It’s All in the Eye (the Nose, and the Mouth)

 

“…observing the horses from a distance is critical to detecting the presence of pain,” said Sonder.

 “Horses often do not blatantly display pain—especially before their owners or regular handlers—they’ll square right up no matter what,” she said. “So this will objectively tell us about their chronic pain.” 

Claudia Sonder, DVM, of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

 

This is a major breakthrough for the Compassionate Equestrian Movement where horse people can now be more educated and aware of what their horse looks like in various degrees of pain based on facial recognition…..

Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM

 

                                                                                                                                                             Has anybody ever commented on “the look on your face?” Perhaps you convey “happy,” “sad,” or “I’m really hurting,” by the expression you are exhibiting to others. Have you found yourself misinterpreted at times due to someone reading your facial movement incorrectly? Maybe you’ve even caught yourself in a surprising moment when glancing in a mirror or window, wondering why you appear tired, grumpy, or sullen.

You know how the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Well, what about our horses?

Horsemen who have been around the block, so to speak, always teach their apprentices and clients to look for “that eye.” A sound, kind, easy-going, trainable horse always seems to have a particularly soft, sweet and large eye with few wrinkles or other indicators of stress. Top eventing trainers seek “the look of eagles,” whereby the horse appears much as an eager sporting hound—alert, coiled for action, and focused on the upcoming task or obstacle.

A horse that is not in pain has a much easier time tuning in to a human’s requests for connection. There has been much written in recent years about creating a good relationship with your horse. Unfortunately, for all the hours spent on the ground in doing so, many horses still suffer once the rider gets on their back. Why doesn’t the translation go as smoothly from ground to saddle as it should? In its most reductionist answer, the factor is that the rider cannot see the horse’s expression from his back.

 

The researchers at University of California, Davis, are providing the equestrian community with valuable new research that extends beyond the current “pain grimace scale” that helps veterinarians, and other handlers, determine whether or not a horse is in pain.

Also interesting, is the comment from the article indicating domestic horses have adapted to taking a stoic approach when asked to interact with humans, even while in pain. Obviously, there is an intelligence and sense of reasoning in play that requires deeper investigation.

For now, these dedicated scientists at UC Davis are providing us with fascinating insights as they carefully apply facial recognition and motion-tracking technology to advance the understanding of our beloved horses.

Beyond the veterinary field, it would be my wish that all trainers incorporate the knowledge gained from this research into their own programs, no matter what discipline, and pass that knowledge on to their students. It is just one more way that technology can be used for good and compassion, once again confirming something that masters of equitation have known for hundreds of years; there’s a certain “look” in the eye that helps you read a horse like a book. And now we will have even more information on which to base critical decisions in regard to the horse’s wellbeing. If only we were to pay attention…and humble ourselves to the fact that we may need to change our approach to working with horses.

SG


 

CLICK on this link to read the entire article:

UC Davis Uses Software to Map Equine Pain

Collaboration at UC Davis creates a system to assess the connection between horses’ facial expressions and their condition


 

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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TO SERVE AS LEADER

There are many ways to be called to service. Some perceive a religious calling, while others may discover a passion to volunteer with an organization in disaster zones, or on a more personal level one-on-one. Helping others, whether human or animal, the call to be of service begins with a compassionate heart, and the desire to alleviate the suffering of another.

We are frequently bombarded with news about the extreme suffering of fellow sentient beings. We can’t help it these days, thanks to social media and the rapidness with which information travels. Being that negativity is our default mechanism for survival (flight or fight), we tend to gravitate toward the stories that stoke our emotions, for better or worse.

For most, the news is a distant item of interest, played out on a high-tech box in front of our eyes. Perhaps we watch while consuming a meal, or in moments of distraction from something else we need to turn our attention toward. But when disaster hits home, the reality of being part of an actual event can be a shock to body, mind and spirit like none other.

Becoming trained to respond appropriately in situations of high stress and disastrous circumstances tends to reveal our capacity for leadership and how we act under pressure. Sometimes we can be surprised by the extent of what we are capable of doing when a crisis ensues.

With horses, especially as trainers, there is always the need for a leader to emerge and that leader is the one the other/s look to for maintaining order and instigating supportive behaviors when situations are otherwise stressful. People who do not panic even in the worst of times are those who are often the ones who end up saving lives when the opportunity to do so arises. “Servant leaders,” are those who lead by serving others, putting the needs and interests of others ahead of self-interests and needs, whether it be in a group leadership role, or an unexpected emergency.

The Dalai Lama is an example of such a leader. Even though he and his people’s exile from Tibet occurred under violent circumstances, he still practices leadership that is based on his principles, and not his feelings. He advocates peaceful resolution, forgiveness, and teaches compassion as the foundation for happiness.

