It’s All in the Eye (the Nose, and the Mouth)

 

“…observing the horses from a distance is critical to detecting the presence of pain,” said Sonder.

 “Horses often do not blatantly display pain—especially before their owners or regular handlers—they’ll square right up no matter what,” she said. “So this will objectively tell us about their chronic pain.” 

Claudia Sonder, DVM, of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

 

This is a major breakthrough for the Compassionate Equestrian Movement where horse people can now be more educated and aware of what their horse looks like in various degrees of pain based on facial recognition…..

Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM

 

                                                                                                                                                             Has anybody ever commented on “the look on your face?” Perhaps you convey “happy,” “sad,” or “I’m really hurting,” by the expression you are exhibiting to others. Have you found yourself misinterpreted at times due to someone reading your facial movement incorrectly? Maybe you’ve even caught yourself in a surprising moment when glancing in a mirror or window, wondering why you appear tired, grumpy, or sullen.

You know how the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Well, what about our horses?

Horsemen who have been around the block, so to speak, always teach their apprentices and clients to look for “that eye.” A sound, kind, easy-going, trainable horse always seems to have a particularly soft, sweet and large eye with few wrinkles or other indicators of stress. Top eventing trainers seek “the look of eagles,” whereby the horse appears much as an eager sporting hound—alert, coiled for action, and focused on the upcoming task or obstacle.

A horse that is not in pain has a much easier time tuning in to a human’s requests for connection. There has been much written in recent years about creating a good relationship with your horse. Unfortunately, for all the hours spent on the ground in doing so, many horses still suffer once the rider gets on their back. Why doesn’t the translation go as smoothly from ground to saddle as it should? In its most reductionist answer, the factor is that the rider cannot see the horse’s expression from his back.

 

The researchers at University of California, Davis, are providing the equestrian community with valuable new research that extends beyond the current “pain grimace scale” that helps veterinarians, and other handlers, determine whether or not a horse is in pain.

Also interesting, is the comment from the article indicating domestic horses have adapted to taking a stoic approach when asked to interact with humans, even while in pain. Obviously, there is an intelligence and sense of reasoning in play that requires deeper investigation.

For now, these dedicated scientists at UC Davis are providing us with fascinating insights as they carefully apply facial recognition and motion-tracking technology to advance the understanding of our beloved horses.

Beyond the veterinary field, it would be my wish that all trainers incorporate the knowledge gained from this research into their own programs, no matter what discipline, and pass that knowledge on to their students. It is just one more way that technology can be used for good and compassion, once again confirming something that masters of equitation have known for hundreds of years; there’s a certain “look” in the eye that helps you read a horse like a book. And now we will have even more information on which to base critical decisions in regard to the horse’s wellbeing. If only we were to pay attention…and humble ourselves to the fact that we may need to change our approach to working with horses.

SG


 

CLICK on this link to read the entire article:

UC Davis Uses Software to Map Equine Pain

Collaboration at UC Davis creates a system to assess the connection between horses’ facial expressions and their condition


 

The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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Works for Food?

To treat or not to treat? Your horse, I mean. If it’s you deciding to reward yourself with a sweet chunk of chocolate for a job well done, then by all means, the answer is, “Yes!” You can see how the conditioning works 🙂

It’s no secret that animals (and humans, obviously) can be plied with bits and pieces of favourite foods in exchange for doing something else that might be less savoury. While there’s always a “keener” or two who spins, jumps, or produces canter-pirouettes just for the heck of it and sheer joy of life, most of us want to know what we’re going to receive as a result of our efforts.

There’s a considerable amount of psychology around the methods that use reward-based training and positive reinforcement. In my own experience, most horses cue to rewards when the expectations are clear and the behavior of the handler is consistent. It also then becomes simpler for the horse to distinguish between accepted behavior and that which might elicit a more negative response from the handler. For example, withholding the treat when the anticipated response does not occur, or does not occur correctly.

I have one funny story to relay in this regard before moving on to Eclipse’s blog post on the topic:

One of the most brilliant ponies I’ve ever met was a rock-solid trooper in the arena and on the trail. He taught generations of kids and several members of one family how to ride, jump and show. Pecos was a little spotted fellow, probably from one of the Navajo herds common in northern Arizona.

As he aged, he occasionally needed a bit of therapy to stay sound and healthy. The veterinary chiropractor recommended carrot stretches to help the senior pony stay flexible. One day I arrived at the barn and noticed him in the middle of the barn’s parking lot (he had yard freedom privileges), with his head turned all the way around to the side, looking backwards. He just stood there in that position! Then his owner appeared and I asked her if he was okay. Sometimes looking at their sides can be an indicator of colic.

“Oh yes,” laughed the sprightly woman. “He’s waiting for his carrots! That’s usually the spot where we do his carrot stretches.”

So there you have it. Pecos was stretching all by himself, in pre-anticipation that he would be rewarded for doing so.

Inevitably, compassionate training involves affirming within yourself the reasoning and understanding behind rewarding your horse with a treat. Is it right for your horse? If he is already spoiled by hand-feeding, how do you change his behavior? If you reward for performance, you want to ensure that he isn’t doing something that causes him pain, just because he wants that treat so badly. There’s much to consider when working with a horse in any capacity. We always suggest beginning with a quiet mind, and then asking the question, “What is the most compassionate thing I can do for my horse, right now?” Trust your instincts when the answer comes to you.

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Pecos (after delightedly rolling in the mud) stretching himself in anticipation of those carrots!

