Faith, Trust and Affection


Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

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

Affection: a gentle feeling of fondness or liking.

Hello Compassionate Equestrians!

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

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

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

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

Susan G.


8/16/16 The Mane Say

by Melissa Deal

Victory Land Dressage

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



My first story

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

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

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

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

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


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

About the blogger:

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



Susan and Ali




“Fear of movement has repeatedly been shown to be a strong predictor of chronic disability in patients suffering from pain, and also a major barrier to exercise and activity.” 

Canadian Physiotherapy Association


Have you ever felt yourself “paralyzed” by fear? It could be mental, physical, or both. Do you think horses experience similar behaviors to our own when confronted with fear-based memories and trauma?

In the wild, the fear of movement (kinesiophobia) is overridden by the horse’s prey-animal response. Even if injured, a horse will run away if he feels threatened. The sub-cortical processes that developed for survival take over, and there is no way to soothe the frightened animal until the threat and fear of threat is removed. The horse naturally reacts much in the way the zebra is described in the article below (quotes in italics):

“If a zebra in the safari injures his leg, he keeps moving as much as possible because he needs to survive. If a human injures his leg, he may stop moving because he is too scared to move. This fear of movement (kinesiophobia) is rooted in the belief that pain is harmful and threatening.”

The zebra, like the wild horse, will alter his gait, avoid the pain as much as possible, and find a way to cope. He won’t stay still and think about it, knowing he won’t survive too long if he doesn’t keep moving.

With humans, avoidance behaviors impact mental and physical health moreso than directly affecting survival skills.

“On the other hand, humans can get all wrapped up in worry; worry about not being able to go to work, worry about not being able to keep up with the house, worry about the unknown, and worry about future. These threats to basic livelihood promote anxiety, pain and the fear of movement.”

It would appear that in mammals with a more evolved cortex and reasoning skills, the body-mind connection is so acute that when we are in fear, both our physical and mental aspects are profoundly affected. In other words, physical pain can have a detrimental effect on our psyche, and mental pain, such as depression, can ultimately manifest as a reflection in our physical state.

“Physical health declines from lack of movement as the body becomes deconditioned. Mental health declines from lack of movement as the person becomes more depressed. As the overall health declines while the fear of movement grows, the pain will become worse and the cycle will perpetuate itself. If you are stuck in this fear of movement cycle, you need a way to stop it.”

For the horse that has been adapted to all factors involved with domestication, including time spent in a stall, on an artificial feeding schedule, trained to carry a rider and participate in activities not conducive to the feral state, it may be possible for him to develop the depression, physical deterioration, and a fear of movement that his wild cousins would not exhibit at all. What do we do about this human-created and human-like condition in the domesticated horse, who might have become so traumatized he is afraid to move or undertake an activity? What does that look like in the horse when we are confronted with a sudden change in his behavior that could be trauma and pain related?

Here are some examples and comparisons of horses and humans, based on actual scenarios:

Fear of movement in the horse:

Physical example: A young thoroughbred filly was enjoying her first free-jumping session. The beautiful chestnut was by one of the top racing stallions in the U.S. at the time. Her conformation was almost perfect, and she was declared sound upon arriving in the hands of the trainer I worked for. She was successfully jumped through the chute several times, and was willing each time, until, for some reason, she wasn’t.

The handler led her into the chute for another jump-through, but this time the filly’s head shot up, her body tightened, and she didn’t want to go. The trainer stepped in with stronger encouragement, and she jumped through, but without the same level of confidence as she previously exhibited.

They stopped the session after that, and put her back in her stall.

Following that day, the talented young horse refused to so much as step over a pole on the ground. She was subsequently given to me as a “project” to try to unravel what had happened and how to restore her confidence over an obstacle. I had not been present at the free-jumping session and nobody could explain why this horse’s demeanor had changed so drastically in the blink of an eye.

Mental example: Fortunately the chestnut filly’s free-jumping schooling had been video recorded, and I was able to watch the session in which she went from confidently flying over every jump, to balking at even stepping over a pole on the ground in the days and weeks that followed.

Physically, it appeared that absolutely nothing had happened to cause any pain or injury. She hadn’t hit anything, stumbled, or refused. She remained sound afterward; at least insofar as standard veterinary soundness protocol was concerned. I watched the video over and over again, trying to see what could have caused the extreme reaction.

There was a single, brief moment in which the horse’s expression and body language changed. One of the jumps had been raised slightly, and she had approached too quickly, causing her to twist her shoulders and land awkwardly while regaining her balance. It was immediately following that jump when everything seemed to go downhill. It was apparent that this young thoroughbred was extremely sensitive and her loss of confidence translated instantly to a kinesiophobic type of response the next time she was asked to hop over a jump, or even a pole. The fear in her mind was likely related to a fear of falling, as the horse instinctively knows that falling can mean “death by predator.”

