Good Hands, Good Seat, Good Heart

Dear Compassionate Equestrians,

I’m happy to reconnect with you for what has become a single yearly blog post. I hope life has treated you well, and I wish you an excellent New Year.

2023 marks a decade since the concept for the book began, and I would like to encourage anyone who has a story that would inspire others to embark on the process of doing so, whether it be through the written word, a podcast, social media posts, artwork, music, or any other creative endeavour. I guarantee it will be a treat for your soul and help raise the spirits of others who need to hear your message.

Everyone in my circle of family, friends, clients, and acquaintances has had a different experience with the pandemic and the many changes affecting the world. Still, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that for many, it has been a struggle to retain joy, optimism, and clarity about the future of humanity. I try to resist sliding into a state of pessimistic contemplation, but in searching for methods to stay balanced, I refer back to the teachings of The Compassionate Equestrian and put into practice the exercises presented throughout the book.

Image by Rebecca Scholz from Pixabay 

I started sitting outdoors in the morning for a few minutes of meditation. It was lovely in the summer, but I’ve found myself continuing the practice as we move into winter. A blanket and a hand-warming gourd of yerba maté tea make it comfortable to sit and listen to bird songs, frogs, the wind, rain, and sounds of the neighbour’s horses and alpaca. The practice of the present moment is a beautiful way to shut off the mental chatter that pulls and pushes us into the future and past.

As an exercise in self-reflection, I’ve looked back on my youth and reminded myself of what made me happiest and most satisfied with life. What were my ambitions, what materialized versus what didn’t, and why? Animals, music, art, nature, and dance were featured themes throughout my developmental years and remain so as I reach my golden age. 

Creativity is an excellent release for pent-up emotions and stories buried in our subconscious. Here’s an art exercise you can try yourself; no, you don’t have to be an artist. You only need a few supplies, even as simple as a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, along with something that adds colour, either ink markers, paint, or crayons.

  • Take a trip to a paint store or any hardware or department store that sells paint. Or, focus on an object, a book, or a card—anything that grabs your attention with its colour. At the display of paint chips (bits of paper that you can take home to match or coordinate colours with decor), choose a colour that makes you happy, or choose two if you can’t decide. You don’t need any reasons why the colour brings up that feeling of joy. Take the coloured paper samples home with you.
  • Sit quietly with your paint chip, and let images arise in your mind that correlate happy times with the colour. It could be an object, a person, a place, a horse, or a related event or period of your life.
  • Make a drawing of anything that comes to your mind. It could be shapes, representational symbols, or indiscriminate blobs of colour and random lines. Just retain the idea of your happiness as your draw and paint.
  • Keep your finished art where you can see it and refer to it when you need a mood booster.

I tried this exercise months ago with a group of professional artist friends and found it surprising and delightful. The woman who introduced us to the process specializes in abstraction and the psychology of design, so there was no expectation of realism in the artwork, only a representation of our joy as it connected to the colour.

I stared at the pile of paint chips she placed on the table and was attracted to a deep teal piece titled “Whirlpool Blue.” This dark blue-green isn’t a colour we’d typically associate with “happy.” I surprised myself, but this was the shade calling me. It took me a few minutes to figure out the association, and then I remembered.

In 1977 I moved my recently-purchased Appaloosa colt to the newly opened show jumping facility in Calgary, Alberta, Spruce Meadows. Their logo colour has always been the hue of a Blue Spruce tree, one of my favourite trees. Besides being the horse of my young girl’s dreams, a beautiful bay with a spotted blanket on his rump, Top Canadian was perfectly mannered, easy to train, and a delightful clown of a horse that enjoyed attracting hordes of people to his stall during big events at the soon-to-be-famous equestrian facility. These were some of the best days of my life.

 I was amazed that a teal paint chip could rustle up all these memories and associated emotions. I took the coloured bit of paper home and began to paint. An abstract based on my horse’s spots emerged after a couple of hours of painting. It is one of the more unusual paintings I’ve done over the years, but I still feel the deep emotion that first hit me when my eyes fell on the Whirlpool Blue paint sample.

“Appaloosa” 9 X 12, acrylic on canvas paper, Susan Gordon

Another method to reconnect to a happy place is to listen to music that takes you to another time and place. Barn chores, cooking, cleaning, and even riding go well with your favourite tunes. I’ve also had a great time returning to my Western roots, switching tack on my client’s lovely Arabian gelding, following Cowgirl Magazine online, and watching videos of ranch riding classes. As a teenager, I started training and showing Appaloosas—a sweet satisfaction in bringing some of that past into my current life. It’s another exercise in staying grounded in familiar, safe places and good memories. I believe the art exercise set off a series of spontaneous events in my psyche, which continue to emerge as a necessary healing process. It is a personal journey that I encourage each of you to undertake, no matter where you are in your life.

A sense of giving to oneself and giving to others, being generous in mind and spirit, is something this world needs. We’ve experienced more divisions in surprising and disappointing aspects of life than we’ve ever seen on a global scale. We must return kindness, compassion, elegance, and grace to one another. Follow your heart.

In the horse shows of my youth, there were equitation classes that focused on “Good Seat and Hands.” It takes a long time and an excellent teacher to instill this fine-tuning in a rider, yet, next to primary care and welfare, it is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a horse, that of correct, balanced riding, creating a picture of beauty. Horses always amaze me with their generosity and kind nature, allowing humans to ride on their backs and put them through paces and exercises they wouldn’t typically do in the wild. They are inherently altruistic. 

