TWO PRECIOUS GIFTS

In their quiet, mysterious ways, horses can make us feel exquisitely important. There is the one that watches your every move with ears fixated forwards. Or the horse that offers a transition in the split second before your brain sends the impulse to your legs…and the one that moves close to you, pressing its head into your chest when you are feeling down. They make us smile, give us confidence, and make us feel as though we could spend a lifetime together.

Do animals know when they are lifting our spirits? They must be reading and sensing something about our mood and behaviors, as they can also be quick to withdraw their interest if we seem threatening to them. Not unlike humans, if horses are repeatedly treated badly they can potentially shut down and refuse to willingly engage with us. They might even act out with their own version of hostility and angry rebuttals. There is a list of physiological stress responses identified with anger and aggression. In both horses and humans an over-stimulation of the flight or fight response and excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that have detrimental effects on one’s health.

Being partnered with a horse is somewhat comparable to having a close relationship with another human in many ways. Some of those partnerships work out much better than others, and as a trainer observing the interactions between horses and humans for many years, there is now research to confirm a lot of my own suspicions as to why some people get along better with their horses than others at a basic, interpersonal level.

A team of researchers created a study that looked at why some couples are able to stay together for a lifetime, while others do not survive much past the honeymoon phase. The attached article (link below) from The Atlantic is well worth reading.

When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

     But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal — of being in fight-or-flight mode — in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/#ixzz3KWxRsW9G

The horses could relate to having to face off with a saber-toothed tiger (somewhere back in their genetic memory!). When we have a horse, we do have a relationship. It may be more constructive amongst some horse/human teams than others, but when the two species interact, that is ultimately a pairing with responsibilities and expectations on behalf of both parties.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to have a good relationship with your horse, but that is only the beginning. What follows your engagement is what makes or breaks the partnership. As described in this article, there are the masters and the disasters.

As with traumatized people, horses can go from sweet, kind personalities to stressed, terrified bundles of nerves that overreact to stimuli. The reverse can also occur. Could the qualities that form the basis for a long-term, loving human relationship be the same that ensure longevity with horses? Obviously their brains do not compute language in the same way we do, so what would the common denominator possibly be comprised of? The answers appear to be quite specific and applicable to both species.

One of the key factors with the successful relationships according to this article is that the couples remained calm and connected, even when they fought. Their physiological arousal was low compared to the elevated flight/fight response of their less loving counterparts.

It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.

     This could explain why some of us feel we connect better with animals than we do with most people. We really are that sensitive to gesture, body language, and intention. We understand the silent, but important responses to our requests for attention, and animals seem to pick up on that behavior. Best of all, if we feel happy, safe, and trusted, we garner a positive response in our animals that is immediately apparent, because we can read the emotions they appear to be mirroring back to us.

When we seek an in-kind response from our loved ones, and are met with indifference or a negative reaction, such actions set the downward spiral in motion for the deterioration of what might have begun as a wonderful relationship.

Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

    Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

     Horses trust us more as riders when we respond positively to their bids for connection. It doesn’t mean we agree with them that there might be a fire-breathing dragon hiding beneath the bridge on the trail. More appropriately, that we acknowledge their response without a negative reaction that will have them thinking we are spooking at the invisible fire-breathing dragon too! The horse is just looking for the trusted herd leader to determine the right behavior based on their perceived threat. Sometimes they are just curious, which we can also consider a bid for attention. None of their requests should be met with anger.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

    These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

     I grew up watching my parents criticize each other, constantly taking little bites out of their marriage. It was sad, as they had not been taught a better way to communicate. Their hostility in turn affected their relationship with my brother and me as we took turns vying for their affection. The family room walls were covered in our awards and certificates of achievement, yet all we really wanted was to know that our parents genuinely loved us. Our “bids” for attention rarely garnered the responses we were seeking which may have been something as simple as a hug, a positive comment, or listening to our stories without creating an argument. Unfortunately we learn from our parents all too well and tend to find ourselves with partners who reflect the same type of relationship we were raised with unless we make a conscientious effort to work through that conditioning.