How it affects the body: The beautiful conformation of the filly was almost lost to the fact that she completely tightened up after the traumatic incident. No amount of slow, calming, work from the ground or under saddle seemed to relieve her of her stress. I spent countless hours on the ground, eventually getting her to walk over a pole again without panicking. When I began working with her, she seemed to have a perpetual “deer caught in the headlights” expression, her neck held upright and rigid, no matter what setting she was placed in, or how long or briefly she was worked, or whether she was turned out or not. It was sad to see such a gorgeous horse struggling with her deeply rooted fear.

We eventually discovered through her previous owner that she had flipped over in the starting gate when on the racetrack. To me, this validated her difficulty in overcoming what seemed like a relatively minor incident at the time. She might have been injured when she fell over backwards, as well as frightened, and her seemingly minor loss of balance through the jumping chute was enough to trigger those memories.

The story seems to illustrate just how dramatically unresolved fear might affect the lives of our domesticated horses in ways similar to how it affects human beings.

Fear of movement in the human:

Physical example: An adult enthusiastically takes up the sport of running, and embarks on a training program with the goal of racing in mind. Overzealously adding too much mileage too soon causes a lower leg muscle to tear, and the pain is intense. The runner doesn’t want to give up though, and returns to activity before the muscle is fully healed, causing the injury to recur, except worse than it was before, making every step an excruciating experience. The time for healing is now doubled, and scar tissue is inevitable at the injury site.

Mental example: Even once healed, the formerly exuberant runner might now be afraid to run. As with the equine version of kinesiophobia, the response to the memory of pain that occurred while running is now causing the person to fear returning to the activity they were undertaking when the injury took place.

How it affects the body: As with horses, an injury on one side of the body can have a domino effect on other physical structures in the way of compensatory issues. Humans can explain using words as to where something hurts and how much, whereas the horse cannot. Oftentimes, however, we experience the outbursts and moodiness of a human who may be in pain, but we are personally unaware of the pain they are feeling. This is not unlike a horse in pain, and how we might experience the aftermath of unresolved trauma in the animal in the way of extreme or uncharacteristic behavior.

Gait anomalies may develop over time, as the stronger leg is favored while the injured leg is still healing. There may also be residual pain and discomfort, as nerves that are in the process of healing can fire spontaneously and make you wonder if the injury is in danger of recurring. The same thing likely happens for horses, and a bout of pain, even if temporary, causes a stress-response including an elevated heart rate and the release of stress-related hormones into the bloodstream such as cortisol and adrenaline.

One of the key issues to resolving kinesiophobia is in understanding that not all pain is “bad.” It is the body’s way of protecting itself and doesn’t always mean that harm is being done. Sometimes it is also part of the healing process, or under normal load-increasing exercise protocols, it can be a part of the building up of muscle tissue.

Overcoming the fear involves exploring where it is coming from and challenging your belief system about your pain. You may need to begin very gently, both with yourself and with your traumatized horse, and lay down a new neural pathway by beginning very slowly and mindfully so as to reduce the threat value of pain. The correlation between the activity and bodily discomfort will remain until enough progress has been made to work through the fear and the brain is retrained to accept the movement without painful consequences. This is known as graded exposure: (

Honoring where we are at:

Imagine punishing a horse like the chestnut filly in the example above, or being yelled at by your coach because you didn’t perform your best. Maybe you were a child and a parent made you feel guilty for spilling grape juice on the rug, or not getting high enough marks in school. These childhood incidents, which may not seem as traumatic as something like the young filly’s terrifying flip-over in the starting gate, can remain locked inside and ready to surface at the next level of provocation. Chronic, unresolved feelings of guilt and shame can become just as painful as an incident involving physical trauma.

When you see someone who appears to be depressed and “curled up” into themselves—perhaps with rounded shoulders, gaze dropped, and lackluster step—they could be experiencing the paralyzing effects of long-held traumas and are literally in fear of moving forward with their lives, in both a mental and physical sense.

The horse’s body language could be similar, if not outright lame, due to residual tightness and subsequent weakness in one or more areas of the body. Mentally, it can manifest as “stubbornness,” a “bad attitude,” spookiness, or a flat-out refusal to move when under saddle, even when all possibilities for pain such as ill-fitting tack, bad shoeing, and other soundness issues have been addressed.

Whatever happened to us, or to the horse, we have to begin the healing process by accepting where we are now. We cannot rush the restorative work, because it is unique to each individual, and we cannot presume to know everything that led to the consequential mental and physical responses following the traumatic event or events.

