The Kinder Rider

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

How does kinder compare to compassionate? Here’s the definition of kinder from thesaurus.com:

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

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

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

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

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

woman riding horse

Photo by Laila Klinsmann on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at: https://www.humanecanada.ca/five_freedoms_of_animal_welfare

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About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance since 2002. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and EFT tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, an internationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Whalsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  

Susan Gordon website

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A Marvelous Assistant; The Horse

 

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

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

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

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

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

LeifPortrait

Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC

 

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

SG


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

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

 LeifBook

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

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

LeifBook2

The Equine Assisted Therapy Workbook

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titan2

Titan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://leifhallberg.com/

https://leifhallberg.com/home/writing-research/the-clinical-practice-of-equine-assisted-therapy/

https://leifhallberg.com/home/writing-research/the-equine-assisted-therapy-workbook/

LeifConnecting


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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, an internationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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LIVE LONG AND COMPASSIONATELY!

     As you read through The Compassionate Equestrian, you will find repeated references to the benefits of as little as 10 minutes a day of meditation practice.

     We have included exercises in meditation for you to do on your own, and others with your horse/s present, such as while mounting, feeding, and cleaning stalls. We encourage you to take notice of subtle, progressive changes occurring in your own mind and body, and that of your horse, and others in your barn as you expand your practice of quiet, contemplative time.

     You might wonder what the mechanism behind such changes could be, and question what is going on in the mind and body that effects the long-lasting differences you may be experiencing. We can actually break this down to one very physical component in both human and equine physiology: the vagus nerve.

     THE MIND HAS GREAT influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there. — Moliere

     According to author and founder/medical director of The UltraWellness Center, Mark Hyman MD, the scientific studies conducted with aging Tibetan monks has proven that meditation and training the mind can activate the body’s capacity to reduce inflammation through a direct nerve-based connection.

http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/08/25/how-the-dalai-lama-can-help-you-live-to-120/

     As we age, the immune system produces more inflammatory molecules and your nervous system activates the stress response, which promotes further system breakdown and aging. New science is proving that we don’t have to accept the typical course of age-related degeneration because we actually have the power within ourselves to create new cells and re-generate our own tissues at any age! To what do we owe this extraordinary ability?

     The immune system is controlled by the vagus nerve. It is the most important nerve originating in the brain, traveling to all major organs. You can consciously activate this nerve through contemplative meditation, relaxation, and other practices of ancient wisdom. Essentially, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and potentially prevent disease and aging. Meditation masters such as long-living Tibetan monks have done so, even having emerged from the most extenuating circumstances of imprisonment and torture. With meditation skills they have remained happy and able to give back to the world.

     “Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)  This is a phenomenal breakthrough. Here’s why.

It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age. And how are these stem cells controlled? You guessed it: the vagus nerve.”

     So what does this have to do with your relationship to your horse? Well, the horse also has a vagus nerve. Does he meditate? Not likely, unless you consider his blissful expression while lolling about in the sunshine or engaging in “mutual scratching” of a buddy. Although, we could also say the horse is a master of meditation, only enlisting his sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) when absolutely necessary, and only long enough to be out of danger. That is, unless he is pushed into a constant state of stress by his environment or a stressed-out owner or rider!

     If we have practiced meditation ourselves, and are able to approach the horse with a healthy, happy attitude, it will ultimately have an effect on him as well. For example, stand quietly by your horse, just taking in some deep, slow breaths. Does he match your breathing pattern, or slow down his own breaths? Vagus nerve activated…

        Imagine having such a positive influence on your horse’s health, as well as your own! And there’s more.

     The complexity of our heartbeat is called heart rate variability (HRV), which is the beat-to-beat variations. The more complex your HRV, the better your health. The least complex HRV is the flat line, for example, and we know what that means. Your HRV, and that of your horse, is controlled by the vagus nerve. Meditation and relaxation helps to increase your variability, leading to better health. This can help tremendously in learning to control your response to stressors from the inside out. We all face stress in our lives, and so do our horses, but it is how we respond to those stress factors that make the difference to our wellbeing.

     Mental stress also has an effect on another theory of aging, which is that of the protective endings of DNA called telomeres.

     “Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.  Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.

What’s even more remarkable? In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!”   

     In light of this encouraging information about meditation and health, is it any wonder that HH Dalai Lama has a particular wish for his forthcoming 80th birthday? According to Dr. Hyman’s article, if we learn how to work with our bodies rather than against them, we could provide ourselves a good opportunity to live healthy and thriving for our full lifespan, which could be as long as 120 years!

