TO SERVE AS LEADER

There are many ways to be called to service. Some perceive a religious calling, while others may discover a passion to volunteer with an organization in disaster zones, or on a more personal level one-on-one. Helping others, whether human or animal, the call to be of service begins with a compassionate heart, and the desire to alleviate the suffering of another.

We are frequently bombarded with news about the extreme suffering of fellow sentient beings. We can’t help it these days, thanks to social media and the rapidness with which information travels. Being that negativity is our default mechanism for survival (flight or fight), we tend to gravitate toward the stories that stoke our emotions, for better or worse.

For most, the news is a distant item of interest, played out on a high-tech box in front of our eyes. Perhaps we watch while consuming a meal, or in moments of distraction from something else we need to turn our attention toward. But when disaster hits home, the reality of being part of an actual event can be a shock to body, mind and spirit like none other.

Becoming trained to respond appropriately in situations of high stress and disastrous circumstances tends to reveal our capacity for leadership and how we act under pressure. Sometimes we can be surprised by the extent of what we are capable of doing when a crisis ensues.

With horses, especially as trainers, there is always the need for a leader to emerge and that leader is the one the other/s look to for maintaining order and instigating supportive behaviors when situations are otherwise stressful. People who do not panic even in the worst of times are those who are often the ones who end up saving lives when the opportunity to do so arises. “Servant leaders,” are those who lead by serving others, putting the needs and interests of others ahead of self-interests and needs, whether it be in a group leadership role, or an unexpected emergency.

The Dalai Lama is an example of such a leader. Even though he and his people’s exile from Tibet occurred under violent circumstances, he still practices leadership that is based on his principles, and not his feelings. He advocates peaceful resolution, forgiveness, and teaches compassion as the foundation for happiness.

Sometimes extenuating circumstances produce leadership in a way we didn’t plan for. Earlier this month, TCE coauthor, Dr. Allen Schoen, attended the inaugural event of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary. (http://cvhfoundation.org/) While most of us could never understand exactly what it would be like to experience the terror, shock, and sadness of the inciting incident—the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown CT in December, 2012—we can only stand back in awe at the response of the first-grader’s parents who took their child’s dream from a tragic ending to reality.

https://youtu.be/UcObvv4iE4Q

Our horses tend to thrive if we apply the characteristics of servant leadership to them too. What are the qualities of a servant leader?

  • Active listening. Servant leaders actively listen to their followers. Active listening is a communication method where the listener listens and provides feedback to the speaker to ensure that the listener understands what is being communicated.
  • Empathy. They have the ability to empathize. Empathy is the ability to detect and understand emotions being felt by others.
  • Healer. Servant leaders have the ability to ‘heal’ themselves and their followers through creating a sense of well-being.
  • Awareness. They are generally aware of the environment and issues affecting their organization and its members.
  • Persuasion. Servant leaders influence others through persuasion rather than through exercise of authority or coercion.
  • Foresight. Servant leaders have the ability to foresee consequences of events or actions involving their organization and its members.
  • Conceptualization. They can conceptualize their vision and goals into strategies and objects that serve the organization and its members.
  • Stewardship. They are stewards, which means they view their position as having a caretaking responsibility over their organization and members as opposed to dominion over them.
  • Commitment to Growth and Emancipation. Servant leaders are personally committed to the personal and professional growth of their followers.
  • Community Building. They are committed to building a sense of community and mutual commitment between themselves, the organization and its members.

http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-servant-leadership-definition-characteristics-examples.html

Photo: Belle - S. Gordon

Photo: Belle – S. Gordon

Most of us lead lives that are extremely blessed with kindness, love, good-hearted friends and much more abundance than we realize. Our perspective of life can shift in the blink of eye, whether on the monumental scale of a situation such as beautiful little Catherine’s parents found themselves in, or our most fundamental interactions with a horse that may need a leader who is aware of serving the needs of that individual horse. Read carefully through the above characteristics again. Can you see how valuable these guidelines are to your interactions with all sentient beings? Can you incorporate these characteristics into your own leadership style, or your communication with others? Think about how you wish to be treated when you turn to someone for leadership in any aspect of your life.

“Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.”

– Dalai Lama

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The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. 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. 

Stillness

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Equal on Both Sides

The subject of death makes the strongest of us squirm. Typically, it is not a discussion that brings about joy in one another. Yet, as we age, we become aware that a state of unpreparedness for the passing of either ourselves, our loved ones, or our animals can have detrimental consequences for those left behind. It may also cause considerable stress over critical decision-making at an emotional time.

For the horse owner, many are left in a quandary with the expense of maintaining older equines once they can no longer be ridden because of medical issues. The very topic of life-cycle management from the birth to death of an animal, especially one as large as a horse, is a discussion we believe needs to be had amongst horse lovers the world over. With the continued breeding and many thousands of yearly births of all kinds of horses, the global community of equines and their people is facing an unsustainable future as climate change, rising costs of upkeep, and urban development squeeze more horses out of the system and make it all the more difficult for the average owner to keep horses through to the end of their days.

