The Kinder Rider

 

Ultimately, anybody who is reading this blog post, and anyone who has or is reading The Compassionate Equestrian can visualize themselves as compassionate and empathic with horses. If you feel as though you aren’t there yet, you’re certainly on the journey to becoming more understanding of your horse’s needs and his means of communication.

Unfortunately, however, it has been brought to my attention that the very word, “compassion” seems to evoke a broad range of emotions and opinions from equestrians, and not necessarily on a positive note.

IMG_20160622_132742834 Does it have a religious slant that distances some riders? Do some feel that it means you can’t ever show a horse without having “do-gooder” looking over your shoulder? Does it mean you can’t achieve optimal results within your chosen discipline? Given the conversations I’ve had with one of our younger trainer-affiliates, it seems as though all of the above applies. This saddens, yet does not surprise me.

I’m searching for the answers that will convince a greater demographic of the equine world to take a look at what the 25 Principles have to offer. And, of course, the last thing we want is for people to feel guilty or “less than” if they are unable to live up to the highest standards of equine care and handling. The key point is self-awareness and being mindful of the needs of horses, without beating up oneself, or anybody else, for that matter. I also realize this is an extremely difficult concept to grasp for many people, which often makes it hard to meet people “where they’re at.”

We all know what the horse industry needs. From the highest echelons of the governing bodies of horse sports to the backyard recreational rider, we must have clarity, best practices, and enforcement of the welfare issues across the board that would help make this a better place for horses. Horses that are receiving at the very least, a home that provides them with the 5 Freedoms*. You only have to scroll through a few Facebook threads or online forums to find out what the extent of violations are though, even with just those five essential principles of animal welfare.

So let’s just drop the word, “compassion” for a minute. How about we replace it with… “kinder?” The kinder rider. How does that look? I realize that not everyone who has a horse actually rides them as well, so we’ll include those who wish to work at liberty or simply maintain horses as companions and provide them with a safe home. We imagine that a beautiful partnership must originate and equate with a kind and benevolent rider or handler. I guarantee you, however, that the perfect picture also has the tough parts, the ugly sections, the down moments, and the ones that make you just want to give it up. Everyone has those times too. What helps? That base of kindness, starting with being kind to yourself.

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Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

How does kinder compare to compassionate? Here’s the definition of kinder from thesaurus.com:

adjective, kind·er, kind·est.
-of a good or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person:
a kind and loving person.
-having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence:
kind words.
-indulgent, considerate, or helpful; humane (often followed by to):
to be kind to animals.

Seems to fit with our Principles, right? Now, without judging the tack, the discipline, the breed, the person sitting in the saddle, observe the situation in question. You can be a very kind person, and still end up in trouble on a horse. The horse may not have had adequate training, he might be in pain, he might be too much horse for the rider, or he might have spooked at something and bolted.

If you happen to be a very kind person and a competent rider, but your young horse decides to have a bucking fit at a show and someone snaps a photo of you pulling on your reins and posts it on social media with disparaging comments, does this then make you an unkind, non-compassionate rider? No, of course not. You did your best in a testy moment, and the next thing you know, you are subjected to hateful comments in a Facebook group. Everyone else thinks they’re being compassionate with the horse because he’s being pulled on, not knowing what might have happened in the split second before the photo was taken, or the moments that followed. And no, this is not compassion. Remember, compassion is putting yourself in that saddle, in that moment. It’s not about feeling sorry for the horse and trashing the rider. Who, in fact, may truly be a kind and benevolent rider.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’d like everyone to consider the basis of what makes a kinder rider, and we’ll just sneak in the core of the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation. We don’t need to say it, we’ll just do it.

Take a few moments and some deep breaths when you feel the need to criticize another rider or horseman. Do the same before you engage with your horse to ensure you are calm, quiet, and thinking clearly. Examine yourself and your connection to the horses you work with. Certainly, there is no book, DVD, author, or online training program that is going to encourage you to be outright unkind and cruel to your horse (although if anybody comes across anything that promotes the deliberate causation of pain to animals, action should be taken with appropriate authorities). The big problem we have in the equine industry right now is a disconnect from the fundamental training principles that are first of all concerned with the soundness of the horse and his ability to perform tasks required by the trainer/handler.

woman riding horse

Photo by Laila Klinsmann on Pexels.com

The second issue is the misunderstanding of biomechanics and the progressive development of the musculoskeletal system of the horse that is tasked with working with humans in any capacity. Too many trainers are missing the years of correct training of the rider before they are able to transfer that knowledge to the education of a horse. Even horses working at liberty are subject to these principles, as they are required to maneuver through various gaits, obstacles, school figures and other unnatural exercises that may overtax tendons, ligaments and muscles.

