Equal on Both Sides

The subject of death makes the strongest of us squirm. Typically, it is not a discussion that brings about joy in one another. Yet, as we age, we become aware that a state of unpreparedness for the passing of either ourselves, our loved ones, or our animals can have detrimental consequences for those left behind. It may also cause considerable stress over critical decision-making at an emotional time.

For the horse owner, many are left in a quandary with the expense of maintaining older equines once they can no longer be ridden because of medical issues. The very topic of life-cycle management from the birth to death of an animal, especially one as large as a horse, is a discussion we believe needs to be had amongst horse lovers the world over. With the continued breeding and many thousands of yearly births of all kinds of horses, the global community of equines and their people is facing an unsustainable future as climate change, rising costs of upkeep, and urban development squeeze more horses out of the system and make it all the more difficult for the average owner to keep horses through to the end of their days.

This article raises some interesting ideas as to why issues of welfare have become worse than ever for all species of animals. For those equestrians who are courageous enough to take a peek into the darker side of the business, the numbers of homeless horses and those going to slaughter are staggering. The big question asked over and over again, especially by those on the frontlines of rescue and those who comb the auction kill pens to find the few they can save, is, “Why?”

With shelter euthanasia rates going down, major companies moving toward more humanely-produced food, and the prospect of legal “personhood” for primates being litigated in court, you might have thought things were going pretty well for animals.

But authors of a new paper would disagree. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­(Could Our Own Fear Of Death Be Affecting The Way We Treat Animals? The Huffington Post  |  By Arin Greenwood)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/10/nonhuman-personhood_n_6341474.html

 The Huffington Post: You say in the paper that despite what looks like some gains in animal welfare and animal rights, that things for animals are still very bad. Can you explain?

Michael Mountain: It’s interesting that people are really motivated to do something positive and definite about homeless pets, because we see them as part of our “in-group” — our family. But we see the rest of the animal kingdom (queendom?) as basically resources and commodities for our use and benefit.

Lori Marino: And there are more farm animals being slaughtered and eaten around the world every year.

What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse — not better — in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.

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Unfortunately for horses, they are still classified as “livestock.” While most are given a variety of drugs throughout their lifetimes that make them unsuitable for processing and consumption, regulations have been weak enough to allow horses into the food chain, particularly in European and Asian regions (shipped from North America). Horse lovers are caught in between the concept that “pets are family”, but livestock is a commodity. This has been the perception and classification that has led to the demise of many thousands of horses. Those who are of the mindset to keep their horses forever have a hard time understanding how other people could let their horses go to an auction, or just blatantly discard them and not care where the horse might end up.

According to the research presented by Michael Mountain, a leader in the no-kill movement, and Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, much of the decline in animal welfare overall is due to our subconscious need to think of ourselves as immortal and above animals. This not something most of us register consciously. Something deep down in our programming tells us that we are better than them. Therefore, we are free to do as we wish to exert our superiority and dominance in the natural order of things.

Except that, well, we haven’t done such a great job of taking care of that natural order. This is more about what we have become as a species, and in our minds, the species-in-charge.

“We are in a sixth mass extinction and there is no doubt about that at this point,” says Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, cetacean expert and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Mountain and Marino, whose work is due out this spring, have a theory about why this is happening: existential anxiety and fear of death.

LM: That, given that everything is getting worse — for us, for other animals, for the whole planet — that there is something about human nature that is motivating us to behave in ways that cause everything to get worse.

It is not just about putting in more effort or more money. It is really about who we are. This is all about the kind of animal we have evolved to be.

Biologists and paleoecologists estimate that humans have driven roughly 1,000 species extinct in our 200,000 years on the planet. Since 1500 we have killed off at least 322 types of animals, including the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger and, most recently, the baiji, a freshwater dolphin in China. Another 20,000 or more species are now threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps a list of all the known endangered plants and animals on the planet.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-the-sixth-mass-extinction-can-be-stopped/

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I believe those of us who grew up with many pets in the house, or on a farm, have had more experiential contact with death than people who did not grow up with animals. Yes, there are far too many youth and adults confronted with horrible experiences involving war zones, terrorist attacks, and accidental deaths, but there is something of a lifecycle learning experience that occurs when you are in a loving home and your beloved pet guinea pig dies, or the aging family dog has to be euthanized. While we don’t want to deal with the process of watching a favourite pet go through the dying phases, we come to an understanding that we are not in charge of this fact of life, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. As a child, this is a profound revelation to comprehend.

As an adult, I know most of us contemplate the transition more than we care to admit. I have heard it said that it is not so much death we are afraid of, but the moment of death. We are here, and then we are not. We don’t want to suffer through it. These researchers have pinpointed our feelings about that moment to be the reasoning behind the way we ultimately treat animals.

Personally, I have been so close to animals since I was a child I honestly do feel like one of them. When I am alone in the pasture with the horses, I am completely in my comfort zone. I could just as easily forget about being a human and all my human responsibilities, and simply while the day away in the pasture with my four-legged companions. I know how connected they are to the death process. I have witnessed horses transition, and experienced the mourning behaviors of those left behind. They are clearly sentient beings.

Knowing this, where does the motivation come from to treat animals so poorly? We aren’t talking so much about individuals here, as we are discussing the human condition in general. There are millions of people who would be mortified upon realizing their fear of death subconsciously has a negative effect on their animals. No, this is broader.

If the topic of death makes you a little squeamish, think about the career of a veterinarian. Animals, including horses, have a much shorter lifespan than humans. Inevitably, if we have animals, there will be visits to or from the veterinarian, and sometimes that could include the extremely heart-wrenching decision to euthanize an older or sick companion. Imagine being the professional practitioner who is not only evaluating and confirming the decision to euthanize, but is also responding to the emotions and needs of the people who are closest to that animal. In over 35 years of practice, Dr. Schoen has been in this position many times, and has developed his own profound understanding of the transition to the other side…

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When I read this article in the Huffington Post, I found it fascinating that the authors proposed that part of the reason we treat animals the way we do is because of our own fear of death and how we can separate them from us.

