LIVE LONG AND COMPASSIONATELY!

     As you read through The Compassionate Equestrian, you will find repeated references to the benefits of as little as 10 minutes a day of meditation practice.

     We have included exercises in meditation for you to do on your own, and others with your horse/s present, such as while mounting, feeding, and cleaning stalls. We encourage you to take notice of subtle, progressive changes occurring in your own mind and body, and that of your horse, and others in your barn as you expand your practice of quiet, contemplative time.

     You might wonder what the mechanism behind such changes could be, and question what is going on in the mind and body that effects the long-lasting differences you may be experiencing. We can actually break this down to one very physical component in both human and equine physiology: the vagus nerve.

     THE MIND HAS GREAT influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there. — Moliere

     According to author and founder/medical director of The UltraWellness Center, Mark Hyman MD, the scientific studies conducted with aging Tibetan monks has proven that meditation and training the mind can activate the body’s capacity to reduce inflammation through a direct nerve-based connection.

http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/08/25/how-the-dalai-lama-can-help-you-live-to-120/

     As we age, the immune system produces more inflammatory molecules and your nervous system activates the stress response, which promotes further system breakdown and aging. New science is proving that we don’t have to accept the typical course of age-related degeneration because we actually have the power within ourselves to create new cells and re-generate our own tissues at any age! To what do we owe this extraordinary ability?

     The immune system is controlled by the vagus nerve. It is the most important nerve originating in the brain, traveling to all major organs. You can consciously activate this nerve through contemplative meditation, relaxation, and other practices of ancient wisdom. Essentially, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and potentially prevent disease and aging. Meditation masters such as long-living Tibetan monks have done so, even having emerged from the most extenuating circumstances of imprisonment and torture. With meditation skills they have remained happy and able to give back to the world.

     “Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)  This is a phenomenal breakthrough. Here’s why.

It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age. And how are these stem cells controlled? You guessed it: the vagus nerve.”

     So what does this have to do with your relationship to your horse? Well, the horse also has a vagus nerve. Does he meditate? Not likely, unless you consider his blissful expression while lolling about in the sunshine or engaging in “mutual scratching” of a buddy. Although, we could also say the horse is a master of meditation, only enlisting his sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) when absolutely necessary, and only long enough to be out of danger. That is, unless he is pushed into a constant state of stress by his environment or a stressed-out owner or rider!

     If we have practiced meditation ourselves, and are able to approach the horse with a healthy, happy attitude, it will ultimately have an effect on him as well. For example, stand quietly by your horse, just taking in some deep, slow breaths. Does he match your breathing pattern, or slow down his own breaths? Vagus nerve activated…

        Imagine having such a positive influence on your horse’s health, as well as your own! And there’s more.

     The complexity of our heartbeat is called heart rate variability (HRV), which is the beat-to-beat variations. The more complex your HRV, the better your health. The least complex HRV is the flat line, for example, and we know what that means. Your HRV, and that of your horse, is controlled by the vagus nerve. Meditation and relaxation helps to increase your variability, leading to better health. This can help tremendously in learning to control your response to stressors from the inside out. We all face stress in our lives, and so do our horses, but it is how we respond to those stress factors that make the difference to our wellbeing.

     Mental stress also has an effect on another theory of aging, which is that of the protective endings of DNA called telomeres.

     “Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.  Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.

What’s even more remarkable? In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!”   

     In light of this encouraging information about meditation and health, is it any wonder that HH Dalai Lama has a particular wish for his forthcoming 80th birthday? According to Dr. Hyman’s article, if we learn how to work with our bodies rather than against them, we could provide ourselves a good opportunity to live healthy and thriving for our full lifespan, which could be as long as 120 years!

     So what does HH want for his birthday on July 6th? Given what we have just read about the vagus nerve and activation by meditation and compassion, it seems as though he is offering a gift to humanity, as we are offering the gift of good health and long life back to him. May we all live long, and compassionately, and may our horses and all sentient beings reap the benefits of our compassionate actions.

safe_image

     In honor of his milestone birthday, His Holiness is asking people to share photos, videos and quotes depicting people simply treating one another kindly, along with the hashtag #withcompassion on social accounts.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/27/dalai-lama-80th-birthday_n_7674732.html?fb_action_ids=560513107423843&fb_action_types=og.comments

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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.

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[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)

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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

Loving Hearts

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

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Sometimes the best relationships of our lives appear when we stop looking for them. Perhaps circumstances have occurred that hardened our hearts, shattered our confidence, and made us turn away from the things that bring us the most joy.

As fragile as we are, it often doesn’t take much of a spark to reignite feelings of loving-kindness and compassion in our hearts. We may have given up on ourselves, yet long for a chance to come alive again. When “it” manifests, we are ready. If we open our hearts to receive compassion—as much as we are willing to give—the exchange of energy is multiplied and embraces others in waves of happy interactions.

With mindful awareness, if we notice our reactions, we can learn to view them with clarity and perhaps create positive changes in the way we go about our daily lives. Sometimes there is a catalyst, such as a person, or a horse, who helps with that awareness, and gives us the opportunity to say, “thank you” for bringing this to my attention.

