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

Horses Needed; Perils in Paradise

 

This is the time of year for joy and giving. We wish for good news, and goodwill towards everyone. Bells are ringing, the scent of fresh evergreens tickles our senses, and beautiful bright lights abound. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks there has been a topic front and center in local and international news that is not what we want to hear during the jolly season. The reality is that for many people, holidays are often the hardest time of year.

Close to home, there have been some disconcerting mental health “incidents” at our local library. It is the lead headline on the front page of the small but colourful newspaper that services our utopian island community of about 10,000 permanent residents.

http://gulfislandsdriftwood.com/news/mental-health-impacts-library/

And recently our hospital foundation’s report shared information from a 2010 health review about the high incidence of depression amongst the population, stating “residents know that there are many people on Salt Spring Island who are coping with mental health issues. Because the island has a reputation as a peaceful, tolerant and supportive community, mentally ill people may come to Salt Spring looking for refuge, a slower pace of life, and a ‘healing’ atmosphere.”

This is a bastion of healthy living, peace, quiet, and beauty, where people have come to seek solace and a reprieve from a stressful lifestyle. They are looking for the connection to nature that is so healing, but unfortunately being such a small, low-key community, we do not have the infrastructure to provide enough of the necessary services to all of those in need. It is somewhat of a quandary. It seems as though the issues people arrive with have been fueled, at least in part, by life in big, crowded cities that run on the high-octane environment today’s society demands. It would be wonderful if they could be helped simply by proximity. Yet it is much more complex than a change of environment, as our microcosm illustrates rather well.

The numbers of those with mental health challenges are on the rise exponentially, especially amongst youth. Why?

Depression and anxiety are affecting more young people than ever before. According to a study published today by the Office for National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds are suffering psychological problems, which is almost the rate at which these are seen in early middle age, the life-stage usually most associated with mental health issues.

     Areas of concern for young people stretch from relationships with parents, friends, colleagues or fellow students, to worries about appearance and fitting in. Young women were more likely than young men to be showing signs of distress, with a report earlier this week claiming that one in five teenage girls are opting out of classroom discussions and even playing truant because they hate the way they look.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/04/5-ways-address-rising-depression-young-people-psychological-issues-anxiety

     How could a lifestyle with horses possibly solve some of these problems? What kind of miracles could horses work where human intervention is often less than successful?

There might be some clues in the information that has been garnered from studies done on tribal communities where clinical depression is virtually unknown.

In a recent Ted Talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” professor Stephen Ilardi advances the thesis that depression is a disease of our modern lifestyle. As an example, Ilardi compares our modern culture to the Kaluli people — an indigenous tribe that lives in the highlands of New Guinea. When an anthropologist interviewed over 2,000 Kaluli, he found that only one person exhibited the symptoms of clinical depression, despite the fact the Kaluli are plagued by high rates of infant mortality, parasitic infection, and violent death. Yet, despite their harsh lives, the Kaluli do not experience depression as we know it.

     Ilardi believes this is due to the fact that the human genome of the Kaluli (as well as all humans) is well adapted to the agrarian, hunter/ gatherer lifestyle which shaped 99% of people who came before us. Then two hundred years ago, we saw the advent of the modern western-industrialized culture, which created a “radical, environmental mutation” that has led a mismatch between our genes/brains/bodies and modern culture. As Ilardi concludes, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”

http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/06/living-age-melancholy-society-becomes-depressed/

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

I look at the stories and videos of little girls and ponies recently posted online and wonder how many women are like myself, longing for those days of innocence when all that mattered was that we wanted a horse so badly we would have done anything to have one of our own. We read books, drew pictures, dragged our moms to the ponies in the park and could hardly believe it when the day finally came that we were a horse “owner.” To be dressed in riding clothes, covered in horsehair, hay and dirt, was a sure sign confirming our passion and connection to horses. We loved the smell, our own scruffy ponytails sticking out of a helmet and the sweet, milky “goober” that the wind caught from our salivating horses and sent flying as we cantered over our first jumps. We had no time to be absorbed in hating ourselves, or how we looked, because all of our time and attention went to the horses. Oh sure, boys eventually tried to capture our hearts, but they had to know that “horse time” was first and foremost.

We learned the ups and downs of life, the trials and tribulations of having animals that can suffer just as people do. They are born, they are happy, sad, hurt, and they die one day. Yes, we learned all about life, through our first horses. We were not sedentary, kept indoors, sitting all day long, eating fast food (well, quite a few quickly prepared peanut-butter sandwiches perhaps), or socially isolated. Usually by the end of a long day in the barn, we were ready for a good meal and definitely a great night’s sleep. In other words, all of the qualities that were found to prevent depression in the tribal peoples, we experienced with our horses.

Unfortunately, horse time these days is often mixed with texting, and too much social media interaction, which is one of the first suggestions to limit in regards to lessening the potential for anxiety and depression.

This is where those of us who can still remember “the good old days” of our glorious interactions with horses and horsey-friends could step in and mentor young ladies and men, helping them create a state of grace, compassion for themselves and others, and acknowledgement of their own capabilities for helping maintain good mental health.

As we celebrate and honor our traditions in the coming weeks, let us remember that for every young face that lights up at the sight of a new pony in the barn, there is someone facing the sadness of ill health, the passing of an old horse, a friend or family member, memories of tragedy and despair, and possibly dealing with mental health issues themselves. It would be wonderful if we could reconnect over-stressed, hyper-speed human beings with nature and the simplest, most organic lifestyle that we are designed for, and surround everyone with mercy, love and understanding. May we all find our compassionate natures and recognize the suffering of others. May we be of benefit to all other beings, and where we are able, help relieve their suffering.

And in the spirit of the season, it seems appropriate to repost this wonderful set of videos from our publisher’s blog that are sure to make you smile:

https://horseandriderbooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/santa-please-bring-me-a-pony-6-ponies-for-presents-videos-from-tsb/

 

 

 

Two FACES of Training

 

Once it was confirmed I was a horse-crazy young lady, my parents eventually realized there was no turning back insofar as their daughter’s intense desire to ride, train and show. Their encouragement for me to be independent and creative may have caused them more than a few moments of anxiety, but it also produced a sense of responsibility that made me aware of the need to work hard towards the goals I would set for myself. I would be given the tools, but had to find my own path to make the finished products of my desire.

My first horse was good enough for learning the basics. She was limited by her conformation and lack of formal training however, and I had had a taste of watching friends with show horses living an exciting life of competitions and equestrian skill. My idea was to sell the grade mare and purchase a young training project. I loved appaloosas and was determined to reach my goal of having a registered show horse. Fortunately or not, my parents did not know enough about horses to realize that it would be a potentially dangerous and difficult transition for a 14-year-old to go from a reliable old ranch horse to a barely-broke filly. The fortuitous part of the story is that I did not get hurt (embarrassed many times, yes), and learned an extremely valuable lesson that shaped the foundation for my career as a professional trainer.