     So what does HH want for his birthday on July 6th? Given what we have just read about the vagus nerve and activation by meditation and compassion, it seems as though he is offering a gift to humanity, as we are offering the gift of good health and long life back to him. May we all live long, and compassionately, and may our horses and all sentient beings reap the benefits of our compassionate actions.

safe_image

     In honor of his milestone birthday, His Holiness is asking people to share photos, videos and quotes depicting people simply treating one another kindly, along with the hashtag #withcompassion on social accounts.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/27/dalai-lama-80th-birthday_n_7674732.html?fb_action_ids=560513107423843&fb_action_types=og.comments

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D. 

Stillness

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

Compassion, With Consequences

   I spent the past two weeks in the busy, crowded city that is my hometown. It is allegedly the 3rd most livable city in the world, yet I barely got any sleep due to the sheer amount of noise and constant attack on every sense. Even on the paved suburban forest trails near my brother’s home, people are distracted by their smartphones and controlling their dogs while balancing Starbucks coffee cups, many simultaneously pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, dodging cyclists and runners on the pathways. Near the house, tunnel construction for the new transit line operates through the night, while trains run hazardous materials through the terminal at the water’s edge and large tankers loom in the distance.

 

   “Survival” is the word that comes to mind in an overstuffed urban setting. Although I’m told Vancouver is nothing like Shanghai or any other enormous metropolis with millions of residents. It is a wonder to me that people don’t go completely crazy when everywhere you go it is shoulder-to-shoulder and very high-density living. Or maybe they do, as I think back to the expressions of obviously over-committed suburbanites on the trails. So when I found out it was “Horse Day” at the Pacific National Exhibition, I decided to attend since the fairgrounds were accessible via public transportation. This particular route into the downtown area is particularly challenging for drivers of cars and busses, as shortly past the racetrack and fairgrounds is one of the worst sections for homeless people in pretty much any city in the civilized world. People who are mentally ill and/or under the influence of mind altering drugs and alcohol spill from the sidewalks on to the streets, and at any given time of day, a sense of mayhem ensues.

 

   The bus was standing room only on that Wednesday morning, and it was hot. I got off a block early simply to get relief from the heat and the packed vehicle. I knew exactly where I was headed and easily navigated through the usual array of food stands, vendors hawking all kinds of fascinating, tacky objects, colorful rides with screaming patrons, and chatty teenagers looking forward to a fun day at the fair. Up ahead was Hastings Park racetrack with its deteriorating barns and uncertain future, hidden by the cupped roof of the old Agrodome and high fencing. The PNE had been a tradition in my family as early as I could remember. Mom took my brother and I there every year, with Dad dropping us off at the main gate, as he did not enjoy the racket, the rides or the exhibits. As an adult, I was showing horses in the annual competition, many of which were thoroughbreds that had previously raced on the track next to the agricultural building. They were frequently unnerved by the proximity of the track and the cramped, dark, smelly barns attached to the Agrodome’s indoor arena.

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C. (photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C.
(photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

 

PNE

In the barns at the Pacific National Exhibition (photo: province.ca)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I entered the barns and made my way past the goats, cows and chickens, up to the horse stalls and the Horse Council of British Columbia’s display of breeds and horse-related businesses. I was impressed with the selection of brochures that were clear and concise with regards to safety, nutrition, and guides for new or newly interested riders. Many breeds were represented, as were a number of disciplines, each taking turns in the big arena with the huge domed roof. It was always an odd experience riding in there, as the acoustics amplified every footfall of the horse and every breath you took. I could see the stress in the horses that were in the tiny stalls, as groups of school children made their way through and sounds from the midway rattled down the shed-rows. Everyone survived their demonstrations however… the Pony Clubbers jumped and nobody fell off when the odd pony decided to buck, the vaulters performed without a hitch, and in spite of a raucous Friesian foal, everyone held it together during the parade of breeds.

 

   I returned to the barns afterwards to look at more horses and chat with some of the riders, and noticed a small pony with a watery eye. I looked closely and saw there was a chunk of alfalfa hay stuck to its eyeball, probably only minutes earlier as the irritation appeared fresh. The piece of hay was not budging as the pony blinked, trying to relieve its discomfort. In the next stall was one of the young Pony Club riders who had just returned from the arena. I asked if the pony in the next stall was hers. It was. Then I suddenly felt like I had a bit of dilemma. Obviously, the most compassionate thing to do for this little guy was to get the foreign object out of his eye and relieve his pain. The stream of fluid was now running all the way down his face. I remembered how annoying it was when I was showing horses at the fair, as members of the general public would come up with all kinds of strange things to say. We would all be tired and somewhat on a short fuse after being in those noisy, smelly, crowded conditions for even a day or two, and then have to deal with people and their opinions on top of that, some of which were inadvertently unkind, or at best not very mindful.

