A Marvelous Assistant; The Horse

 

Horses were my passion from early childhood. As is the case with many children, I was identified by adults as “extra-sensitive” to the communication channels between humans and animals. Transitioning from junior to amateur, then hunter-jumper trainer, it was quite a shock to emerge from the quiet, intimate level of contact and understanding that comes from spending a lot of time with one’s own horses, to the fast, noisy, highly expectant world of professional training.

While that childhood sensitivity never left, it was often trounced upon by the impatience of horse owners, other trainers I worked for, or simply the fatigue that comes from long hours of physical and mental exertion when working around horses and their owners. Often times, what the owner or trainer wanted, and what the horse communicated that he needed were two different things. The horse, ultimately due to his relative silence, frequently lost the argument. I was caught in the middle on many occasions. So I caved to the demands of the environment… until I didn’t.

Some horses are brilliant jumpers, and want to jump. Some are extremely talented in a particular discipline, but don’t want to perform, and that can be due to a long laundry list of reasons. The complexities of human-horse interactions can be intense, and highly misunderstood.

One day there was a new book that crossed my path: The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. I was thrilled. Somebody out there felt as I did about the deeper communication conveyed to us by horses. Then the entire field of Equine Assisted Therapy began to emerge. Still involved in the sport disciplines, I watched from the periphery as more and more people started to use horses in human wellness programs. The process was both fascinating and disconcerting. Who asked horses if they wanted to be psychotherapists for humans? Who’s to say if the horses don’t also take on the stress and other symptoms of their “patients?” Why are they being made to remain in round pens hour after hour, helping humans discover the root of their greatest issues and fears? What is the protocol for caring for a “compassion-fatigued” horse? What about the safety concerns of bringing inexperienced horse-people into a pen of loose horses without proper footwear, headgear, or other traditional means of protection from known horse behaviors?

In short, the Equine Assisted Therapy models seemed to be all over the board without ethics guidelines, equine welfare regulations, or any professional structure to help manage this new faction of the equestrian world.

LeifPortrait

Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC

 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and it is such a pleasure to see that Leif Hallberg has addressed both the broad base of practitioners and equestrians who are involved with EAT/EFW, as well as providing material for each individual in the field in the form of a practical workbook. She also provides consultations, workshops, and retreats that are well grounded in her academic background, yet still merge beautifully with the real world of hands-on experience in the outdoors with animals, plants, and other creative aspects of nature.

SG


TCE co-author, Dr. Allen Schoen DVM introduced us via e-mail and I was excited to ask Leif some of those pressing questions I’ve had regarding Equine Assisted Therapy. I discovered that we are completely on the same page insofar as our observations and concerns for horses used in equine/human therapy programs. The Compassionate Equestrian fully endorses and encourages the following textbooks for everyone involved with horses in a therapeutic program.

Books by Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC

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The Clinical Practice of Equine Assisted Therapy – Including Horses in Human Healthcare

The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy bridges theory, research, and practical methods to fill a rapidly developing gap for physical, occupational, speech, and mental health professionals interested in incorporating horses in therapy. Extensively researched and citing over 300 peer-reviewed journal articles, it examines core issues such as terminology, scope of practice, competency recommendations, horse care ethics, and clinical practice considerations. This book is an essential resource for professionals who wish to use a best-practices approach to equine-assisted therapy.

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The Equine Assisted Therapy Workbook

The Equine-Assisted Therapy Workbook gives readers the tools they need to increase professional competency and personalize the practical applications of equine-assisted therapy. Each chapter includes thought-provoking ethical questions, hands-on learning activities, self-assessments, practical scenarios, and journal assignments applicable to a diverse group of healthcare professionals. The perfect companion to The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy, this workbook is appropriate for both students and professionals.


Titan3

Q :Were you involved with horses as a child or did they enter your life as an adult?

A: I started my relationship with equines as a young child. My parents rescued a donkey from the Eastern Sierras in California when I was three, and from that time forward, horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules were a part of my life. Over the years I transitioned from the “learn by the seat of your pants” approach, to becoming a serious rider, trainer, and competitor – making horses my way of life.

 Q: What was your “epiphany moment” that inspired you to combine horses with your professional training as a therapist?

A: I share this story in The Clinical Practice of Equine-Assisted Therapy, but will share it here as well.

One day, standing in the middle of a dusty area, I realized the power of horses to change lives. I was 19, a young, up and coming hunter/jumper riding instructor and horse trainer, and the idea that riding horses could help people overcome significate physical or emotional obstacles never really crossed my mind.

