The Story in Our Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://charterforcompassion.org/node/4287

Karen Armstrong Argues for Practical Compassion

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

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

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

http://www.auctionhorses.net/ 

They’re in the Gate…

…and they’re off!

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

Kicking up dirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * 

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

Changing Leads Gracefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut Chris Hadfield at We Day:

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

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

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

He states his most important goal as follows:

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Condensing Time and Space

This is the new world. Nobody has time, and almost everybody is reading things in very small, narrow windows. We have condensed our world. Faster, smaller… better?

I was in an electronics store a short time ago and for the first time took a look at our blog and website on a smartphone screen. I’m a latecomer to the world of these devices, as I haven’t needed one, until now. Since we also have to travel lighter the power of the small screen decidedly trumps the necessity of packing a computer. In the world of condensed everything, even these two paragraphs are too long for most people. If you’ve been able to get this far – good for you!

When you squeeze text into a narrower window, obviously it makes the content appear much longer than it does on a wide-screen. So I’ve decided to try to make these posts shorter and sweeter so that everyone can get back to their busy-ness and other activities in due course.

photo: americashorsedaily.com "Bad Warmup Behavior"

photo: americashorsedaily.com
“Bad Warmup Behavior”

What does this have to do with horses? Compassion?

I have seen the tiny electronic devices cause a considerable deflection from the intense focus that’s required to school a horse correctly. I’m old enough to have comparative values of the pre-cellphone and post-cellphone worlds. When my teenage students first started showing up at the barns sporting their new e-toys, I could sense  trouble was brewing. I knew what was coming down the high-tech pipelines too as I actually lived in a computer lab that was full of engineers and programmers developing this stuff. Nobody figured teenagers would be the first demographic addicted to tiny phones.

I will never forget the sight of one of the younger girls who was on her new 17.2 h.h. off-track thoroughbred for the first time. I was waiting in the arena for her to start her lesson and couldn’t figure out why the horse was drifting well away from the in-gate. Then I noticed the reins were on the buckle. No, wait. Not even on the buckle, they were dropped on the big gelding’s neck. The young rider had her head down, both hands on her phone, texting. The horse had no idea where he was supposed to go.

It wasn’t long before the lure of the e-device became far more important than the horse, who soon after began to act out on all the issues that come with an ex-racehorse. He ended up standing in his paddock for the next two years while the girl’s grandmother did her best to care for the high-energy thoroughbred, as none of the other kids had the patience for him either.

Everybody had to get back to their phone calls and texts.

It’s not going to get any better, I’m afraid. Not unless more people decide that it simply isn’t being mindful or compassionate to our horses as distracted humans carry on in this faster, smaller, (better?) world of narrow windows, too much to do, too much traffic, rising costs of everything, complex data plans, endless passwords, typing, typing and more typing (with thumbs, no less), and having to get information across in smaller and smaller chunks. How does anybody learn anything this way? How in the world did we all end up with so much to do and no time to do it? The mind is just too packed with fragmented bits of information to be focused…

…and riding a horse really well requires focus. Otherwise, somebody gets hurt, or somebody (usually the horse) IS hurting, and it goes unnoticed – because the mind is elsewhere – or the rider is in such a rush to get in and out of the barn that something else in the horse’s training goes amiss.

Obviously, I haven’t done a very good job of condensing this post either! So if you’ve also had the time to read this far – good for you again!

The only answer I can see – and Dr. Schoen has spoken about this many times and puts it into practice daily – is that we have to take control of our mind-space and consciously retrain, or re-wire, our thinking to where we can be more mindful. Being mindful means being more compassionate as with that clearer, calmer focus, it’s much easier to notice if somebody, especially our silent horse, is actually suffering in some way.

If you have patiently scrolled all the way through this post, thank you! Apparently I still have a lot to say about things – maybe too much – but in a very condensed conclusion, all I have to say is, when I finally get my first smartphone next week, I hope I’ll remember to put it down when necessary, look up and around and acknowledge everybody and everything that needs some attention and real human contact.