In 1974 we essentially had two sources of information for riding education… actual teachers, and the library. We had no way to scan the world via thousands of videos, websites or blogs. My family was now living in a city where white Stetsons and cowboy boots were a common sight and almost everybody, including big business-people had something or other to do with horses. It was easy to track down a breeder of top-notch appaloosa show horses and go visit a herd of up and coming youngsters. It was like a smorgasbord of equine-delight! My beginner horse found her way back to a ranch life and I had a few hundred dollars to spend on the horse of my dreams. Mom and I visited several breeders and patiently listened while they proudly touted the pedigrees of each animal and the histories of their illustrious stallions. It was quite a learning experience and I soaked up every bit of information and advice that came my way.

My final choice was a 2-year-old filly bred at a ranch with a famous stallion and a long line of national and world championships. There were older horses for sale that were already being shown, but they were out of my price range. I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay any more as I thought they had already been quite generous. So the owners agreed to throw in the cost of starting the red roan filly under saddle as part of her purchase price. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

Susan_Missy

Susan and Missy

 

We finalized the paperwork and left her in the hands of the cowboy at the ranch. I found out upon delivery that the young man had done what so many cowboys of his era were taught to do…throw a saddle on and just ride out the bucking until the horse was too exhausted to buck any longer.

I don’t know all of the details as to what went on during those few weeks, but whatever happened during Missy’s “breaking” process, it left her frightened of men in cowboy hats, hard to catch, and forever hair-trigger with unexpected bucking fits that would be set off by such things as simply trying to mount. I did not understand at first, but the day she blew up as I was swinging a leg over the saddle, I knew something had gone terribly wrong somewhere in between the time we first saw her and the day she arrived at her new home.

Then she scared me too. I did not want to get back on. So I employed one of the other cowboys on staff at the Quarter Horse show barn we boarded her at and watched in shock as she leapt about and bucked like a champion rodeo horse with the fellow on board. Luckily he stayed in the tack and we had no further incidents of quite that amount of drama.

It was very hard for me to have to ask for help with Missy. We had a series of schooling shows at the barn, and a couple of decent trainers, primarily in Western disciplines such as reining, trail & stock horse work. I devoted myself to the correct training of this filly, studying everything I could get my hands on to learn how to make my horse as good as the other competition horses. Besides watching the seasoned show riders, I studied the popular Farnam book series on horse training and diligently read Horse and Rider Magazine. Eventually we were winning ribbons in events ranging from cattle penning to western pleasure, and later adding hunt seat to our repertoire after being influenced by the very fancy warmblood jumpers that were coming to our English schooling shows. I still had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to the remaining trauma-memory in Missy’s brain however, as the explosive reactions were always waiting just beneath the surface. I was determined my next horse would be started differently, and I would do it myself.

In 1976 that opportunity arose in the form of a gorgeous, bay, spotted appaloosa colt that was on display at an Appaloosa Horse Club Conference. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was “the one.” Once again, my parents helped me out and I put Missy up for sale to help with the yearling colt’s purchase. Juniors aren’t even allowed to show a stallion so I had to take the polite and delightful little guy in open competitions. “TC” had already earned a Grand Championship in halter classes and had been extremely well handled and socialized. He seemed to love attention and nothing frightened him.

TC at Spruce Meadows

TC at Spruce Meadows 1977

 

By this time, I was seriously considering becoming a professional horse trainer and the high school allowed me to develop my own course of study in that regard. I had also been studying classical horsemanship and read books like Col. Alois Podhajsky’s “My Horses My Teachers” and “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider” over and over again. Having been highly influenced by the stunning Hanoverian jumpers that came to our barn’s shows, I was extremely pleased when Spruce Meadows accepted the little appaloosa colt and myself as a boarder to their now-famous international tournament facility.

There had been issues at the other barn that made me decide to leave, including alcohol-abusing staff, and a serious hock injury Missy had sustained after being run from the pasture into the barn with the entire herd of horses as was the barn’s procedure at the end of each day. The environment was not the best in which to try to focus on a green horse’s training, and I was beginning to clue-in.

Once again, I learned a lot by watching. The master European trainers at Spruce Meadows worked with young horses there each day, and I applied their methods to my young stallion. We did ground work and showed in conformation classes for over a year, as he was too young to ride. His joy and enthusiasm for everything made every day a wonderful experience. There were no setbacks and no traumas at all in the quiet, clean, and peaceful setting. Yes, there were large shows at times and many visitors, but I learned that the environment in which a horse is started is the one that affects them throughout their lifetime. They can always be brought back to the mindset of that early training should traumatizing incidents occur later in their life. It doesn’t seem to work out so well the other way around, as I found out the hard way with Missy.

TC was very bright and learned voice commands, enabling free-longeing at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, as well as liberty play that we both had a lot of fun with. I started him with care, introducing a saddle and bridle with a rubber snaffle. Each phase progressed into the next and by the time I got on his back, he was so well schooled that all he had to do was learn to balance with my weight.

Even as a stallion I was able to take him into a crowded show arena and he was never out of the ribbons. In effect, TC was my “proof of thesis” that there was a huge difference in the behaviors of a “rough-broke” horse versus one that was conscientiously started under saddle following a careful protocol of ground work adhering to classical methods that include development of the gaits prior to the horse being mounted. We not only had a tremendous relationship, but we also had the benefit of correct athletic training that set this horse up for a long and useful career.

Generally you would think a stallion would be far more difficult than a mare to handle in stressful situations. In the case of my two young horses, whose histories I knew from the beginnings of their training, the opposite was true. It was entirely their environment and process of how they were started under saddle that seemed to be the most prominent differential. What happened to the mind of the filly versus the mind of the colt?

I believe the FACES acronym by Dr. Dan Siegel can be extrapolated to traumatized horses. It stands for:

Flexible

Adaptive

Coherent

Energized

Stable

http://www.nicabm.com/treatingtrauma2014/a1-transcript-sample/?del=11.16.14LTsampleemailfree

Before we get to the details of how old a person (replace “person” with “horse” in our case) is or what kind of trauma it is or if the trauma is acute, one time only, or repeated or what adaptive mechanisms were in place before the traumatic event happened – and these are all absolutely crucial elements to answer your question, “What is happening in the brain?” – there’s a more global statement to make.

 “Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”

And that global statement, as far as my reading of the research literature on trauma and the brain, is that trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.

 Brain functioning will stop being flexible – it will become inflexible.

The brain will stop being adaptive – it will become maladaptive.

Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.

Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy.

 “Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”

In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability – either repeating patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional, which from the outside looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction. (We use the word stability to describe the healthy way in which this system has equilibrium.)

 All of that is the most global thing we can say about trauma, but there’s also this: re-integration is what repairs the brain.

 So, we really need to ask specific questions: what was the context in which the trauma happened, at what time did it happen – what was the developmental framework – and what was this person like before the event?

 Trauma will affect the specifics of the brain depending on all of those factors.

     This isn’t meant to anthropomorphize a horse, which can lead to definitive inaccuracies in determining the cause of a horse’s behaviors, but rather to compare the results of trauma in a human brain to that of trauma in the equine brain. In my experiences with many traumatized horses subsequent to the appaloosa filly, I am finding that this newer research into the effects of trauma on the human brain is producing more similarities than differences in regards to horses. If so, then the reintegration process of repair should also work for horses.

