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.

Two FACES of Training

 

Once it was confirmed I was a horse-crazy young lady, my parents eventually realized there was no turning back insofar as their daughter’s intense desire to ride, train and show. Their encouragement for me to be independent and creative may have caused them more than a few moments of anxiety, but it also produced a sense of responsibility that made me aware of the need to work hard towards the goals I would set for myself. I would be given the tools, but had to find my own path to make the finished products of my desire.

My first horse was good enough for learning the basics. She was limited by her conformation and lack of formal training however, and I had had a taste of watching friends with show horses living an exciting life of competitions and equestrian skill. My idea was to sell the grade mare and purchase a young training project. I loved appaloosas and was determined to reach my goal of having a registered show horse. Fortunately or not, my parents did not know enough about horses to realize that it would be a potentially dangerous and difficult transition for a 14-year-old to go from a reliable old ranch horse to a barely-broke filly. The fortuitous part of the story is that I did not get hurt (embarrassed many times, yes), and learned an extremely valuable lesson that shaped the foundation for my career as a professional trainer.

In 1974 we essentially had two sources of information for riding education… actual teachers, and the library. We had no way to scan the world via thousands of videos, websites or blogs. My family was now living in a city where white Stetsons and cowboy boots were a common sight and almost everybody, including big business-people had something or other to do with horses. It was easy to track down a breeder of top-notch appaloosa show horses and go visit a herd of up and coming youngsters. It was like a smorgasbord of equine-delight! My beginner horse found her way back to a ranch life and I had a few hundred dollars to spend on the horse of my dreams. Mom and I visited several breeders and patiently listened while they proudly touted the pedigrees of each animal and the histories of their illustrious stallions. It was quite a learning experience and I soaked up every bit of information and advice that came my way.

My final choice was a 2-year-old filly bred at a ranch with a famous stallion and a long line of national and world championships. There were older horses for sale that were already being shown, but they were out of my price range. I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay any more as I thought they had already been quite generous. So the owners agreed to throw in the cost of starting the red roan filly under saddle as part of her purchase price. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

Susan_Missy

Susan and Missy

 

We finalized the paperwork and left her in the hands of the cowboy at the ranch. I found out upon delivery that the young man had done what so many cowboys of his era were taught to do…throw a saddle on and just ride out the bucking until the horse was too exhausted to buck any longer.

I don’t know all of the details as to what went on during those few weeks, but whatever happened during Missy’s “breaking” process, it left her frightened of men in cowboy hats, hard to catch, and forever hair-trigger with unexpected bucking fits that would be set off by such things as simply trying to mount. I did not understand at first, but the day she blew up as I was swinging a leg over the saddle, I knew something had gone terribly wrong somewhere in between the time we first saw her and the day she arrived at her new home.

Then she scared me too. I did not want to get back on. So I employed one of the other cowboys on staff at the Quarter Horse show barn we boarded her at and watched in shock as she leapt about and bucked like a champion rodeo horse with the fellow on board. Luckily he stayed in the tack and we had no further incidents of quite that amount of drama.

It was very hard for me to have to ask for help with Missy. We had a series of schooling shows at the barn, and a couple of decent trainers, primarily in Western disciplines such as reining, trail & stock horse work. I devoted myself to the correct training of this filly, studying everything I could get my hands on to learn how to make my horse as good as the other competition horses. Besides watching the seasoned show riders, I studied the popular Farnam book series on horse training and diligently read Horse and Rider Magazine. Eventually we were winning ribbons in events ranging from cattle penning to western pleasure, and later adding hunt seat to our repertoire after being influenced by the very fancy warmblood jumpers that were coming to our English schooling shows. I still had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to the remaining trauma-memory in Missy’s brain however, as the explosive reactions were always waiting just beneath the surface. I was determined my next horse would be started differently, and I would do it myself.

In 1976 that opportunity arose in the form of a gorgeous, bay, spotted appaloosa colt that was on display at an Appaloosa Horse Club Conference. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was “the one.” Once again, my parents helped me out and I put Missy up for sale to help with the yearling colt’s purchase. Juniors aren’t even allowed to show a stallion so I had to take the polite and delightful little guy in open competitions. “TC” had already earned a Grand Championship in halter classes and had been extremely well handled and socialized. He seemed to love attention and nothing frightened him.

TC at Spruce Meadows

TC at Spruce Meadows 1977

 

By this time, I was seriously considering becoming a professional horse trainer and the high school allowed me to develop my own course of study in that regard. I had also been studying classical horsemanship and read books like Col. Alois Podhajsky’s “My Horses My Teachers” and “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider” over and over again. Having been highly influenced by the stunning Hanoverian jumpers that came to our barn’s shows, I was extremely pleased when Spruce Meadows accepted the little appaloosa colt and myself as a boarder to their now-famous international tournament facility.

There had been issues at the other barn that made me decide to leave, including alcohol-abusing staff, and a serious hock injury Missy had sustained after being run from the pasture into the barn with the entire herd of horses as was the barn’s procedure at the end of each day. The environment was not the best in which to try to focus on a green horse’s training, and I was beginning to clue-in.

Once again, I learned a lot by watching. The master European trainers at Spruce Meadows worked with young horses there each day, and I applied their methods to my young stallion. We did ground work and showed in conformation classes for over a year, as he was too young to ride. His joy and enthusiasm for everything made every day a wonderful experience. There were no setbacks and no traumas at all in the quiet, clean, and peaceful setting. Yes, there were large shows at times and many visitors, but I learned that the environment in which a horse is started is the one that affects them throughout their lifetime. They can always be brought back to the mindset of that early training should traumatizing incidents occur later in their life. It doesn’t seem to work out so well the other way around, as I found out the hard way with Missy.