Sometimes extenuating circumstances produce leadership in a way we didn’t plan for. Earlier this month, TCE coauthor, Dr. Allen Schoen, attended the inaugural event of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary. (http://cvhfoundation.org/) While most of us could never understand exactly what it would be like to experience the terror, shock, and sadness of the inciting incident—the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown CT in December, 2012—we can only stand back in awe at the response of the first-grader’s parents who took their child’s dream from a tragic ending to reality.

https://youtu.be/UcObvv4iE4Q

Our horses tend to thrive if we apply the characteristics of servant leadership to them too. What are the qualities of a servant leader?

  • Active listening. Servant leaders actively listen to their followers. Active listening is a communication method where the listener listens and provides feedback to the speaker to ensure that the listener understands what is being communicated.
  • Empathy. They have the ability to empathize. Empathy is the ability to detect and understand emotions being felt by others.
  • Healer. Servant leaders have the ability to ‘heal’ themselves and their followers through creating a sense of well-being.
  • Awareness. They are generally aware of the environment and issues affecting their organization and its members.
  • Persuasion. Servant leaders influence others through persuasion rather than through exercise of authority or coercion.
  • Foresight. Servant leaders have the ability to foresee consequences of events or actions involving their organization and its members.
  • Conceptualization. They can conceptualize their vision and goals into strategies and objects that serve the organization and its members.
  • Stewardship. They are stewards, which means they view their position as having a caretaking responsibility over their organization and members as opposed to dominion over them.
  • Commitment to Growth and Emancipation. Servant leaders are personally committed to the personal and professional growth of their followers.
  • Community Building. They are committed to building a sense of community and mutual commitment between themselves, the organization and its members.

http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-servant-leadership-definition-characteristics-examples.html

Photo: Belle - S. Gordon

Photo: Belle – S. Gordon

Most of us lead lives that are extremely blessed with kindness, love, good-hearted friends and much more abundance than we realize. Our perspective of life can shift in the blink of eye, whether on the monumental scale of a situation such as beautiful little Catherine’s parents found themselves in, or our most fundamental interactions with a horse that may need a leader who is aware of serving the needs of that individual horse. Read carefully through the above characteristics again. Can you see how valuable these guidelines are to your interactions with all sentient beings? Can you incorporate these characteristics into your own leadership style, or your communication with others? Think about how you wish to be treated when you turn to someone for leadership in any aspect of your life.

“Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.”

– Dalai Lama

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

About the blogger:

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

Stillness

IT’S YOUR MOVE(ment)

“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

\http://physiotherapy.ca/Practice-Resources/Professional-Development/Webinars/Interpretation-des-indicateurs-de-resultats/Translating-Outcome-Measures-Outlines/Archived-Outlines/Tampa-Scale-for-Kinesiophobia-%28TSK%29

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):

http://www.healthcentral.com/chronic-pain/c/23153/147406/movement/

“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: (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17716819)

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 http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

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

Stillness

The Fifth Step

   Mindfulness is a method of paying attention to ourselves, and the small details of habits, thoughts, and behaviors that affect our interactions with others. We come to know ourselves better, and understand the basis for feelings that may sometimes pull us into negative territory. You may recognize the feelings as the cause of agitation, pain, embarrassment, frustration, sadness, confusion, or any number of other identifiers. When these emotions arise, it is generally because there is a deep need that is not being met. Something is missing that is blocking your joy and happiness. Mindfulness affords us the opportunity to observe our mental experiences and change the way we respond to them.

In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf 2011), Karen Armstrong[1] writes: “Just as musicians have to learn how to manipulate their instruments, and an equestrienne requires an intimate knowledge of the horse she is training, we have to learn how to use our mental energies more kindly and productively. This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds. Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.”

Unfortunately, our analysis, especially when it comes to our riding and our horses, can become very self-critical and judgmental. When we are hard on ourselves, and seeking a high standard, we can have the reverse effect of positivity and instead appear to become obsessive or unrealistically engaged with our self-image. Mindfulness practice allows us to observe, but also cautions against self-judgment and realize our need to disengage from negative thoughts and emotions. It is about training the brain to respond in a kinder, more compassionate way.

Karen notes on page 106 of the chapter, Step Five—Mindfulness, “the Tibetan word for meditation is gom: familiarization.”

When we have that “intimate knowledge” of our horse, we usually know how the day’s training session might progress based on the horse’s apparent mood, or when he may need a day off. When we go to a horse show, we go with the knowledge that we will be judged by the standards for that breed and/or parameters for that particular discipline. If the judge’s opinion doesn’t meet our expectations, or the horse has a bad day, the ability to respond mindfully and kindly can make a huge difference as to how productive training rides and horse shows will be in the future.