SG


 

From our guest-blogger, Eclipse, as written through his mom, Melissa Deal of Victory Land Dressage:

Eclipse’s Observations on Working for Food

Do horses really work for food? Every human wonders…

This is a true story about a friend of mine that we will just call Flo to protect his owner and he from embarrassment. It is probably hard for humans to believe that this actually happened, but I think you will get a kick out of it and maybe find something useful in my story as well.

Back in the colder time here at home (NC), sometime not too distant, my mum/owner took me to Wellington. I must admit that I had my doubts on that long bumpy trailer ride despite the yummy hay and intermittent carrots that appeared during the travel. Once I got there, it was total horse heaven. I didn’t even have to go out into the bright sun and stinging bugs if I didn’t want to. I love being clean and primped and doted over, so the high end barn where we stayed was the bomb! It was like the big bucket of carrots in the sky, if you know what I mean.

It was there I met Flo, a striking chestnut stallion. He was bred for dressage and had the kindest owner, a professional dressage rider and trainer. Flo was 12 years old and pretty set in his ways. He was a really smart guy and to my mind Flo mostly got his way with everyone.

The crinkled face and frustration in his owner’s voice describing how when we would walk out around the neighborhood, Flo was all about it, couldn’t be ignored. Did I mention that this neighborhood was totally horse friendly and beautiful to humans and horses? It had lots of bright green grass which carpeted each lawn. The grass was cut to just the right height for maximum growth and tastiness, of course. They didn’t even care if you pooped in the road or took bites of the delicious algae green grass. Flo took big scopey strides, away from the barn that is. Going back toward the barn, he would drag his feet, instead of walking briskly. Even I would pass him. I walk slowly when out, so I can see everything in detail. I don’t like to go quickly in case something scary might be around the next corner. My mom was laughing about Flo’s unusual behavior. His owner lamented that Flo didn’t like to go in the ring, despite the careful and completely non forceful riding and training methods used. No spurs and a floppy whip which made a whistling noise in the air were employed to try to inspire Flo to put in a little more effort. These were the owner’s choice of motivational tools, which proved to be only mildly effective, much to his dismay. Flo’s owner was so kind, he couldn’t bring himself to do anything more forceful. While walking out back toward the barn, Flo continued to shuffle his feet on the sand and gravel road to the point of leaving longish tracks in the dust because he knew that the trip would be followed by arena work. This continued every day.

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Carrots! I just know there’s carrots at the end of the trail. Let’s go!

One afternoon, I saw my mum watching as Flo’s owner chided the groom for not putting a huge pile of carrots in his stall while he was out being ridden. I mean like a mountain of perky, bright orange carrots with green tops and everything! Later, my mum confided that at dinner that evening, she spoke to his owner about this practice. She suggested that he not put the carrots in the stall during work. This practice encouraged Flo to want to go straight back to the barn after his walk about instead of to the arena because he knew the carrots were waiting. Wouldn’t it make more sense to Flo to want to work if the carrots were in the arena instead? Allegedly, the owner argued that this was nonsense and the dinner conversation moved on leaving my mum perplexed.

Dad arrived! I think in human time it was a few days in between these occurrences. However, I am not positive. He is the best. He asks nothing of me and gives me lots of scratches and treats for FREE! He is a very observant human and is always watching what is going on and he listens well too. These traits are more horse -like than human so I really dig him as much as I love a good roll in the Florida sand.

A bit of time passed after his arrival, when whispers hit my super sensitive ears. Down the barn aisle, he and my mum stood chatting quietly. He saw the most unusual thing. Flo’s owner was in the ring with a mason jar of chopped carrots on the rail. He had taken special precautions not to let anyone see him leaving the barn with the carrots. Humans are so funny! What a clown. I love this guy. He is totally entertaining.

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I know you have them. And I believe I have earned at least one…now, please?

A few more dark times and light times of day passed and Flo could be seen marching promptly toward the arena after his daily pre-work walk in the neighborhood. I wondered if the humans noticed this behavior. Flo and I chatted in the evenings and it was clean water clear to me that Flo was all about the food. He was happy to be wherever the carrots were and though he had to work for the carrots, he still wanted them regardless of the effort involved. He lamented that his owner had figured out a way to get outsmart him and get him to work. But, work and eat carrots he did. As far as I know, he still does to this day. Oh yea, I also heard that he has been to his two first shows ever, recently. Flo won his classes with excellent scores. I think that’s really good, though probably not as good as munching those carrots.

 

 

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The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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Because I Have My Horse…

 

Zoie Brogdon, Age 12

“I tried soccer, which I hated. I tried track, and there was just mean people. I tried tennis, same thing, mean people. With horses, there still are mean people, but I don’t care. Because I have my horse right next to me.”

Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Read the NYT article here:Why Close Encounters With Animals Soothe Us

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(photo: http://theequestriannews.com/2015/12/21/harvey-simpson-honored-at-cjp-holiday-show/)

When Dr. Schoen forwarded this article to me recently, suggesting it would make a great subject for a blog post, I had to agree.

Have you ever been confronted by bullies at school, mean bosses, raging drivers, or generally unfriendly people? The majority of us are not willing to be confrontational to the degree that many others are. We may be called “sensitive” or “shy,” but in either case, we are not going to be the ones fighting back if we can help it, whether verbally or physically. However, being quiet, perhaps even introverted, and withdrawn from others can lead to inappropriate actions and behaviors that are viewed unfavorably. We may feel pushed to defend ourselves. Often times, it manifests in youth as at-risk behavior, and may stem from a myriad of other problems including a difficult home life.