TC was very bright and learned voice commands, enabling free-longeing at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, as well as liberty play that we both had a lot of fun with. I started him with care, introducing a saddle and bridle with a rubber snaffle. Each phase progressed into the next and by the time I got on his back, he was so well schooled that all he had to do was learn to balance with my weight.

Even as a stallion I was able to take him into a crowded show arena and he was never out of the ribbons. In effect, TC was my “proof of thesis” that there was a huge difference in the behaviors of a “rough-broke” horse versus one that was conscientiously started under saddle following a careful protocol of ground work adhering to classical methods that include development of the gaits prior to the horse being mounted. We not only had a tremendous relationship, but we also had the benefit of correct athletic training that set this horse up for a long and useful career.

Generally you would think a stallion would be far more difficult than a mare to handle in stressful situations. In the case of my two young horses, whose histories I knew from the beginnings of their training, the opposite was true. It was entirely their environment and process of how they were started under saddle that seemed to be the most prominent differential. What happened to the mind of the filly versus the mind of the colt?

I believe the FACES acronym by Dr. Dan Siegel can be extrapolated to traumatized horses. It stands for:

Flexible

Adaptive

Coherent

Energized

Stable

http://www.nicabm.com/treatingtrauma2014/a1-transcript-sample/?del=11.16.14LTsampleemailfree

Before we get to the details of how old a person (replace “person” with “horse” in our case) is or what kind of trauma it is or if the trauma is acute, one time only, or repeated or what adaptive mechanisms were in place before the traumatic event happened – and these are all absolutely crucial elements to answer your question, “What is happening in the brain?” – there’s a more global statement to make.

 “Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”

And that global statement, as far as my reading of the research literature on trauma and the brain, is that trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.

 Brain functioning will stop being flexible – it will become inflexible.

The brain will stop being adaptive – it will become maladaptive.

Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.

Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy.

 “Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”

In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability – either repeating patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional, which from the outside looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction. (We use the word stability to describe the healthy way in which this system has equilibrium.)

 All of that is the most global thing we can say about trauma, but there’s also this: re-integration is what repairs the brain.

 So, we really need to ask specific questions: what was the context in which the trauma happened, at what time did it happen – what was the developmental framework – and what was this person like before the event?

 Trauma will affect the specifics of the brain depending on all of those factors.

     This isn’t meant to anthropomorphize a horse, which can lead to definitive inaccuracies in determining the cause of a horse’s behaviors, but rather to compare the results of trauma in a human brain to that of trauma in the equine brain. In my experiences with many traumatized horses subsequent to the appaloosa filly, I am finding that this newer research into the effects of trauma on the human brain is producing more similarities than differences in regards to horses. If so, then the reintegration process of repair should also work for horses.

Part of the human issue in working with a traumatized horse is also what happens if we are in the presence of a person with trauma…we tend to dissociate and stop listening to their stories. We don’t want to feel their pain or experience it for ourselves. I have seen that response in humans who ignore their horse’s distress signals, which can sometimes be very subtle. The rider, by insisting that the horse engage in an enjoyable experience by the rider’s standards, but perhaps not at all enjoyable or comfortable in the horse’s mind, can lead to even more trauma and further distress or pain for that horse.

For both horses and humans, a separation from a strong social connection can often be found at the root of trauma issues. There is a sense of a loss of safety, which in a herd situation is especially critical to wellbeing.

How much of that dissociation from a traumatized horse is related to our own traumas and subconscious desires to shut them out? Can you see how having self-compassion and bringing ourselves into awareness would also be of benefit to the horse?

It doesn’t mean we turn around and completely spoil a horse or let it get away with behaviors that may result from trauma. It means we are compassionate, consistent, and stable enough in our approaches that we create a safe space for the horse, while respecting the fact that it is still an animal.

Let’s say we could return Missy to her 2-year-old self and start her all over again. She wasn’t a bad horse. She actually had a wonderful disposition. It wasn’t her fault that she was quickly turned into a traumatized horse. Had the training been reversed between her and TC, I am quite certain the outcomes would have been very different for each of them.

How did their lives pan out? Well, Missy eventually sold to some out of town people that sent an experienced rider to try her. The fellow rode her well and she behaved perfectly. Thinking we had gotten past the reactive issues, I thought she was on her way to a good home. Months later, I called the new owners to find out how things were going and was completely dismayed at their anger…she had begun to buck them off as something had triggered her old traumatized brain. They invited me to come and ride her, but I was only 16 and I was not going to drag my mom into that situation either! I suggested they get a professional trainer. I have no idea how Missy’s life went after that.

TC was eventually gelded and was winning in the dressage and hunter arenas against big, fancy warmbloods and thoroughbreds. I leased him to an amateur who had a great time showing him, then finally sold him to a lesson barn. He lived out his years playing with ponies, retaining a sense of humor, and teaching countless numbers of children to ride and show. I visited him every year and found him healthy and happy. I was told the students fought over who would get to ride him in the shows because they were pretty much guaranteed a top placing on him. He finally died of colic at the age of 26, on the day of his last show.

I knew these two horses taught me a lot, but have not realized the full scope of those lessons until writing The Compassionate Equestrian and bringing in more of the neuroscience. Dr. Schoen has been extremely influential in this regard with his studies and practices of contemplative neuroscience and exercises in mindfulness and awareness that are featured in the book.

It has become quite clear that while horses can help people a lot with issues in psychology via Equine Assisted Learning, we also need to be aware that it goes in both directions. We, as compassionate equestrians, accept that we are responsible for the conditioning and training of the equine mind so as to at least give each and every horse the opportunity to live out its life with good memories of its early handling and training. It can make all the difference in the world as to how the entire lifetime of that horse will play out.