The woman I was teaching had progressed nicely, and was finally ready to canter for the first time. The horse she was riding was lovely and kind, easy to handle and very responsive. I watched as she got into two-point, picked up the trot, and gently asked the horse to canter. He started off on the correct lead and around they went. After a few moments, I asked her to transition to the trot. Nothing happened. The horse continued to canter, and the woman remained in two-point, never asking the horse to change his gait. I asked repeatedly with no response. Finally, I used voice commands and my body language to slow the horse down. As I caught the reins, I looked up at the woman’s face and was shocked to see tears pouring down her cheeks. I helped her dismount and asked another student to cool down the horse. We walked to a bench and sat down. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She could not speak. We sat together for a while, as she collected herself. Finally, she was able to tell me that nothing about the lesson had caused her to cry, and that she would be back next week. I got her some water and walked her to the car.

The next week she came back. She seemed collected and focused so I asked if she wanted to try cantering again. She agreed and when the time was right I asked her to transition into the canter. The exact same thing occurred. Around and around they went. I continued to ask her to stop and nothing happened. Just like the week before, I used voice commands and slowed the horse down, and just like the week before she was sobbing. This continued week after week.

Finally, one day in that arena something different happened. Into the canter goes the horse, and I get ready to once again intercede to slow the horse down. Instead, all of a sudden the woman yelled “STOP”. The horse came to a sliding halt. I rushed up to see what was happening. Instead of a sobbing rider I found the woman sitting tall and proud atop her horse. I asked what had happened. And then she told me. For over a year her boss had been raping her. She was terrified to tell him no and even more terrified to report him because she was sure she would lose her job. For the past year, she had lived in fear, knowing that what was happening was not right, but not being able to find a way to stop it. She explained that the day before coming to barn she had found the courage to tell him no. She told me that learning to ride had taught her she could no longer be a bystander observing her own life, and that riding had given her the strength to stand up.

My world changed that day. I realized there was a power in the horse-human relationship that far exceeded my knowledge or understanding. I wanted to know more, and learn how I could support and protect interactions that could cause such profound change. And, I knew then and there it was not about me. It was something that happened between that woman and that horse.

Q: Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) is still a relatively new field. What was the biggest concern you had when you first encountered the possibility of using horses in a human therapy setting?

A: My biggest concern has always been for the horses. I recall a time when a volunteer of mine rescued a mustang and wanted him to work in our equine-assisted learning program with juvenile inmates. She offered to pay for training to prepare him for the work. I agreed to give it a try as I thought he might be a lovely fit for some of the participants. The first day the trainer arrived, she put this beautiful, regal, leader of a horse into a round pen and ran him around until he was frothing and sweating and exhausted, all for the purpose of getting him to “join up” so he could work as a “therapy” horse. I couldn’t stand what was happening, so I stepped in, removed the horse, and asked the woman to leave the property.

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Titan

The key with this beautiful horse was to respect his leadership skills and his unique knowledge and intelligence. He certainly didn’t need some incompetent human attempting to “lead” him or force him to submit to “joining up”. It turned out this was Titan’s gift – He helped those he worked with understand that the concepts of leadership, dominance, and submission commonly used in the horse industry are rarely accurate, and many times inappropriately couched as “gentle” or “natural” approaches to training horses. Titan taught people that he had skills and abilities far beyond their understanding, and if they would respect him and listen to him, he would generally do his part of find common ground so horse and human could interact and engage safely and enjoyably.

Sadly, some in the equine-assisted mental health and learning industry have adopted activities and training techniques that confuse and frighten horses, or routinely require them to submit and shut down, even as the providers believe the horses are genuinely bonding and connecting with the participants, or are “happy” in their work. This is of grave concern to me.

Q: Do you feel that EAT in its current format truly honors the needs and welfare of horses, putting them first?

A: No, certainly not. Most research points to the difficulty obtaining reliable data regarding equine welfare because of human projections and interpretations. For the most part, humans find great value in believing horses actually enjoy this work, and the humans directly benefit from this belief structure. This makes it difficult to gather objective data. I am also concerned that current studies which show horses having little or no negative reactions to the work may be using the wrong markers to understand equine wellbeing – and therefore overlooking important information. I believe this may be furthering the problem, as putting out studies showing that horses aren’t negatively impacted could result in people overlooking critical signs of stress, burnout, or submission, or considering the overall welfare of the horse.