Our human issues seem to translate to how we interact with horses. If a horse is met with a smack from a whip or a jerk of the rein, it is, in the horse’s mind, an attack from the person who is supposed to be the one that can be trusted. While firmness may be necessary at times, and boundaries are established for the sake of safety, they can be accomplished using the same responses one horse would convey to another. Timing is everything. A horse that is always expecting an attack from its rider is not a pleasant ride, nor is it a happy horse.

Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

   “It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

     Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

     Watch a horse’s ears go back when approached by someone who has caused them pain. They may exhibit other behaviors too, such as moving away, threatening to kick, or raising their head and tensing their body. If someone even reminds them of a person who has hurt them, the behaviors may surface. Much like a human being who has been heartbroken or mistreated, the defensive responses are always looking for the triggers. The reactions happen in the body before the brain can talk you out of them.

With horses, it is interesting to observe their responses to a rider from the ground. As an instructor, we have the opportunity to pay attention to the equine expressions of contentment, gratitude, pain, stress, fatigue, or anger. Whether one believes horses have these emotions or not, with experience it becomes obvious when the facial expressions and body language change in response to either stimuli in the environment and/or something the rider is doing. Given the actions of the horse that follow a particular expression, I am pretty convinced after many years of riding, then teaching others to ride, that there is something biochemically similar occurring in both species.

This being true, then the masterful relationship techniques should also have the same effect in regards to horses and humans. Kindness makes all the difference in the world.

Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

     There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

     “If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”

     Horses respond best to their handlers when the attention is 100% focused on them. They are sensitive enough to know where our attention is directed, and can tell when we have so much as shifted our eyes to look at something. Inherently, we humans are similarly attuned to each other too, and it may be why we are so easily hurt. Many just don’t realize it.

Horses love to be acknowledged when they have done well. I have watched a student’s horse do something exceptional or correct, and then receive no accolades for it. A little scratch on the neck is all they need, yet I have often found myself repeating, “pet, him, tell him he’s been good!” Eventually the rider responds and I can see the positive change in the horse’s expression. As with human-to-human relationships, being generous with small acts of kindness can go a long way. This includes recognizing when the horse is really trying. Be kind with a giving rein, a soft voice, and a scratch on the withers for even the subtle moments of generosity your horse offers to you.

     When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.

     One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.

     I can recall many spectacular moments with horses, especially the enthusiastic ones who have a lot of “try” in them. Sometimes they get frustrated when being asked for new or difficult movements, especially as they are building strength and gaining endurance. I would ask for the new movement, just to the limits of their ability at the time, sense the fatigue setting in, then let them have an “out.” They want to do well and because they are just learning, it is far from perfection, but they know I am satisfied with their efforts. I try to be extremely conscientious of the precise moment to let them stop.

DressageHorse

They immediately offer something they do very well, for example a big, beautiful lengthen stride or flawless canter transitions. They almost seem to want to be given the opportunity to ensure that their intent to do well is acknowledged and appreciated. Of course, I gush all over them for their “look what I can do!” attitude. This is how you create the kind of relationship with a horse that makes them happy to see you every day and want to go into the arena with you for a workout.

     “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

     Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy.

The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.

It is all about kindness and generosity. These two gifts innately offered by horses are the same gifts we can give to each other that will potentially create the most loving, lasting relationships we could hope for. Not only important for the kind of relationship we will have with our horses…but among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

     And what could be more precious than that?

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Compassion, With Consequences

   I spent the past two weeks in the busy, crowded city that is my hometown. It is allegedly the 3rd most livable city in the world, yet I barely got any sleep due to the sheer amount of noise and constant attack on every sense. Even on the paved suburban forest trails near my brother’s home, people are distracted by their smartphones and controlling their dogs while balancing Starbucks coffee cups, many simultaneously pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, dodging cyclists and runners on the pathways. Near the house, tunnel construction for the new transit line operates through the night, while trains run hazardous materials through the terminal at the water’s edge and large tankers loom in the distance.

