Certified

A month after completing my EAGALA part one and two courses, I am finally ready to recount the experience.  There was a huge amount to take in, both in terms of how to practice equine assisted activities (EAA – other terms commonly used are equine assisted psychotherapy/learning [EAP/EAL], but I’ll stick with the broader term here), and about myself as a person, so it’s taken me a while to unpackage it all and begin to properly process it.  The experience was completely transformative, and unlike anything I’ve been through before, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!

I’d had the courses booked since April, thanks to funding through the charity I volunteer with, and in the build up, all I felt was excitement.  This is a little unusual for me, because although most people who know me would define me as an extrovert, I’m not all that confident among a large number of strangers, and I hate networking with a passion.  I think the excitement came for two reasons – I was going to be meeting “my” people, others who wanted to practice EAA, so we’d have that in common; I would be able to enjoy an entire week of what I really wanted to do, rather than a day squidged between the standard runs of my day job, which I’m not relishing.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and although I felt naive for walking in with my eyes shut to what might happen, it probably meant that I experienced things in the truest sense.  You can qualify for EAGALA certification as either a mental health specialist or an equine specialist – due to my lack of mental health or counselling qualifications, I come under the latter, which is fine – and their model states that each session must be conducted with a mental health and an equine practitioner present.  The training is in the model, not the skills themselves (there’s nothing about caring for horses or horsemanship, for example, as well as there being nothing on how to be a counsellor), so practitioners from both parts of the team attended both courses.

The training is designed to be experiential, but there were some dissatisfied people during the first course – as experienced mental health practitioners who have undertaken a lot of training previously, they found the experiential element to be lacking and thought that the course was more about observing.  I was glad that I volunteered to be part of a dummy group, as I got more of an experience in the first course than some people did, and I was surprised that I didn’t react all that much (there was a point during the activity where I felt triggered, but I was able to deal with the feeling and move on at that point).

Part two was where I came unstuck!  I felt a real low, that I was being judged by some of the other participants as not being good enough (there was some good learning about self-awareness and taking things personally!), and I found it a very draining emotional experience.  There was one incident in particular which I felt we really weren’t given an opportunity to process, and one of the big takeaways for me was how important it is to get on with and trust the team you choose to work with.

But I worked my way through the entire course.  I went alone, I left having made some fantastic new friends.  I learned a huge amount, both about myself and what it is to be a practitioner and how to practice.  EAGALA’s recommendation is that you attend part one individually, but that you attend part two as part of your treatment team, and having seen what the activities are like, I’m keen to do so.  My co-facilitators are hoping to go next year, and I’d like to repeat part two with them: it’s a chance for us to practice in a “safe” environment both in terms of the “clients” (pretend ones!) and being supervised by the course facilitators and our peers.  We might even get experimental with our ideas and try a few new things out!  Either way, I think it’d be a fantastic experience and one which would boost my confidence further and see me take another leap in terms of my skills.

Back at home, I’ve already seen a huge positive difference in my skills as a facilitator – I’m using “clean language” skills I learned on the course, making more astute and informed observations, and picking up on what our clients and team need.  It’s helped to galvanise the team and bring a sense of unity.  And some of the positive impacts have extended into my non-EAGALA life.  The biggest difference has been to my confidence as a facilitator – thanks to the certificate and my team, I now believe that I really can do this, and that over time I’ll only get better.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the journey brings, particularly when I’m able to make the leap to practicing full time.  For now, I look forward to my days off with a new assurance that I can, do and will continue to make a difference.

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Giving and getting

“We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want out if this,” Fran said to me back in January.  It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting, but one which one of the Directors of the charity I volunteer with broached on a windy morning, forcing me to stop and think.  I hadn’t considered what I wanted, beyond the chance to spend time with horses over the winter.  But at that point, it was becoming clear that I might be sticking around for longer, so it made sense that we consider the future.

Let’s take a few steps back, now.  I’ve always been a Girl Who Likes Things: I enjoy spending money; I like trying new food (preferably accompanied by good wine in a comfortable setting where I pay for the privilege of someone else cooking AND clearing up); I take pleasure in going shopping, whether it’s to find the perfect dress, shoes, handbag or pair of jeans; when I go on holiday, I’m happy to pay more in order to stay somewhere nice with good facilities and a breathtaking view.  Essentially, I’m materialistic.  And until even as little as a year ago, that meant (in my terms) that my time was worth money.  Because money buys Things, and Things are what I like.  Plus, I reasoned, I have talent and skills, those are worth paying for, right?