We, as humans, are easily caught in long-term fear, as avoidance mechanisms become finely tuned. We get good at it. Even for physiotherapists, treating patients with the condition is difficult and hard to adequately assess, even though research has shown it is present in a significant proportion of their clientele. Horses are likely subject to similar losses of safety and when kept in a confined, domestic situation, chronic fear and kinesiophobia may be retained, as their instinct to keep moving has been restrained by their unnatural environment and training. Their mental and physical rehabilitation process is not unlike that for humans as well.

As Tara Brach writes in Radical Acceptance, Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, “We are caught in the trance of fear when the emotion of fear becomes the core of our identity and constricts our capacity to live fully.” (p.168)

“…if experiences of fear are continuous over the years, chronic tightening happens. Our shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, our head thrust forward, our back hunched, our chest sunken. Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, ‘a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.’ We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others. And when we are meditating, we can feel it in ourselves—the tightness, the area where we feel nothing.” (p. 169)

“Because the trance of fear arises from feeling cut off in relationships, we continue to feel fundamentally unsafe until we begin to experience with others some of the love and understanding we needed as children. The first step in finding a basic sense of safety is to discover our connectedness with others. As we begin to trust the reality of belonging, the stranglehold of fear loosens its grip.” (p. 171)

As we know all too well with horses, if they feel unsafe and do not trust us as a rider or handler, their fear remains, but may also be exacerbated if not re-schooled with great care and skill.

What works—making the move:

Improving proprioception…the body experience. What is happening in your body when you feel the emotions relating to the trauma. Thinking about moving is not the same as actually moving, so it has to be undertaken one tiny step at a time.

The common denominator is in slowing things down—and consciously creating a new neural pathway based in mindful movement.

Backing off the training and intensity, finding a baseline tolerance that will not trigger the kinesiophobia, and planning a careful course for progression, are the steps to gaining trust and beginning to feel safe once again. This applies to horses and humans, and addresses both mental and physical aspects of the fear.

With a process of graded exposure, it is possible to re-establish the desired activity with a joyful approach and fresh enthusiasm. The brain literally rebalances, reducing the anxiety, fear and pain, and instead sends out more positive messages relating to the chosen activity. This is a form of coping strategy that can help horses and humans move forward in their lives, literally, by overcoming their fear of movement and releasing the fear that initially shut them down.

More research is needed to help us understand how much of a horse’s resistance might be related to fear of pain versus how much resistance is related to actual pain. Studies that involve heart-rate variability in real-time could potentially provide us with better answers than we have now, by providing data that conveys obvious levels of stress in a being that is unable to verbalize his feelings. We hope this will be a positive step in the direction of improved equine welfare and lead to more compassionate training methods in the future. In effect, the research will likely help us understand how to cope with our own fear of pain, both mental and physical, and become more compassionate toward other humans too.


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

About the blogger:

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


Present! No…Absent!

Can you remember the last time you had nothing do to? I mean literally, nothing. No e-mail to check, no e-demands of any sort in fact, all chores done, and complete freedom from anything other than that which you choose. If you are over 50 years old as I am, you probably do recall such a time. If you are much younger than that, you might have to search your memory banks a little deeper for the do-nothing moments.

I listened to a radio interview this morning with author Michael Harris about his book The End of Absence. It sparked a day-long contemplation and left me with a bit of a quandary. Here we are with the pending launch of a major book ourselves, The Compassionate Equestrian, in which we have suggested a period of quiet contemplation before working with your horse, or even before entering the barn. Not that this is a “do-nothing” moment, but it is meant to help you quiet the mind, restore a deeper breath, slow the heart rate, and approach your horse with a sense of calm and peacefulness.

However, in this high-speed, short attention span world, we have to build a digital marketing plan and customer acquisition process the way business must be done now, and that is via social networking and the internet. Therefore while we suggest creating the ever so rare moments of solitude and quiet, which are of tremendous benefit, at the same time I have been busy on the computer for endless hours learning from online webinars and videos how to increase Facebook likes to over a million, fill live events, drive more customers to the website, and so forth. We expect a lot of followers to come from the attachment to technology. Sometimes I feel as though I am fighting for mental stability in this age of After the Internet arrived. What is this odd feeling? Why is it so pervasive? When did it become normal to have 5 windows open on 3 different e-mail addresses with a webinar held on pause in another window and a Word document started in yet another?

“But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.

In The End of Absence, Michael Harris argues that amid all the changes we’re experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There’s no true “free time” when you carry a smartphone. Today’s rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.”

I began my working career in advertising and marketing but that was in 1977 and things were very different then. We used radio, television, newspaper, flyers and billboards to spread the message. You had the choice to look or listen if you wish, but nobody could ever say they were addicted to their media!