Part of the human issue in working with a traumatized horse is also what happens if we are in the presence of a person with trauma…we tend to dissociate and stop listening to their stories. We don’t want to feel their pain or experience it for ourselves. I have seen that response in humans who ignore their horse’s distress signals, which can sometimes be very subtle. The rider, by insisting that the horse engage in an enjoyable experience by the rider’s standards, but perhaps not at all enjoyable or comfortable in the horse’s mind, can lead to even more trauma and further distress or pain for that horse.

For both horses and humans, a separation from a strong social connection can often be found at the root of trauma issues. There is a sense of a loss of safety, which in a herd situation is especially critical to wellbeing.

How much of that dissociation from a traumatized horse is related to our own traumas and subconscious desires to shut them out? Can you see how having self-compassion and bringing ourselves into awareness would also be of benefit to the horse?

It doesn’t mean we turn around and completely spoil a horse or let it get away with behaviors that may result from trauma. It means we are compassionate, consistent, and stable enough in our approaches that we create a safe space for the horse, while respecting the fact that it is still an animal.

Let’s say we could return Missy to her 2-year-old self and start her all over again. She wasn’t a bad horse. She actually had a wonderful disposition. It wasn’t her fault that she was quickly turned into a traumatized horse. Had the training been reversed between her and TC, I am quite certain the outcomes would have been very different for each of them.

How did their lives pan out? Well, Missy eventually sold to some out of town people that sent an experienced rider to try her. The fellow rode her well and she behaved perfectly. Thinking we had gotten past the reactive issues, I thought she was on her way to a good home. Months later, I called the new owners to find out how things were going and was completely dismayed at their anger…she had begun to buck them off as something had triggered her old traumatized brain. They invited me to come and ride her, but I was only 16 and I was not going to drag my mom into that situation either! I suggested they get a professional trainer. I have no idea how Missy’s life went after that.

TC was eventually gelded and was winning in the dressage and hunter arenas against big, fancy warmbloods and thoroughbreds. I leased him to an amateur who had a great time showing him, then finally sold him to a lesson barn. He lived out his years playing with ponies, retaining a sense of humor, and teaching countless numbers of children to ride and show. I visited him every year and found him healthy and happy. I was told the students fought over who would get to ride him in the shows because they were pretty much guaranteed a top placing on him. He finally died of colic at the age of 26, on the day of his last show.

I knew these two horses taught me a lot, but have not realized the full scope of those lessons until writing The Compassionate Equestrian and bringing in more of the neuroscience. Dr. Schoen has been extremely influential in this regard with his studies and practices of contemplative neuroscience and exercises in mindfulness and awareness that are featured in the book.

It has become quite clear that while horses can help people a lot with issues in psychology via Equine Assisted Learning, we also need to be aware that it goes in both directions. We, as compassionate equestrians, accept that we are responsible for the conditioning and training of the equine mind so as to at least give each and every horse the opportunity to live out its life with good memories of its early handling and training. It can make all the difference in the world as to how the entire lifetime of that horse will play out.

So there you have it, the face of trauma, and the face of stability. Let’s be compassionate with ourselves, with others, and our horses, continuing to evolve our hearts and minds as we move forward on a path to making this a better world for everyone.

 

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.

____________

     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.

____________ 

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

The Story in Our Eyes

Compassion is gritty. It can be fiery. It is a natural part of being human but sometimes it needs to be uncovered from the layers of conditioning we experience throughout our lifetimes. It takes practice, as it literally transforms the brain. It changes our hearts and the way we think.

It isn’t all about simply being nice to others, or extending kindness to those we also see as kind. The really hard part is convincing ourselves to have empathy for those whom we view as not benevolent to others at all. Sometimes it is hard to see the suffering in others if they are also inflicting suffering on another.

In the horse world we can tell the sad tales of equine abuse all day long. Thousands and thousands of times over, somewhere, at any moment, a horse is suffering at the hands of a human.

Yes, we want to be optimists. We want to see pictures of beautiful, healthy animals and people enjoying the presence and connection with horses of all kinds. Whether it be the wild herds racing through scrub forests at sunset or a lovely PRE stallion engaged in a liberty performance with its handsome handler. That’s what we all hope for when we desire to have horses parked in our minds as an enriching, joyful image that makes our hearts sing.

The romantic visions so delightedly sprinkled all throughout the social media world and popping up on endless websites are easily misinterpreted as the utopian reality for all horses. As our ego recedes with the increased practice of compassion, the other side of the coin emerges and we become more responsible horse-people. We acknowledge that while there is so much enjoyment when horses and humans interact, there is also a very heavy, dark side to the entire spectrum of the industry. How can we be completely content and happy when so many others are suffering?

I can’t help but immediately put myself in the horse’s shoes every time I am near one. Even when viewing photos and videos of horses, I see myself standing beside them, looking back at the humans looking at them. I identify with them, because of all the years I spent living either above the barn, in the same yard as the barn, or right beside it. Even though it was living with domesticated horses, you still begin to feel like one of the herd and highly responsible for the other herd members that are entrusting you with their care and daily routines.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is all about “the other.” Of course, that means having compassion for ourselves too, as loving ourselves translates to how we respond to everyone and everything outside of us.

Some stories are much harder to tell than others. We want people to respond, but not in a way that paralyzes them with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Sometimes the task can seem too enormous for one person, and yet history has proven over and over again how much one person can actually make a difference.

The sense of a situation being too much to handle makes it much easier to shut out the photos that are hard to look at, and turn the other way when faced with sad stories. If nobody looks, and nobody responds though, what is going to happen this week, this month, or this year, to thousands of horses that will end up in the auctions and shipped to processing plants?

We can talk about all the wonderful things horses do for people and how fabulous it is to bond with them and allow their spirits to be guiding beacons for humans and yet…once we have that kind of relationship with them, do we not all sense the collective stress of a global herd in trouble?

There are many issues affecting the equine world that are raising the red flags about the sustainability of this industry. Climate change is a factor, especially in drought-ridden areas where water and pasture are becoming scarce and expensive. There is a compounding factor in the numbers of horses that are being discarded due to the rapidly rising costs of care and feed, further splitting the gap between the wealthy owners and those who are more economically challenged. As rescues fill to the brim, they too are strained by shrinking resources and donors.

Then there are the numbers of horses who are the result of uncontrolled breeding practices and training methods that are not producing safe, rideable saddle horses. There is virtually no market for poorly trained horses unfortunately, and it isn’t much better for those that have not been started under saddle at all. This is why so many of the horses in the auction pens are actually young and healthy…not the broken down old horses some people envision as being the only horses “sent to the knackers.”

So if we hear the stories, or read them, or watch the videos, how do we respond? Is it with a Facebook post that reads something like, “Oh, that is just so sad”? Or, do we go to the website of a local horse rescue and see where we can volunteer or donate? How do we inspire truly practical action, and raise the fire of a compassionate heart and mind?

As Karen Armstrong, winner of the 2008 TED prize and creator of the Charter for Compassion states:

“Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories. I don’t want this charter, for example, to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done. If we want to create a viable, peaceful world, we’ve got to integrate compassion into the gritty realities of 21st century life.

     Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories. Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren’t engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. We need to encourage full storytelling—unless people also talk about the bad things that happen, this is just going to be some superficial feel-good exercise.”

http://charterforcompassion.org/node/4287

Karen Armstrong Argues for Practical Compassion

If there is one beautifully written story that could possibly make a difference to people who still might not want to look at the hard statistics, pictures, websites or videos that describe the fate of far too many horses, perhaps this would be it: (reposted from Facebook with permission)

     From Sabrina Connaughton, Serene, WA, U.S.A.:

I’m sitting here listening to the rain pour down as the tears pour down my cheeks. I thought I didn’t cry anymore but the rain keeps coming down. I feel like each raindrop is a tear for each and everyone of these horses. This is their last supper here as they begin their journey to slaughter. Horses are lined up for as far as you can see munching on their hay. I just sat there by myself on some hay watching them eat, feeling like I should have done something for them, done more, found homes, made one more trip to the feedlot last week, something, just wishing I could do something to change what was in front of me. It is desperation with no remedy, the most helpless feeling, complete despair. These horses will be slaughtered and there is nothing I can do. At that point I don’t even want to look at them, as if not looking at them makes them less real, but it is happening and they are real, so I say my goodbyes to those that’ll stand for a hug and make my rounds in the slaughter pens. They were all somebody to someone, and yet they are here, thrown away and betrayed by someone somewhere along the way. I want to say it’s the young ones that get to me the most because they never even had a chance to be something, but it’s the old who were robbed of a retirement, and everyone in between, it’s all of them, and completely unfair. It just makes you wonder what horrible twist of fate occurred that resulted in all of these horses now gathered in a line eating their last meal together here. I wish the pretty little appy filly didn’t get an abscess. I wish the appy gelding I’ve now met there twice didn’t have to go. I wish the sweet Arab mare had a child to take her to shows. I wish there were people for all of them, but there just aren’t. I feel completely defeated and broken. There is nothing I can do for them so I pick myself back up and work on the adjacent line of horses that still have a chance. They will be posted tomorrow. Tonight I am spent. I am just going to listen to the rain.

http://www.auctionhorses.net/ 

Changing Leads Gracefully

For a rider, being able to execute the perfect flying lead change with consistency is an accomplishment that comes only after a lot of hard work, determination, and a clear understanding of the horse you are mounted on. There are so many elements that have to come together before a horse can gracefully hop from left lead canter to right lead canter and back again, on cue. At the pinnacle of this accomplishment are the “tempi-changes” in Grand Prix dressage tests where the horse appears to be skipping as it remains on a straight line while changing leads every step. In theory it sounds so simple. Left lead, right lead. In practice, well, anyone who has been there with a horse or multiple horses can tell you that while there may be a common goal, every horse learns differently and has a unique set of parameters that may have them changing leads more easily and quickly than other horses, while some may never have an easy time of it. It is a step by step process for both horse and rider.

Flying lead change sequence (photo: www.equisearch.com)

Flying lead change sequence (photo: http://www.equisearch.com)

1) The long-term goals for reaching those smooth, consistent changes have to be clearly formed in the rider’s mind. You need the picture in your head of what constitutes a correct flying lead change. Then you develop a training plan you can follow, making particular decisions each step of the way to achieve the goal.

2) As a rider, hard work, education and training is everything. Before you can relay the aids in proper sequence to have a horse change leads, all of your basics should be solid, and ideally, you would have had a schoolmaster horse and excellent, compassionate trainer to learn from before being gaining the competence to pass that level of training on to another horse. You can never be excessively competent!

3) Be prepared for what might not work. Visualize failure too. In the understanding of what is correct about a lead change, the rider, like a dressage or reining judge, also has to know which elements will produce a lower score, or cause potential imbalances and possibly painful injuries to the horse. Tension, stiffness, deflection off the straight line, swinging haunches, too wide in the placement of the hind feet, hollow back, and many other issues can cause further problems. You cannot correct the mistakes if you don’t know what they are in the first place, so you want to be prepared in advance with the skills to identify and decide what to do should errors occur.

4) Enlist a group of extremely competent people to help you reach your goals. Communication with others who can support you in reaching your flying lead change goal helps you take each step with confidence. Part of communicating well involves listening well too, which every great riding student eventually comes to realize can make all the difference between a good performance and one that is below par. This is why a team of great people, including “eyes on the ground,” excellent veterinary care and a top notch farrier are all part of the picture when you are on the path to reaching your long-term goals.

5) With any horse, you may need to consider metaphorically switching leads at any time. As any experienced horseman will tell you, all that we do has an impermanence and even fragility about it. We can go on for so long taking for granted our wonderful horses and the equestrian lifestyle, forgetting how quickly things can change. What makes us feel the best as human beings is to give back. If we accept that the one simple thing we can hold on to is our knowledge, and how we apply that knowledge, our perception of life becomes a broader picture. We can step back a bit, as we so often have to do in the process of training horses, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, “how can my response to this situation be the most beneficial to all involved?” We can change our behaviors to accommodate a more productive situation for ourselves, our horses, and everyone else along the way.

6) When a rider has achieved a high level of competence and confidence, combined with many years of experience having learned from the failures and tribulations of life with horses and life in general (partnerships are partnerships whether with a horse or another human being), they may reach a state of beauty, joy, and a radiating sense of grace. When you get to that stage, you have a sense of having done something that goes beyond yourself. It is because such accomplishments require a tremendous amount of giving in the first place. It requires your time, your focus, your kindness and consideration of the horse. It does not happen automatically with a horse, and it does not typically happen for those who are just at the beginning of their careers or relationships. There is always the process of setting goals, then deciding what you will do next that will line up with your goals, whether it is to make those flying lead changes or to make major life changes. The key is to not blame the horse, or anyone else if there are bumps on the road to your goals. Blaming is easy, but it is changing our own behaviors that affect the greatest changes, personally, professionally, and for the good of all beings.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/03/chris-hadfield_n_5929992.html

The impetus for this post is derived from a video that was relayed to me by Dr. Schoen. It is astronaut Chris Hadfield speaking to an audience of primarily students on We Day, asking the question of what we can do to change the world. So what does this have to do with the accomplishment of teaching a horse to change leads smoothly? A lot actually. It is all about us.

Chris is asked, “What is the one cause you care about the most?” From his perspective of seeing the planet from above, all 7-billion human beings every 90 minutes over the course of the space station’s orbit, he says one’s perspective changes somewhat as to what is most important. He speaks of how everything is connected, and how much togetherness we need to sustain the planet.

He states his most important goal as follows:

“To raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.”

The other question he raises is “what is one simple thing people can do to drive change?” The answer… “stop blaming other people.” Here is where we may need to make a lead change of our own sometimes. These are the suggestions from Chris (and this might sound familiar):

  • Have an overarching goal, then purposefully make decisions to make it happen.
  • Build everything on competence – there is no substitute for hard work. Chris put years of education and training into his dream before being chosen to be commander.
  • Visualize failure – be prepared for all possibilities.
  • Communicate with others – they will be there for you, and good communication includes good listening.
  • Give back – there is a fragility to the things we take for granted – make good use of your education to give back to others.
  • Seek grace – in grace we find tranquility, joy, accomplishment, and a sense of having done something that goes beyond ourselves.