This article raises some interesting ideas as to why issues of welfare have become worse than ever for all species of animals. For those equestrians who are courageous enough to take a peek into the darker side of the business, the numbers of homeless horses and those going to slaughter are staggering. The big question asked over and over again, especially by those on the frontlines of rescue and those who comb the auction kill pens to find the few they can save, is, “Why?”

With shelter euthanasia rates going down, major companies moving toward more humanely-produced food, and the prospect of legal “personhood” for primates being litigated in court, you might have thought things were going pretty well for animals.

But authors of a new paper would disagree. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­(Could Our Own Fear Of Death Be Affecting The Way We Treat Animals? The Huffington Post  |  By Arin Greenwood)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/10/nonhuman-personhood_n_6341474.html

 The Huffington Post: You say in the paper that despite what looks like some gains in animal welfare and animal rights, that things for animals are still very bad. Can you explain?

Michael Mountain: It’s interesting that people are really motivated to do something positive and definite about homeless pets, because we see them as part of our “in-group” — our family. But we see the rest of the animal kingdom (queendom?) as basically resources and commodities for our use and benefit.

Lori Marino: And there are more farm animals being slaughtered and eaten around the world every year.

What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse — not better — in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.

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Unfortunately for horses, they are still classified as “livestock.” While most are given a variety of drugs throughout their lifetimes that make them unsuitable for processing and consumption, regulations have been weak enough to allow horses into the food chain, particularly in European and Asian regions (shipped from North America). Horse lovers are caught in between the concept that “pets are family”, but livestock is a commodity. This has been the perception and classification that has led to the demise of many thousands of horses. Those who are of the mindset to keep their horses forever have a hard time understanding how other people could let their horses go to an auction, or just blatantly discard them and not care where the horse might end up.

According to the research presented by Michael Mountain, a leader in the no-kill movement, and Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, much of the decline in animal welfare overall is due to our subconscious need to think of ourselves as immortal and above animals. This not something most of us register consciously. Something deep down in our programming tells us that we are better than them. Therefore, we are free to do as we wish to exert our superiority and dominance in the natural order of things.

Except that, well, we haven’t done such a great job of taking care of that natural order. This is more about what we have become as a species, and in our minds, the species-in-charge.

“We are in a sixth mass extinction and there is no doubt about that at this point,” says Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, cetacean expert and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Mountain and Marino, whose work is due out this spring, have a theory about why this is happening: existential anxiety and fear of death.

LM: That, given that everything is getting worse — for us, for other animals, for the whole planet — that there is something about human nature that is motivating us to behave in ways that cause everything to get worse.

It is not just about putting in more effort or more money. It is really about who we are. This is all about the kind of animal we have evolved to be.

Biologists and paleoecologists estimate that humans have driven roughly 1,000 species extinct in our 200,000 years on the planet. Since 1500 we have killed off at least 322 types of animals, including the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger and, most recently, the baiji, a freshwater dolphin in China. Another 20,000 or more species are now threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps a list of all the known endangered plants and animals on the planet.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-the-sixth-mass-extinction-can-be-stopped/

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I believe those of us who grew up with many pets in the house, or on a farm, have had more experiential contact with death than people who did not grow up with animals. Yes, there are far too many youth and adults confronted with horrible experiences involving war zones, terrorist attacks, and accidental deaths, but there is something of a lifecycle learning experience that occurs when you are in a loving home and your beloved pet guinea pig dies, or the aging family dog has to be euthanized. While we don’t want to deal with the process of watching a favourite pet go through the dying phases, we come to an understanding that we are not in charge of this fact of life, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. As a child, this is a profound revelation to comprehend.

As an adult, I know most of us contemplate the transition more than we care to admit. I have heard it said that it is not so much death we are afraid of, but the moment of death. We are here, and then we are not. We don’t want to suffer through it. These researchers have pinpointed our feelings about that moment to be the reasoning behind the way we ultimately treat animals.

Personally, I have been so close to animals since I was a child I honestly do feel like one of them. When I am alone in the pasture with the horses, I am completely in my comfort zone. I could just as easily forget about being a human and all my human responsibilities, and simply while the day away in the pasture with my four-legged companions. I know how connected they are to the death process. I have witnessed horses transition, and experienced the mourning behaviors of those left behind. They are clearly sentient beings.

Knowing this, where does the motivation come from to treat animals so poorly? We aren’t talking so much about individuals here, as we are discussing the human condition in general. There are millions of people who would be mortified upon realizing their fear of death subconsciously has a negative effect on their animals. No, this is broader.

If the topic of death makes you a little squeamish, think about the career of a veterinarian. Animals, including horses, have a much shorter lifespan than humans. Inevitably, if we have animals, there will be visits to or from the veterinarian, and sometimes that could include the extremely heart-wrenching decision to euthanize an older or sick companion. Imagine being the professional practitioner who is not only evaluating and confirming the decision to euthanize, but is also responding to the emotions and needs of the people who are closest to that animal. In over 35 years of practice, Dr. Schoen has been in this position many times, and has developed his own profound understanding of the transition to the other side…

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When I read this article in the Huffington Post, I found it fascinating that the authors proposed that part of the reason we treat animals the way we do is because of our own fear of death and how we can separate them from us.