 

   “Survival” is the word that comes to mind in an overstuffed urban setting. Although I’m told Vancouver is nothing like Shanghai or any other enormous metropolis with millions of residents. It is a wonder to me that people don’t go completely crazy when everywhere you go it is shoulder-to-shoulder and very high-density living. Or maybe they do, as I think back to the expressions of obviously over-committed suburbanites on the trails. So when I found out it was “Horse Day” at the Pacific National Exhibition, I decided to attend since the fairgrounds were accessible via public transportation. This particular route into the downtown area is particularly challenging for drivers of cars and busses, as shortly past the racetrack and fairgrounds is one of the worst sections for homeless people in pretty much any city in the civilized world. People who are mentally ill and/or under the influence of mind altering drugs and alcohol spill from the sidewalks on to the streets, and at any given time of day, a sense of mayhem ensues.

 

   The bus was standing room only on that Wednesday morning, and it was hot. I got off a block early simply to get relief from the heat and the packed vehicle. I knew exactly where I was headed and easily navigated through the usual array of food stands, vendors hawking all kinds of fascinating, tacky objects, colorful rides with screaming patrons, and chatty teenagers looking forward to a fun day at the fair. Up ahead was Hastings Park racetrack with its deteriorating barns and uncertain future, hidden by the cupped roof of the old Agrodome and high fencing. The PNE had been a tradition in my family as early as I could remember. Mom took my brother and I there every year, with Dad dropping us off at the main gate, as he did not enjoy the racket, the rides or the exhibits. As an adult, I was showing horses in the annual competition, many of which were thoroughbreds that had previously raced on the track next to the agricultural building. They were frequently unnerved by the proximity of the track and the cramped, dark, smelly barns attached to the Agrodome’s indoor arena.

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C. (photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

Horse Day in the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, B.C.
(photo: m.pne.ca via Horse Council of B.C.)

 

PNE

In the barns at the Pacific National Exhibition (photo: province.ca)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I entered the barns and made my way past the goats, cows and chickens, up to the horse stalls and the Horse Council of British Columbia’s display of breeds and horse-related businesses. I was impressed with the selection of brochures that were clear and concise with regards to safety, nutrition, and guides for new or newly interested riders. Many breeds were represented, as were a number of disciplines, each taking turns in the big arena with the huge domed roof. It was always an odd experience riding in there, as the acoustics amplified every footfall of the horse and every breath you took. I could see the stress in the horses that were in the tiny stalls, as groups of school children made their way through and sounds from the midway rattled down the shed-rows. Everyone survived their demonstrations however… the Pony Clubbers jumped and nobody fell off when the odd pony decided to buck, the vaulters performed without a hitch, and in spite of a raucous Friesian foal, everyone held it together during the parade of breeds.

 

   I returned to the barns afterwards to look at more horses and chat with some of the riders, and noticed a small pony with a watery eye. I looked closely and saw there was a chunk of alfalfa hay stuck to its eyeball, probably only minutes earlier as the irritation appeared fresh. The piece of hay was not budging as the pony blinked, trying to relieve its discomfort. In the next stall was one of the young Pony Club riders who had just returned from the arena. I asked if the pony in the next stall was hers. It was. Then I suddenly felt like I had a bit of dilemma. Obviously, the most compassionate thing to do for this little guy was to get the foreign object out of his eye and relieve his pain. The stream of fluid was now running all the way down his face. I remembered how annoying it was when I was showing horses at the fair, as members of the general public would come up with all kinds of strange things to say. We would all be tired and somewhat on a short fuse after being in those noisy, smelly, crowded conditions for even a day or two, and then have to deal with people and their opinions on top of that, some of which were inadvertently unkind, or at best not very mindful.

Photo: evaequinevet.com

Photo: evaequinevet.com

 

   I thought the least I could do is try to sound as caring as possible and not appear to be judgmental or blaming, knowing how sensitive horse-people are when told something may be “wrong” with their horse. I couldn’t believe the memories that were coming back and how I felt when somebody just “had to” tell me about something that, in their opinion, was wrong with my horse or something I had done was incorrect.

 

   I told the young lady her pony had a piece of hay stuck in his eye and that the eye appeared irritated as it was now watering profusely. Blank stare. I repeated myself. She said “oh, he got very upset when the other horses left for the arena.” I acknowledged her statement and agreed that the environment in the Agrodome and barns was very stressful for horses. I mentioned again that perhaps she should take a look at her pony’s eye. She thanked me but still did not leave the stall of the other horse to check on the pony. So I left, and can only hope the eye was properly taken care of.

