“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?” 

Gabrielle Roth (1941-2012, American dancer and musician.)

Have you ever experienced one of those days where it seems like everything you do is “wrong?”

Your e-mails are misconstrued. Your best friend says something hurtful. You receive a complaint from a customer or someone with whom you don’t even have contact. Your gaze begins to lower. Your stomach tightens. Your smile fades. You had no intention of being anything other than kind and compassionate with people, yet, outside forces seem to have conspired to make you define yourself as “wrong.” You start to question your abilities and capacity to contribute to your field or peers.

You want to crawl under a rock and hide on such days. But somewhere, deep inside, you find the courage to say, “No. I did not mean to upset that person. I wasn’t ‘wrong.’” You try to fight back the feelings that arise when you begin to do battle with yourself, then more feelings flood back, and before you know it, your body and mind are both reeling from internal conflict.

How can you make yourself feel better? You want to feel better, not only for the sake of your own health and wellbeing, but because you also know that being disheartened and possibly in a bad mood will affect others around you. If you are also planning on spending time with your horse, you will take those issues with you into the barn. As much as the horse can comfort us and help resolve those detrimental feelings, is there a way to build our resilience to the down side of life? What will happen when we engage with the horse having come to him with a more joyful heart and mind if we do some “inner work” before approaching him?

If we practice a few techniques, such as sitting meditation—or as suggested with this article, movement and dance—that help us heal from those days of temporary depression (people with clinical depression, chronic trauma and those in mental health crisis require professional diagnosis and treatment), or sadness and grieving, we may also notice a difference not only in how our horse responds to us, but also how other people interact with us at the barn, at home, at school, or at work.

Drum horses! These big, talented horses are as musical as horses get - they carry the kettle drums for the Queen's Life Guards.

Drum horses! These big, talented horses are as musical as horses get – they carry the kettle drums for the Queen’s Life Guards.

As much as we would like freedom from that juggernaut of negative experiences and emotions, we can’t help but default back to this mode. This is just how our brain works. It is plugged in to primitive, tribal behaviors that taught us to be alert for danger, and react to it for our very survival. As with horses, we have dedicated memory systems designed to keep us alive in the face of great adversity. Even if we work on creating more positive experiences for ourselves, as soon as somebody comes along and disrupts our joy, a little chink is taken out of our “happy place” and we have to push back to regain our equilibrium.

There is emerging research in neuroscience, according to author and psychologist, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., supporting the need to mindfully create positive experiences if we want to change our brain from its default negative mode to one of more compassion and happiness. Hanson has theorized that for every negative encounter with someone, it takes a repeated “download” of a minimum of 10-seconds worth of continuous positivity to counteract it. We have to truly absorb and be aware of boosting the capacity of our short-term memory to maintain and store the better experiences—and then work on being able to recall them whenever we need to deflect from a damaged sense of self-worth and other feelings that may include shame, guilt, fear, or grief.

“Freedom and Regularity of the Paces” is part of a set of collective remarks that are given to a horse and rider as part of their dressage test score. In effect, the pair is gauged on how harmonious they appear together. The horse should appear as though he is doing everything of his own accord, free of tension, with fluid and steady gaits. Achieving this beautiful partnership takes a tremendous amount of practice and dedication, which is not unlike the process of creating “freedom and regularity” of our mind and spirit too.

Refer back to the quote from Gabrielle Roth at the beginning of this post. The first question is, “When did you stop dancing?” Her system of 5 Basic Rhythms is designed for dancers, but can be adapted to working with a horse—your dance partner! If you don’t have a horse, or wish to try the rhythms without one, perhaps with a human partner, have a look at the website and inspire yourself by reading the more in-depth descriptions for each rhythm, then try some of the movements and enjoy the feelings arising in your body.

The brain and body love movement. They love rhythm, and sound. They love drums, and hoofbeats, and deep breathing. Your body and mind crave that connection to what is most natural to us when we are feeling safe and secure…when we are protected from that which seeks to do us harm. This is why herd animals feel safe in a herd. If there is danger or conflict amongst them, it typically ends quickly. Far more quickly than it does for humans, because they do not separate themselves from that connection to others, and to nature, whereas, we do. We want to run off, not talk to anyone, not share our feelings, or stuff them down inside until they emerge in a way that causes us to react unfavorably, then we begin the cycle of negativity all over again. We need to find ways to make that reconnection to the deep, tender, yet brave part of our own soul that is our true identity in the world.

Movement is meditation, medicine, and metaphor in the system of 5Rhythms. It is a way to transform chaos into creativity by attuning to patterns inherent in the natural world. All of life is energy in motion. Here is an exercise you can try that may help take your mind away from anxiety and stress, and into a place of creativity, playfulness, and joy as you put musical styling and specific intention to your ride…

The 5Rhythms™ are:

Flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, stillness

Extrapolating them to your riding, try this:

Flowing – mount with quiet intention, breathing deeply and sinking slowly into the saddle. Ensure that your horse is breathing with you. Then walk off, and listen to your horse’s footfalls. Connect and flow with the energy of the being below you. Be open and receptive to the feelings in your body as you merge with your horse.

Staccato – trot! This is the percussive gateway to the heart. Think of the earth, and feel the ground as the energy rises up through the now stronger and more forceful hoofbeats beneath you. Count the rhythm, and feel for a tempo that balances both you and your horse. This is truth, clarity, and what we stand up for. This is our strength, our “warrior” self, stepping out into the world.

Chaos – what is hard for you and your horse? Canter transitions? Lengthen stride? Circles? This might be messy. Keep a focus on your horse’s body language and potential for discomfort here. This is the journey from “I can’t,” to “I will.” There is freedom in light of your intention to create something from the movements. Play with your horse! Let go of preconceived notions and release tension in joints, in your reins, in your horse. He may surprise you by offering something you didn’t expect. Perhaps your lengthen stride attempt produces the best canter you’ve ever felt. Out of chaos, comes the “big dance”… the breakthrough.

Lyrical – fluid, creative repetitions of lateral movements. Subtle, soft, not asking too much, and never over-flexing or pulling. We are fair, and compassionate to the horse. The expression remains content as you find integrity and dignity in the exchange between you and your horse. In this clarity, and attention to details, we become lighter on our feet.

Stillness – free walk on a long rein. It is a mindful and humble ending to our energetic interaction with this marvellous animal that has agreed to participate in this exercise with us. Stillness doesn’t mean “stop moving,” rather, it is a continuous movement in slow motion that fuses the past, present and future and confirms the magic of the dance we have just created together. We are the vessel that contains our own wisdom, and that of the horse. Dissolve the free walk into a halt, sit for a moment in gratitude, take a breath, and dismount.

Even just visualizing this exercise may put you in a more positive place, or take your mind off something that is troubling. Listen to drumming, or chanting, and tap on a table, or your lap. Find your way to your loving inner self through movement and sound. It will not stop others from judging you unfairly, but it is a tool by which you can begin to bring mindful awareness to your brain’s normal hardwiring and how you can enact powerful, creative, and positive experiences that will possibly help you find some relief and freedom from negative emotions and self-judgments.


(Ann Mortifee, In Love With the Mystery, 2010 Eskova Enterprises)

The greatest spiritual achievement is to

maintain a sustained inner equilibrium

in the midst of the fluctuating upheavals

and demands of daily life. Our moment-by-

moment behavior and mood is the

measurement of our true freedom.

Cultivate a calm and peaceful disposition.

Practice acceptance and surrender to life

as it is and spiritual freedom will be yours.


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

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.