A conversation with Catherine Bray

Catherine Bray is the founder of Equine Affinity: through working with horses in a therapeutic setting, we humans can observe what challenges we are presented with, and how we might overcome them. There is a lot to be learned through listening closely to these majestic animals. We asked Catherine to answer some pet owner Agony Aunt questions and to explain a little about her philosophy and approach to wellbeing, both for herself and the animals in her life. 

Note: Catherine is currently furloughed from her role as Raystede Animal Welfare Education Officer. She has agreed to an interview to offer advice as Catherine Bray. 

By Caf Fean

Help! My cat is getting fat!
If you are worried about weight gain in your pets, look into enrichment activities which encourage natural behaviour in animals. For cats and dogs this is being able to hunt and scavenge for food supplies. Hide their food around the house or garden and encourage your animal to seek it out. With cats, either order cat toys online or make a home-made one. These will keep them stimulated mentally and physically.

Lockdown is an opportunity to get to know your pets a bit more and to spend some time with them – as the relationship continues to build and it might be all too tempting to feed them more treats. Domestic pet obesity is a problem: exercise is the best solution. Play together with toys and encourage them into the garden if you have one.

Raystede Animal Welfare education pages for information on feeding your pets during lockdown, and different activities you can make and do at home:  www.raystede.org/education/learning-home

Venus de Miaow Miaow’s Barbicat
PICTURE: Spike Spondike

My dog is more nervous of strangers these days
This might happen if you have been in total lockdown and unable to walk your dog. Any reintroduction into society has to be done gradually; both when you go back to work, and when your dog goes out and mixes with strangers. The influx of visitors to the South Coast as lockdown eases may also cause alarm. Try to seek out quieter areas or walk early in the morning or late in the evening. Encourage people to approach slowly: “he’s [or she’s] a bit nervous – could you go slowly.” 

As lockdown eases, leave your dog at home for five, then 10 minutes and build up to an hour. Dogs should not be left alone for over four hours. If at all possible, don’t go back to full time work immediately – think about what your animal’s lifestyle is going to be like from now on.

Catherine and Jack
PICTURE: Catherine Bray

What has changed since lockdown for pet owners? 
Bonds have deepened: people are getting to see other aspects of their pets’ personalities or quirks that they may have missed before because they were always in such a hurry. You can use this insight to cater to their needs a bit more. Rather than riding, horse owners have been spending quiet time on the ground with the horse and have noticed that this has strengthened their relationship. The biggest downside I can foresee is that most animals have been used to having their humans around and have enjoyed it. Separating from the animal to a more ‘normal’ routine will need to be done gradually to avoid behavioural problems.

What more needs to be done to bring domestic animal wellbeing into the limelight? 
If you’re going to get a pet, contact animal welfare and get the right kind of pet to suit your lifestyle. It’s a huge commitment – like having a child. There’s nothing better than having a pet as part of your family, but it cannot be entered into lightly. I would encourage people to take a rescue pet: we meet so many that are given up because people are down-sizing or moving away, and they are very well-adjusted. It is the same rationale for owning horses: think it through very carefully and do your research.

Why do you work with animals?
It is exactly what I want, desire and need to be doing. Animals don’t judge us! They calm and fascinate me, and I learn a lot about myself by observing them. Horses are so good at reflecting back our internal communications. They pick up on our emotions, often before we do. It’s a gift that we can invite these animals into our lives – they are authentic – in the sense that they are allowed to totally be themselves. As humans we are conditioned into social norms – we can lose track of our roots and what matters most to us. Animals keep me grounded and remind me who I am and where I want to place myself in this world.

Catherine and India, Equine Affinity
PICTURE: Syriol Jones

What is your ideal pet?
My beloved dog Jack was brilliant in every way and I spent 15 and a half wonderful years with him. He taught me a lot about responsibility – he was my first dog. I would love to have a big patch of wild land somewhere and have a herd of semi-wild horses. If money were no issue, I’d definitely consider it! 

Equine Affinity is offering one-to-one sessions in How to be with the horse: this is for anyone to join in – both owners and non-owners. The team are now open to offer one-to-one sessions in the outdoors with social distancing principles in place. Contact Catherine Bray: [email protected]

5 Wellbeing Top Tips

Dog walking; walking as much as you can and finding some green space. Gentle exercise, yoga, mindfulness. 

Breathe and plunge
Personally I’ve been doing the Wim Hof method – it has been really useful in calming my anxiety. Plunging into cold water (I am lucky enough to live right by the sea, but on days where the sea has been rough, I’ve plunged into a cold bath) – I’d suggest you do a lot of research and develop your own plan around it.

Observe your pets
Observe animals when you are doing mindfulness work – see what they do. One of the exercises we sometimes do with Equine Affinity is a body scan. It can be done wherever you are and doesn’t have to be done near an animal. Whenever I do some yoga at home or when I do my Wim Hof breathing, my foster dog Molly comes and sits really quietly next to me. It definitely has a calming effect on us both!

Check in
Check in with yourself – how are you feeling this morning or evening? Feel into every part of your body, observe and just notice if there are any physical sensations or emotions going on and make sure you’re really grounding yourself. There are plenty of little mindfulness exercises online that you can use. Every day we wake up and we experience something different: I think it’s always good to check in with yourself before engaging with the external world.

Relish and respect nature
Observe birds in the garden, stop and listen. Time needs to be set aside for our mental wellbeing but also to really observe and respect nature, whether it be our domestic pets or woodland creatures. It needs to be part of our lives now.

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