Image by soulfirephotography_ from Pixabay 

Good hands give, a good seat follows the horse’s motion, and a good heart is benevolent towards all. The same aspects apply to the non-ridden horse in providing a giving hand and mindfulness toward the horse’s needs and personality. These elements align, creating coherence and extending into a larger, radiant field. It is an extraordinary chance to let help others and let horses help us. At this time of fragility on Earth, let’s take every opportunity to find a positive path forward. Take more steps, however small, to restore joy and lightness to yourself and others. 

I’d love to hear about your creations based on the suggested exercises or something you may have discovered about yourself and your horse/s after reading The Compassionate Equestrian. 

May peace prevail on this planet and all sentient beings be free from suffering. 


December 23, 2022

Exit 2021 with Grace and Gratitude

Exit 2021 with Grace and Gratitude

Photo by yavuz pancareken on

Here we are. Another year done, and now we know the world will never be the same as it was prior to 2020. It feels as though we are obligated to choose a side of one narrative or another. We’re constantly pushed, pulled, and squawked at by the noise on our devices. Neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, and loved ones shunning other family members. In the twenty-first century of our recorded history, who would have thought this kind of division could take place so close to home? What are the lessons in this situation?

More than ever, home is in the heart. Home is an embracing thought that wraps itself in comfortable memories of years gone by. Safe places that are warm, loving, and welcoming. Minds and bodies cherish the imaginings of what home means to us. Each and every individual, existing as one of many in this multiverse of billions of beings. We are stardust, after all. Vessels of chemistry, activated by water, charged with the energy of life.

Settle into a mindful space, quiet, and devoid of the outside world’s chaos. Breathe like a horse at rest; slow in, slow out. Curl your legs under, and relax all body parts. Let yourself drift to another place. Feel your connection to the earth, and sense the pulse of Gaia’s rhythm. The vessel that you are is made of elements found in nature, and it is in nature that your mind and body function optimally.

While the world dives further into technocratic control, there are critical decisions that need to be made about the future of mankind, and our potential withdrawal from nature. We’re not digital. We’re not artificial intelligence. We can use this technology to our advantage, but best not to become it. How far behind do we want to leave pristine forests, lakes, and rivers? How far in the past do we want to leave animals, especially horses? How do we choose a future that integrates individual freedoms, good health, and positive social networks?

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on

Revisiting the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation as written in The Compassionate Equestrian provides a window into the state of humanity Dr. Schoen and I envision throughout the book. Human beings who practice and develop their compassion, then extend that kindness and understanding toward others. Engaging with horses—and other animals—in a way that acknowledges and supports their fundamental physiology and behaviour. Creating a happier, healthier world for all by incorporating methods and technologies that uplift the spirit, honour inherent properties of health and wellbeing, and ensure that open and honest dialogue takes place among scientists, researchers, and practitioners in all related fields. Answers for a kind of future that we could look forward to with renewed enthusiasm and excitement.

In 2022, come home to your heart. Let’s try to exit this past year with as much grace as possible. Reflect inwardly on the choices you’ve made, how you’ve treated others in your circle, and your thoughts toward those elsewhere in the world.

Be blessed, be healthy, and be happy.

With endless gratitude,


p.s. Coming in January/February 2022, the launch of a new magazine from Concordia Equestrians. The Compassionate Equestrian has been a featured Associate of the organization since its beginning. I am happy to announce that after two years of writing for the newsletter, I will be please to continue as a contributor for the new (and beautiful!) online publication. Each month will feature a new essay on the chapters of the book, beginning with Principle #1 in January. , or on Facebook at Thoughtful Equestrians – Friends of Concordia Equestrians

Closing Out 2020 With Compassion

As I write this post, the sun is brilliant on crisp snow, while the neighbour’s alpacas, horses, and donkey relax peacefully after their morning feed. There is a feeling of settlement and coming to terms with the upheavals brought to us by the pandemic and ongoing shocks that resonated around the world in 2020. What next? As with everyone else, I am hoping that we have learned some valuable lessons about the effects of stillness and quiet on the planet and ourselves. For those who have suffered greatly this year, and those who remain in distress, whether with health issues, finances, or both, may you be blessed with more uplifting circumstances and healing as we begin 2021. While my optimism for the future is cautious, I believe we must look forward with hope and gratitude for all that our hearts hold dear.

January of 2021 will be a very “horse-centric” month for me and a few professionals in the field of Equine Assisted Mental Health and Equine Assisted Learning. It is going to be a fascinating in-depth discussion about “Tending to Our Equine Partners”.

Anyone interested in following the online group will need to make a request to join The EAMH/EAL Resource Network with Leif Hallberg and Friends if not a member already.

Leif Hallberg

See details in the press release below, and please share with anyone who may want to follow the posts:

December 23, 2020
For release: Immediately
Susan Gordon
Co-author, The Compassionate Equestrian

Equine-Assisted Mental Health and Equine Assisted Learning are part of a rapidly expanding industry in which horses play a central role given their capacity to interact with humans at a level that helps therapists work with clientele ranging from veterans to PTSD to anxiety disorders, substance abuse and overall wellness and mental health.

A pioneer in the field, Leif Hallberg, MA, LPC, LCPC recently created a Facebook Group named EAMH/EAL Resource Network. Hallberg is an innovator in the field of experiential therapies and a pioneer and leading expert in the field of equine interactions. Her books are used as a teaching text across the United States and internationally.

Her online group is now the fastest growing in the industry with over 1800 members around the world. Along with relevant daily posts, a group of moderators manage a learning “unit” ever other month on a specific theme.