In general, I agree with their thoughts. I do sense that in general our society is in denial about death and dying. If we have the programmed understanding and fear that is promoted in society in general, it is totally understandable. If one explores a bit deeper below the surface, exploring books such as “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche (http://www.rigpa.org/en/about-sogyal-rinpoche/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.html) as well as philosophical books like “A Year to Live” by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (http://levinetalks.com/About-Us) as well as the numerous books describing “life after death” experiences, one can view the concept of death from a different perspective. Exploration of these views have become so popular these days that Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon’s book called “Proof of Heaven” (http://www.ebenalexander.com/ has been on the NY Times Best Seller list for a long time. Yet, it seems like some people go along with Woody Allen’s quote, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Actually, it is one of the most profound transitions, if not the most profound one we can ever experience. Some Tibetan teachers feel that that is what we are preparing for in life.

In my own personal experiences, having to euthanize many animals throughout my over 35 years of veterinary practice and then pondering my decisions at different times as well as observing clients perspectives at that moment, I have come to honor the mystery of that time and the opportunity it offers us to explore our own attitudes on death.

My views on death have evolved over my veterinary career. I will share more in future articles and books. I have also intimately experienced my parents’ death and dying process as well as more friends than I care to mention.

I do believe the death of our horses, our animal companions, can offer us a profound opportunity to explore all perspectives on life and death and how we treat all beings. I do see that denial of the eventuality of death is not beneficial for most people and does not allow for unique opportunities to awaken to the magnificence of who we really are.

I would be interested in what our readers’ perspectives are. I look forward to sharing more with all of you regarding this profound moment we will all face.

Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD. (hon.)

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It is okay to talk about this. Whether you agree with the researchers or not, as Dr. Schoen has noted, denial of what we are, or have become as humans, is not helping us. We can open to new understandings, and share our stories of what death and dying means to us personally. We can explore how we cope with the loss of our beloved horses, friends, family members, and others who leave us behind in our mortal bodies. A friend of mine even prepares for the inevitable with her horses by cremating their remains and keeping their ashes in a (very large) urn. It is an honor reserved for very few horses, but her deep compassion and care for her animals is evident in her lack of fear regarding their eventual deaths, and acceptance of the process when the time comes.

While I risk going over the esoteric edge here, I have to say that I have experienced clear evidence of life after death. Animals do not question such things in the way that humans do. So in that regard, yes, there is a separation between us and them. That is, apart from the human beings who are so in tune with the animal world themselves that no separation is evident and our treatment of them is such as we would want ourselves to be treated.

Present! No…Absent!

Can you remember the last time you had nothing do to? I mean literally, nothing. No e-mail to check, no e-demands of any sort in fact, all chores done, and complete freedom from anything other than that which you choose. If you are over 50 years old as I am, you probably do recall such a time. If you are much younger than that, you might have to search your memory banks a little deeper for the do-nothing moments.

I listened to a radio interview this morning with author Michael Harris about his book The End of Absence. It sparked a day-long contemplation and left me with a bit of a quandary. Here we are with the pending launch of a major book ourselves, The Compassionate Equestrian, in which we have suggested a period of quiet contemplation before working with your horse, or even before entering the barn. Not that this is a “do-nothing” moment, but it is meant to help you quiet the mind, restore a deeper breath, slow the heart rate, and approach your horse with a sense of calm and peacefulness.

However, in this high-speed, short attention span world, we have to build a digital marketing plan and customer acquisition process the way business must be done now, and that is via social networking and the internet. Therefore while we suggest creating the ever so rare moments of solitude and quiet, which are of tremendous benefit, at the same time I have been busy on the computer for endless hours learning from online webinars and videos how to increase Facebook likes to over a million, fill live events, drive more customers to the website, and so forth. We expect a lot of followers to come from the attachment to technology. Sometimes I feel as though I am fighting for mental stability in this age of After the Internet arrived. What is this odd feeling? Why is it so pervasive? When did it become normal to have 5 windows open on 3 different e-mail addresses with a webinar held on pause in another window and a Word document started in yet another?

“But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.

In The End of Absence, Michael Harris argues that amid all the changes we’re experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There’s no true “free time” when you carry a smartphone. Today’s rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.”

http://www.endofabsence.com/home/

I began my working career in advertising and marketing but that was in 1977 and things were very different then. We used radio, television, newspaper, flyers and billboards to spread the message. You had the choice to look or listen if you wish, but nobody could ever say they were addicted to their media!

Silence. How often can you say your world is truly quiet? Can you even stand it when everything around you goes quiet? Noise seems to be an addictive factor in many people’s lives too. There is a nervousness that creeps in when suddenly nobody has anything to say. Even if you are a sensitive person in a group meditation practice, you can detect the subtle nuances of people going through lists, analyzing situations, or perhaps thinking about where they need to be next. People have a lot of noise in their heads now, even if they don’t want it there.

I feel strangely guilty for all this rising of the endlessly busy ones. I lived in a computer lab, literally, in the days of the dot com explosion, and had a front row seat in watching the great divide emerge…the Before and After as Harris describes it. My ex-boyfriend, who was president of the high-tech company, had a freakish ability to see how the past and future connected. He forged onwards as everyone was doing it to see who could win the race to make money selling “minutes” amongst other then non-existent products. Few believed it could really happen. It was like a surreal dream. If we needed to reach through time and scream, “noooo don’t do it” it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. It all ballooned and got away from everyone, the expectations of money and reality of connecting humans all over the globe has happened, for better, for worse, and everything in between. Many of the smaller entrepreneurial companies did not survive, and I think we know who won in the end.

Young genius engineers, venture capitalists, and horses simultaneously surrounded me. Yes, the lab was initially on our ranch property in one of the outbuildings. That was the early 1990s. Personal computing was still clunky and archaic compared to what it is now and only the military and a handful of industry insiders had cell phones, which were like bricks compared to today’s smartphones.

My front row seat as all of this unfolded still astonishes me with the short blip in history that it took to go from the Before to the After. As a collective species, I think many of us are still in shock and exhausted from trying to keep up. As The End of Absence notes, children born within the past two decades will have no memory of what the world was like before the internet.

