Changing Leads Gracefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

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

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

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

He states his most important goal as follows:

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Well We Sit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

York Equestrian

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

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

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

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

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

Murdoch Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – –

*What is Equitation Science?

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

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

http://www.equitationscience.com

 – – – – –

[1] Peham C1Kotschwar ABBorkenhagen BKuhnke SMolsner JBaltacis A.

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

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

CAUGHT YOU LOOKING!

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

Two brown horses nuzzling each other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trakehner stallion

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

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

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

__________

Compassion, With Consequences

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

PNE

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

Photo: evaequinevet.com

Photo: evaequinevet.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Unsung Hero

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

don’t hurt them.”

 

 

The Benefits – or Not – of Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nick" - photo by Natascha Wille

“Nick” – photo by Natascha Wille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Happy Horse, of Course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses don’t seem to have these problems.

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

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

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

 

 

 

Attached to That Horse?

Have you ever made a list of the attributes you’re looking for in a horse (or a relationship)?  Have you then gone to all the trouble to seek out exactly the horse or person of your dreams…and found them?  How did things turn out?

I’ve noticed something quite interesting about those “lists” over the years. My experience and observations have led to the conclusion that the more one pursues a relationship according to one’s list of “wants”, the more likely outcome is having chosen the wrong one.  Why is that?

First of all, whenever I went looking for the ideal horse, I ended up with a list of problems that I hadn’t anticipated.  For example, my off-track thoroughbred, Dusty.  I was looking for a suitable hunter-type for the 3′ amateur division.  There were several I tried out, but Dusty was the breed, color, age and temperament I was looking for.  He had been field-hunted after his racing career and presumably that meant he would be bold and safe over show-ring hunter jumps.  I chose him over an older, better-schooled, seasoned warmblood that would have actually been the better horse for me at the time.

Dusty was a problem from the get-go.  We’d only had a basic soundness exam done, which he passed at the time.  I was in a marriage to a horse trainer who was becoming difficult too.  I’d actually sold my horse trailer in order to purchase the perfect horse.  My husband’s mood swings were causing anxiety, and it was making me anxious about getting a new horse.  We were in a new barn and recently married, and a long way from my previous home with my parents.  I had no support system.  I really wanted and thought I needed that horse!

Dusty did not stay sound for long.  He had a crooked spine.  Interestingly, so do I.  He had anxiety attacks and purposely fell down on concrete flooring.  I was in an increasing state of anxiety at the time.  I could probably analyze every detail of my relationship with Dusty and find some way to relate his issues to my own.  He was like a mirror for my own problems.  With horses, as with people, it would probably be a valuable exercise if we realized the mirroring effect at the time, but usually we don’t.

That was over 30 years ago.  I learned to stop looking for horses after that and just let them show up in my life.  The ones that literally  “dropped into my lap” were much better overall.  The key?  I had to let go of the attachment to my list of what I wanted.  I didn’t realize the amount of suffering those attachments would cause.  Looking back, and knowing what I know now, the lessons were obvious.

I’ve had so many clients also make the wrong choice of horse.  Often against my better advice.  I don’t take commissions on sales horses as most trainers do so it’s not like my suggestions were related to money.  My preference was to see the right rider on the right horse, especially given my prior experience.  People still purchased the wrong horse, probably for reasons similar to why I bought Dusty.  You don’t even realize what’s happening or why.

Razzberry Zam.  An off-track thoroughbred who "dropped into my lap" as a sales project.  One of the most wonderful horses I've ever had the opportunity to ride.  So wonderful, in fact, he sold quickly.  His buyer was the perfect owner and a massage therapist to boot.  Love, compassion and no attachment.  I felt it with this horse and although sad to see him go, it seemed like the gratitude with which we approached each other had a most beneficial outcome for us both.

