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.

 

Changing Leads Gracefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

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

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

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

He states his most important goal as follows:

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Well We Sit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

York Equestrian

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

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

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

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

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

Murdoch Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*What is Equitation Science?

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

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

http://www.equitationscience.com

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[1] Peham C1Kotschwar ABBorkenhagen BKuhnke SMolsner JBaltacis A.

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

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

A Happy Horse, of Course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses don’t seem to have these problems.

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

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

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

 

 

 

FORWARDS and STRAIGHT

Many years ago I was living at an FEI-level dressage barn as the assistant hunter-jumper trainer. It was a fabulous place to watch and learn from some of the world’s best and most educated riders and clinicians who came to ride, teach and show there. I’ve learned throughout my years as a professional rider that those rare horsemen who are consistently at the top of their game in the Olympic disciplines are also the quietest. They tend not to talk a lot and have dropped the egoic bravado that comes with so many trainers who are still out to prove themselves. Getting specific information out of them isn’t always easy… more likely gained by observing and the occasional politely asked question.

One day I was watching the head trainer, a soft-spoken, elegant German master rider, schooling a working student on an upper-levels horse that had been allowed by its owner to make flying lead changes incorrectly. Every other canter stride or so the student-rider would ask for a lead change and the rangy warmblood gelding would swing his haunches well off the track to the left or right. It looked awkward, and in fact, such swaying off the track results in a relatively low score in a dressage test due to the incorrectness of the movement. It also indicates a resistance in the horse and would eventually lead to unsoundness.

The trainer spoke in German – a language I don’t understand beyond a few words – and the next time the series of flying lead changes were attempted they appeared nearly perfect.

Surprised, I asked Uli, the trainer, what he said. “I told him to keep the horse straight” was his answer.

The difference a subtle change in the ride made to this horse was such a profound lesson I wished I could have had a video camera in my hand at the time as the teaching from this one apparently simple thing was quite dramatic. However, it’s the right combination of so many elements, including the keen eye and years of experience of such a trainer, plus a student who also came from the program in Europe that made the rapid change in the horse’s form look easy.

Candillo Jr, an imported Holsteiner stallion, now owned by OSJS Sporthorses of Canada.

In the classical training method the two key words that lead to a healthy, “finished” horse are deceptively complex. If it were a simple matter to ride a horse both forwards and straight, we’d all be riding relatively problem-free horses that stay as sound as possible and carry a rider without stress or discomfort.

Unfortunately, especially in North America, there are only a handful of trainers who still follow the programs of master trainers and not too many riders who have had the opportunity to sit on a horse that has reached a perpetual state of “forwards and straight”.

Horses naturally track with their shoulders closer to the rail and haunches more to the inside due to their shape. If you look at a horse from the top view, you’ll see the width of the shoulders is narrower than the hips, so it’s just a more comfortable and natural way for them to track. It also means they naturally drop an inside shoulder as they make a turn and counter-balance by shifting their heads & necks to the outside.

Running free without a rider, this is fine for the horse, as there’s nothing to upset their balance and muscular development. The moment we humans climb aboard however, we have to undertake a proper series of exercises so the horse builds up a correct athletic form and the musculature to be able to carry a rider through all of the movement we request of them.

It’s at this convergence point of “natural” vs. “training” that we seem to have broken the smooth process of the classical training pyramid as too many horses are pushed too quickly through the levels, whether they be destined for dressage, jumpers, or other show disciplines. Very few people who have the time and money to support show horses also have the patience to wait for a horse to develop correctly through lower levels.

Depending on the breed and conformation, some horses never progress out of a basic level of training, yet should still be given the opportunity to have a genuinely correct base that instills rhythm, suppleness, and a willingness to take contact with the reins.

In the “old” classical system, a horse is never punished by being ridden in reverse – i.e. pulled on or jerked by the reins – and the standard that was taught is to “correct forwards”.

This works for both exciteable and lazier types of horses, and all breeds and disciplines. Even a good western lope has to be forwards and straight and is an art unto itself. Not all horses can achieve a good lope, even the ones bred for it. Same with an extended canter for a warmblood. Not all of them will get there.

A horse that is ridden forwards, what we refer to as the “back to front” ride will develop an increased bend in the joints of the hindquarters, allowing for more freedom of the joints, which also helps keep them lubricated and healthy, and allows for the muscles of the lower back and haunches to develop “pushing power”. This is different from rushing, as that’s a balance issue.

A good illustration of the difference is to hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees and hold the weights with a bent arm, fairly close to your body. You feel strong and balanced. Now lean forwards a bit and hold the weights in front of you (careful – don’t get hurt!). You’ll immediately feel the stress in your back and want to take a quick step to keep your balance. Horses experience the same thing when all of their weight is carried in the forehand and not transferred to the hindquarters.

