Us Watching Them Watching Us

We’re all interacting,  we’re all interconnected.  It’s a very integral web of interactions from everyone’s mind.  We can joke and say that every person on the planet is their own human universe.  So each horse-person is seeing that same horse barn through their unique filters based on their own life’s experiences.  The good, the bad and the ugly!  So they bring all of that to their perception of the barn.  Every person in the barn brings their own perception of the world, and their activity with the horses, and the horses are bearing the brunt of the good, the bad and the ugly.  All the other horses are bringing their own experiences.  So whatever number of horses there are on the planet, that’s how many equine universes there are based on each one’s experiences.

One of the things I’ve found with all animals that interact with people is they’ve actually evolved to a different level of awareness in consciousness.  I chuckle and say “when a horse is in a herd, it’s just horsing around.  It’s just being a horse”.  When the horse is interacting with people, they’re such great students of human behaviour.  They’re watching us in their predator-prey form so they’re still feeling like prey and they’re interacting from that fearful and cautious mind, but they can also evolve into the most compassionate, loving being, or the most dangerous, frightening 1200 pounds on earth.

Dr. A. Schoen, Introduction to The Compassionate Equestrian

There are many moments in my 30+ years with horses that stand out, and some of the most profound are when I simply stood by and watched the horses interacting with each other.

I recall one cold morning in particular, at a forested, mountainside property that was the backyard of my then-husband’s parents.  We were between commercial barns at the time and he had built a small barn for our 5 horses.  They were quite a herd.  Two off-track thoroughbreds, one nervous part-Standardbred jumper, my appaloosa gelding and a semi-wild buckskin filly.

We opened the stalls to let the horses out for the day and the chestnut thoroughbred mare that was turning into my primary jumper mount bolted out of her stall and raced to the knoll above the roofline of the cramped barn.  She then stood on her hind legs and pawed at the air as though the Lone Ranger were on her back shouting “Hi-Ho Silver awaaaay!”

The other horses did not participate in her exuberant display of wanton freedom and wild-stallion emulating antics.  I’d never seen her act this way before and I don’t think they had either.  We all stood watching below the hillside, marvelling at the rearing mare.  I was in awe of her athletic prowess and ability to balance on her hind legs on such a steep slope.  My first thought was “Huh!  I have to ride this horse!”.

The image of Ali’s ability to rear never quite left my conscious mind and it was a good thing I’d seen her do it on her own, even though she only pulled off the acrobatics twice under saddle.  One of the times I should have known better.  We were riding at the walk in a large field after she’d been on stall rest for a couple of weeks for a minor injury.  She seemed quiet enough so I thought it was safe to hack out.  Wrong.  All of a sudden and without warning, there was a repeat performance of her “hi-ho” movie- horse act and luckily enough I was able to ride it out.

The fact was, as Dr. Schoen noted, this hot chestnut mare was bringing her experiences from the race track, her experiences from the cowboys who tried to make a cutting horse out of her at the barn we were managing, her first lessons over jumps, and her subsequent development into a champion show jumper.  Her abilities to react quickly, snap the front legs up and push off her hind end over large jumps were evident during her “play” time and correlated with the observations I’d made watching her interact with the other horses.

So what made the different between thinking this is a compassionate, loving horse, or this might be a really dangerous horse that could seriously hurt me?  I believe we were both good students of each other.

Susan and Ali

Susan and Ali

For me, the difference came from all the times I’d just sat in silence and observed the horses in their own environments.  What they’re like when they eat by themselves, or with others.  Who’s the bully?  Who’s the clown?  Which one was the first to pick up a stick and try to get the others to play “tug of war” with him?  Who’s the first one to nicker when the back door opens and the human appears?  They’re like a class of kindergarten children who never grow up.  They’re very good at watching how the “adults” behave too and emulating their behaviour.

There’s lots of programs now that encourage bonding with horses and developing a relationship with them, and this is wonderful.  It takes many years of riding a lot of horses to really know them well though, and to be able to use the powers of observation to determine the best “niche” for each horse, plus how to keep them happy and sound under saddle.  Many times they are happiest doing what they’re bred to do, but circumstances might alter their future, such as the former race-horses. New activities have to be managed within their scope of willingness and ability.  In many cases, suitable bonding on the ground might still leave the horse difficult to ride and manage under saddle and this is where the skills and experiences of the rider need to match up with the personality, experiences, and abilities of the horse.

My other horses at the time would never have thought to rear and strike out as the mare did, but neither were they as sharp or talented over jumps as she was.  They had their own “stuff” going on however and each one is a story unto themselves.  All different, and much safer for the average rider to get on and have a pleasant ride.  I had a special bond with all of them, but the hot red-head mare and I could communicate with each other in a way that other people couldn’t.  She was too sensitive for my ex-husband and they would both get angry with each other.  Very angry.  She was terribly spooked by the cowboys who thought she might make a cutting horse – about the furthest thing from her background or abilities – and she was tense as a steel guy-wire when I first rode her.

Was this a compassionate horse?  She jumped everything for me and tried her guts out every single time.  I think we even went beyond her actual physical capabilities sometimes.  I knew this horse wouldn’t intentionally hurt me and the fact that she could be explosive didn’t bother me.  I wasn’t intimidated by her and I believe she knew that.  I had to learn how to breathe with her breaths, think with the quickness of her mind, and coordinate my rhythm with hers.  Yes, she could be dangerous if she wanted to be, but there was a lot more depth to our relationship than the physical one.  We knew each other on a whole different level.  Science is beginning to come up with some explanations about that kind of relationship with animals and the heart-to-mind connection we can have with them.


