The Riding Lesson

As trainers, we’ve all been there in the decision-making process. And really, those of us who ride are always training (or, sometimes un-training) our horses to do “something.” At a professional standard though, we have many more questions to ask ourselves when trying to provide the best option for our mounts, and our clients. At all levels, it is typically the horse himself who provides us with the most wisdom and profound teaching.

As with any human athlete, an equine in a high-performance discipline such as jumping, dressage, or reining, attains various periods of peaks and lows throughout the development process. On a day that the athlete feels good, all the training elements might come together for a surprisingly optimal effort, transcending even the current level of fitness. Ask any marathon runner how they feel the day of, and then after the big event!

Subsequently, the euphoria reached by the athlete, bolstered by accolades—say, for example, lots of pats and a happy rider—can manifest in painful ways the day after.

We may notice very subtle signs of trouble in our horses (see Chapter 13/Principle 13 of The Compassionate Equestrian), and in the case of being the person tasked with further development of the horse, we may choose to investigate further, attempt to push through the resistance, and possibly either pursue or slightly alter the planned session for that particular day. Our choices are best made when a focus is placed on the question we often ask in the book, “what is the most compassionate choice I can make for this horse, right now?”

Maybe your horse was enthusiastic about entering the arena yesterday, but today he stops before the gate, even taking a step backwards. We ignore the whisper of the horse’s body language, and urge him forward. Perhaps he trots over a few small cross-rails with ease, then suddenly spooks at a larger coop he scaled effortlessly the day before. Or was it really effortless? Did his rider forget about the stumble he took upon landing? He feels sound enough…but why the uncharacteristic spook? Dismiss and trot on, or, get off and begin the search for possible “hot spots” on tendons, or testing for trigger points along the spinal column? Do we return to the barn and contact our veterinarian or farrier?

Oh yes, it’s very easy to get caught up in our minds and try to “fix” our horse’s problems based on our own understanding of what might be wrong in the moment. What part of ourselves is speaking at this point? We remind ourself…where does compassion begin? The heart. Why do we practice mindfulness? To learn to “see” from the heart, and trust the subtle signals that are trying to override the noise from our head. It is the best chance we can give our horses, and ultimately, the most compassionate choice.

Co-blogger Melissa Deal has once again shared a very important aspect of our riding lessons. That is, the one taught to us by our horse. Thank you Melissa and your beautiful, wise, Eclipse!

As always, enjoy the read 🙂

Susan

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

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Eclipse takes his readership very seriously and though we both agreed that the following story needed to be shared, he declined in writing it as he’s a bit embarrassed. I assured him that shame has no place in his life, but he insisted on my writing it just the same. I am afraid that I am not nearly as humorous as he but I do hope that you will enjoy this excerpt from his adventures.

The Riding Lesson by Eclipse Deal’s mom

Yesterday, I rode Eclipse, a sensitive and affectionate horse that I am training. It was likely the best ride of this horse’s career! Eclipse was attentive, responsive, giving and accurate. He practically floated through the warm up and performed the more difficult movements with alot more ease than expected. He and I seemed connected at the deepest level. My wish was his instant act, as if he could read my mind. What more could a rider ask? My satisfaction with the second level performance offered by this first level horse was a true gift. My heart swelled with our success.

Today, a lovely day, promised an azure sky and warm sunny rays that were perfect for riding. Eclipse’s coat reflected the sunlight like a polished penny. I got on completely without expectation and no plan. I knew better than to try to repeat yesterday’s performance. It’s akin to trying to re-achieve nirvana. Here’s the story of our ride. I can only hope that relaying it will imprint the life/riding lesson in my mind and give you some forage for thought as well.

The horse seemed even more relaxed than normal in grooming and tacking today. The mounting block was relocated this morning for the first time since we moved to this farm. No problem. Eclipse walked to the block when called, positioned himself neatly and was ready to pick me up-something most horses haven’t a clue about doing. He did this despite the cows nearby, of whom he used to be deathly afraid. My leg was about to contact the far side of the saddle when I realized, no helmet. My hand signaled a request for him to stay, normally not an issue. I realize this behavior may not be status quo for everyone, but it is for him. Once inside the tack room, my eyes rested on the helmet. While I was taking it off its hook, through the window, I watched as he snuck a few steps towards the cow pasture next door.  When my “No” fell on his ears, I stifled a snicker. Eclipse’s hooves hurried obediently across the brick red pine straw back to the block. He presented promptly for mounting reminding me of a kid caught in the cookie jar.