 

Ultimately, what we learn from becoming compassionate equestrians applies to everything Chris Hadfield is relaying to the students in his We Day address. I don’t know if the famous astronaut has ever had contact with horses, but somehow I believe he would immediately recognize the factors that allow for the creation of high standards of accomplishment in the equine world are also the same qualities that apply to the process of making this a better world for all sentient beings. What we can learn from our connection to a horse can be extended to everyone we encounter in all of our human relationships, and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Well We Sit

For those readers who are non-riders, I am hoping this post might convey a new idea or observation relating to the importance of how someone sits on a horse and also provide some value to those who do plant their seat in a saddle on a regular basis. Although, as with much of The Compassionate Equestrian, we can extrapolate the equestrian issue at hand to something relating to our interactions with humans – in this case the horse’s possible discomfort at having a rider on its back to the human idiom…”that doesn’t sit well with me.” Given the rash of hostilities on our planet at the moment, there is much we could refer to that does not sit well with just about anybody. I almost feel a twang of guilt writing about something as mundane as a seat on a horse. However, this is our particular niche and there is a lot going on in the horse world that requires continuous vigilance too. And we know how soothing a connection to a horse or other animal can be in times of trouble. Whether seated on a horse or seated on a meditation cushion, there are specifics to both that can help us on our journey to becoming more compassionate beings.

I have spent countless hours lately scoping out the online world of equestrians and equestrian sports, lurking in some forums, watching YouTube videos and writing down the number of “likes” on horse-based home pages. The vocal majority in the digital horse community lately appears to be in regards to developing relationships with horses, identifying all of the wonderful feelings that can arise in humans when interacting with horses, and the joys of beautiful photos of prancing stallions working at liberty or guided by the hand of a handsome, masterful horseman. There are very deeply rooted desires in most human beings who long for that kind of partnership with an iconic animal that represents freedom, power, and the very essence of the natural world. The number of clinics, facilitators, workshops, and growing businesses dedicated to the non-riding aspects of horses seems to be expanding exponentially.

On the upside, this allows renewed and ongoing interest in horses from the media and general public, helping to build audiences and prevent horses from going the way of vinyl records and cars without power steering. The curiosity about horse herd dynamics and the effect of horses formally engaged in programs that utilize their “therapist” qualities has also afforded many horses that may be unsound for riding to be useful in a career that supports their care, but does not require them to be physically fit enough to carry a rider.

The mere image of a gorgeous horse can uplift one’s heart, and in my own opinion, if a person wishes to be around horses, they absolutely should be, in any way their circumstances and resources allow for that to happen. There are so many horses in need of extra attention and care that it would be a wonderful thing to match more compassionate, caring people with those animals that could use the grooming, handling, and exercise, with trainers, horse owners, and other professionals who would be willing to connect the right people with the appropriate animals. Unfortunately in our libelous society it is no longer a simple matter of “sure, you can come and ride my pony whenever you like”, but here in Canada you can at least become a member of your provincial Equine Canada affiliate and be covered by a basic insurance policy automatically, with further options available for instructors and businesses.

In light of the loving, horse-hugging/kissing imagery and practices we are cautioned in the rise of misconceptions that horses should only be worked at liberty, ridden without saddles or bridles, and are able to be started “without force” by anybody who has been to a few workshops. The unfortunate limitations created by a vocal social media presence have led to a huge missing or forgotten detail amongst this demographic; that of proper equitation and its contribution to the health and welfare of a horse. With all of the sweetness and oxytocin-releasing activities now abundant in the horse world, for many, the anthropomorphizing of the horse has created an industry subsection where people are forgetting about the intricacies and amount of time it takes to ride really well. It is true that riding with wanton abandonment does come naturally to some people, but not to all, and it can set unsuspecting newcomers up for potentially dangerous situations, especially where children and inexperienced riders are put on horses without helmets or protective footwear. Even for someone with good balance and the ability to sit upright on a horse, it still takes a long time and a lot of quality instruction to be able to apply the aids correctly and learn to school a horse so that it continues to make progress or at least maintain fitness.

I have had some beginner to intermediate level students who just seemed to have an inherent sense of balance, flexibility, strength and muscular symmetry, not to mention confidence on a horse. Sorry ladies, but almost all such students were boys or adult men. We could get into a discussion about gender differences in the pelvic floor, hips and thighs, but that is another issue. I do find it interesting though that all of the most popular clinicians advocating a particular style of horsemanship are men who ride extremely well themselves, and generally in a western saddle. I have witnessed some training methods originating with European men lately that are not translating well to North American women either, although the fundamental ideas are sound.

Due to misunderstandings and terminology used around the label of “horsemanship,” Dr. Schoen and I have chosen to use equitation in reference to our 25 Principles (in The Compassionate Equestrian) instead of horsemanship. Good horsemanship is ultimately included as part of equitation, and even further, the emerging field of Equitation Science* is providing us with the research and scientific backing in support of how horses are best trained and handled in ways that keep them sound of both mind and body. For example, researchers have determined through objective, quantitative research that rising trot and riding in a two-point (hunt seat) position place the least amount of stress on the horse’s back and are best for stabilizing the rider [1].

York Equestrian

Developing the balanced seat and learning to ride with independent aids. http://www.yorkequestrianridingschool.com

For all of my searching around the world wide web for tidbits of traditional, classical horse training and riding techniques, I have found the real gems and voices of reason still existing, but buried under the hundreds of thousands of “likes” on sites that are appealing more to people’s emotional reactions to images and possibly the feelings of freedom they would have riding bareback, galloping through fields of tall grass and blooming flowers. Such images, after all, are far more likely to grab readers quickly scanning their news feeds than a picture of the anatomical construct of a rider’s lumbar-sacral anatomy and how it should be placed in the saddle, followed by an explanation of why it should be situated in such a way and how it biomechanically affects the horse’s musculoskeletal system and way of going. Yet, there are marvelous opportunities to be gained from studying those images and exercises of correct alignment (such as in The Riding Doctor, by Beth Glosten MD, pub. June 2014 Trafalgar Square Books – http://www.horseandriderbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=H&Product_Code=RIDO&Category_Code=WNEW).

Let’s put those two pictures side by side and see which one gets the most “likes” on Facebook. I think we already know the answer to that, especially as so many social media users are very young and will take the time to make comments. The kids and professionals who are already working hard on their equitation, showing, and horse care are far too busy in the barns and arenas to pay much attention to what is going on in the rest of the equine industry unless it is something that affects them personally. In mixed-discipline barns where there are some people practicing newer forms of horsemanship philosophy and techniques, I have been hearing stories of heated dialogues and questionable methods leading to much tension and outright clashes amongst riders, as well as a few very bad accidents.

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet!) www.horsemanmagazine.com

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet and boots!)
http://www.horsemanmagazine.com

Murdoch Method

How the rider’s skeletal anatomy looks when seated on a horse bareback. http://www.murdochmethod.com

In the “old days” (such as when I was showing the most – 1970s & 1980s) equitation classes were judged on seat, position, and use of the aids. We all knew as riders that a good seat and hands were the mark of a competent rider, and the making of a willing, happy equine partner. Pretty straightforward amongst both western and english styles, but no easy feat so far as being a consistent winner in equitation classes. Yes, of course those competitions still exist, but the participants are few compared to the audiences that turn out looking for ways to connect to equine nature and work from the ground. Sure, there were also some quirky trends in the 80s, such as “piano hands”, and the “point & perch” riding, but savvy judges and course designers who had ridden through the previous decades found ways of separating those who could really ride from those who were merely able to hold their position on a well-trained horse.