We have spoken of such issues previously, and throughout The Compassionate Equestrian. They bear repeating, as human nature continues to cycle through episodes of negative influences and bombardment from a hostile outside world.

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(photo: http://www.cvlux.com/lux-daily/2015/7/1/all-about-patricia-heaton-compton-jr-posse)

Enter the horse.

I was one of those kids. Teased at school for a variety of reasons. Last one picked for teams in gym class. An alcoholic mother. Bosses who went off the rails. But there was always one reliable factor waiting for me around the corner. I believe I survived my youth and early adulthood because I had my horse.

* * *

Your horse simply looks at you with those big, wise eyes, his gaze following you as you move about the barn, or whinnies from the paddock gate to get your attention. His ears prick when he hears his name, expecting that you will engage further. What a feeling. A being that wants to be with you. He envelopes you with an otherworldly array of soul-soothing energy that, at least for a time, protects you from the disappointments of the human condition.

If you are fortunate enough to be part of a network of supportive human beings who further your love for horses and riding, you are even more likely to respond with gratitude and the desire to expand your compassion toward others. These are the equestrians who become teachers, leaders, and impassioned creators of a brave new world with the potential to eradicate much of the negativity that currently pervades our media and leaks into schools, businesses, and public events.

What I love about the program that is the subject of this article from The New York Times is the obvious professionalism, care, and structure afforded the kids and horses. While is it discipline-specific, the youth-at-risk are made to feel special, and allowed to fully connect with the magic of horses. They are dressed elegantly, wearing proper safety gear, and taught in a traditional, correct manner of equitation. It appears as though each rider is well matched to his or her mount. This is not “elitist”—it is a condition of the necessary safety issues and respect for all aspects of equine welfare. The effect of uniformity and attention to traditional details is evident by the comments from the youngsters featured in the article, as they are given a chance to play on a level field…and that level field is filled with the generous energy conveyed by their four-legged friends.

There are many layers of deep exploration that take place in understanding just how much horses can help at-risk youth, as well as many other demographics subject to humanity’s often-difficult existence.

Enjoy this article, and please consider how the Principles of Compassionate Equitation can be of so much value to the equestrian world. What is needed? Honest evaluations and solid leadership when it comes to identifying the right horse for each situation, and compassionately allowing each horse to interact with humans on a level that relieves their suffering as much as possible. We don’t want to aggrandize egos, force horses into something they are not suited for, and make the mistake of thinking every horse is a good “therapy” horse. There are so many adoptable horses available for programs such as the Compton Jr. Posse (featured in this NYT article…scroll back to the top to read it) that we owe it to them to ensure proper transitions for them whether they are coming from show barns, deemed only “serviceably sound,” and those who may be surrendered due to compromising situations faced by owners.

Horses are such a wonderful gift to us as human beings. Let us give back to them in the same way that they let us “use” them for our own wellbeing.

SG

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The Compassionate Equestrian is also pleased to announce our alignment with The Right Horse Initiative. Please check out their website, watch the video, and read the manifesto. Spread the good word and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Use hashtags: #TheCompassionateEquestrian @CompassionEq, #TheRightHorse and TheRightHorse on Instagram.

The Right Horse Initiative

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The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping)— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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The Riding Lesson

As trainers, we’ve all been there in the decision-making process. And really, those of us who ride are always training (or, sometimes un-training) our horses to do “something.” At a professional standard though, we have many more questions to ask ourselves when trying to provide the best option for our mounts, and our clients. At all levels, it is typically the horse himself who provides us with the most wisdom and profound teaching.

As with any human athlete, an equine in a high-performance discipline such as jumping, dressage, or reining, attains various periods of peaks and lows throughout the development process. On a day that the athlete feels good, all the training elements might come together for a surprisingly optimal effort, transcending even the current level of fitness. Ask any marathon runner how they feel the day of, and then after the big event!

Subsequently, the euphoria reached by the athlete, bolstered by accolades—say, for example, lots of pats and a happy rider—can manifest in painful ways the day after.

We may notice very subtle signs of trouble in our horses (see Chapter 13/Principle 13 of The Compassionate Equestrian), and in the case of being the person tasked with further development of the horse, we may choose to investigate further, attempt to push through the resistance, and possibly either pursue or slightly alter the planned session for that particular day. Our choices are best made when a focus is placed on the question we often ask in the book, “what is the most compassionate choice I can make for this horse, right now?”

Maybe your horse was enthusiastic about entering the arena yesterday, but today he stops before the gate, even taking a step backwards. We ignore the whisper of the horse’s body language, and urge him forward. Perhaps he trots over a few small cross-rails with ease, then suddenly spooks at a larger coop he scaled effortlessly the day before. Or was it really effortless? Did his rider forget about the stumble he took upon landing? He feels sound enough…but why the uncharacteristic spook? Dismiss and trot on, or, get off and begin the search for possible “hot spots” on tendons, or testing for trigger points along the spinal column? Do we return to the barn and contact our veterinarian or farrier?

Oh yes, it’s very easy to get caught up in our minds and try to “fix” our horse’s problems based on our own understanding of what might be wrong in the moment. What part of ourselves is speaking at this point? We remind ourself…where does compassion begin? The heart. Why do we practice mindfulness? To learn to “see” from the heart, and trust the subtle signals that are trying to override the noise from our head. It is the best chance we can give our horses, and ultimately, the most compassionate choice.