Once settled in the tack I queried, “You want to see the cattle today?” (Yes, I am a lunatic who converses with animals out loud.) I gave him the buckle and a breath of leg so he had freedom to do as he pleased. Picture an elegant bright chestnut dressage horse marching the 100 foot distance from the mounting block to the rusty wire cow pasture fence. He was on a mission. When the fence blocked his access to the once scary and “now oh so interesting neighbors,” his neck telescoped toward the fence that held the fuzzy cattle and their young. Time and again, Eclipse bumped it gingerly with his soft muzzle.

“No give. Bummer,” I was guessing he thought.

He used to be afraid of cattle, so I am thrilled with his obvious curiosity. After about 5 minutes, I said to Eclipse, “We can’t just stand here all day.” I gave it another five. I distinctly felt that he couldn’t fathom why we couldn’t have just stayed there all day gazing at the cows. It was clear that if he had the option, that is exactly what he would have done. I grew tired of looking at the same pointy hips and swinging tails, despite the adorable young calves napping nearby. Their curled bodies adorned the green field of grass, laced with a nearby stream, as if they were decorations.

We left the cattle. I guided him as we meandered through the trees. The thick bed of pine straw beneath us muffled his hoof beats entirely. Leaving it, we entered the field and walked about a hundred yards. A path carpeted by grass led the way to the ring. His hooves left the ground so slowly that if felt as if he had glue on his them – a sharp contrast to his carrot store walk toward the cows. Eclipse’s pace dragged as if a horse heading to the knacker man.

Maybe he was weary from the past few days of arena time? With yesterday’s lovely ride in mind, I decided to let him have an easy day. We would walk through the woods on a trail. It’s a trail Eclipse has been on a few times before. Granted, trail riding has never been his strength. But, it was very short 10 minute walk at best. I hoped he would enjoy the change of scenery.

As the arena went out of sight, he perked up entering the forest and chose a sandy lane. Good! Eclipse was brightening up a little to my relief.  We traversed a few hills. (Remember, we are in Eastern NC, so a bump in the road qualifies as a hill.), I congratulated myself on my brilliant plan. I added more leg and cuddled the bit encouraging him to reach into the contact. He was really pushing well from behind-the key to all collected and upper level work. I reminded myself how good this was for his top line etc.

Suddenly, my blue heeler pup trotting alongside uttered a growl and barks burst forth from her curled black lips. Hackles stood high at the sight of a branch ahead in the middle of the trail. I thought it hysterical to see her so serious about this limb and enjoyed the ferocious display for a couple of seconds. Clearly the branch was refuse from the dreadful hurricane Matthew. Then, I felt the horse’s back tighten beneath me. His head elevated and ears pricked. Soothing words followed soft rubs on the withers. Bridge signals and praise filled his sensitive ears as we passed the horse killing branch. We stopped, and Eclipse scarfed down his favorite treats as a reward for his bravery. I was fairly unconcerned at this point. We walked on.

Soon, I noticed that his stress level seemed to be rising faster than the post hurricane flood waters in our ditches. My concern heightened. His muscles bulged tautly beneath his coppery coat. His entire body felt as if it were on high alert. Nostrils flared like morning glories as he read the balmy morning air for signs of danger. We rounded the corner to an opening in the trees. His paddock, his buddy – another chestnut gelding- and the ring popped into view. All were familiar sights. I hoped that seeing them would calm him instantly. Instead, he spooked- big without unseating me – barely. I found myself grateful to still be in the tack when Eclipse’s feet finally stopped. At the time, I guessed it was the heeler scrambling around in the woods a few minutes earlier that set him off. Later, I recalled another big spook occurring near the same location, but it was a long while back. This event was likely a contributing factor, since horses have memories second only to elephants. I tried calming techniques and more treats. His mental and emotional states were foremost in my mind as I considered the options.  Eclipse was still a bit up emotionally so instead of completing the ride as planned, we went back to the ring. I was confident that it would help him settle since it was a place he knew well. I was sure of it.