Take the horse out of the picture for a moment, and visualize how you feel when somebody makes a critical statement about you. Perhaps you are told you are judgmental, even though you had no intention of sounding that way. Maybe you are accused of being angry or impatient, but what you’re really feeling is disappointment and a sense of helplessness. When we communicate with an awareness of the unmet needs behind those feelings, we come to accept that those experiences are part of being human, and perhaps it is that we are seeking understanding, consideration, and emotional safety, but were unable to effectively convey such needs to the other person, or even recognize those as our own needs in order to feel more compassionate and caring.

When we are not familiar with our imprinted patterns of communication—let’s say “the aids” in reference to communicating with your horse—it is easy to be misconstrued by another, and we end up ping-ponging hostile words, thoughts, or kicks and rein-pulls, at one another until finally one or the other, or even your subconscious self, ends up hurt and in retreat without an effective resolution.

Many people go through life in somewhat of a “trance,” existing, but not really being vital and alive. The one thing about being around horses is that they connect us to a present moment, to nature, and to the need to be vitally energized, yet calm, as is their natural state when roaming freely with a herd.

On page 107 of Karen’s book, she writes, “We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us. When we are enraged, we tend to exaggerate a person’s defects—just as when we are seized by desire we accentuate somebody’s attractions and ignore her faults, even though at some level we may know that this is a delusion.”

We humans are constantly shuffling from one emotion to another, one desire to the next, and other preoccupations. When we step back and observe what brings us into conflict with ourselves, other people, and even our horses, we may see how easily we inflict pain on others, as well as how distressing it is when somebody behaves in such a way toward us. There is also an awareness that arises as to how little it can take, even as much as a smile, a thank you, or a pat on your horse’s neck, that can brighten the day or change somebody’s mood for the better.

One of the world’s great mindfulness teachers, Tara Brach, Ph.D. writes in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, page 20 (Bantam Dell 2003), “Wanting and fearing are natural energies, part of evolution’s design to protect us and help us to thrive. But when they become the core of our identity, we lose sight of the fullness of our beings. We become identified with, at best, only a sliver of our natural being—a sliver that perceives itself as incomplete, at risk and separate from the rest of the world. If our sense of who we are is defined by feelings of neediness and insecurity, we forget that we are also curious, humorous and caring. We forget about the breath that is nourishing us, the love that unites us, the enormous beauty and fragility that is our shared experience of being alive. Most basically, we forget the pure awareness, the radiant wakefulness that is our Buddha nature.”

Being with a horse is a glorious opportunity to practice mindfulness. Watching and learning from them, and observing how they respond to our moods, behaviors, and actions, is a chance to put that awareness into action in all of our daily activities. By doing so, we will ultimately make ourselves feel better, and enrich the lives of others around us with compassion and loving kindness.

__________

[1] Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize in 2008 and began working on the Charter for Compassion. The Charter was signed in 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She is the author of numerous books, including The Case for God (Anchor, 2010)

__________

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

About the blogger:

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

Stillness

Equal on Both Sides

The subject of death makes the strongest of us squirm. Typically, it is not a discussion that brings about joy in one another. Yet, as we age, we become aware that a state of unpreparedness for the passing of either ourselves, our loved ones, or our animals can have detrimental consequences for those left behind. It may also cause considerable stress over critical decision-making at an emotional time.

For the horse owner, many are left in a quandary with the expense of maintaining older equines once they can no longer be ridden because of medical issues. The very topic of life-cycle management from the birth to death of an animal, especially one as large as a horse, is a discussion we believe needs to be had amongst horse lovers the world over. With the continued breeding and many thousands of yearly births of all kinds of horses, the global community of equines and their people is facing an unsustainable future as climate change, rising costs of upkeep, and urban development squeeze more horses out of the system and make it all the more difficult for the average owner to keep horses through to the end of their days.

This article raises some interesting ideas as to why issues of welfare have become worse than ever for all species of animals. For those equestrians who are courageous enough to take a peek into the darker side of the business, the numbers of homeless horses and those going to slaughter are staggering. The big question asked over and over again, especially by those on the frontlines of rescue and those who comb the auction kill pens to find the few they can save, is, “Why?”

With shelter euthanasia rates going down, major companies moving toward more humanely-produced food, and the prospect of legal “personhood” for primates being litigated in court, you might have thought things were going pretty well for animals.