 

   In The Compassionate Equestrian I have written, from experiences of my own and those of others, that as much as we want to “help”, sometimes it is construed more as “unsolicited advice” and not necessarily welcomed by the recipient. In the horse world, “helping” when you are not being asked for assistance, can be dangerous. I knew of a rider who was trying to get her horse over a jump at a show when somebody on the ground decided to cluck and encourage the horse to go forwards. It bolted through the jump, and then the rider fell off, sustaining a life-threatening head injury and long term coma.

 

   Many people are very compassionate by nature, and truly do want to alleviate the suffering of others, especially if they have the means to do so. I actually could have gone over to the next row of exhibits and asked the veterinary techs who had a display booth if one of them could help with the pony’s eye. Should I have done that? Or would that have been construed as “interference” and perhaps set up a chain of ethical and moral events that would have caused potential liability issues for myself, the pony’s owner, her parents, and so on. After all, the injury was neither severe nor life threatening and there was no need to involve an authority.   

 

   There is a law of physics, Newton’s Third Law, which states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This sets us up for a dilemma such as the one I was experiencing when with thinking about caring for the pony and taking action to alleviate its suffering. This makes me wonder if something in the field of consciousness responds to our intentions and the compassionate actions we take, and why we feel compelled to do or say something to another person or horse if we perceive them to be suffering. What are the consequences of the action we take, if we are even privy to know those consequences? Could this have anything to do with the “human condition” and why it may be so difficult to solve some of our most pressing issues of humanity? Of course I would not have expected anything in return for helping the pony, nor do I ever expect anything in return for assisting someone or an animal, yet don’t we at least expect our good intentions to result in positive feelings and an increased awareness of gratitude for both our own lives and the lives of other beings?

 

   I left the fairgrounds and the horses behind, getting back on the same bus route that continued into downtown. A mile or two down the road was the sight that never fails to make me stare in disbelief.

 

   There are hundreds of people out on the streets, many of who are in terrible mental and physical condition. They are addicts, mentally ill, destitute, and homeless. Every time the city adds housing or more care, more people appear looking for assistance. It has been like this for decades in this otherwise bright and shiny west coast utopia; a blight on the city’s “green” image and international reputation. It is overwhelming, and it seems endless, no matter how many people the agencies, the city and individuals try to help. The film school I went to is only a block from this district, and it is a frightening place to be. When I see these people, I wonder if any amount of compassion can save them. It is no wonder so many care givers, both of human and of horses or other animals, can reach a point of complete exhaustion and “compassion fatigue.” There seems to be an endpoint to the amount of personal and emotional resources we are able to give to others, in spite of our best intentions and desire to help everyone and every animal in need.

 

   I watched the attached video with great interest, as it does provoke considerable emotion:

Unsung Hero

It is like a short documentary about an “unsung hero”, an extraordinarily compassionate young man who gives everything he can to help people in need and those less fortunate than himself. It is a well-done story created by Thai Life Insurance as an advertisement for their services. Their motto is “Believe In Good.” The script, music, the close-ups on the eyes of the giver and his recipients are all elements of a cleverly crafted film, exemplifying everything I was taught in film school that makes for a impactful message. It makes you believe that everything you give, and everyone you give to will result in a positive return, for the benefit of all those involved. It makes us admire the compassionate young fellow who neither asks for nor receives anything material in return, and we weep at the sight of the young girl who rises from poverty to become a scholar at the end of the story. We really can believe in good after watching this narrative video.

 

   When Dr. Schoen sent me the video for discussion, it was embedded in the San Francisco Globe’s blog page, which sports a number of stories with headlines designed to “hook” a reader. The kinds of headlines that really draw your interest and make you want to click on that link. Looking at the comments below the video, we are reminded of the “human condition.” Some people react as though the actor in the commercial is actually a person in real life doing all of these daily good deeds. They seem  to be unaware that it is an advertisement for an insurance company. Yet others who have made comments are aware of the commercial context, and have made the kind of comments that raised ire in those who believed the young man to be legitimate. To get the code to embed this video, I went to the YouTube site, and found, as expected, an even broader array of interpretations and comments, ranging from the very tearful and emotional to degenerative uses of language and harsh judgments of others. Sigh. Yes, the human condition, and the filters each one of us comes through.

