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.

 

Concentrated Learning

My ability to focus isn’t what it used to be. This is somewhat disconcerting because I learned a long time ago that to be a successful rider, the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time was imperative.

I could blame aging, but I’m not going to. At 54, I am extremely fit with a very low-stress, peaceful life that is all of my own creation, and no health issues. I consider myself extremely blessed to be where I am and feeling as well as I do. So no, I don’t attribute my waning ability to focus to getting older. However, it is possible that I might have caught the meme that seems to have affected most of the civilized world.

____________

     meme:

mēm/noun

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

____________ 

A while ago I began noticing odd typos in my writing. Things I had never done before, yet was seeing more and more of in online posts, e-mails, and even on a sign held up by spectators at a half-marathon. For example, it is now so commonplace to spell “your” when what is really meant is “you’re” that I think people have forgotten the distinction. I have caught myself making the error several times, much to my dismay. How does this happen? It also seems increasingly difficult to walk away from the computer, smartphone, or other electronic device. This has been a very rapid change in the evolution of human beings. Horses, however, haven’t changed much in the hundreds of years they have been harnessed and trained for domestic use. If they are approached by a distracted, busy person whose adrenaline is on “high” then they are already compromised by a rider or trainer who may be missing everything from subtle signs of distress in the horse to a pending blow-up resulting in an accident. Is it possible to re-train the human mind back into the clear-thinking, focused instrument that is our natural state of being?

Modern science says “yes.” Dr. Schoen has suggested that as contemplative studies are being incorporated into Ivy League schools, then surely the practices would also be of tremendous benefit to those working with horses. As a trainer who remembers life in the pre-digital-obsession age, I agree.

     In the halls of Ivy League learning and advanced academics, a new field is emerging, and it is now a formal major at the illustrious Brown University.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/contemplative-studies-brown_n_6124030.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

The meditations, or MedLabs as they are called at Brown, are an integral part of an effort the Ivy League university has undertaken in recent years to incorporate the study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques into its curriculum. In August, Brown launched one of the first formal undergraduate concentrations in the country in contemplative studies.

Photo: www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Photo: http://www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Many years ago I was helping someone with a particularly unruly horse in the busy warm-up ring at a horse show. Perhaps it was simply that I had spent most of my childhood studying and handling the many animals in our household, or possibly that I connected better with animals than with people, but regardless, I understood how important it was to focus intently on what I was doing with a horse in any given moment and not be distracted by anything. Animals have such a heightened level of awareness that most humans cannot match it unless they are both extremely sensitive and well trained in animal behavior.

The bucking, fully energized thoroughbred I had hopped on soon settled down and was quietly working amidst the hunters and jumpers getting ready for the day’s classes. One of the other trainers called out to me and asked, “Do you have that same effect on people too?”

I could not answer him because I didn’t even think of having any particular effect on the horses, and especially not on people (people kind of scared me). I just knew that I had the ability to stick to the saddle thanks to good instruction and perhaps some natural talent and inherent rhythm. There was something about my method though that could get even the most difficult, pull-like-a-freight-train kind of horse to soften and melt like butter in my hands. We somehow bonded on another level. I believe it had a lot to do with the fact that I could shut out anything that didn’t involve what I was doing with the horse and be in full awareness of every nuance the horse was communicating.

There wasn’t a lot of research to back up the productiveness of a quiet, contemplative mind at the time however, and certainly it was still in the early days of sports psychology research. It was also the days before I had any formal meditation training. My ego, like that of so many trainers, kept my own “threat response” and related behaviors on full alert for quite a few years and I can think back on numerous reactions that I would be quite embarrassed about today. The missing element was my lack of compassion for others, especially other riders and trainers, whom I saw as competitors, always seeking ways to be critical of one or another.

Now there is evidence as to what was affecting the horses I rode…and perhaps opening to possibilities that I wasn’t aware of previously as to how I could have been affecting other humans too.

This is also something we can use to bring together the diverse equestrian community, a common bond beyond the horses. If it works for Ivy League Universities, it can work for equine-based educational models too. It can be brought right into the barns by the facility owners, trainers, and riders of all kinds and backgrounds. The subjective culture that has caused  much suffering and so much division in the horse world now has access to the information and research confirming a practical technique that changes hearts and minds for the better.