Nowadays, however, I see little to no emphasis placed on the quality of how well someone is sitting on their horse, yet it is the foundation so far as being able to ride without doing harm. It seems to me that horses used to stay a lot sounder than they do now, especially when it comes to neck, back and hindquarter problems. This is in spite of updated knowledge in saddle fitting and considerable advances in veterinary diagnostic technology. With all of the issues Dr. Schoen and I have observed in our respective fields, we feel that bringing compassion to the equine world at large involves a suggestion to look into one’s heart and ask if the pressure being inflicted on the horse is legitimately to its benefit, or to its detriment. We realize the answer to that will vary extensively until there is more evidence revealed through formal studies in Equitation Science.

A rider may have a great relationship with a horse on the ground, but what value is left if that relationship disintegrates due to a heavy and unbalanced seat? I have seen many riders of all ages who would benefit greatly by spending some time on the longe line, providing of course, their horse is also trained correctly and safely on the longe. Oftentimes this is not the case either, as a lot of horses are chased in round pens or longed on very short lines and do not stay on a large enough circle.

In the current equine world many seem to have forgotten one very important thing… teaching people how to ride properly with an emphasis on solid basics. While vocal about creating harmony and not using force (great trainers were never apt to use “force” anyway, and always start horses with careful groundwork), in the sea of popular buzzwords, for some strange reason, there is a big, confusing, gap between bonding with one’s horse and the value of riding with due care and attention to one’s equitation so as to create the least amount of stress on the horse as possible when asking it to walk, trot, canter, jump, and everything in between.

I used to work at one of the top show jumper barns on the west coast and we always used to joke about “equitating” properly. These were the young, talented riders who had horses and trainers at barns on both sides of the continent, qualifying for the big medal finals and making it to the top of the junior rankings. There were a lot of issues in those barns during that era that certainly didn’t make us perfect. I am happy to this day that I made the decision to remain removed from the craziness and partying that went on. The underlying dark side still permeates show activities and there are some people who continue to see horses as expendable commodities that can be pushed past their limits with drugs and procedures until they simply cannot be worked any further. I am mortified when I hear of youth who are competing for national standings talking about “putting a needle in their horses” so they can get around a class without blowing up or breaking down. In many cases it would be nice if there actually were a better relationship between the horse and its rider. There is something going amiss with the entire equestrian world and one poignant missing element at both ends of the spectrum seems to involve the key question we ask throughout The Compassionate Equestrian… and that question is “what is most compassionate for this horse?”

We look forward to the forthcoming advances in Equitation Science and in the ongoing research in human-animal communication and relationships to help us create a more compassionate world for everything we do that involves horses, and all of our animal and human companions. That actually does sit rather well… 🙂

– – – – –

*What is Equitation Science?

Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering. Equitation science uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain horse training, for example from a learning theory perspective that removes anthropomorphism and emotiveness.

Read more about the ‘Advent of Equitation Science’ – by P. McGreevy (2007, Veterinary Journal 174, 492–500)

http://www.equitationscience.com

 – – – – –

[1] Peham C1Kotschwar ABBorkenhagen BKuhnke SMolsner JBaltacis A.

Vet J. 2010 Apr;184(1):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.04.007. Epub 2009 May 9.

A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot.

Dear Horse, Please Forgive Me (As I Forgive Myself)

Have you ever done something to a horse that you have later regretted? Have you forgiven yourself for that infraction? We already have a lot of things to think about when it comes to riding. Post on the correct diagonal, left lead, right lead, bend, release, lengthen stride, half halt, flying change, breathe, stay calm, ride out the buck, give a pat, etc. Yes, riding in itself requires a lot of mental and physical concentration and evaluation, but what about how we feel about ourselves, deep down in that place we don’t always like to go? In The Compassionate Equestrian we talk a lot about the human’s relationship not only with their horse, but also with themselves and other people. Why? Well, if you are getting on a horse while harboring residual guilt, high emotions, frustrations, anger, or any other number of negative feelings chances are the horse is going to be suffering in some way based on the extent to which you let your emotions affect your life.

This exercise of compassionate self-forgiveness is not necessarily easy. It is actually easier to try to mask it behind all kinds of interesting behaviors. Bravado, ego, boundary issues, judgment of others, and blaming of oneself for everything that goes awry. This is harsh. It can lead to deprecating self-talk that is anything but compassionate and we can make ourselves believe that we deserve “punishment” for whatever it is we think we have done “wrong.”

String Angels 'Romancing the Horse'

photo: http://www.equestrianlife.com.au String Angels “Romancing the Horse” Sarah Moir

Understanding equine behavior legitimately helps us understand human behavior, especially when referring to the neurochemistry of the brain that is the engine for all instinctive actions. If we strip away everything we have done that builds our identity as a specialized human… the education, the jobs, the material goods – who are we? What are we?

At the basis of all species’ behaviors is the will to survive and reproduce. It is the driver behind almost everything animals and we do at the most fundamental level. Unfortunately, it is also the cause of many guilt-trips, misunderstandings, heartbreaks and aggressive behaviors amongst human beings. If you think hard about everything you might still be carrying with you that you may wish to be forgiven for, you will likely find a very specific need behind your behavior, and behind your feelings about your behavior.

I can think of many instances where I would love to ask my former horses for forgiveness. Since they can’t respond personally, my best course of action is to heal myself of any lingering guilt over those episodes and compassionately forgive myself. I might have been upset about something and surprised a horse with an angry reaction or perhaps had to sell or give away a horse due to personal circumstances. It was a matter of survival and gut-reactions to the need to quickly get away from someone or something that was having an adverse effect on my life. One can only imagine how many horses have ended up in extenuating circumstances due to divorces and relationships abruptly coming to an end.

I recently watched the movie Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen. The complexity of the characters and the questions raised are classic… the beautiful, eloquent New York socialite married to a husband whose wealth came from illicit gains. In spite of having everything in the material world one could want, including horses, it was the husband’s cheating with younger women and the wife’s denial of the circumstances that eventually led her to a nervous breakdown. Then her conditioned behavior cost her a potentially wonderful relationship with someone else, leading to yet another breakdown. Sometimes I wonder if the horses are also heart-broken and affected by having people around them who have been betrayed and hurt by others. I am quite sure they feel it too.

I also have clients and friends with horses who have found themselves in similar situations, and some who have become seriously ill, and I have watched their horses’ behavior change accordingly. In Nonviolent Communication we are taught that while other people can be the stimulus of our anger, they cannot be the cause of it. This can be hard to fathom until we are taught how to respond to others who we feel may have caused us harm.

“The cause of anger lies in our thinking – in thoughts of blame and judgment” (M.B. Rosenberg, PhD, Nonviolent Communication, p.143)

If we continue through life without loving, comforting, and forgiving whatever it is we need to forgive ourselves or others for, the psychological effects continue to wear on our nervous systems. The results of long-term stress on the body due to high levels of neurochemicals such as cortisol may have a deepening effect on overall health, even leading to depression and related illnesses.

To move on and have a positive effect on our horses, and everyone in the barn, not to mention us and other people in our midst, the practice of compassionate self-forgiveness can open the doors to a healthier future.