As the Barn Turns

We all have our stories about “barn drama”. No matter what breed, what discipline, or what type of facility you board your horse at, there will be drama.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal spelled out just how bad things can get:

Horse therapy (photo www.yourhorse.co.uk)

Horse therapy
(photo http://www.yourhorse.co.uk)

‘Barn Drama’ Puts Riders on Their High Horses
People Who Board Horses Know That Misbehavior by Human Owners Is Common Hazard

by Lauren Lipton, April 13, 2014 http://www.wsjonline.com

Scot Gillies has a good idea of the kind of horse people who will fit in at Gryffindor Farm, the small barn he helps manage in Lexington, Ky. So his advertisements for new boarders spell it out in detail: Owners must be “laid-back,” “happy” and above all, “drama-free.”

In an example of ‘barn drama,’ an unknown culprit cut the tail of a prized stallion at a Kentucky horse show. Vicky Castegren
Mr. Gillies, a marketing consultant by day and a horse owner himself, says that during his 14 years in the equestrian world, “I’ve seen the full range of drama that is associated with horse people.”

A few categories of problematic individuals reign: There are overprotective owners who insist their animals be treated like porcelain figurines, and neglectful owners who never show up. There are “back seat riders,” as some call them, who love to criticize other people’s technique. Some freak out over a stray wisp of hay in the barn aisle; others let their animals leave unwanted souvenirs…

I’ve been on both sides of the fence myself, as a boarder and managing a boarding barn. From a small backyard operation of a couple of horses to one of the most famous show-jumping facilities in the world. I could write an entire book on this topic alone.

We all know this kind of “stuff” happens all the time at barns so why does it continue? Can’t we be civilized enough to allow our fellow horse-people to enjoy their mounts and their time at the barn without the concerns of being criticized, harassed, bullied, insulted, or even robbed? Where is the compassion for other humans amongst human horse owners?

Are horse-people just an inherently nasty personality type who can’t resist the chance to flaunt their “superior knowledge” at every chance? Sometimes one has to wonder…

The setup of a boarding barn almost guarantees unstable behavior: Take a group of passionate, opinionated individualists. (Riding, a solo activity, doesn’t attract “team players.”) Give them a consuming hobby centered on a delicate, expensive living creature. Put them in close quarters, often with children and dogs that run amok, spooking the horses, and let the backbiting begin.

Yikes. That doesn’t make us look too good as a subset of society does it?

I wonder if it’s just that horses bring up the deepest part of ourselves, perhaps even mirroring our most repressed fears and long-buried personality traits that we ourselves are surprised to discover when they surface. I can remember many incidents over the years, even going back to my teens, where being around horses made me more reactive and opinionated around people than usual. In fact, I was pretty shy and reclusive around people, even quite nervous, when I didn’t have a horse nearby to “cover” for me. There is definitely new research emerging that confirms a neurobiological basis to our interactions and behaviors between species.

At horse barns I’ve found most people only get to know each other as they relate to their horses and their specific activity at the barn. We don’t get to know each other well and so there may be assumptions made about others causing us to form opinions about them that are untrue or incomplete. This can cause rifts amongst people who might become friendlier if they understood each other a little better. Some riders may form more lasting or bonding friendships and enjoy great camaraderie, but it always seems to split into “cliques”, just like high school. This seems especially true if there’s multiple disciplines involved at the barn:

Some barns attract more drama than others. High-end facilities with riders who compete on the show circuit in events like jumping and dressage can be hotbeds of jealousy; trail-rider barns are said to be easier-going. A mix of disciplines and levels, from serious equestrians to children taking lessons, can make problems worse.

“The minute you start mixing the hunter-jumpers with the dressage people with the Western pleasure people, that is like drama times three,” says Macala Wright, who boards her two horses in a facility that also includes a nonprofit equestrian-therapy group.