I even went as far as to tell friends and family that I would never work for free.  I didn’t mind working for low wages (if you want to get rich, you do not work at summer camps), but I did need to be paid.

I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what changed, so I think I’ll call it kismet.  It’s probably a combination of things: I found something I deemed “worth it”; I had time on my hands; I had another job which did pay me; I needed what was on offer… I moved the goalposts.  I volunteered.

I didn’t actively expect to “get” anything, partly because I already was: when I first went to see Fran and Jo upon my return to the UK last autumn, they invited me to ride one of their horses for them.  He needed work, I could (and wanted to) ride, it made sense to them.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to pay in order to do something I enjoy doing (my other option at the time would’ve been to go back to the local riding school and pay for lessons on their horses again, given that I don’t have my own horse).  I already thought I was winning.  In fact, the more I showed up, I knew I was winning, because they allowed me to assist on therapy sessions, something that I knew I wanted to ultimately do as my job, and an area in which I needed experience.  I didn’t think I needed any more.

But they wanted to give me more, and they wanted me to tell them what more was.  They wanted to make sure that I was developing, and that was purely out of the kindness of their hearts.  The way they saw it, I was giving them my time and some physical labour, and that meant I was due something in return.  I love this attitude, not because I stand to gain something concrete from it, but because it matches my own – that anyone who is even a millimetre ahead should be supporting those behind them.  Because that’s how we stabilise the future.  We shouldn’t be job-blocking or holding others back or – worst of all – de-motivating them; we should be encouraging and nurturing.

I’ve written before about how I’ve been inspired by some great managers (who sometimes work for not-so-great organisations), those who I thought managed talent well, and who helped the business they work for achieve its goals, but without ignoring the individuals who are there making it happen.  Because it’s not always about what the organisation needs: whether someone is turning up paid or unpaid, we all have different motivations, but as long as you tap into those drivers, you can help a team function effectively even though they ultimately want different things.

I genuinely believe that by protecting the good habits instilled in me by the managers I worked for when I was younger, I will hopefully be able to perpetuate them, and make the working world a better place.  This post may seem a little out of the blue: in fact, it was inspired by a discussion during #CharityHour, whereby a few of us became involved in a debate regarding support or help given to volunteers looking to advance their careers.  On one side was somebody who essentially said, “ain’t nobody got time for that”, and on the other side was me.  The other side said, “but we can’t have volunteers taking up the charity’s resources,” following which I exploded with apoplexy, because volunteers are a resource of any charity and, in fact, they are more than a resource, they are an asset and assets, as any businessperson will tell you, must be protected.

The other side reared up at my suggestion that volunteers at the very least be promised a reference, stating that they had known organisations whereby one person were responsible for hundreds of volunteers.  My response was that the responsibility should then be divided – provide training, I said, make sure people can do this; our saying within the horsemanship community is, “find a way or make one”.  Anything is possible (insert more cat-skinning related clichés here).  The sticking point for many – and I have worked for at least two enormous companies who have this rule – is good old arse-covering: in the UK, it is illegal to give a negative reference for an employee or volunteer.  As a referee, you have three choices – give a positive reference, a neutral reference, or decline (and the final option tells the person requesting one that, if you could, you’d be giving a bad one).

So big companies permit only neutral references – the standard is that you will confirm dates of employment and sickness record, but won’t comment on an individual’s performance.  Johnny who turns up early for every shift, stays late and is your top seller whose jokes, patter and warmth your customers adore gets the same reference as Bob, who shows up five minutes late, nips out for cigarettes every hour, looks unkempt and is borderline rude.  In my mind, to go the extra mile for Johnny – who has gone several hundred extra miles for you – is not hard.  To provide training and regulation for those who will be giving references (to ensure that your arse is covered) is also not hard.  To give you another equestrian analogy (because they work, as horses are mirrors): “Never knock the curiosity out of a young horse” – Tom Dorrance.  We remember those who snub us on our slow and steady climb.  We mirror their habits.  Let’s breed positive qualities.

I am hopeful that, one day, I will create my ideal world: the one where I get to do a job that I adore (full-time, paid), and develop those around me in a way I would like to see things progress.  I once heard a riding instructor say that they are delighted when their students enter the same classes as them at competitions and beat them, because that’s how it should be – the next generation should ultimately improve on the previous one.  It’s called progress, and without it, nothing changes.  But without a little help – a leg up, a “thank you”, and an opportunity – it can’t happen.  I want to see positive strides, but they can’t happen without my support, so I will give anything that I am able to, whenever I am able to give it.