Co-author of The Compassionate Equestrian, Susan Gordon (2015, Trafalgar Square Books/Horse and Rider Books, Schoen/Gordon), will be a moderator for one of the bi-monthly learning units in January. The unit is titled “Tending to Our Equine Partners.” Her segment of the month-long online learning experience for the week of January 18-24 will feature the topic, “Handling and Caring for Rescued and Traumatized Horses.”
Additional moderators include Katarina Felicia-Lundgren of the MiMer Centre in Sweden, and her colleague Marta Sikorska of Poland, and Juliana Brossolette of Conscious Equine Connections in British Columbia, Canada.

Gordon has more than forty years of horse training experience having been fascinated with the process of human-equine interactions since she was a child. While specialized in sport horses and the rehabilitation of off-track Thoroughbreds, she has a broad range of experiences from western events to show jumping and dressage.

It is not unusual to find horses with stress, anxiety, and trauma-induced behaviors similar to those of humans. Unfortunately, such horses may find themselves being reintroduced to a new situation without a full assessment or understanding of their history. Included with this discussion will be the most current scientific research regarding traumatic experiences and how they affect horses both mentally and physically.
While most horses in EAMH programs are not ridden, they may still exhibit behaviors and triggers due to a history of abusive training practices or an environment that did not support a horse’s essential needs for movement and socialization.

According to Gordon’s experience with such horses, “The compassionate rehabilitation of a traumatized horse is exceptionally rewarding, as it becomes a two-way exchange of healing, trust, and a return to wholeness.”

Anyone who is involved with Equine Assisted Services either as a practitioner, student, or those with an interest in the field may request to join the closed Facebook group; The EAMH/EAL Resource Network with Leif Hallberg and Friends.

Wishing all of you a very Happy Holiday Season and many blessings for the upcoming New Year. May peace and good health be restored to Earth and to all sentient beings.

The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by the book’s co-author, Susan Gordon, a professional horse trainer and artist living on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada. For information regarding co-author Dr. Allen Schoen DVM, please refer to his website at

For dog and horse portraits and other paintings follow me on Instagram: susan.greenpony

Important information about The Compassionate Equestrian website, blog, and social media sites

Dear Subscribers,

You are receiving this e-mail and/or blog post because you have subscribed to The Newsletter of The Compassionate Equestrian Movement and/or The Compassionate Equestrian Blog.

It has been quite a while since I’ve published a blog post or updated the website, but I am hoping everyone who has an interest in our 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation has continued to learn and grow in your own practices, and your passion for creating a happier and healthier world for others.

The past seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions have led many to rethink and restructure. Whether it is in business or personal lives, and by choice or due to decisions made by those in authority, nobody has escaped some degree of change in this most unusual year.

Consequently, I am making the difficult decision to archive The Compassionate Equestrian website and remove it from the internet. For now, the blog ( and social media pages on Facebook, Twitter (@CompassionEq) and Instagram (susan.greenpony) will continue as is.

The mailing lists will converge and I will do my best to remove duplicate e-mail addresses. You may receive this notice twice in the interim, and if you do, I apologize for that.

While the website is more “about” the book, I believe there is greater activity and engagement via social media. I invite all of you to submit photos, posts, stories, and updated research that supports Compassionate Equitation. Of course, our wonderful publisher, Trafalgar Square Books/Horse and Rider Books will retain the book’s page on their website.

There is still much to be done in the equestrian world, which is morphing considerably in response to the current pandemic as well. Many have had to sell horses because they have lost income. Others are purchasing horses realizing that activities such as trail riding are great for this new world of “social distancing.” And the elite of the show world have managed to gather in the wealthier corners of equestrian sport thanks to continued sponsorships and bursaries. There is still a need to encourage compassion as a foundation for all training programs, including those that keep horses performing over fences, in the dressage arena, eventing, or western disciplines.

A lot of rough methods are still employed, although we are also seeing a large resurgence of practical, time-tested classical techniques converge with relationship-building exercises and a greater awareness of the mind-body connection. This has been thanks to all of you and those in your networks who are reshaping the equine industry one horse and rider at a time. It has even become more acceptable to keep non-ridden equines for the sheer enjoyment of having horses present in one’s life. This is a win-win situation for countless numbers of horses and those who love them.

We can be kinder riders. We can be kinder to everyone. We can teach others how to be kinder. We can continue to set an example of how compassion is more effective than making demands and using bullying to get results.

The 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation are in use as an addendum to equine learning, riding and training programs around the world. The movement continues to grow organically, and this is how we had hoped it would manifest.


For updates on TCE Co-author, Dr. Allen Schoen DVM, please see his website and the wonderful episodes he has been creating for the AWAKE TV Network. You’re sure to find some helpful information for managing your pet’s health and wellbeing, along with tips for enjoying your own mindfulness practice during this stressful time on our planet.

Monday’s 5pm PST / 8pm EST

Dr. Schoen will share his insights on the latest advances in holistic integrative animal healthcare as well as his unique expanded vision of how the human animal bond can be one way to help heal the world. His new approach is called “One Health, One Happiness Quantum Approach to Animal Healthcare”. He will be interviewing scientists and specialists in various fields as they are related to the the human animal bond including neuroscience, the new biology, and quantum physics. There will be live Q & A with the audience following the interviews. Animal lovers will be invited to be co-creative partners in the exploration of how we can unite to help create a healthier, happier, more harmonious world.

Dr. Schoen with a client’s horse

We’re very excited to announce the growth of Compassionate Equestrianism on our tiny home island in the Pacific Northwest of Canada. Juliana Brossolette has returned from Costa Rica and is doing a fabulous job of pulling together the local community with heart-based EFL sessions for Frontline Heroes and private clients, along with her extremely kind approach to training horses. Have a look at her website. She promises us that some videos will be forthcoming so those of you in other parts of the world can see how the movement continues to evolve.