But authors of a new paper would disagree. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­(Could Our Own Fear Of Death Be Affecting The Way We Treat Animals? The Huffington Post  |  By Arin Greenwood)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/10/nonhuman-personhood_n_6341474.html

 The Huffington Post: You say in the paper that despite what looks like some gains in animal welfare and animal rights, that things for animals are still very bad. Can you explain?

Michael Mountain: It’s interesting that people are really motivated to do something positive and definite about homeless pets, because we see them as part of our “in-group” — our family. But we see the rest of the animal kingdom (queendom?) as basically resources and commodities for our use and benefit.

Lori Marino: And there are more farm animals being slaughtered and eaten around the world every year.

What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse — not better — in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.

____________

Unfortunately for horses, they are still classified as “livestock.” While most are given a variety of drugs throughout their lifetimes that make them unsuitable for processing and consumption, regulations have been weak enough to allow horses into the food chain, particularly in European and Asian regions (shipped from North America). Horse lovers are caught in between the concept that “pets are family”, but livestock is a commodity. This has been the perception and classification that has led to the demise of many thousands of horses. Those who are of the mindset to keep their horses forever have a hard time understanding how other people could let their horses go to an auction, or just blatantly discard them and not care where the horse might end up.

According to the research presented by Michael Mountain, a leader in the no-kill movement, and Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, much of the decline in animal welfare overall is due to our subconscious need to think of ourselves as immortal and above animals. This not something most of us register consciously. Something deep down in our programming tells us that we are better than them. Therefore, we are free to do as we wish to exert our superiority and dominance in the natural order of things.

Except that, well, we haven’t done such a great job of taking care of that natural order. This is more about what we have become as a species, and in our minds, the species-in-charge.

“We are in a sixth mass extinction and there is no doubt about that at this point,” says Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, cetacean expert and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Mountain and Marino, whose work is due out this spring, have a theory about why this is happening: existential anxiety and fear of death.

LM: That, given that everything is getting worse — for us, for other animals, for the whole planet — that there is something about human nature that is motivating us to behave in ways that cause everything to get worse.

It is not just about putting in more effort or more money. It is really about who we are. This is all about the kind of animal we have evolved to be.

Biologists and paleoecologists estimate that humans have driven roughly 1,000 species extinct in our 200,000 years on the planet. Since 1500 we have killed off at least 322 types of animals, including the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger and, most recently, the baiji, a freshwater dolphin in China. Another 20,000 or more species are now threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps a list of all the known endangered plants and animals on the planet.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-the-sixth-mass-extinction-can-be-stopped/

____________

I believe those of us who grew up with many pets in the house, or on a farm, have had more experiential contact with death than people who did not grow up with animals. Yes, there are far too many youth and adults confronted with horrible experiences involving war zones, terrorist attacks, and accidental deaths, but there is something of a lifecycle learning experience that occurs when you are in a loving home and your beloved pet guinea pig dies, or the aging family dog has to be euthanized. While we don’t want to deal with the process of watching a favourite pet go through the dying phases, we come to an understanding that we are not in charge of this fact of life, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. As a child, this is a profound revelation to comprehend.

As an adult, I know most of us contemplate the transition more than we care to admit. I have heard it said that it is not so much death we are afraid of, but the moment of death. We are here, and then we are not. We don’t want to suffer through it. These researchers have pinpointed our feelings about that moment to be the reasoning behind the way we ultimately treat animals.

Personally, I have been so close to animals since I was a child I honestly do feel like one of them. When I am alone in the pasture with the horses, I am completely in my comfort zone. I could just as easily forget about being a human and all my human responsibilities, and simply while the day away in the pasture with my four-legged companions. I know how connected they are to the death process. I have witnessed horses transition, and experienced the mourning behaviors of those left behind. They are clearly sentient beings.

Knowing this, where does the motivation come from to treat animals so poorly? We aren’t talking so much about individuals here, as we are discussing the human condition in general. There are millions of people who would be mortified upon realizing their fear of death subconsciously has a negative effect on their animals. No, this is broader.

If the topic of death makes you a little squeamish, think about the career of a veterinarian. Animals, including horses, have a much shorter lifespan than humans. Inevitably, if we have animals, there will be visits to or from the veterinarian, and sometimes that could include the extremely heart-wrenching decision to euthanize an older or sick companion. Imagine being the professional practitioner who is not only evaluating and confirming the decision to euthanize, but is also responding to the emotions and needs of the people who are closest to that animal. In over 35 years of practice, Dr. Schoen has been in this position many times, and has developed his own profound understanding of the transition to the other side…

____________

When I read this article in the Huffington Post, I found it fascinating that the authors proposed that part of the reason we treat animals the way we do is because of our own fear of death and how we can separate them from us.