“The affluent people look down on the everyday horse owners. The dressage people don’t like the hunters, and every group looks down on the nonprofits,” says Ms. Wright, a Los Angeles branding consultant who has shuttled one of her horses through four barns in two years. At the second, which catered mostly to wealthy riders, “People would comment, ‘Oh, your dressage saddle isn’t very good quality,’ ” recalls Ms. Wright.

Something seems to be missing. Perhaps that would be “compassion,”  – the desire to relieve the suffering of another. Given the scenarios mentioned in this article, it would appear that compassion for others, and even other people’s horses, is sadly absent. I wonder if it’s possible to create a barn with a boarding contract that spells out something more profound than a “no drama” clause…

The best defense against drama may be a no-nonsense management style. “Three strikes and you’re out!” works for Donna Hyde, who juggles 22 horses, 18 boarders and disciplines including therapeutic riding, Western dressage and trail riding at her Norco, Calif., facility.

It’s an unfortunate commentary on the business when a barn manager has to constantly be on the defence for bad behavior. It just makes the barn manager appear to be angry or potentially angry much of the time too. In fact, if they’re dealing with or perpetuating the drama themselves, they may actually be angry! The attitude from the top-down affects everyone at the barn, including the horses.

By the time a boarder has reached the “three strikes and you’re out!” order, they’ve usually already left a trail of destruction ranging from hurt feelings to causing others to leave the barn. You can end up losing a good client because of a disruptive one.

Our answer with The Compassionate Equestrian is to create a new paradigm for horse-people and the equine industry that will allow a barn to follow the program Dr. Schoen and I have been working on. Its principles are designed to encourage the development of self-compassion, compassion for horses, and for all beings. There will eventually be a database of compassionate barns and trainers who will be doing their best to ensure everyone under their care and management is mindful of others and coming from a place of compassionate awareness.

We believe that horse-people are highly influential in their communities, both in and outside of their equestrian activities. If we are known as a “hazard” to each other and noted as “unstable personalities” we are not setting a good example for others, and especially not for young people who need safe, happy environments in which to enjoy their horses. Nobody should ever have to arrive at their barn and be afraid of what negative things will be said or done to them or their horse.

Everyone has the capacity to become more compassionate, and it does take a conscious effort to maintain compassion when situations may become difficult. For the sake of our community, our horses, and peaceful interactions in our barns, it’s our wish that all horse-people consider the benefits of compassion and the extraordinary, broad-reaching impact it can have on our world, well beyond that of the barn.

 

 

The Benefits – or Not – of Freedom

Imagine the Earth before there were any countries or borders of any kind. No lines, no names of this or that, no maps, no fences… nothing. The only sounds were the sounds made by Nature. There was no “time” according to human parameters. Just the continuous, ever flowing cycles of life. All creatures were free to wander wherever they would, or could. They were unbound by man-made constraints and the defining qualities brought about by the human tendencies of wants, needs, and ownership.

We couldn’t leave well enough alone, could we? We had to make countries and borders then create weapons of war to protect the countries and make enemies of those from other places. Horses were captured and domesticated to assist humans in their pursuits to “divide and conquer”. Unwitting participants along our path of so-called civilization.

It’s almost like we’ve painted ourselves into a corner after centuries of nation-building and social development. Are we free or not free? We’re surrounded by borders and rules telling us where and when we can and cannot go to visit or live. What of all the animals we’ve domesticated and bred? If we and they have wonderful, fulfilling lives, should there be judgement placed on how such great societies have been created? What about the millions of people and animals who still suffer so greatly on this planet, with no freedom to escape bad situations? If we have compassion for all beings, how can we be at peace until all beings on Earth are at peace?

According to Professor Lori Gruen’s interesting viewpoint, there are serious ethical questions to be asked about keeping animals in cages… or in the case of horses, the reference would be to keeping them in stalls and barns as our “captives”.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201404/the-ethics-captivity-new-book-covers-all-the-issues

“Though conditions of captivity vary widely for humans and for other animals, there are common ethical themes that imprisonment raises, including the value of liberty, the nature of autonomy, the meaning of dignity, and the impact of routine confinement on physical and psychological well-being.”