I had to laugh when I saw this post on Facebook today (yes, another one of the contemporary distraction-memes!):

“A quiet man is a thinking man. A quiet woman is usually mad.”

Since I was married to a three-day-eventing trainer for a few years when I first turned professional, I can only say this statement was probably true all too often. It inevitably cost us that relationship. I wish I had the training in compassion and meditation then that I do now.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the Teacher will appear,” and so it was in my case, as it has been for millions of other human beings throughout the millennia. Speaking from first-hand, personal experience, as the students at Brown and other programs are finding, meditation and training in mindfulness changes the way we think. It also affects our health and wellbeing, and that of others with whom we interact. Imagine what it could mean to a relationship with a horse, as well as our interpersonal relationships with other human beings.

     “One of the challenges for mindfulness and contemplative practice is to see it not only as a tool for stress-reduction, but as a means for going deeper into different subjects and ways of living. It’s not just about student well-being, which of course we care about, but it’s about how a contemplative approach to research can actually enhance understanding,” said Arthur Zajonc, president of the Mind and Life Institute in Hadley, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that focuses on creating dialogue between scientists, philosophers and contemplative practice.”

Contemplating

Contemplating

Picture having a riding lesson with an instructor who practices mindfulness and contemplative meditation. How would that look and feel as you rode into the arena to begin your warm-up and lesson? Would it be a different kind of lesson or training session than you usually participate in? What elements would possibly be involved with the incorporation of mindfulness and compassion? Perhaps the following:

Focus

Clear thinking

Enhanced understanding

Reduced stress

Increased self-awareness

Empathy with the horse/instructor

Better body-mind connection with another being

Have I personally taken meditation into the barn? Up until writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, I generally kept my practice private. While all of the elements of conscious breathwork, awareness, and other aspects and benefits of meditation were incorporated into my training and lessons, I did not make a point of suggesting that my students also follow suit. As it was, I spent a decade teaching in a place that is known for highly conscious people and was fortunate to have been the instructor to some unusually mindful, compassionate children and adults. I began to feel more comfortable bringing a holistic philosophy into the lessons.

I have also gained confidence and learned even more about the benefits of meditation by spending the past two years co-authoring the book with Dr. Schoen. He has spent many years himself experiencing and observing the results of a compassionate heart and mind while working with horses and other animals in his veterinary practice.

Now that I’m riding again, I am bringing more of the contemplative practices directly to each session with the horses. I want my focus to come back to what it was at a time before WiFi took over our lives. I want to be able to put in a solid, productive 30-minute ride by feel, not by looking at my watch every few minutes. I want to not be rushing out of the house to get to the barn, running late again because 5 more e-mails popped up or I remembered that I had to do a Facebook post, then promptly got distracted by fifteen other posts. Sigh. Yes, that happens. I would like to be able to get back to the gap in time where I could sit in deep meditation for an hour or more and not feel the slightest twinge of anxiety at having to do anything else. Those twinges come all too often in this age of zillions of passwords and too much to do, even without having nearly as complex a life as most people. I cannot even imagine the stress of living in a city, having a family, a job, and trying to find enough time to dedicate to a horse in a way that is most conducive to everyone’s wellbeing.

I have ridden my new charge twice now and have decided to try ten to fifteen minutes of a walking meditation with the horse at the end of each mounted session. She seems to enjoy it. When I returned the mare to her pasture after our first ride, she quickly walked off to join the other horses. Today after our ride and walk, she stayed right at the pasture gate, watching intently as I packed up and got in the car to leave. A stoic horse, I thought I almost saw a little smile on her face. I know I had a smile on mine, and yes, I would hope to have that effect on people too.

I leave you with this final thought from Glimpse After Glimpse; Daily Reflections on Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche:

November 11

Open people ask me: “How long should I meditate? And when? Should I practice twenty minutes in the morning and in the evening, or is it better to do several short practices during the day?” Yes, it is good to meditate for twenty minutes, though that is not to say that twenty minutes is the limit. I have not found in the scriptures any reference to twenty minutes; I think it is a notion that has been contrived in the West, and I call it Meditation Western Standard Time.

The point is not how long you meditate; the point is whether the practice actually brings you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence. And five minutes of wakeful sitting practice is of far greater value than twenty minutes of dozing!

