FORWARDS and STRAIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondhand Stress… Really?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/09/secondhand-stress_n_4556964.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living

We all know how secondhand smoke can affect a non-smoker, but how about secondhand stress and its effect on the wellbeing of others?

Yesterday morning as I was waking up to my radio-alarm clock a program came on featuring several people whose lives were made very stressful by working for minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet.

There were a couple of young mothers working two or three part-time jobs. One lamented that she couldn’t afford to buy good food as even a bag of her favourite apples would alone cost $10 for her and each of her kids to have just one.

I felt so sad for her and could relate to the stories I was hearing, as I too, have been “horse poor” most of my life as I built a reputation for training and teaching while struggling to pay expenses on my own horses. It’s not unlike having children to feed and care for as you don’t ever want them to know why their favourite food isn’t forthcoming or that you may have given up on a new pair of shoes for yourself in order for your dependents to have a new pair themselves.

It’s a situation most professional riders can relate to, as can students who have massive amounts of debt to pay off by the time they can even get started in their chosen careers.

The longer I listened to the interviewees on the radio show the more stressed I found myself becoming… and this was before getting out of bed! I started to worry about my own future and how expensive food is becoming and on and on. Not really how I like to start my day since it usually begins with a good raw breakfast, meditation and yogic stretches. I finally had to turn off the radio and try to shake off the effects of the “secondhand stress” I was experiencing.

Stressed?

Stressed?

I’ve learned over the years how to reduce the effects of both mental and physical stress and it doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes study, practice, and more practice, especially if your environment at home and at work is not as supportive as it could be to your peace and wellness.

When Dr. Schoen and I have a conversation about The Compassionate Equestrian and the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we frequently find the mere act of having a good dialogue about our respective backgrounds and stories to be soothing and therapeutic. Dr. Schoen is not only an advocate for meditation, he practices it with a deep conviction and thoroughly understands the transformative power of regular contemplation, even before entering a barn where he’s about to see his veterinary clientele.  He knows from experience how it affects not only the horses, who then watch him intently and actually want to be his patients, but also their owners and everyone in the barn who can sense the positive shift in energy when he’s in attendance.

Imagine being in his shoes for a moment, or that of any veterinary practitioner working with your horse or other animals, as he must take on responsibility for the diagnosis and treatment protocol for that animal. Not only that, but he has to explain his findings and treatment to the horse’s owner, the trainer, and perhaps the groom and barn manager, and then also deal with the horse itself.

The emotional stress is potentially enormous, given how horses react when they’re in pain, and also how they may respond to a veterinarian if they’ve been treated roughly by one in the past.

Our Principle #13 states:

“The Principles recommend that one takes a few moments of silence to become heart-centered, allowing for the release of any destructive emotions, prior to working with any horse in any way.”

#14 continues with:

“This allows both the individual and the horse to interact from a place of inner calm, peace, awareness and mindfulness, thereby allowing for the most positive, constructive outcome from all interactions between humans and horses.”

Over the years of working many horses a day, and dealing with all the different personality types that come with the horses at the show barns, I also discovered the value of maintaining that centred calmness and noticed the actual physiological changes that take place in both the heart and mind when one maintains a regular practice of compassion and meditation. That’s not to say I haven’t had many moments where I “lose it” and the ego wants to override thoughts and judgement, but now I know how to come “home”, and am getting better at staying there.  In fact, I think it’s possible to spread “secondhand peace” too.

Not stressed

Not stressed

Dr. Schoen says:

“Differentiating self from other promotes suffering, and the trainings in which you see that everyone is suffering and that you’re here to be of benefit to others then those areas in the brain responding to joy and bliss light up. The Buddhists talk about altruism being of benefit to others and that may be a more positive, higher evolutionary form of thinking beyond survival mode.

What this means regarding The Compassionate Equestrian’s perspective is that if we can bring compassion – the awareness of the intelligence – the personalities and awareness of the neurochemistry and neuroscience that horses and all other species have the same mind-traffic and all the same fears and survival mechanisms that we do, then theoretically being more intelligent we have the ability to go beyond that base-level mode of survival instincts and train ourselves to be more compassionate. By spreading that mind-stream in a horse barn, show, or any place where humans and animals interact we set a whole new bar for compassion and it can evolve person-to-person, person-to-horse, barn-by-barn, and so on.”

While the effects of secondhand smoking have been highly documented, it seems like we’re just beginning to understand how secondhand stress can affect us too. By becoming aware of this fact, and how it will also affect our horses when we show up at the barn, it presents us with the opportunity to determine how we will change ourselves to be more conscious of the effects we have on others, and how we can make the world a more compassionate, less stressful place for everyone we encounter.