Co-blogger Melissa Deal has once again shared a very important aspect of our riding lessons. That is, the one taught to us by our horse. Thank you Melissa and your beautiful, wise, Eclipse!

As always, enjoy the read 🙂

Susan

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

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Eclipse takes his readership very seriously and though we both agreed that the following story needed to be shared, he declined in writing it as he’s a bit embarrassed. I assured him that shame has no place in his life, but he insisted on my writing it just the same. I am afraid that I am not nearly as humorous as he but I do hope that you will enjoy this excerpt from his adventures.

The Riding Lesson by Eclipse Deal’s mom

Yesterday, I rode Eclipse, a sensitive and affectionate horse that I am training. It was likely the best ride of this horse’s career! Eclipse was attentive, responsive, giving and accurate. He practically floated through the warm up and performed the more difficult movements with alot more ease than expected. He and I seemed connected at the deepest level. My wish was his instant act, as if he could read my mind. What more could a rider ask? My satisfaction with the second level performance offered by this first level horse was a true gift. My heart swelled with our success.

Today, a lovely day, promised an azure sky and warm sunny rays that were perfect for riding. Eclipse’s coat reflected the sunlight like a polished penny. I got on completely without expectation and no plan. I knew better than to try to repeat yesterday’s performance. It’s akin to trying to re-achieve nirvana. Here’s the story of our ride. I can only hope that relaying it will imprint the life/riding lesson in my mind and give you some forage for thought as well.

The horse seemed even more relaxed than normal in grooming and tacking today. The mounting block was relocated this morning for the first time since we moved to this farm. No problem. Eclipse walked to the block when called, positioned himself neatly and was ready to pick me up-something most horses haven’t a clue about doing. He did this despite the cows nearby, of whom he used to be deathly afraid. My leg was about to contact the far side of the saddle when I realized, no helmet. My hand signaled a request for him to stay, normally not an issue. I realize this behavior may not be status quo for everyone, but it is for him. Once inside the tack room, my eyes rested on the helmet. While I was taking it off its hook, through the window, I watched as he snuck a few steps towards the cow pasture next door.  When my “No” fell on his ears, I stifled a snicker. Eclipse’s hooves hurried obediently across the brick red pine straw back to the block. He presented promptly for mounting reminding me of a kid caught in the cookie jar.

Once settled in the tack I queried, “You want to see the cattle today?” (Yes, I am a lunatic who converses with animals out loud.) I gave him the buckle and a breath of leg so he had freedom to do as he pleased. Picture an elegant bright chestnut dressage horse marching the 100 foot distance from the mounting block to the rusty wire cow pasture fence. He was on a mission. When the fence blocked his access to the once scary and “now oh so interesting neighbors,” his neck telescoped toward the fence that held the fuzzy cattle and their young. Time and again, Eclipse bumped it gingerly with his soft muzzle.

“No give. Bummer,” I was guessing he thought.

He used to be afraid of cattle, so I am thrilled with his obvious curiosity. After about 5 minutes, I said to Eclipse, “We can’t just stand here all day.” I gave it another five. I distinctly felt that he couldn’t fathom why we couldn’t have just stayed there all day gazing at the cows. It was clear that if he had the option, that is exactly what he would have done. I grew tired of looking at the same pointy hips and swinging tails, despite the adorable young calves napping nearby. Their curled bodies adorned the green field of grass, laced with a nearby stream, as if they were decorations.

We left the cattle. I guided him as we meandered through the trees. The thick bed of pine straw beneath us muffled his hoof beats entirely. Leaving it, we entered the field and walked about a hundred yards. A path carpeted by grass led the way to the ring. His hooves left the ground so slowly that if felt as if he had glue on his them – a sharp contrast to his carrot store walk toward the cows. Eclipse’s pace dragged as if a horse heading to the knacker man.

Maybe he was weary from the past few days of arena time? With yesterday’s lovely ride in mind, I decided to let him have an easy day. We would walk through the woods on a trail. It’s a trail Eclipse has been on a few times before. Granted, trail riding has never been his strength. But, it was very short 10 minute walk at best. I hoped he would enjoy the change of scenery.

As the arena went out of sight, he perked up entering the forest and chose a sandy lane. Good! Eclipse was brightening up a little to my relief.  We traversed a few hills. (Remember, we are in Eastern NC, so a bump in the road qualifies as a hill.), I congratulated myself on my brilliant plan. I added more leg and cuddled the bit encouraging him to reach into the contact. He was really pushing well from behind-the key to all collected and upper level work. I reminded myself how good this was for his top line etc.

Suddenly, my blue heeler pup trotting alongside uttered a growl and barks burst forth from her curled black lips. Hackles stood high at the sight of a branch ahead in the middle of the trail. I thought it hysterical to see her so serious about this limb and enjoyed the ferocious display for a couple of seconds. Clearly the branch was refuse from the dreadful hurricane Matthew. Then, I felt the horse’s back tighten beneath me. His head elevated and ears pricked. Soothing words followed soft rubs on the withers. Bridge signals and praise filled his sensitive ears as we passed the horse killing branch. We stopped, and Eclipse scarfed down his favorite treats as a reward for his bravery. I was fairly unconcerned at this point. We walked on.