I kept riding, training, and teaching as all this was happening. People weren’t too affected by their attachments to e-leashes (a term coined by one of our progressive sound engineers), or constant checking of phones because they didn’t exist. So neither were the horses terribly affected by distracted, busy humans whose ability to spend 3 or 4 hours at the barn hadn’t yet been condensed to crushingly intense minutes of anxiety and demands. This is an animal that has not adapted to our distractions and lack of presence. With horses, a moment of distraction can put a rider in danger or a compromising position too.

I am currently in the very unusual position of being able to grant myself moments of utter nothingness if I choose to do so. It means consciously registering when I need to close the lid on the computer, and stop it all. It is part of that ongoing battle for sanity and my plan is to win. Just like when I was a child and could take time to simply sit in the grass, enjoying the passing clouds and the company of one of our pets, or walk the dry riverbed looking for agates, spend a couple of hours taking apart a bridle and giving it a good cleaning, or reading book after book, savouring each bit of valuable information.

Oh yes, we can sure learn a lot from the internet too, can’t we? Some useful, some frighteningly misleading, especially when it comes to horse training. This is a segment of the Before and After that I find incongruous. It is incredibly useful to be able to connect with people all over the globe, finding like-minded friends, future clients, or new interests, all with the click, click, click method. We are here in the After and that is what is required for business…but how do we tell people to stop doing that for a few minutes, especially when they go to interact with their horses? How do we convey the difference between valuable information and that which could be disastrous or misconstrued?

If you are too young to remember the Before, it may be an especially difficult task to put all technology and rapidly firing thoughts to rest for the time you are with your horse. If you recall the Before but are caught up in the After, try some self-analysis and go back to the transition time that led us from certain freedoms to virtually none in 2015. Even without having a spouse, children, or my own animals to look after, just managing my own life and finding quiet moments without feeling the need to check the iPad, MacBook, or the MotoGo phone is becoming more of a challenge. I feel like I should be doing more, more and more. It is a strange and alien sensation. This isn’t normal. If this is the new normal, then we as humans need to evolve our physiology or brain chemistry to keep from making ourselves crazy with the flood of resulting stress hormones.

And if we evolve to that kind of state, what of our beloved horses? Will they have a place in a future that might look like something out of recent sci-fi movies? Is this an organic evolution and those of us who know Before will pine for the “good old days” until there are none left who remember? I don’t know the answer to that.

I do know that if we don’t retrain ourselves to find those quiet, gap moments of solitude and quiet, we will become further and further separated from the mind and nature of the horse. Of course, we can use technology for good, in ways that help with connection, care and welfare, used with compassion to relieve the suffering of others.

As of now, there are still millions of horses and horse owners worldwide, but the numbers are dwindling, especially where youth are concerned. I read the press releases and follow results of big shows, and look carefully at the bodies and expressions of the horses. While some still exude a great enthusiasm for what they are doing, there is a lot of stress appearing in the body language and eyes of many horses, possibly going unnoticed by busy, time-pressured people.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to look back and understand how all of this has happened. It has made me mindful enough to shape my life around luxurious moments of being absent. I was actually a latecomer to the internet and smartphone myself due to having been immersed in the early days of these communications technologies, observing the changes in people firsthand. I resisted the fact that I would have to lessen quiet time with the horses and spend more time on a computer. Like so many other people, I caved in eventually. Now the horse-to-computer ratio has adjusted considerably, and I miss teaching and arena-time.

I have been determined enough to keep focus when working with a horse or student that the cell phone stays in the car and no thoughts are given as to who might have e-mailed something important. It is getting harder to refrain from the feeling of needing to check though. I am still resisting. I have also found myself pulling the phone out to record photos or videos with the intention to post to Facebook and the horses oblige but are quizzical. They aren’t too sure about this After life yet…and actually, neither am I. I would certainly be more than happy to let the social networking do its “thing” and subsequently allow me to do mine…which is to teach people how to have their best rides, ever. I will have to ask you to leave your phones in the car however, and I will do the same ;)

The Era of Compassion

2015 is the year of The Compassionate Equestrian. I also have a feeling it is going to be a year of compassion and change in general, as there is a sense of greater things to come. Perhaps it is related to our evolutionary process, and we have arrived at a time in history when more hearts are opening, and more minds are becoming aware that we live in a world where all sentient beings are connected.

People have had enough of the bad news, which just seems to have gotten worse than ever. Not only do we hear the stories of war and terrible crimes against humanity, natural disasters, diseases and accidents, we hear about them a lot faster and more thoroughly than in the past thanks to the rate at which electronic networks relay the information. It is stressing people to the brink trying to manage the necessities of life on top of the incredible amount of information processing we all seem to be engaged with, whether we like it or not. We are so busy checking devices all day, deleting, writing, sending, rechecking, over and over again. We can’t just hit the “stop” button though because it is important that we are able to connect.

Maybe we just need to change the topic sometimes and take charge of our time and take a stand on that which is most passionate to our hearts. Our humanness, the cause of so much despair and difficulty, is the very thing that will lift us up and out of darkness because each and every one of us has the ability to inspire others. We can all make the choice to be compassionate to ourselves, and towards others.

We can listen to our horses, an animal we connect with in such a unique manner. Is it not such a magical thing that these animals allow us to sit on their backs and give them directions by feel? When we truly connect with a horse we are plugged in to the ancient soul and the beat of the earth that existed long before we ever did. What is it saying? What should we do? We can listen to people like Lyn White from Animals Australia about becoming the best we can be.

 Post by Animals Australia.

On this very personal journey, Lyn explores the factors that created a profound transformation in her life, shaped her view of the world and the people within it. She will explore the causalities she has witnessed through a unique career path, from policing to animal advocacy, spanning countries, cultures and belief systems and why she has come to believe that the pathway to a kinder world could be as simple as becoming the best we can be, what Albert Einstein called our sacred human duty…

http://www.animalsaustralia.org/becoming-the-best-we-can-be

(be sure to watch this video)

History shows us that the only time that cycles of suffering and inherited thinking are broken … is when someone has the courage to take a stand and say in a loud clear voice, ‘we are better than this’.

 How do we go about this change and uplifting of humanity? We are capable.