Public service announcement

“Nobody gets it,” I moaned a few weeks ago.  “People think I can be persuaded to go back.”  Last month, it emerged that the job I left two years ago had become available again… and that my former boss had also resigned.  Cue friends, former colleagues and other people asking if I’d be applying.  I probably didn’t help the situation by attending a trade show last month.  Or the fact that my LinkedIn profile still states that I’m a freelancer.

“They clearly don’t read your blog, then,” my Dad countered.  Which means that at least some people are getting the message.

I realise I have also been a little vague even here.  The reasons are twofold: I’ve always been hesitant to mention an employer by name – you could all figure it out if you really wanted to, but if I try to mask it a little, I feel that I can be freer with what I write; I don’t want to jinx my situation – yes, that sounds a little too superstitious perhaps, but I feel that it’s taken me this long to get this far, and that I want to protect myself and hedge my bets.  But perhaps it’s time to let the not-so-secret out more explicitly.  Today felt like a good day.  So here’s the plan:

Two years ago, I retired from event management.  I don’t know how much clearer I can make that.  Some of my closest friends understood right away, support me to this day, and I am continually grateful for their comprehension.  I could go back… if I wanted to.  If being the key word.  I still have the qualifications, experience and skills.  But there is absolutely no will there.  I honestly cannot bear the thought of the majority of my working life being lived indoors and at a desk.  I have seen the alternative, and it isn’t always pretty, it is normally hard, but it is worth it.

The reality is that, due to my experience and my long term aim, I will have to settle myself at a desk occasionally.  But I see that as being one or possibly two days per week in the future.  I feel better in myself for doing something active, even though it means that my standard work wardrobe these days is more waterproofs than wrap dresses.

And now for the really important bit: when I retired (I’ve decided I really like that word – it feels indulgent, and I’m also experimenting with the use of it in order to really ram the point home to those who are struggling to comprehend what I’ve done), I thought I wanted to be a riding instructor in the traditional BHS-mould.  I knew it could be a tricky process, given that I had no savings and was considered too old to join a typical apprenticeship-type scheme, plus I was in no way skilled enough to work as a groom or working pupil in order to get someone else to pay for my training.  The equestrian world also has a horrible reputation for promising employees the world and giving them very little – I’d love to be part of the change there, but… slowly slowly – so I assumed I’d have to go it alone.

After my first summer teaching in the US, something wasn’t sitting quite right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I decided to go back for another shot – I hadn’t hated it by any means, and I wondered if what was difficult was the fact that the experience wasn’t fully representative of my potential future.  I thought I needed more time to think.  It turns out that I needed to meet someone new: I made a new friend who opened my eyes to a different way of working, and suddenly a few things clicked.  Equine therapy was something which had intrigued me for a few years, but I had even less idea of how to make that happen than I did of how to become a riding instructor.  The path always seemed woolly and mysterious, until I realised why: it plain is woolly and mysterious.  There are many therapists out there making it up as they go along, with the assistance of some overarching organisations, but most of them are learning by doing and through intuition and thinking laterally.  I found my place.  Sort of.

There was still the matter of how to make it really happen, because I’m still penniless, horse-less and largely clueless.  Then my one friend introduced me to two more, and things pretty much took off.  When I returned from my second summer, I started volunteering with their charity – although the problem is, I don’t see it this way, which might be another reason my peers are struggling to believe me!  It’s a sign that I’m doing the right thing, because it doesn’t feel like work, it just seems like hanging out with my friends and their horses, where clients happen to be.

The situation has evolved over the last few months to the point that there are serious discussions around booking me up for the days when I’m not working at the job which will help me tick over, plus that there’s a training course we’d all like for me to undertake, and the charity are hoping to fund that.  Whilst I’ve been out of paid work, I’ve been doing two or three days per week with the charity, some of these doing equine development (read: Prince’s boot camp), and others assisting with therapy sessions for clients (sometimes this is entertaining a pony who isn’t working, on other occasions it’s a more active role of teaching a group a new activity).  But whatever I find myself doing proves to be the missing link.  There wasn’t the same sense of fulfilment with event management; teaching riding is great, but I have a limited degree of patience when shouting “up, down, up, down” (though I do miss the fact that shuttle runs when teaching beginners keeps me fit, and tacking up my share of 30 horses four times each day gave me the best biceps and triceps I’ve ever had).