 

   We know that “compassion fatigue” is a legitimate term. Dr. Schoen has experienced it as a caring veterinarian doing his absolute best for animals and I have experienced complete burnout as a horse trainer, leaving the equine world several times. We have to ask, what are the real benefits, in the real world, of our offering of compassion to other sentient beings, and how do we do so without expending our own selves to the detriment of our own health and welfare? What about those horses that are asked to work for many hours with a herd of distressed humans who are looking to them for compassion and psychotherapy? Do those horses experience compassion fatigue and burnout too? Chances are they do if we compare their tasks with those of captive zoo animals, as research with “enrichment programs” for the animals’ environment has discovered.

 

   In developing our compassion, how do we apply ourselves to real-world situations, knowing that it would be almost impossible to cultivate the degree of loving-kindness exhibited by the fellow in the insurance commercial? How do we apply ourselves to offering compassion in the horse world without appearing to be interfering in somebody else’s affairs, giving unsolicited advice, or even offending others who may not actually be suffering in a way that we think they are? How do we avoid the effect of Newton’s Third Law as a consequence to our compassion?

 

   I have been thinking about this a lot since returning to my writer’s retreat on this pretty little island in the Pacific. The contrast of experiences in the city are still fresh in my mind, and I am actually hoping to catch up on some sleep this week, hearing only birds and waves crashing on the shoreline each morning. I think about all the times I felt compelled to “help” somebody and was given a nasty look, a blank stare, or even a “thank you”, but then there would be other events that occurred as a result. Sometimes it is all too easy to overthink compassionate action, and over-thinking something can be paralyzing. Is it best to simply act, or take the time to go through a list of what might happen if you do? Do you pull that last $5 out of your wallet and give it to the beggar, leaving yourself without bus fare, or do you walk past him, bless him with kind thoughts, and say a prayer for his health and recovery from whatever may be the root cause of his having to beg?

 

   Oh my, that does make things a little more complex doesn’t it? Well, life with other life forms actually can be complicated, especially in today’s world of having so many choices available to us in an instant. There are possibly more details involved when offering compassion to others than we may be aware of. Maybe we are more powerful than we could even know, and perhaps there is a “field” of compassionate energy we can work with, instead of giving away our last dollar, exhausting ourselves by taking care of another, or allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of by someone who may see us as a means to support their own wants and needs?

 

   Unlike the lovely fellow acting in the insurance commercial, our experiences in giving without expectation may be different than what is illustrated – or they may be as eloquent. Everyone has different experiences in life. What we can do is use our consciousness in extraordinarily unlimited ways, and tap into that pool of compassionate energy that has built up over eons of mindful meditations and the prayers of others. The joyful, heartfelt mantras and perpetual wheels of wise words directed towards the benefit of all beings has set up a never-ending field of compassion, like an ocean of love for all to dive into whenever one wishes. It is simply “there.”

 

   Consequences? Besides compassion fatigue from over-caring, there are detrimental consequences to our health and wellbeing if we give to someone or to an animal out of feelings of guilt, shame, or the assumption that we “have to” give to that person or they will no longer appreciate us. In the video the young man was met with a glare from the woman on the street when he hesitated to empty his wallet into her cup one day. It appeared he then felt guilty and gave her the rest of his money. What condition caused the woman to be on the street in the first place? Does the woman he leaves bananas for really use or need all those bananas or do they go to waste? What are her other needs? What is the nature of the young man’s suffering…because we know all beings suffer? Nobody in the comments seemed to feel as though he was in need of compassion himself, or at least no mention was made in that direction.