In the arena, my entire skill set was employed. All of the techniques were kind and likely to have been effective: easy walking on a long rein, close walk work with intricate patterns and gymnastics, forward and more demanding patterns, standing and relaxing for many minutes, lots of treats and canter work (just to give you a vague idea of the gamut explored). Finally, desperate for the right choice that would bring him below threshold (the level of emotion beyond which the horse is capable of coping in any given moment), I tried getting off. He responded with a huge sigh of relief. Then we attempted his favorite in-hand exercise, Spanish walk. Two steps and he spooked, again, jumping with all four hooves catching air simultaneously. I made the most compassionate and least horse trainer like choice I could muster. We went back to the barn.

After the saddle came off, another huge sigh of relief seemed to flow from his very essence. I apologized for the decision to walk in the woods and hung my head. Normally, I don’t tie him to un-tack. Today, I did. The entire time I washed him and dressed him for turn out, his head was held high scanning the horizon. Eclipse looked toward the unknown horse eating beast that I never saw. This behavior was completely uncharacteristic for an easy work day at home. When turned out after riding, he always followed me to the gate, as if begging me to stay and play. Not today. The worried horse went straight to his run in shed and stood in the corner with a watchful eye. A significant change from the confident and capable horse I knew yesterday.

What was running through my head? As a trainer, I wanted to bring him through this emotional trauma. But, I knew for a fact that sometimes, nothing can be done to bring a horse back from being over threshold. Thoughts circled in my mind. How was this different from a horse show? I had to be able to bring him back to some semblance of normal to show and have him not be terrified. Forget showing, he needed to be able to do most anything and not be terrified purely for his own well being. Anything included standing in the pasture on a day like this one, which he currently wasn’t comfortable doing. At least at a show if I wasn’t able bring him below threshold, the option of scratching and returning to the safe haven of his stall or going home existed. Today, I found his fear of life in general wasn’t as simple to resolve as scratching a class or loading up and going home, heart breaking as it was. In these times, the most compassionate choice is to do exactly what I did: put him in the place he felt most secure and give him time to settle.

The Win

In days gone by, I might have done some horsemanship exercises, more ground work, tried harder, ridden him longer or God forbid even lounged Eclipse (aka tortured him more) and then tried to ride him again. Wisdom does come from experience, and for that I am thankful. Getting off wasn’t failure. It was the right choice.

no punishment

The Lesson Learned

My only regret today is that I didn’t realize the level of his fear earlier on and dismount sooner. He would have been better off.  I would have been safer. I am concerned that the next time I sit on Eclipse he will carry the memory of today, a fearful one. It may mean putting forth a lot of effort to cover this experience with more positive ones. No guarantee involved.

Perhaps he will remember yesterday’s blissfully harmonious ride instead! Will he be fine tomorrow or will he be traumatized? Tomorrow holds its secrets. In the meantime, I will be thinking about how I can be his refuge or at least provide one in the future if similar circumstances occur. A fearful mind is misery for horses and humans alike. It goes far beyond discomfort and delves into the realm of survival, i.e., life and death. Fortunately, being scared to death isn’t the same as dying. We will both live to ride another day.

I look forward to tomorrow. It is a gift, an opportunity, to have the chance to replace his misery with relaxation and joy.  The challenges this experience affords and the lessons it will yield are yet to be fully realized. It is a wonderful journey of discovery and a privilege of the heart, this relationship with Eclipse, the horse who shares my soul.

**

p.s. Not long after this ride, with veterinary assistance, we found that physical pain was contributing greatly to the fear Eclipse was experiencing and the behavior that ensued. Neither punishment nor additional training would have made a difference for him at the time. Sometimes the horse just isn’t capable of understanding the aids or his own physical state. Currently, I am happy to report that Eclipse is feeling much better with the aid of veterinary therapy.

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Faith, Trust and Affection

 

Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

Trust: believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of.

Affection: a gentle feeling of fondness or liking.

Hello Compassionate Equestrians!

I hope you have had a wonderful summer, whether showing, trail riding, Olympics-viewing and/ or enjoying a well-earned vacation. As usual, time has flown by and it is hard to believe another two months have elapsed since my last post. The quandary is whether to add a newsletter or continue with the blog, as it seems none of us have enough hours in the day to ingest any more e-mails!

This one, however, is definitely worth a read. It is a story by guest-blogger and CE Movement member, Melissa Deal. Melissa has taken the message of The Compassionate Equestrian to heart—literally—and put the Principles into real action, as we had hoped many others would also be so inspired.