Photo: evaequinevet.com

Photo: evaequinevet.com

 

   I thought the least I could do is try to sound as caring as possible and not appear to be judgmental or blaming, knowing how sensitive horse-people are when told something may be “wrong” with their horse. I couldn’t believe the memories that were coming back and how I felt when somebody just “had to” tell me about something that, in their opinion, was wrong with my horse or something I had done was incorrect.

 

   I told the young lady her pony had a piece of hay stuck in his eye and that the eye appeared irritated as it was now watering profusely. Blank stare. I repeated myself. She said “oh, he got very upset when the other horses left for the arena.” I acknowledged her statement and agreed that the environment in the Agrodome and barns was very stressful for horses. I mentioned again that perhaps she should take a look at her pony’s eye. She thanked me but still did not leave the stall of the other horse to check on the pony. So I left, and can only hope the eye was properly taken care of.

 

   In The Compassionate Equestrian I have written, from experiences of my own and those of others, that as much as we want to “help”, sometimes it is construed more as “unsolicited advice” and not necessarily welcomed by the recipient. In the horse world, “helping” when you are not being asked for assistance, can be dangerous. I knew of a rider who was trying to get her horse over a jump at a show when somebody on the ground decided to cluck and encourage the horse to go forwards. It bolted through the jump, and then the rider fell off, sustaining a life-threatening head injury and long term coma.

 

   Many people are very compassionate by nature, and truly do want to alleviate the suffering of others, especially if they have the means to do so. I actually could have gone over to the next row of exhibits and asked the veterinary techs who had a display booth if one of them could help with the pony’s eye. Should I have done that? Or would that have been construed as “interference” and perhaps set up a chain of ethical and moral events that would have caused potential liability issues for myself, the pony’s owner, her parents, and so on. After all, the injury was neither severe nor life threatening and there was no need to involve an authority.   

 

   There is a law of physics, Newton’s Third Law, which states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This sets us up for a dilemma such as the one I was experiencing when with thinking about caring for the pony and taking action to alleviate its suffering. This makes me wonder if something in the field of consciousness responds to our intentions and the compassionate actions we take, and why we feel compelled to do or say something to another person or horse if we perceive them to be suffering. What are the consequences of the action we take, if we are even privy to know those consequences? Could this have anything to do with the “human condition” and why it may be so difficult to solve some of our most pressing issues of humanity? Of course I would not have expected anything in return for helping the pony, nor do I ever expect anything in return for assisting someone or an animal, yet don’t we at least expect our good intentions to result in positive feelings and an increased awareness of gratitude for both our own lives and the lives of other beings?

 

   I left the fairgrounds and the horses behind, getting back on the same bus route that continued into downtown. A mile or two down the road was the sight that never fails to make me stare in disbelief.

 

   There are hundreds of people out on the streets, many of who are in terrible mental and physical condition. They are addicts, mentally ill, destitute, and homeless. Every time the city adds housing or more care, more people appear looking for assistance. It has been like this for decades in this otherwise bright and shiny west coast utopia; a blight on the city’s “green” image and international reputation. It is overwhelming, and it seems endless, no matter how many people the agencies, the city and individuals try to help. The film school I went to is only a block from this district, and it is a frightening place to be. When I see these people, I wonder if any amount of compassion can save them. It is no wonder so many care givers, both of human and of horses or other animals, can reach a point of complete exhaustion and “compassion fatigue.” There seems to be an endpoint to the amount of personal and emotional resources we are able to give to others, in spite of our best intentions and desire to help everyone and every animal in need.

 

   I watched the attached video with great interest, as it does provoke considerable emotion:

Unsung Hero

It is like a short documentary about an “unsung hero”, an extraordinarily compassionate young man who gives everything he can to help people in need and those less fortunate than himself. It is a well-done story created by Thai Life Insurance as an advertisement for their services. Their motto is “Believe In Good.” The script, music, the close-ups on the eyes of the giver and his recipients are all elements of a cleverly crafted film, exemplifying everything I was taught in film school that makes for a impactful message. It makes you believe that everything you give, and everyone you give to will result in a positive return, for the benefit of all those involved. It makes us admire the compassionate young fellow who neither asks for nor receives anything material in return, and we weep at the sight of the young girl who rises from poverty to become a scholar at the end of the story. We really can believe in good after watching this narrative video.