A kinder rider knows that they need the basics of good equitation that will provide them with an independent seat, quiet hands, and correct application of the aids. It doesn’t matter if you ride bitless or show jumpers. You can’t replace the foregoing with anything else.

A kinder rider continues their education in their chosen discipline, always seeking to further understand the needs of their horses, and developing the ability to know when they can proceed with the horse’s training, and when they need to back off.

A kinder rider knows that not everyone has perfect moments with horses at all times. Even the nicest horses can be out-of-sorts, especially if something hurts. It is important to realize that even horses trained with zero pressure can injure themselves. They’re made of the same soft tissue, bone, and other biological components as we are.

A kinder rider enjoys the success of others and seeks out the experts who seem to have a history of keeping horses sound and content, even competing well in the show ring for many years. Horses that have been overworked, beaten, or poorly trained will show it. Sooner or later, even the most stoic ones will break down and expose the rider or trainer for their bad handling.

A kinder rider encourages others, especially youth, to follow their heart when it comes to engaging with horses. If a child wants to jump their pony, find them a pony who loves to jump and ensure that they are trained under the supervision of a benevolent trainer. If the child announces that they no longer wish to jump or ride, allow them to bow out with grace. Same with other disciplines. If the trainer is mean, insulting, never seems happy, please go somewhere else. Even if they produce the desired results and ribbons, everyone will suffer at some level.

A kinder rider is compassionate. There. I said it anyway. If you want to be stealth about “compassion,” I think kindness will suffice. And I think you’ll experience some pretty good results.

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* The Five Freedoms is a core concept in animal welfare that originated in a UK government report in 1965 and was then refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It states that an animal’s primary welfare needs can be met by safeguarding the following five freedoms:

 1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2.Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5.Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Read more at: https://www.humanecanada.ca/five_freedoms_of_animal_welfare

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About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance since 2002. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and EFT tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, an internationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Whalsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  

Susan Gordon website

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A Marvelous Assistant; The Horse

 

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

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

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

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

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

LeifPortrait

Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC

 

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

SG


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

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

 LeifBook

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

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

LeifBook2

The Equine Assisted Therapy Workbook

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titan2

Titan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://leifhallberg.com/

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

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

LeifConnecting


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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, an internationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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It’s All in the Eye (the Nose, and the Mouth)

 

“…observing the horses from a distance is critical to detecting the presence of pain,” said Sonder.

 “Horses often do not blatantly display pain—especially before their owners or regular handlers—they’ll square right up no matter what,” she said. “So this will objectively tell us about their chronic pain.” 

Claudia Sonder, DVM, of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

 

This is a major breakthrough for the Compassionate Equestrian Movement where horse people can now be more educated and aware of what their horse looks like in various degrees of pain based on facial recognition…..

Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM

 

                                                                                                                                                             Has anybody ever commented on “the look on your face?” Perhaps you convey “happy,” “sad,” or “I’m really hurting,” by the expression you are exhibiting to others. Have you found yourself misinterpreted at times due to someone reading your facial movement incorrectly? Maybe you’ve even caught yourself in a surprising moment when glancing in a mirror or window, wondering why you appear tired, grumpy, or sullen.

You know how the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Well, what about our horses?

Horsemen who have been around the block, so to speak, always teach their apprentices and clients to look for “that eye.” A sound, kind, easy-going, trainable horse always seems to have a particularly soft, sweet and large eye with few wrinkles or other indicators of stress. Top eventing trainers seek “the look of eagles,” whereby the horse appears much as an eager sporting hound—alert, coiled for action, and focused on the upcoming task or obstacle.

A horse that is not in pain has a much easier time tuning in to a human’s requests for connection. There has been much written in recent years about creating a good relationship with your horse. Unfortunately, for all the hours spent on the ground in doing so, many horses still suffer once the rider gets on their back. Why doesn’t the translation go as smoothly from ground to saddle as it should? In its most reductionist answer, the factor is that the rider cannot see the horse’s expression from his back.