As Pema Chödrön* writes, “Until we can see our reactions, we can never know what causes us to stay stuck and what will help us get free.”

In the sweet poem written below, freedom came in the form of an unexpected meeting in the auction pen:

Photo and story: http://www.eveningsun.com/ci_20144447/rescued-horses-up-adoption-hanover?source=most_viewed (posted 03/10/2012 by Craig K. Paskoski, The Evening Sun)

Photo and story:
http://www.eveningsun.com/ci_20144447/rescued-horses-up-adoption-hanover?source=most_viewed
(posted 03/10/2012 by
Craig K. Paskoski, The Evening Sun)

“One Chance in a Million”

It happened so sudden, 12 years in my past,
For the rest of my life the injury would last.
The cars hit head-on, not a chance to slow down,
The next I remember, I lay on the ground.
My hip joint was crushed beyond all repair.
“You’re too young to replace it,” Doc said with a stare,
“You will walk again, but never will run.”
These words hit me hard like a shot from a gun.

Ten years came and went, the pain more severe.
I said to my wife, “Time to replace it is here.”
When the surgery was over, Doc said to my wife,
“He can’t ride a horse for the rest of his life.”
We own our own farm with a full riding stable,
So horses and riding put food on our table.
I could sell horses and tack, and some money I’d make,
But to ride one myself was a risk I can’t take.

And then it did happen, one night at the sale,
As I stood selling halters inside of the rail.
My wife came up to me with that look in her eye.
She said, “There’s a horse out back ready to die.”
As I walked to the killer pen and looked over the fence,
There stood a starved gelding whose frame was immense.
His eyes were three inches sunk back in his head;
If he were lying down, you would have sworn he was dead.
He stood sixteen-one, weighed about four and a quarter,
His hair was three inches and not one-half shorter.
A skeleton with hide stood before my own eyes.
If he walked through the ring, it would be a surprise.

As the barn door slid open and they led him on in,
The auctioneer said, “Two hundred is where we’ll begin.”
The kill buyer said, “Two-oh-five’s all I’ll give.”
I said, “I’ll give two-ten just to see if he’ll live.”
The bids then quit coming, not a sound from the crowd,
The next word was “Sold” he said very loud.
As the trailer backed up to the wood loading gate,
I said, “Let’s get him home before it’s too late.”
He had to have help to step up to the floor,
But we got him in and then closed the door.
As I drove home that night, I looked back at a glance
And said, “If he lives, we’ll call him Last Chance.”

Well, we made the trip home, and he lived through the night.
When the vet came next morning, he said, “What a sight.”
We floated his teeth and trimmed all his feet,
Gave him wormer and thiamine and a little to eat.
My vet said his heart was as strong as a drum,
If we brought him along slowly the rest may just come.
Well, his weight starting coming and his health soon returned.
He showed us his love he must have thought that we earned.
He would whinny and nicker as I walked to the shed,
As if to say, “Thanks, ’cause of you, I’m not dead.”
He would stroll the whole place without being penned,
He’d come when I call, just like man’s best friend.

Three months had gone by since the night of the sale,
My wife had him tied on our old hitchin’ rail.
I asked her, ‘What’s up?” as I just came outside.
She said, “It’s time to see if he’ll ride.”
She threw on the blanket, saddle, bridle and said,
“The worst that could happen, I’ll get tossed on my head.”
As her seat hit the leather, he stood like a rock.
With a tap of her heels, he started to walk.
He reined to the left and he reined to the right,
The bit in his mouth he sure didn’t fight.
He did what she asked without second thought.
She cantered him on and not once he fought.
When she returned from the ride with a tear in her eye,
She said, “He’s the one, would you like to try?”
I thought to myself as I stood at his side,
If this giant’s that gentle, why not take a ride?
It had been a long time, but the look on his face,
Said, “Hop on, my good friend, let’s ride ’round this place.”
We rode round the yard, then out through the gate,
This giant and me, it must have been fate.

He gave me back part of my life that I lost,
Knew then I’d keep him, no matter what cost.
I’ve been offered two-thousand, and once even three,
But no money on earth would buy him from me.
You see, we share something special, this gelding and me,
A chance to start over, a chance to be free.
And when the day comes that his heart beats no more,
I’ll bury my friend just beyond my back door.
And over his grave I’ll post a big sign,
“Here lies Last Chance, a true friend of mine.” Dave Saunders

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*The Pema Chödrön: Awakening the Heart wall calendar 2015 features quotes from Chödrön’s book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change and is designed to help us cultivate compassion, courage, and awareness within the challenges of daily life. These insightful quotes are paired with beautifully evocative and meditative nature photography.

Yellow Lotus

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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 (1971), 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

Present! No…Absent!

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.endofabsence.com/home/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horse Hugging for Good Health

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

http://www.msn.com/en-ca/health/wellness/hugs-can-help-ward-off-stress-infection-study/ar-BBgXJrb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin with student Mira Word

Kevin with student Mira Word

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

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

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

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