In general, I agree with their thoughts. I do sense that in general our society is in denial about death and dying. If we have the programmed understanding and fear that is promoted in society in general, it is totally understandable. If one explores a bit deeper below the surface, exploring books such as “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche (http://www.rigpa.org/en/about-sogyal-rinpoche/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.html) as well as philosophical books like “A Year to Live” by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (http://levinetalks.com/About-Us) as well as the numerous books describing “life after death” experiences, one can view the concept of death from a different perspective. Exploration of these views have become so popular these days that Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon’s book called “Proof of Heaven” (http://www.ebenalexander.com/ has been on the NY Times Best Seller list for a long time. Yet, it seems like some people go along with Woody Allen’s quote, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Actually, it is one of the most profound transitions, if not the most profound one we can ever experience. Some Tibetan teachers feel that that is what we are preparing for in life.

In my own personal experiences, having to euthanize many animals throughout my over 35 years of veterinary practice and then pondering my decisions at different times as well as observing clients perspectives at that moment, I have come to honor the mystery of that time and the opportunity it offers us to explore our own attitudes on death.

My views on death have evolved over my veterinary career. I will share more in future articles and books. I have also intimately experienced my parents’ death and dying process as well as more friends than I care to mention.

I do believe the death of our horses, our animal companions, can offer us a profound opportunity to explore all perspectives on life and death and how we treat all beings. I do see that denial of the eventuality of death is not beneficial for most people and does not allow for unique opportunities to awaken to the magnificence of who we really are.

I would be interested in what our readers’ perspectives are. I look forward to sharing more with all of you regarding this profound moment we will all face.

Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD. (hon.)

___________

It is okay to talk about this. Whether you agree with the researchers or not, as Dr. Schoen has noted, denial of what we are, or have become as humans, is not helping us. We can open to new understandings, and share our stories of what death and dying means to us personally. We can explore how we cope with the loss of our beloved horses, friends, family members, and others who leave us behind in our mortal bodies. A friend of mine even prepares for the inevitable with her horses by cremating their remains and keeping their ashes in a (very large) urn. It is an honor reserved for very few horses, but her deep compassion and care for her animals is evident in her lack of fear regarding their eventual deaths, and acceptance of the process when the time comes.

While I risk going over the esoteric edge here, I have to say that I have experienced clear evidence of life after death. Animals do not question such things in the way that humans do. So in that regard, yes, there is a separation between us and them. That is, apart from the human beings who are so in tune with the animal world themselves that no separation is evident and our treatment of them is such as we would want ourselves to be treated.

Horses Needed; Perils in Paradise

 

This is the time of year for joy and giving. We wish for good news, and goodwill towards everyone. Bells are ringing, the scent of fresh evergreens tickles our senses, and beautiful bright lights abound. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks there has been a topic front and center in local and international news that is not what we want to hear during the jolly season. The reality is that for many people, holidays are often the hardest time of year.

Close to home, there have been some disconcerting mental health “incidents” at our local library. It is the lead headline on the front page of the small but colourful newspaper that services our utopian island community of about 10,000 permanent residents.

http://gulfislandsdriftwood.com/news/mental-health-impacts-library/

And recently our hospital foundation’s report shared information from a 2010 health review about the high incidence of depression amongst the population, stating “residents know that there are many people on Salt Spring Island who are coping with mental health issues. Because the island has a reputation as a peaceful, tolerant and supportive community, mentally ill people may come to Salt Spring looking for refuge, a slower pace of life, and a ‘healing’ atmosphere.”

This is a bastion of healthy living, peace, quiet, and beauty, where people have come to seek solace and a reprieve from a stressful lifestyle. They are looking for the connection to nature that is so healing, but unfortunately being such a small, low-key community, we do not have the infrastructure to provide enough of the necessary services to all of those in need. It is somewhat of a quandary. It seems as though the issues people arrive with have been fueled, at least in part, by life in big, crowded cities that run on the high-octane environment today’s society demands. It would be wonderful if they could be helped simply by proximity. Yet it is much more complex than a change of environment, as our microcosm illustrates rather well.

The numbers of those with mental health challenges are on the rise exponentially, especially amongst youth. Why?

Depression and anxiety are affecting more young people than ever before. According to a study published today by the Office for National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds are suffering psychological problems, which is almost the rate at which these are seen in early middle age, the life-stage usually most associated with mental health issues.

     Areas of concern for young people stretch from relationships with parents, friends, colleagues or fellow students, to worries about appearance and fitting in. Young women were more likely than young men to be showing signs of distress, with a report earlier this week claiming that one in five teenage girls are opting out of classroom discussions and even playing truant because they hate the way they look.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/04/5-ways-address-rising-depression-young-people-psychological-issues-anxiety

     How could a lifestyle with horses possibly solve some of these problems? What kind of miracles could horses work where human intervention is often less than successful?