 

The researchers at University of California, Davis, are providing the equestrian community with valuable new research that extends beyond the current “pain grimace scale” that helps veterinarians, and other handlers, determine whether or not a horse is in pain.

Also interesting, is the comment from the article indicating domestic horses have adapted to taking a stoic approach when asked to interact with humans, even while in pain. Obviously, there is an intelligence and sense of reasoning in play that requires deeper investigation.

For now, these dedicated scientists at UC Davis are providing us with fascinating insights as they carefully apply facial recognition and motion-tracking technology to advance the understanding of our beloved horses.

Beyond the veterinary field, it would be my wish that all trainers incorporate the knowledge gained from this research into their own programs, no matter what discipline, and pass that knowledge on to their students. It is just one more way that technology can be used for good and compassion, once again confirming something that masters of equitation have known for hundreds of years; there’s a certain “look” in the eye that helps you read a horse like a book. And now we will have even more information on which to base critical decisions in regard to the horse’s wellbeing. If only we were to pay attention…and humble ourselves to the fact that we may need to change our approach to working with horses.

SG


 

CLICK on this link to read the entire article:

UC Davis Uses Software to Map Equine Pain

Collaboration at UC Davis creates a system to assess the connection between horses’ facial expressions and their condition


 

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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Because I Have My Horse…

 

Zoie Brogdon, Age 12

“I tried soccer, which I hated. I tried track, and there was just mean people. I tried tennis, same thing, mean people. With horses, there still are mean people, but I don’t care. Because I have my horse right next to me.”

Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Read the NYT article here:Why Close Encounters With Animals Soothe Us

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(photo: http://theequestriannews.com/2015/12/21/harvey-simpson-honored-at-cjp-holiday-show/)

When Dr. Schoen forwarded this article to me recently, suggesting it would make a great subject for a blog post, I had to agree.

Have you ever been confronted by bullies at school, mean bosses, raging drivers, or generally unfriendly people? The majority of us are not willing to be confrontational to the degree that many others are. We may be called “sensitive” or “shy,” but in either case, we are not going to be the ones fighting back if we can help it, whether verbally or physically. However, being quiet, perhaps even introverted, and withdrawn from others can lead to inappropriate actions and behaviors that are viewed unfavorably. We may feel pushed to defend ourselves. Often times, it manifests in youth as at-risk behavior, and may stem from a myriad of other problems including a difficult home life.

We have spoken of such issues previously, and throughout The Compassionate Equestrian. They bear repeating, as human nature continues to cycle through episodes of negative influences and bombardment from a hostile outside world.

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(photo: http://www.cvlux.com/lux-daily/2015/7/1/all-about-patricia-heaton-compton-jr-posse)

Enter the horse.

I was one of those kids. Teased at school for a variety of reasons. Last one picked for teams in gym class. An alcoholic mother. Bosses who went off the rails. But there was always one reliable factor waiting for me around the corner. I believe I survived my youth and early adulthood because I had my horse.

* * *

Your horse simply looks at you with those big, wise eyes, his gaze following you as you move about the barn, or whinnies from the paddock gate to get your attention. His ears prick when he hears his name, expecting that you will engage further. What a feeling. A being that wants to be with you. He envelopes you with an otherworldly array of soul-soothing energy that, at least for a time, protects you from the disappointments of the human condition.

If you are fortunate enough to be part of a network of supportive human beings who further your love for horses and riding, you are even more likely to respond with gratitude and the desire to expand your compassion toward others. These are the equestrians who become teachers, leaders, and impassioned creators of a brave new world with the potential to eradicate much of the negativity that currently pervades our media and leaks into schools, businesses, and public events.

What I love about the program that is the subject of this article from The New York Times is the obvious professionalism, care, and structure afforded the kids and horses. While is it discipline-specific, the youth-at-risk are made to feel special, and allowed to fully connect with the magic of horses. They are dressed elegantly, wearing proper safety gear, and taught in a traditional, correct manner of equitation. It appears as though each rider is well matched to his or her mount. This is not “elitist”—it is a condition of the necessary safety issues and respect for all aspects of equine welfare. The effect of uniformity and attention to traditional details is evident by the comments from the youngsters featured in the article, as they are given a chance to play on a level field…and that level field is filled with the generous energy conveyed by their four-legged friends.