There is something happening in the collective consciousness of mindful individuals. There must be, because I keep hearing from people I talk to and seeing posts on social media that indicate growing numbers of advocates for horses in distress, more openness and authentic stories…as though this collective of people are all approaching one another with open arms and saying “we can’t do this alone.”

photo: www.equusmagazine.com, the Jurga Report

photo: David Noah, http://www.equusmagazine.com, the Jurga Report

There are rescuers coming to the aid of people and horses in dire situations, to the best of their abilities and with more help arriving. We are finding those who have been too quiet, too subtle in their approaches, or too overwhelmed to seek assistance emerging from the shadows. They are looking at what has been done in the past, and what we can do now, especially with our new and very powerful tools of interconnectedness. We can do this.

We are capable of developing our hearts and minds to a level of compassion that creates a special kind of energy radiating from our bodies. Horses sense it and respond. People do too. There are so many people who are just too overworked, too tired, too busy, and too sad to realize what this thing called compassion is capable of.

On a personal level self-compassion saves us from the negative mind-chatter that can paralyze our actions. It can help override the harder times at the barns with other people or trouble with our horses, and take us through the days that just don’t seem to be going well. We then have a greater resilience and capacity to help others, and the joy is contagious.

I have watched the most downtrodden of horses come back to life and forgive humans for their lack of awareness and kindness. They turn around and eagerly give of their inherently gentle natures, inspiring those around them to marvel at their apparent compassion and capacity to forgive. We, as humans, are evolved enough to be like this too. We have the means, and I know many of us have the drive and passion to make this a kinder, safer world for everyone… horses, humans, and all sentient beings.

Yes, I believe we can do this. As Einstein said, “We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.”By being the best we can be, we also have the opportunity to lift up and inspire others to be happy and compassionate as their best selves too. Let’s make 2015 the year of The Compassionate Equestrian, in more ways than one.

Dr. Schoen and I invite you to saddle up and ride along with us on this extraordinary journey, with many blessings and much happiness in the coming New Year.

Susan

Horse Hugging for Good Health

Unless somebody asks or is openly receptive to hearing about my little tricks for preventing seasonal ailments I generally keep that information to myself. The fact is, I haven’t been sick in many years. Not even a common cold. I use a combination of natural remedies and whether other people believe in them or not, they have worked for me. Or perhaps there’s something else that has radically boosted my immune system. Who would have thought…hugs!

http://www.msn.com/en-ca/health/wellness/hugs-can-help-ward-off-stress-infection-study/ar-BBgXJrb

   According to results, perceived social support did, indeed, reduce the risk of infection that arises due to interpersonal conflicts, and one third of this infection-reducing social support was attributed to hugs.

Participants who became infected with the common cold due to the intentional exposure experienced less severe symptoms if they perceived themselves as having significant social support and were frequently hugged.

My parents were not the hugging type, so I was probably hug-deprived as a child and perhaps that contributed to regular bouts of respiratory ailments in my youth. As with most people, I really dislike being ill. It seemed like every year I would join the ranks of those with sore throats and stuffed up noses, sniffling and coughing for weeks on end.

I was introduced to natural medicine in my early twenties, which was also when I began working with horses full time.

Now as a junior and amateur rider we can get away with all kinds of cute behaviors and lovey-dovey stuff with the horses, but in a commercial show barn it may be construed as unbecoming of a professional trainer. So when I discovered that some horses seem to enjoy getting and giving hugs, I kept that to myself too.

One very special horse in that regard was an off-track thoroughbred we named Kevin. He had one of those lengthy, odd race names, but it didn’t seem to suit his “new kid in the kindergarten class” personality.

Kevin was delivered to our barn via an inebriated cowboy who somehow managed to pony the bay gelding from the back of his own thoroughbred across a busy four-lane highway. He was only five years old, and a recent racetrack reject that didn’t want to run particularly fast.

The trainer I worked for at the time began schooling Kevin over fences and was a bit dismayed by his awkward jumping form. So I was given the ride on him, as my speciality was flatwork and gymnastics that improved on the horses’ form and ability to jump. I took quite a liking to the bright-eyed bay and apparently the feelings were mutual.

I give the horses a tapping massage in several key areas of their body including right in front of the withers. They love it and find it very relaxing. One day as I stood alongside Kevin’s neck to give him a massage he wrapped his head over my left shoulder and pulled me in close to his chest. So I wrapped my arms around his big shoulders and gave him a hug right back. We just stood in his stall for a few minutes and I honestly felt as though I was getting a hug from a very dear friend. I hoped none of the barn’s staff or clients were going to walk by the stall, wondering what the heck I was doing!

Can horses really emote in such a manner? Kevin’s apparent affection felt quite genuine, and he was the one who initiated the embrace. The majority of horses are more stoic like my parents, although a good mutual grooming is always appreciated. I refrain from touching them around their heads too much as they are very sensitive and most horses would prefer a scratch on the withers to a kiss on the nose.

Kevin and I continued to develop a very special relationship. When he exhibited dust allergy symptoms he knew how to ask me to water his hay. If I forgot, he would stand forlornly over the automatic waterer in his stall, refusing to eat until I came in with the can of water for his forage. For his jumping to improve exponentially, I had to take his flatwork all the way up to a fairly advanced level of dressage, including teaching him a few steps of piaffe (the trot in place). He enjoyed showing off his piaffe when turned out to play, especially if he had an audience.

Kevin with student Mira Word

Kevin with student Mira Word

I was very proud of him when he started winning classes over fences and packing juniors in equitation and hunter classes. We continued our secret hug moments whenever I thought it might be safe from questioning eyes to do so.

Unfortunately I also developed allergies to the dust and had to move away from the barn. I still miss Kevin, but I never get a cold. Who knows if hugging horses really does improve one’s immune system quite that much, but we can secretly hope that it has an effect, can’t we?

If I were you, I’d say go ahead and give it a try :)

Happy Holidays everyone and go hug a horse! If you don’t have a horse, a willing friend or much-loved human should be just as effective. Oh, why not just go hug everybody!? Then we can all be well.

Horses Needed; Perils in Paradise

 

This is the time of year for joy and giving. We wish for good news, and goodwill towards everyone. Bells are ringing, the scent of fresh evergreens tickles our senses, and beautiful bright lights abound. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks there has been a topic front and center in local and international news that is not what we want to hear during the jolly season. The reality is that for many people, holidays are often the hardest time of year.