 

   When Dr. Schoen sent me the video for discussion, it was embedded in the San Francisco Globe’s blog page, which sports a number of stories with headlines designed to “hook” a reader. The kinds of headlines that really draw your interest and make you want to click on that link. Looking at the comments below the video, we are reminded of the “human condition.” Some people react as though the actor in the commercial is actually a person in real life doing all of these daily good deeds. They seem  to be unaware that it is an advertisement for an insurance company. Yet others who have made comments are aware of the commercial context, and have made the kind of comments that raised ire in those who believed the young man to be legitimate. To get the code to embed this video, I went to the YouTube site, and found, as expected, an even broader array of interpretations and comments, ranging from the very tearful and emotional to degenerative uses of language and harsh judgments of others. Sigh. Yes, the human condition, and the filters each one of us comes through.

 

   We know that “compassion fatigue” is a legitimate term. Dr. Schoen has experienced it as a caring veterinarian doing his absolute best for animals and I have experienced complete burnout as a horse trainer, leaving the equine world several times. We have to ask, what are the real benefits, in the real world, of our offering of compassion to other sentient beings, and how do we do so without expending our own selves to the detriment of our own health and welfare? What about those horses that are asked to work for many hours with a herd of distressed humans who are looking to them for compassion and psychotherapy? Do those horses experience compassion fatigue and burnout too? Chances are they do if we compare their tasks with those of captive zoo animals, as research with “enrichment programs” for the animals’ environment has discovered.

 

   In developing our compassion, how do we apply ourselves to real-world situations, knowing that it would be almost impossible to cultivate the degree of loving-kindness exhibited by the fellow in the insurance commercial? How do we apply ourselves to offering compassion in the horse world without appearing to be interfering in somebody else’s affairs, giving unsolicited advice, or even offending others who may not actually be suffering in a way that we think they are? How do we avoid the effect of Newton’s Third Law as a consequence to our compassion?

 

   I have been thinking about this a lot since returning to my writer’s retreat on this pretty little island in the Pacific. The contrast of experiences in the city are still fresh in my mind, and I am actually hoping to catch up on some sleep this week, hearing only birds and waves crashing on the shoreline each morning. I think about all the times I felt compelled to “help” somebody and was given a nasty look, a blank stare, or even a “thank you”, but then there would be other events that occurred as a result. Sometimes it is all too easy to overthink compassionate action, and over-thinking something can be paralyzing. Is it best to simply act, or take the time to go through a list of what might happen if you do? Do you pull that last $5 out of your wallet and give it to the beggar, leaving yourself without bus fare, or do you walk past him, bless him with kind thoughts, and say a prayer for his health and recovery from whatever may be the root cause of his having to beg?

 

   Oh my, that does make things a little more complex doesn’t it? Well, life with other life forms actually can be complicated, especially in today’s world of having so many choices available to us in an instant. There are possibly more details involved when offering compassion to others than we may be aware of. Maybe we are more powerful than we could even know, and perhaps there is a “field” of compassionate energy we can work with, instead of giving away our last dollar, exhausting ourselves by taking care of another, or allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of by someone who may see us as a means to support their own wants and needs?

 

   Unlike the lovely fellow acting in the insurance commercial, our experiences in giving without expectation may be different than what is illustrated – or they may be as eloquent. Everyone has different experiences in life. What we can do is use our consciousness in extraordinarily unlimited ways, and tap into that pool of compassionate energy that has built up over eons of mindful meditations and the prayers of others. The joyful, heartfelt mantras and perpetual wheels of wise words directed towards the benefit of all beings has set up a never-ending field of compassion, like an ocean of love for all to dive into whenever one wishes. It is simply “there.”

 

   Consequences? Besides compassion fatigue from over-caring, there are detrimental consequences to our health and wellbeing if we give to someone or to an animal out of feelings of guilt, shame, or the assumption that we “have to” give to that person or they will no longer appreciate us. In the video the young man was met with a glare from the woman on the street when he hesitated to empty his wallet into her cup one day. It appeared he then felt guilty and gave her the rest of his money. What condition caused the woman to be on the street in the first place? Does the woman he leaves bananas for really use or need all those bananas or do they go to waste? What are her other needs? What is the nature of the young man’s suffering…because we know all beings suffer? Nobody in the comments seemed to feel as though he was in need of compassion himself, or at least no mention was made in that direction.