Q: What is the most pressing problem with using horses in human therapy at this time?

A: Beyond what I suggested above related to equine welfare:

#1 Provider competency – Especially related to understanding horses and involving them in therapy. I am greatly concerned by models that support a therapist who isn’t trained (and experienced) in working with/understanding horses and who has limited knowledge and skills designing clinical activities including horses and the farm milieu compensating for this huge gap in knowledge by partnering with an “equine specialist”. The possibilities for unsafe and unethical practices abound.

#2 Understanding the differences between regulated therapy services and non-therapy services. Many who are not therapists unknowingly offer services that duplicate (or come very close to duplicating) regulated therapy services. There are solid reasons why licensed healthcare professionals go through many years of schooling and supervised clinical experience. Humans are very complicated beings, and many times people simply don’t know what they don’t know. Understanding the damage that can be done when using an evocative experience like engaging with horses with potentially vulnerable populations only comes with training and education, and a willingness to put one’s own desires, beliefs, needs, and wants aside. I was a horse person first, an experiential educator second, and finally a therapist. So, I can tell you that it was only after I went through my years of training, education, and supervised experience did I really understand the damage that could be done. Having said that, I also recognize that licensed therapists who choose to include horses without extensive training and education can inflict a great deal of damage onto their clients – while some who aren’t licensed may have a unique, natural gift allowing them to safely guide people through various states of being. So, it is not black and white, but no matter what, MORE TRAINING and EDUCATION for everyone is the best way to resolve the concerns.

Q: If you could change something about the way horses are used in EAT programs immediately, what would that be?

A: Probably the most immediate issue is ceasing the use of activities in which horses are chased, cornered, touched/interacted with, or otherwise confused by participants who have not been educated about how to safely and respectfully interact with horses.

Q: I have seen many websites of “equine experience programs” that offer various types of interactions with horses for personal growth and other such workshops. Often the participants are shown sitting on horses, bareback, with no helmets, improper footwear, and frequently without bridles or any other visible means of control should the horse spook. To me, this implicates considerable liability on the part of the practitioner. How is this being addressed in your book and within the industry?

A: I address this in depth in my book. All the research shows the best way of avoiding a serious accident when working with horses is teaching people ABOUT horses – how they communicate, how to respectfully interact with them, and how to remain safe around them. And secondly, research shows that wearing the appropriate safety gear is also essential (hard hats, boots, vests, etc.). I believe many people in this industry don’t really understand horses, having had little serious training in ethology, equitation science, or equine behavior, but value their interactions with humans greatly. I think this has led to strange ways of engaging with horses that range from somewhat sweet and innocent to extremely dangerous and damaging.

It is of grave concern that professionals and even some organizations choose to minimize the inherent risk related to including equines in healthcare, and ignore the conventional knowledge of horse behaviorists and ethologists and the results of countless research studies, and continue to use activities that place the horse and the clients at risk for negative experiences ranging from simple miscommunications to dangerous accidents.

There is a growing awareness that far more training, education, and knowledge is necessary to safely and ethically provide equine-assisted therapy. The American Counseling Association (ACA) recently endorsed the ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies, which all members of the ACA who include any species of animal in counseling are required to adhere to. Also, an increasing number of training programs are focusing on a much greater depth of training and education, requiring their students achieve a higher level of competency prior to offering services that involve horses.

Q: What type of horses are best used for EAT?

A: This depends upon the specific type of EAT – For example, a physical therapist who includes equine movement as a part of the clinical intervention will seek out horses with specific confirmation criteria in mind to meet the needs of the patients. Any horses who work in physical, occupational, or speech therapy programs and who are ridden by clients must be 100% sound and fit. This is essential for their wellbeing and for the success of the intervention. In mental health programs, especially those that do not include mounted activities, the range of possible horse types is unlimited. Some people have specific criteria and only include certain breeds, ages, or genders, while others include rescue horses, elderly, or very young horses, or those in need of rehabilitation.

In my experience, horses who are in need of physical or mental/emotional rehabilitation should ONLY be included if they are given full choice as to whether or not they want to engage, and how they would like to engage. They should never be forced to interact or participate in activities they don’t wish to, and should be carefully assessed on a regular basis by objective measures.

Q: If someone is considering donating their horse to a program or practitioner, what factors should be taken into account, both for the horse’s sake and that of the humans he will be assisting?