Close to home, there have been some disconcerting mental health “incidents” at our local library. It is the lead headline on the front page of the small but colourful newspaper that services our utopian island community of about 10,000 permanent residents.

http://gulfislandsdriftwood.com/news/mental-health-impacts-library/

And recently our hospital foundation’s report shared information from a 2010 health review about the high incidence of depression amongst the population, stating “residents know that there are many people on Salt Spring Island who are coping with mental health issues. Because the island has a reputation as a peaceful, tolerant and supportive community, mentally ill people may come to Salt Spring looking for refuge, a slower pace of life, and a ‘healing’ atmosphere.”

This is a bastion of healthy living, peace, quiet, and beauty, where people have come to seek solace and a reprieve from a stressful lifestyle. They are looking for the connection to nature that is so healing, but unfortunately being such a small, low-key community, we do not have the infrastructure to provide enough of the necessary services to all of those in need. It is somewhat of a quandary. It seems as though the issues people arrive with have been fueled, at least in part, by life in big, crowded cities that run on the high-octane environment today’s society demands. It would be wonderful if they could be helped simply by proximity. Yet it is much more complex than a change of environment, as our microcosm illustrates rather well.

The numbers of those with mental health challenges are on the rise exponentially, especially amongst youth. Why?

Depression and anxiety are affecting more young people than ever before. According to a study published today by the Office for National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds are suffering psychological problems, which is almost the rate at which these are seen in early middle age, the life-stage usually most associated with mental health issues.

     Areas of concern for young people stretch from relationships with parents, friends, colleagues or fellow students, to worries about appearance and fitting in. Young women were more likely than young men to be showing signs of distress, with a report earlier this week claiming that one in five teenage girls are opting out of classroom discussions and even playing truant because they hate the way they look.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/04/5-ways-address-rising-depression-young-people-psychological-issues-anxiety

     How could a lifestyle with horses possibly solve some of these problems? What kind of miracles could horses work where human intervention is often less than successful?

There might be some clues in the information that has been garnered from studies done on tribal communities where clinical depression is virtually unknown.

In a recent Ted Talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” professor Stephen Ilardi advances the thesis that depression is a disease of our modern lifestyle. As an example, Ilardi compares our modern culture to the Kaluli people — an indigenous tribe that lives in the highlands of New Guinea. When an anthropologist interviewed over 2,000 Kaluli, he found that only one person exhibited the symptoms of clinical depression, despite the fact the Kaluli are plagued by high rates of infant mortality, parasitic infection, and violent death. Yet, despite their harsh lives, the Kaluli do not experience depression as we know it.

     Ilardi believes this is due to the fact that the human genome of the Kaluli (as well as all humans) is well adapted to the agrarian, hunter/ gatherer lifestyle which shaped 99% of people who came before us. Then two hundred years ago, we saw the advent of the modern western-industrialized culture, which created a “radical, environmental mutation” that has led a mismatch between our genes/brains/bodies and modern culture. As Ilardi concludes, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”

http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/06/living-age-melancholy-society-becomes-depressed/

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

I look at the stories and videos of little girls and ponies recently posted online and wonder how many women are like myself, longing for those days of innocence when all that mattered was that we wanted a horse so badly we would have done anything to have one of our own. We read books, drew pictures, dragged our moms to the ponies in the park and could hardly believe it when the day finally came that we were a horse “owner.” To be dressed in riding clothes, covered in horsehair, hay and dirt, was a sure sign confirming our passion and connection to horses. We loved the smell, our own scruffy ponytails sticking out of a helmet and the sweet, milky “goober” that the wind caught from our salivating horses and sent flying as we cantered over our first jumps. We had no time to be absorbed in hating ourselves, or how we looked, because all of our time and attention went to the horses. Oh sure, boys eventually tried to capture our hearts, but they had to know that “horse time” was first and foremost.

We learned the ups and downs of life, the trials and tribulations of having animals that can suffer just as people do. They are born, they are happy, sad, hurt, and they die one day. Yes, we learned all about life, through our first horses. We were not sedentary, kept indoors, sitting all day long, eating fast food (well, quite a few quickly prepared peanut-butter sandwiches perhaps), or socially isolated. Usually by the end of a long day in the barn, we were ready for a good meal and definitely a great night’s sleep. In other words, all of the qualities that were found to prevent depression in the tribal peoples, we experienced with our horses.

Unfortunately, horse time these days is often mixed with texting, and too much social media interaction, which is one of the first suggestions to limit in regards to lessening the potential for anxiety and depression.

This is where those of us who can still remember “the good old days” of our glorious interactions with horses and horsey-friends could step in and mentor young ladies and men, helping them create a state of grace, compassion for themselves and others, and acknowledgement of their own capabilities for helping maintain good mental health.

As we celebrate and honor our traditions in the coming weeks, let us remember that for every young face that lights up at the sight of a new pony in the barn, there is someone facing the sadness of ill health, the passing of an old horse, a friend or family member, memories of tragedy and despair, and possibly dealing with mental health issues themselves. It would be wonderful if we could reconnect over-stressed, hyper-speed human beings with nature and the simplest, most organic lifestyle that we are designed for, and surround everyone with mercy, love and understanding. May we all find our compassionate natures and recognize the suffering of others. May we be of benefit to all other beings, and where we are able, help relieve their suffering.

And in the spirit of the season, it seems appropriate to repost this wonderful set of videos from our publisher’s blog that are sure to make you smile:

https://horseandriderbooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/santa-please-bring-me-a-pony-6-ponies-for-presents-videos-from-tsb/

 

 

 

TWO PRECIOUS GIFTS

In their quiet, mysterious ways, horses can make us feel exquisitely important. There is the one that watches your every move with ears fixated forwards. Or the horse that offers a transition in the split second before your brain sends the impulse to your legs…and the one that moves close to you, pressing its head into your chest when you are feeling down. They make us smile, give us confidence, and make us feel as though we could spend a lifetime together.