Rigpa Glimpse of the Day

Sogyal Rinpoche

The Story in Our Eyes

Compassion is gritty. It can be fiery. It is a natural part of being human but sometimes it needs to be uncovered from the layers of conditioning we experience throughout our lifetimes. It takes practice, as it literally transforms the brain. It changes our hearts and the way we think.

It isn’t all about simply being nice to others, or extending kindness to those we also see as kind. The really hard part is convincing ourselves to have empathy for those whom we view as not benevolent to others at all. Sometimes it is hard to see the suffering in others if they are also inflicting suffering on another.

In the horse world we can tell the sad tales of equine abuse all day long. Thousands and thousands of times over, somewhere, at any moment, a horse is suffering at the hands of a human.

Yes, we want to be optimists. We want to see pictures of beautiful, healthy animals and people enjoying the presence and connection with horses of all kinds. Whether it be the wild herds racing through scrub forests at sunset or a lovely PRE stallion engaged in a liberty performance with its handsome handler. That’s what we all hope for when we desire to have horses parked in our minds as an enriching, joyful image that makes our hearts sing.

The romantic visions so delightedly sprinkled all throughout the social media world and popping up on endless websites are easily misinterpreted as the utopian reality for all horses. As our ego recedes with the increased practice of compassion, the other side of the coin emerges and we become more responsible horse-people. We acknowledge that while there is so much enjoyment when horses and humans interact, there is also a very heavy, dark side to the entire spectrum of the industry. How can we be completely content and happy when so many others are suffering?

I can’t help but immediately put myself in the horse’s shoes every time I am near one. Even when viewing photos and videos of horses, I see myself standing beside them, looking back at the humans looking at them. I identify with them, because of all the years I spent living either above the barn, in the same yard as the barn, or right beside it. Even though it was living with domesticated horses, you still begin to feel like one of the herd and highly responsible for the other herd members that are entrusting you with their care and daily routines.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is all about “the other.” Of course, that means having compassion for ourselves too, as loving ourselves translates to how we respond to everyone and everything outside of us.

Some stories are much harder to tell than others. We want people to respond, but not in a way that paralyzes them with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Sometimes the task can seem too enormous for one person, and yet history has proven over and over again how much one person can actually make a difference.

The sense of a situation being too much to handle makes it much easier to shut out the photos that are hard to look at, and turn the other way when faced with sad stories. If nobody looks, and nobody responds though, what is going to happen this week, this month, or this year, to thousands of horses that will end up in the auctions and shipped to processing plants?

We can talk about all the wonderful things horses do for people and how fabulous it is to bond with them and allow their spirits to be guiding beacons for humans and yet…once we have that kind of relationship with them, do we not all sense the collective stress of a global herd in trouble?

There are many issues affecting the equine world that are raising the red flags about the sustainability of this industry. Climate change is a factor, especially in drought-ridden areas where water and pasture are becoming scarce and expensive. There is a compounding factor in the numbers of horses that are being discarded due to the rapidly rising costs of care and feed, further splitting the gap between the wealthy owners and those who are more economically challenged. As rescues fill to the brim, they too are strained by shrinking resources and donors.

Then there are the numbers of horses who are the result of uncontrolled breeding practices and training methods that are not producing safe, rideable saddle horses. There is virtually no market for poorly trained horses unfortunately, and it isn’t much better for those that have not been started under saddle at all. This is why so many of the horses in the auction pens are actually young and healthy…not the broken down old horses some people envision as being the only horses “sent to the knackers.”

So if we hear the stories, or read them, or watch the videos, how do we respond? Is it with a Facebook post that reads something like, “Oh, that is just so sad”? Or, do we go to the website of a local horse rescue and see where we can volunteer or donate? How do we inspire truly practical action, and raise the fire of a compassionate heart and mind?

As Karen Armstrong, winner of the 2008 TED prize and creator of the Charter for Compassion states:

“Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories. I don’t want this charter, for example, to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done. If we want to create a viable, peaceful world, we’ve got to integrate compassion into the gritty realities of 21st century life.

     Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories. Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren’t engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. We need to encourage full storytelling—unless people also talk about the bad things that happen, this is just going to be some superficial feel-good exercise.”

http://charterforcompassion.org/node/4287

Karen Armstrong Argues for Practical Compassion

If there is one beautifully written story that could possibly make a difference to people who still might not want to look at the hard statistics, pictures, websites or videos that describe the fate of far too many horses, perhaps this would be it: (reposted from Facebook with permission)

     From Sabrina Connaughton, Serene, WA, U.S.A.:

I’m sitting here listening to the rain pour down as the tears pour down my cheeks. I thought I didn’t cry anymore but the rain keeps coming down. I feel like each raindrop is a tear for each and everyone of these horses. This is their last supper here as they begin their journey to slaughter. Horses are lined up for as far as you can see munching on their hay. I just sat there by myself on some hay watching them eat, feeling like I should have done something for them, done more, found homes, made one more trip to the feedlot last week, something, just wishing I could do something to change what was in front of me. It is desperation with no remedy, the most helpless feeling, complete despair. These horses will be slaughtered and there is nothing I can do. At that point I don’t even want to look at them, as if not looking at them makes them less real, but it is happening and they are real, so I say my goodbyes to those that’ll stand for a hug and make my rounds in the slaughter pens. They were all somebody to someone, and yet they are here, thrown away and betrayed by someone somewhere along the way. I want to say it’s the young ones that get to me the most because they never even had a chance to be something, but it’s the old who were robbed of a retirement, and everyone in between, it’s all of them, and completely unfair. It just makes you wonder what horrible twist of fate occurred that resulted in all of these horses now gathered in a line eating their last meal together here. I wish the pretty little appy filly didn’t get an abscess. I wish the appy gelding I’ve now met there twice didn’t have to go. I wish the sweet Arab mare had a child to take her to shows. I wish there were people for all of them, but there just aren’t. I feel completely defeated and broken. There is nothing I can do for them so I pick myself back up and work on the adjacent line of horses that still have a chance. They will be posted tomorrow. Tonight I am spent. I am just going to listen to the rain.

http://www.auctionhorses.net/ 

They’re in the Gate…

…and they’re off!

A row of antsy thoroughbreds, waiting for the bell to ring and the gates to fly open with a great bang, dance in place and chew on their bits in anticipation. Their muscles are tense and their jockeys poised for the veritable lift-off. I know this feeling from riding ex-racehorses into the start box of a 3-day event or standing on the starting line of a road race with thousands of other runners. It is like a sense of urgency. It is an all-encompassing, impatient waiting for the inevitable. The preparation for this moment has been everything. Without the preparation, for either man or beast, going from a standing start to a dead run can easily spell disaster, as it is too much force for muscles and tendons to take. We imagine the worst case scenario, but we have trained well, and expect to survive the event ahead of us.

Kicking up dirt

Kicking up dirt…Desert Park Track, Osoyoos B.C. (photo: Osoyoostimes.com)

If there is any fear in our desire for accomplishment, it has been overridden by now. Fear would paralyze us and leave us in the starting gate while everyone else takes off. Therefore, we have made allies out of our fears and doubts, and know the way forwards. The sense of urgency translates to a conditioned response… run!

When it comes to our collective response to the pressing needs of our planet however, the reaction time has been a little less focused, and somewhat slow off the start. If we were racehorses moving with such hesitation, you can bet the jockeys would be quick with the whip, or, as described by the attached article, the “goad.”

      “The same imperatives that apply to our personal dealings with life’s uncertainties can be extended to our response to climate change. The two run along parallel tracks. One conveys us through the upheavals in our private lives with a mind unshaken by sickness, loss and death. The other should convey us through the grim portends of the future and enable us to avert worst-case scenarios. In both spheres, the personal and the collective, we need the courage to see through our illusory sense of security, discern the lurking danger and set about making the transformations needed to reverse the underlying dynamics of disaster.”

 http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26602-feeling-the-touch-of-the-goad-a-sense-of-urgency-as-a-spur-to-climate-action

At the beginning of my professional riding career, if I had been advised that in 20 years climate change would force me to rethink what I was doing working outdoors with horses, I would have cocked my head sideways like a curious puppy and wondered what the heck they were talking about.