When we think of these 3 important words, “faith, trust, and affection,” we conjure visions based on our religion, our spiritual practices, and perhaps moments with our horses that may have required a considerable dose of all three! Personally, I follow those thoughts with feelings of gratitude and realize just how blessed I am in so many aspects of my life.

I believe we all love a great story, and I love the one as told below. Thank you, Melissa!

Susan G.


 

8/16/16 The Mane Say

by Melissa Deal

Victory Land Dressage

A brief intro: My name is Eclipse Deal. I am big, bright red chestnut gelding with chrome, thank you. I know all about the Compassionate Equestrian movement because they hold meetings here at MY farm. (My mom promised me a farm for Christmas a couple of years ago and I got it! All mine. Of course I share, because she makes me.) I even get to be the centerpiece of these Compassionate Equestrian gatherings and enjoy all of the attention: massage therapy, pictures, body work, grooming demos. Oooooo, just thinking of them makes me feel like I just had a good roll. Did I mention I am a movie star on something called Face Book and I LOVE FOOD? Oh, sorry, I am getting off track. Anyway, I’ve been asked to help out by writing this column called the Mane Say. It won’t be fancy, but it might give you a bit of insight into the mind and life of horses and their people because it is the saying of one with a mane, a horse, that’s me. They say I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but my mom says don’t believe it and she has given me the confidence to share my world with you. Ok, I confess, she is helping me – a little – (and I promise not to spook). Hope you enjoy and even if you don’t, I am pretty sure doing this will score me some extra CARROTS, yum, so I am up for it either way!

ECLIPSE WEBSITE PIC

Eclipse

My first story

I felt my mom’s energy across the paddock, before I saw her. Bristling she was and it got my attention. She practically marched toward the barn. As soon as she was close enough, I checked her eyes for water. Water in her eyes is a rare occurrence, but almost always leaks out with this kind of energy. I can’t explain why.

Eyes weren’t springing leaks, but had the eyes been leaking? I was pretty sure they had. In a very business-like manner she went for the grooming box without hesitation. No sweat, I thought. I had already done my work for the day so this likely meant pure adoration time for me. Yay!

Wait a minute. Oh come on. She was going for the tail. Bummer. Not my favorite, but definitely hers. It looks like adoration grooming will have to be after the tail. I don’t know what she does back there exactly, but I heard her friend call it therapy-whatever that means. I think I have a pretty sound understanding of the human language compared to other horses. Some words I just don’t get, though. (This lack of understanding doesn’t bother me since my mom says I am a genius, and I am pretty sure she is right). Out came the tail brush and the show sheen gel. Ever so gently, I felt brush, brush, brush. Rhythmic strokes were interrupted only by the times she seemed to be picking something out of my tail. Slowly, the pictures in her mind became available to me and this is what she shared.

Mom, in her dinky black Prius. (Dad says the Prius has something to do with hugging trees. This tree hugging thing is clearly a humanism that I don’t get. Trees are good for scratching though.) She drives down a long winding asphalt path with white fence punctuating each side. Stately oaks frame her view. Then to the left, movement catches her attention. She scowls. Her face is red and her chest thumps as she watches a vibrant young man yanking with great might on a yearling colts lead. To the left her head snaps. A fit young woman throws rocks at the other horses, one of which is trying to get in the mix. The woman is yelling at them. (What were those horses thinking? I mean, I am all about self preservation. Maybe one was the colt’s mom or something?) Then, I felt my mom’s energy shift. In the picture, her face softens and gradually she becomes sad for the suffering of innocent horses. Empathy replaces the sadness and the anger disappears entirely as her car rolls to a stop. She composes herself and prays for guidance on how to influence these unknowing people in way that will be life changing for the horses. (I know mom really puts a lot of stock in praying so this had to be really important to her.)  She puts on her best smile. She has a job to do, a mission to accomplish, a lesson to teach and lives to change. She thinks: “this can only be accomplished through influence. Anger will get me nowhere.” To influence will require proof of her ability to guide the rider to the changes they desire, regardless of whether she or the horse find them meaningful. “If I can accomplish this,” she thinks, “then, maybe I can help them see the horse, its mind and its behavior differently.” Perhaps she can soften the hearts of the young man and woman so they can feel their real feelings, not just the ones the world taught them to have. Then they will be free to act from their hearts, the hearts they had as children. She knows they didn’t mean to be abusive. She knows they are well intended. She hurts for the horses. Her heart cracks open and she mourns the state of the humans too.