Razzberry Zam. An off-track thoroughbred who “dropped into my lap” as a sales project. One of the most wonderful horses I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride. So wonderful, in fact, he sold quickly. His new rider was the right person for him and a massage therapist to boot. Love, compassion and no attachment. I felt it with this horse and although sad to see him go, it seemed like the gratitude with which we approached each other had a most beneficial outcome for us both.

Then I learned about non-attachment.  Ah ha.  The “list” is all about what we’re attached to, whether it be in a person or a horse.  Buddhism teaches that attachment leads to suffering.  Yes.  I’m proof of that.  I’m sure many of you are too.  Those attributes we want so badly, or think we do, in a horse or in a relationship with another human, are exactly the attributes that will bring us suffering when things don’t turn out as we wish.

The perfect jumper goes lame.  Our perfect spouse sustains a head injury and his personality changes.  The horse ages and can no longer jump.  The husband decides he prefers a younger woman.  Are we still as excited about that horse or that person as we were when they fit our list of “wants”?  Can we have compassion for them when they no longer fulfill our desires, or if they’ve hurt our feelings?

Letting go of the attachments, especially an attachment to any outcomes, is a worthwhile practice.  The other is self-compassion… the desire to alleviate your own suffering, knowing that suffering comes from attachment.  I’ve found that letting go and living with a tremendous love and gratitude for all of life opens the door for loving and grateful relationships to return to you.

The surprise is that those who come into your life may not be anything at all like the list you’ve made.  The thoroughbred of your dreams might manifest as a scruffy little pony who needed to be rescued from somebody’s back-40, but that little pony could just end up being the best jumper you’ve ever had.

According to psychologist Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. “our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. An attachment pattern is established in early childhood attachments and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood.”

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201307/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-relationship

So we can make note of this, and then turn to the practice of compassion and developing non-attachment:

“Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.” ~Dalai Lama

http://zenhabits.net/zen-attachment/ 

If you do go looking for a new horse (or person), my final thought on the matter is to first,  ask yourself why you want this being to come into your life.  Where are you with your self-compassion?

“When you stop trying to grasp, own, and control the world around you, you give it the freedom to fulfill you without the power to destroy you. That’s why letting go is so important: letting go is letting happiness in.”  Lori Deschene, Tiny Buddha

 

HEROES for HORSES

As I’m reaching the final chapters on the first-edit of The Compassionate Equestrian, I’ve been thinking a bit more about Chapter 25 – Birth to Completion Life-Cycle Tracking.  This is a new term and a new idea for the equine industry at large.  It is also the key reason why I began writing about compassion and horses.

When I was in film school several years ago I was doing research for my student documentary about rehabilitating off-track thoroughbreds.  I went to the nearby riding club, a long-established community of primarily hunter/jumper and dressage barns, to look for a good story.  I was in luck.

I discovered a trainer  who had just purchased a 3-year old tall, handsome, grey gelding from a stable at Vancouver’s race track, Hastings Park.  He had a slight injury on one tendon, probably sustained in his final race, which he had won.  The short video I produced was only a superficial hint at the legitimately dark side of thoroughbred racing.  I wanted to slant the story to the happier endings of fortunate ex-race horses who find their way to a caring home and a chance at a second career.

http://vimeo.com/14392790  (link to my student film:  Racing Machine –  A Thoroughbred Story)

When the film instructor saw my rough cut, he immediately focused on the more contentious tidbits and told me I had to bring more “conflict” to the short documentary.  “That’s what makes a good doc” he said.  Me, being the non-confrontational, non-argumentative type, cringed at the idea but proceeded with further research anyway.