Soon, I noticed that his stress level seemed to be rising faster than the post hurricane flood waters in our ditches. My concern heightened. His muscles bulged tautly beneath his coppery coat. His entire body felt as if it were on high alert. Nostrils flared like morning glories as he read the balmy morning air for signs of danger. We rounded the corner to an opening in the trees. His paddock, his buddy – another chestnut gelding- and the ring popped into view. All were familiar sights. I hoped that seeing them would calm him instantly. Instead, he spooked- big without unseating me – barely. I found myself grateful to still be in the tack when Eclipse’s feet finally stopped. At the time, I guessed it was the heeler scrambling around in the woods a few minutes earlier that set him off. Later, I recalled another big spook occurring near the same location, but it was a long while back. This event was likely a contributing factor, since horses have memories second only to elephants. I tried calming techniques and more treats. His mental and emotional states were foremost in my mind as I considered the options.  Eclipse was still a bit up emotionally so instead of completing the ride as planned, we went back to the ring. I was confident that it would help him settle since it was a place he knew well. I was sure of it.

In the arena, my entire skill set was employed. All of the techniques were kind and likely to have been effective: easy walking on a long rein, close walk work with intricate patterns and gymnastics, forward and more demanding patterns, standing and relaxing for many minutes, lots of treats and canter work (just to give you a vague idea of the gamut explored). Finally, desperate for the right choice that would bring him below threshold (the level of emotion beyond which the horse is capable of coping in any given moment), I tried getting off. He responded with a huge sigh of relief. Then we attempted his favorite in-hand exercise, Spanish walk. Two steps and he spooked, again, jumping with all four hooves catching air simultaneously. I made the most compassionate and least horse trainer like choice I could muster. We went back to the barn.

After the saddle came off, another huge sigh of relief seemed to flow from his very essence. I apologized for the decision to walk in the woods and hung my head. Normally, I don’t tie him to un-tack. Today, I did. The entire time I washed him and dressed him for turn out, his head was held high scanning the horizon. Eclipse looked toward the unknown horse eating beast that I never saw. This behavior was completely uncharacteristic for an easy work day at home. When turned out after riding, he always followed me to the gate, as if begging me to stay and play. Not today. The worried horse went straight to his run in shed and stood in the corner with a watchful eye. A significant change from the confident and capable horse I knew yesterday.

What was running through my head? As a trainer, I wanted to bring him through this emotional trauma. But, I knew for a fact that sometimes, nothing can be done to bring a horse back from being over threshold. Thoughts circled in my mind. How was this different from a horse show? I had to be able to bring him back to some semblance of normal to show and have him not be terrified. Forget showing, he needed to be able to do most anything and not be terrified purely for his own well being. Anything included standing in the pasture on a day like this one, which he currently wasn’t comfortable doing. At least at a show if I wasn’t able bring him below threshold, the option of scratching and returning to the safe haven of his stall or going home existed. Today, I found his fear of life in general wasn’t as simple to resolve as scratching a class or loading up and going home, heart breaking as it was. In these times, the most compassionate choice is to do exactly what I did: put him in the place he felt most secure and give him time to settle.

The Win

In days gone by, I might have done some horsemanship exercises, more ground work, tried harder, ridden him longer or God forbid even lounged Eclipse (aka tortured him more) and then tried to ride him again. Wisdom does come from experience, and for that I am thankful. Getting off wasn’t failure. It was the right choice.

no punishment

The Lesson Learned

My only regret today is that I didn’t realize the level of his fear earlier on and dismount sooner. He would have been better off.  I would have been safer. I am concerned that the next time I sit on Eclipse he will carry the memory of today, a fearful one. It may mean putting forth a lot of effort to cover this experience with more positive ones. No guarantee involved.

Perhaps he will remember yesterday’s blissfully harmonious ride instead! Will he be fine tomorrow or will he be traumatized? Tomorrow holds its secrets. In the meantime, I will be thinking about how I can be his refuge or at least provide one in the future if similar circumstances occur. A fearful mind is misery for horses and humans alike. It goes far beyond discomfort and delves into the realm of survival, i.e., life and death. Fortunately, being scared to death isn’t the same as dying. We will both live to ride another day.

I look forward to tomorrow. It is a gift, an opportunity, to have the chance to replace his misery with relaxation and joy.  The challenges this experience affords and the lessons it will yield are yet to be fully realized. It is a wonderful journey of discovery and a privilege of the heart, this relationship with Eclipse, the horse who shares my soul.

**

p.s. Not long after this ride, with veterinary assistance, we found that physical pain was contributing greatly to the fear Eclipse was experiencing and the behavior that ensued. Neither punishment nor additional training would have made a difference for him at the time. Sometimes the horse just isn’t capable of understanding the aids or his own physical state. Currently, I am happy to report that Eclipse is feeling much better with the aid of veterinary therapy.

Eclipse’s Challenge

First of all, I would like to thank all followers and readers of The Compassionate Equestrian. We appreciate you connecting with us on Facebook (@compassionateequestrian), Twitter (Susan Gordon@CompassionEq) and passing on the benefits of Compassionate Equitation to others in your barn and places of business. Please print and post a copy of the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation (find the poster on our website)

The blog posts have been scarce, as I don’t know about you, but I have been finding myself so inundated with e-mails that most are deleted unless very important. Most people I speak to lately also relate the same situation. We love to read, we love information, and we love good stories, but we also have families, work, and horses and/or other animals to attend to as well.

I’m hoping that it will seem more special when a TCE blog post arrives in your inbox on a more infrequent basis, rather than too often. Please let me know what your feelings are in that regard.

This month’s story is from our guest blogger, Eclipse (as written via his mom, Melissa Deal of Victory Land Dressage). It is about facing fear and using a particularly successful method for recovering from fearful thoughts and experiences.