So far as straightness goes, look at a great athlete. Skier, skater, runner, etc., and notice the body symmetry. Straightness means efficiency and optimal performance. It’s no different for horses. When you ride a horse that’s been trained to go straight it’s like the difference between driving a high-performance sports car compared to an old 3/4 ton pickup truck with manual steering. Unfortunately, finding a straight horse to ride so you can experience that difference for yourself is not always an easy thing to do.

If all riders had the opportunity to learn on this type of horse, we’d have a lot more sound, rideable schoolmasters in teaching programs than we do now. Dr. Schoen treats horses repeatedly for musculoskeletal misalignment and subsequent pain that is frequently a side-effect of incorrect training methods.

I’m barely even scratching the surface here on the concept of “forwards” and “straight” as the training techniques and level of experience required to get a horse there would take up volumes of books and many years of study. Yet, out of compassion for our horses and knowing how beneficial a correctly trained horse is to the equine world, isn’t that kind of worth the time and trouble it takes to learn?

RIDE IN BEAUTY

We all love and understand the beauty of horses, but what about the importance of the aesthetics of the places we ride and keep our horses at?  Do you think our surroundings have an effect on our own mental states as well as that of the horses?

My personal experience has included everything from keeping horses in my backyard to boarding at less-than-ideal establishments to one of the most beautiful, peaceful equestrian centers you could ever imagine, and running several training barns.  Speaking from such broad experience, I can share with you the insights I’ve gained about the effect of beauty, and ugliness, on both horses and riders.

The beautiful Spanish Riding School of Vienna

When I was 13 and still learning about having my own horse, my dad was transferred to another city.  The former ranch horse that was now my “beginner mount” had to learn to live in a box stall for the first time in her life while her shed and paddock were being built at our new home.  The closest barn was a dark, damp, wood-frame building with muddy paddocks and unscrupulous, horse-dealing managers.

I don’t remember all the things that were said to me there, but I sure remember how I felt, and how spooky my normally-quiet horse was at this place.  Not knowing too much made me vulnerable and the “helpful” suggestions were more like insults.  All of the people seemed to be “up to something” and none of the horses, in my memory, were very happy.  They were dirty, smelly, and the entire place was just unpleasant.  I couldn’t wait to bring my horse home and luckily, we didn’t have to stay there for more than a couple of months.

When we were transferred again a couple of years later and I needed to find another boarding barn, I found a home on a ranch for my mare, White Cloud, where she lived out her life in great comfort and truly in her element.

At 17 I had moved to the now-famous show jumping facility, Spruce Meadows, with my appaloosa colt.  What a contrast to the stable White Cloud had experienced. I’d had an appaloosa filly at another barn in the new city and was not pleased with the environment there either.  The horses were chased by the owner’s dog from the pasture into their stalls each night and my horse had been seriously injured as a result.  The staff were unapologetic and I later found out they had not been giving the filly her pain medication for the hock injury she’d sustained.  She also became terrified of men in cowboy hats.

I don’t like having to go to a barn with the feeling that I’m likely to find something wrong with my horse, the place is a mess, the staff are angry, or the stress levels are so high that riding isn’t the joyful experience it should be.

Walking into the barns and arenas at Spruce Meadows was like being in a cathedral.  It even smelled different than any other barn I’d been in.  The horses were bedded knee-deep in straw, and everything was spotless.  Soft music played in the indoor arena and the temperature was kept constant, even in Alberta’s cold winter weather.

http://sprucemeadows.com/

I’d never been at an equestrian facility where the first words coming to mind were “elegant”, “beautiful”, “peaceful”, “grace”, and “calm”.

We were required to keep our tack clean and hung a specific way and we followed a protocol that wasn’t so much rigid as it was to the benefit of everyone’s peace and wellbeing. The grounds  were lined with gorgeous flowers and trees and it was always easy to let out a big breath and sigh of relief every time I drove through the gates.  At this place, I found myself wanting to spend time there not just to enjoy my beautiful horse, but to rise to the level of elegance and old-world classiness – not an “elitist” attitude by any means – more like a kind of simplicity that allows you to settle into a calm, clear state of thinking and focus on what you are there for.

When my colt turned two I started him under saddle myself, having observed the German riding master’s guidance of the stunning Hanoverian horses that had been imported and bred on site.  Unless there was a show on, the peace and quiet could be counted on consistently and the horses also seemed to thrive both mentally and physically from the reliability of their environment.

http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/what-music-do-horses-like/#

I never had to worry about being insulted, anything irresponsible happening to my horse, angry staff, or bad management that affected the entire chain of events down to the boarders and guests.  It is no surprise to me that this establishment has won the accolades it has.

Dr. Schoen has been the veterinarian to many major show barns and we have written about the importance of a healthy, holistic environment with the best quality of care and food provided for the horses.  With the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, the kind of equestrian environment that supports the wellbeing of both horses and riders begins with caring, compassionate management and permeates the entire chain of day-to-day events at a barn.