The thoroughbred racehorse, "Machine"

The thoroughbred racehorse, “Machine”

All I can say is that what I found out about the “deep, dark” side of the horse industry shocked me.  Even as a professional trainer all these years, I had no idea how many horses were ending up in slaughterhouses every year, and why.  I had no idea how horribly  horses were treated once they left the auction houses or race track.  I made myself look at the reports and videos on the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition website.  Most horse-people will not want to see this side of our industry, but I believe they need to.  My eyes were definitely opened.  Not only that, but my heart went out to all of the world’s homeless horses to the point that I felt overwhelmed and somewhat helpless at not being able to help them all, relieving them of a potentially terrifying completion to their lives.  Over 100,000 a year in fact.  Really??!!  Where are all these horses coming from?

http://defendhorsescanada.org/

I’d also found a very knowledgeable researcher who gave me a plentitude of information to mull over and include in the bigger film I was determined to produce.  The more I spoke to her, and the more I learned about homeless equines and their fate, the more I realized I would need a massive legal team to protect both myself and sources from the underworld of cabals that make their living on the acquisition and sales of unwanted horses.

So I shelved the film and looked for other ways I could help educate and enlighten the horse industry.  Then Dr. Schoen and I met in 2012 and through our dialogues, began writing the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation, followed by the book, which will be released in the spring of 2015.

While working on  the outline for the documentary I befriended a couple of extraordinary advocates for equine welfare.  They have both been on the “front-lines” of the worst of the worst kind of treatment you can image horses having to endure.  Most of us who love horses couldn’t possibly deal with what they have seen.  They are my heroes.

Brogan Horton is in her twenties and runs Animal Rescue Unit at her home in Maine.  Brogan is the kind of person who will put on a suit and lobby Congress on behalf of the wild burros and mules, or hook up her horse trailer and spend her last few dollars to go pick up a horse in need of rescue.   Animal Rescue Unit is an organization dedicated to revealing the truth about animal suffering, specializing in investigation, rehabilitation, education and legislation for animal welfare.  The following link is one of many heart-warming stories from ARU, and one with a very happy ending.  Further links to ARU information are included in the article, and Brogan can be found on Facebook for anyone interested in following her activities and if possible, helping with donations for the rescued animals.

http://www.pressherald.com/people/cth/donkey-delivers-a-christmas-miracle_2013-01-07.html

The other hero is Brogan’s former partner in another very intense animal welfare investigation organization, Richard Couto of Animal Rescue Mission.  Both Brogan and Richard are well trained and have been on some of the more dangerous missions regarding equine welfare.  Most of us in the horse world have no idea what goes on behind the fences and walls around illegal slaughter farms in Miami.  Nor would most of us want to know.  It’s cruelty to animals beyond our comprehension.

Richard became the exceptional cruelty investigator  he is today after rescuing a thoroughbred ex-racehorse from one of the illegal farms.  The horse, Freedom’s Flight, is a descendant of Secretariat.  Richard found him tied to a tree at the farm, next in line for a terrible demise.

Here’s a link to Richard’s bio:

http://www.animalrecoverymission.org/about-arm/founders-bio/

So in The Compassionate Equestrian, Dr. Schoen and I are doing our best to use language that inspires, unifies, and opens the hearts of equestrians.  We are coming from many years of experience in our collective fields and understand how easily one person’s opinion can immediately send another person into a defensive mode.  Or how upsetting some of these more difficult issues can be.  We also understand that people don’t want to discuss death, so we refer to the “completion” of life.  It’s why Principle 25, which recognizes “the importance of applying the Cradle-to-Cradle model of life-cycle assessment and tracking to the equestrian industry” – has been left to the end of the book.  Chapter 25 is also still largely unwritten as we structure the program and gather further information as to just how it could be applied to help the “global herd” of horses in need.

There isn’t an easy way to convey this information to a  generally loving, compassionate community of horse-people who are active on a day-to-day basis with these beloved animals.  It’s our belief that every human has the opportunity to be compassionate towards all beings, and that compassion just needs to be awakened.  In the hardest times, in the most difficult circumstances, and in facing the darkest side of humanity…that’s when extending compassion may become extremely challenging.