It is possible for even a minor incident to fester and grow in our minds, manifest in our body language, and perhaps even become a serious condition such as Post Trauma Stress Disorder. Severe trauma—both physical and mental/emotional—ultimately has a negative effect on both humans and horses. Trigger-related responses in the mind and body sometimes continue for many years until a solution is found.

Rebuilding confidence and creating new neuronal connections around a traumatic incident or series of incidents, whether real of perceived (as in the case of horses afraid of inanimate objects) has been proven to be an exceptional method for modifying fear-based behaviors and altering the subsequent actions that follow a literal panic attack.

If you have ever had to deal with a frightened horse, you can appreciate the aspect of danger that also arises in the blink of an eye, and you understand how much time and patience is necessary to make changes to the horse’s internal “flight or fight” mechanism. We humans aren’t much different… and oftentimes a seeming lack of compassion for others or inappropriate behaviors could be rooted in fearful memories.

May you have a beautiful holiday season in the month ahead, opening your heart and mind toward loving-kindness and compassion for all beings.

Warmest wishes,

Susan

img_20160914_125900980

p.s. I love food too 😉 Enjoy Eclipse’s story!

_________________________________________________________________

11/14/16

Taste Buds versus Wildebeests-The Ultimate Challenge

Zonkey or Zorse, I vaguely hear them say as I leave the scene as fast as my hooves will fly. I put them as far behind as possible with a cloud of dust in my wake. I’ve never seen anything like it. This animal is not a horse or a mule or even a cow. Sand flies through the air as I head to the far side of my paddock. I’m outta here!

Just a few moments before, a diesel engine roar tickled my ears. My first thought was, “Are we going somewhere or is Dad just moving the truck?” Then, a rig unknown to me came sliding down the long gravel drive connecting the highway to our farm. I grazed on. Soon I realized that strange beings were about to emerge from the newly arrived trailer. I saw two stubby tiny hoofed beasts being led into a nearby paddock. Striped legs supported gargantuan heads. Their monstrous heads touted tall antennas or were those ears? I didn’t take the time to find out. Did I mention the paddock they were led into was adjoined to MY pasture??? Actually, that paddock contains MY run in shed, MY sanctuary complete with fly sprayers, delectable timothy hay, fans and shade screens! What could possibly be next?

My mind wanders as I try to pretend nothing is out of the ordinary. In case you aren’t a horse person, many of us consider our beloved owners adopted parents. Of course, dogs do this too but they don’t have a thing on us. They just they think they do, since they get to go in the house. Dogs can’t even bow nor do Spanish walk, much less carry people around. I am not worried about them for a second. Mom admits that our dogs are pets. But, she insists that horses are not called/treated like pets for safety reasons. I DEFINITELY consider myself a pet! I digress-back to the fluffy antennae carriers.

Now, I am at the far end of the pasture and I hear, “Eclipse.”

My mom sweetly calls from the other side of the paddock close to the wildebeests. I heard that word on TV at the vet school by the way –wildebeests, and I am sure the things in the paddocks with the stripes and the dinky tails qualify. Oh no. She isn’t going to talk me into it. I stamp my hoof in defiance. Not a chance I’m getting any closer. Forget that the other horses are standing calmly nearby. I take a closer look at these things my mom seems so intent on introducing to me. I am sure that those beasts, whatever they are, could mean the end. My senses scream. Stripes definitely belong to TIGERS, right? Spindly, skinny at the top, ratty at the bottom tails adorn pointy butts. Those tails are the mark of wild animals, not self respecting domesticated equines, let alone Dressage horses like me. I mean, look at MY tail. Hmmm, lemme think…Tigers, wild animals. AHGHHH!!! I can’t think, only run, run til – uh oh. Stupid fence line is always in my way. Will they ever take it down?

How many times in the past have I run fearfully from danger or apparent danger only to have this black, 4 stranded, electro braid fence dash my escape? I have grown to detest it. However, mom is always telling people that I am the only thing that keeps me inside the 2.5 acre paddock. It’s one of the safest fences made and it’s not hot. Other horse have crawled under it or jumped out just to get better grass. Not me. They left me behind as if I were a dummy foal and made fun of me. My head drooped in shame every time.

But things are different now. The truth is that I was afraid most of the time. My mom saved me by helping me learn to be brave. It involved a new noise. At first, a little yellow box in her hand clicked loudly. Slightly scary at first, but treats followed the click to let me know my behavior was on the right track. Now that I know the words she uses in place of clicks, she talks me through it. I don’t even need the click except in wildly unusual circumstances like these wildebeests. Then it keeps me grounded. (Humans talk a lot. Sometimes their words are too much to sort out when things get crazy and the click helps with that.)

My mom is very proud of my broad vocabulary. She taught me to do tricks that awe horses and people alike. I love this place where I have learned to be brave. It’s MY place and won’t go out of earshot in case mom decides to call and pass out yummy snacks. I have all these thoughts as I snort forcefully with pricked ears and tail straight up in the air, a flag. Wait, I don’t get afraid like that anymore, do I?

Mom calls again, “Eclipsssse.”