In general, I agree with their thoughts. I do sense that in general our society is in denial about death and dying. If we have the programmed understanding and fear that is promoted in society in general, it is totally understandable. If one explores a bit deeper below the surface, exploring books such as “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche (http://www.rigpa.org/en/about-sogyal-rinpoche/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.html) as well as philosophical books like “A Year to Live” by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (http://levinetalks.com/About-Us) as well as the numerous books describing “life after death” experiences, one can view the concept of death from a different perspective. Exploration of these views have become so popular these days that Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon’s book called “Proof of Heaven” (http://www.ebenalexander.com/ has been on the NY Times Best Seller list for a long time. Yet, it seems like some people go along with Woody Allen’s quote, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Actually, it is one of the most profound transitions, if not the most profound one we can ever experience. Some Tibetan teachers feel that that is what we are preparing for in life.

In my own personal experiences, having to euthanize many animals throughout my over 35 years of veterinary practice and then pondering my decisions at different times as well as observing clients perspectives at that moment, I have come to honor the mystery of that time and the opportunity it offers us to explore our own attitudes on death.

My views on death have evolved over my veterinary career. I will share more in future articles and books. I have also intimately experienced my parents’ death and dying process as well as more friends than I care to mention.

I do believe the death of our horses, our animal companions, can offer us a profound opportunity to explore all perspectives on life and death and how we treat all beings. I do see that denial of the eventuality of death is not beneficial for most people and does not allow for unique opportunities to awaken to the magnificence of who we really are.

I would be interested in what our readers’ perspectives are. I look forward to sharing more with all of you regarding this profound moment we will all face.

Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD. (hon.)

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It is okay to talk about this. Whether you agree with the researchers or not, as Dr. Schoen has noted, denial of what we are, or have become as humans, is not helping us. We can open to new understandings, and share our stories of what death and dying means to us personally. We can explore how we cope with the loss of our beloved horses, friends, family members, and others who leave us behind in our mortal bodies. A friend of mine even prepares for the inevitable with her horses by cremating their remains and keeping their ashes in a (very large) urn. It is an honor reserved for very few horses, but her deep compassion and care for her animals is evident in her lack of fear regarding their eventual deaths, and acceptance of the process when the time comes.

While I risk going over the esoteric edge here, I have to say that I have experienced clear evidence of life after death. Animals do not question such things in the way that humans do. So in that regard, yes, there is a separation between us and them. That is, apart from the human beings who are so in tune with the animal world themselves that no separation is evident and our treatment of them is such as we would want ourselves to be treated.

The Era of Compassion

2015 is the year of The Compassionate Equestrian. I also have a feeling it is going to be a year of compassion and change in general, as there is a sense of greater things to come. Perhaps it is related to our evolutionary process, and we have arrived at a time in history when more hearts are opening, and more minds are becoming aware that we live in a world where all sentient beings are connected.

People have had enough of the bad news, which just seems to have gotten worse than ever. Not only do we hear the stories of war and terrible crimes against humanity, natural disasters, diseases and accidents, we hear about them a lot faster and more thoroughly than in the past thanks to the rate at which electronic networks relay the information. It is stressing people to the brink trying to manage the necessities of life on top of the incredible amount of information processing we all seem to be engaged with, whether we like it or not. We are so busy checking devices all day, deleting, writing, sending, rechecking, over and over again. We can’t just hit the “stop” button though because it is important that we are able to connect.

Maybe we just need to change the topic sometimes and take charge of our time and take a stand on that which is most passionate to our hearts. Our humanness, the cause of so much despair and difficulty, is the very thing that will lift us up and out of darkness because each and every one of us has the ability to inspire others. We can all make the choice to be compassionate to ourselves, and towards others.

We can listen to our horses, an animal we connect with in such a unique manner. Is it not such a magical thing that these animals allow us to sit on their backs and give them directions by feel? When we truly connect with a horse we are plugged in to the ancient soul and the beat of the earth that existed long before we ever did. What is it saying? What should we do? We can listen to people like Lyn White from Animals Australia about becoming the best we can be.

 Post by Animals Australia.

On this very personal journey, Lyn explores the factors that created a profound transformation in her life, shaped her view of the world and the people within it. She will explore the causalities she has witnessed through a unique career path, from policing to animal advocacy, spanning countries, cultures and belief systems and why she has come to believe that the pathway to a kinder world could be as simple as becoming the best we can be, what Albert Einstein called our sacred human duty…

http://www.animalsaustralia.org/becoming-the-best-we-can-be

(be sure to watch this video)

History shows us that the only time that cycles of suffering and inherited thinking are broken … is when someone has the courage to take a stand and say in a loud clear voice, ‘we are better than this’.

 How do we go about this change and uplifting of humanity? We are capable.

There is something happening in the collective consciousness of mindful individuals. There must be, because I keep hearing from people I talk to and seeing posts on social media that indicate growing numbers of advocates for horses in distress, more openness and authentic stories…as though this collective of people are all approaching one another with open arms and saying “we can’t do this alone.”

photo: www.equusmagazine.com, the Jurga Report

photo: David Noah, http://www.equusmagazine.com, the Jurga Report

There are rescuers coming to the aid of people and horses in dire situations, to the best of their abilities and with more help arriving. We are finding those who have been too quiet, too subtle in their approaches, or too overwhelmed to seek assistance emerging from the shadows. They are looking at what has been done in the past, and what we can do now, especially with our new and very powerful tools of interconnectedness. We can do this.