It’s the purpose of The Compassionate Equestrian and The 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation to assist in the compassionate awakening of horse-people everywhere.  We hope that through their own personal practices, they will be able to see the need for compassion to be extended to all horses, and everyone who’s involved with them.  With such mindfulness, we can come together as a world-wide community and find a way to become heroes for horses ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

When a “Behavioral Problem” Really is Just That

In The Compassionate Equestrian Dr. Schoen and I stress repeatedly that when a horse exhibits behavioral issues, first rule out pain as the root cause.  This is especially true if there’s a change in the horse’s base personality.  Sometimes this takes more than one veterinarian’s opinion.   Diagnosis of subtle lamenesses can be difficult to pinpoint and the first sign of a problem might be the new or increasingly difficult behavior.

However, in my many 30+ years of working with all kinds of horses of varying breeds, ages, backgrounds and temperaments, there are a few quirky personalities in the crowd that are simply, well, weird.  They have legitimate behaviors that are out of the context of “normal” for most horses and sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is let them be exactly as they are.  If you can hang on, or tolerate them that is.

Sometimes you just hang on! (photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Sometimes you just hold on!
(photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Some of the most interesting have been the off-track thoroughbreds.  The subject of this post is one little, classic, plain bay gelding.  Nothing particularly spectacular to look at, but he had the kind of personality that made everyone look.  Kind of in the way you can’t take your eyes off the cars in a demolition derby.

His name was Earthquake.  As the story went, he was born in California during an actual earthquake.  We never did confirm whether or not this was true.  He was booted off the track in San Diego due to his “bad behavior”.  He ended up in a backyard in Phoenix that housed the other off-track thoroughbred jumpers belonging to his owners.  Besides a string of successful racehorses, they had produced some of the top amateur jumpers on the circuit.

Earthquake’s owner, Tracy, is the sister of the trainer I was working for at the time.  She told us “Quake” was almost impossible to ride on the flat.  Even with all of her experience in showing and winning at the “A” Circuit level, this little bay gelding scared her.  He would scoot out from under her, spin, leap, and generally act like a crazy horse.  She didn’t know what to do with him.

One day he was turned loose in the arena to play.  Tracy watched, somewhat stunned, while ‘Quake galloped over jump after jump all on his own, apparently inspired from watching her other horses school over fences.  So she clung through the flatwork with him and began to train him for jumper classes.

I had the task of helping her with him at his first show.  Lucky me!

I always maintained that somebody had to be the “entertainment of the day” at a horse show and frequently it was our barn.  Tracy’s brother was an excellent, caring horseman and would never consider drugging a horse to calm it down or make it easier to ride.  He just quietly rode whatever was underneath him in the moment, and so did his sister.

Taking thoroughbreds from the track to their first few shows is always a wild card.  ‘Quake was at least consistent with his quirky behavior.  I watched the crowded warm-up arena from the barns and it was easy to spot him.  That would be the horse and rider leaping above all the others, unrelated to where the warmup jumps were placed.

He was so excited to go in the show ring for his rounds, he couldn’t be contained.  He would paw, stretch, almost drop himself to the ground, spin, leap, and spook other horses at the in-gate.   Tracy hung on.  Then he would go in the arena, focus, clear every jump, and won almost every class he was entered in.  He was phenomenal.  Just impossible outside of the jumper ring!

He got better at his routine as he began to get the hang of showing.

I had to tack him up before one of the classes and it was exhausting.  He spun around in the stall.  He couldn’t stay still for a second.  I even tried pressing on an acupressure point on the coronary band, in the center of a front hoof.  It actually seemed to work, much to my relief.  He calmed down and I finished getting him saddled for his class.

Another day, and another class.  We got him tacked up and Tracy left him tied in his stall to go walk the course.  ‘Quake knew where she was going and he was apparently upset that he wasn’t going to the jumper ring with her.  I went in the tack room for a moment when I heard a loud crash from ‘Quake’s stall.  Mortified, I saw that he’d somehow jumped over the stall guard while still tied to the inside of the stall.  I have no idea how he could have maneuvered his body in such a way through a small opening and over the barrier.  Luckily he was unhurt in his desperation to follow his rider to the arena.