She finished my tail and looked me deep in the eye with all of the love she could hold and with raw emotion stated out loud,” Here’s the thing about us humans. We will judge the actions of others, but we unknowingly do things that are just as terrible, only different, to you horses. What will it take for us to be like you, kind and forgiving more often than not? What will it take to change us? Thank you! Thank you for showing me every day how to help you, others and myself. I am so lucky to have you in my life! I am so grateful that you tolerate me and that you lead by example. (Whatever that means…another strange humanism.) I am undeserving of your trust and affection,” she says. (The last one is a big word. I don’t understand, but I know it’s all good stuff, every word). She gave the cue for a kiss and I very gently extended my neck and reached my fuzzy muzzle toward her pursed lips in a sweet caress. (The sweeter I am the more treats I get!) My muzzle fuzz touched her warm soft skin and she relaxed. (What a relief.)  A smile and a carrot instantly followed. I knew that all was well in my world, once again. Somehow it seemed, my tail and I had helped her feel better and in return she made me feel like big warm bran mash does on a frost bitten evening – loved and adored. Delicious!


 

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 56 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She began riding professionally in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay Champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m 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 www.susangordon.ca

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

 

Facebook Faux Pas and Expanding the CE Movement

 

It has occurred to me that my Facebook posts of late are as long as a blog post. And the blog posts themselves have been non-existent. Therefore, I am attempting to re-boot my social media habits as of today and link a shorter Facebook post to a longer blog post. Wish me luck. Thank you to all of our subscribers and readers to date! That includes those of you who also use Twitter and Instagram. It’s hard to keep up with all the social-media networking, but I’m learning! I’m also finding that the most “likes” and comments come from the stories about personal relationships and experiences with horses and numerous training issues, as well as issues that develop in the barn with other horse-people. I love the feedback and your stories too!

 

We also have a new sign-up window on the website for those who wish to register for the upcoming Compassionate Equestrian Community Newsletter (see www.thecompassionateequestrian.com). Plans so far are for a quarterly newsletter so you don’t have to worry about having excessive e-mails from us. I realize it is a concern when signing up for anything nowadays as everybody seems to have more e-mails and more reading to do than they can keep up with. This particular blog post is somewhat of  a hybrid, but the information in the newsletter will be quite different and “newsy” compared to blog posts, which are more of a personal commentary. There’s still nothing quite like having a real book with real pages in your hands so far as we’re concerned too!

 

Since the book’s release last year (almost a year ago already!) the movement toward a more compassionate equestrian industry is beginning to take shape, and we are seeing considerable interest around the world in the form of new equine welfare statements and policies by breed and regulating bodies. This is very important, and a much-needed move to catch up with the enormous amount of abuse and neglect that still affects millions of horses in working, showing, breeding, racing, post-career, and retirement situations.

IMG_5975

This is Reine, the Canadian mare that I ride for a client near my home on Salt Spring Island, B.C. I’m not completely retired. That wouldn’t be any fun – LOL!

The Compassionate Equestrian Movement is growing, and our “first-in” barns, trainers, instructors and organizations have recently been featured in a wonderful brochure (available on our website’s home page) written by TCE’s editor, Rebecca Didier. The CE Movement will soon have a new page on our website, as it is currently in development. If you haven’t already read their stories, please check them out, and have a look at their online information for more details—links are included in the brochure’s pages found on our site. This is compassion-in-action and brings to life the many reasons Dr. Schoen and I embarked on writing TCE and formulating the principles.

* * * * *

Lastly, here is my Facebook post from yesterday in case you missed it. It’s about the responsibility of declaring that you have a “beginner-safe horse.”

 

“Safe for a beginner.” Sometimes, famous last words, so to speak. I think back to my first horse, purchased for me by my parents when I was 12. She was safe enough on trails in the wilderness, where she was raised and used as a pack horse in the mountains during hunting season. However, once we moved to a rural neighbourhood of a city and I had to ride her along roads, she became a danger to both of us by panicking at cars and trucks roaring by. It didn’t help that the community roads were lined with large, muddy ditches, deep enough to swallow a car or horse unlucky enough to end up in one of them.

Fortunately there was a riding arena next door to our house and so I resolved to keep her off the busy roads and avoid the possibility of a terrible accident.

How many times have I had clients come home with a “beginner-safe horse” that turned out to be anything but? That would be a new book in itself!