There are many layers of deep exploration that take place in understanding just how much horses can help at-risk youth, as well as many other demographics subject to humanity’s often-difficult existence.

Enjoy this article, and please consider how the Principles of Compassionate Equitation can be of so much value to the equestrian world. What is needed? Honest evaluations and solid leadership when it comes to identifying the right horse for each situation, and compassionately allowing each horse to interact with humans on a level that relieves their suffering as much as possible. We don’t want to aggrandize egos, force horses into something they are not suited for, and make the mistake of thinking every horse is a good “therapy” horse. There are so many adoptable horses available for programs such as the Compton Jr. Posse (featured in this NYT article…scroll back to the top to read it) that we owe it to them to ensure proper transitions for them whether they are coming from show barns, deemed only “serviceably sound,” and those who may be surrendered due to compromising situations faced by owners.

Horses are such a wonderful gift to us as human beings. Let us give back to them in the same way that they let us “use” them for our own wellbeing.

SG

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The Compassionate Equestrian is also pleased to announce our alignment with The Right Horse Initiative. Please check out their website, watch the video, and read the manifesto. Spread the good word and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Use hashtags: #TheCompassionateEquestrian @CompassionEq, #TheRightHorse and TheRightHorse on Instagram.

The Right Horse Initiative

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping)— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website

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The Riding Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, enjoy the read 🙂

Susan

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

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

The Riding Lesson by Eclipse Deal’s mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Win

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

no punishment

The Lesson Learned

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

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

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

**

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

Faith, Trust and Affection

 

Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

Trust: believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of.

Affection: a gentle feeling of fondness or liking.

Hello Compassionate Equestrians!

I hope you have had a wonderful summer, whether showing, trail riding, Olympics-viewing and/ or enjoying a well-earned vacation. As usual, time has flown by and it is hard to believe another two months have elapsed since my last post. The quandary is whether to add a newsletter or continue with the blog, as it seems none of us have enough hours in the day to ingest any more e-mails!

This one, however, is definitely worth a read. It is a story by guest-blogger and CE Movement member, Melissa Deal. Melissa has taken the message of The Compassionate Equestrian to heart—literally—and put the Principles into real action, as we had hoped many others would also be so inspired.

When we think of these 3 important words, “faith, trust, and affection,” we conjure visions based on our religion, our spiritual practices, and perhaps moments with our horses that may have required a considerable dose of all three! Personally, I follow those thoughts with feelings of gratitude and realize just how blessed I am in so many aspects of my life.

I believe we all love a great story, and I love the one as told below. Thank you, Melissa!

Susan G.


 

8/16/16 The Mane Say

by Melissa Deal

Victory Land Dressage

A brief intro: My name is Eclipse Deal. I am big, bright red chestnut gelding with chrome, thank you. I know all about the Compassionate Equestrian movement because they hold meetings here at MY farm. (My mom promised me a farm for Christmas a couple of years ago and I got it! All mine. Of course I share, because she makes me.) I even get to be the centerpiece of these Compassionate Equestrian gatherings and enjoy all of the attention: massage therapy, pictures, body work, grooming demos. Oooooo, just thinking of them makes me feel like I just had a good roll. Did I mention I am a movie star on something called Face Book and I LOVE FOOD? Oh, sorry, I am getting off track. Anyway, I’ve been asked to help out by writing this column called the Mane Say. It won’t be fancy, but it might give you a bit of insight into the mind and life of horses and their people because it is the saying of one with a mane, a horse, that’s me. They say I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but my mom says don’t believe it and she has given me the confidence to share my world with you. Ok, I confess, she is helping me – a little – (and I promise not to spook). Hope you enjoy and even if you don’t, I am pretty sure doing this will score me some extra CARROTS, yum, so I am up for it either way!

ECLIPSE WEBSITE PIC

Eclipse

My first story

I felt my mom’s energy across the paddock, before I saw her. Bristling she was and it got my attention. She practically marched toward the barn. As soon as she was close enough, I checked her eyes for water. Water in her eyes is a rare occurrence, but almost always leaks out with this kind of energy. I can’t explain why.

Eyes weren’t springing leaks, but had the eyes been leaking? I was pretty sure they had. In a very business-like manner she went for the grooming box without hesitation. No sweat, I thought. I had already done my work for the day so this likely meant pure adoration time for me. Yay!