There might be some clues in the information that has been garnered from studies done on tribal communities where clinical depression is virtually unknown.

In a recent Ted Talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” professor Stephen Ilardi advances the thesis that depression is a disease of our modern lifestyle. As an example, Ilardi compares our modern culture to the Kaluli people — an indigenous tribe that lives in the highlands of New Guinea. When an anthropologist interviewed over 2,000 Kaluli, he found that only one person exhibited the symptoms of clinical depression, despite the fact the Kaluli are plagued by high rates of infant mortality, parasitic infection, and violent death. Yet, despite their harsh lives, the Kaluli do not experience depression as we know it.

     Ilardi believes this is due to the fact that the human genome of the Kaluli (as well as all humans) is well adapted to the agrarian, hunter/ gatherer lifestyle which shaped 99% of people who came before us. Then two hundred years ago, we saw the advent of the modern western-industrialized culture, which created a “radical, environmental mutation” that has led a mismatch between our genes/brains/bodies and modern culture. As Ilardi concludes, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”

http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/06/living-age-melancholy-society-becomes-depressed/

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

photo: Pinterest from eqitup.tumblr.com

I look at the stories and videos of little girls and ponies recently posted online and wonder how many women are like myself, longing for those days of innocence when all that mattered was that we wanted a horse so badly we would have done anything to have one of our own. We read books, drew pictures, dragged our moms to the ponies in the park and could hardly believe it when the day finally came that we were a horse “owner.” To be dressed in riding clothes, covered in horsehair, hay and dirt, was a sure sign confirming our passion and connection to horses. We loved the smell, our own scruffy ponytails sticking out of a helmet and the sweet, milky “goober” that the wind caught from our salivating horses and sent flying as we cantered over our first jumps. We had no time to be absorbed in hating ourselves, or how we looked, because all of our time and attention went to the horses. Oh sure, boys eventually tried to capture our hearts, but they had to know that “horse time” was first and foremost.

We learned the ups and downs of life, the trials and tribulations of having animals that can suffer just as people do. They are born, they are happy, sad, hurt, and they die one day. Yes, we learned all about life, through our first horses. We were not sedentary, kept indoors, sitting all day long, eating fast food (well, quite a few quickly prepared peanut-butter sandwiches perhaps), or socially isolated. Usually by the end of a long day in the barn, we were ready for a good meal and definitely a great night’s sleep. In other words, all of the qualities that were found to prevent depression in the tribal peoples, we experienced with our horses.

Unfortunately, horse time these days is often mixed with texting, and too much social media interaction, which is one of the first suggestions to limit in regards to lessening the potential for anxiety and depression.

This is where those of us who can still remember “the good old days” of our glorious interactions with horses and horsey-friends could step in and mentor young ladies and men, helping them create a state of grace, compassion for themselves and others, and acknowledgement of their own capabilities for helping maintain good mental health.

As we celebrate and honor our traditions in the coming weeks, let us remember that for every young face that lights up at the sight of a new pony in the barn, there is someone facing the sadness of ill health, the passing of an old horse, a friend or family member, memories of tragedy and despair, and possibly dealing with mental health issues themselves. It would be wonderful if we could reconnect over-stressed, hyper-speed human beings with nature and the simplest, most organic lifestyle that we are designed for, and surround everyone with mercy, love and understanding. May we all find our compassionate natures and recognize the suffering of others. May we be of benefit to all other beings, and where we are able, help relieve their suffering.

And in the spirit of the season, it seems appropriate to repost this wonderful set of videos from our publisher’s blog that are sure to make you smile:

https://horseandriderbooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/santa-please-bring-me-a-pony-6-ponies-for-presents-videos-from-tsb/

 

 

 

Helping Horses Helping People

I will never forget the day my brother and I came home from school, only to find Dad home early from work and Mom nowhere in sight. He said to us, “I’m afraid your mother has had a bit of a nervous breakdown, and she’s in the hospital.” It was shortly after Christmas, 1973. Mom’s drinking finally had her “hitting bottom” to the point that medical intervention became necessary. To this day, I have no idea what the inciting incident was that had her hospitalized, nor do I have much recall of the months that followed. It was all a blur. I just knew there had been too many times Mom was drunk when we needed her, and I had already altered my young life around her episodes. I had given up on bringing friends home long before this day because it was just too embarrassing. I do not remember who got my brother and I to school after that day, who made our dinners, how we managed to keep the dogs and cats fed, or even if I had a birthday celebration that January. There are family photos of every year of my birthday except my 14th. What I do recall is spending a lot of time talking to my therapist. We communicated at least twice a day, if not more. It was necessary, as nobody else was going to get up before school started and go out there in the pouring rain to feed her. If I looked out the bedroom window, she was usually staring in my direction, her big brown eyes wondering when I was coming out next.

