We have just recently lost a valued team member who has been with us since day one of Jamie’s Farm. Four-legged Jive, our horse, who so many children worked with, some saying she is my new best friend. Jive was old and wise and seemed as an ‘elder’ animal to know instinctively what children needed. She made them feel valued, feel safe in her huge presence. In turn, children felt valued, kind, competent and often rekindled their instincts to give new things a try. Learning from the impact Jive had on children, and as my horse for 19 years, has made me think more of how vital relationships with animals and working with animals, helps children to change.
It is the middle of May, Spring has sprung, and a new group has arrived. The ewes are being moved back in for shearing, from the fields to the sheds. Their lambs at their heels, its chaos and noisy. Children are the sheepdogs. They are willing and energetic, rounding them up and steering them through, guiding their mischievousness, and bringing them in. It takes teamwork, patience, self-organisation, concentration, following instructions, and all the rest. It is fun, although hard work. Children are noisy, then calm. The work is real and needed, new experiences are all around.
By the end of the day, previous looks of anxiety and displacement have left the children’s’ faces. They have felt a part of something. Their enthusiasm, along with their fears, have been contained and redirected. Eggs have been collected and new bedding laid. Cows are out munching with bundles of hay and horses are happy, mucked out and groomed and bedded down. The piglets are well fed and suitably snoring. The lambs and ewes are back grazing on fresh pasture and the children are going home. There has been no time for boredom and plenty to celebrate. The group have newfound confidences and memories to take away, all made in one day.
The week before it was a very different group, some shy, some loud, some in hyperactive flight, some just afraid. Many of the children had poor attachment. They were not certain about being somewhere different and fearful about what may come their way. They were here on the farm for five days, a more typical group, teachers alongside them and our ‘family’ at the ready to build positive relationships. The setting is just as important – the farm and its beauty, the animals and their needs, and real work to be done.
The anxiety of a horse, a cow, a sheep, is not different from that of these children. Separation feels threatening. The sense of self dissipates, anxiety can overwhelm. Behaviour becomes ‘crazy’. These young people are displaced, away from home, from school, from the familiar, those elements which in themselves can be the sources of their fear. Grazing animals are strangely similar and familiar to the children. They exist in herds and need safety in numbers. They fear the dominance of the strongest and follow their lead. The cow, the sheep, the horse, they can only relax and eat when it is sure there is no danger. Similarly, the children can only take nourishment from relationships when they trust. Animals and children share hypervigilance. They experience real or imagined predators with danger lurking behind every hedge for the horse or cow, behind every new request or relationship for a nervous child. And yet, here on the farm, children can flourish when they are caring for animals when they themselves are neither predators or prey.
Life, death, love, loss, care compassion, empathy and frustration, these are just a few of the issues that working with animals create. We become responsible, children and adults alike. We are all carers, enablers, decision makers, interactive, in charge. So many of our instincts come alive in this work. We cannot stand still and remain closed hearted. Animals need us, depend on us, value us, and children quickly realise they are important to the animals’ survival. The needy person becomes needed, the cared for person becomes the carer, the guarded the guardian. From passive to active, receiving to giving, a child has built self-worth and can feel pride in place of anxiety. In a week, the children have changed.