Silence. How often can you say your world is truly quiet? Can you even stand it when everything around you goes quiet? Noise seems to be an addictive factor in many people’s lives too. There is a nervousness that creeps in when suddenly nobody has anything to say. Even if you are a sensitive person in a group meditation practice, you can detect the subtle nuances of people going through lists, analyzing situations, or perhaps thinking about where they need to be next. People have a lot of noise in their heads now, even if they don’t want it there.

I feel strangely guilty for all this rising of the endlessly busy ones. I lived in a computer lab, literally, in the days of the dot com explosion, and had a front row seat in watching the great divide emerge…the Before and After as Harris describes it. My ex-boyfriend, who was president of the high-tech company, had a freakish ability to see how the past and future connected. He forged onwards as everyone was doing it to see who could win the race to make money selling “minutes” amongst other then non-existent products. Few believed it could really happen. It was like a surreal dream. If we needed to reach through time and scream, “noooo don’t do it” it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. It all ballooned and got away from everyone, the expectations of money and reality of connecting humans all over the globe has happened, for better, for worse, and everything in between. Many of the smaller entrepreneurial companies did not survive, and I think we know who won in the end.

Young genius engineers, venture capitalists, and horses simultaneously surrounded me. Yes, the lab was initially on our ranch property in one of the outbuildings. That was the early 1990s. Personal computing was still clunky and archaic compared to what it is now and only the military and a handful of industry insiders had cell phones, which were like bricks compared to today’s smartphones.

My front row seat as all of this unfolded still astonishes me with the short blip in history that it took to go from the Before to the After. As a collective species, I think many of us are still in shock and exhausted from trying to keep up. As The End of Absence notes, children born within the past two decades will have no memory of what the world was like before the internet.

I kept riding, training, and teaching as all this was happening. People weren’t too affected by their attachments to e-leashes (a term coined by one of our progressive sound engineers), or constant checking of phones because they didn’t exist. So neither were the horses terribly affected by distracted, busy humans whose ability to spend 3 or 4 hours at the barn hadn’t yet been condensed to crushingly intense minutes of anxiety and demands. This is an animal that has not adapted to our distractions and lack of presence. With horses, a moment of distraction can put a rider in danger or a compromising position too.

I am currently in the very unusual position of being able to grant myself moments of utter nothingness if I choose to do so. It means consciously registering when I need to close the lid on the computer, and stop it all. It is part of that ongoing battle for sanity and my plan is to win. Just like when I was a child and could take time to simply sit in the grass, enjoying the passing clouds and the company of one of our pets, or walk the dry riverbed looking for agates, spend a couple of hours taking apart a bridle and giving it a good cleaning, or reading book after book, savouring each bit of valuable information.

Oh yes, we can sure learn a lot from the internet too, can’t we? Some useful, some frighteningly misleading, especially when it comes to horse training. This is a segment of the Before and After that I find incongruous. It is incredibly useful to be able to connect with people all over the globe, finding like-minded friends, future clients, or new interests, all with the click, click, click method. We are here in the After and that is what is required for business…but how do we tell people to stop doing that for a few minutes, especially when they go to interact with their horses? How do we convey the difference between valuable information and that which could be disastrous or misconstrued?

If you are too young to remember the Before, it may be an especially difficult task to put all technology and rapidly firing thoughts to rest for the time you are with your horse. If you recall the Before but are caught up in the After, try some self-analysis and go back to the transition time that led us from certain freedoms to virtually none in 2015. Even without having a spouse, children, or my own animals to look after, just managing my own life and finding quiet moments without feeling the need to check the iPad, MacBook, or the MotoGo phone is becoming more of a challenge. I feel like I should be doing more, more and more. It is a strange and alien sensation. This isn’t normal. If this is the new normal, then we as humans need to evolve our physiology or brain chemistry to keep from making ourselves crazy with the flood of resulting stress hormones.

And if we evolve to that kind of state, what of our beloved horses? Will they have a place in a future that might look like something out of recent sci-fi movies? Is this an organic evolution and those of us who know Before will pine for the “good old days” until there are none left who remember? I don’t know the answer to that.

I do know that if we don’t retrain ourselves to find those quiet, gap moments of solitude and quiet, we will become further and further separated from the mind and nature of the horse. Of course, we can use technology for good, in ways that help with connection, care and welfare, used with compassion to relieve the suffering of others.