Wait a minute. Oh come on. She was going for the tail. Bummer. Not my favorite, but definitely hers. It looks like adoration grooming will have to be after the tail. I don’t know what she does back there exactly, but I heard her friend call it therapy-whatever that means. I think I have a pretty sound understanding of the human language compared to other horses. Some words I just don’t get, though. (This lack of understanding doesn’t bother me since my mom says I am a genius, and I am pretty sure she is right). Out came the tail brush and the show sheen gel. Ever so gently, I felt brush, brush, brush. Rhythmic strokes were interrupted only by the times she seemed to be picking something out of my tail. Slowly, the pictures in her mind became available to me and this is what she shared.

Mom, in her dinky black Prius. (Dad says the Prius has something to do with hugging trees. This tree hugging thing is clearly a humanism that I don’t get. Trees are good for scratching though.) She drives down a long winding asphalt path with white fence punctuating each side. Stately oaks frame her view. Then to the left, movement catches her attention. She scowls. Her face is red and her chest thumps as she watches a vibrant young man yanking with great might on a yearling colts lead. To the left her head snaps. A fit young woman throws rocks at the other horses, one of which is trying to get in the mix. The woman is yelling at them. (What were those horses thinking? I mean, I am all about self preservation. Maybe one was the colt’s mom or something?) Then, I felt my mom’s energy shift. In the picture, her face softens and gradually she becomes sad for the suffering of innocent horses. Empathy replaces the sadness and the anger disappears entirely as her car rolls to a stop. She composes herself and prays for guidance on how to influence these unknowing people in way that will be life changing for the horses. (I know mom really puts a lot of stock in praying so this had to be really important to her.)  She puts on her best smile. She has a job to do, a mission to accomplish, a lesson to teach and lives to change. She thinks: “this can only be accomplished through influence. Anger will get me nowhere.” To influence will require proof of her ability to guide the rider to the changes they desire, regardless of whether she or the horse find them meaningful. “If I can accomplish this,” she thinks, “then, maybe I can help them see the horse, its mind and its behavior differently.” Perhaps she can soften the hearts of the young man and woman so they can feel their real feelings, not just the ones the world taught them to have. Then they will be free to act from their hearts, the hearts they had as children. She knows they didn’t mean to be abusive. She knows they are well intended. She hurts for the horses. Her heart cracks open and she mourns the state of the humans too.

She finished my tail and looked me deep in the eye with all of the love she could hold and with raw emotion stated out loud,” Here’s the thing about us humans. We will judge the actions of others, but we unknowingly do things that are just as terrible, only different, to you horses. What will it take for us to be like you, kind and forgiving more often than not? What will it take to change us? Thank you! Thank you for showing me every day how to help you, others and myself. I am so lucky to have you in my life! I am so grateful that you tolerate me and that you lead by example. (Whatever that means…another strange humanism.) I am undeserving of your trust and affection,” she says. (The last one is a big word. I don’t understand, but I know it’s all good stuff, every word). She gave the cue for a kiss and I very gently extended my neck and reached my fuzzy muzzle toward her pursed lips in a sweet caress. (The sweeter I am the more treats I get!) My muzzle fuzz touched her warm soft skin and she relaxed. (What a relief.)  A smile and a carrot instantly followed. I knew that all was well in my world, once again. Somehow it seemed, my tail and I had helped her feel better and in return she made me feel like big warm bran mash does on a frost bitten evening – loved and adored. Delicious!


 

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 56 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She began riding professionally in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay Champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at www.susangordon.ca

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

 

Facebook Faux Pas and Expanding the CE Movement

 

It has occurred to me that my Facebook posts of late are as long as a blog post. And the blog posts themselves have been non-existent. Therefore, I am attempting to re-boot my social media habits as of today and link a shorter Facebook post to a longer blog post. Wish me luck. Thank you to all of our subscribers and readers to date! That includes those of you who also use Twitter and Instagram. It’s hard to keep up with all the social-media networking, but I’m learning! I’m also finding that the most “likes” and comments come from the stories about personal relationships and experiences with horses and numerous training issues, as well as issues that develop in the barn with other horse-people. I love the feedback and your stories too!