As it is, the risks we have assumed by not moving quickly enough to resolve the momentous problems we now face are going to become the bane of our existence, and ultimately have a major effect on not only humans, but also our horses and all other living species on Earth. I have previously written a post about a couple of ranches in California where the wells have run dry. We need a lot of water every day, but horses need a lot more. Now we are hearing that due to the drought our fruits and vegetables in the Pacific Northwest will increase by more than 30% in the coming year. This will affect hay, grain and other feed prices for livestock too. There is no end in sight to this issue.

Now we’re really in a race…the race for our lives, and those of everyone and everything we love and call home.

Years ago, the first thing I noticed was the hot weather beginning earlier in the year and lasting longer. The air inversions, haboobs, and regular windstorms became stronger. The temperature swings wilder. What had been “normal” was no longer. It seems that where the environment is at its most fragile and extreme in the first place is where the evidence of climate change has been most noticeable, especially to those of us who spend most of our time outdoors. Sometimes the changes are subtle at first, but if you are a keen observer of nature, the signs of change have been glaring all along. Finally, others are starting to believe the ones who have been sounding the alarms, but perhaps too late in some instances. I couldn’t take it anymore, and left Phoenix for the higher desert area of Sedona. Then bizarre weather patterns began to emerge there too.

It began in the mid-2000s as the windstorms became a weekly occurrence with ever-increasing strength. At first it was just annoying. I had an adorable but flighty Arabian gelding in training at the time. He was afraid of two main things… the UPS truck and wind. I only rode him one day a week and that was Wednesday. I also had after-school students in the arena that day. It became a standing joke around the barn…Windy Wednesday. It always seemed to be the day of the week the skies would turn white from their usual cobalt bright blue after being criss-crossed with persistent aircraft contrails. An odd phenomenon indeed, but I have a number of photographs and videos that show the long trails of white spreading and merging with others, blanketing the entire sky from horizon to horizon. Both the horses and humans began to get sick far too often. Long-term respiratory ailments became common and allergies worsened. The horses did not appear to be “bloomy” or as healthy as they should have been.

At first I was in denial too. This couldn’t be happening. Several more years went by and it became impossible to ignore. Almost every time I went to the arena I was picking up the remnants of jumps and pieces of the PVC dressage arena boards that had been blown around by the windstorms, now increasing in frequency and strength. Even though stapled down, most of the jump’s decorations of plastic flowers were ripped away and blown far and wide. The jump standards were getting destroyed by the wind too, and much of the arena footing was gone as well.

Windy Wednesdays weren’t funny any more. It had gone from an annoyance to having to regularly cancel lessons as nobody could jump if the wind was constantly blowing the jumps over, raising massive clouds of dust, and making it difficult for anyone to hear me.

Whatever bits of rock and other debris could be lifted by the wind would be blasted across the open arena with the strength of a BB gun and it hurt! I could tell the horses just wanted to go back to the barn, and I didn’t blame them. Everybody, including the resilient teenagers, was commenting on how grouchy they became when the “creepy” windstorms hit. Such storms were now coming 2 or 3 days a week as were other wild weather swings. Incredible heat, freezing cold, downpours as only can happen in the desert…

One early morning in May my digital thermometer went blank. That meant it had gone past the limit of the readout, which was 124 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time I decided it was time to quit I was having thoughts of virtually needing to wear a HazMat suit to teach lessons. Between the constantly swirling fine dust, extreme UV index and high heat, there were no more tools left to protect oneself from the ever-changing climate-related weather fluctuations. I could no longer keep a regular schedule of lessons, as by 2008, I would say at least half of my bookings had to be cancelled due to wind advisories or other extreme weather. In years previous, such was not the case.

 “While fear over climate disruption often spurs denial and ends in panic or mental paralysis, it may equally well give rise to samvega, a sense of urgency leading to wise decisions to avert the crisis. Everything depends on how we metabolize our fear.”

     I know this sounds kind of pessimistic. I don’t believe irrational optimism should apply to our current issues with climate change however. Consider those who have to house, feed and water horses. In some places, this is now a very expensive and almost impossible proposition. It may not be so radical in other parts of North America or the world just yet, but it is only a very short matter of time before millions more people and animals will be in dire straits and displaced due to extreme weather and climate events. How do you sell your property and move elsewhere if there is no available water? No one will buy such a place!