A: Equine-assisted therapy can be hard work for horses. It should not immediately be considered a “retirement” option. There are elderly horses for whom having meaning and a job where they can be purposeful is very important, while there are others who really just want to spend their last years out in a pasture with other horse friends enjoying life. It is important to know the personality of the horse, and place that at the forefront of the decision making process.

For owners considering donating their horses, my advice is to go and spend time at the facility. Watch how the horses are tended to and interacted with. Ask questions about the amount of free time the horses are afforded – and find out if this free time is FREE of human interactions, meaning the horse has time to be loose in a pasture environment with other horses and where they don’t have to interact with humans. Also find out if the horse will have “extra-curricular activities” that gets him/her off of the property like trail rides, horse shows, walks down a country lane nearby, or anything to get a change of scenery and pace. Training, exercise, and conditioning is another important area to research. Will the horse be exercised and conditioned by a qualified rider? Or will volunteers be asked to “exercise” the horse with limited instruction or supervision? Finally, what is the facility like? Are the horses well cared for, fit, healthy, and happy (seeming)? Does the facility have good working relationships with vets, alternative care providers, farriers, etc.? Is there an established mechanism for regular objective equine assessment? Do all animals on the property have enough room? Meaning, is there ample turn out, paddock space, pasture, and other free roaming opportunities? Is there shelter, shade, and access to clean water? Are the humans friendly, open, and engaged?

Q: What do you see for the future of EAT? It seems as though equestrian sports are becoming a minor part of society at large due to the high costs, lack of land and facilities, and diminishing youth participation. Far too many horses still end up in the slaughter pipelines or otherwise discarded, ignored, and uncared for. It is my hope that the therapy programs offer a window of opportunity for many horses that are not show or trail horses to find a new and suitable career.

A: I believe that the issues you speak of – lack of space, cost of horse caretaking, and diminishing facilities – pose a serious threat to the equine-assisted therapy industry.

At present, I see two options that might help the industry maintain. First is the co-op model. In this model, providers pay to work out of a shared facility where one entity has control over the horse care and welfare, and those that join the co-op agree to the manner in which the horses are tended to, and agree to specific rules related to equine interactions, care, and wellbeing. This model allows for greater funding, better facilities for providers, equines, and clients, and more living/working opportunities for the equines. Due to increased funding, these co-op stables could potentially exist in urban areas where an individual or a small program could not afford land, and could operate more like conventional healthcare clinics. This increases the accessibility for many different client types, and offers opportunities for collaborative relationships with other service providers.

The challenge with this idea is that horse people historically don’t collaborate very well, and tend to have differing opinions about, well, just about everything.

The second option I like is the farm-based clinic model. This model includes horses, but is not limited to equine-assisted therapy. For example, if a program has a small number of chickens, goats, pigs, other small farm animals, and a few horses, along with art, nature activities, cooking and other healthy living strategies, the facility can be much smaller and may even be able to exist in a more urban setting more affordably, thereby increasing accessibility while decreasing program costs. I believe interacting with nature, engaging in experiential activities, and spending time with different types of animals can offer powerful healing and learning opportunities for humans, and shouldn’t be overlooked due to the perceived “sexiness” of working with horses.

I love the farm-based model because it offers horses a break, provides new and different therapeutic opportunities, and through the diversity of species, can be used to better “meet” clients where they are rather than assuming that horses are the right species for every client.

Q: Anything else you would like to add to this list of questions? Please do!

Last Comment – One of the areas I am most interested in is the use of equine interactions to teach healthcare professionals how to be more effective at their jobs. I believe this industry can only support so many providers of equine-assisted therapy, and I believe there are only a certain number of clients who actually need equine-assisted therapy. However, there are millions of healthcare providers world-wide who never have to offer equine-assisted therapy for their clients to benefit. The lessons learned through ethical horse-human interactions are vast and multifaceted. I wish more programs were based not on training people how to “do this work”, but rather on offering services for healthcare professionals to learn personal and professional skills through equine interactions that they could take back to their offices and clinics.

https://leifhallberg.com/

https://leifhallberg.com/home/writing-research/the-clinical-practice-of-equine-assisted-therapy/

https://leifhallberg.com/home/writing-research/the-equine-assisted-therapy-workbook/

LeifConnecting


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 58 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, an internationally 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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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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The Riding Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, enjoy the read 🙂

Susan

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

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

The Riding Lesson by Eclipse Deal’s mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Win

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

no punishment

The Lesson Learned

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

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

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

**

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

CAUGHT YOU LOOKING!

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

Two brown horses nuzzling each other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trakehner stallion

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

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

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

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