 

We also have a new sign-up window on the website for those who wish to register for the upcoming Compassionate Equestrian Community Newsletter (see www.thecompassionateequestrian.com). Plans so far are for a quarterly newsletter so you don’t have to worry about having excessive e-mails from us. I realize it is a concern when signing up for anything nowadays as everybody seems to have more e-mails and more reading to do than they can keep up with. This particular blog post is somewhat of  a hybrid, but the information in the newsletter will be quite different and “newsy” compared to blog posts, which are more of a personal commentary. There’s still nothing quite like having a real book with real pages in your hands so far as we’re concerned too!

 

Since the book’s release last year (almost a year ago already!) the movement toward a more compassionate equestrian industry is beginning to take shape, and we are seeing considerable interest around the world in the form of new equine welfare statements and policies by breed and regulating bodies. This is very important, and a much-needed move to catch up with the enormous amount of abuse and neglect that still affects millions of horses in working, showing, breeding, racing, post-career, and retirement situations.

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This is Reine, the Canadian mare that I ride for a client near my home on Salt Spring Island, B.C. I’m not completely retired. That wouldn’t be any fun – LOL!

The Compassionate Equestrian Movement is growing, and our “first-in” barns, trainers, instructors and organizations have recently been featured in a wonderful brochure (available on our website’s home page) written by TCE’s editor, Rebecca Didier. The CE Movement will soon have a new page on our website, as it is currently in development. If you haven’t already read their stories, please check them out, and have a look at their online information for more details—links are included in the brochure’s pages found on our site. This is compassion-in-action and brings to life the many reasons Dr. Schoen and I embarked on writing TCE and formulating the principles.

* * * * *

Lastly, here is my Facebook post from yesterday in case you missed it. It’s about the responsibility of declaring that you have a “beginner-safe horse.”

 

“Safe for a beginner.” Sometimes, famous last words, so to speak. I think back to my first horse, purchased for me by my parents when I was 12. She was safe enough on trails in the wilderness, where she was raised and used as a pack horse in the mountains during hunting season. However, once we moved to a rural neighbourhood of a city and I had to ride her along roads, she became a danger to both of us by panicking at cars and trucks roaring by. It didn’t help that the community roads were lined with large, muddy ditches, deep enough to swallow a car or horse unlucky enough to end up in one of them.

Fortunately there was a riding arena next door to our house and so I resolved to keep her off the busy roads and avoid the possibility of a terrible accident.

How many times have I had clients come home with a “beginner-safe horse” that turned out to be anything but? That would be a new book in itself!

What really constitutes “bomb-proof?” How do you legitimately know if a horse is right for a first-time owner or young rider?

A repeated message throughout TCE is learning about dealing with our ego. When purchasing a horse, you are not only involved with your own wants and needs, but those of the seller, and possibly your trainer or advisor. I have had clients let go of a very good, suitable horse when they moved away and found a new barn, simply because their perfect horse was not a horse their new trainer wanted to ride.

The beginner horse is a highly valued member of the equine community. If you are looking for one, or selling to a rider who is just starting out, you have a big responsibility in your hands.

As humans, we tend to talk a lot, especially when we should be watching or listening. There are many questions involved with a horse that can allegedly take care of a newer rider. The more you know about a horse’s history…where he’s been and what he’s done since he was weaned, the better.

Yes, my horse actually was beginner-safe, but only in the situations with which she was accustomed. Once taken out of that environment, she became too fearful and reactive for a young rider to handle. Any horse can develop pain and fear issues over time, and many sellers attempt to cover up those issues. Sometimes, it may be an oversight, or the seller and buyer are unaware of changes that might occur in the horse’s behavior when the environment changes.

We can never know everything about a horse, that’s really the bottom line. We can take some control over our egos though, and view the horses and everyone involved with them with a compassionate heart and mind. If we need to move on, it is best to do so with love, understanding and kindness.

My first horse was eventually sold back to a very large working ranch where she was able to live out her life in good health and an environment that kept her happy and content.
SG

(photo: http://www.cowboyshorsesale.com/horses.html)

The Compassionate Equestrian's photo.
_________________________________________________________________

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 56 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping)— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase by contacting Susan at : susan.greepony@gmail.com

IMG_6006

LIVE LONG AND COMPASSIONATELY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 5K to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D. 

Stillness

Present! No…Absent!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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