What really constitutes “bomb-proof?” How do you legitimately know if a horse is right for a first-time owner or young rider?

A repeated message throughout TCE is learning about dealing with our ego. When purchasing a horse, you are not only involved with your own wants and needs, but those of the seller, and possibly your trainer or advisor. I have had clients let go of a very good, suitable horse when they moved away and found a new barn, simply because their perfect horse was not a horse their new trainer wanted to ride.

The beginner horse is a highly valued member of the equine community. If you are looking for one, or selling to a rider who is just starting out, you have a big responsibility in your hands.

As humans, we tend to talk a lot, especially when we should be watching or listening. There are many questions involved with a horse that can allegedly take care of a newer rider. The more you know about a horse’s history…where he’s been and what he’s done since he was weaned, the better.

Yes, my horse actually was beginner-safe, but only in the situations with which she was accustomed. Once taken out of that environment, she became too fearful and reactive for a young rider to handle. Any horse can develop pain and fear issues over time, and many sellers attempt to cover up those issues. Sometimes, it may be an oversight, or the seller and buyer are unaware of changes that might occur in the horse’s behavior when the environment changes.

We can never know everything about a horse, that’s really the bottom line. We can take some control over our egos though, and view the horses and everyone involved with them with a compassionate heart and mind. If we need to move on, it is best to do so with love, understanding and kindness.

My first horse was eventually sold back to a very large working ranch where she was able to live out her life in good health and an environment that kept her happy and content.
SG

(photo: http://www.cowboyshorsesale.com/horses.html)

The Compassionate Equestrian's photo.
_________________________________________________________________

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

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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

Horse Hugging for Good Health

Unless somebody asks or is openly receptive to hearing about my little tricks for preventing seasonal ailments I generally keep that information to myself. The fact is, I haven’t been sick in many years. Not even a common cold. I use a combination of natural remedies and whether other people believe in them or not, they have worked for me. Or perhaps there’s something else that has radically boosted my immune system. Who would have thought…hugs!

http://www.msn.com/en-ca/health/wellness/hugs-can-help-ward-off-stress-infection-study/ar-BBgXJrb

   According to results, perceived social support did, indeed, reduce the risk of infection that arises due to interpersonal conflicts, and one third of this infection-reducing social support was attributed to hugs.

Participants who became infected with the common cold due to the intentional exposure experienced less severe symptoms if they perceived themselves as having significant social support and were frequently hugged.

My parents were not the hugging type, so I was probably hug-deprived as a child and perhaps that contributed to regular bouts of respiratory ailments in my youth. As with most people, I really dislike being ill. It seemed like every year I would join the ranks of those with sore throats and stuffed up noses, sniffling and coughing for weeks on end.

I was introduced to natural medicine in my early twenties, which was also when I began working with horses full time.

Now as a junior and amateur rider we can get away with all kinds of cute behaviors and lovey-dovey stuff with the horses, but in a commercial show barn it may be construed as unbecoming of a professional trainer. So when I discovered that some horses seem to enjoy getting and giving hugs, I kept that to myself too.

One very special horse in that regard was an off-track thoroughbred we named Kevin. He had one of those lengthy, odd race names, but it didn’t seem to suit his “new kid in the kindergarten class” personality.

Kevin was delivered to our barn via an inebriated cowboy who somehow managed to pony the bay gelding from the back of his own thoroughbred across a busy four-lane highway. He was only five years old, and a recent racetrack reject that didn’t want to run particularly fast.

The trainer I worked for at the time began schooling Kevin over fences and was a bit dismayed by his awkward jumping form. So I was given the ride on him, as my speciality was flatwork and gymnastics that improved on the horses’ form and ability to jump. I took quite a liking to the bright-eyed bay and apparently the feelings were mutual.

I give the horses a tapping massage in several key areas of their body including right in front of the withers. They love it and find it very relaxing. One day as I stood alongside Kevin’s neck to give him a massage he wrapped his head over my left shoulder and pulled me in close to his chest. So I wrapped my arms around his big shoulders and gave him a hug right back. We just stood in his stall for a few minutes and I honestly felt as though I was getting a hug from a very dear friend. I hoped none of the barn’s staff or clients were going to walk by the stall, wondering what the heck I was doing!

Can horses really emote in such a manner? Kevin’s apparent affection felt quite genuine, and he was the one who initiated the embrace. The majority of horses are more stoic like my parents, although a good mutual grooming is always appreciated. I refrain from touching them around their heads too much as they are very sensitive and most horses would prefer a scratch on the withers to a kiss on the nose.