123rf.com stock photo

Secondhand peace 🙂

A Symbiosis of Two

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

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

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

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Schoen with a client’s horse

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

Recently Dr. Schoen and I were discussing the concepts of “giving” and “letting go” and how they metaphorically apply to both our lives and the aspect of equitation that allows a horse to move more freely forwards.  This is the time of year we transition from a season of gift-giving to that of self-reflection and New Year’s resolutions, making decisions we hope will allow us to move forwards in our own lives, perhaps letting go of old habits or thought patterns that have held us back in the past.

So often we think of “giving” as meaning something we have to pay for, wrap up, order online, transport, mail or otherwise involve ourselves in a complex set of activities in order to complete the giving of the gift.  For some people the act of giving comes with the expectations of getting something in return.  Such an attitude can create disharmony and stress for both the giver and the receiver.

When we give with compassion it is to be given from the heart for the benefit of the recipient, and without the plotting of what might be given back in exchange.  Ultimately, as we practice compassion, we soon realize there is so much joy in giving it’s an instant return to us in the feeling we personally receive from a genuine sense of contributing to the benefit of another being.

 Maynard's Pony Meadows, Vancouver

Maynard’s Pony Meadows, Vancouver
photo by Susan Gordon

One of the hardest things for me to teach a rider was the “giving rein”.  As with the letting go of aspects of our lives we want to stay in control of, most riders have a difficult time giving the hand forwards, releasing contact with the rein even if only for a moment.

Of what benefit is this to the horse? As an instructor, when I’m watching from the ground and I see the precise moment the horse is ready to reach a little further into contact, lift his back and shoulders, lengthen his neck, relax the poll, and open up the stride without increasing tempo, I will tell the student “give the inside hand forwards”.  I want them to learn to feel this moment for themselves and respond at first consciously and then subconsciously as a conditioned response that instantly rewards the horse for his willingness to move forwards.

This concept is fundamental to the traditional training of horses that develops their ability to carry a rider through all gaits and all activities, building a stronger muscle-bridge across the topline, allowing the horse to remain as sound as possible for its entire working life.

So why would giving a rein forwards, gifting the horse with freedom and relaxation, be so difficult?

Dr. Schoen and I related this to the personal filters people maintain as they interact with their horses.  There is such a connection between the hand and the horse’s head and we often don’t realize how much of our emotional “stuff” we are relaying to the horse via rein tension and how it may be affected not only by the level of skill of the rider, but the degree of mindfulness in applying the various rein aids.  After all, the only thing the horse has to go by in reading the mood and instincts of the rider is the feel they are receiving through the rider’s body.  The horse is an instantaneous biofeedback mechanism and even more so when we are attached to it with a set of reins.

“Letting go”, when combined with the concept of “giving” is a very personal thing.  To be compassionate to yourself and “let go” of the parts of your life that need to be released can be considered a gift to yourself with no attachments or expectations of the outcome.  Simply observing the results will tell you what you need to know as a response to that exercise of “letting go”.

There may be many old imprints and programs in your psyche afffecting both you and your horse in a controlling kind of way that creates continued stress in both your life and your riding.  Dr. Schoen treats many horses who are so tight in the neck and poll from being held rigidly and not allowed to reach forwards and downwards into the rider’s hand.  I see the same thing in almost every horse I’ve worked with as well.

When a student finally softens their hand forward in just the right moment and just the right amount, and I see two beautiful beings working in instant joy and harmony, I see the true meaning of “giving”.  It is a very subtle, almost imperceptible moment of awareness that occurs between horse and rider, rider and themselves, and then extends back to other horses and riders at the barn and inevitably, everyone who encounters that rider and that horse in the other aspects of their lives.

As those special “letting go” and “giving” moments are increased and become part of the subconscious practice, first with the self, with the horse, and then recognized by others, they become the personality and identity of that person and compassion becomes central to their lives.  Everyone, everywhere benefits from that very fundamental, simple concept.

Giving does not have to involve a credit card, rushing around through a shopping mall, stressing over what to buy for whom or elaborate trinkets.  Sometimes it’s ourselves we need to give to, which could mean reflecting on concepts that are keeping us on a tight rein and preventing us from moving forward in life.  Give a smile to someone who needs it, give a bit of your time to help an elderly person with their groceries, and give your horse a pat on the neck.  What you actually receive in return may be the greatest gift, ever.