My "therapist"

My “therapist”

Nobody in the family understood my attraction to horses. They all knew I had an affinity for animals, but the horse was an anomaly. Mom came from a traumatized heritage, and scientists have now proven certain traumas carry through to the next generation. Her parents left Poland in 1930, when she was just a week old. The oppression they escaped from with little money or belongings made for a hard life farming on the Canadian prairies before they moved west.  Mom’s most vivid memory of a horse was getting kicked in the chin by one of the farm’s plough horses when she was playing underfoot as a small child. She retained the scar for the rest of her life. So when I first began begging for a horse, it took some convincing. Horses were work animals in her world, as they were for my father’s family, where they had also been a status symbol in the horse and buggy days of a developing western metropolis. They most certainly were not considered “therapists” or co-facilitators for human psychological care, and in fact, the lofty new titles afforded these wonderful animals has not been applied to their species until very recently.

Every behavior a horse does naturally has now been carefully analyzed and their herd dynamic has been extrapolated to human behavior. When I started riding there was basically Western and English and not much deviation from traditional methods. I rode both ways, and as most kids enjoy doing, I also rode bareback with a halter when I was too lazy to tack up. Little did I know, all of those long, quiet hours spent feeding, mucking, grooming, and riding White Cloud, were therapy for the sad days of not having a Mom who was fully present and healthy in my early teenage years. Allegedly, every time the mare followed me, every time she moved in accordance with how I made the request, and every time she responded to my voice, has a meaning in Equine Assisted Guidance and Learning.

According to a recent article Dr. Schoen and I have discussed, horses can help humans in 8 ways:

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5634554?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular  

1. They help us find common ground.

2. They help keep us calm.

3. They help us learn by developing

empathy and social skills.

4. They keep us healthy, physically

and mentally.

5. They relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms.

6. They can be our best therapists.

7. They help us live in the present.

8. They inspire a sense of wonder in

all of us.

These ideas began in the early 1990s after Linda Kohanov released her book, The Tao of Equus. By then, I had continued getting unofficial therapy from horses, long after Mom had been going to AA and managed a full recovery, helping other alcoholics recover from their addictions too. Ala-Teen was the organization that helped my brother and I understand what had happened to our mother, and helped us avoid going down that same path as adults. I really could have used an organization like Horses Healing Hearts for children of alcoholics and addicts, but nothing like it existed at the time:

http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/horses-healing-hearts-adds-equine-assisted-learning-program-through 

The horses and all of their awe-inspiring mystical personalities kept me drawn into their lives until I became a full-time professional trainer instead of the zoologist I wanted to become prior to the experience with Mom’s addiction. Without realizing it, the horses really did mirror everything I was going through. My focus on them was what eventually led to the abilities I acquired insofar as being able to evaluate, calm, and transform the most traumatized and difficult of mounts that found their way into my hands.

As horses have come into their new starring roles in the past few years, fueled by the rise of stories such as Linda’s, the entertaining shows of Cavalia and Odysseo, or popularized in movies like the Horse Whisperer and others, there has also been the emergence of a new type of horse-person. They are drawn to horses by the mystique of equine nature, and not so much by the desire to ride and compete. In the past, as I, and many others in my field either as professionals or competitive amateurs and juniors, took our horses over jumps, we did not think in terms of the jumps being metaphors for obstacles in our lives. I have watched YouTube videos of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy with fascination as a group of people are taken into the horses’ pen and asked what obstacles they need to clear for themselves. Metaphorically, as they coerce a loose horse to hop over a low jump, that is a clearing for their own personal issue. I guess you could say that during my 30+ years of jumping horses that I have cleared a lot of obstacles. Of course, many just seem to keep returning too! Maybe I should still be riding 🙂

While I can see how incredible these new programs are for people, coming from the perspective of a trainer, and for Dr. Schoen as a pioneering holistic, integrative veterinarian, our primary concern is for the welfare of the horses themselves, and their overall wellbeing. The horse-person that is emerging from this new field is one that, as a trainer, we could consider a “beginner” around horses, although some long-time riders are benefitting from the recent revelations too. From my viewpoint, I have noticed several issues that may need to be taken into consideration when relaying equine imagery to public. It appears some safety concerns are not always being addressed, both in and out of the workshop situations, and people are left with the impression that horses can be treated as pets.