So there you have it, the face of trauma, and the face of stability. Let’s be compassionate with ourselves, with others, and our horses, continuing to evolve our hearts and minds as we move forward on a path to making this a better world for everyone.

 

Concentrated Learning

My ability to focus isn’t what it used to be. This is somewhat disconcerting because I learned a long time ago that to be a successful rider, the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time was imperative.

I could blame aging, but I’m not going to. At 54, I am extremely fit with a very low-stress, peaceful life that is all of my own creation, and no health issues. I consider myself extremely blessed to be where I am and feeling as well as I do. So no, I don’t attribute my waning ability to focus to getting older. However, it is possible that I might have caught the meme that seems to have affected most of the civilized world.

____________

     meme:

mēm/noun

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

____________ 

A while ago I began noticing odd typos in my writing. Things I had never done before, yet was seeing more and more of in online posts, e-mails, and even on a sign held up by spectators at a half-marathon. For example, it is now so commonplace to spell “your” when what is really meant is “you’re” that I think people have forgotten the distinction. I have caught myself making the error several times, much to my dismay. How does this happen? It also seems increasingly difficult to walk away from the computer, smartphone, or other electronic device. This has been a very rapid change in the evolution of human beings. Horses, however, haven’t changed much in the hundreds of years they have been harnessed and trained for domestic use. If they are approached by a distracted, busy person whose adrenaline is on “high” then they are already compromised by a rider or trainer who may be missing everything from subtle signs of distress in the horse to a pending blow-up resulting in an accident. Is it possible to re-train the human mind back into the clear-thinking, focused instrument that is our natural state of being?

Modern science says “yes.” Dr. Schoen has suggested that as contemplative studies are being incorporated into Ivy League schools, then surely the practices would also be of tremendous benefit to those working with horses. As a trainer who remembers life in the pre-digital-obsession age, I agree.

     In the halls of Ivy League learning and advanced academics, a new field is emerging, and it is now a formal major at the illustrious Brown University.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/contemplative-studies-brown_n_6124030.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

The meditations, or MedLabs as they are called at Brown, are an integral part of an effort the Ivy League university has undertaken in recent years to incorporate the study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques into its curriculum. In August, Brown launched one of the first formal undergraduate concentrations in the country in contemplative studies.

Photo: www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Photo: http://www.naldgraphics.net, source: jen2cal, deviantart.com

Many years ago I was helping someone with a particularly unruly horse in the busy warm-up ring at a horse show. Perhaps it was simply that I had spent most of my childhood studying and handling the many animals in our household, or possibly that I connected better with animals than with people, but regardless, I understood how important it was to focus intently on what I was doing with a horse in any given moment and not be distracted by anything. Animals have such a heightened level of awareness that most humans cannot match it unless they are both extremely sensitive and well trained in animal behavior.

The bucking, fully energized thoroughbred I had hopped on soon settled down and was quietly working amidst the hunters and jumpers getting ready for the day’s classes. One of the other trainers called out to me and asked, “Do you have that same effect on people too?”

I could not answer him because I didn’t even think of having any particular effect on the horses, and especially not on people (people kind of scared me). I just knew that I had the ability to stick to the saddle thanks to good instruction and perhaps some natural talent and inherent rhythm. There was something about my method though that could get even the most difficult, pull-like-a-freight-train kind of horse to soften and melt like butter in my hands. We somehow bonded on another level. I believe it had a lot to do with the fact that I could shut out anything that didn’t involve what I was doing with the horse and be in full awareness of every nuance the horse was communicating.

There wasn’t a lot of research to back up the productiveness of a quiet, contemplative mind at the time however, and certainly it was still in the early days of sports psychology research. It was also the days before I had any formal meditation training. My ego, like that of so many trainers, kept my own “threat response” and related behaviors on full alert for quite a few years and I can think back on numerous reactions that I would be quite embarrassed about today. The missing element was my lack of compassion for others, especially other riders and trainers, whom I saw as competitors, always seeking ways to be critical of one or another.

Now there is evidence as to what was affecting the horses I rode…and perhaps opening to possibilities that I wasn’t aware of previously as to how I could have been affecting other humans too.

This is also something we can use to bring together the diverse equestrian community, a common bond beyond the horses. If it works for Ivy League Universities, it can work for equine-based educational models too. It can be brought right into the barns by the facility owners, trainers, and riders of all kinds and backgrounds. The subjective culture that has caused  much suffering and so much division in the horse world now has access to the information and research confirming a practical technique that changes hearts and minds for the better.

I had to laugh when I saw this post on Facebook today (yes, another one of the contemporary distraction-memes!):

“A quiet man is a thinking man. A quiet woman is usually mad.”

Since I was married to a three-day-eventing trainer for a few years when I first turned professional, I can only say this statement was probably true all too often. It inevitably cost us that relationship. I wish I had the training in compassion and meditation then that I do now.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the Teacher will appear,” and so it was in my case, as it has been for millions of other human beings throughout the millennia. Speaking from first-hand, personal experience, as the students at Brown and other programs are finding, meditation and training in mindfulness changes the way we think. It also affects our health and wellbeing, and that of others with whom we interact. Imagine what it could mean to a relationship with a horse, as well as our interpersonal relationships with other human beings.

     “One of the challenges for mindfulness and contemplative practice is to see it not only as a tool for stress-reduction, but as a means for going deeper into different subjects and ways of living. It’s not just about student well-being, which of course we care about, but it’s about how a contemplative approach to research can actually enhance understanding,” said Arthur Zajonc, president of the Mind and Life Institute in Hadley, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that focuses on creating dialogue between scientists, philosophers and contemplative practice.”