Photo: Juliana and Sunny

As for me, I will continue to manage the social media sites and post relevant information on The Compassionate Equestrian’s Facebook page. Our group, The Compassionate Equestrian Network is still up and available to new members who are interested in connecting with the professionals who have integrated the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation into their own training programs. No matter what your discipline or breed of choice, you are welcome to join and share within a like-minded group of professional riders, instructors and practitioners.

I am also focusing on my artwork and have been thrilled to provide several dog owners of late with portraits of their beloved pets. My new personal website will be up in a month or so. Meanwhile, you can check out my page on the Salt Spring Island Painters Guild:

“Fogo” oil on canvas 11X14

Salt Spring Island Painters Guild/Susan Gordon

You can purchase some great Compassionate Equestrian logo products on my Red Bubble shop:

And lastly, remember The Compassionate Equestrian can be purchased in hard copy or e-format. This is our page on our publisher’s website:

If you are not subscribed to the blog, which will now also double as “newsletter”, please go to

In kindness and with gratitude for all of you,

Susan Gordon

Co-author/writer, The Compassionate Equestrian

October 5, 2020


It is now May of 2020. It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. My inbox is filled daily with newsletters that never get read. There never seems to be enough time in the day to manage life’s chores… such as grocery shopping, exercising, cooking, and house cleaning, much less more creative pursuits. Even with the pandemic restrictions and stay-at-home protocols, time is still oddly crunched into an ever tighter space. Do you have this problem too? I don’t even have animals to feed any longer and I’m only riding once a week! Has there been a strange cosmic tweak to the dimension known as “time”?

white horse on hilly grasslands

Photo by Roman Koval on

Take this year itself, for example. What a blur the past five months have been. We are collectively emerging from what has likely been the strangest time in our personal existence, no matter what year you were born. My wish for all of the readers of this newsletter is that you have been able to stay well and healthy, and maintain your horses in a positive manner.

Undoubtedly, the stress you have been under has been registered by your horses and other pets, as they have a way of tapping into a bigger collective consciousness of all beings. Many of you may be experiencing issues at your barns as we did in the days that followed the shock of the events that occurred in the United States on September 11th, 2001. Our local veterinarian had never seen so many colic cases in a short period of time, and we lost a very nice horse of our own. The tension among everyone was palpable

This is a time to be patient, and be as kind  as possible to everyone. If you have not been able to visit your horse/s, hopefully that will change soon, as everyone adapts to the “new normal.”

Here at home in British Columbia, I know of people looking for a new trail horse, and having trouble finding one because all the good horses seem to be selling quickly! Presumably that is good news… as it means there are riders looking forward to hitting the trail—perfect “social distancing” activity, right?—and that there is still support in the equine economy to acquire and maintain new equine partners.

Speaking of partners, we have a few new collaborations within The Compassionate Equestrian Network, and I’m also looking for some feedback from readers, professionals, and friends regarding the future of our digital presence. Do we even keep the newsletter going? The website? Or move strictly to social media and even live broadcasts on those platforms?

Part of this “new normal” is a stronger move to cyberspace, which is still somewhat foreign territory to many. Not only that, but if you are a busy trainer and/or someone who spends much of your day outdoors and constantly in motion, how in the world do you incorporate even more phone or computer time? Horses and students need their caregivers and teachers to be fully engaged and present. Conversion to a more technocratic society is going make for some interesting, yet challenging alterations as to how we proceed. I’d love to hear how you are managing now, and planning for the future.


I am a guest speaker at the HERD Virtual Summit in July – follow news on their website and be sure to sign up or check in for future information: The HERD Institute

Have a look at the Concordia Equestrians website, and consider signing up for their newsletter if the information resonates with you. I write about a chapter of the book each month. Concordia Equestrians

Wherever you are in the world, be safe, stay calm, think happy thoughts, and do the best you can with the situation we have been handed. One thing we know for certain is that time does not stop. There’s tomorrow, next year, and the next decade. Let’s try for a really bright, healthy future for our planet, and all sentient beings.



The Kinder Rider


Ultimately, anybody who is reading this blog post, and anyone who has or is reading The Compassionate Equestrian can visualize themselves as compassionate and empathic with horses. If you feel as though you aren’t there yet, you’re certainly on the journey to becoming more understanding of your horse’s needs and his means of communication.

Unfortunately, however, it has been brought to my attention that the very word, “compassion” seems to evoke a broad range of emotions and opinions from equestrians, and not necessarily on a positive note.

IMG_20160622_132742834 Does it have a religious slant that distances some riders? Do some feel that it means you can’t ever show a horse without having “do-gooder” looking over your shoulder? Does it mean you can’t achieve optimal results within your chosen discipline? Given the conversations I’ve had with one of our younger trainer-affiliates, it seems as though all of the above applies. This saddens, yet does not surprise me.

I’m searching for the answers that will convince a greater demographic of the equine world to take a look at what the 25 Principles have to offer. And, of course, the last thing we want is for people to feel guilty or “less than” if they are unable to live up to the highest standards of equine care and handling. The key point is self-awareness and being mindful of the needs of horses, without beating up oneself, or anybody else, for that matter. I also realize this is an extremely difficult concept to grasp for many people, which often makes it hard to meet people “where they’re at.”