Do animals know when they are lifting our spirits? They must be reading and sensing something about our mood and behaviors, as they can also be quick to withdraw their interest if we seem threatening to them. Not unlike humans, if horses are repeatedly treated badly they can potentially shut down and refuse to willingly engage with us. They might even act out with their own version of hostility and angry rebuttals. There is a list of physiological stress responses identified with anger and aggression. In both horses and humans an over-stimulation of the flight or fight response and excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that have detrimental effects on one’s health.

Being partnered with a horse is somewhat comparable to having a close relationship with another human in many ways. Some of those partnerships work out much better than others, and as a trainer observing the interactions between horses and humans for many years, there is now research to confirm a lot of my own suspicions as to why some people get along better with their horses than others at a basic, interpersonal level.

A team of researchers created a study that looked at why some couples are able to stay together for a lifetime, while others do not survive much past the honeymoon phase. The attached article (link below) from The Atlantic is well worth reading.

When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

     But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal — of being in fight-or-flight mode — in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/#ixzz3KWxRsW9G

The horses could relate to having to face off with a saber-toothed tiger (somewhere back in their genetic memory!). When we have a horse, we do have a relationship. It may be more constructive amongst some horse/human teams than others, but when the two species interact, that is ultimately a pairing with responsibilities and expectations on behalf of both parties.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to have a good relationship with your horse, but that is only the beginning. What follows your engagement is what makes or breaks the partnership. As described in this article, there are the masters and the disasters.

As with traumatized people, horses can go from sweet, kind personalities to stressed, terrified bundles of nerves that overreact to stimuli. The reverse can also occur. Could the qualities that form the basis for a long-term, loving human relationship be the same that ensure longevity with horses? Obviously their brains do not compute language in the same way we do, so what would the common denominator possibly be comprised of? The answers appear to be quite specific and applicable to both species.

One of the key factors with the successful relationships according to this article is that the couples remained calm and connected, even when they fought. Their physiological arousal was low compared to the elevated flight/fight response of their less loving counterparts.

It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.

     This could explain why some of us feel we connect better with animals than we do with most people. We really are that sensitive to gesture, body language, and intention. We understand the silent, but important responses to our requests for attention, and animals seem to pick up on that behavior. Best of all, if we feel happy, safe, and trusted, we garner a positive response in our animals that is immediately apparent, because we can read the emotions they appear to be mirroring back to us.

When we seek an in-kind response from our loved ones, and are met with indifference or a negative reaction, such actions set the downward spiral in motion for the deterioration of what might have begun as a wonderful relationship.

Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

    Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

     Horses trust us more as riders when we respond positively to their bids for connection. It doesn’t mean we agree with them that there might be a fire-breathing dragon hiding beneath the bridge on the trail. More appropriately, that we acknowledge their response without a negative reaction that will have them thinking we are spooking at the invisible fire-breathing dragon too! The horse is just looking for the trusted herd leader to determine the right behavior based on their perceived threat. Sometimes they are just curious, which we can also consider a bid for attention. None of their requests should be met with anger.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

    These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

     I grew up watching my parents criticize each other, constantly taking little bites out of their marriage. It was sad, as they had not been taught a better way to communicate. Their hostility in turn affected their relationship with my brother and me as we took turns vying for their affection. The family room walls were covered in our awards and certificates of achievement, yet all we really wanted was to know that our parents genuinely loved us. Our “bids” for attention rarely garnered the responses we were seeking which may have been something as simple as a hug, a positive comment, or listening to our stories without creating an argument. Unfortunately we learn from our parents all too well and tend to find ourselves with partners who reflect the same type of relationship we were raised with unless we make a conscientious effort to work through that conditioning.

Our human issues seem to translate to how we interact with horses. If a horse is met with a smack from a whip or a jerk of the rein, it is, in the horse’s mind, an attack from the person who is supposed to be the one that can be trusted. While firmness may be necessary at times, and boundaries are established for the sake of safety, they can be accomplished using the same responses one horse would convey to another. Timing is everything. A horse that is always expecting an attack from its rider is not a pleasant ride, nor is it a happy horse.

Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

   “It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

     Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

     Watch a horse’s ears go back when approached by someone who has caused them pain. They may exhibit other behaviors too, such as moving away, threatening to kick, or raising their head and tensing their body. If someone even reminds them of a person who has hurt them, the behaviors may surface. Much like a human being who has been heartbroken or mistreated, the defensive responses are always looking for the triggers. The reactions happen in the body before the brain can talk you out of them.

With horses, it is interesting to observe their responses to a rider from the ground. As an instructor, we have the opportunity to pay attention to the equine expressions of contentment, gratitude, pain, stress, fatigue, or anger. Whether one believes horses have these emotions or not, with experience it becomes obvious when the facial expressions and body language change in response to either stimuli in the environment and/or something the rider is doing. Given the actions of the horse that follow a particular expression, I am pretty convinced after many years of riding, then teaching others to ride, that there is something biochemically similar occurring in both species.

This being true, then the masterful relationship techniques should also have the same effect in regards to horses and humans. Kindness makes all the difference in the world.

Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

     There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

     “If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”

     Horses respond best to their handlers when the attention is 100% focused on them. They are sensitive enough to know where our attention is directed, and can tell when we have so much as shifted our eyes to look at something. Inherently, we humans are similarly attuned to each other too, and it may be why we are so easily hurt. Many just don’t realize it.

Horses love to be acknowledged when they have done well. I have watched a student’s horse do something exceptional or correct, and then receive no accolades for it. A little scratch on the neck is all they need, yet I have often found myself repeating, “pet, him, tell him he’s been good!” Eventually the rider responds and I can see the positive change in the horse’s expression. As with human-to-human relationships, being generous with small acts of kindness can go a long way. This includes recognizing when the horse is really trying. Be kind with a giving rein, a soft voice, and a scratch on the withers for even the subtle moments of generosity your horse offers to you.

     When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.

     One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.

     I can recall many spectacular moments with horses, especially the enthusiastic ones who have a lot of “try” in them. Sometimes they get frustrated when being asked for new or difficult movements, especially as they are building strength and gaining endurance. I would ask for the new movement, just to the limits of their ability at the time, sense the fatigue setting in, then let them have an “out.” They want to do well and because they are just learning, it is far from perfection, but they know I am satisfied with their efforts. I try to be extremely conscientious of the precise moment to let them stop.