While it may sound difficult to get an entire barn of human personalities to become compassionate, we believe that not only is it possible, but a necessary step for the sustainability of our industry and our beloved horses.  In today’s fast-paced, expensive, stressed out world, how could we not want to be in a “sanctuary” that supports our joyful interactions with horses, and helps us learn to extend that joy and compassion to all beings?

It is our wish that all horses and horse-people have the opportunity to live in health, happiness, and beauty.

A Symbiosis of Two

In another life I would have been a scientist.  “Zoologist” was my choice, in fact.  I love the research and putting together original ideas to formulate new theories or prove existing ones.  Back in the 1970s though, when I was in high school, there was little thought given to directing girls towards fields of science.  I fell behind in math after a change in school systems and nobody seemed to notice or care much, and I was too shy to ask for help.  Meanwhile, I found myself with a four-year-old appaloosa filly and a yearling appaloosa colt that turned my analytical mind to that of wonder at how I, a slight teenage girl, could develop such a close relationship with horses as to be able to manage these two young training projects and not get hurt in the process.

I studied the works of great classical master trainers and was always excited to try out their techniques on my horses, then go back and study more.  The colt wasn’t even rideable until he was two so I “played” with him for a year and a half while he grew into a full stallion.  By the time I had started him under saddle we could practically read each other’s minds, and he seemed to clearly understand what I was saying to him in the way that a small child would act and respond to body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and actual words.  Sometimes his responses were startling and very unexpected.  I believe we developed what the researchers in the story at the subject of this blog post from TheHorse.Com have termed “co-being”.

This young horse, in my opinion, actually evolved in his intelligence above and beyond what he would have had he been left in the wild or simply turned out with other horses and not interacting so much with a human in his formative years.  I believe I also developed what I refer to as a “sixth sense” of reaction-time and horse-like responses to visual and auditory stimuli as a result of handling not only such a young horse, but one with the developing hormones and behaviours respective of a typical stud colt.

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

I am grateful that researchers are now identifying the drivers behind such evolutionary development, and am extremely thankful that a veterinarian such as Dr. Allen Schoen emerged as an early pioneer in the field of integrative, holistic veterinary medicine, and has never stopped exploring the ways animals can be healed and communicated with beyond conventional approaches.

His theories regarding the energetic fields that develop between a horse and rider support the possible reasons that my young horses and I were able to merge together and feel as though we could respond to each other’s thoughts and emotions with split-second timing and clear understanding.

* * * *

Please enjoy Dr. Schoen’s commentary on the article:  Some Horses, Riders Have “Co-Being” Relationship:

I am pleased to see these universities undertaking these studies on what they term “co-being theory”.

In my book “Kindred Spirits, How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live” that I wrote in 2001, I proposed what I call “co-species healing”, how we both can heal each other.  I also began to describe what I feel more and more confident actually exists, is actually, a new level of conscious evolution in all animals when they are in the presence and continued interaction with humans.  Recently, I have termed and copyrighted the terms “Trans-species Field Theory”©  and the “Compassionate Field Theory” © proposing that new energetic fields actually develop between humans and animals when we are interacting regularly together.  My theories are based on a combination of the research documented by HeartMath between humans, the latest in neuroscience and the latest in research in mind body medicine and compassion.  I extrapolate all this research to interactions between humans and animals when they interact with each other.

In my blog, Kindred Spirits Project, I have collated videos and articles that document the interactions between different species that transcend our current beliefs and knowledge about how they “should” interact with each other.

I believe we are co-creating an entirely new field based on an expanded level of awareness of human animal interactions.  I believe that animals that interact regularly with humans are developing areas in their brains that create new firing of neural nets and then new wiring of their neural nets to encompass a new level of awareness and consciousness in regards to interacting with humans. They are evolving beyond just “horsing around” or being in a herd and acting out of herd behavior, even beyond mirroring or mimicking humans. I believe they are developing new levels of communication with humans, based on their observations of human behavior and new levels of trans-species communication at many levels.  We then co-create a “trans-species” field, transcending the individual field.  Rupert Sheldrake has coined the term “morphic fields” between animals, like fish swimming together or birds flying together  Sheldrake; Morphic Resonance Introduction.  I feel that there are actually these “trans-species” fields of interactions that develop.  When we take responsibility for our part in creating those fields, and then focus our intention on compassion for all beings and have that intention as part of our energetic field, then we can create the “compassionate field” that I observe clinically in my practice and call the “Compassionate Field Theory”©.

I am excited to see that there are variations on this theme evolving elsewhere, especially at universities.  I used to be a Clinical Assistant Professor at both Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine as well as at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, but now focus more on how these theories may be demonstrated and manifesting in clinical practice in horse barns as well as anywhere where humans and animals interact.

 Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD (Hon)
Dr. Schoen with a client's horse

Dr. Schoen with a client’s horse