We all know what the horse industry needs. From the highest echelons of the governing bodies of horse sports to the backyard recreational rider, we must have clarity, best practices, and enforcement of the welfare issues across the board that would help make this a better place for horses. Horses that are receiving at the very least, a home that provides them with the 5 Freedoms*. You only have to scroll through a few Facebook threads or online forums to find out what the extent of violations are though, even with just those five essential principles of animal welfare.

So let’s just drop the word, “compassion” for a minute. How about we replace it with… “kinder?” The kinder rider. How does that look? I realize that not everyone who has a horse actually rides them as well, so we’ll include those who wish to work at liberty or simply maintain horses as companions and provide them with a safe home. We imagine that a beautiful partnership must originate and equate with a kind and benevolent rider or handler. I guarantee you, however, that the perfect picture also has the tough parts, the ugly sections, the down moments, and the ones that make you just want to give it up. Everyone has those times too. What helps? That base of kindness, starting with being kind to yourself.

animal black countryside daylight

Photo by mali maeder on

How does kinder compare to compassionate? Here’s the definition of kinder from

adjective, kind·er, kind·est.
-of a good or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person:
a kind and loving person.
-having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence:
kind words.
-indulgent, considerate, or helpful; humane (often followed by to):
to be kind to animals.

Seems to fit with our Principles, right? Now, without judging the tack, the discipline, the breed, the person sitting in the saddle, observe the situation in question. You can be a very kind person, and still end up in trouble on a horse. The horse may not have had adequate training, he might be in pain, he might be too much horse for the rider, or he might have spooked at something and bolted.

If you happen to be a very kind person and a competent rider, but your young horse decides to have a bucking fit at a show and someone snaps a photo of you pulling on your reins and posts it on social media with disparaging comments, does this then make you an unkind, non-compassionate rider? No, of course not. You did your best in a testy moment, and the next thing you know, you are subjected to hateful comments in a Facebook group. Everyone else thinks they’re being compassionate with the horse because he’s being pulled on, not knowing what might have happened in the split second before the photo was taken, or the moments that followed. And no, this is not compassion. Remember, compassion is putting yourself in that saddle, in that moment. It’s not about feeling sorry for the horse and trashing the rider. Who, in fact, may truly be a kind and benevolent rider.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’d like everyone to consider the basis of what makes a kinder rider, and we’ll just sneak in the core of the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation. We don’t need to say it, we’ll just do it.

Take a few moments and some deep breaths when you feel the need to criticize another rider or horseman. Do the same before you engage with your horse to ensure you are calm, quiet, and thinking clearly. Examine yourself and your connection to the horses you work with. Certainly, there is no book, DVD, author, or online training program that is going to encourage you to be outright unkind and cruel to your horse (although if anybody comes across anything that promotes the deliberate causation of pain to animals, action should be taken with appropriate authorities). The big problem we have in the equine industry right now is a disconnect from the fundamental training principles that are first of all concerned with the soundness of the horse and his ability to perform tasks required by the trainer/handler.

woman riding horse

Photo by Laila Klinsmann on

The second issue is the misunderstanding of biomechanics and the progressive development of the musculoskeletal system of the horse that is tasked with working with humans in any capacity. Too many trainers are missing the years of correct training of the rider before they are able to transfer that knowledge to the education of a horse. Even horses working at liberty are subject to these principles, as they are required to maneuver through various gaits, obstacles, school figures and other unnatural exercises that may overtax tendons, ligaments and muscles.

A kinder rider knows that they need the basics of good equitation that will provide them with an independent seat, quiet hands, and correct application of the aids. It doesn’t matter if you ride bitless or show jumpers. You can’t replace the foregoing with anything else.

A kinder rider continues their education in their chosen discipline, always seeking to further understand the needs of their horses, and developing the ability to know when they can proceed with the horse’s training, and when they need to back off.

A kinder rider knows that not everyone has perfect moments with horses at all times. Even the nicest horses can be out-of-sorts, especially if something hurts. It is important to realize that even horses trained with zero pressure can injure themselves. They’re made of the same soft tissue, bone, and other biological components as we are.

A kinder rider enjoys the success of others and seeks out the experts who seem to have a history of keeping horses sound and content, even competing well in the show ring for many years. Horses that have been overworked, beaten, or poorly trained will show it. Sooner or later, even the most stoic ones will break down and expose the rider or trainer for their bad handling.

A kinder rider encourages others, especially youth, to follow their heart when it comes to engaging with horses. If a child wants to jump their pony, find them a pony who loves to jump and ensure that they are trained under the supervision of a benevolent trainer. If the child announces that they no longer wish to jump or ride, allow them to bow out with grace. Same with other disciplines. If the trainer is mean, insulting, never seems happy, please go somewhere else. Even if they produce the desired results and ribbons, everyone will suffer at some level.

A kinder rider is compassionate. There. I said it anyway. If you want to be stealth about “compassion,” I think kindness will suffice. And I think you’ll experience some pretty good results.


* The Five Freedoms is a core concept in animal welfare that originated in a UK government report in 1965 and was then refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It states that an animal’s primary welfare needs can be met by safeguarding the following five freedoms:

 1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2.Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5.Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

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About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 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 since 2002. 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 EFT 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, an internationally 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. Whalsten 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.  

Susan Gordon website


A Marvelous Assistant; The Horse


Horses were my passion from early childhood. As is the case with many children, I was identified by adults as “extra-sensitive” to the communication channels between humans and animals. Transitioning from junior to amateur, then hunter-jumper trainer, it was quite a shock to emerge from the quiet, intimate level of contact and understanding that comes from spending a lot of time with one’s own horses, to the fast, noisy, highly expectant world of professional training.