Now, imagine what the implications would be if everybody just quit riding their horses, opened all the stall doors and paddock fences and set them free. It’s likely chaos would ensue. Sure, they might run amok for awhile or stop by the neighbour’s apple trees but most would be right back at the barn doors at feeding time looking for their next meal. Some wouldn’t leave at all. A few might join the wild herds, as in the deserts of the American Southwest where the economic downturn really did lead some people to turn their show and companion horses loose to fend for themselves. Rescue operations bordering desert communities have found themselves with “strays” looking for food and water.  Domestic horses don’t do well on their own.

"Nick" - photo by Natascha Wille

“Nick” – photo by Natascha Wille

Let’s face it. Horses are big animals that leave a big hoofprint on the environment. In our “non-ideal” world as Dr. Gruen refers to, we have to “do the very best we can for them while their lives are compromised to various degrees in captive settings”.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, the writer of the article states, ” let’s hope that open discussion of the issues and the questions at hand, including what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and their capacity to suffer and to empathize with others, will work on behalf of those unfortunate billions of individuals who lives are a mess because of their confinement”.

So somewhere in the middle of “let’s turn all the horses loose” and “let’s keep them confined for our own pleasure and use” is the question “what is the most compassionate way to care for and interact with our horses?”

There is new, emerging research all the time that is telling us what causes distress to horses. We know for sure that ulcers are a man-made condition in equines, caused by stress placed on them due to excessive confinement, travel and showing. In our human rush to conquer and control everything, have we gone too far with horses and committed them to a lifestyle that is so unnatural for them that we’ve changed their genetic makeup? Probably. Is this bad? What have we done to other humans with such a mindset? Even in such things as personal relationships. Are we being compassionate to our partners when we hold them “captive” according to our wants, needs, schedules and whims?

Ah freedom. Look your horse in the eye and ask if he’d rather be turned loose to run and graze wherever he wants. No more grooming, hoof trimming, veterinary care, clean hay and water or forced exercise. Would he tilt his head like a curious puppy and ask “why”? Or would he immediately start nodding his head, pounding on the stall door with the enthusiasm of a football player charging into the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown? What would happen if you told your human partner or spouse they were free to go wherever they choose, whenever, and with whom?

My guess is the equine and human responses would vary, but most would fall somewhere in the middle of the extremes. Having compassion and wishing to alleviate another’s suffering means first of all, to be mindful of the fact that they’re suffering. Is your horse (or human partner) suffering in silence and you’re not seeing it? If you opened the door to set them free, would they go? Would they come back to you after realizing how kind and compassionate you were to them? Do they recognize freedom as being of benefit to them, or are they looking for the security of the home they’ve become so accustomed to and are willing to compromise their freedom to remain “captive” in a potentially less-than-ideal situation? These are the gists of the ethical questions posed by Dr.s Gruen and Bekoff.

Freedom is not about owning and controlling. Perhaps we need to consider that with our “captive” animals and being mindful as to how they are affected by confinement and the tasks we ask of them. Horses have evolved to fit with a domesticated lifestyle, as have humans, and many of the other pets we keep. Turning them all loose would not necessarily be conducive to their health and wellbeing. We all need to depend on each other for care and love, otherwise we lead a lonely and vulnerable life. The kindest approach of all is to acknowledge everyone as a free spirit, accepting who and what they are, with a compassionate heart and mind.

 

A Happy Horse, of Course!

We do everything else online these days so why not learn how to be happy by taking an online course too!? I had to think about this for a few days, and try to compute what “happy” really means. Especially to a horse. Does a horse think “happy thoughts”? I think with humans, part of the problem is we think too much. Part of being happy is to stop it. “Thinking” too much that is. At least so far as instructions in mind-training go as we are taught to let go of binding attachments to desires and things and just “be”. Yet even when taught to observe the mind as an instrument of desire, we still have wants and needs. It’s part of being human. It depends on what those wants and needs are. Do we want “stuff” or do we want to be of benefit to all beings?