We are capable of developing our hearts and minds to a level of compassion that creates a special kind of energy radiating from our bodies. Horses sense it and respond. People do too. There are so many people who are just too overworked, too tired, too busy, and too sad to realize what this thing called compassion is capable of.

On a personal level self-compassion saves us from the negative mind-chatter that can paralyze our actions. It can help override the harder times at the barns with other people or trouble with our horses, and take us through the days that just don’t seem to be going well. We then have a greater resilience and capacity to help others, and the joy is contagious.

I have watched the most downtrodden of horses come back to life and forgive humans for their lack of awareness and kindness. They turn around and eagerly give of their inherently gentle natures, inspiring those around them to marvel at their apparent compassion and capacity to forgive. We, as humans, are evolved enough to be like this too. We have the means, and I know many of us have the drive and passion to make this a kinder, safer world for everyone… horses, humans, and all sentient beings.

Yes, I believe we can do this. As Einstein said, “We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.”By being the best we can be, we also have the opportunity to lift up and inspire others to be happy and compassionate as their best selves too. Let’s make 2015 the year of The Compassionate Equestrian, in more ways than one.

Dr. Schoen and I invite you to saddle up and ride along with us on this extraordinary journey, with many blessings and much happiness in the coming New Year.

Susan

Concentrated Learning

My ability to focus isn’t what it used to be. This is somewhat disconcerting because I learned a long time ago that to be a successful rider, the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time was imperative.

I could blame aging, but I’m not going to. At 54, I am extremely fit with a very low-stress, peaceful life that is all of my own creation, and no health issues. I consider myself extremely blessed to be where I am and feeling as well as I do. So no, I don’t attribute my waning ability to focus to getting older. However, it is possible that I might have caught the meme that seems to have affected most of the civilized world.

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     meme:

mēm/noun

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

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A while ago I began noticing odd typos in my writing. Things I had never done before, yet was seeing more and more of in online posts, e-mails, and even on a sign held up by spectators at a half-marathon. For example, it is now so commonplace to spell “your” when what is really meant is “you’re” that I think people have forgotten the distinction. I have caught myself making the error several times, much to my dismay. How does this happen? It also seems increasingly difficult to walk away from the computer, smartphone, or other electronic device. This has been a very rapid change in the evolution of human beings. Horses, however, haven’t changed much in the hundreds of years they have been harnessed and trained for domestic use. If they are approached by a distracted, busy person whose adrenaline is on “high” then they are already compromised by a rider or trainer who may be missing everything from subtle signs of distress in the horse to a pending blow-up resulting in an accident. Is it possible to re-train the human mind back into the clear-thinking, focused instrument that is our natural state of being?

Modern science says “yes.” Dr. Schoen has suggested that as contemplative studies are being incorporated into Ivy League schools, then surely the practices would also be of tremendous benefit to those working with horses. As a trainer who remembers life in the pre-digital-obsession age, I agree.

     In the halls of Ivy League learning and advanced academics, a new field is emerging, and it is now a formal major at the illustrious Brown University.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/contemplative-studies-brown_n_6124030.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

The meditations, or MedLabs as they are called at Brown, are an integral part of an effort the Ivy League university has undertaken in recent years to incorporate the study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques into its curriculum. In August, Brown launched one of the first formal undergraduate concentrations in the country in contemplative studies.

Photo: www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Photo: http://www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Many years ago I was helping someone with a particularly unruly horse in the busy warm-up ring at a horse show. Perhaps it was simply that I had spent most of my childhood studying and handling the many animals in our household, or possibly that I connected better with animals than with people, but regardless, I understood how important it was to focus intently on what I was doing with a horse in any given moment and not be distracted by anything. Animals have such a heightened level of awareness that most humans cannot match it unless they are both extremely sensitive and well trained in animal behavior.

The bucking, fully energized thoroughbred I had hopped on soon settled down and was quietly working amidst the hunters and jumpers getting ready for the day’s classes. One of the other trainers called out to me and asked, “Do you have that same effect on people too?”

I could not answer him because I didn’t even think of having any particular effect on the horses, and especially not on people (people kind of scared me). I just knew that I had the ability to stick to the saddle thanks to good instruction and perhaps some natural talent and inherent rhythm. There was something about my method though that could get even the most difficult, pull-like-a-freight-train kind of horse to soften and melt like butter in my hands. We somehow bonded on another level. I believe it had a lot to do with the fact that I could shut out anything that didn’t involve what I was doing with the horse and be in full awareness of every nuance the horse was communicating.

There wasn’t a lot of research to back up the productiveness of a quiet, contemplative mind at the time however, and certainly it was still in the early days of sports psychology research. It was also the days before I had any formal meditation training. My ego, like that of so many trainers, kept my own “threat response” and related behaviors on full alert for quite a few years and I can think back on numerous reactions that I would be quite embarrassed about today. The missing element was my lack of compassion for others, especially other riders and trainers, whom I saw as competitors, always seeking ways to be critical of one or another.