DressageHorse

They immediately offer something they do very well, for example a big, beautiful lengthen stride or flawless canter transitions. They almost seem to want to be given the opportunity to ensure that their intent to do well is acknowledged and appreciated. Of course, I gush all over them for their “look what I can do!” attitude. This is how you create the kind of relationship with a horse that makes them happy to see you every day and want to go into the arena with you for a workout.

     “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

     Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy.

The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.

It is all about kindness and generosity. These two gifts innately offered by horses are the same gifts we can give to each other that will potentially create the most loving, lasting relationships we could hope for. Not only important for the kind of relationship we will have with our horses…but among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

     And what could be more precious than that?

Two FACES of Training

 

Once it was confirmed I was a horse-crazy young lady, my parents eventually realized there was no turning back insofar as their daughter’s intense desire to ride, train and show. Their encouragement for me to be independent and creative may have caused them more than a few moments of anxiety, but it also produced a sense of responsibility that made me aware of the need to work hard towards the goals I would set for myself. I would be given the tools, but had to find my own path to make the finished products of my desire.

My first horse was good enough for learning the basics. She was limited by her conformation and lack of formal training however, and I had had a taste of watching friends with show horses living an exciting life of competitions and equestrian skill. My idea was to sell the grade mare and purchase a young training project. I loved appaloosas and was determined to reach my goal of having a registered show horse. Fortunately or not, my parents did not know enough about horses to realize that it would be a potentially dangerous and difficult transition for a 14-year-old to go from a reliable old ranch horse to a barely-broke filly. The fortuitous part of the story is that I did not get hurt (embarrassed many times, yes), and learned an extremely valuable lesson that shaped the foundation for my career as a professional trainer.

In 1974 we essentially had two sources of information for riding education… actual teachers, and the library. We had no way to scan the world via thousands of videos, websites or blogs. My family was now living in a city where white Stetsons and cowboy boots were a common sight and almost everybody, including big business-people had something or other to do with horses. It was easy to track down a breeder of top-notch appaloosa show horses and go visit a herd of up and coming youngsters. It was like a smorgasbord of equine-delight! My beginner horse found her way back to a ranch life and I had a few hundred dollars to spend on the horse of my dreams. Mom and I visited several breeders and patiently listened while they proudly touted the pedigrees of each animal and the histories of their illustrious stallions. It was quite a learning experience and I soaked up every bit of information and advice that came my way.

My final choice was a 2-year-old filly bred at a ranch with a famous stallion and a long line of national and world championships. There were older horses for sale that were already being shown, but they were out of my price range. I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay any more as I thought they had already been quite generous. So the owners agreed to throw in the cost of starting the red roan filly under saddle as part of her purchase price. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

Susan_Missy

Susan and Missy

 

We finalized the paperwork and left her in the hands of the cowboy at the ranch. I found out upon delivery that the young man had done what so many cowboys of his era were taught to do…throw a saddle on and just ride out the bucking until the horse was too exhausted to buck any longer.

I don’t know all of the details as to what went on during those few weeks, but whatever happened during Missy’s “breaking” process, it left her frightened of men in cowboy hats, hard to catch, and forever hair-trigger with unexpected bucking fits that would be set off by such things as simply trying to mount. I did not understand at first, but the day she blew up as I was swinging a leg over the saddle, I knew something had gone terribly wrong somewhere in between the time we first saw her and the day she arrived at her new home.

Then she scared me too. I did not want to get back on. So I employed one of the other cowboys on staff at the Quarter Horse show barn we boarded her at and watched in shock as she leapt about and bucked like a champion rodeo horse with the fellow on board. Luckily he stayed in the tack and we had no further incidents of quite that amount of drama.

It was very hard for me to have to ask for help with Missy. We had a series of schooling shows at the barn, and a couple of decent trainers, primarily in Western disciplines such as reining, trail & stock horse work. I devoted myself to the correct training of this filly, studying everything I could get my hands on to learn how to make my horse as good as the other competition horses. Besides watching the seasoned show riders, I studied the popular Farnam book series on horse training and diligently read Horse and Rider Magazine. Eventually we were winning ribbons in events ranging from cattle penning to western pleasure, and later adding hunt seat to our repertoire after being influenced by the very fancy warmblood jumpers that were coming to our English schooling shows. I still had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to the remaining trauma-memory in Missy’s brain however, as the explosive reactions were always waiting just beneath the surface. I was determined my next horse would be started differently, and I would do it myself.

In 1976 that opportunity arose in the form of a gorgeous, bay, spotted appaloosa colt that was on display at an Appaloosa Horse Club Conference. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was “the one.” Once again, my parents helped me out and I put Missy up for sale to help with the yearling colt’s purchase. Juniors aren’t even allowed to show a stallion so I had to take the polite and delightful little guy in open competitions. “TC” had already earned a Grand Championship in halter classes and had been extremely well handled and socialized. He seemed to love attention and nothing frightened him.

TC at Spruce Meadows

TC at Spruce Meadows 1977

 

By this time, I was seriously considering becoming a professional horse trainer and the high school allowed me to develop my own course of study in that regard. I had also been studying classical horsemanship and read books like Col. Alois Podhajsky’s “My Horses My Teachers” and “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider” over and over again. Having been highly influenced by the stunning Hanoverian jumpers that came to our barn’s shows, I was extremely pleased when Spruce Meadows accepted the little appaloosa colt and myself as a boarder to their now-famous international tournament facility.

There had been issues at the other barn that made me decide to leave, including alcohol-abusing staff, and a serious hock injury Missy had sustained after being run from the pasture into the barn with the entire herd of horses as was the barn’s procedure at the end of each day. The environment was not the best in which to try to focus on a green horse’s training, and I was beginning to clue-in.

Once again, I learned a lot by watching. The master European trainers at Spruce Meadows worked with young horses there each day, and I applied their methods to my young stallion. We did ground work and showed in conformation classes for over a year, as he was too young to ride. His joy and enthusiasm for everything made every day a wonderful experience. There were no setbacks and no traumas at all in the quiet, clean, and peaceful setting. Yes, there were large shows at times and many visitors, but I learned that the environment in which a horse is started is the one that affects them throughout their lifetime. They can always be brought back to the mindset of that early training should traumatizing incidents occur later in their life. It doesn’t seem to work out so well the other way around, as I found out the hard way with Missy.