While that childhood sensitivity never left, it was often trounced upon by the impatience of horse owners, other trainers I worked for, or simply the fatigue that comes from long hours of physical and mental exertion when working around horses and their owners. Often times, what the owner or trainer wanted, and what the horse communicated that he needed were two different things. The horse, ultimately due to his relative silence, frequently lost the argument. I was caught in the middle on many occasions. So I caved to the demands of the environment… until I didn’t.

Some horses are brilliant jumpers, and want to jump. Some are extremely talented in a particular discipline, but don’t want to perform, and that can be due to a long laundry list of reasons. The complexities of human-horse interactions can be intense, and highly misunderstood.

One day there was a new book that crossed my path: The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. I was thrilled. Somebody out there felt as I did about the deeper communication conveyed to us by horses. Then the entire field of Equine Assisted Therapy began to emerge. Still involved in the sport disciplines, I watched from the periphery as more and more people started to use horses in human wellness programs. The process was both fascinating and disconcerting. Who asked horses if they wanted to be psychotherapists for humans? Who’s to say if the horses don’t also take on the stress and other symptoms of their “patients?” Why are they being made to remain in round pens hour after hour, helping humans discover the root of their greatest issues and fears? What is the protocol for caring for a “compassion-fatigued” horse? What about the safety concerns of bringing inexperienced horse-people into a pen of loose horses without proper footwear, headgear, or other traditional means of protection from known horse behaviors?

In short, the Equine Assisted Therapy models seemed to be all over the board without ethics guidelines, equine welfare regulations, or any professional structure to help manage this new faction of the equestrian world.


Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC


Fast forward to the 21st century, and it is such a pleasure to see that Leif Hallberg has addressed both the broad base of practitioners and equestrians who are involved with EAT/EFW, as well as providing material for each individual in the field in the form of a practical workbook. She also provides consultations, workshops, and retreats that are well grounded in her academic background, yet still merge beautifully with the real world of hands-on experience in the outdoors with animals, plants, and other creative aspects of nature.


TCE co-author, Dr. Allen Schoen DVM introduced us via e-mail and I was excited to ask Leif some of those pressing questions I’ve had regarding Equine Assisted Therapy. I discovered that we are completely on the same page insofar as our observations and concerns for horses used in equine/human therapy programs. The Compassionate Equestrian fully endorses and encourages the following textbooks for everyone involved with horses in a therapeutic program.

Books by Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC


The Clinical Practice of Equine Assisted Therapy – Including Horses in Human Healthcare

The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy bridges theory, research, and practical methods to fill a rapidly developing gap for physical, occupational, speech, and mental health professionals interested in incorporating horses in therapy. Extensively researched and citing over 300 peer-reviewed journal articles, it examines core issues such as terminology, scope of practice, competency recommendations, horse care ethics, and clinical practice considerations. This book is an essential resource for professionals who wish to use a best-practices approach to equine-assisted therapy.


The Equine Assisted Therapy Workbook

The Equine-Assisted Therapy Workbook gives readers the tools they need to increase professional competency and personalize the practical applications of equine-assisted therapy. Each chapter includes thought-provoking ethical questions, hands-on learning activities, self-assessments, practical scenarios, and journal assignments applicable to a diverse group of healthcare professionals. The perfect companion to The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy, this workbook is appropriate for both students and professionals.


Q :Were you involved with horses as a child or did they enter your life as an adult?

A: I started my relationship with equines as a young child. My parents rescued a donkey from the Eastern Sierras in California when I was three, and from that time forward, horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules were a part of my life. Over the years I transitioned from the “learn by the seat of your pants” approach, to becoming a serious rider, trainer, and competitor – making horses my way of life.

 Q: What was your “epiphany moment” that inspired you to combine horses with your professional training as a therapist?

A: I share this story in The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy, but will share it here as well.

One day, standing in the middle of a dusty area, I realized the power of horses to change lives. I was 19, a young, up and coming hunter/jumper riding instructor and horse trainer, and the idea that riding horses could help people overcome significate physical or emotional obstacles never really crossed my mind.

The woman I was teaching had progressed nicely, and was finally ready to canter for the first time. The horse she was riding was lovely and kind, easy to handle and very responsive. I watched as she got into two-point, picked up the trot, and gently asked the horse to canter. He started off on the correct lead and around they went. After a few moments, I asked her to transition to the trot. Nothing happened. The horse continued to canter, and the woman remained in two-point, never asking the horse to change his gait. I asked repeatedly with no response. Finally, I used voice commands and my body language to slow the horse down. As I caught the reins, I looked up at the woman’s face and was shocked to see tears pouring down her cheeks. I helped her dismount and asked another student to cool down the horse. We walked to a bench and sat down. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She could not speak. We sat together for a while, as she collected herself. Finally, she was able to tell me that nothing about the lesson had caused her to cry, and that she would be back next week. I got her some water and walked her to the car.

The next week she came back. She seemed collected and focused so I asked if she wanted to try cantering again. She agreed and when the time was right I asked her to transition into the canter. The exact same thing occurred. Around and around they went. I continued to ask her to stop and nothing happened. Just like the week before, I used voice commands and slowed the horse down, and just like the week before she was sobbing. This continued week after week.

Finally, one day in that arena something different happened. Into the canter goes the horse, and I get ready to once again intercede to slow the horse down. Instead, all of a sudden the woman yelled “STOP”. The horse came to a sliding halt. I rushed up to see what was happening. Instead of a sobbing rider I found the woman sitting tall and proud atop her horse. I asked what had happened. And then she told me. For over a year her boss had been raping her. She was terrified to tell him no and even more terrified to report him because she was sure she would lose her job. For the past year, she had lived in fear, knowing that what was happening was not right, but not being able to find a way to stop it. She explained that the day before coming to barn she had found the courage to tell him no. She told me that learning to ride had taught her she could no longer be a bystander observing her own life, and that riding had given her the strength to stand up.