Contemplating

Contemplating

Picture having a riding lesson with an instructor who practices mindfulness and contemplative meditation. How would that look and feel as you rode into the arena to begin your warm-up and lesson? Would it be a different kind of lesson or training session than you usually participate in? What elements would possibly be involved with the incorporation of mindfulness and compassion? Perhaps the following:

Focus

Clear thinking

Enhanced understanding

Reduced stress

Increased self-awareness

Empathy with the horse/instructor

Better body-mind connection with another being

Have I personally taken meditation into the barn? Up until writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, I generally kept my practice private. While all of the elements of conscious breathwork, awareness, and other aspects and benefits of meditation were incorporated into my training and lessons, I did not make a point of suggesting that my students also follow suit. As it was, I spent a decade teaching in a place that is known for highly conscious people and was fortunate to have been the instructor to some unusually mindful, compassionate children and adults. I began to feel more comfortable bringing a holistic philosophy into the lessons.

I have also gained confidence and learned even more about the benefits of meditation by spending the past two years co-authoring the book with Dr. Schoen. He has spent many years himself experiencing and observing the results of a compassionate heart and mind while working with horses and other animals in his veterinary practice.

Now that I’m riding again, I am bringing more of the contemplative practices directly to each session with the horses. I want my focus to come back to what it was at a time before WiFi took over our lives. I want to be able to put in a solid, productive 30-minute ride by feel, not by looking at my watch every few minutes. I want to not be rushing out of the house to get to the barn, running late again because 5 more e-mails popped up or I remembered that I had to do a Facebook post, then promptly got distracted by fifteen other posts. Sigh. Yes, that happens. I would like to be able to get back to the gap in time where I could sit in deep meditation for an hour or more and not feel the slightest twinge of anxiety at having to do anything else. Those twinges come all too often in this age of zillions of passwords and too much to do, even without having nearly as complex a life as most people. I cannot even imagine the stress of living in a city, having a family, a job, and trying to find enough time to dedicate to a horse in a way that is most conducive to everyone’s wellbeing.

I have ridden my new charge twice now and have decided to try ten to fifteen minutes of a walking meditation with the horse at the end of each mounted session. She seems to enjoy it. When I returned the mare to her pasture after our first ride, she quickly walked off to join the other horses. Today after our ride and walk, she stayed right at the pasture gate, watching intently as I packed up and got in the car to leave. A stoic horse, I thought I almost saw a little smile on her face. I know I had a smile on mine, and yes, I would hope to have that effect on people too.

I leave you with this final thought from Glimpse After Glimpse; Daily Reflections on Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche:

November 11

Open people ask me: “How long should I meditate? And when? Should I practice twenty minutes in the morning and in the evening, or is it better to do several short practices during the day?” Yes, it is good to meditate for twenty minutes, though that is not to say that twenty minutes is the limit. I have not found in the scriptures any reference to twenty minutes; I think it is a notion that has been contrived in the West, and I call it Meditation Western Standard Time.

The point is not how long you meditate; the point is whether the practice actually brings you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence. And five minutes of wakeful sitting practice is of far greater value than twenty minutes of dozing!

Rigpa Glimpse of the Day

Sogyal Rinpoche

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.

Changing Leads Gracefully

For a rider, being able to execute the perfect flying lead change with consistency is an accomplishment that comes only after a lot of hard work, determination, and a clear understanding of the horse you are mounted on. There are so many elements that have to come together before a horse can gracefully hop from left lead canter to right lead canter and back again, on cue. At the pinnacle of this accomplishment are the “tempi-changes” in Grand Prix dressage tests where the horse appears to be skipping as it remains on a straight line while changing leads every step. In theory it sounds so simple. Left lead, right lead. In practice, well, anyone who has been there with a horse or multiple horses can tell you that while there may be a common goal, every horse learns differently and has a unique set of parameters that may have them changing leads more easily and quickly than other horses, while some may never have an easy time of it. It is a step by step process for both horse and rider.

Flying lead change sequence (photo: www.equisearch.com)

Flying lead change sequence (photo: http://www.equisearch.com)

1) The long-term goals for reaching those smooth, consistent changes have to be clearly formed in the rider’s mind. You need the picture in your head of what constitutes a correct flying lead change. Then you develop a training plan you can follow, making particular decisions each step of the way to achieve the goal.

2) As a rider, hard work, education and training is everything. Before you can relay the aids in proper sequence to have a horse change leads, all of your basics should be solid, and ideally, you would have had a schoolmaster horse and excellent, compassionate trainer to learn from before being gaining the competence to pass that level of training on to another horse. You can never be excessively competent!

3) Be prepared for what might not work. Visualize failure too. In the understanding of what is correct about a lead change, the rider, like a dressage or reining judge, also has to know which elements will produce a lower score, or cause potential imbalances and possibly painful injuries to the horse. Tension, stiffness, deflection off the straight line, swinging haunches, too wide in the placement of the hind feet, hollow back, and many other issues can cause further problems. You cannot correct the mistakes if you don’t know what they are in the first place, so you want to be prepared in advance with the skills to identify and decide what to do should errors occur.

4) Enlist a group of extremely competent people to help you reach your goals. Communication with others who can support you in reaching your flying lead change goal helps you take each step with confidence. Part of communicating well involves listening well too, which every great riding student eventually comes to realize can make all the difference between a good performance and one that is below par. This is why a team of great people, including “eyes on the ground,” excellent veterinary care and a top notch farrier are all part of the picture when you are on the path to reaching your long-term goals.