For a horse to be happy, does he have to stop thinking or start thinking? Perhaps with animals, it’s simply a matter of how they respond in the moment as opposed to deciding how they will do everything from selecting a partner to where they will live and work and what they will acquire that will supposedly “make” them happy. They go about their horse-business and seem to be most at peace when they’re turned out in a pasture together and can function as closely to their natural herd behavior as much as possible.

The "herd" waiting to be brought in for dinner.

The “herd” waiting to be brought in for dinner.

What’s interesting about the fundamental ideas behind the “happiness course” is that they sound a lot like the way a herd of horses naturally operates. “Strong social ties”. Check. “A sense of purpose or connection to the greater good”. Check. “Reading people’s emotions”. Oh yes, horses are really good at that too. Do they have compassion? Empathy? I believe many of us who have worked with horses a long time can cite stories of horses displaying all the qualities this course teaches us about being happy. How fascinating!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/23/why-thousands-of-people-a_n_5175603.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

“The [course] starts with the idea that happiness and health are fundamentally about strong social connections and being immersed in a strong social community,” says Keltner, citing research that strong social ties can add years to your life. “We’re going to zero in on things that build strong social ties and communities — things like compassion, empathy, how to read people’s emotions, gratitude, charity, generosity and giving.”

The course emphasizes two main (scientifically-proven) keys to happiness: Strong social ties, and a sense of purpose or connection to the greater good.

Granted, the definition of true happiness can be somewhat broad-based and subjective. A quick online search for the definition provided this description:

hap·pi·ness
ˈhapēnis/
noun
the state of being happy.
“she struggled to find happiness in her life”
synonyms: pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joviality, jollity, glee, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, well-being, enjoyment;

For horses, that could translate to the pleasure of eating a bucket full of tasty grain or taking off across the field, bucking and playing as a delighted free spirit with the rest of the herd. Sounds similar to what humans find satisfying and joyful. Eating, playing… it appears all beings might be looking for the same thing.

Can happiness-seeking take a wrong turn? I can see all the heads nodding now.

This goes back to our desire for self-satisfaction and thinking we’re going to find that either through others, or through the acquisition of material goods. It looks like the online happiness course is scientifically-backed to prove there are definitely errors made in human thinking as to what will make us happy.

I had a landlord once who lived right below my apartment. He and his girlfriend were generous, caring souls, but he was convinced she was supposed to “make him happy”. It’s a fragile way to maintain a human relationship. As soon as he was “unhappy” the arguments would ensue and it became an unpleasant environment not only for them as a couple, but for everyone else in the vicinity who was subjected to their unhappy behaviors. They would eventually make up and the entire cycle would start again.

Horses don’t seem to have these problems.

I’ve watched horses respond to other horses in distress many times. They don’t like it when a herd-member is in trouble or hurting, even if they only know the horse as a stable-mate who lives in another stall in the barn. They will exhibit signs of stress and call out to the distressed horse. Is this not a sign of compassion and empathy? I’ve seen an entire herd of pasture-mates form a procession and circle around one of their own who was dying. Is this not a sign of sentience, intelligence and compassion?

I believe that amongst domesticated horses, we humans are often thought of as part of their herd. Perhaps more so by some horses than others, but I’ve seen signs of acceptance in that regard as well. It’s probably why so many people feel so protective and emotionally attached to their horses. It’s hard not see them as objects of desire and “things” that exist to make us happy, but they are so much more than that.

