“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”- Buddha
Everybody remembers “that” kid from school. The one who looked different, behaved differently, and was generally teased, bullied, left alone, the last one picked for gym teams and the one nobody expected to succeed at anything. They might have had one friend or two but otherwise, nobody ever took the time to find out what the oddball was really like, what their passions were, why they were so “different” or what actually made them tick. Who knows what great stories, performers, artists, scientists or athletes might have been hidden behind the funky clothes, eccentric behaviors or unusual choice of hobbies. In my case, the “unusual hobby” that was the cause for a lot of teasing and rejection from other kids in high school was my devotion to my horses. To make matters even more dramatic, my choice of horse was a loudly spotted appaloosa that stood out like a “sore thumb” in a crowd of exquisite imported European show jumpers and fancy thoroughbreds at the facility where I was boarding him. I resigned myself to being “different” and concluded that animals would always be better friends than most of my human counterparts. Humans frightened me with their hurtful words and aggression. It was only through having animals that I developed enough confidence to deal with people… and so it went throughout my professional career as a horse trainer.
Fast forward several decades later:
There were many different types of horses at the desert ranch I was teaching at. Morgans, Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, Arabians, Paints, Pintos, Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds, Navajo ponies, Miniature horses, “mutts” and even mules made their home at the scenic red-rock lined facility. Along with the variety of horses came their people, as colourful and diverse as the horses themselves. For the most part, everybody got along and most of us became good friends, with the exception of the occasional controversy that popped up, causing doubts and rifts to surface that put a chink in the confidence and friendships of people who would normally have gotten along just fine. Not unlike scenarios that play out in so many barns everywhere you go, whether they are specialized show barns or a mix of everything.
At the centre of one such controversy was a Half-Arabian Pinto mare who pretty much drove everybody in the “upper barn” crazy. At 12 years old, she had been raised from a baby by her owner, an elderly gentleman who rode western and used her only for trail riding. Nicknamed “Baby”, the colourful mare was hyperactive, for lack of a better term. She paced constantly along the fence-line of the outdoor run attached to her box stall. She pulled constantly at the reins on the trail, which left her with a high-headed carriage and a built-up muscle on the underside of her neck. She never seemed to quiet down even in a barn that was full of quiet, older horses. She probably annoyed them too. Nobody seemed to like Baby very much, and as her owner grew older, he found one of the teenagers at the barn willing to take her on to give her the additional exercise she seemed to crave.
I hadn’t paid much attention to her either, other than to take note of the stressful frame she was ridden in due to her constant desire to “go” when ridden. One day as I was finishing up lessons and about to head home, I saw Baby in the arena for the first time, with the young teen lungeing her over a small jump. I watched in both awe and amusement as the hyper trail-horse, wearing only a halter and the long line, scampered around and around the girl at full tilt, enthusiastically leaping over a cavalletti that she just as easily could have scooted around had she not wanted to jump it. Mira did not have to encourage Baby at all, in fact the line was on a loop as the mare actually had to cut into the circle a bit to navigate the jump. It was obvious this horse had a desire and a talent that nobody had noticed before.
“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”- Buddha
With the blessing of the owner we started the small but pretty paint over fences. This was not an easy horse to ride, by any means. She had gotten away with being “inside out” for so long that her back was hollow and she could evade contact with the high head and strong pulling muscle. My program breaks down into very small chunks with a lot of walking over poles, flexibility exercises, and plenty of seemingly mundane but important details that slowly build a horse’s ability to jump in confidence and with correct form. I wasn’t even sure if we’d really be able to get this horse into the show ring as it didn’t seem like her awkward form would allow for anything other than small jumps and her tendency to charge full speed didn’t help any.
Baby seemed to have her own agenda however, and the plucky young lady who rode her had already impressed me enough with her ability to handle her extremely flighty thoroughbred gelding. So we continued. Each step of the way surprised me as the fences went higher, so did Baby. As the gymnastics became more complicated, she managed to handle them, rarely making a mistake. I just let the progression of her training happen organically, and realized at one point we could start showing. Baby’s owner was completely enthused at his horse’s new career and eventually let us have full control over her development. He understood the need to reshape her body and build a different set of muscles for jumping.
In spite of all the positivity in the horse’s progress, I had to put up with the doubters and the skeptics at the boarding stable. We heard everything from “the horse doesn’t like to jump”, “she should only be a trail horse”, “she’s a terrible jumper” to “the running martingale is dangerous”. I used a running martingale to help stabilize her high head carriage and give her something to lean on a bit, which prevents the rider from getting hit as a horse pulls their way to a jump. Great jumpers will pull like a freight-train and can easily go past their striding if they get too strong. So I found myself having to defend my methods and apparatus, just like a scientist breaking ground in a new modality. Except this wasn’t exactly rocket science. It was just developing the confidence of a horse and rider in a niche they were both meant for.
“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”- Buddha
The nasty comments were divisive and hurtful enough that while trying to ignore them, I was eager to figure out how to move this horse and rider into a competitive situation and let them demonstrate what an “underdog” can do when given the proper handling and encouragement. I was determined!
I recalled how all of that teasing and negativity from high school made me feel and how isolated I had to become to rise above it and be even remotely successful at what I really loved to do, which was train horses.
As Baby was ready to show we discovered her registered name was “Celerity”. It means “Swift”. Hmm… a quality imprinted at birth perhaps?