5) With any horse, you may need to consider metaphorically switching leads at any time. As any experienced horseman will tell you, all that we do has an impermanence and even fragility about it. We can go on for so long taking for granted our wonderful horses and the equestrian lifestyle, forgetting how quickly things can change. What makes us feel the best as human beings is to give back. If we accept that the one simple thing we can hold on to is our knowledge, and how we apply that knowledge, our perception of life becomes a broader picture. We can step back a bit, as we so often have to do in the process of training horses, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, “how can my response to this situation be the most beneficial to all involved?” We can change our behaviors to accommodate a more productive situation for ourselves, our horses, and everyone else along the way.

6) When a rider has achieved a high level of competence and confidence, combined with many years of experience having learned from the failures and tribulations of life with horses and life in general (partnerships are partnerships whether with a horse or another human being), they may reach a state of beauty, joy, and a radiating sense of grace. When you get to that stage, you have a sense of having done something that goes beyond yourself. It is because such accomplishments require a tremendous amount of giving in the first place. It requires your time, your focus, your kindness and consideration of the horse. It does not happen automatically with a horse, and it does not typically happen for those who are just at the beginning of their careers or relationships. There is always the process of setting goals, then deciding what you will do next that will line up with your goals, whether it is to make those flying lead changes or to make major life changes. The key is to not blame the horse, or anyone else if there are bumps on the road to your goals. Blaming is easy, but it is changing our own behaviors that affect the greatest changes, personally, professionally, and for the good of all beings.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/03/chris-hadfield_n_5929992.html

The impetus for this post is derived from a video that was relayed to me by Dr. Schoen. It is astronaut Chris Hadfield speaking to an audience of primarily students on We Day, asking the question of what we can do to change the world. So what does this have to do with the accomplishment of teaching a horse to change leads smoothly? A lot actually. It is all about us.

Chris is asked, “What is the one cause you care about the most?” From his perspective of seeing the planet from above, all 7-billion human beings every 90 minutes over the course of the space station’s orbit, he says one’s perspective changes somewhat as to what is most important. He speaks of how everything is connected, and how much togetherness we need to sustain the planet.

He states his most important goal as follows:

“To raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.”

The other question he raises is “what is one simple thing people can do to drive change?” The answer… “stop blaming other people.” Here is where we may need to make a lead change of our own sometimes. These are the suggestions from Chris (and this might sound familiar):

  • Have an overarching goal, then purposefully make decisions to make it happen.
  • Build everything on competence – there is no substitute for hard work. Chris put years of education and training into his dream before being chosen to be commander.
  • Visualize failure – be prepared for all possibilities.
  • Communicate with others – they will be there for you, and good communication includes good listening.
  • Give back – there is a fragility to the things we take for granted – make good use of your education to give back to others.
  • Seek grace – in grace we find tranquility, joy, accomplishment, and a sense of having done something that goes beyond ourselves.

 

Ultimately, what we learn from becoming compassionate equestrians applies to everything Chris Hadfield is relaying to the students in his We Day address. I don’t know if the famous astronaut has ever had contact with horses, but somehow I believe he would immediately recognize the factors that allow for the creation of high standards of accomplishment in the equine world are also the same qualities that apply to the process of making this a better world for all sentient beings. What we can learn from our connection to a horse can be extended to everyone we encounter in all of our human relationships, and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Well We Sit

For those readers who are non-riders, I am hoping this post might convey a new idea or observation relating to the importance of how someone sits on a horse and also provide some value to those who do plant their seat in a saddle on a regular basis. Although, as with much of The Compassionate Equestrian, we can extrapolate the equestrian issue at hand to something relating to our interactions with humans – in this case the horse’s possible discomfort at having a rider on its back to the human idiom…”that doesn’t sit well with me.” Given the rash of hostilities on our planet at the moment, there is much we could refer to that does not sit well with just about anybody. I almost feel a twang of guilt writing about something as mundane as a seat on a horse. However, this is our particular niche and there is a lot going on in the horse world that requires continuous vigilance too. And we know how soothing a connection to a horse or other animal can be in times of trouble. Whether seated on a horse or seated on a meditation cushion, there are specifics to both that can help us on our journey to becoming more compassionate beings.

I have spent countless hours lately scoping out the online world of equestrians and equestrian sports, lurking in some forums, watching YouTube videos and writing down the number of “likes” on horse-based home pages. The vocal majority in the digital horse community lately appears to be in regards to developing relationships with horses, identifying all of the wonderful feelings that can arise in humans when interacting with horses, and the joys of beautiful photos of prancing stallions working at liberty or guided by the hand of a handsome, masterful horseman. There are very deeply rooted desires in most human beings who long for that kind of partnership with an iconic animal that represents freedom, power, and the very essence of the natural world. The number of clinics, facilitators, workshops, and growing businesses dedicated to the non-riding aspects of horses seems to be expanding exponentially.

On the upside, this allows renewed and ongoing interest in horses from the media and general public, helping to build audiences and prevent horses from going the way of vinyl records and cars without power steering. The curiosity about horse herd dynamics and the effect of horses formally engaged in programs that utilize their “therapist” qualities has also afforded many horses that may be unsound for riding to be useful in a career that supports their care, but does not require them to be physically fit enough to carry a rider.

The mere image of a gorgeous horse can uplift one’s heart, and in my own opinion, if a person wishes to be around horses, they absolutely should be, in any way their circumstances and resources allow for that to happen. There are so many horses in need of extra attention and care that it would be a wonderful thing to match more compassionate, caring people with those animals that could use the grooming, handling, and exercise, with trainers, horse owners, and other professionals who would be willing to connect the right people with the appropriate animals. Unfortunately in our libelous society it is no longer a simple matter of “sure, you can come and ride my pony whenever you like”, but here in Canada you can at least become a member of your provincial Equine Canada affiliate and be covered by a basic insurance policy automatically, with further options available for instructors and businesses.