Imagine you own a ranch or a boarding stable and there is no more water for your horses. Hay is over $15 a bale, if you can even get half-decent hay to begin with. You can’t charge your boarders enough to cover the costs of feed and hauled-in water, so then what happens? This is the reality for some people – now. Where does it go from here? I certainly don’t have the answers to that.

Why have we not acted and responded to this pending disaster sooner? This is like taking your horse out of the pasture and hoping he can instantly adapt to a foreign and hostile environment, run a mile and seven-eights and win the race without breaking down. It just won’t happen that way.

     “What lies behind this indifference and denial? How do we explain it? When we look at this phenomenon closely, we can see that it is sustained by two primal drives. One is desire or craving, which in this case is the fundamental desire for security, a wish that events will follow their familiar patterns. The other is fear, an instinctive dread of disruption. Beneath our outward self-assurance lies a volatile whirlpool of anxiety, a suppressed concern that things will swerve off-course and confront us with challenges we aren’t equipped to meet. When this anxiety is provoked, it erupts in outbursts of angry denial and denunciation of those who speak plain truth, the arch-enemy of self-deception.”

I do believe we need to step up to the line though, and not be waiting for the “touch of the goad” any longer. It is not only an awful lot of horses depending on our human ingenuity for their survival; it is also our entire species, and every other sentient being on this planet.

We want to be compassionate to our horses and not “goad” them into activity. We can choose to offer compassion to ourselves in the same way when considering our responses to the changing climate, and the environment in which we would love to be able to ride and enjoy our horses. If we have been inadequately prepared for this race, I believe it is time to bring an awareness to better training and conditioning, as well as an acceptance of where we are now so that we can all work towards a viable and sustainable future.

The tectonic plates beneath our sense of normalcy undergo a seismic shift and can never be restored. In Pali, the language of early Buddhism, the natural response to this shift is called samvega, a word best rendered as “a sense of urgency.” The sense of urgency draws upon desire and fear, but instead of pushing us to run amuck, it instills in us a compelling conviction that we have to do something about our situation, that we have to embark in a new direction profoundly different from everything we’ve tried before.  

The Buddha compares the arising of the sense of urgency to a horse’s response to its master’s goad:

Here, an excellent thoroughbred horse acquires a sense of urgency as soon as it sees the shadow of the goad, thinking: ‘What task will my trainer set for me today? What can I do to satisfy him?’ So too, an excellent thoroughbred person hears: ‘In such and such a village or town some woman or man has fallen ill or has died.’ He acquires a sense of urgency and strives carefully. Resolute, he realizes the supreme truth and, having pierced it through with wisdom, he sees it. (Anguttara Nikaya 4:113)

* * * * * 

Thank you to Dr. Schoen for sourcing the article from http://www.truth-out.org on which this post is based.

Changing Leads Gracefully

For a rider, being able to execute the perfect flying lead change with consistency is an accomplishment that comes only after a lot of hard work, determination, and a clear understanding of the horse you are mounted on. There are so many elements that have to come together before a horse can gracefully hop from left lead canter to right lead canter and back again, on cue. At the pinnacle of this accomplishment are the “tempi-changes” in Grand Prix dressage tests where the horse appears to be skipping as it remains on a straight line while changing leads every step. In theory it sounds so simple. Left lead, right lead. In practice, well, anyone who has been there with a horse or multiple horses can tell you that while there may be a common goal, every horse learns differently and has a unique set of parameters that may have them changing leads more easily and quickly than other horses, while some may never have an easy time of it. It is a step by step process for both horse and rider.

Flying lead change sequence (photo: www.equisearch.com)

Flying lead change sequence (photo: http://www.equisearch.com)

1) The long-term goals for reaching those smooth, consistent changes have to be clearly formed in the rider’s mind. You need the picture in your head of what constitutes a correct flying lead change. Then you develop a training plan you can follow, making particular decisions each step of the way to achieve the goal.

2) As a rider, hard work, education and training is everything. Before you can relay the aids in proper sequence to have a horse change leads, all of your basics should be solid, and ideally, you would have had a schoolmaster horse and excellent, compassionate trainer to learn from before being gaining the competence to pass that level of training on to another horse. You can never be excessively competent!