As the happiness course indicates, the factors that make for true happiness are strong social circles and caring for others. So our real happiness with horses comes from that aspect of being with them, and not so much from the aspect of how much they cost, how much fancy tack we can dress them up with, or how many ribbons we can win in the show ring with them. All that “stuff” simply pales in light of the real reasons horses can bring us true happiness. No wonder they’re so inherently happy 🙂

 

 

 

When a “Behavioral Problem” Really is Just That

In The Compassionate Equestrian Dr. Schoen and I stress repeatedly that when a horse exhibits behavioral issues, first rule out pain as the root cause.  This is especially true if there’s a change in the horse’s base personality.  Sometimes this takes more than one veterinarian’s opinion.   Diagnosis of subtle lamenesses can be difficult to pinpoint and the first sign of a problem might be the new or increasingly difficult behavior.

However, in my many 30+ years of working with all kinds of horses of varying breeds, ages, backgrounds and temperaments, there are a few quirky personalities in the crowd that are simply, well, weird.  They have legitimate behaviors that are out of the context of “normal” for most horses and sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is let them be exactly as they are.  If you can hang on, or tolerate them that is.

Sometimes you just hang on! (photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Sometimes you just hold on!
(photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Some of the most interesting have been the off-track thoroughbreds.  The subject of this post is one little, classic, plain bay gelding.  Nothing particularly spectacular to look at, but he had the kind of personality that made everyone look.  Kind of in the way you can’t take your eyes off the cars in a demolition derby.

His name was Earthquake.  As the story went, he was born in California during an actual earthquake.  We never did confirm whether or not this was true.  He was booted off the track in San Diego due to his “bad behavior”.  He ended up in a backyard in Phoenix that housed the other off-track thoroughbred jumpers belonging to his owners.  Besides a string of successful racehorses, they had produced some of the top amateur jumpers on the circuit.

Earthquake’s owner, Tracy, is the sister of the trainer I was working for at the time.  She told us “Quake” was almost impossible to ride on the flat.  Even with all of her experience in showing and winning at the “A” Circuit level, this little bay gelding scared her.  He would scoot out from under her, spin, leap, and generally act like a crazy horse.  She didn’t know what to do with him.

One day he was turned loose in the arena to play.  Tracy watched, somewhat stunned, while ‘Quake galloped over jump after jump all on his own, apparently inspired from watching her other horses school over fences.  So she clung through the flatwork with him and began to train him for jumper classes.

I had the task of helping her with him at his first show.  Lucky me!

I always maintained that somebody had to be the “entertainment of the day” at a horse show and frequently it was our barn.  Tracy’s brother was an excellent, caring horseman and would never consider drugging a horse to calm it down or make it easier to ride.  He just quietly rode whatever was underneath him in the moment, and so did his sister.

Taking thoroughbreds from the track to their first few shows is always a wild card.  ‘Quake was at least consistent with his quirky behavior.  I watched the crowded warm-up arena from the barns and it was easy to spot him.  That would be the horse and rider leaping above all the others, unrelated to where the warmup jumps were placed.

He was so excited to go in the show ring for his rounds, he couldn’t be contained.  He would paw, stretch, almost drop himself to the ground, spin, leap, and spook other horses at the in-gate.   Tracy hung on.  Then he would go in the arena, focus, clear every jump, and won almost every class he was entered in.  He was phenomenal.  Just impossible outside of the jumper ring!

He got better at his routine as he began to get the hang of showing.

I had to tack him up before one of the classes and it was exhausting.  He spun around in the stall.  He couldn’t stay still for a second.  I even tried pressing on an acupressure point on the coronary band, in the center of a front hoof.  It actually seemed to work, much to my relief.  He calmed down and I finished getting him saddled for his class.

Another day, and another class.  We got him tacked up and Tracy left him tied in his stall to go walk the course.  ‘Quake knew where she was going and he was apparently upset that he wasn’t going to the jumper ring with her.  I went in the tack room for a moment when I heard a loud crash from ‘Quake’s stall.  Mortified, I saw that he’d somehow jumped over the stall guard while still tied to the inside of the stall.  I have no idea how he could have maneuvered his body in such a way through a small opening and over the barrier.  Luckily he was unhurt in his desperation to follow his rider to the arena.