 

   With compassion, there is a benefit in also recognizing wisdom, mercy, and ultimately, love. All of these things we can give and extend to others from our heart, with infinite possibilities and no time or material things attached to them. As we pass by the ill and poverty-stricken on the street, we can offer blessings and prayers that the root cause of their suffering be alleviated, because the truth is, we really do wish for them to be well. It is the same for thousands of horses that may be suffering and in dire straits. The consequences of meditation and mindfulness training are that we begin to realize the subtleties of how effective and how powerful simply using our mind can be. It is not as easy to convey that concept in a short video however, and more difficult to arouse a strong emotional response in the viewer, as was the intention of the insurance company.

 

   So with the horses, and with my fellow humans, I try to live with a compassionate heart, and compassionate thoughts at all times. I have learned much from my compassionate co-author, Dr. Schoen in this regard. If I can legitimately help or give my time or finances to someone, I do, but I have had to teach myself (and am still working on this) not to feel guilty or ashamed if I cannot contribute. As most of us do, I get daily requests from organizations seeking financial donations or other commitments. It may be horses, the environment, an international crisis… it is overwhelming. I could have emptied my bank account a long time ago and filled my house with friends or strangers who need a place to stay.

 

   I find my greatest power and clarity comes in moments of solitude, and this is where I am most compassionate to myself first so that I can actually be of benefit to others. Less than a whisper, there are messages of love that seem to come out of nowhere, and I feel like I am “home.” I believe that when that feeling of being home in your heart arises, if you stay still and quiet, not necessarily taking action at the time, you will find the magical still-point – and you may call that still-point what you wish (some may say G-d) – and will find the answers as to what you need to do, if anything at all, or if the simple, potent, act of being compassionate within yourself will radiate through to all other sentient beings, for their benefit as well as yours.

 

   I also noticed in the video the compassionate young man feeds a big chunk of chicken to the dog. Those of us who have had dogs know not to ever feed them chicken bones because they can splinter and cause the dog to choke. I guess in that way the commercial was also a success…it is a good idea to be compassionate but have insurance too! And I sure hope that pony’s eye got taken care of in due time.

 

   A simple conclusion to all of this complexity and questioning is one of my favorite quotes by the 14th Dalai Lama, as he states:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least

don’t hurt them.”

 

 

Us Watching Them Watching Us

We’re all interacting,  we’re all interconnected.  It’s a very integral web of interactions from everyone’s mind.  We can joke and say that every person on the planet is their own human universe.  So each horse-person is seeing that same horse barn through their unique filters based on their own life’s experiences.  The good, the bad and the ugly!  So they bring all of that to their perception of the barn.  Every person in the barn brings their own perception of the world, and their activity with the horses, and the horses are bearing the brunt of the good, the bad and the ugly.  All the other horses are bringing their own experiences.  So whatever number of horses there are on the planet, that’s how many equine universes there are based on each one’s experiences.

One of the things I’ve found with all animals that interact with people is they’ve actually evolved to a different level of awareness in consciousness.  I chuckle and say “when a horse is in a herd, it’s just horsing around.  It’s just being a horse”.  When the horse is interacting with people, they’re such great students of human behaviour.  They’re watching us in their predator-prey form so they’re still feeling like prey and they’re interacting from that fearful and cautious mind, but they can also evolve into the most compassionate, loving being, or the most dangerous, frightening 1200 pounds on earth.

Dr. A. Schoen, Introduction to The Compassionate Equestrian

There are many moments in my 30+ years with horses that stand out, and some of the most profound are when I simply stood by and watched the horses interacting with each other.

I recall one cold morning in particular, at a forested, mountainside property that was the backyard of my then-husband’s parents.  We were between commercial barns at the time and he had built a small barn for our 5 horses.  They were quite a herd.  Two off-track thoroughbreds, one nervous part-Standardbred jumper, my appaloosa gelding and a semi-wild buckskin filly.

We opened the stalls to let the horses out for the day and the chestnut thoroughbred mare that was turning into my primary jumper mount bolted out of her stall and raced to the knoll above the roofline of the cramped barn.  She then stood on her hind legs and pawed at the air as though the Lone Ranger were on her back shouting “Hi-Ho Silver awaaaay!”

The other horses did not participate in her exuberant display of wanton freedom and wild-stallion emulating antics.  I’d never seen her act this way before and I don’t think they had either.  We all stood watching below the hillside, marvelling at the rearing mare.  I was in awe of her athletic prowess and ability to balance on her hind legs on such a steep slope.  My first thought was “Huh!  I have to ride this horse!”.

