Mindfulness is a method of paying attention to ourselves, and the small details of habits, thoughts, and behaviors that affect our interactions with others. We come to know ourselves better, and understand the basis for feelings that may sometimes pull us into negative territory. You may recognize the feelings as the cause of agitation, pain, embarrassment, frustration, sadness, confusion, or any number of other identifiers. When these emotions arise, it is generally because there is a deep need that is not being met. Something is missing that is blocking your joy and happiness. Mindfulness affords us the opportunity to observe our mental experiences and change the way we respond to them.
In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf 2011), Karen Armstrong writes: “Just as musicians have to learn how to manipulate their instruments, and an equestrienne requires an intimate knowledge of the horse she is training, we have to learn how to use our mental energies more kindly and productively. This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds. Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.”
Unfortunately, our analysis, especially when it comes to our riding and our horses, can become very self-critical and judgmental. When we are hard on ourselves, and seeking a high standard, we can have the reverse effect of positivity and instead appear to become obsessive or unrealistically engaged with our self-image. Mindfulness practice allows us to observe, but also cautions against self-judgment and realize our need to disengage from negative thoughts and emotions. It is about training the brain to respond in a kinder, more compassionate way.
Karen notes on page 106 of the chapter, Step Five—Mindfulness, “the Tibetan word for meditation is gom: familiarization.”
When we have that “intimate knowledge” of our horse, we usually know how the day’s training session might progress based on the horse’s apparent mood, or when he may need a day off. When we go to a horse show, we go with the knowledge that we will be judged by the standards for that breed and/or parameters for that particular discipline. If the judge’s opinion doesn’t meet our expectations, or the horse has a bad day, the ability to respond mindfully and kindly can make a huge difference as to how productive training rides and horse shows will be in the future.
Take the horse out of the picture for a moment, and visualize how you feel when somebody makes a critical statement about you. Perhaps you are told you are judgmental, even though you had no intention of sounding that way. Maybe you are accused of being angry or impatient, but what you’re really feeling is disappointment and a sense of helplessness. When we communicate with an awareness of the unmet needs behind those feelings, we come to accept that those experiences are part of being human, and perhaps it is that we are seeking understanding, consideration, and emotional safety, but were unable to effectively convey such needs to the other person, or even recognize those as our own needs in order to feel more compassionate and caring.
When we are not familiar with our imprinted patterns of communication—let’s say “the aids” in reference to communicating with your horse—it is easy to be misconstrued by another, and we end up ping-ponging hostile words, thoughts, or kicks and rein-pulls, at one another until finally one or the other, or even your subconscious self, ends up hurt and in retreat without an effective resolution.
Many people go through life in somewhat of a “trance,” existing, but not really being vital and alive. The one thing about being around horses is that they connect us to a present moment, to nature, and to the need to be vitally energized, yet calm, as is their natural state when roaming freely with a herd.
On page 107 of Karen’s book, she writes, “We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us. When we are enraged, we tend to exaggerate a person’s defects—just as when we are seized by desire we accentuate somebody’s attractions and ignore her faults, even though at some level we may know that this is a delusion.”
We humans are constantly shuffling from one emotion to another, one desire to the next, and other preoccupations. When we step back and observe what brings us into conflict with ourselves, other people, and even our horses, we may see how easily we inflict pain on others, as well as how distressing it is when somebody behaves in such a way toward us. There is also an awareness that arises as to how little it can take, even as much as a smile, a thank you, or a pat on your horse’s neck, that can brighten the day or change somebody’s mood for the better.
One of the world’s great mindfulness teachers, Tara Brach, Ph.D. writes in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, page 20 (Bantam Dell 2003), “Wanting and fearing are natural energies, part of evolution’s design to protect us and help us to thrive. But when they become the core of our identity, we lose sight of the fullness of our beings. We become identified with, at best, only a sliver of our natural being—a sliver that perceives itself as incomplete, at risk and separate from the rest of the world. If our sense of who we are is defined by feelings of neediness and insecurity, we forget that we are also curious, humorous and caring. We forget about the breath that is nourishing us, the love that unites us, the enormous beauty and fragility that is our shared experience of being alive. Most basically, we forget the pure awareness, the radiant wakefulness that is our Buddha nature.”
Being with a horse is a glorious opportunity to practice mindfulness. Watching and learning from them, and observing how they respond to our moods, behaviors, and actions, is a chance to put that awareness into action in all of our daily activities. By doing so, we will ultimately make ourselves feel better, and enrich the lives of others around us with compassion and loving kindness.
 Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize in 2008 and began working on the Charter for Compassion. The Charter was signed in 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She is the author of numerous books, including The Case for God (Anchor, 2010)
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 55 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 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 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book.