All you can do with that kind of enthusiasm is support it and hope the horse connects with the right rider and the right activity to accommodate his energy and ability.  In this case, the stars lined up and what would have been an extremely difficult ride for many equestrians, turned out for the best.  Last I heard ‘Quake was winning Grand Prix classes in the southwest.

Not every horse with behavioral “quirks” is lucky enough to find its way to a compassionate, competent owner that has the patience to simply let him “be” and allow the talent to shine through.  If ‘Quake had been punished for his leaping and spinning who knows what kind of a different horse he may have turned into.  Most likely not such an enthusiastic jumper who seemed completely enamoured with his owner.

If you have been able to rule out pain as the cause of your horse’s “behavior problem” and have determined he’s just of the personality type to be the way he is, then kudos to you for your compassion and understanding.  In my mind, I can see the happy little grins on all those clownish horses out there whose joy for life just can’t be constrained.

 

____________________

The Compassionate Equestrian is pleased to be affiliated with the International Charter For Compassion’s new Sector on the Environment

For information about the Charter for Compassion, and the upcoming Compassion Relays, click on the following link:

http://compassiongames.org/compassion-relays/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Just” a Trail Horse

 

Many times when I’ve asked people about their horses they’ll say, almost apologetically, “oh, he’s just a trail horse”.  It’s as though their horse isn’t important enough for those of us who made a career with show horses to acknowledge as being relevant.  Or that it doesn’t require any special breeding or talent to be a trail horse.

Well, in the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we see equality in all horses, just as we do all sentient beings.  They were given a life, just as we were, and all are subject to suffering, just as all humans are.  Everyone deserves the same amount of compassion, no matter who or what they are, or what they do.  Including trail horses :).

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in one of my favourite places, Sedona, Arizona, on the back of a sweet, reliable trail horse who is as careful and kind as they come.

Shadow

Shadow

This is significant because my past experience with horses on trails has not always been so favourable.  My first horse, White Cloud, was a ranch horse.  When we moved to the suburbs of a large city, I had to ride along busy roadways to reach the trail system.  I was only twelve at the time and didn’t know better.  I thought that since the stocky white mare was so good on country trails, nothing would bother her on busier roads or trails either.  How wrong I was!

I was lucky we weren’t hit by a car.  We held up traffic a few times while Cloudy panicked at the sound of loud, fast vehicles passing and spooked by throwing herself into reverse.  As the area we lived in was lined with large ditches, her behaviour was quite disconcerting, not to mention dangerous.  Her tension translated into my tension and I was forever nervous about riding horses along busy roads after that.  I’ve never really gotten over it.

When we moved again, Cloudy was sold to a rancher and lived out the remainder of her life in a happy place.

The next horse to come my way was a very young, barely broke (in fact, badly-broke) appaloosa filly.  She was also born and raised on a large ranch and had no concept of behaving on multi-use trails or in traffic.  I really tried to overcome my fears and hers as I still enjoyed a gallop across a hay field or a pleasant trail ride down to the river, which required some riding along roads to get there.

Miss Demeanor, appropriately named, was one “incident” after the other.  I was still in my early teens and learning about training horses.  Determined, I kept taking her on trail rides, hoping for improvement.  One day she managed to thoroughly embarrass me on a group ride by running backwards down a steep hill until she finally backed into a tree, even with the reins thrown at her.  Then she scared herself and scooted forwards, spooking some of the other horses who had gone ahead.  I just seemed destined to not ever have a pleasant trail ride!

Trail running!

Trail running!

One day I was finally brave enough to ride “Missy” the few miles down to a beautiful spot by the river.  I let her take a drink out of a creek that fed into the river and in the blink of an eye, she was down and rolling in the muddy bank with me still on her.  I had to ride all the way back to the barn with one side of her plastered in mud so thick you couldn’t see her spots any longer.  I never did get all the mud out of the carved leather of my western saddle either.

I was in awe of people who could simply saddle up on a nice day, head out on the trail, and return still smiling with a happy and relaxed horse.  I had no idea why this “trail horse” thing was so elusive!

