Horseback UK’s Jock Hutchison on using horsemanship to help people at their lowest ebb regain self-esteem – and why dogs can’t do the same job, as told to Kate Johnson
I used to be a Royal Marines Commando. My wife, Emma, and I originally moved to our farm to breed horses, but I heard about 16 young men who had returned from Afghanistan with life-changing injuries, and felt they needed a purpose. We invited them to stay and taught them to ride, but we learnt that it was the ground-based work and forming a team with the horse that was more psychologically effective.
Horsemanship is the epitome of leadership because you don’t have a choice but to be a leader with a horse. It needs you to be a leader, it’s an anxious critter. People say, “Can’t you do this with dogs?” No. A dog will love you no matter what you do, a horse won’t. You need to make it feel secure, especially when it’s away from the herd. If that trust isn’t there, you’re building on sand.
When we started, 80% of the people were ex-military and physically injured. It’s evolved, now 80% are mentally injured and not from the military. We over-preached initially, but we realised we needed to let the horses do the talking. Leadership is kindness, patience and bringing out the best in an individual, not telling them what to do. It’s exactly the same in the Marines. There’s a misconception about how we in the military look after ourselves. I was never shouted at; if I really didn’t want to become a Royal Marines Commando, no amount of yelling would make me.
When I first walked through the gates, I was told, “One day you might have the privilege of being responsible for these troops.” We were told we served them, they did not serve us. You can’t be a successful leader unless you look after your people.
We had a group of 15 who were “disengaged from the educational process” – not going to school – for a huge array of reasons. It’s not the kid’s fault 90% of the time. One girl – an autistic girl of 12 – broke my heart. She never said a single word, but she loved one horse. Even in the team games, it was just that one. At the end of a 15-week day-release course, she stood up and gave a speech to everyone. I’m emotional about that even now.
We have 34 horses. We need that many, as horses can’t do this week in and week out. They absorb the angst and begin to resent it, so they go back into the herd for a few weeks. And we need to pair people with the horse with the right energy level; we’re trying to create wins for them. If you can lead a half-tonne animal, you can lead your own life again.
Horses are the perfect combination of power and fear; their brains are wired to respond by legging it. The key to working with them is to use their anxiety to help face your own. It’s the thought of the thing, like a plastic bag to a horse, not the actual thing, that causes anxiety 99% of the time.
I’m surprised how gentle, perceptive and empathetic horses are to people who are hurt, especially mentally. I was born with my love of horses, and I was worried some would say, “It’s not for me,” but they haven’t.
One man had experienced war at its most brutal. He was completely locked in; he wouldn’t connect, wore sunglasses, always carried a haversack. He did the course, and stayed an extra day. He knew how to ride well so I took him up into the hills.
He said, “Stop here,” got off his horse and took off his pack and took out a rope. He said, “I’ve been carrying this around. I was going to hang myself, but I’m going to bury it under a rock. I’m not going to need it.”
You have to see the impact horses have to believe it; they will teach you how to be a better human being more quickly than any human being can.
Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020