In light of the loving, horse-hugging/kissing imagery and practices we are cautioned in the rise of misconceptions that horses should only be worked at liberty, ridden without saddles or bridles, and are able to be started “without force” by anybody who has been to a few workshops. The unfortunate limitations created by a vocal social media presence have led to a huge missing or forgotten detail amongst this demographic; that of proper equitation and its contribution to the health and welfare of a horse. With all of the sweetness and oxytocin-releasing activities now abundant in the horse world, for many, the anthropomorphizing of the horse has created an industry subsection where people are forgetting about the intricacies and amount of time it takes to ride really well. It is true that riding with wanton abandonment does come naturally to some people, but not to all, and it can set unsuspecting newcomers up for potentially dangerous situations, especially where children and inexperienced riders are put on horses without helmets or protective footwear. Even for someone with good balance and the ability to sit upright on a horse, it still takes a long time and a lot of quality instruction to be able to apply the aids correctly and learn to school a horse so that it continues to make progress or at least maintain fitness.

I have had some beginner to intermediate level students who just seemed to have an inherent sense of balance, flexibility, strength and muscular symmetry, not to mention confidence on a horse. Sorry ladies, but almost all such students were boys or adult men. We could get into a discussion about gender differences in the pelvic floor, hips and thighs, but that is another issue. I do find it interesting though that all of the most popular clinicians advocating a particular style of horsemanship are men who ride extremely well themselves, and generally in a western saddle. I have witnessed some training methods originating with European men lately that are not translating well to North American women either, although the fundamental ideas are sound.

Due to misunderstandings and terminology used around the label of “horsemanship,” Dr. Schoen and I have chosen to use equitation in reference to our 25 Principles (in The Compassionate Equestrian) instead of horsemanship. Good horsemanship is ultimately included as part of equitation, and even further, the emerging field of Equitation Science* is providing us with the research and scientific backing in support of how horses are best trained and handled in ways that keep them sound of both mind and body. For example, researchers have determined through objective, quantitative research that rising trot and riding in a two-point (hunt seat) position place the least amount of stress on the horse’s back and are best for stabilizing the rider [1].

York Equestrian

Developing the balanced seat and learning to ride with independent aids. http://www.yorkequestrianridingschool.com

For all of my searching around the world wide web for tidbits of traditional, classical horse training and riding techniques, I have found the real gems and voices of reason still existing, but buried under the hundreds of thousands of “likes” on sites that are appealing more to people’s emotional reactions to images and possibly the feelings of freedom they would have riding bareback, galloping through fields of tall grass and blooming flowers. Such images, after all, are far more likely to grab readers quickly scanning their news feeds than a picture of the anatomical construct of a rider’s lumbar-sacral anatomy and how it should be placed in the saddle, followed by an explanation of why it should be situated in such a way and how it biomechanically affects the horse’s musculoskeletal system and way of going. Yet, there are marvelous opportunities to be gained from studying those images and exercises of correct alignment (such as in The Riding Doctor, by Beth Glosten MD, pub. June 2014 Trafalgar Square Books – http://www.horseandriderbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=H&Product_Code=RIDO&Category_Code=WNEW).

Let’s put those two pictures side by side and see which one gets the most “likes” on Facebook. I think we already know the answer to that, especially as so many social media users are very young and will take the time to make comments. The kids and professionals who are already working hard on their equitation, showing, and horse care are far too busy in the barns and arenas to pay much attention to what is going on in the rest of the equine industry unless it is something that affects them personally. In mixed-discipline barns where there are some people practicing newer forms of horsemanship philosophy and techniques, I have been hearing stories of heated dialogues and questionable methods leading to much tension and outright clashes amongst riders, as well as a few very bad accidents.

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet!) www.horsemanmagazine.com

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet and boots!)
http://www.horsemanmagazine.com

Murdoch Method

How the rider’s skeletal anatomy looks when seated on a horse bareback. http://www.murdochmethod.com

In the “old days” (such as when I was showing the most – 1970s & 1980s) equitation classes were judged on seat, position, and use of the aids. We all knew as riders that a good seat and hands were the mark of a competent rider, and the making of a willing, happy equine partner. Pretty straightforward amongst both western and english styles, but no easy feat so far as being a consistent winner in equitation classes. Yes, of course those competitions still exist, but the participants are few compared to the audiences that turn out looking for ways to connect to equine nature and work from the ground. Sure, there were also some quirky trends in the 80s, such as “piano hands”, and the “point & perch” riding, but savvy judges and course designers who had ridden through the previous decades found ways of separating those who could really ride from those who were merely able to hold their position on a well-trained horse.

Nowadays, however, I see little to no emphasis placed on the quality of how well someone is sitting on their horse, yet it is the foundation so far as being able to ride without doing harm. It seems to me that horses used to stay a lot sounder than they do now, especially when it comes to neck, back and hindquarter problems. This is in spite of updated knowledge in saddle fitting and considerable advances in veterinary diagnostic technology. With all of the issues Dr. Schoen and I have observed in our respective fields, we feel that bringing compassion to the equine world at large involves a suggestion to look into one’s heart and ask if the pressure being inflicted on the horse is legitimately to its benefit, or to its detriment. We realize the answer to that will vary extensively until there is more evidence revealed through formal studies in Equitation Science.