There was no problem in the show ring.  Even my spooky filly could open gates, walk over teeter-totters and tarps, drag a tire or a cow-hide, and jump a small fence.  Why didn’t that translate to the great outdoors?

Eventually I gave up on the idea of enjoyable trail riding, especially as my next horse was an appaloosa stallion, and confirmed “city boy”.  The first time I led him down a little hill he had no clue how to navigate it and promptly squatted on his hind legs and sat there in a half-rear.  I should have expected such things from my horses by now.

One day I was offered a beautiful big dappled gray warmblood gelding to ride on a charity trail event.  He was a lesson horse at the show barn I was riding at and generally very quiet.  Oh no, not on the trail however.  He spooked at… invisible trolls?  Maybe it was the shrubbery.

Finally I was married to a three-day eventing trainer and we were running a barn that was situated next to a cross-country course and thousands of acres of trails, accessible without riding along any roads.  Surely this was to be trail-riding heaven!

Sigh.  The appaloosa complained about the rocky footing.  The thoroughbred gelding pranced sideways thinking he was still a field-hunter and wouldn’t settle until after a full-out gallop. The off-track mare spooked at the cattle.  The part-Standardbred jumper bolted over the beaver-fall.  Was there anybody out there who wanted to be a nice trail horse??!!

I was starting to resign myself to having to ride in an arena forever, or continue having unusually adventurous trail experiences.  Gee, what was it like to have a safe, relaxing ride where I could drop the reins and enjoy the scenery?

The last barn I taught lessons at was a mix of many types of horses and riders, most of whom went on the rugged, rocky trails of Sedona on a regular basis.  I was still more comfortable jumping fences than going on a trail ride and stayed in the arena.

Finally, having really retired this time (it took a few tries), I thought I’d attempt trail riding again.

I know those trails from having run them on foot.  It’s very easy to twist an ankle or trip and there are many hazards on desert pathways.  Sharp cactus plants await along every edge and the rocks can roll underfoot or be as slick as ice when worn smooth by eons of erosion.  Deer or javelina can appear out of nowhere and in the warmer months there’s always the possibility of a rattlesnake coiling closely enough to do some damage.

Remembering to breathe, at first I guided Shadow, the pretty chestnut Arabian gelding, as I would in the arena, “helping” him negotiate the continually changing angles of the terrain and hoping he wouldn’t slip on any of the slick-rock.  I worked as hard as he did, staying off his back on the uphills and shifting a little rearwards on the downhill, monitoring his balance and speed.  Hoping not to annoy him, I tried to do as little as possible, telling myself he knew what he was doing.

He’d spent many more hours packing riders around these trails than I had spent riding horses on them.

Shadow was also lovely in the arena, and in fact very well bred to be a show horse too.  His gentle disposition and good training seemed to add up to his ability to be an all-around great guy.

At the end of our 3-hour ride, my reins were loose and I was letting him pick his way home, carefully stepping over boulders and not tensing up when his shoes slid on the steep downhills.  Yes, this little horse knew what he was doing alright.

What a happy day.  Now I know what it’s like to have a genuinely pleasant trail ride, with no spooking at wildlife, cars, dogs, cyclists, or loud noises.  What a special horse it takes to provide that kind of experience.  I can’t believe I had to wait so many years to enjoy such a ride.

Happy trails to all!

Happy trails to all!

I can tell you for certain that nobody ever needs to apologetically refer to their horse as “just” a trail horse.  They are a special breed unto themselves, no matter what their breeding or background, and they deserve every accolade that a top-notch show horse receives.  Trail horses also deserve the same kind of mindful care, compassion, and healthy environments as the most expensive, highly bred animals in the show-ring.  After all, horses don’t know how much we paid for them, or how much we pay for their training and board.  All they know is how they are made to feel in our presence, and you really can’t place a dollar sign on that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORWARDS and STRAIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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