As of now, there are still millions of horses and horse owners worldwide, but the numbers are dwindling, especially where youth are concerned. I read the press releases and follow results of big shows, and look carefully at the bodies and expressions of the horses. While some still exude a great enthusiasm for what they are doing, there is a lot of stress appearing in the body language and eyes of many horses, possibly going unnoticed by busy, time-pressured people.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to look back and understand how all of this has happened. It has made me mindful enough to shape my life around luxurious moments of being absent. I was actually a latecomer to the internet and smartphone myself due to having been immersed in the early days of these communications technologies, observing the changes in people firsthand. I resisted the fact that I would have to lessen quiet time with the horses and spend more time on a computer. Like so many other people, I caved in eventually. Now the horse-to-computer ratio has adjusted considerably, and I miss teaching and arena-time.

I have been determined enough to keep focus when working with a horse or student that the cell phone stays in the car and no thoughts are given as to who might have e-mailed something important. It is getting harder to refrain from the feeling of needing to check though. I am still resisting. I have also found myself pulling the phone out to record photos or videos with the intention to post to Facebook and the horses oblige but are quizzical. They aren’t too sure about this After life yet…and actually, neither am I. I would certainly be more than happy to let the social networking do its “thing” and subsequently allow me to do mine…which is to teach people how to have their best rides, ever. I will have to ask you to leave your phones in the car however, and I will do the same 😉


Horse Hugging for Good Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin with student Mira Word

Kevin with student Mira Word

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

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

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

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


Two 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 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:






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

 “Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”

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

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

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

Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.

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

 “Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Concentrated Learning

My ability to focus isn’t what it used to be. This is somewhat disconcerting because I learned a long time ago that to be a successful rider, the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time was imperative.

I could blame aging, but I’m not going to. At 54, I am extremely fit with a very low-stress, peaceful life that is all of my own creation, and no health issues. I consider myself extremely blessed to be where I am and feeling as well as I do. So no, I don’t attribute my waning ability to focus to getting older. However, it is possible that I might have caught the meme that seems to have affected most of the civilized world.




an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.


A while ago I began noticing odd typos in my writing. Things I had never done before, yet was seeing more and more of in online posts, e-mails, and even on a sign held up by spectators at a half-marathon. For example, it is now so commonplace to spell “your” when what is really meant is “you’re” that I think people have forgotten the distinction. I have caught myself making the error several times, much to my dismay. How does this happen? It also seems increasingly difficult to walk away from the computer, smartphone, or other electronic device. This has been a very rapid change in the evolution of human beings. Horses, however, haven’t changed much in the hundreds of years they have been harnessed and trained for domestic use. If they are approached by a distracted, busy person whose adrenaline is on “high” then they are already compromised by a rider or trainer who may be missing everything from subtle signs of distress in the horse to a pending blow-up resulting in an accident. Is it possible to re-train the human mind back into the clear-thinking, focused instrument that is our natural state of being?

Modern science says “yes.” Dr. Schoen has suggested that as contemplative studies are being incorporated into Ivy League schools, then surely the practices would also be of tremendous benefit to those working with horses. As a trainer who remembers life in the pre-digital-obsession age, I agree.

     In the halls of Ivy League learning and advanced academics, a new field is emerging, and it is now a formal major at the illustrious Brown University.

The meditations, or MedLabs as they are called at Brown, are an integral part of an effort the Ivy League university has undertaken in recent years to incorporate the study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques into its curriculum. In August, Brown launched one of the first formal undergraduate concentrations in the country in contemplative studies.

Photo:, source: jen2cal,

Photo:, source: jen2cal,

Many years ago I was helping someone with a particularly unruly horse in the busy warm-up ring at a horse show. Perhaps it was simply that I had spent most of my childhood studying and handling the many animals in our household, or possibly that I connected better with animals than with people, but regardless, I understood how important it was to focus intently on what I was doing with a horse in any given moment and not be distracted by anything. Animals have such a heightened level of awareness that most humans cannot match it unless they are both extremely sensitive and well trained in animal behavior.

The bucking, fully energized thoroughbred I had hopped on soon settled down and was quietly working amidst the hunters and jumpers getting ready for the day’s classes. One of the other trainers called out to me and asked, “Do you have that same effect on people too?”

I could not answer him because I didn’t even think of having any particular effect on the horses, and especially not on people (people kind of scared me). I just knew that I had the ability to stick to the saddle thanks to good instruction and perhaps some natural talent and inherent rhythm. There was something about my method though that could get even the most difficult, pull-like-a-freight-train kind of horse to soften and melt like butter in my hands. We somehow bonded on another level. I believe it had a lot to do with the fact that I could shut out anything that didn’t involve what I was doing with the horse and be in full awareness of every nuance the horse was communicating.

There wasn’t a lot of research to back up the productiveness of a quiet, contemplative mind at the time however, and certainly it was still in the early days of sports psychology research. It was also the days before I had any formal meditation training. My ego, like that of so many trainers, kept my own “threat response” and related behaviors on full alert for quite a few years and I can think back on numerous reactions that I would be quite embarrassed about today. The missing element was my lack of compassion for others, especially other riders and trainers, whom I saw as competitors, always seeking ways to be critical of one or another.

