The Story in Our Eyes

Compassion is gritty. It can be fiery. It is a natural part of being human but sometimes it needs to be uncovered from the layers of conditioning we experience throughout our lifetimes. It takes practice, as it literally transforms the brain. It changes our hearts and the way we think.

It isn’t all about simply being nice to others, or extending kindness to those we also see as kind. The really hard part is convincing ourselves to have empathy for those whom we view as not benevolent to others at all. Sometimes it is hard to see the suffering in others if they are also inflicting suffering on another.

In the horse world we can tell the sad tales of equine abuse all day long. Thousands and thousands of times over, somewhere, at any moment, a horse is suffering at the hands of a human.

Yes, we want to be optimists. We want to see pictures of beautiful, healthy animals and people enjoying the presence and connection with horses of all kinds. Whether it be the wild herds racing through scrub forests at sunset or a lovely PRE stallion engaged in a liberty performance with its handsome handler. That’s what we all hope for when we desire to have horses parked in our minds as an enriching, joyful image that makes our hearts sing.

The romantic visions so delightedly sprinkled all throughout the social media world and popping up on endless websites are easily misinterpreted as the utopian reality for all horses. As our ego recedes with the increased practice of compassion, the other side of the coin emerges and we become more responsible horse-people. We acknowledge that while there is so much enjoyment when horses and humans interact, there is also a very heavy, dark side to the entire spectrum of the industry. How can we be completely content and happy when so many others are suffering?

I can’t help but immediately put myself in the horse’s shoes every time I am near one. Even when viewing photos and videos of horses, I see myself standing beside them, looking back at the humans looking at them. I identify with them, because of all the years I spent living either above the barn, in the same yard as the barn, or right beside it. Even though it was living with domesticated horses, you still begin to feel like one of the herd and highly responsible for the other herd members that are entrusting you with their care and daily routines.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is all about “the other.” Of course, that means having compassion for ourselves too, as loving ourselves translates to how we respond to everyone and everything outside of us.

Some stories are much harder to tell than others. We want people to respond, but not in a way that paralyzes them with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Sometimes the task can seem too enormous for one person, and yet history has proven over and over again how much one person can actually make a difference.

The sense of a situation being too much to handle makes it much easier to shut out the photos that are hard to look at, and turn the other way when faced with sad stories. If nobody looks, and nobody responds though, what is going to happen this week, this month, or this year, to thousands of horses that will end up in the auctions and shipped to processing plants?

We can talk about all the wonderful things horses do for people and how fabulous it is to bond with them and allow their spirits to be guiding beacons for humans and yet…once we have that kind of relationship with them, do we not all sense the collective stress of a global herd in trouble?

There are many issues affecting the equine world that are raising the red flags about the sustainability of this industry. Climate change is a factor, especially in drought-ridden areas where water and pasture are becoming scarce and expensive. There is a compounding factor in the numbers of horses that are being discarded due to the rapidly rising costs of care and feed, further splitting the gap between the wealthy owners and those who are more economically challenged. As rescues fill to the brim, they too are strained by shrinking resources and donors.

Then there are the numbers of horses who are the result of uncontrolled breeding practices and training methods that are not producing safe, rideable saddle horses. There is virtually no market for poorly trained horses unfortunately, and it isn’t much better for those that have not been started under saddle at all. This is why so many of the horses in the auction pens are actually young and healthy…not the broken down old horses some people envision as being the only horses “sent to the knackers.”

So if we hear the stories, or read them, or watch the videos, how do we respond? Is it with a Facebook post that reads something like, “Oh, that is just so sad”? Or, do we go to the website of a local horse rescue and see where we can volunteer or donate? How do we inspire truly practical action, and raise the fire of a compassionate heart and mind?

As Karen Armstrong, winner of the 2008 TED prize and creator of the Charter for Compassion states:

“Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories. I don’t want this charter, for example, to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done. If we want to create a viable, peaceful world, we’ve got to integrate compassion into the gritty realities of 21st century life.

     Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories. Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren’t engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. We need to encourage full storytelling—unless people also talk about the bad things that happen, this is just going to be some superficial feel-good exercise.”

http://charterforcompassion.org/node/4287

Karen Armstrong Argues for Practical Compassion

If there is one beautifully written story that could possibly make a difference to people who still might not want to look at the hard statistics, pictures, websites or videos that describe the fate of far too many horses, perhaps this would be it: (reposted from Facebook with permission)

     From Sabrina Connaughton, Serene, WA, U.S.A.:

I’m sitting here listening to the rain pour down as the tears pour down my cheeks. I thought I didn’t cry anymore but the rain keeps coming down. I feel like each raindrop is a tear for each and everyone of these horses. This is their last supper here as they begin their journey to slaughter. Horses are lined up for as far as you can see munching on their hay. I just sat there by myself on some hay watching them eat, feeling like I should have done something for them, done more, found homes, made one more trip to the feedlot last week, something, just wishing I could do something to change what was in front of me. It is desperation with no remedy, the most helpless feeling, complete despair. These horses will be slaughtered and there is nothing I can do. At that point I don’t even want to look at them, as if not looking at them makes them less real, but it is happening and they are real, so I say my goodbyes to those that’ll stand for a hug and make my rounds in the slaughter pens. They were all somebody to someone, and yet they are here, thrown away and betrayed by someone somewhere along the way. I want to say it’s the young ones that get to me the most because they never even had a chance to be something, but it’s the old who were robbed of a retirement, and everyone in between, it’s all of them, and completely unfair. It just makes you wonder what horrible twist of fate occurred that resulted in all of these horses now gathered in a line eating their last meal together here. I wish the pretty little appy filly didn’t get an abscess. I wish the appy gelding I’ve now met there twice didn’t have to go. I wish the sweet Arab mare had a child to take her to shows. I wish there were people for all of them, but there just aren’t. I feel completely defeated and broken. There is nothing I can do for them so I pick myself back up and work on the adjacent line of horses that still have a chance. They will be posted tomorrow. Tonight I am spent. I am just going to listen to the rain.

http://www.auctionhorses.net/ 

They’re in the Gate…

…and they’re off!

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

Kicking up dirt

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

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

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

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

 http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26602-feeling-the-touch-of-the-goad-a-sense-of-urgency-as-a-spur-to-climate-action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * 

Thank you to Dr. Schoen for sourcing the article from http://www.truth-out.org on which this post is based.

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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Willy’s Light-headedness

I’m not sure if my last post made it to followers.  It certainly didn’t get to my e-mail box so this is an extension to the story of how light, or photonic therapy, saved my horse’s life.

The week after his series of three BioScan Light treatments was a happy week for Willy, and for me.  He was able to roll again, his gaits were good, and he seemed happy.  While of course the photonic therapy couldn’t eliminate all the lumps, bumps and turn the clock back to his youth, there was a spring in his step again and we were back in the saddle.  I went from making a decision about whether or not to euthanize him to deciding how to celebrate his 25th birthday.

Unfortunately as I led him through the barn one afternoon an aggressive mare lunged at him over the top door of her stall, surprising us both and catching Willy across his forehead with her incisors.  She left a deep gash above his left eye that began bleeding profusely.  Given his expression it obviously hurt quite a bit and I made a quick call to the vet.  I thought this would need stitches given the width and depth of the injury.

Willy

Willy – always letting you know how he feels!

Describing the nasty wound, our old-fashioned country vet said he’d prefer not to put stitches in a horse’s head due to the risk of infection and the difficulty in bandaging the area and keeping it clean given the equine tendency to rub on such things.  Like they do with show braids.  He suggested keeping an eye on it and making a “fresh wound” after it scabbed over, repeating the process until it was healing cleanly.

I put Willy in an empty box stall instead of returning him to the pasture with a rapidly-swelling, bleeding forehead and thought of the studies I’d read about the ability of red light to increase wound healing and tissue regeneration, to relieve pain and inflammation, and to prevent tissue death.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933784/  (Effect of Pulsing in Low Level Laser Therapy)

The only problem was I didn’t have a device that could deliver the specific frequencies of light and I needed it right away.  Willy was not going to let me anywhere near his head.  Any attempts to clean the wound were met with pinned ears and a “don’t you dare” expression.  Remembering I had a red bicycle light in the house, I thought I’d have nothing to lose by giving it a try.  It was so low-level as to be well out of the infrared range, and it certainly didn’t pulse, but it was LED-based nevertheless so it was worth a shot, even if the effect was minor.

I returned to the barn with the bicycle light in hand.  Willy was still in distress and not wanting me near his head.  That is, until he saw the red light in my hand.  I held it up to him and his expression changed immediately.  He literally dropped his head into my hand and allowed the light to be placed over the open wound.  Obviously the memory of what he felt during the BioScan treatment was still fresh in his mind.

I continued to treat the injury daily for a few days with nothing more than the bicycle light and was amazed at how quickly and cleanly it healed over.  I pretty much left it alone after that and within 10 days the hair was growing back.  The horrible looking wound needed no further treatment as it healed so well there was no scar, and no white hair as frequently occurs in horses at the site of a traumatic injury.

After I had a device made with the correct frequencies, I’d offer it to Willy who would turn his body into the light pad and point with his nose, indicating where he wanted the diodes placed, or he would ignore it altogether, which I took to mean he felt just fine that day.