The image of Ali’s ability to rear never quite left my conscious mind and it was a good thing I’d seen her do it on her own, even though she only pulled off the acrobatics twice under saddle.  One of the times I should have known better.  We were riding at the walk in a large field after she’d been on stall rest for a couple of weeks for a minor injury.  She seemed quiet enough so I thought it was safe to hack out.  Wrong.  All of a sudden and without warning, there was a repeat performance of her “hi-ho” movie- horse act and luckily enough I was able to ride it out.

The fact was, as Dr. Schoen noted, this hot chestnut mare was bringing her experiences from the race track, her experiences from the cowboys who tried to make a cutting horse out of her at the barn we were managing, her first lessons over jumps, and her subsequent development into a champion show jumper.  Her abilities to react quickly, snap the front legs up and push off her hind end over large jumps were evident during her “play” time and correlated with the observations I’d made watching her interact with the other horses.

So what made the different between thinking this is a compassionate, loving horse, or this might be a really dangerous horse that could seriously hurt me?  I believe we were both good students of each other.

Susan and Ali

Susan and Ali

For me, the difference came from all the times I’d just sat in silence and observed the horses in their own environments.  What they’re like when they eat by themselves, or with others.  Who’s the bully?  Who’s the clown?  Which one was the first to pick up a stick and try to get the others to play “tug of war” with him?  Who’s the first one to nicker when the back door opens and the human appears?  They’re like a class of kindergarten children who never grow up.  They’re very good at watching how the “adults” behave too and emulating their behaviour.

There’s lots of programs now that encourage bonding with horses and developing a relationship with them, and this is wonderful.  It takes many years of riding a lot of horses to really know them well though, and to be able to use the powers of observation to determine the best “niche” for each horse, plus how to keep them happy and sound under saddle.  Many times they are happiest doing what they’re bred to do, but circumstances might alter their future, such as the former race-horses. New activities have to be managed within their scope of willingness and ability.  In many cases, suitable bonding on the ground might still leave the horse difficult to ride and manage under saddle and this is where the skills and experiences of the rider need to match up with the personality, experiences, and abilities of the horse.

My other horses at the time would never have thought to rear and strike out as the mare did, but neither were they as sharp or talented over jumps as she was.  They had their own “stuff” going on however and each one is a story unto themselves.  All different, and much safer for the average rider to get on and have a pleasant ride.  I had a special bond with all of them, but the hot red-head mare and I could communicate with each other in a way that other people couldn’t.  She was too sensitive for my ex-husband and they would both get angry with each other.  Very angry.  She was terribly spooked by the cowboys who thought she might make a cutting horse – about the furthest thing from her background or abilities – and she was tense as a steel guy-wire when I first rode her.

Was this a compassionate horse?  She jumped everything for me and tried her guts out every single time.  I think we even went beyond her actual physical capabilities sometimes.  I knew this horse wouldn’t intentionally hurt me and the fact that she could be explosive didn’t bother me.  I wasn’t intimidated by her and I believe she knew that.  I had to learn how to breathe with her breaths, think with the quickness of her mind, and coordinate my rhythm with hers.  Yes, she could be dangerous if she wanted to be, but there was a lot more depth to our relationship than the physical one.  We knew each other on a whole different level.  Science is beginning to come up with some explanations about that kind of relationship with animals and the heart-to-mind connection we can have with them.

SG

What it boils down to so much is not just our mind, but our hearts and mind and the heart and mind of everyone in the barn.  To me, ultimate healing is bringing that awareness to all animal lovers and to all horse lovers everywhere.  For everyone who’s interacting with horses there’s an opportunity that has arisen now as neuroscience has advanced and continues to develop.  It’s documenting all the ancient traditions about the benefits of lovingkindness and compassion for all beings.  As these two areas converge into a new field, sometimes called neurospirituality, or the neuroscience of behaviour, we can better understand the positive, or negative impact we have on the animals we interact with.