In an article suggested by Dr. Schoen, the authors write how compassionate self-forgiveness is like a return ticket to home:

“It dissolves judgments and brings a healing balm of Compassion to the places inside where there is emotional pain. Without this process, freedom from emotional suffering would be impossible. You’d exist eternally in a self-created hell where you’d erect buildings, rituals, and philosophies all supporting the evils of rosebushes, none of which would do anything toward releasing the thorn. You’d be like the proverbial prodigal son—only you’d never find your way home.

Compassionate Self-Forgiveness is your return ticket and the simplest and most effective way we know of returning home. It’s through the healing action of forgiving yourself for judging that you are liberated. Why Compassionate Self-Forgiveness? Because the word ‘compassion’ means to ‘be with’ someone who is suffering—but to be with them in a Loving way. It is an action of the Heart.”

 (33 Days of Awakening Through Loyalty to Your Soul; Freedom Through Compassionate Self-Forgiveness, University of Santa Monica online, Worldwide Center for the Study and Practice of Spiritual Psychology; http://www.usmonline.org)

It reminds me of one of my favorite songs by the band, Enigma (and this video mix is a must-watch for the absolutely stunning shots of horses):

 “Return To Innocence”

http://youtu.be/1bi1iMPVIY0

That’s not the beginning of the end

That’s the return to yourself
The return to innocence
Love – Devotion
Feeling – Emotion
Love – Devotion
Feeling – Emotion
Don’t be afraid to be weak
Don’t be too proud to be strong
Just look into your heart my friend
That will be the return to yourself
The return to innocence
If you want, then start to laugh
If you must, then start to cry
Be yourself don’t hide
Just believe in destiny
Don’t care what people say
Just follow your own way
Don’t give up and use the chance
To return to innocence
That’s not the beginning of the end
That’s the return to yourself
The return to innocence
Don’t care what people say
Follow just your own way Follow just your own way
Don’t give up, don’t give up
To return, to return to innocence.
If you want then laugh
If you must then cry
Be yourself don’t hide
Just believe in destiny.

     The bottom line is, yes, the horse has a brain structure similar to ours that seeks survival and mates. This has been part of the evolution of vertebrates and continues evolving to this day. If we allow things like attachments and desires to control our responses to life, it is likely we will find ourselves seeking forgiveness rather frequently. On the upside, we have the opportunity to work towards self-actualization and enlightenment, transcending the foibles of that hindbrain and making good use of our higher intellect.

The horse that made us angry by spooking at a stray dog on the trail might or might not respond to a request for forgiveness, as all it knows is that it was responding to stimuli. If you overreacted and hit your horse for spooking, you know it could have an effect on how your horse reacts the next time it spooks. It might be worse or prolonged, also anticipating your angry smack along with the fright of the stimulus. It is the same lack of trust that surfaces in human relationships when one does something to another that does not satisfy the other’s basic needs, such as safety and comfort.

In much the same manner, we are often confounded when our spouses or partners do not seem to understand why we become upset over their desire to be with somebody else. In human beings it is a simple matter of males being capable of reproductive behavior much longer than females, hence the seeking of younger mates, whether conscious of that fact or not. Again, it is instinctive responses to stimuli, based solely on brain chemistry and lacking the benefit of communicating with a compassionate heart and mind. Then we invent all kinds of reasons in our minds to provoke ourselves with pain and suffering due to the other person’s behavior, and the cycle continues.

Like last week’s post about jealousy in animals, so much of what we are all about is a lot of chemistry. Unlike animals, we humans add complexity to the instinctual behaviors with the acquisition of goods and financial issues, creating the basis for many heated disputes amongst couples.

It makes me glad to be relationship-free at the moment. There is a benefit to having no drama, no attachments, and no reasons to provoke anguish in myself. Although I have moments too, but a happy, loving heart makes those moments of doubt very brief. I love to make other people smile, and horses seem to know that too. So do dogs by their distinctive responses to genuinely happy, content people.

Looking at the root causes of those rare moments of doubt or grief… do I need to ask for forgiveness from others (horses and/or humans)? Do I need to be more compassionate and ask for self-forgiveness? How many times did my lack of compassion for myself affect the way I handled horses? I know for certain it affected the way I dealt with clients and people I worked with at the barns. I have no problem saying I am sorry. So for everyone and anyone, horses included, that I slighted or hurt in any way, please forgive me. Note to self… return ticket acquired and I’m on the way home.

We can only forgive ourselves to the extent that we are still in a human body, with a human mind, and affected by the genetic makeup and biochemistry we were born with. With that knowledge, be kind to yourself, love yourself, and be forgiving. Your self will thank you, as will your horse.

CAUGHT YOU LOOKING!

It is a classic accusation amongst humans in relationships… subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) body language and gestures that make one person jealous of another. For example, women tend to be hyper-vigilant and sensitive to the attention their male partners pay to other women, and immediate judgments are formed about “the other” who is receiving the attention. Even if someone does not want to feel that way, or exhibit the sometimes-embarrassing behavior that arises from those feelings, jealousy seems to happen as a matter of fundamental neurochemistry. Is it an inherent mechanism? If so, what is it for?

Two brown horses nuzzling each other

French saddlebred horses. Photo: http://www.horsesoflegend.com

Sometimes the basis for jealousy, which is actually a label for the fear of loss, is well founded. This can be especially true in humans where children or personal security are of concern. The situation that triggers jealousy also evokes thoughts of steps that would need to be taken in the event of losing their partner to the object of their jealousy. It is a defensive mechanism, in short, and should the underlying causes not be dealt with directly, it can lead to anger, depression, and other associated psychological effects.

In adolescents, the negative behaviors associated with jealousy are more common amongst those with low self-esteem. They may perceive their friendships as being easily threatened by others, sometimes leading them to aggressive actions [1]. Jealousy differs from “envy,” which is the desire to have something that someone else has.

Jealousy is an anticipatory emotion and one of the most common, yet unsettling behaviors exhibited by humans… and remarkably, other beings too. I say “other beings,” because it is apparent that animals can also become jealous when their “person” gives attention to another member of that animal’s species, or even another human. If dogs experience such emotions, then horses likely do too, as they also have an amygdala and correlating neurochemistry.

http://news.therawfoodworld.com/animals-can-experience-emotions-like-people-can-jealousy/

My brother and I used to laugh at our dogs when they would immediately get in between our parents as they embraced. The dogs would bark excitedly and turn anxiously from one parent to the other. We could never determine if they thought our parents were trying to hurt each other and the dog was attempting to “save” one or another, or if the dog was actually jealous that one of their “people” was paying too much attention to the other. Apparently, now we know the answer to that.

Fortunately, animals can’t quite go as far as humans in exhibiting abnormal types of jealousy, which can become quite threatening and dangerous to other people. This can enter the realms of extreme insecurity and may move well beyond the typical fighting over emotional infidelity or other common issues encountered in romantic relationships, particularly where “attachment” has been mistaken for love. In fact, there may be a neurochemical basis for jealous reactions that persist when there is no actual threat present and the fears are entirely unfounded. Neurotic jealousy may become associated with a disorder such as schizophrenia, paranoia or chemical imbalance in the brain.