I flick an ear her way as if to say, “Forget it sister, not a chance.” She clicks. Wait, did I hear a click? I flick an ear again to double check. Click. I DID hear a click? My mouth starts to water. Treats are on the way! Will I have to look at the dangerous wild animals and get even closer to them to get those treats? Hmmm…this requires horse sense. I’ll look away while I take a step and see how that goes to test the waters. CLICK! Ok, I am in for second step. Now I’m taking a third. I wonder if my mom knows how much danger she is putting me in and all for a stupid irresistible treat. My belly rules my brain. I hate that. Well sometimes I hate it, and this is one of those times. My nostrils flare like morning glories as they fill with the strange scent of the nearby striped, skinny tailed beasts. Now, the smell of sweet carrots wafts my way. I’m on the move. The click means treats follow. Still have 50 feet to go. Did horses always have to work so hard for their food?

WAIT! Out of nowhere, pictures and noises start exploding inside my head. I hesitate. Is this a memory? My feet stop and for a second and lose sight of the present. It’s hard to explain, but horses think in pictures. We aren’t great at determining if something is happening now or in the past. Chronological order isn’t our strong point or at least that’s what I hear. When a trigger occurs, it can be like we are living a past experience in the present moment.

For a minute, it seems like it is happening now. The rope is whooshing through the air toward me. The leather at the end of it threatens to bite my skin if it comes in contact. The experience causing me to hesitate is a rope swinging toward me with the goal of bringing me closer to something I fear. Is it a tarp or could it be wildebeests? Horses poop when they are scared to lighten up for running for their lives! The hand that I see in my mind swings the rope and scares the crap out of me, literally.

Then, the senseless words, “make a good choice,” fall like rocks on my ears. CHOICE? I am scared and even more afraid of the swinging rope biting into my flank. I mean, don’t they realize I can SEE the human swinging the rope? I might not have hands, but I do have eyes and they work well. I’m not blind. I can see that the rope in their hands is completely controlled by them: the HUMAN PREDATOR!

Now, the rope image fades and my hoofs are moving once again. Moms face comes into view. Magically, my belly seems to be controlling my feet. Step by step, I float across the grassy paddock. Only a few more feet to cover and the tasty carrots are mine, all MINE!

“Good,” my mom’s praise reaches my ears. Her words reflect my efforts to come closer to the face of imminent life threatening danger. Click. Ah yes. Reward time: carrots, yum, yum. I steal a look at the newly arrived creatures munching all the while. (Crunch crunch crunch.) I did it! Wildebeests, Zonkeys, Zorses, well, they aren’t so bad after all when treats are involved. Wonder if there are some more around the corner? Could be another opportunity to earn more clicks and orange sticks-I mean carrots!

Was I scared? Well maybe – but only for a minute since I can’t resist the idea of FOOD! With food I’m Superhorse! I can do anything. I’m no longer shaking in my socks! Other horses aren’t laughing at me. Out goes my chest and flip goes my mane as I cruise by the Wildebeests one more time, hoping for another treat. Did I hear someone say donkeys?

eclipse_bulldozer

 

PS To prove how brave I am, mom is including a picture of me underneath a fire breathing machine that used to TERRIFY me. It was taken at dusk (the scariest part of the day for prey animals) too!

____________________________________________________________

About the author: My name is Eclipse Deal. I am big, bright red chestnut gelding with chrome, thank you. I know all about the Compassionate Equestrian movement because they hold meetings here at MY farm. (My mom promised me a farm for Christmas a couple of years ago and I got it! All mine. Of course I have to share, she says.) I even get to be the centerpiece of these Compassionate Equestrian gatherings and enjoy all of the attention: massage therapy, pictures, body work, grooming demos. Oooooo, just thinking of them makes me feel like I just had a good roll. Did I mention I’m a movie star on something called Face Book and I am a Connection Training Star? I LOVE FOOD. Oh, sorry, I’m getting off track. Anyway, I’ve been asked to help out by writing this column called the “Mane Say”. It won’t be fancy, but it might give you a bit of insight into the mind and life of horses and their people since it is the saying of one with a mane, that’s me. It’s been said that I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but my mom says don’t believe it for a second. She’s given me the confidence to share my world with you. Ok, I confess, she is helping me – a little. Typing is super hard with hooves. Hope you enjoy my stories and maybe find even find them helpful. I am pretty sure writing this column could score me some extra CARROTS too, yum!

ECLIPSE WEBSITE PIC

_________________________________________________________________

 

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 56 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She began riding professionally in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay Champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at www.susangordon.ca

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

Faith, Trust and Affection

 

Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

Trust: believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of.

Affection: a gentle feeling of fondness or liking.

Hello Compassionate Equestrians!

I hope you have had a wonderful summer, whether showing, trail riding, Olympics-viewing and/ or enjoying a well-earned vacation. As usual, time has flown by and it is hard to believe another two months have elapsed since my last post. The quandary is whether to add a newsletter or continue with the blog, as it seems none of us have enough hours in the day to ingest any more e-mails!

This one, however, is definitely worth a read. It is a story by guest-blogger and CE Movement member, Melissa Deal. Melissa has taken the message of The Compassionate Equestrian to heart—literally—and put the Principles into real action, as we had hoped many others would also be so inspired.

When we think of these 3 important words, “faith, trust, and affection,” we conjure visions based on our religion, our spiritual practices, and perhaps moments with our horses that may have required a considerable dose of all three! Personally, I follow those thoughts with feelings of gratitude and realize just how blessed I am in so many aspects of my life.

I believe we all love a great story, and I love the one as told below. Thank you, Melissa!

Susan G.