Now there is evidence as to what was affecting the horses I rode…and perhaps opening to possibilities that I wasn’t aware of previously as to how I could have been affecting other humans too.

This is also something we can use to bring together the diverse equestrian community, a common bond beyond the horses. If it works for Ivy League Universities, it can work for equine-based educational models too. It can be brought right into the barns by the facility owners, trainers, and riders of all kinds and backgrounds. The subjective culture that has caused  much suffering and so much division in the horse world now has access to the information and research confirming a practical technique that changes hearts and minds for the better.

I had to laugh when I saw this post on Facebook today (yes, another one of the contemporary distraction-memes!):

“A quiet man is a thinking man. A quiet woman is usually mad.”

Since I was married to a three-day-eventing trainer for a few years when I first turned professional, I can only say this statement was probably true all too often. It inevitably cost us that relationship. I wish I had the training in compassion and meditation then that I do now.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the Teacher will appear,” and so it was in my case, as it has been for millions of other human beings throughout the millennia. Speaking from first-hand, personal experience, as the students at Brown and other programs are finding, meditation and training in mindfulness changes the way we think. It also affects our health and wellbeing, and that of others with whom we interact. Imagine what it could mean to a relationship with a horse, as well as our interpersonal relationships with other human beings.

     “One of the challenges for mindfulness and contemplative practice is to see it not only as a tool for stress-reduction, but as a means for going deeper into different subjects and ways of living. It’s not just about student well-being, which of course we care about, but it’s about how a contemplative approach to research can actually enhance understanding,” said Arthur Zajonc, president of the Mind and Life Institute in Hadley, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that focuses on creating dialogue between scientists, philosophers and contemplative practice.”



Picture having a riding lesson with an instructor who practices mindfulness and contemplative meditation. How would that look and feel as you rode into the arena to begin your warm-up and lesson? Would it be a different kind of lesson or training session than you usually participate in? What elements would possibly be involved with the incorporation of mindfulness and compassion? Perhaps the following:


Clear thinking

Enhanced understanding

Reduced stress

Increased self-awareness

Empathy with the horse/instructor

Better body-mind connection with another being

Have I personally taken meditation into the barn? Up until writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, I generally kept my practice private. While all of the elements of conscious breathwork, awareness, and other aspects and benefits of meditation were incorporated into my training and lessons, I did not make a point of suggesting that my students also follow suit. As it was, I spent a decade teaching in a place that is known for highly conscious people and was fortunate to have been the instructor to some unusually mindful, compassionate children and adults. I began to feel more comfortable bringing a holistic philosophy into the lessons.

I have also gained confidence and learned even more about the benefits of meditation by spending the past two years co-authoring the book with Dr. Schoen. He has spent many years himself experiencing and observing the results of a compassionate heart and mind while working with horses and other animals in his veterinary practice.

Now that I’m riding again, I am bringing more of the contemplative practices directly to each session with the horses. I want my focus to come back to what it was at a time before WiFi took over our lives. I want to be able to put in a solid, productive 30-minute ride by feel, not by looking at my watch every few minutes. I want to not be rushing out of the house to get to the barn, running late again because 5 more e-mails popped up or I remembered that I had to do a Facebook post, then promptly got distracted by fifteen other posts. Sigh. Yes, that happens. I would like to be able to get back to the gap in time where I could sit in deep meditation for an hour or more and not feel the slightest twinge of anxiety at having to do anything else. Those twinges come all too often in this age of zillions of passwords and too much to do, even without having nearly as complex a life as most people. I cannot even imagine the stress of living in a city, having a family, a job, and trying to find enough time to dedicate to a horse in a way that is most conducive to everyone’s wellbeing.

I have ridden my new charge twice now and have decided to try ten to fifteen minutes of a walking meditation with the horse at the end of each mounted session. She seems to enjoy it. When I returned the mare to her pasture after our first ride, she quickly walked off to join the other horses. Today after our ride and walk, she stayed right at the pasture gate, watching intently as I packed up and got in the car to leave. A stoic horse, I thought I almost saw a little smile on her face. I know I had a smile on mine, and yes, I would hope to have that effect on people too.

I leave you with this final thought from Glimpse After Glimpse; Daily Reflections on Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche:

November 11

Open people ask me: “How long should I meditate? And when? Should I practice twenty minutes in the morning and in the evening, or is it better to do several short practices during the day?” Yes, it is good to meditate for twenty minutes, though that is not to say that twenty minutes is the limit. I have not found in the scriptures any reference to twenty minutes; I think it is a notion that has been contrived in the West, and I call it Meditation Western Standard Time.