It is sometimes all too easy to anthropomorphize what a horse might be thinking, and sometimes, as with the dogs, their apparent jealous responses when we give attention to another being can be quite amusing. As science continues to produce more confirmation as to the actual biochemical basis for the behaviors of sentient beings however, perhaps it is not such a stretch to be thinking that our horse might be jealous when we pay attention to another.

I have experienced observations of apparent jealousy in horses on many occasions and when Dr. Schoen suggested the article about the dogs as a blog post, reading it brought back many memories.

One such incident was with a big dun Saddlebred gelding I would ride every now and then when his owner was away. He had been rescued from abusive circumstances prior to the owner I was working with, and found himself in a loving, compassionate situation with Katie, his new “person.” During her lessons, it had become very apparent that this horse was quite possessive of his owner, and he would make challenging faces at any horse that got too close to her. As it happened, Katie and I were very similar in appearance and energy, so it was no surprise when her horse took on the same possessive characteristics with me as he did with her.

One day I was grooming him in his pipe-rail stall, preparing to tack up for a ride. Off in the distant paddock, a young horse was playing with a ball, going through some hilarious antics as he was doing so. While still brushing the big dun, my attention was on the colt that was having such a good time entertaining himself. Within a minute or so, the Saddlebred noticed my attention had been distracted to the other horse. He swung his head in the colt’s direction and his ears went back. Knowing how possessive he was of Katie I realized what he was responding to. After glaring in the direction of the playful youngster that was well off in the distance, he swung his head in my direction and gave me a “look that could kill.” Then he promptly re-positioned his body so that his neck, held regally high on his shoulders as is typical of his breed, completely blocked my view of the colt. What else could I do but laugh and return my full attention to the jealous gelding?!

Trakehner stallion

Young, dun Trakehner stallion. Photo: http://www.animalgenetics.us

I think one really has to spend a lot of time around animals to fully realize and appreciate the similarities between our emotions and theirs. As Dr. Schoen and I have cautioned in The Compassionate Equestrian however, there is still the need to recognize that an animal is an animal, and that they are not “us.” Common sense has to dictate the way we handle and train them so they are safe and untraumatized, to the best of our knowledge and abilities. It takes a long time to acquire the sensitivity and skills necessary in determining when an animal’s behavior is related to normal responses and when it may be reactions to fear, pain, or other negative stimuli that can put a less-experienced handler in danger.

Have you recognized jealousy-related behaviors in your own horse? Tell us your story too! We would love to hear from you.

__________

Judge Not – Or A Lot… It’s Your Choice

Compassion is about “the other.” It means that we recognize the suffering of another, and have a desire to alleviate their suffering. Still, we find that many people understand compassion through their own filters and experiences, and may find it difficult to have compassion for others who exhibit behaviors that they deem to be non-compassionate. This is why compassion requires study and practice. It tends to challenge us the most in situations where our compassionate nature may become somewhat compromised.

 

One of the key barriers to compassion is our human tendency to gravitate to negativity, judgment and blame. It seems to be the “default” mechanism in our base-line nature. In the horse world, we can find many examples of divisive, inflammatory language in that regard. We even go to horse shows and pay a lot of money to be judged!

photo: irishtimes.com

photo: irishtimes.com

 

Dr. Schoen and I have just finished writing a very lengthy manuscript and we could have written more. We realized that The Compassionate Equestrian is not only a teaching journey for others, but it became a progressive journey for ourselves in writing the book and putting together the beginnings of the program. I have personally changed the way I use language and have become more acutely aware of my tendency to place judgment on others, even after years of contemplative study and telling myself I should know better.

 

And telling myself “I should know better” is an example of self-judgment, which requires an exploration of my own self-compassion, then self-forgiveness.

 

In 1977 I took riding lessons from one of Canada’s most respected hunter/jumper and dressage judges and Technical Delegate for the 3-Day Eventing discipline. She took me to horse shows as her assistant and taught me the finer points of determining who would be placed in what order according to the highest standards of the sport. It is not an easy job! In the end, somebody is very happy and somebody is ultimately very disappointed and blaming their loss on the judging.

 

For some reason, we are not as good at relaying the positive, more caring side of our observations, especially when it comes to photographs on social media sites. Not being present to voice an opinion in person seems to have sparked a modern-day phenomenon amongst not just horse-people, but people in general who tend to make a habit out of posting negative, sometimes extremely inflammatory comments, at the sight of a photograph of something as innocent as a moment caught in time, where something does not agree with their perception of “all that is right and good with the world.”

 

Some people blame social media technology itself, while others have declared it is simply humans displaying their innate feelings without having to actually confront the objects of their judgments.

 

http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2013/10/21/f-bombs-or-friendly-words-is-social-media-making-us-rude/

 “Technology and social media can certainly make negativity more visible,” he said. And social media amplifies messages instantly, giving no time for second thoughts.

  

Either way, I found it difficult to not take critical judgments personally when I was a professional trainer, and I still get a familiar little twinge in my stomach if someone posts a potentially inflammatory, negative remark about a photo I have put on our Facebook page. This is where I have a conversation with myself about meeting the needs that are behind one’s feelings about those comments. What compelled that person to find fault with something in the photograph? Why do I think that I must take responsibility for how that person feels about the photo?

 

The dialogue is very interesting. Some people can relate to what is positive in the photo and mention what they like, while others immediately gravitate to faults that relay visual information contrary to the observer’s perception of “what is compassionate about this photo?”

 

For the most part, the riders in the photos probably love their horses. They most likely feel as though they are compassionate equestrians and are doing everything right with their horses. Today’s picture was a lineup at a show, with riders anxiously waiting for the class results to be called. They may all feel like winners. They aren’t thinking what some people may have judged as “that horse is over-bent”, or “that’s a terrible bit to put in a horse’s mouth”, or “horses should never be forced into the show ring like that.” The list could go on.

 

Even if there is truth in the judgments, why are we compelled to make them? Why can’t we look at the same photo and say, “those horses have beautiful, shiny coats and are obviously very well cared-for”, or “the riders are so well turned out, they must have worked hard for this moment”, or perhaps something like, “this style of riding doesn’t agree with my version of compassionate training, but even so, I feel compassion for these people, as they believe they are doing the right things for their horses.”

 

If we judge them with divisive language, they will put their energy into becoming defensive, as this is what happens when people feel criticized instead of engaged with empathy.

 

This is the enigma we find with introducing compassion across the broad expanses of breeds, disciplines, training methods, and human nature within the collective of horses, and well beyond. It is part of the challenge in building a new paradigm for a compassionate community of horse-people that transcends our personal needs and wants, in consideration of horses at large. If we can accomplish this in the equine world, we can accomplish it for humanity in general.

 

I found this wonderful article on Speaking of the Faults of Others and will continue to share excerpts on The Compassionate Equestrian’s Facebook site. You are invited to join the dialogue, and choose how you will judge the pictures, or not.

 

http://www.thubtenchodron.org/DailyLifeDharma/speaking_of_the_faults_of_others.html

“I vow not to talk about the faults of others.” In the Zen tradition, this is one of the bodhisattva vows. For fully ordained monastics the same principle is expressed in the payattika vow to abandon slander. It is also contained in the Buddha’s recommendation to all of us to avoid the ten destructive actions, the fifth of which is using our speech to create disharmony.