 

8/16/16 The Mane Say

by Melissa Deal

Victory Land Dressage

A brief intro: My name is Eclipse Deal. I am big, bright red chestnut gelding with chrome, thank you. I know all about the Compassionate Equestrian movement because they hold meetings here at MY farm. (My mom promised me a farm for Christmas a couple of years ago and I got it! All mine. Of course I share, because she makes me.) I even get to be the centerpiece of these Compassionate Equestrian gatherings and enjoy all of the attention: massage therapy, pictures, body work, grooming demos. Oooooo, just thinking of them makes me feel like I just had a good roll. Did I mention I am a movie star on something called Face Book and I LOVE FOOD? Oh, sorry, I am getting off track. Anyway, I’ve been asked to help out by writing this column called the Mane Say. It won’t be fancy, but it might give you a bit of insight into the mind and life of horses and their people because it is the saying of one with a mane, a horse, that’s me. They say I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but my mom says don’t believe it and she has given me the confidence to share my world with you. Ok, I confess, she is helping me – a little – (and I promise not to spook). Hope you enjoy and even if you don’t, I am pretty sure doing this will score me some extra CARROTS, yum, so I am up for it either way!

ECLIPSE WEBSITE PIC

Eclipse

My first story

I felt my mom’s energy across the paddock, before I saw her. Bristling she was and it got my attention. She practically marched toward the barn. As soon as she was close enough, I checked her eyes for water. Water in her eyes is a rare occurrence, but almost always leaks out with this kind of energy. I can’t explain why.

Eyes weren’t springing leaks, but had the eyes been leaking? I was pretty sure they had. In a very business-like manner she went for the grooming box without hesitation. No sweat, I thought. I had already done my work for the day so this likely meant pure adoration time for me. Yay!

Wait a minute. Oh come on. She was going for the tail. Bummer. Not my favorite, but definitely hers. It looks like adoration grooming will have to be after the tail. I don’t know what she does back there exactly, but I heard her friend call it therapy-whatever that means. I think I have a pretty sound understanding of the human language compared to other horses. Some words I just don’t get, though. (This lack of understanding doesn’t bother me since my mom says I am a genius, and I am pretty sure she is right). Out came the tail brush and the show sheen gel. Ever so gently, I felt brush, brush, brush. Rhythmic strokes were interrupted only by the times she seemed to be picking something out of my tail. Slowly, the pictures in her mind became available to me and this is what she shared.

Mom, in her dinky black Prius. (Dad says the Prius has something to do with hugging trees. This tree hugging thing is clearly a humanism that I don’t get. Trees are good for scratching though.) She drives down a long winding asphalt path with white fence punctuating each side. Stately oaks frame her view. Then to the left, movement catches her attention. She scowls. Her face is red and her chest thumps as she watches a vibrant young man yanking with great might on a yearling colts lead. To the left her head snaps. A fit young woman throws rocks at the other horses, one of which is trying to get in the mix. The woman is yelling at them. (What were those horses thinking? I mean, I am all about self preservation. Maybe one was the colt’s mom or something?) Then, I felt my mom’s energy shift. In the picture, her face softens and gradually she becomes sad for the suffering of innocent horses. Empathy replaces the sadness and the anger disappears entirely as her car rolls to a stop. She composes herself and prays for guidance on how to influence these unknowing people in way that will be life changing for the horses. (I know mom really puts a lot of stock in praying so this had to be really important to her.)  She puts on her best smile. She has a job to do, a mission to accomplish, a lesson to teach and lives to change. She thinks: “this can only be accomplished through influence. Anger will get me nowhere.” To influence will require proof of her ability to guide the rider to the changes they desire, regardless of whether she or the horse find them meaningful. “If I can accomplish this,” she thinks, “then, maybe I can help them see the horse, its mind and its behavior differently.” Perhaps she can soften the hearts of the young man and woman so they can feel their real feelings, not just the ones the world taught them to have. Then they will be free to act from their hearts, the hearts they had as children. She knows they didn’t mean to be abusive. She knows they are well intended. She hurts for the horses. Her heart cracks open and she mourns the state of the humans too.

She finished my tail and looked me deep in the eye with all of the love she could hold and with raw emotion stated out loud,” Here’s the thing about us humans. We will judge the actions of others, but we unknowingly do things that are just as terrible, only different, to you horses. What will it take for us to be like you, kind and forgiving more often than not? What will it take to change us? Thank you! Thank you for showing me every day how to help you, others and myself. I am so lucky to have you in my life! I am so grateful that you tolerate me and that you lead by example. (Whatever that means…another strange humanism.) I am undeserving of your trust and affection,” she says. (The last one is a big word. I don’t understand, but I know it’s all good stuff, every word). She gave the cue for a kiss and I very gently extended my neck and reached my fuzzy muzzle toward her pursed lips in a sweet caress. (The sweeter I am the more treats I get!) My muzzle fuzz touched her warm soft skin and she relaxed. (What a relief.)  A smile and a carrot instantly followed. I knew that all was well in my world, once again. Somehow it seemed, my tail and I had helped her feel better and in return she made me feel like big warm bran mash does on a frost bitten evening – loved and adored. Delicious!


 

The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 56 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She began riding professionally in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay Champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at www.susangordon.ca

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

 

Saying Goodbye

The Trafalgar Square Books offices are located on a Vermont farm. We recognize ourselves as pretty lucky, seeing as in between meetings and calls with authors we can look out the windows and see both horses and Highland Cattle grazing in the green fields that slope up from the barn where our books and DVDs […]

via How One Horse Says Goodbye to Another, and What We Can Learn from It — Trafalgar Square Books Blog