On being part of a herd

Riding one horse whilst leading another is one of the less labour intensive ways of exercising them and it’s also strangely therapeutic. I say strangely, because it can be difficult enough to control the horse you are sitting on, especially if they decide that you are but a little pea, and ignore any of your seat, leg, hand or voice aids. Leading a horse is even worse as you’re reduced to hands and voice only and it’s actually much easier to drop a horse that you are leading than to fall off one that you’re riding, though I’ll grant you it can be a close run thing.

So to sit on one whilst leading another might seem like a recipe for disaster. Trying to control an animal that weighs half a tonne and has a mind of its own isn’t easy. Trying to control an entire tonne of horseflesh with two heads and two minds, when you weigh barely 60kg is probably foolhardy. But just because it’s difficult, or indeed slightly stupid, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. So this morning I set out on board Charlie, with his friend China in tow. I have done this before, and I have been given permission to drop China if the going gets hairy, on the grounds that all she’ll do is go home without me anyway.

Of course it is easier if both horses are good and if they like each other. Charlie seems to like pretty much any horse and China is similarly easy going though she can’t abide time wasters. Given that Charlie’s general attitude to life is that one should just get on with it, the worst that the pair of them usually do is have some sort of bizarre walking race. In fact, China is the ideal horse to lead. She has an odd ability to read my mind and the road, and simply pulls over into the nearest gateway if she hears a car approach, an action which makes her more sensible than many car drivers. My only slight quibble with her is that she does give the impression that I am by and large redundant. It’s not just that she would go home without me if I dropped her. It’s more that if I let her, she’d probably just lead Charlie out without any involvement from me whatsoever.

Charlie for his part is easy to lead from. He takes comfort in the presence of another horse, making him less sharp than he is on his own. The schooling is paying off and he will leg yield away from my leg, into and back out of gateways. He’ll turn on the forehand or pirouette whilst China circles around him, handy skills if we do need to turn around on a single track lane. And it’s partly the satisfaction of this skilful manoeuvring that makes ride and lead therapeutic. You’re not just controlling the one horse. The two of them will do your bidding, will read your mind, listen to your voice and body.

And they’re sweet together. They’ll cuddle right up to each other to let cars past, each trusting the other not to kick or bite. Though China did make it clear to Charlie that You Should Move Over More Quickly Or I Can’t Get Out Of The Gateway. Once I had got them safely home I took another horse out, this time on her own. And then the penny dropped and I realised why it is therapeutic. One horse plus one human is a partnership and is therapeutic in its own way. But one human with two horses is as near as I will ever get to being part of a herd. You cannot really get closer than sitting on one horse whilst having another so near that you can feel the warmth of its body. (Well you can, but I suspect it’s illegal and I know it’s immoral).

You can sit and watch their subtle interactions. In fact you are a part of them as you scratch one to reassure him about the plastic bag, talk to the other to let her know that her thoughtfulness in moving over is appreciated. You become part of a bigger group. Car drivers give way more readily as you and your mini-herd approach. There is a therapy and a restfulness in being accepted like this.

Watching Channel 4 this evening, I was reminded of the less pleasant side of being in a herd. In order to be in a group, you have to define others as outside it and people can be quite vile in their need to define someone as an outsider. It is as if they can only really feel the reassurance of belonging, if they have been cruel to someone on the outside. Richard is a compulsive hoarder. And I mean compulsive. And hoarder. He lives in Westcott, a village near Dorking in Surrey which to be frank, would be borderline unbelievable were it to feature in an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Richard’s garden and home don’t fit into the ethos of Westcott. ‘Sore thumb’ is an inadequate analogy. Westcott villagers join gardening clubs; amateur dramatics; cake making; the WI; tennis playing; black magic voodoo and the tea society. (I may have drifted off at that point and filled in some of the blanks with bullshit). They want to win some beautiful village competition which involves ruthlessly seeking out and destroying any stray dandelion and trimming the verges with nail scissors. So the fact that Richard’s home looks as if a hurricane blew through a rubbish tip and then someone planted a jungle on the resulting mess does not bode well.

The Westcottians do not like Richard. I’m taking a rapid dislike to the Westcottians and their Stepfordian attitude towards difference. Richard started hoarding some 40 years ago but his father apparently stopped him going too far. Now, with both parents long dead, Richard has no need to keep his hoarding in check. In his garden there are stacks of mouldy newspapers. These continue into his bungalow. In order to get into the bungalow he has to climb over piles of things, mainly newspapers though I spotted more margarine tubs than I have ever seen before and rather a lot of egg boxes. I say ‘climb over’. There is very little room between Richard’s ceiling and the piles so he belly crawls somewhere just below the door lintels. It’s like some sort of extreme potholing carried out in a Surrey bungalow that’s infested not only with stuff, but the ghost of stuff long deceased.