A rider may have a great relationship with a horse on the ground, but what value is left if that relationship disintegrates due to a heavy and unbalanced seat? I have seen many riders of all ages who would benefit greatly by spending some time on the longe line, providing of course, their horse is also trained correctly and safely on the longe. Oftentimes this is not the case either, as a lot of horses are chased in round pens or longed on very short lines and do not stay on a large enough circle.

In the current equine world many seem to have forgotten one very important thing… teaching people how to ride properly with an emphasis on solid basics. While vocal about creating harmony and not using force (great trainers were never apt to use “force” anyway, and always start horses with careful groundwork), in the sea of popular buzzwords, for some strange reason, there is a big, confusing, gap between bonding with one’s horse and the value of riding with due care and attention to one’s equitation so as to create the least amount of stress on the horse as possible when asking it to walk, trot, canter, jump, and everything in between.

I used to work at one of the top show jumper barns on the west coast and we always used to joke about “equitating” properly. These were the young, talented riders who had horses and trainers at barns on both sides of the continent, qualifying for the big medal finals and making it to the top of the junior rankings. There were a lot of issues in those barns during that era that certainly didn’t make us perfect. I am happy to this day that I made the decision to remain removed from the craziness and partying that went on. The underlying dark side still permeates show activities and there are some people who continue to see horses as expendable commodities that can be pushed past their limits with drugs and procedures until they simply cannot be worked any further. I am mortified when I hear of youth who are competing for national standings talking about “putting a needle in their horses” so they can get around a class without blowing up or breaking down. In many cases it would be nice if there actually were a better relationship between the horse and its rider. There is something going amiss with the entire equestrian world and one poignant missing element at both ends of the spectrum seems to involve the key question we ask throughout The Compassionate Equestrian… and that question is “what is most compassionate for this horse?”

We look forward to the forthcoming advances in Equitation Science and in the ongoing research in human-animal communication and relationships to help us create a more compassionate world for everything we do that involves horses, and all of our animal and human companions. That actually does sit rather well… 🙂

– – – – –

*What is Equitation Science?

Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering. Equitation science uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain horse training, for example from a learning theory perspective that removes anthropomorphism and emotiveness.

Read more about the ‘Advent of Equitation Science’ – by P. McGreevy (2007, Veterinary Journal 174, 492–500)

http://www.equitationscience.com

 – – – – –

[1] Peham C1Kotschwar ABBorkenhagen BKuhnke SMolsner JBaltacis A.

Vet J. 2010 Apr;184(1):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.04.007. Epub 2009 May 9.

A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot.

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.

__________

When the Well Runs Dry

Next to not being able to breathe, the feeling one has when dehydrated and there is no water to be had is probably one of the worst feelings you can imagine. In the heat of the desert, your head begins to spin and your heart rate increases. The dryness in your mouth is unbearable and your limbs begin to weaken. Everything in your field of vision starts to shimmer, and your stomach begins to churn. Your gait staggers. Your body has sweated out the cell salts that keep you functional, but you don’t notice any sweat, only the salt stains on your clothing. You want to lie down and not wake up to make it all go away.

 

We can live a long time without food, but only a few days without water. I have experienced the symptoms of severe dehydration and I know all too well what it is like to stand in an arena at 120F with a hard wind blowing clouds of fine dust into my lungs. I cannot imagine the well running dry at a horse ranch, and having nothing at all coming out of the ground or the taps. Yet this is reality. Call it climate change, call it cyclic, or call it a disaster… whatever, however it is happening, it is for real. I have experienced the climate changes and weather anomalies first hand in the southwestern United States, and it is one of the main reasons behind my having left the business of teaching and training horses. The implications of environmental changes on the equine industry are huge, as they are with any ecosystem and the many millions of humans around the world who are already displaced as a result.

Wild horses (photo: returntofreedom.org)

Wild horses (photo: returntofreedom.org)

Right now, we are looking at having to haul in 6000 gallons of water per day to sustain the sanctuary and its residents. That is at a cost of roughly $500 per day . . . until California sees rain again and the water tables rise. This is the kind of crippling environmental crisis that you hope will never come.

http://www.returntofreedom.org/the-extended-drought-in-the-west-has-left-our-hills-barren-of-forage-and-has-caused-the-price-of-hay-to-rise-august-28-2014/

Horses caught in the California drought (photo: cnn.com)

Horses caught in the California drought (photo: cnn.com full story at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/22/us/california-drought-impact/)

  

The horses and their caretakers in the position of those at Return to Freedom are in need of compassion, and a lot of money. Understanding how quickly this kind of crisis can escalate, one can only have empathy for all those involved. For those of us with firsthand experience in hot, dry areas, it creates an overwhelming sense of helplessness and a looming question…”how can such a massive environmental emergency be resolved?” Not only do the horses and other livestock need adequate amounts of water, but the water also has to be uncontaminated and free of toxins such as algal blooms. Cyanobacteria can intensify quickly in hot conditions, causing issues like liver damage to the point of being fatal to the animals.

 

The average horse will intake 5 to 10 gallons of fresh water per day. Just like humans different horses crave or need different water amount intakes. A horse deprived of feed, but supplied drinking water, is capable of surviving 20 to 25 days. A horse deprived of water may only live up to 3 or 6 days. After lacking water intake for two days a horse may refuse to eat and exhibit signs of colic and other life-threatening ailments. 

http://extension.psu.edu/animals/equine/news/2012/how-much-drinking-water-does-your-horse-need

 

So imagine going to water your horses one morning and there is no water. How would you feel? It would be hard not to panic. It is one thing for this to happen to one ranch, but in the bigger picture, this could happen to many more facilities and affect considerably more horses and other animals in the very near future. Nobody knows when or if the drought conditions will improve. Forecast models are not too optimistic. When I was at the University of British Columbia’s Summer Institute of Sustainability in 2009, we had some of the most highly respected specialists in the field of sustainability telling us that the computer climate models at the time were conservative compared to the rate of actual changes that were occurring worldwide. What we are seeing now so far as temperature ranges and extreme climate events are exactly what the models were predicting five years ago.