TC was very bright and learned voice commands, enabling free-longeing at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, as well as liberty play that we both had a lot of fun with. I started him with care, introducing a saddle and bridle with a rubber snaffle. Each phase progressed into the next and by the time I got on his back, he was so well schooled that all he had to do was learn to balance with my weight.

Even as a stallion I was able to take him into a crowded show arena and he was never out of the ribbons. In effect, TC was my “proof of thesis” that there was a huge difference in the behaviors of a “rough-broke” horse versus one that was conscientiously started under saddle following a careful protocol of ground work adhering to classical methods that include development of the gaits prior to the horse being mounted. We not only had a tremendous relationship, but we also had the benefit of correct athletic training that set this horse up for a long and useful career.

Generally you would think a stallion would be far more difficult than a mare to handle in stressful situations. In the case of my two young horses, whose histories I knew from the beginnings of their training, the opposite was true. It was entirely their environment and process of how they were started under saddle that seemed to be the most prominent differential. What happened to the mind of the filly versus the mind of the colt?

I believe the FACES acronym by Dr. Dan Siegel can be extrapolated to traumatized horses. It stands for:

Flexible

Adaptive

Coherent

Energized

Stable

http://www.nicabm.com/treatingtrauma2014/a1-transcript-sample/?del=11.16.14LTsampleemailfree

Before we get to the details of how old a person (replace “person” with “horse” in our case) is or what kind of trauma it is or if the trauma is acute, one time only, or repeated or what adaptive mechanisms were in place before the traumatic event happened – and these are all absolutely crucial elements to answer your question, “What is happening in the brain?” – there’s a more global statement to make.

 “Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”

And that global statement, as far as my reading of the research literature on trauma and the brain, is that trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.

 Brain functioning will stop being flexible – it will become inflexible.

The brain will stop being adaptive – it will become maladaptive.

Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.

Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy.

 “Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”

In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability – either repeating patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional, which from the outside looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction. (We use the word stability to describe the healthy way in which this system has equilibrium.)

 All of that is the most global thing we can say about trauma, but there’s also this: re-integration is what repairs the brain.

 So, we really need to ask specific questions: what was the context in which the trauma happened, at what time did it happen – what was the developmental framework – and what was this person like before the event?

 Trauma will affect the specifics of the brain depending on all of those factors.

     This isn’t meant to anthropomorphize a horse, which can lead to definitive inaccuracies in determining the cause of a horse’s behaviors, but rather to compare the results of trauma in a human brain to that of trauma in the equine brain. In my experiences with many traumatized horses subsequent to the appaloosa filly, I am finding that this newer research into the effects of trauma on the human brain is producing more similarities than differences in regards to horses. If so, then the reintegration process of repair should also work for horses.

Part of the human issue in working with a traumatized horse is also what happens if we are in the presence of a person with trauma…we tend to dissociate and stop listening to their stories. We don’t want to feel their pain or experience it for ourselves. I have seen that response in humans who ignore their horse’s distress signals, which can sometimes be very subtle. The rider, by insisting that the horse engage in an enjoyable experience by the rider’s standards, but perhaps not at all enjoyable or comfortable in the horse’s mind, can lead to even more trauma and further distress or pain for that horse.

For both horses and humans, a separation from a strong social connection can often be found at the root of trauma issues. There is a sense of a loss of safety, which in a herd situation is especially critical to wellbeing.

How much of that dissociation from a traumatized horse is related to our own traumas and subconscious desires to shut them out? Can you see how having self-compassion and bringing ourselves into awareness would also be of benefit to the horse?

It doesn’t mean we turn around and completely spoil a horse or let it get away with behaviors that may result from trauma. It means we are compassionate, consistent, and stable enough in our approaches that we create a safe space for the horse, while respecting the fact that it is still an animal.

Let’s say we could return Missy to her 2-year-old self and start her all over again. She wasn’t a bad horse. She actually had a wonderful disposition. It wasn’t her fault that she was quickly turned into a traumatized horse. Had the training been reversed between her and TC, I am quite certain the outcomes would have been very different for each of them.

How did their lives pan out? Well, Missy eventually sold to some out of town people that sent an experienced rider to try her. The fellow rode her well and she behaved perfectly. Thinking we had gotten past the reactive issues, I thought she was on her way to a good home. Months later, I called the new owners to find out how things were going and was completely dismayed at their anger…she had begun to buck them off as something had triggered her old traumatized brain. They invited me to come and ride her, but I was only 16 and I was not going to drag my mom into that situation either! I suggested they get a professional trainer. I have no idea how Missy’s life went after that.

TC was eventually gelded and was winning in the dressage and hunter arenas against big, fancy warmbloods and thoroughbreds. I leased him to an amateur who had a great time showing him, then finally sold him to a lesson barn. He lived out his years playing with ponies, retaining a sense of humor, and teaching countless numbers of children to ride and show. I visited him every year and found him healthy and happy. I was told the students fought over who would get to ride him in the shows because they were pretty much guaranteed a top placing on him. He finally died of colic at the age of 26, on the day of his last show.

I knew these two horses taught me a lot, but have not realized the full scope of those lessons until writing The Compassionate Equestrian and bringing in more of the neuroscience. Dr. Schoen has been extremely influential in this regard with his studies and practices of contemplative neuroscience and exercises in mindfulness and awareness that are featured in the book.

It has become quite clear that while horses can help people a lot with issues in psychology via Equine Assisted Learning, we also need to be aware that it goes in both directions. We, as compassionate equestrians, accept that we are responsible for the conditioning and training of the equine mind so as to at least give each and every horse the opportunity to live out its life with good memories of its early handling and training. It can make all the difference in the world as to how the entire lifetime of that horse will play out.

So there you have it, the face of trauma, and the face of stability. Let’s be compassionate with ourselves, with others, and our horses, continuing to evolve our hearts and minds as we move forward on a path to making this a better world for everyone.