All you can do with that kind of enthusiasm is support it and hope the horse connects with the right rider and the right activity to accommodate his energy and ability.  In this case, the stars lined up and what would have been an extremely difficult ride for many equestrians, turned out for the best.  Last I heard ‘Quake was winning Grand Prix classes in the southwest.

Not every horse with behavioral “quirks” is lucky enough to find its way to a compassionate, competent owner that has the patience to simply let him “be” and allow the talent to shine through.  If ‘Quake had been punished for his leaping and spinning who knows what kind of a different horse he may have turned into.  Most likely not such an enthusiastic jumper who seemed completely enamoured with his owner.

If you have been able to rule out pain as the cause of your horse’s “behavior problem” and have determined he’s just of the personality type to be the way he is, then kudos to you for your compassion and understanding.  In my mind, I can see the happy little grins on all those clownish horses out there whose joy for life just can’t be constrained.

 

____________________

The Compassionate Equestrian is pleased to be affiliated with the International Charter For Compassion’s new Sector on the Environment

For information about the Charter for Compassion, and the upcoming Compassion Relays, click on the following link:

http://compassiongames.org/compassion-relays/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Just” a Trail Horse

 

Many times when I’ve asked people about their horses they’ll say, almost apologetically, “oh, he’s just a trail horse”.  It’s as though their horse isn’t important enough for those of us who made a career with show horses to acknowledge as being relevant.  Or that it doesn’t require any special breeding or talent to be a trail horse.

Well, in the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we see equality in all horses, just as we do all sentient beings.  They were given a life, just as we were, and all are subject to suffering, just as all humans are.  Everyone deserves the same amount of compassion, no matter who or what they are, or what they do.  Including trail horses :).

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in one of my favourite places, Sedona, Arizona, on the back of a sweet, reliable trail horse who is as careful and kind as they come.

Shadow

Shadow

This is significant because my past experience with horses on trails has not always been so favourable.  My first horse, White Cloud, was a ranch horse.  When we moved to the suburbs of a large city, I had to ride along busy roadways to reach the trail system.  I was only twelve at the time and didn’t know better.  I thought that since the stocky white mare was so good on country trails, nothing would bother her on busier roads or trails either.  How wrong I was!

I was lucky we weren’t hit by a car.  We held up traffic a few times while Cloudy panicked at the sound of loud, fast vehicles passing and spooked by throwing herself into reverse.  As the area we lived in was lined with large ditches, her behaviour was quite disconcerting, not to mention dangerous.  Her tension translated into my tension and I was forever nervous about riding horses along busy roads after that.  I’ve never really gotten over it.

When we moved again, Cloudy was sold to a rancher and lived out the remainder of her life in a happy place.

The next horse to come my way was a very young, barely broke (in fact, badly-broke) appaloosa filly.  She was also born and raised on a large ranch and had no concept of behaving on multi-use trails or in traffic.  I really tried to overcome my fears and hers as I still enjoyed a gallop across a hay field or a pleasant trail ride down to the river, which required some riding along roads to get there.

Miss Demeanor, appropriately named, was one “incident” after the other.  I was still in my early teens and learning about training horses.  Determined, I kept taking her on trail rides, hoping for improvement.  One day she managed to thoroughly embarrass me on a group ride by running backwards down a steep hill until she finally backed into a tree, even with the reins thrown at her.  Then she scared herself and scooted forwards, spooking some of the other horses who had gone ahead.  I just seemed destined to not ever have a pleasant trail ride!

Trail running!

Trail running!

One day I was finally brave enough to ride “Missy” the few miles down to a beautiful spot by the river.  I let her take a drink out of a creek that fed into the river and in the blink of an eye, she was down and rolling in the muddy bank with me still on her.  I had to ride all the way back to the barn with one side of her plastered in mud so thick you couldn’t see her spots any longer.  I never did get all the mud out of the carved leather of my western saddle either.