My world changed that day. I realized there was a power in the horse-human relationship that far exceeded my knowledge or understanding. I wanted to know more, and learn how I could support and protect interactions that could cause such profound change. And, I knew then and there it was not about me. It was something that happened between that woman and that horse.

Q: Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) is still a relatively new field. What was the biggest concern you had when you first encountered the possibility of using horses in a human therapy setting?

A: My biggest concern has always been for the horses. I recall a time when a volunteer of mine rescued a mustang and wanted him to work in our equine-assisted learning program with juvenile inmates. She offered to pay for training to prepare him for the work. I agreed to give it a try as I thought he might be a lovely fit for some of the participants. The first day the trainer arrived, she put this beautiful, regal, leader of a horse into a round pen and ran him around until he was frothing and sweating and exhausted, all for the purpose of getting him to “join up” so he could work as a “therapy” horse. I couldn’t stand what was happening, so I stepped in, removed the horse, and asked the woman to leave the property.



The key with this beautiful horse was to respect his leadership skills and his unique knowledge and intelligence. He certainly didn’t need some incompetent human attempting to “lead” him or force him to submit to “joining up”. It turned out this was Titan’s gift – He helped those he worked with understand that the concepts of leadership, dominance, and submission commonly used in the horse industry are rarely accurate, and many times inappropriately couched as “gentle” or “natural” approaches to training horses. Titan taught people that he had skills and abilities far beyond their understanding, and if they would respect him and listen to him, he would generally do his part of find common ground so horse and human could interact and engage safely and enjoyably.

Sadly, some in the equine-assisted mental health and learning industry have adopted activities and training techniques that confuse and frighten horses, or routinely require them to submit and shut down, even as the providers believe the horses are genuinely bonding and connecting with the participants, or are “happy” in their work. This is of grave concern to me.

Q: Do you feel that EAT in its current format truly honors the needs and welfare of horses, putting them first?

A: No, certainly not. Most research points to the difficulty obtaining reliable data regarding equine welfare because of human projections and interpretations. For the most part, humans find great value in believing horses actually enjoy this work, and the humans directly benefit from this belief structure. This makes it difficult to gather objective data. I am also concerned that current studies which show horses having little or no negative reactions to the work may be using the wrong markers to understand equine wellbeing – and therefore overlooking important information. I believe this may be furthering the problem, as putting out studies showing that horses aren’t negatively impacted could result in people overlooking critical signs of stress, burnout, or submission, or considering the overall welfare of the horse.

Q: What is the most pressing problem with using horses in human therapy at this time?

A: Beyond what I suggested above related to equine welfare:

#1 Provider competency – Especially related to understanding horses and involving them in therapy. I am greatly concerned by models that support a therapist who isn’t trained (and experienced) in working with/understanding horses and who has limited knowledge and skills designing clinical activities including horses and the farm milieu compensating for this huge gap in knowledge by partnering with an “equine specialist”. The possibilities for unsafe and unethical practices abound.

#2 Understanding the differences between regulated therapy services and non-therapy services. Many who are not therapists unknowingly offer services that duplicate (or come very close to duplicating) regulated therapy services. There are solid reasons why licensed healthcare professionals go through many years of schooling and supervised clinical experience. Humans are very complicated beings, and many times people simply don’t know what they don’t know. Understanding the damage that can be done when using an evocative experience like engaging with horses with potentially vulnerable populations only comes with training and education, and a willingness to put one’s own desires, beliefs, needs, and wants aside. I was a horse person first, an experiential educator second, and finally a therapist. So, I can tell you that it was only after I went through my years of training, education, and supervised experience did I really understand the damage that could be done. Having said that, I also recognize that licensed therapists who choose to include horses without extensive training and education can inflict a great deal of damage onto their clients – while some who aren’t licensed may have a unique, natural gift allowing them to safely guide people through various states of being. So, it is not black and white, but no matter what, MORE TRAINING and EDUCATION for everyone is the best way to resolve the concerns.

Q: If you could change something about the way horses are used in EAT programs immediately, what would that be?

A: Probably the most immediate issue is ceasing the use of activities in which horses are chased, cornered, touched/interacted with, or otherwise confused by participants who have not been educated about how to safely and respectfully interact with horses.

Q: I have seen many websites of “equine experience programs” that offer various types of interactions with horses for personal growth and other such workshops. Often the participants are shown sitting on horses, bareback, with no helmets, improper footwear, and frequently without bridles or any other visible means of control should the horse spook. To me, this implicates considerable liability on the part of the practitioner. How is this being addressed in your book and within the industry?

A: I address this in depth in my book. All the research shows the best way of avoiding a serious accident when working with horses is teaching people ABOUT horses – how they communicate, how to respectfully interact with them, and how to remain safe around them. And secondly, research shows that wearing the appropriate safety gear is also essential (hard hats, boots, vests, etc.). I believe many people in this industry don’t really understand horses, having had little serious training in ethology, equitation science, or equine behavior, but value their interactions with humans greatly. I think this has led to strange ways of engaging with horses that range from somewhat sweet and innocent to extremely dangerous and damaging.

It is of grave concern that professionals and even some organizations choose to minimize the inherent risk related to including equines in healthcare, and ignore the conventional knowledge of horse behaviorists and ethologists and the results of countless research studies, and continue to use activities that place the horse and the clients at risk for negative experiences ranging from simple miscommunications to dangerous accidents.