Now there is evidence as to what was affecting the horses I rode…and perhaps opening to possibilities that I wasn’t aware of previously as to how I could have been affecting other humans too.

This is also something we can use to bring together the diverse equestrian community, a common bond beyond the horses. If it works for Ivy League Universities, it can work for equine-based educational models too. It can be brought right into the barns by the facility owners, trainers, and riders of all kinds and backgrounds. The subjective culture that has caused  much suffering and so much division in the horse world now has access to the information and research confirming a practical technique that changes hearts and minds for the better.

I had to laugh when I saw this post on Facebook today (yes, another one of the contemporary distraction-memes!):

“A quiet man is a thinking man. A quiet woman is usually mad.”

Since I was married to a three-day-eventing trainer for a few years when I first turned professional, I can only say this statement was probably true all too often. It inevitably cost us that relationship. I wish I had the training in compassion and meditation then that I do now.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the Teacher will appear,” and so it was in my case, as it has been for millions of other human beings throughout the millennia. Speaking from first-hand, personal experience, as the students at Brown and other programs are finding, meditation and training in mindfulness changes the way we think. It also affects our health and wellbeing, and that of others with whom we interact. Imagine what it could mean to a relationship with a horse, as well as our interpersonal relationships with other human beings.

     “One of the challenges for mindfulness and contemplative practice is to see it not only as a tool for stress-reduction, but as a means for going deeper into different subjects and ways of living. It’s not just about student well-being, which of course we care about, but it’s about how a contemplative approach to research can actually enhance understanding,” said Arthur Zajonc, president of the Mind and Life Institute in Hadley, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that focuses on creating dialogue between scientists, philosophers and contemplative practice.”

Contemplating

Contemplating

Picture having a riding lesson with an instructor who practices mindfulness and contemplative meditation. How would that look and feel as you rode into the arena to begin your warm-up and lesson? Would it be a different kind of lesson or training session than you usually participate in? What elements would possibly be involved with the incorporation of mindfulness and compassion? Perhaps the following:

Focus

Clear thinking

Enhanced understanding

Reduced stress

Increased self-awareness

Empathy with the horse/instructor

Better body-mind connection with another being

Have I personally taken meditation into the barn? Up until writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, I generally kept my practice private. While all of the elements of conscious breathwork, awareness, and other aspects and benefits of meditation were incorporated into my training and lessons, I did not make a point of suggesting that my students also follow suit. As it was, I spent a decade teaching in a place that is known for highly conscious people and was fortunate to have been the instructor to some unusually mindful, compassionate children and adults. I began to feel more comfortable bringing a holistic philosophy into the lessons.

I have also gained confidence and learned even more about the benefits of meditation by spending the past two years co-authoring the book with Dr. Schoen. He has spent many years himself experiencing and observing the results of a compassionate heart and mind while working with horses and other animals in his veterinary practice.

Now that I’m riding again, I am bringing more of the contemplative practices directly to each session with the horses. I want my focus to come back to what it was at a time before WiFi took over our lives. I want to be able to put in a solid, productive 30-minute ride by feel, not by looking at my watch every few minutes. I want to not be rushing out of the house to get to the barn, running late again because 5 more e-mails popped up or I remembered that I had to do a Facebook post, then promptly got distracted by fifteen other posts. Sigh. Yes, that happens. I would like to be able to get back to the gap in time where I could sit in deep meditation for an hour or more and not feel the slightest twinge of anxiety at having to do anything else. Those twinges come all too often in this age of zillions of passwords and too much to do, even without having nearly as complex a life as most people. I cannot even imagine the stress of living in a city, having a family, a job, and trying to find enough time to dedicate to a horse in a way that is most conducive to everyone’s wellbeing.

I have ridden my new charge twice now and have decided to try ten to fifteen minutes of a walking meditation with the horse at the end of each mounted session. She seems to enjoy it. When I returned the mare to her pasture after our first ride, she quickly walked off to join the other horses. Today after our ride and walk, she stayed right at the pasture gate, watching intently as I packed up and got in the car to leave. A stoic horse, I thought I almost saw a little smile on her face. I know I had a smile on mine, and yes, I would hope to have that effect on people too.

I leave you with this final thought from Glimpse After Glimpse; Daily Reflections on Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche:

November 11

Open people ask me: “How long should I meditate? And when? Should I practice twenty minutes in the morning and in the evening, or is it better to do several short practices during the day?” Yes, it is good to meditate for twenty minutes, though that is not to say that twenty minutes is the limit. I have not found in the scriptures any reference to twenty minutes; I think it is a notion that has been contrived in the West, and I call it Meditation Western Standard Time.

The point is not how long you meditate; the point is whether the practice actually brings you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence. And five minutes of wakeful sitting practice is of far greater value than twenty minutes of dozing!