Kevin and I continued to develop a very special relationship. When he exhibited dust allergy symptoms he knew how to ask me to water his hay. If I forgot, he would stand forlornly over the automatic waterer in his stall, refusing to eat until I came in with the can of water for his forage. For his jumping to improve exponentially, I had to take his flatwork all the way up to a fairly advanced level of dressage, including teaching him a few steps of piaffe (the trot in place). He enjoyed showing off his piaffe when turned out to play, especially if he had an audience.

Kevin with student Mira Word

Kevin with student Mira Word

I was very proud of him when he started winning classes over fences and packing juniors in equitation and hunter classes. We continued our secret hug moments whenever I thought it might be safe from questioning eyes to do so.

Unfortunately I also developed allergies to the dust and had to move away from the barn. I still miss Kevin, but I never get a cold. Who knows if hugging horses really does improve one’s immune system quite that much, but we can secretly hope that it has an effect, can’t we?

If I were you, I’d say go ahead and give it a try 🙂

Happy Holidays everyone and go hug a horse! If you don’t have a horse, a willing friend or much-loved human should be just as effective. Oh, why not just go hug everybody!? Then we can all be well.

TWO PRECIOUS GIFTS

In their quiet, mysterious ways, horses can make us feel exquisitely important. There is the one that watches your every move with ears fixated forwards. Or the horse that offers a transition in the split second before your brain sends the impulse to your legs…and the one that moves close to you, pressing its head into your chest when you are feeling down. They make us smile, give us confidence, and make us feel as though we could spend a lifetime together.

Do animals know when they are lifting our spirits? They must be reading and sensing something about our mood and behaviors, as they can also be quick to withdraw their interest if we seem threatening to them. Not unlike humans, if horses are repeatedly treated badly they can potentially shut down and refuse to willingly engage with us. They might even act out with their own version of hostility and angry rebuttals. There is a list of physiological stress responses identified with anger and aggression. In both horses and humans an over-stimulation of the flight or fight response and excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that have detrimental effects on one’s health.

Being partnered with a horse is somewhat comparable to having a close relationship with another human in many ways. Some of those partnerships work out much better than others, and as a trainer observing the interactions between horses and humans for many years, there is now research to confirm a lot of my own suspicions as to why some people get along better with their horses than others at a basic, interpersonal level.

A team of researchers created a study that looked at why some couples are able to stay together for a lifetime, while others do not survive much past the honeymoon phase. The attached article (link below) from The Atlantic is well worth reading.

When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

     But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal — of being in fight-or-flight mode — in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/#ixzz3KWxRsW9G

The horses could relate to having to face off with a saber-toothed tiger (somewhere back in their genetic memory!). When we have a horse, we do have a relationship. It may be more constructive amongst some horse/human teams than others, but when the two species interact, that is ultimately a pairing with responsibilities and expectations on behalf of both parties.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to have a good relationship with your horse, but that is only the beginning. What follows your engagement is what makes or breaks the partnership. As described in this article, there are the masters and the disasters.

As with traumatized people, horses can go from sweet, kind personalities to stressed, terrified bundles of nerves that overreact to stimuli. The reverse can also occur. Could the qualities that form the basis for a long-term, loving human relationship be the same that ensure longevity with horses? Obviously their brains do not compute language in the same way we do, so what would the common denominator possibly be comprised of? The answers appear to be quite specific and applicable to both species.

One of the key factors with the successful relationships according to this article is that the couples remained calm and connected, even when they fought. Their physiological arousal was low compared to the elevated flight/fight response of their less loving counterparts.

It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.

     This could explain why some of us feel we connect better with animals than we do with most people. We really are that sensitive to gesture, body language, and intention. We understand the silent, but important responses to our requests for attention, and animals seem to pick up on that behavior. Best of all, if we feel happy, safe, and trusted, we garner a positive response in our animals that is immediately apparent, because we can read the emotions they appear to be mirroring back to us.

When we seek an in-kind response from our loved ones, and are met with indifference or a negative reaction, such actions set the downward spiral in motion for the deterioration of what might have begun as a wonderful relationship.

Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

    Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

     Horses trust us more as riders when we respond positively to their bids for connection. It doesn’t mean we agree with them that there might be a fire-breathing dragon hiding beneath the bridge on the trail. More appropriately, that we acknowledge their response without a negative reaction that will have them thinking we are spooking at the invisible fire-breathing dragon too! The horse is just looking for the trusted herd leader to determine the right behavior based on their perceived threat. Sometimes they are just curious, which we can also consider a bid for attention. None of their requests should be met with anger.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

    These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

     I grew up watching my parents criticize each other, constantly taking little bites out of their marriage. It was sad, as they had not been taught a better way to communicate. Their hostility in turn affected their relationship with my brother and me as we took turns vying for their affection. The family room walls were covered in our awards and certificates of achievement, yet all we really wanted was to know that our parents genuinely loved us. Our “bids” for attention rarely garnered the responses we were seeking which may have been something as simple as a hug, a positive comment, or listening to our stories without creating an argument. Unfortunately we learn from our parents all too well and tend to find ourselves with partners who reflect the same type of relationship we were raised with unless we make a conscientious effort to work through that conditioning.

Our human issues seem to translate to how we interact with horses. If a horse is met with a smack from a whip or a jerk of the rein, it is, in the horse’s mind, an attack from the person who is supposed to be the one that can be trusted. While firmness may be necessary at times, and boundaries are established for the sake of safety, they can be accomplished using the same responses one horse would convey to another. Timing is everything. A horse that is always expecting an attack from its rider is not a pleasant ride, nor is it a happy horse.

Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

   “It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

     Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

     Watch a horse’s ears go back when approached by someone who has caused them pain. They may exhibit other behaviors too, such as moving away, threatening to kick, or raising their head and tensing their body. If someone even reminds them of a person who has hurt them, the behaviors may surface. Much like a human being who has been heartbroken or mistreated, the defensive responses are always looking for the triggers. The reactions happen in the body before the brain can talk you out of them.

With horses, it is interesting to observe their responses to a rider from the ground. As an instructor, we have the opportunity to pay attention to the equine expressions of contentment, gratitude, pain, stress, fatigue, or anger. Whether one believes horses have these emotions or not, with experience it becomes obvious when the facial expressions and body language change in response to either stimuli in the environment and/or something the rider is doing. Given the actions of the horse that follow a particular expression, I am pretty convinced after many years of riding, then teaching others to ride, that there is something biochemically similar occurring in both species.

This being true, then the masterful relationship techniques should also have the same effect in regards to horses and humans. Kindness makes all the difference in the world.

Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

     There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

     “If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”

     Horses respond best to their handlers when the attention is 100% focused on them. They are sensitive enough to know where our attention is directed, and can tell when we have so much as shifted our eyes to look at something. Inherently, we humans are similarly attuned to each other too, and it may be why we are so easily hurt. Many just don’t realize it.

Horses love to be acknowledged when they have done well. I have watched a student’s horse do something exceptional or correct, and then receive no accolades for it. A little scratch on the neck is all they need, yet I have often found myself repeating, “pet, him, tell him he’s been good!” Eventually the rider responds and I can see the positive change in the horse’s expression. As with human-to-human relationships, being generous with small acts of kindness can go a long way. This includes recognizing when the horse is really trying. Be kind with a giving rein, a soft voice, and a scratch on the withers for even the subtle moments of generosity your horse offers to you.

     When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.

     One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.

     I can recall many spectacular moments with horses, especially the enthusiastic ones who have a lot of “try” in them. Sometimes they get frustrated when being asked for new or difficult movements, especially as they are building strength and gaining endurance. I would ask for the new movement, just to the limits of their ability at the time, sense the fatigue setting in, then let them have an “out.” They want to do well and because they are just learning, it is far from perfection, but they know I am satisfied with their efforts. I try to be extremely conscientious of the precise moment to let them stop.

DressageHorse

They immediately offer something they do very well, for example a big, beautiful lengthen stride or flawless canter transitions. They almost seem to want to be given the opportunity to ensure that their intent to do well is acknowledged and appreciated. Of course, I gush all over them for their “look what I can do!” attitude. This is how you create the kind of relationship with a horse that makes them happy to see you every day and want to go into the arena with you for a workout.

     “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

     Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy.

The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.

It is all about kindness and generosity. These two gifts innately offered by horses are the same gifts we can give to each other that will potentially create the most loving, lasting relationships we could hope for. Not only important for the kind of relationship we will have with our horses…but among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

     And what could be more precious than that?

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.