The point is not how long you meditate; the point is whether the practice actually brings you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence. And five minutes of wakeful sitting practice is of far greater value than twenty minutes of dozing!

Rigpa Glimpse of the Day

Sogyal Rinpoche


They’re in the Gate…

…and they’re off!

A row of antsy thoroughbreds, waiting for the bell to ring and the gates to fly open with a great bang, dance in place and chew on their bits in anticipation. Their muscles are tense and their jockeys poised for the veritable lift-off. I know this feeling from riding ex-racehorses into the start box of a 3-day event or standing on the starting line of a road race with thousands of other runners. It is like a sense of urgency. It is an all-encompassing, impatient waiting for the inevitable. The preparation for this moment has been everything. Without the preparation, for either man or beast, going from a standing start to a dead run can easily spell disaster, as it is too much force for muscles and tendons to take. We imagine the worst case scenario, but we have trained well, and expect to survive the event ahead of us.

Kicking up dirt

Kicking up dirt…Desert Park Track, Osoyoos B.C. (photo:

If there is any fear in our desire for accomplishment, it has been overridden by now. Fear would paralyze us and leave us in the starting gate while everyone else takes off. Therefore, we have made allies out of our fears and doubts, and know the way forwards. The sense of urgency translates to a conditioned response… run!

When it comes to our collective response to the pressing needs of our planet however, the reaction time has been a little less focused, and somewhat slow off the start. If we were racehorses moving with such hesitation, you can bet the jockeys would be quick with the whip, or, as described by the attached article, the “goad.”

      “The same imperatives that apply to our personal dealings with life’s uncertainties can be extended to our response to climate change. The two run along parallel tracks. One conveys us through the upheavals in our private lives with a mind unshaken by sickness, loss and death. The other should convey us through the grim portends of the future and enable us to avert worst-case scenarios. In both spheres, the personal and the collective, we need the courage to see through our illusory sense of security, discern the lurking danger and set about making the transformations needed to reverse the underlying dynamics of disaster.”

At the beginning of my professional riding career, if I had been advised that in 20 years climate change would force me to rethink what I was doing working outdoors with horses, I would have cocked my head sideways like a curious puppy and wondered what the heck they were talking about.

As it is, the risks we have assumed by not moving quickly enough to resolve the momentous problems we now face are going to become the bane of our existence, and ultimately have a major effect on not only humans, but also our horses and all other living species on Earth. I have previously written a post about a couple of ranches in California where the wells have run dry. We need a lot of water every day, but horses need a lot more. Now we are hearing that due to the drought our fruits and vegetables in the Pacific Northwest will increase by more than 30% in the coming year. This will affect hay, grain and other feed prices for livestock too. There is no end in sight to this issue.

Now we’re really in a race…the race for our lives, and those of everyone and everything we love and call home.

Years ago, the first thing I noticed was the hot weather beginning earlier in the year and lasting longer. The air inversions, haboobs, and regular windstorms became stronger. The temperature swings wilder. What had been “normal” was no longer. It seems that where the environment is at its most fragile and extreme in the first place is where the evidence of climate change has been most noticeable, especially to those of us who spend most of our time outdoors. Sometimes the changes are subtle at first, but if you are a keen observer of nature, the signs of change have been glaring all along. Finally, others are starting to believe the ones who have been sounding the alarms, but perhaps too late in some instances. I couldn’t take it anymore, and left Phoenix for the higher desert area of Sedona. Then bizarre weather patterns began to emerge there too.

It began in the mid-2000s as the windstorms became a weekly occurrence with ever-increasing strength. At first it was just annoying. I had an adorable but flighty Arabian gelding in training at the time. He was afraid of two main things… the UPS truck and wind. I only rode him one day a week and that was Wednesday. I also had after-school students in the arena that day. It became a standing joke around the barn…Windy Wednesday. It always seemed to be the day of the week the skies would turn white from their usual cobalt bright blue after being criss-crossed with persistent aircraft contrails. An odd phenomenon indeed, but I have a number of photographs and videos that show the long trails of white spreading and merging with others, blanketing the entire sky from horizon to horizon. Both the horses and humans began to get sick far too often. Long-term respiratory ailments became common and allergies worsened. The horses did not appear to be “bloomy” or as healthy as they should have been.

At first I was in denial too. This couldn’t be happening. Several more years went by and it became impossible to ignore. Almost every time I went to the arena I was picking up the remnants of jumps and pieces of the PVC dressage arena boards that had been blown around by the windstorms, now increasing in frequency and strength. Even though stapled down, most of the jump’s decorations of plastic flowers were ripped away and blown far and wide. The jump standards were getting destroyed by the wind too, and much of the arena footing was gone as well.

