – but I’ve realised that there has been one thing which has helped more than any other. This summer I was given the opportunity to part-loan a horse called Sooty, and the effect has been profound.
He’s a 16.2-hands grey Dutch Warmblood in his late teens, and he lives under the watchful eye of Hazel at Nine Acres Equestrian. I’ve ridden him on and off for a couple of years or so now, but for the last six weeks I’ve had the real privilege of being his sharer. I’ve written before about the impact horses have had on me over the years, and in particular about one little pony called Ziggy. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had an opportunity like this, where I’m riding around four times a week and working closely with one horse to produce his best work. A couple of weeks ago Mum commented on how she’d seen a real change in me since I started working with Sooty and I realised she was right, and that that difference is on a number of different levels.
Spending so much time at the yard (maybe 16 hours a week?) has had an impressive impact on my fitness and strength. I don’t just ride Sooty, though any rider will tell you that a schooling session is absolutely a workout unto itself. My mornings (I generally arrive at the yard at around 7:15 am) involve hours of manual labour including (but not limited to) mucking out, yard-sweeping, and tack-cleaning, all of which requires being up on your feet and moving all the time, as well as lifting and carrying pretty heavy things like big leather saddles and full wheelbarrows. My work with the horse, too, includes grooming (Hazel always says if you have to wear a jumper whilst grooming you’re not doing it right!), tacking up and groundwork. According to my FitBit I always get my 10,000 steps if I go down to the yard, and I’ve noticed a real change in my fitness and strength levels, and even my physique, in just six weeks.
All that physical work has been a huge aid in improving my body-confidence, where this whole project started. Seeing an improvement in how fast I get my yardwork done has been a huge help, and feeling better about my body has really helped with the feelings of anxiety I’ve struggled with for so long. I even started attending a regular Pilates class – something I’ve wanted to do for ages but never had the courage. Pilates, and the awareness of my body it has given me, has also really benefited my riding skills and, I think, Sooty as a result. But I could have achieved lots of this without sharing a horse, and the real developments I’ve seen have come out of my direct work with Sooty.
You see, working with horses demands a lot of us. They don’t understand our language, so we have to try to communicate in theirs, and that can require a lot of time and patience. It’s a great responsibility – and even more so when it’s somebody else’s horse you’re working with, as was my case. Sometimes it can feel you’re going backwards, and it’s easy to get frustrated or say that the horse is ‘naughty’ or even ‘rude’. But horses don’t have a sense of ‘naughtiness’; if they aren’t doing what we ask it’s either because they’re in discomfort or pain, or we aren’t asking correctly.
Sooty has taught me the importance of constantly stepping back and evaluating how we’re both doing, and the significance of tiny progressive steps. Although he’s a very established horse who once competed in affiliated dressage, he’s had quite a lot of time off this year so we had to go right back to basics with in-hand work, which was a real learning-curve for me. It doesn’t always feel like a lot of progress is being made, but over time I’ve been able to see a real change in how he looks, responds, and feels.
As well as tiny details, though, my time with Sooty has shown me the importance of always making sure to look at the bigger picture. One of our main focuses with him has been in-hand exercises to encourage him to lift up his back, including various stretches which effectively act as sit-ups for horses, helping him to engage his core to help him into a better posture. When you do these exercises day-in, day-out and see the horse most days it can be hard to see much difference, but a few days ago I contrasted pictures from our first weeks together with much more recent ones and the change is actually pretty significant. But I’ve also learned to look at my own bigger picture, too; a couple of weeks ago I realised I was getting so bogged down in trying to focus on every tiny thing that neither of us were getting much out of our ridden sessions, so after some advice from Hazel I stepped the work up a little which has had a really positive impact on both of us.
Being able to see progress like that is incredibly satisfying. Although I’ve made some mistakes I know that Sooty is a fitter and more improved horse than he was six weeks ago. Knowing that a lot of that work is down to me has been a huge confidence boost in my abilities – and not just in terms of equestrianism. In my post at the end of my year at university I wrote about how I felt I had lost key personality traits such as confidence and tenacity. Working with Sooty has not only enabled me to find those qualities again, but also to use and improve upon them.
Sooty is a particularly sensitive horse – even more so than most. He responds to tiny amounts of pressure, both mental and physical; in this way we are pretty alike. What it means, though, is that he feeds off the emotions felt by those around him. I know that if I am stressed or anxious, he will sense it and potentially respond negatively by becoming worried and fearful himself. Working with him has reminded me of the shy and nervy nine-year-old I was when I began horse-riding, and how it taught me not to suppress those feelings but to channel them into more positive emotions. Sooty has reminded me how to harness and control all those feelings of sadness and anxiety I brought home with me from university – a skill I will carry with me from now on.
At the start of this post I said there were three main things which have supported me in finding my way back to myself this summer: my family, G and friends, taking the pressure off, and working on my body image and confidence. I’ve already written about how having Sooty has improved my body confidence and supported the #PrettyHealthyProject, but the truth is he’s actually brought all of those things together. Mum loves coming to see him and to help, when she can, and going to see the horse on the regular has helped build up G’s confidence around them, too. I’m lucky that I see Hazel and others at the yard (animals included, of course!) as friends. But one of the best things about these past six weeks is they’ve effectively been a great big experiment. There was no goal at the end, except a happy horse, which meant no pressure; it was just about ‘having a play’ (in Hazel’s words) and seeing where we got to. And it has been incredibly successful – for both of us, I think.
I just asked G whether he thought I was different around horses and he immediately answered “yes”. “You’re more confident,” he said, “and vocal.” And my particular favourite: “Nothing phases you.” The truth is, I am my best self when working with a horse; I am incredibly grateful to Hazel, Nine Acres and Sooty for this amazing opportunity, and truly sad that it is coming to an end – but I hope his next sharer has just as wonderful an experience as I have this summer.
(Thanks to both G and my mum for their excellent photography skills! I’m so thankful to have so many pictures and video clips documenting my time working with this amazing horse.)