We were getting around courses. Not big ones, but good enough to start at local shows. The careful flatwork and slow progress paid off in ribbons from the get-go. Baby’s hyper nature didn’t wane much and she remained a handful, but so many good jumpers are like that. Instead of being aggravated by such a horse, I’m always inspired by them and let them be who they are. My best horses have always been “quirky”. I guess just like I was in high school 🙂
I enlisted the help of an Arabian trainer at the barn since Baby was Half-Arabian and eligible for recognized classes at the big shows in Scottsdale, Arizona, which was only an hour’s drive from our barn. The best Arabians in the country came to those shows and the challenges were certainly as good as could they could get. Baby and Mira started pulling ribbons consistently at that level too. The glamour and glory were thrilling for all of us, and for awhile, the doubters and skeptics remained a little more quiet than usual.
Then disaster ensued. At a local show Baby sped over the first fence of an early morning jumper class and stumbled in the deep sand footing on the landing side. She fell right in front of the crowd from our barn who had come to watch the former trail horse that had established a somewhat celebrity-status after her spectacular debut in Scottsdale.
Mira was shaken and all the people who had ever doubted that this mare could be a show jumper grabbed her before I could, stripped her tack, and decided that was the end of her life as a jumper. They were both actually fine with no injuries and could have easily gone on to finish out the day and jumped some more rounds. I was concerned that thanks to the negativity of the other people their confidence would be destroyed beyond repair.
Back home, the owner of the barn decided that Baby should return to trail riding only and was sending other people out on the trail on her without telling the owner. The teenager who had gained so much confidence and ability by riding and showing the mare made the decision not to ride her any longer, and I can only imagine what was being said about me. It wasn’t a friendly atmosphere, that’s for sure.
I was still determined that this horse had such a will to jump it would be awful for her to have to go back to being yanked around on trails again and never realize her full potential. So I recalled a top trainer I whose barn we kept our training horses at for awhile in Phoenix that specialized in Arabian jumpers. She had been a Maclay-medal qualified equitation rider and state junior equitation champion before turning pro, and I thought she would be a perfect rider to carry on with Baby’s career.
Thankfully, the owner was still on my side so off we went for a trial ride. It was a match made in heaven. He left Celerity at the new barn and never looked back. She returned to the shows in Scottsdale that year, picking up more ribbons, and eventually went on to become Reserve National Champion Half-Arabian jumper before she was sold to a jumper rider in the midwest.
The lovely teen who started off her illustrious career acquired a wonderful, young, big paint gelding of her own and we both got him going as a competent hunter and blue-ribbon winner before she went off to college. She was the only freshman accepted to ASU’s Intercollegiate Equestrian Team and eventually went on to become team captain, competing successfully on their hunter/jumper roster thoughout her college years.
Who knows what would have happened to either horse or rider had the doubters and skeptics been allowed to shut down both of them and prevent their passions from shining through.
Being doubtful and negative is not being compassionate towards another being. In this case, horse and human were affected. The feelings of doubt that were inflicted on all of us by people who deemed it necessary to project their own fears and skepticism on us created many situations where enthusiasm and positivity would have been far more welcome, not to mention much less stressful.
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Dr. Schoen has many wonderful stories himself in The Compassionate Equestrian that demonstrate his passion for healing animals and having to overcome skeptics too. Thankfully current research is beginning to confirm more of what he recognized in animals many years ago.
Dr. Schoen notes “I was allowed to create my own unique integrative program taking courses in both human psychology as well as applied physiology and applied animal behavior. My master’s degree was another step in my continued evolving awareness of the similarities, rather than the differences between humans and non-human animals. When studying pig behavior in confinement, I felt their suffering. My research was to see if pigs in confinement did better if they were handled each day by humans vs. not being handled and just being in confinement pens. Interestingly enough, the piglets that I handled seemed to end up higher in the dominance order in their litter and with that improved their weight gain a bit. It does not seem unreasonable to extrapolate that caring touch improves “confidence”. ”
“Throughout veterinary school, I also kept questioning inside, how are we considered so different, and not more similar. When a cynical veterinary resident questioned me about why I thought animals felt pain when there were no significant studies on it, I was shocked that how could they possibly think otherwise.
Since then, throughout my veterinary career, I continued to be surprised at how so many people treat horses with little compassion or consideration of their sentience, their sensitivity to pain and suffering.
My career took me on a journey of exploring an inner question that persisted in my life… ‘what is ultimate healing?’ I explored many different healing modalities to help animals that did not respond to conventional medicine and surgery. That seemed to be my passion as a veterinarian, always searching for new approaches to help.”
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Sometimes your passion simply drives you to find what works in spite of those who tell you it can’t be done, won’t work, shouldn’t happen, or are quick to provide you with a negative opinion at the first opportunity. Even if we don’t agree on training methodologies or equipment, or any of the issues people get into with each other, especially over horses, a compassionate equestrian will not try to ruin someone’s good moments of joy, success, and free will by imposing their own fears and doubts on that horse or rider. We must learn to let events “pass through” us, as in the long run, we’re really all just “walking each other home”.
The intention behind a compassionate trainer, and a compassionate veterinarian comes from the same place for the benefit of all beings, and that would be the heart.
Our wish is for all of our equestrian colleagues and friends to always be blessed with the most wonderful, caring, compassionate veterinarians, trainers, and “cheering sections”.
“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”- Buddha