When articles such as the one from the Huffington Post show a child mounted on a horse and he is not wearing a helmet or proper footwear, this sends the wrong impression that all horses are safe to ride in this way. Those of us who know horses well also know that it is not a good idea to stand directly in front of them and grab them around the head or give them a kiss either. Not every horse is receptive to such a direct invasion of their space, and people could be hurt if they walk right up to a horse and try to interact in such manner. Having worked at a barn with an active therapeutic riding program, I can say from experience that not all horses are suitable for use in therapy, even if all they have to do is “act like a horse.”

These programs, such as EAGALA are becoming so popular however, that the new-comer to horses is going to need a very warm and compassionate welcome from those of us who have had four-legged therapists to count on for decades, and have also developed the professional skills necessary to help those who wish to explore horses more personally. Some of the newcomers to horses will hopefully want to learn how to ride and handle them correctly for the purposes of keeping the horses as sound, fit, and healthy as possible, as well as enjoying the benefits horses provide to human wellness. We are aware that it takes much more than a few experiences and encounters with horses to gain the ability to work with them independently, or in a boarding-barn situation.

Taking the current research about how horses can help humans with an array of psychological and physical disorders we can see a future for horses that potentially allows for those horses that may not be suitable for traditional riding and showing to lead a life of usefulness and engagement with humans that they would not have been priviledged to in the past. While watching the videos of the therapy sessions on YouTube, I noticed some of the horses were not sound, and hoped they were getting proper veterinary care for their issues.

On the other hand, it seems somewhat ironic that the traditional side of showing and training horses is undergoing its own shift in priorities as the regulating bodies for equestrian sports are having to deal with the enormous problems created around the doping of horses in competition. It is appearing to me that we have conflicting divisions in the equestrian world, and this is where Dr. Schoen and I are optimistic about bringing compassion into every aspect of the equine environment, to benefit all those concerned.

There is a somewhat idealized, romantic version of working with horses gaining in predominance on the social-media networks via the popular clinics and inspirational shows that involve working with horses at liberty and training them with freedom and harmony. Some modes of thought are convincing newer horse-people that all the classical means of working with horses are inhumane and use force, whereas their methods do not. Since everyone has varying filters on what constitutes force and humane or inhumane treatment, there tends to be some confusing techniques presented to eager audiences who genuinely want to learn how to communicate with horses. Some of the “branded” takes on training are not as humane as they are made out to be. In my opinion, pretty much everything we do with a horse is forcing it to do something it would not likely be doing otherwise. On the other hand, sometimes the use of force is legitimately abusive to the horse. It is simply a label, and how we use language. The use of language in the equine industry is what has been causing much of the division, and we would like to see a more nonviolent, compassionate way of communicating with all horse-people become the norm. This includes those who have had the enlightening experience of engaging horses in an EAL workshop, those who are learning some type of popular training method, or those who have been immersed in training and showing in various disciplines for many years. We all need to work together for the sake of horses at large.

As rescues become overwhelmed with the numbers of unwanted horses, and hay prices continue to increase while land for horses decreases in availability, there will be a need to create a new paradigm, and a new life for many more horses.

I am amazed, excited, and cautiously optimistic, as is Dr. Schoen, for this extraordinary rise of former “beasts of burden” to their new roles as helpers of humanity. What we need to ensure as human beings is that we do not judge the “other” kind of rider, or horse-person, or blame them in any way using the labels we have created for them, as it only serves to divide us from the common goals of being of benefit to horses, and our fellow humans. Everyone suffers in some way, from the stressed out executive who walks away from an EAP session with a huge smile and new leadership skills, to the wealthy socialite mounted on her imported dressage stallion. We are human. Our best therapists, apparently, are not. Let us find compassion for all, and move bravely forwards into this beautiful new consciousness. Thank you, horses.

 

White Cloud and I, 1973 (yes, I used to ride without a helmet and proper footwear...but I advocate strongly for proper safety gear now)

White Cloud and I, 1973 (yes, I used to ride without a helmet and proper footwear…but I advocate strongly for proper safety gear now)

Nobody was able to explain to me in 1974 just how valuable my $150 horse was to my well-being, or why. My Mom was a beautiful, generous, and caring person who probably felt misunderstood, and under-appreciated, and there is some irony in how White Cloud came into my hands. Mom was a volunteer for the Canadian Mental Health Association and taught dance classes to special-needs students. Cloudy had been the faithful ranch horse of one of those students. In some remote way, both Mom and the horse probably knew exactly what they were doing. We just didn’t have the formal definitions 40 years ago, and now we do.