The charity is expanding rapidly, and there is a definite place for me there, thanks to a combination of old and new skills.  This summer there will be open days for publicity, play days for fundraising, pony camp-type days for income and many more things besides.  This all means that 2015 is looking likely to be the first year that my feet will remain on UK soil since 2011.  It’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be busy, and I’m still not certain that I’ve found the sector within therapy which really makes my heart sing, but I’m working for people who are supportive of my approach – they don’t know my entire history, because that hasn’t been important to them.  It’s important that I turn up, have the right attitude and want to grow.  It’s my favourite way of doing things – try it out and see what works, what you enjoy.  My hope is to undertake the formal training, work with different types of clients, improve my equine skills and see how far I can go.

There will be events, there will be paperwork and there will be marketing.  But there will also be wellies, skipping out and I will teach riding occasionally.  It took two years to properly figure out my retirement plan and how to implement it, but the next stage is here, and I’m looking forward to telling you about it as it happens.

Turning ten

When you grow up as a typical “girly girl” who appreciates the shiny things in life and have a magazine journalist for an auntie, it’s sort of inevitable that you’ll inhale glossy publications alongside your daily dose of oxygen.  I’m choosy about my literature these days, but there was no way I was leaving one of my favourites on the newsstand last month when I saw that it was said publication’s tenth anniversary edition.

As I flipped through my copy of Grazia once I got home, the articles got me thinking – something I suspect Jane Bruton and her team will be proud of – about how, in a way, I too am 10 this year.  I turn 28 this week, which means I am 10 years an adult.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t part of Grazia’s true demographic when it launched, but I read it anyway, as there was occasionally a beauty product featured which I could afford.  The greater relevance I saw of this magazine 10 years ago was that it was an insight and guide to the life I would soon be living – would, not might, because I was certain that I’d be a high-flying career girl before I was 30 – and so I’d better know what I should be doing.

Grazia is still one-of-a-kind, a lone weekly glossy among the gossip magazines on the same cycle.  When it launched, the strapline was “a lot can happen in a week”, and now here I am, reading the tenth anniversary issue and being reminded that an awful lot can happen in a decade.  When I flicked through the first edition of Grazia, aged 18, I still harboured dreams of being a journalist: I’d applied to journalism degrees – and got rejected by the universities – and had no backup plan.  I sat my A levels that summer with no idea what would happen afterwards, other than that I was booked in to hospital to have surgery on my back, and that I had no true idea of how long it would be until I felt “normal” again (answer: approximately nine weeks, which is when I first swung myself back into a horse’s saddle – don’t try that at home unless your surgeon gives you permission, kids).

And change absolutely became the theme of my decade: every time I thought I had things figured out, organised and handled, life would shift again.  Sometimes, that meant sending out yet another job application, or looking for a new place to live.  On other occasions, it was about handing my notice in and booking a flight in order to start the next stage of my life.  And most of the time, I felt like I was failing: people are very conscious of what they don’t have, and we live in an age where we constantly compare ourselves to others.  When people around me, from cousins to colleagues, were busy doing very grown up things like settling down and buying homes and climbing the career ladder, I was, at best, going sideways, and horrifyingly occasionally going backwards.  I felt like a bit of a loser in the game that is life.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  Twice, I’d sat down and mapped it all out, putting together my grand plan of how I’d take on the world and win.  In the earlier one, I was at the very least married and a home-owner by now, and I was definitely winning in the career stakes.  It’s taken me a long time to learn that goals are fine, and even achievable, but big grand plans to conquer the world and having your life mapped out year by year?  Not so realistic.  And although it’s happened to us in different ways, I’m not the only person I know who’s come to this realisation.

Friends of mine have said premature goodbyes to family members, or seen their own lives overtaken by illness.  Others have supported partners through redundancy or grief.  Some have picked up and moved to the other side of the world, thriving in their new surroundings.  And others have stuck to the traditional dream and plan of buying a home, getting married and, no doubt filling their lives with children.  I don’t have any of the traditional elements of an adult life – my first career is behind me and my second is only now starting to take shape; I haven’t even started saving for a home of my own, nevermind actually picking up the keys to it; wedding and baby plans also aren’t on the horizon (though that I’m more than happy with) – but thankfully, I also haven’t experienced the reality of other adult issues.

When I thought about what I haven’t done in order to craft this post and report on my first decade as an adult, I began to feel pretty despondent, like I didn’t have much to show for myself.  So I started to think about what I have done, rather than what I haven’t done, aided in part by a friend’s theory that our five years post-university are the times when we go through the greatest personal change, or rather, they’re our actual growing up years.  A bit like the common wisdom that you truly learn to drive after passing your driving test.