What it boils down to so much is not just our mind, but our hearts and mind and the heart and mind of everyone in the barn.  To me, ultimate healing is bringing that awareness to all animal lovers and to all horse lovers everywhere.  For everyone who’s interacting with horses there’s an opportunity that has arisen now as neuroscience has advanced and continues to develop.  It’s documenting all the ancient traditions about the benefits of lovingkindness and compassion for all beings.  As these two areas converge into a new field, sometimes called neurospirituality, or the neuroscience of behaviour, we can better understand the positive, or negative impact we have on the animals we interact with.

That’s what this book is about.  It’s from the horse trainer/instructor who has over 30 years of experience with the mindfulness of decades of meditation practice, along with the veterinarian who has been trained in conventional western medicine and surgery and acknowledges the value and benefits of it, but in addition has undertaken a personal, professional and spiritual journey realizing all the different options for healing animals and people and that the healing is a full circle.  The more we become aware of how we can be of benefit through developing lovingkindness and compassion in ourselves for all beings, then we can help the animals that way, and subsequently they become all they can be, and they will then support us in becoming all we can be.

The more one understands neuroscience and neurobiology the more we realize we share similar brain patterns and brain programs with animals, rather than differences.  One of the paradigm shifts I’d like to see is to change from having to prove what’s the same to having to prove what is different in the way our thoughts and moods function from those of animals.”

Dr. A. Schoen


How Sensitive Are We?

In the Principles of Compassionate Equitation we talk about being mindful of the horse’s physical sensitivity.  Many people are quick to hop on the back of a horse without thinking about the fact that they’re sitting on the skin, bones, muscles, nerves and organs of another living being.  Not only are we sitting on something that is alive, but it has the same kind of pain receptors and perception of pain that humans do.  Horses will often do their best to let us know when something is wrong, if only we’re listening in the first place.  It isn’t unusual for a rider or trainer to claim the horse has behavioural issues, when all it’s trying to do is let somebody know something is hurting.

For some reason it’s expected horses should be far more stoic than humans regarding the acceptance of pain.  If they’re poked at, strapped down, gasping for air, squeezed by a tight girth or prodded to move when their joints feel like they’re on fire why should we expect the response to be any different than a human put in the same situation?

Everyone who has horses comes by them through their own filters of experience and learning situations, and chooses their breed, equipment, style of riding and training for many different reasons.  Horses, fundamentally, are the same as they have been from the beginning of their species, and have put up with pretty much everything humans have done to them.  Do we really understand their level of sensitivity though?  It’s not about whether they’re smart or not.  This isn’t about their ability to think.  It’s base-level response to stimulus and what it takes to achieve a response in a horse.

We’ve all watched horses twitch at a fly on their side, and yet the same horse might completely ignore the pressure of a rider’s leg asking it to go forwards until it receives a kick in the ribs.  Is this horse simply receiving conflicting aids and/or desensitized to the meaning of leg pressure or is it resistant to go forwards because pain in the back or hocks makes it painful to do so?  Every horse-person should be aware of asking such a simple question every time resistance is met in the horse.

Is it really a training problem, or is it pain?

I realized several years ago just how extraordinarily sensitive the horse is and how finely tuned our own senses can become to their needs.

I had just finished teaching a lesson at a barn when a new boarder walked by with a lovely chestnut mare that reminded me of the off-track thoroughbred mare I’d had years earlier.  We’d jumped to many show victories and she was the catalyst for the start of my professional career.

The woman leading the mare stopped to chat and noted she was just hand-walking the horse because its back was sore.  As a trainer, dealing with sore and sensitive backs and necks had become my speciality, honed over years of working with many ex-racehorses and rescues from all kinds of backgrounds.

I asked about the sore back and began to scan the mare’s body with my eyes.  She was at least a horse-length away from me yet as my eyes fell on the most painful part of her back, she pinned her ears in a very threatening expression.  She meant business! The owner didn’t notice the horse’s reaction until I mentioned it.  The pretty chestnut pricked her ears up again when I averted my gaze  back to the owner.

Fascinated, I told the woman what had just happened and then asked her to watch while I tried it again.  I scanned the mare once more and got the same “don’t touch me” response when my eyes landed on the damaged part of her back, which would have been right behind the saddle if she’d been wearing one.  It’s also a very common site for extreme pain and spinal damage that will often show up as a “hunter’s bump” on horses that have been so compromised.

The owner confirmed that I was indeed looking at the part of the mare’s backside that had been confirmed as so sore she was unrideable.

She was under a veterinarian’s care so I left it at that and wished them both well.

Sensitive?  Amazingly so.

As Dr. Schoen notes, if there’s any resistances or sudden changes in behaviour in the horse, “first rule out pain”.  If one veterinarian’s diagnosis doesn’t find the source, you may need more than one, and we highly recommend integrative and holistic workups to get the whole picture.  I’ve seen far too many people injured by horses whose alleged “bad behaviour” was simply a response to pain.  Many of them will put up with a lot before they finally “blow” but as a trainer, I would prefer that riders & horse owners accept the fact even the most stoic and gentlest of horses will reach a breaking point and a painful area isn’t necessarily as obvious as a trauma or open wound.  Not all horses will give us the same radical clues as the chestnut mare in this story when a body part is so tender they don’t even want us to look at it!Image

Think of the horse being as sensitive as we humans are to pain… it doesn’t always take much before we’d feel like bucking somebody off too!