 

As of August 12, 2014, most of California sits in a D4 “exceptional drought,” which is in the most severe category. Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas loiter in a substantially less severe D1 moderate drought.

http://www.futurity.org/american-southwest-megadrought-754652/

A "haboob" - a massive wall of dust - moves through Phoenix AZ in July of 2014. (photo: azcentral.com)

A “haboob” – a massive wall of dust – rolls across Phoenix AZ in July of 2014. (photo: azcentral.com)

 

While the only immediate answer for the horses and people at Return to Freedom and other affected properties is to pay to have water hauled in, the long-term answer to a water crisis is more vague. The only way it can end is if Mother Nature drops enough precipitation on the drought-plagued areas over a long enough duration to refill shrinking reservoirs and bring life back to ravaged grazing lands. Without a major correction in the climate, hay prices will continue to rise, and the water scarcity problems will have a domino effect on horses and all the humans who rely on produce grown in the parched agricultural regions of the southwest. There are already too many unwanted horses in the system and this situation will only add to those numbers too.

 

It is possible that such an extreme crisis will open the door for contractors who claim they can control the weather. As bizarre as it may sound to some, it is nothing new in the field of environmental and weather modification technology:

 

Weather-modification, according to the US Air Force document AF 2025 Final Report,

“offers the war fighter a wide range of possible options to defeat or coerce an adversary’, capabilities, it says, extend to the triggering of floods, hurricanes, droughts and earthquakes: ‘Weather modification will become a part of domestic and international security and could be done unilaterally… It could have offensive and defensive applications and even be used for deterrence purposes. The ability to generate precipitation, fog and storms on earth or to modify space weather… and the production of artificial weather all are a part of an integrated set of [military] technologies.”

In 1977, an international Convention was ratified by the UN General Assembly, which banned ‘military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects.’ It defined ‘environmental modification techniques’ as ‘any technique for changing –through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.’

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-ultimate-weapon-of-mass-destruction-owning-the-weather-for-military-use-2/5306386

 

Of course, controlling and modifying the weather brings up all kinds of ethical and moral questions, the least of which being the unknown effects of messing with the planet’s natural weather systems. As these programs are already in place and have been implemented in the U.S. through state-by-state policies, we may in effect be witnessing the aftermath and ongoing effects of manmade weather and climate changes due to the delivery of tropospheric aerosols. It would not surprise me if we begin to see corporations hawking weather modification in the future as a means to “fix” current climate changes and extreme weather. Unfortunately, I doubt if anybody really knows what the consequences would be if such action were taken on a mass scale.

 

Then there is a more esoteric approach, as described by scientists such as Gregg Braden. I just watched the YouTube presentation of his talk about his book, The Divine Matrix. Dr. Schoen and I have spoken of “the field” in The Compassionate Equestrian, and how it may be used for the benefit of interspecies communication. As Braden describes “the matrix” according to Max Planck’s theory, he gives examples by which healing can occur when one applies a particular method that engages the laws (as they are presently understood) of quantum consciousness.

 

“All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”

Max Planck

Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)

 

In the talk, Braden describes how a young native man in the desert southwest “prayed rain,” as his ancestors taught him. Not prayed “for” rain, as this sets up an infinite possibility and incalculable time frame that may or may not happen according to the tribal lessons. Instead, they conduct a ceremony by which they feel the rain, feel the mud underfoot, and feel as though what they wish for already exists in that moment. As Braden noted, after the young man’s action, it did indeed rain.

 

Using “the field” we are taught to see everything from the heart, and use the energy of the field to see the situation as though it is already healed, and perfect:

http://youtu.be/MRedvbARVhM

 

In the west we have not been conditioned to operate in this way however, so the general populous is more reactive than responsive when all of a sudden it seems like everything has fallen apart. There is fear, and in the case of not being able to offer food and water to your animals, watching them suffer greatly is as heartbreaking as can be.

 

Perhaps if everyone had compassion, we would find the answers to all of our human conditions and the root causes of the planet’s problems, instead of using knowledge and inventions to enact wars on other countries. Maybe it is a combination of willpower, technology, and a coming together of science with ancient knowledge that will get us and our beloved horses, as well as all of the creatures of the earth out of the situations in which we now find ourselves. I do not know what will work, either in the interim, or the long term. I do know there are prophecies that have come down through tribal peoples such as the Hopi about the trials we now face, and there have been predictions by scientists in recent years that seem to back up what those ancient cultures have been telling us.

 

Can we turn to the horses themselves for answers? Can we watch other species and learn from them? What information do they convey to us? What would they do and where would they go? Can we simply be quiet and find compassion for our planet and all those sentient beings in need of help? We all need water to survive. For anyone who can contribute financially to the delivery of water for Return to Freedom, please do so, and if not, please offer compassionate thoughts and prayers for them and all others affected by water shortages and rising costs of hay and feed, especially the rescues that rely on donations. There is no more time left to try to decide why or how climate change is happening – it is already here.

 

 

Helping Horses Helping People

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

My "therapist"

My “therapist”

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

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

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

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

1. They help us find common ground.

2. They help keep us calm.

3. They help us learn by developing

empathy and social skills.

4. They keep us healthy, physically

and mentally.

5. They relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms.

6. They can be our best therapists.

7. They help us live in the present.

8. They inspire a sense of wonder in

all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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