Rigpa Glimpse of the Day

Sogyal Rinpoche

As the Barn Turns

We all have our stories about “barn drama”. No matter what breed, what discipline, or what type of facility you board your horse at, there will be drama.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal spelled out just how bad things can get:

Horse therapy (photo www.yourhorse.co.uk)

Horse therapy
(photo http://www.yourhorse.co.uk)

‘Barn Drama’ Puts Riders on Their High Horses
People Who Board Horses Know That Misbehavior by Human Owners Is Common Hazard

by Lauren Lipton, April 13, 2014 http://www.wsjonline.com

Scot Gillies has a good idea of the kind of horse people who will fit in at Gryffindor Farm, the small barn he helps manage in Lexington, Ky. So his advertisements for new boarders spell it out in detail: Owners must be “laid-back,” “happy” and above all, “drama-free.”

In an example of ‘barn drama,’ an unknown culprit cut the tail of a prized stallion at a Kentucky horse show. Vicky Castegren
Mr. Gillies, a marketing consultant by day and a horse owner himself, says that during his 14 years in the equestrian world, “I’ve seen the full range of drama that is associated with horse people.”

A few categories of problematic individuals reign: There are overprotective owners who insist their animals be treated like porcelain figurines, and neglectful owners who never show up. There are “back seat riders,” as some call them, who love to criticize other people’s technique. Some freak out over a stray wisp of hay in the barn aisle; others let their animals leave unwanted souvenirs…

I’ve been on both sides of the fence myself, as a boarder and managing a boarding barn. From a small backyard operation of a couple of horses to one of the most famous show-jumping facilities in the world. I could write an entire book on this topic alone.

We all know this kind of “stuff” happens all the time at barns so why does it continue? Can’t we be civilized enough to allow our fellow horse-people to enjoy their mounts and their time at the barn without the concerns of being criticized, harassed, bullied, insulted, or even robbed? Where is the compassion for other humans amongst human horse owners?

Are horse-people just an inherently nasty personality type who can’t resist the chance to flaunt their “superior knowledge” at every chance? Sometimes one has to wonder…

The setup of a boarding barn almost guarantees unstable behavior: Take a group of passionate, opinionated individualists. (Riding, a solo activity, doesn’t attract “team players.”) Give them a consuming hobby centered on a delicate, expensive living creature. Put them in close quarters, often with children and dogs that run amok, spooking the horses, and let the backbiting begin.

Yikes. That doesn’t make us look too good as a subset of society does it?

I wonder if it’s just that horses bring up the deepest part of ourselves, perhaps even mirroring our most repressed fears and long-buried personality traits that we ourselves are surprised to discover when they surface. I can remember many incidents over the years, even going back to my teens, where being around horses made me more reactive and opinionated around people than usual. In fact, I was pretty shy and reclusive around people, even quite nervous, when I didn’t have a horse nearby to “cover” for me. There is definitely new research emerging that confirms a neurobiological basis to our interactions and behaviors between species.

At horse barns I’ve found most people only get to know each other as they relate to their horses and their specific activity at the barn. We don’t get to know each other well and so there may be assumptions made about others causing us to form opinions about them that are untrue or incomplete. This can cause rifts amongst people who might become friendlier if they understood each other a little better. Some riders may form more lasting or bonding friendships and enjoy great camaraderie, but it always seems to split into “cliques”, just like high school. This seems especially true if there’s multiple disciplines involved at the barn:

Some barns attract more drama than others. High-end facilities with riders who compete on the show circuit in events like jumping and dressage can be hotbeds of jealousy; trail-rider barns are said to be easier-going. A mix of disciplines and levels, from serious equestrians to children taking lessons, can make problems worse.

“The minute you start mixing the hunter-jumpers with the dressage people with the Western pleasure people, that is like drama times three,” says Macala Wright, who boards her two horses in a facility that also includes a nonprofit equestrian-therapy group.

“The affluent people look down on the everyday horse owners. The dressage people don’t like the hunters, and every group looks down on the nonprofits,” says Ms. Wright, a Los Angeles branding consultant who has shuttled one of her horses through four barns in two years. At the second, which catered mostly to wealthy riders, “People would comment, ‘Oh, your dressage saddle isn’t very good quality,’ ” recalls Ms. Wright.

Something seems to be missing. Perhaps that would be “compassion,”  – the desire to relieve the suffering of another. Given the scenarios mentioned in this article, it would appear that compassion for others, and even other people’s horses, is sadly absent. I wonder if it’s possible to create a barn with a boarding contract that spells out something more profound than a “no drama” clause…

The best defense against drama may be a no-nonsense management style. “Three strikes and you’re out!” works for Donna Hyde, who juggles 22 horses, 18 boarders and disciplines including therapeutic riding, Western dressage and trail riding at her Norco, Calif., facility.

It’s an unfortunate commentary on the business when a barn manager has to constantly be on the defence for bad behavior. It just makes the barn manager appear to be angry or potentially angry much of the time too. In fact, if they’re dealing with or perpetuating the drama themselves, they may actually be angry! The attitude from the top-down affects everyone at the barn, including the horses.

By the time a boarder has reached the “three strikes and you’re out!” order, they’ve usually already left a trail of destruction ranging from hurt feelings to causing others to leave the barn. You can end up losing a good client because of a disruptive one.