There is a growing awareness that far more training, education, and knowledge is necessary to safely and ethically provide equine-assisted therapy. The American Counseling Association (ACA) recently endorsed the ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies, which all members of the ACA who include any species of animal in counseling are required to adhere to. Also, an increasing number of training programs are focusing on a much greater depth of training and education, requiring their students achieve a higher level of competency prior to offering services that involve horses.

Q: What type of horses are best used for EAT?

A: This depends upon the specific type of EAT – For example, a physical therapist who includes equine movement as a part of the clinical intervention will seek out horses with specific confirmation criteria in mind to meet the needs of the patients. Any horses who work in physical, occupational, or speech therapy programs and who are ridden by clients must be 100% sound and fit. This is essential for their wellbeing and for the success of the intervention. In mental health programs, especially those that do not include mounted activities, the range of possible horse types is unlimited. Some people have specific criteria and only include certain breeds, ages, or genders, while others include rescue horses, elderly, or very young horses, or those in need of rehabilitation.

In my experience, horses who are in need of physical or mental/emotional rehabilitation should ONLY be included if they are given full choice as to whether or not they want to engage, and how they would like to engage. They should never be forced to interact or participate in activities they don’t wish to, and should be carefully assessed on a regular basis by objective measures.

Q: If someone is considering donating their horse to a program or practitioner, what factors should be taken into account, both for the horse’s sake and that of the humans he will be assisting?

A: Equine-assisted therapy can be hard work for horses. It should not immediately be considered a “retirement” option. There are elderly horses for whom having meaning and a job where they can be purposeful is very important, while there are others who really just want to spend their last years out in a pasture with other horse friends enjoying life. It is important to know the personality of the horse, and place that at the forefront of the decision making process.

For owners considering donating their horses, my advice is to go and spend time at the facility. Watch how the horses are tended to and interacted with. Ask questions about the amount of free time the horses are afforded – and find out if this free time is FREE of human interactions, meaning the horse has time to be loose in a pasture environment with other horses and where they don’t have to interact with humans. Also find out if the horse will have “extra-curricular activities” that gets him/her off of the property like trail rides, horse shows, walks down a country lane nearby, or anything to get a change of scenery and pace. Training, exercise, and conditioning is another important area to research. Will the horse be exercised and conditioned by a qualified rider? Or will volunteers be asked to “exercise” the horse with limited instruction or supervision? Finally, what is the facility like? Are the horses well cared for, fit, healthy, and happy (seeming)? Does the facility have good working relationships with vets, alternative care providers, farriers, etc.? Is there an established mechanism for regular objective equine assessment? Do all animals on the property have enough room? Meaning, is there ample turn out, paddock space, pasture, and other free roaming opportunities? Is there shelter, shade, and access to clean water? Are the humans friendly, open, and engaged?

Q: What do you see for the future of EAT? It seems as though equestrian sports are becoming a minor part of society at large due to the high costs, lack of land and facilities, and diminishing youth participation. Far too many horses still end up in the slaughter pipelines or otherwise discarded, ignored, and uncared for. It is my hope that the therapy programs offer a window of opportunity for many horses that are not show or trail horses to find a new and suitable career.

A: I believe that the issues you speak of – lack of space, cost of horse caretaking, and diminishing facilities – pose a serious threat to the equine-assisted therapy industry.

At present, I see two options that might help the industry maintain. First is the co-op model. In this model, providers pay to work out of a shared facility where one entity has control over the horse care and welfare, and those that join the co-op agree to the manner in which the horses are tended to, and agree to specific rules related to equine interactions, care, and wellbeing. This model allows for greater funding, better facilities for providers, equines, and clients, and more living/working opportunities for the equines. Due to increased funding, these co-op stables could potentially exist in urban areas where an individual or a small program could not afford land, and could operate more like conventional healthcare clinics. This increases the accessibility for many different client types, and offers opportunities for collaborative relationships with other service providers.

The challenge with this idea is that horse people historically don’t collaborate very well, and tend to have differing opinions about, well, just about everything.

The second option I like is the farm-based clinic model. This model includes horses, but is not limited to equine-assisted therapy. For example, if a program has a small number of chickens, goats, pigs, other small farm animals, and a few horses, along with art, nature activities, cooking and other healthy living strategies, the facility can be much smaller and may even be able to exist in a more urban setting more affordably, thereby increasing accessibility while decreasing program costs. I believe interacting with nature, engaging in experiential activities, and spending time with different types of animals can offer powerful healing and learning opportunities for humans, and shouldn’t be overlooked due to the perceived “sexiness” of working with horses.

I love the farm-based model because it offers horses a break, provides new and different therapeutic opportunities, and through the diversity of species, can be used to better “meet” clients where they are rather than assuming that horses are the right species for every client.

Q: Anything else you would like to add to this list of questions? Please do!

Last Comment – One of the areas I am most interested in is the use of equine interactions to teach healthcare professionals how to be more effective at their jobs. I believe this industry can only support so many providers of equine-assisted therapy, and I believe there are only a certain number of clients who actually need equine-assisted therapy. However, there are millions of healthcare providers world-wide who never have to offer equine-assisted therapy for their clients to benefit. The lessons learned through ethical horse-human interactions are vast and multifaceted. I wish more programs were based not on training people how to “do this work”, but rather on offering services for healthcare professionals to learn personal and professional skills through equine interactions that they could take back to their offices and clinics.


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 58 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, an internationally 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








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.



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

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











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.


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



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.


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.


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.




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 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


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

group shot


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.



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.



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



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 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