Richard meets Steve Kellett. a psychologist specialising in hoarding. Richard thinks it is debateable whether or not he hoards. As a general rule, and as someone who isn’t a psychologist, I think hoarding starts when you stop being able to see your floor. Richard’s entire house was a claustrophobic’s nightmare. He catnaps in a chair, because his bed disappeared under piles of stuff years ago. He cannot take a bath and indeed to the untrained eye, identifying the bathroom as such would be difficult. I wince as he lights a gas hob. He lives off boiled eggs and bread. I say ‘lives’. Richard himself says he exists rather than living.

Richard tells the psychologist it is a practical problem not a medical one, and what he needs is bespoke storage. There is an odd moment when Kellett tells Richard that you can throw things away and Richard replies ‘so you are in a sense advocating a throwaway society?’ Richard has a point that we throw away perfectly good things but I’m not sure that filling your bungalow to the brim is a good way to avoid the throw away aspects of consumerism. The psychologist cannot engage with Richard without him realising that he has a medical problem and so Kellett leaves. It seems harsh, but the psychologist has a point. Where therapy is concerned, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Therapy is a two-way street. You have to engage with the therapist.

But I’m starting to like Richard. He is evidently intelligent, very gentle, very aware (well apart from one possible blind spot) and oh so much more human than his neighbours in the village. Recognising that he needs to do something, Richard starts to clear his garden himself, and a local landscape gardener, Andy Honey, starts to help. I know that film production involves a certain amount of manipulation, and I know they probably edited to make Andy into a hero. But I suspect it didn’t take much editing. Andy is lovely. He sees Richard for the intelligent, gentle man that he is and gives him something that few people seem to have given before – time.

Though in the meanwhile the local fire brigade visit. As distracted as I am by firemen, I have to laugh at the fact that the one who really is built like the side of a shed, cannot actually navigate around the place. Richard’s bungalow is undoubtedly a fire hazard and, having just knocked over several piles, The Shed is unable to get further into the house or further out. The film crew, the meanies, don’t show how he extracted himself. The smaller fireman gives Richard a few smoke alarms. Which is useful. If the rubbish rises further it may meet the smoke alarm and thus achieve the same effect as when a stalactite meets a stalagmite.

Andy helps Richard remove the foliage from his garden. Unfortunately, this makes everything look a lot worse. My heart goes out to Richard as he surveys his garden and says that to anyone collecting stuff, Don’t. The pub landlord won’t help on the grounds that Richard is just a bit eccentric, not actually mad, and to help him is bad because it’s basically just making him conform to society’s norms. I’m not convinced by this. I mean I get the argument about eccentricity, but I suspect the landlord is trying to appear understanding whilst saying ‘I’m not going near that weirdo’.

And then Andy performs a miracle. He appeals to the villagers and some of them actually respond and come to Richard’s aid. A task that looked Herculean and as if it would require the rerouting of a river to solve, is now being achieved by the cast of Midsomer Murders. I could be a little bit in love with Richard, if he didn’t look so scruffy and I weren’t ultimately so shallow. One of the villagers even apologises for excluding him. 30 tons of rubbish is cleared in an afternoon. Richard is just glad of the help because as he says, he got himself into this mess and he feels it is his business to get out of it.

Richard and Andy argue over a pink child’s umbrella which Richard thinks is useful as a spare and Andy thinks is rubbish. I take Richard’s point about a throwaway society, but am inclined to agree with Andy. If it’s been buried under newspapers for ten years and you’ve forgotten you’ve got it, the chances of it being handy for spares are limited. But as they discuss the umbrella I am struck by the fact that a landscape gardener seems to have achieved what a psychologist and expert could not, simply by rallying together the community and spending time with the person who needed help. And I wonder, how much therapy do we need from professionals? And how much do we just need help from each other?

Richard, it seems to me, is one of the bravest people I’ve seen. To realise that you have a problem and then to crawl out from that pit, takes reserves of strength that few have. The villagers have taken to feeding him, and feel privileged to be able to help him. In a way it is heart warming, though I am not entirely convinced. The security of being part of a herd is good and I hope that Richard feels happier in the end. There is no doubt that he was ill. But I hope that the villagers have also learned that someone does not have to change entirely to fit in. That in defining someone as part of their group, they don’t have to be cruel to those who might just want to stay outside it.