Our answer with The Compassionate Equestrian is to create a new paradigm for horse-people and the equine industry that will allow a barn to follow the program Dr. Schoen and I have been working on. Its principles are designed to encourage the development of self-compassion, compassion for horses, and for all beings. There will eventually be a database of compassionate barns and trainers who will be doing their best to ensure everyone under their care and management is mindful of others and coming from a place of compassionate awareness.

We believe that horse-people are highly influential in their communities, both in and outside of their equestrian activities. If we are known as a “hazard” to each other and noted as “unstable personalities” we are not setting a good example for others, and especially not for young people who need safe, happy environments in which to enjoy their horses. Nobody should ever have to arrive at their barn and be afraid of what negative things will be said or done to them or their horse.

Everyone has the capacity to become more compassionate, and it does take a conscious effort to maintain compassion when situations may become difficult. For the sake of our community, our horses, and peaceful interactions in our barns, it’s our wish that all horse-people consider the benefits of compassion and the extraordinary, broad-reaching impact it can have on our world, well beyond that of the barn.

 

 

The Benefits – or Not – of Freedom

Imagine the Earth before there were any countries or borders of any kind. No lines, no names of this or that, no maps, no fences… nothing. The only sounds were the sounds made by Nature. There was no “time” according to human parameters. Just the continuous, ever flowing cycles of life. All creatures were free to wander wherever they would, or could. They were unbound by man-made constraints and the defining qualities brought about by the human tendencies of wants, needs, and ownership.

We couldn’t leave well enough alone, could we? We had to make countries and borders then create weapons of war to protect the countries and make enemies of those from other places. Horses were captured and domesticated to assist humans in their pursuits to “divide and conquer”. Unwitting participants along our path of so-called civilization.

It’s almost like we’ve painted ourselves into a corner after centuries of nation-building and social development. Are we free or not free? We’re surrounded by borders and rules telling us where and when we can and cannot go to visit or live. What of all the animals we’ve domesticated and bred? If we and they have wonderful, fulfilling lives, should there be judgement placed on how such great societies have been created? What about the millions of people and animals who still suffer so greatly on this planet, with no freedom to escape bad situations? If we have compassion for all beings, how can we be at peace until all beings on Earth are at peace?

According to Professor Lori Gruen’s interesting viewpoint, there are serious ethical questions to be asked about keeping animals in cages… or in the case of horses, the reference would be to keeping them in stalls and barns as our “captives”.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201404/the-ethics-captivity-new-book-covers-all-the-issues

“Though conditions of captivity vary widely for humans and for other animals, there are common ethical themes that imprisonment raises, including the value of liberty, the nature of autonomy, the meaning of dignity, and the impact of routine confinement on physical and psychological well-being.”

Now, imagine what the implications would be if everybody just quit riding their horses, opened all the stall doors and paddock fences and set them free. It’s likely chaos would ensue. Sure, they might run amok for awhile or stop by the neighbour’s apple trees but most would be right back at the barn doors at feeding time looking for their next meal. Some wouldn’t leave at all. A few might join the wild herds, as in the deserts of the American Southwest where the economic downturn really did lead some people to turn their show and companion horses loose to fend for themselves. Rescue operations bordering desert communities have found themselves with “strays” looking for food and water.  Domestic horses don’t do well on their own.

"Nick" - photo by Natascha Wille

“Nick” – photo by Natascha Wille

Let’s face it. Horses are big animals that leave a big hoofprint on the environment. In our “non-ideal” world as Dr. Gruen refers to, we have to “do the very best we can for them while their lives are compromised to various degrees in captive settings”.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, the writer of the article states, ” let’s hope that open discussion of the issues and the questions at hand, including what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and their capacity to suffer and to empathize with others, will work on behalf of those unfortunate billions of individuals who lives are a mess because of their confinement”.

So somewhere in the middle of “let’s turn all the horses loose” and “let’s keep them confined for our own pleasure and use” is the question “what is the most compassionate way to care for and interact with our horses?”

There is new, emerging research all the time that is telling us what causes distress to horses. We know for sure that ulcers are a man-made condition in equines, caused by stress placed on them due to excessive confinement, travel and showing. In our human rush to conquer and control everything, have we gone too far with horses and committed them to a lifestyle that is so unnatural for them that we’ve changed their genetic makeup? Probably. Is this bad? What have we done to other humans with such a mindset? Even in such things as personal relationships. Are we being compassionate to our partners when we hold them “captive” according to our wants, needs, schedules and whims?

Ah freedom. Look your horse in the eye and ask if he’d rather be turned loose to run and graze wherever he wants. No more grooming, hoof trimming, veterinary care, clean hay and water or forced exercise. Would he tilt his head like a curious puppy and ask “why”? Or would he immediately start nodding his head, pounding on the stall door with the enthusiasm of a football player charging into the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown? What would happen if you told your human partner or spouse they were free to go wherever they choose, whenever, and with whom?

My guess is the equine and human responses would vary, but most would fall somewhere in the middle of the extremes. Having compassion and wishing to alleviate another’s suffering means first of all, to be mindful of the fact that they’re suffering. Is your horse (or human partner) suffering in silence and you’re not seeing it? If you opened the door to set them free, would they go? Would they come back to you after realizing how kind and compassionate you were to them? Do they recognize freedom as being of benefit to them, or are they looking for the security of the home they’ve become so accustomed to and are willing to compromise their freedom to remain “captive” in a potentially less-than-ideal situation? These are the gists of the ethical questions posed by Dr.s Gruen and Bekoff.