If my baby adult decade were put together in a highlights package, what would they look like?  I had the driving thing nailed already, but in terms of everything else…

  • I got my degree. It felt like a minor miracle (especially having almost fallen asleep whilst standing up when waiting for my dissertation to be bound – don’t try and write it in four days)
  • I went on holiday by myself. There were strangers when I got there, almost all of whom weren’t alone – my first lesson in adventure and being bold
  • I worked, and climbed, and fell… and got back up again. Essentially, I persevered.  Until I felt I could no longer…
  • …and then I came up with yet another plan. Except, with the realisation that the previous plans hadn’t worked, I settled on an idea and allowed it to flourish
  • I lived and worked in another country. I made friends there.  I explored, on a shoestring and by the seat of my pants sometimes.  Which means I observed my comfort zone a few times (from a cosy distance)

I don’t have a house, husband or horse (still.  Guess which one of those annoys me the most?), but I do have stories to tell and lessons learned, the biggest one being that if a lot can happen in a week, good luck on guessing what can happen in a decade.  I’m making no bets on the next ten years, and I’m making the shortest plan I’ve ever had: I’m dedicating my time to being happy.  Because I’m not interested in just ticking boxes any more.

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the degree: graduating in 2010

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the career: I’ve never forgiven that stranger in the background for mugging. Or myself for not learning sooner that day five of an event requires more makeup than I was wearing

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the adventure: South Africa and going it alone…until I got hold of a horse

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the unknown: living and working somewhere different. With different people. And doing something different

 

 

 

 

Testing the waters

It feels like spring is trying to mount a charge: the daylight hours are increasing, and I even spot a glowing orb in the sky on some days.  It’s definitely getting a little warmer (though I still choose skiwear for the yard), and rain is a slight surprise rather than an expected occurrence.  Having fed the horses this morning, we pulled our chairs out of the tack room and into a patch of sun to have a drink and a chat whilst planning our work for the day.  I almost felt my face change colour.  As we contemplated what to do, I felt myself itching to make the most of the day and get out of the barn – space is limited in there, and due to the underlying concrete, trot work is very limited.  I’ve been aching to get Prince onto a longer line to see if we’ve improved over the last three months, so we decided to brave the sticky field and work outside.

Previously on "Becky and Prince": working in the barn last week - Charlie can't resist sneaking into the picture

Previously on “Becky and Prince”: working in the barn last week – Charlie can’t resist sneaking into the picture

Off I went, hauling my feet through the clay-mud with a 22 foot line determinedly in hand (and plenty of treats in my pocket – I’m definitely going to need a bumbag this summer, I thought to myself, as I realised that the one benefit to winter is that coats mean pockets).  Prince seemed happy to be remaining outside rather than being taken to the barn for a workout – I’m getting just a little concerned as to what he might do when I finally get him under saddle… this horse is definitely ready for a good run!

I warmed him up for a few minutes on the normal 12 foot line, before switching to the 22 – it’s three months since I’ve used it, and my experience is still very limited, I find it hard to juggle the knitting and an unconfident horse who is easily confused by my body language, but we both have to learn somehow!  What disappointed me most is that I had to put my gloves on: I always worried about burns when I first started working with ropes, until I realised how much gloves negatively affect my feel, and that I’m generally working in a small space with a short line – the horse doesn’t have far to go, and ultimately if I have to drop the rope and let him, it’s no big deal… until you’re in a 10 acre field with a very strong and panicky cob on a 22 foot line.

Generally, we’ve definitely improved.  Relaxation is offered far easier than it was in the beginning, and that’s been our main aim.  Prince even offered some canter of his own accord, which always shocks me given that he normally only canters for food!  The one thing that’s become obvious we need to work on quickly is the speed with which he returns to me: he’s a 15 hand horse with 12 hand legs, but he’s a lot of horse widthways (hopefully not for long!) and once you call him in, he really barrels at you in relief.  So I have to get him to be more controlled with his return, and I have to stop jumping out of the way!

Things are going in the right direction though, and progress is being made.  I ended the session pretty tired from the mental and physical workout, and I’m sure Prince had a lot to think about too.  Here’s hoping the weather and fields continue to improve, so that we can really crack on.  It might even be time to get his trainer back to see what she can advise, now that Prince and I have a relationship and can work together in a reasonable fashion…