 

   With compassion, there is a benefit in also recognizing wisdom, mercy, and ultimately, love. All of these things we can give and extend to others from our heart, with infinite possibilities and no time or material things attached to them. As we pass by the ill and poverty-stricken on the street, we can offer blessings and prayers that the root cause of their suffering be alleviated, because the truth is, we really do wish for them to be well. It is the same for thousands of horses that may be suffering and in dire straits. The consequences of meditation and mindfulness training are that we begin to realize the subtleties of how effective and how powerful simply using our mind can be. It is not as easy to convey that concept in a short video however, and more difficult to arouse a strong emotional response in the viewer, as was the intention of the insurance company.

 

   So with the horses, and with my fellow humans, I try to live with a compassionate heart, and compassionate thoughts at all times. I have learned much from my compassionate co-author, Dr. Schoen in this regard. If I can legitimately help or give my time or finances to someone, I do, but I have had to teach myself (and am still working on this) not to feel guilty or ashamed if I cannot contribute. As most of us do, I get daily requests from organizations seeking financial donations or other commitments. It may be horses, the environment, an international crisis… it is overwhelming. I could have emptied my bank account a long time ago and filled my house with friends or strangers who need a place to stay.

 

   I find my greatest power and clarity comes in moments of solitude, and this is where I am most compassionate to myself first so that I can actually be of benefit to others. Less than a whisper, there are messages of love that seem to come out of nowhere, and I feel like I am “home.” I believe that when that feeling of being home in your heart arises, if you stay still and quiet, not necessarily taking action at the time, you will find the magical still-point – and you may call that still-point what you wish (some may say G-d) – and will find the answers as to what you need to do, if anything at all, or if the simple, potent, act of being compassionate within yourself will radiate through to all other sentient beings, for their benefit as well as yours.

 

   I also noticed in the video the compassionate young man feeds a big chunk of chicken to the dog. Those of us who have had dogs know not to ever feed them chicken bones because they can splinter and cause the dog to choke. I guess in that way the commercial was also a success…it is a good idea to be compassionate but have insurance too! And I sure hope that pony’s eye got taken care of in due time.

 

   A simple conclusion to all of this complexity and questioning is one of my favorite quotes by the 14th Dalai Lama, as he states:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least

don’t hurt them.”

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Countdown!

Countdown!

   It has actually happened. In the weeks since acquiring a so-called “smart” phone, time does seem to have condensed and almost a month has gone by since my last post. Truly a phenomenon of the modern world. Perhaps I have just been so fully immersed in the final phases of writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, that the early days of summer have already slipped by in a blink. I haven’t even been to a horse show yet this season, but I do plan on heading to Spruce Meadows sometime soon to catch up on the activities of some of my favorite jumpers.

   I also made a quick weekend trip to the extraordinary, famous retreat center in Big Sur, California, Esalen. This is a place where life-transforming “incidents” occur and one can release past traumas, move forward, and awaken to a world of self-advancement with renewed energy and purpose. I am learning to speak with the power and intent that drives The Compassionate Equestrian on its path to making the earth a better place for horses and their humans.

windhorse

(image: http://dungkarling.tripod.com/id7.html)

   Sadly, I have recently learned that one of my former riding students broke her back. I was on a trip to Arizona a few months ago, and while visiting my old barn, this very astute, lovely lady happened to stop by. She was thrilled to see me and excited to tell me about the new horse she had just purchased. The last time I had worked with her, several years ago, she was still on the longe line on a schoolmaster, slowly developing a correct seat. She had very little time to ride and was a long ways from riding independently, much less owning a horse.

   As happens far too many times, the horse she purchased this year was not suitable for her skill level. It was a gaited horse with a lot of forwards energy. In the story that was relayed to me by friends last week, the student had hired a trainer who insisted on using a noseband with spikes in it to control the horse.

   One day, while riding alone, the horse was spooked by a loose horse and the still-novice rider did what most riders would do in that instance, which is to grab at the reins to keep her horse from running off. Unfortunately the horse’s reaction was in response to the pain of the spiked noseband and it flipped over on its rider, causing the severe injury. Luckily, she is not paralyzed from the fall and will recover, but ultimately, such an accident can dramatically change a person’s life.

   It seems like every time I ride, go to a barn, speak with other riders or former clients, I am reminded as to why Dr. Schoen and I have written The Compassionate Equestrian. It seems like it cannot get out to the horse world fast enough.

   As it is, we have tremendous confidence in our wonderful publisher, Trafalgar Square Books, to produce a book we will be extremely pleased with, and one that we can send out on the back of the Windhorse with prayers and blessings for all equines and their people. For this generation, the next, and all to come, we wish for compassion to become the base of all training methods, for the benefit of all beings.