Freedom is not about owning and controlling. Perhaps we need to consider that with our “captive” animals and being mindful as to how they are affected by confinement and the tasks we ask of them. Horses have evolved to fit with a domesticated lifestyle, as have humans, and many of the other pets we keep. Turning them all loose would not necessarily be conducive to their health and wellbeing. We all need to depend on each other for care and love, otherwise we lead a lonely and vulnerable life. The kindest approach of all is to acknowledge everyone as a free spirit, accepting who and what they are, with a compassionate heart and mind.

 

A Happy Horse, of Course!

We do everything else online these days so why not learn how to be happy by taking an online course too!? I had to think about this for a few days, and try to compute what “happy” really means. Especially to a horse. Does a horse think “happy thoughts”? I think with humans, part of the problem is we think too much. Part of being happy is to stop it. “Thinking” too much that is. At least so far as instructions in mind-training go as we are taught to let go of binding attachments to desires and things and just “be”. Yet even when taught to observe the mind as an instrument of desire, we still have wants and needs. It’s part of being human. It depends on what those wants and needs are. Do we want “stuff” or do we want to be of benefit to all beings?

For a horse to be happy, does he have to stop thinking or start thinking? Perhaps with animals, it’s simply a matter of how they respond in the moment as opposed to deciding how they will do everything from selecting a partner to where they will live and work and what they will acquire that will supposedly “make” them happy. They go about their horse-business and seem to be most at peace when they’re turned out in a pasture together and can function as closely to their natural herd behavior as much as possible.

The "herd" waiting to be brought in for dinner.

The “herd” waiting to be brought in for dinner.

What’s interesting about the fundamental ideas behind the “happiness course” is that they sound a lot like the way a herd of horses naturally operates. “Strong social ties”. Check. “A sense of purpose or connection to the greater good”. Check. “Reading people’s emotions”. Oh yes, horses are really good at that too. Do they have compassion? Empathy? I believe many of us who have worked with horses a long time can cite stories of horses displaying all the qualities this course teaches us about being happy. How fascinating!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/23/why-thousands-of-people-a_n_5175603.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

“The [course] starts with the idea that happiness and health are fundamentally about strong social connections and being immersed in a strong social community,” says Keltner, citing research that strong social ties can add years to your life. “We’re going to zero in on things that build strong social ties and communities — things like compassion, empathy, how to read people’s emotions, gratitude, charity, generosity and giving.”

The course emphasizes two main (scientifically-proven) keys to happiness: Strong social ties, and a sense of purpose or connection to the greater good.

Granted, the definition of true happiness can be somewhat broad-based and subjective. A quick online search for the definition provided this description:

hap·pi·ness
ˈhapēnis/
noun
the state of being happy.
“she struggled to find happiness in her life”
synonyms: pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joviality, jollity, glee, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, well-being, enjoyment;

For horses, that could translate to the pleasure of eating a bucket full of tasty grain or taking off across the field, bucking and playing as a delighted free spirit with the rest of the herd. Sounds similar to what humans find satisfying and joyful. Eating, playing… it appears all beings might be looking for the same thing.

Can happiness-seeking take a wrong turn? I can see all the heads nodding now.

This goes back to our desire for self-satisfaction and thinking we’re going to find that either through others, or through the acquisition of material goods. It looks like the online happiness course is scientifically-backed to prove there are definitely errors made in human thinking as to what will make us happy.

I had a landlord once who lived right below my apartment. He and his girlfriend were generous, caring souls, but he was convinced she was supposed to “make him happy”. It’s a fragile way to maintain a human relationship. As soon as he was “unhappy” the arguments would ensue and it became an unpleasant environment not only for them as a couple, but for everyone else in the vicinity who was subjected to their unhappy behaviors. They would eventually make up and the entire cycle would start again.

Horses don’t seem to have these problems.

I’ve watched horses respond to other horses in distress many times. They don’t like it when a herd-member is in trouble or hurting, even if they only know the horse as a stable-mate who lives in another stall in the barn. They will exhibit signs of stress and call out to the distressed horse. Is this not a sign of compassion and empathy? I’ve seen an entire herd of pasture-mates form a procession and circle around one of their own who was dying. Is this not a sign of sentience, intelligence and compassion?

I believe that amongst domesticated horses, we humans are often thought of as part of their herd. Perhaps more so by some horses than others, but I’ve seen signs of acceptance in that regard as well. It’s probably why so many people feel so protective and emotionally attached to their horses. It’s hard not see them as objects of desire and “things” that exist to make us happy, but they are so much more than that.

As the happiness course indicates, the factors that make for true happiness are strong social circles and caring for others. So our real happiness with horses comes from that aspect of being with them, and not so much from the aspect of how much they cost, how much fancy tack we can dress them up with, or how many ribbons we can win in the show ring with them. All that “stuff” simply pales in light of the real reasons horses can bring us true happiness. No wonder they’re so inherently happy 🙂