Windy Wednesdays weren’t funny any more. It had gone from an annoyance to having to regularly cancel lessons as nobody could jump if the wind was constantly blowing the jumps over, raising massive clouds of dust, and making it difficult for anyone to hear me.

Whatever bits of rock and other debris could be lifted by the wind would be blasted across the open arena with the strength of a BB gun and it hurt! I could tell the horses just wanted to go back to the barn, and I didn’t blame them. Everybody, including the resilient teenagers, was commenting on how grouchy they became when the “creepy” windstorms hit. Such storms were now coming 2 or 3 days a week as were other wild weather swings. Incredible heat, freezing cold, downpours as only can happen in the desert…

One early morning in May my digital thermometer went blank. That meant it had gone past the limit of the readout, which was 124 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time I decided it was time to quit I was having thoughts of virtually needing to wear a HazMat suit to teach lessons. Between the constantly swirling fine dust, extreme UV index and high heat, there were no more tools left to protect oneself from the ever-changing climate-related weather fluctuations. I could no longer keep a regular schedule of lessons, as by 2008, I would say at least half of my bookings had to be cancelled due to wind advisories or other extreme weather. In years previous, such was not the case.

 “While fear over climate disruption often spurs denial and ends in panic or mental paralysis, it may equally well give rise to samvega, a sense of urgency leading to wise decisions to avert the crisis. Everything depends on how we metabolize our fear.”

     I know this sounds kind of pessimistic. I don’t believe irrational optimism should apply to our current issues with climate change however. Consider those who have to house, feed and water horses. In some places, this is now a very expensive and almost impossible proposition. It may not be so radical in other parts of North America or the world just yet, but it is only a very short matter of time before millions more people and animals will be in dire straits and displaced due to extreme weather and climate events. How do you sell your property and move elsewhere if there is no available water? No one will buy such a place!

Imagine you own a ranch or a boarding stable and there is no more water for your horses. Hay is over $15 a bale, if you can even get half-decent hay to begin with. You can’t charge your boarders enough to cover the costs of feed and hauled-in water, so then what happens? This is the reality for some people – now. Where does it go from here? I certainly don’t have the answers to that.

Why have we not acted and responded to this pending disaster sooner? This is like taking your horse out of the pasture and hoping he can instantly adapt to a foreign and hostile environment, run a mile and seven-eights and win the race without breaking down. It just won’t happen that way.

     “What lies behind this indifference and denial? How do we explain it? When we look at this phenomenon closely, we can see that it is sustained by two primal drives. One is desire or craving, which in this case is the fundamental desire for security, a wish that events will follow their familiar patterns. The other is fear, an instinctive dread of disruption. Beneath our outward self-assurance lies a volatile whirlpool of anxiety, a suppressed concern that things will swerve off-course and confront us with challenges we aren’t equipped to meet. When this anxiety is provoked, it erupts in outbursts of angry denial and denunciation of those who speak plain truth, the arch-enemy of self-deception.”

I do believe we need to step up to the line though, and not be waiting for the “touch of the goad” any longer. It is not only an awful lot of horses depending on our human ingenuity for their survival; it is also our entire species, and every other sentient being on this planet.

We want to be compassionate to our horses and not “goad” them into activity. We can choose to offer compassion to ourselves in the same way when considering our responses to the changing climate, and the environment in which we would love to be able to ride and enjoy our horses. If we have been inadequately prepared for this race, I believe it is time to bring an awareness to better training and conditioning, as well as an acceptance of where we are now so that we can all work towards a viable and sustainable future.

The tectonic plates beneath our sense of normalcy undergo a seismic shift and can never be restored. In Pali, the language of early Buddhism, the natural response to this shift is called samvega, a word best rendered as “a sense of urgency.” The sense of urgency draws upon desire and fear, but instead of pushing us to run amuck, it instills in us a compelling conviction that we have to do something about our situation, that we have to embark in a new direction profoundly different from everything we’ve tried before.  

The Buddha compares the arising of the sense of urgency to a horse’s response to its master’s goad:

Here, an excellent thoroughbred horse acquires a sense of urgency as soon as it sees the shadow of the goad, thinking: ‘What task will my trainer set for me today? What can I do to satisfy him?’ So too, an excellent thoroughbred person hears: ‘In such and such a village or town some woman or man has fallen ill or has died.’ He acquires a sense of urgency and strives carefully. Resolute, he realizes the supreme truth and, having pierced it through with wisdom, he sees it. (Anguttara Nikaya 4:113)

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Thank you to Dr. Schoen for sourcing the article from on which this post is based.