I was in awe of people who could simply saddle up on a nice day, head out on the trail, and return still smiling with a happy and relaxed horse.  I had no idea why this “trail horse” thing was so elusive!

There was no problem in the show ring.  Even my spooky filly could open gates, walk over teeter-totters and tarps, drag a tire or a cow-hide, and jump a small fence.  Why didn’t that translate to the great outdoors?

Eventually I gave up on the idea of enjoyable trail riding, especially as my next horse was an appaloosa stallion, and confirmed “city boy”.  The first time I led him down a little hill he had no clue how to navigate it and promptly squatted on his hind legs and sat there in a half-rear.  I should have expected such things from my horses by now.

One day I was offered a beautiful big dappled gray warmblood gelding to ride on a charity trail event.  He was a lesson horse at the show barn I was riding at and generally very quiet.  Oh no, not on the trail however.  He spooked at… invisible trolls?  Maybe it was the shrubbery.

Finally I was married to a three-day eventing trainer and we were running a barn that was situated next to a cross-country course and thousands of acres of trails, accessible without riding along any roads.  Surely this was to be trail-riding heaven!

Sigh.  The appaloosa complained about the rocky footing.  The thoroughbred gelding pranced sideways thinking he was still a field-hunter and wouldn’t settle until after a full-out gallop. The off-track mare spooked at the cattle.  The part-Standardbred jumper bolted over the beaver-fall.  Was there anybody out there who wanted to be a nice trail horse??!!

I was starting to resign myself to having to ride in an arena forever, or continue having unusually adventurous trail experiences.  Gee, what was it like to have a safe, relaxing ride where I could drop the reins and enjoy the scenery?

The last barn I taught lessons at was a mix of many types of horses and riders, most of whom went on the rugged, rocky trails of Sedona on a regular basis.  I was still more comfortable jumping fences than going on a trail ride and stayed in the arena.

Finally, having really retired this time (it took a few tries), I thought I’d attempt trail riding again.

I know those trails from having run them on foot.  It’s very easy to twist an ankle or trip and there are many hazards on desert pathways.  Sharp cactus plants await along every edge and the rocks can roll underfoot or be as slick as ice when worn smooth by eons of erosion.  Deer or javelina can appear out of nowhere and in the warmer months there’s always the possibility of a rattlesnake coiling closely enough to do some damage.

Remembering to breathe, at first I guided Shadow, the pretty chestnut Arabian gelding, as I would in the arena, “helping” him negotiate the continually changing angles of the terrain and hoping he wouldn’t slip on any of the slick-rock.  I worked as hard as he did, staying off his back on the uphills and shifting a little rearwards on the downhill, monitoring his balance and speed.  Hoping not to annoy him, I tried to do as little as possible, telling myself he knew what he was doing.

He’d spent many more hours packing riders around these trails than I had spent riding horses on them.

Shadow was also lovely in the arena, and in fact very well bred to be a show horse too.  His gentle disposition and good training seemed to add up to his ability to be an all-around great guy.

At the end of our 3-hour ride, my reins were loose and I was letting him pick his way home, carefully stepping over boulders and not tensing up when his shoes slid on the steep downhills.  Yes, this little horse knew what he was doing alright.

What a happy day.  Now I know what it’s like to have a genuinely pleasant trail ride, with no spooking at wildlife, cars, dogs, cyclists, or loud noises.  What a special horse it takes to provide that kind of experience.  I can’t believe I had to wait so many years to enjoy such a ride.

Happy trails to all!

Happy trails to all!

I can tell you for certain that nobody ever needs to apologetically refer to their horse as “just” a trail horse.  They are a special breed unto themselves, no matter what their breeding or background, and they deserve every accolade that a top-notch show horse receives.  Trail horses also deserve the same kind of mindful care, compassion, and healthy environments as the most expensive, highly bred animals in the show-ring.  After all, horses don’t know how much we paid for them, or how much we pay for their training and board.  All they know is how they are made to feel in our presence, and you really can’t place a dollar sign on that.