3) Be prepared for what might not work. Visualize failure too. In the understanding of what is correct about a lead change, the rider, like a dressage or reining judge, also has to know which elements will produce a lower score, or cause potential imbalances and possibly painful injuries to the horse. Tension, stiffness, deflection off the straight line, swinging haunches, too wide in the placement of the hind feet, hollow back, and many other issues can cause further problems. You cannot correct the mistakes if you don’t know what they are in the first place, so you want to be prepared in advance with the skills to identify and decide what to do should errors occur.

4) Enlist a group of extremely competent people to help you reach your goals. Communication with others who can support you in reaching your flying lead change goal helps you take each step with confidence. Part of communicating well involves listening well too, which every great riding student eventually comes to realize can make all the difference between a good performance and one that is below par. This is why a team of great people, including “eyes on the ground,” excellent veterinary care and a top notch farrier are all part of the picture when you are on the path to reaching your long-term goals.

5) With any horse, you may need to consider metaphorically switching leads at any time. As any experienced horseman will tell you, all that we do has an impermanence and even fragility about it. We can go on for so long taking for granted our wonderful horses and the equestrian lifestyle, forgetting how quickly things can change. What makes us feel the best as human beings is to give back. If we accept that the one simple thing we can hold on to is our knowledge, and how we apply that knowledge, our perception of life becomes a broader picture. We can step back a bit, as we so often have to do in the process of training horses, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, “how can my response to this situation be the most beneficial to all involved?” We can change our behaviors to accommodate a more productive situation for ourselves, our horses, and everyone else along the way.

6) When a rider has achieved a high level of competence and confidence, combined with many years of experience having learned from the failures and tribulations of life with horses and life in general (partnerships are partnerships whether with a horse or another human being), they may reach a state of beauty, joy, and a radiating sense of grace. When you get to that stage, you have a sense of having done something that goes beyond yourself. It is because such accomplishments require a tremendous amount of giving in the first place. It requires your time, your focus, your kindness and consideration of the horse. It does not happen automatically with a horse, and it does not typically happen for those who are just at the beginning of their careers or relationships. There is always the process of setting goals, then deciding what you will do next that will line up with your goals, whether it is to make those flying lead changes or to make major life changes. The key is to not blame the horse, or anyone else if there are bumps on the road to your goals. Blaming is easy, but it is changing our own behaviors that affect the greatest changes, personally, professionally, and for the good of all beings.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/03/chris-hadfield_n_5929992.html

The impetus for this post is derived from a video that was relayed to me by Dr. Schoen. It is astronaut Chris Hadfield speaking to an audience of primarily students on We Day, asking the question of what we can do to change the world. So what does this have to do with the accomplishment of teaching a horse to change leads smoothly? A lot actually. It is all about us.

Chris is asked, “What is the one cause you care about the most?” From his perspective of seeing the planet from above, all 7-billion human beings every 90 minutes over the course of the space station’s orbit, he says one’s perspective changes somewhat as to what is most important. He speaks of how everything is connected, and how much togetherness we need to sustain the planet.

He states his most important goal as follows:

“To raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.”

The other question he raises is “what is one simple thing people can do to drive change?” The answer… “stop blaming other people.” Here is where we may need to make a lead change of our own sometimes. These are the suggestions from Chris (and this might sound familiar):

  • Have an overarching goal, then purposefully make decisions to make it happen.
  • Build everything on competence – there is no substitute for hard work. Chris put years of education and training into his dream before being chosen to be commander.
  • Visualize failure – be prepared for all possibilities.
  • Communicate with others – they will be there for you, and good communication includes good listening.
  • Give back – there is a fragility to the things we take for granted – make good use of your education to give back to others.
  • Seek grace – in grace we find tranquility, joy, accomplishment, and a sense of having done something that goes beyond ourselves.

 

Ultimately, what we learn from becoming compassionate equestrians applies to everything Chris Hadfield is relaying to the students in his We Day address. I don’t know if the famous astronaut has ever had contact with horses, but somehow I believe he would immediately recognize the factors that allow for the creation of high standards of accomplishment in the equine world are also the same qualities that apply to the process of making this a better world for all sentient beings. What we can learn from our connection to a horse can be extended to everyone we encounter in all of our human relationships, and beyond.