That’s what this book is about.  It’s from the horse trainer/instructor who has over 30 years of experience with the mindfulness of decades of meditation practice, along with the veterinarian who has been trained in conventional western medicine and surgery and acknowledges the value and benefits of it, but in addition has undertaken a personal, professional and spiritual journey realizing all the different options for healing animals and people and that the healing is a full circle.  The more we become aware of how we can be of benefit through developing lovingkindness and compassion in ourselves for all beings, then we can help the animals that way, and subsequently they become all they can be, and they will then support us in becoming all we can be.

The more one understands neuroscience and neurobiology the more we realize we share similar brain patterns and brain programs with animals, rather than differences.  One of the paradigm shifts I’d like to see is to change from having to prove what’s the same to having to prove what is different in the way our thoughts and moods function from those of animals.”

Dr. A. Schoen

 

Secondhand Stress… Really?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/09/secondhand-stress_n_4556964.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living

We all know how secondhand smoke can affect a non-smoker, but how about secondhand stress and its effect on the wellbeing of others?

Yesterday morning as I was waking up to my radio-alarm clock a program came on featuring several people whose lives were made very stressful by working for minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet.

There were a couple of young mothers working two or three part-time jobs. One lamented that she couldn’t afford to buy good food as even a bag of her favourite apples would alone cost $10 for her and each of her kids to have just one.

I felt so sad for her and could relate to the stories I was hearing, as I too, have been “horse poor” most of my life as I built a reputation for training and teaching while struggling to pay expenses on my own horses. It’s not unlike having children to feed and care for as you don’t ever want them to know why their favourite food isn’t forthcoming or that you may have given up on a new pair of shoes for yourself in order for your dependents to have a new pair themselves.

It’s a situation most professional riders can relate to, as can students who have massive amounts of debt to pay off by the time they can even get started in their chosen careers.

The longer I listened to the interviewees on the radio show the more stressed I found myself becoming… and this was before getting out of bed! I started to worry about my own future and how expensive food is becoming and on and on. Not really how I like to start my day since it usually begins with a good raw breakfast, meditation and yogic stretches. I finally had to turn off the radio and try to shake off the effects of the “secondhand stress” I was experiencing.

Stressed?

Stressed?

I’ve learned over the years how to reduce the effects of both mental and physical stress and it doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes study, practice, and more practice, especially if your environment at home and at work is not as supportive as it could be to your peace and wellness.

When Dr. Schoen and I have a conversation about The Compassionate Equestrian and the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we frequently find the mere act of having a good dialogue about our respective backgrounds and stories to be soothing and therapeutic. Dr. Schoen is not only an advocate for meditation, he practices it with a deep conviction and thoroughly understands the transformative power of regular contemplation, even before entering a barn where he’s about to see his veterinary clientele.  He knows from experience how it affects not only the horses, who then watch him intently and actually want to be his patients, but also their owners and everyone in the barn who can sense the positive shift in energy when he’s in attendance.

Imagine being in his shoes for a moment, or that of any veterinary practitioner working with your horse or other animals, as he must take on responsibility for the diagnosis and treatment protocol for that animal. Not only that, but he has to explain his findings and treatment to the horse’s owner, the trainer, and perhaps the groom and barn manager, and then also deal with the horse itself.

The emotional stress is potentially enormous, given how horses react when they’re in pain, and also how they may respond to a veterinarian if they’ve been treated roughly by one in the past.

Our Principle #13 states:

“The Principles recommend that one takes a few moments of silence to become heart-centered, allowing for the release of any destructive emotions, prior to working with any horse in any way.”

#14 continues with:

“This allows both the individual and the horse to interact from a place of inner calm, peace, awareness and mindfulness, thereby allowing for the most positive, constructive outcome from all interactions between humans and horses.”

Over the years of working many horses a day, and dealing with all the different personality types that come with the horses at the show barns, I also discovered the value of maintaining that centred calmness and noticed the actual physiological changes that take place in both the heart and mind when one maintains a regular practice of compassion and meditation. That’s not to say I haven’t had many moments where I “lose it” and the ego wants to override thoughts and judgement, but now I know how to come “home”, and am getting better at staying there.  In fact, I think it’s possible to spread “secondhand peace” too.

Not stressed

Not stressed

Dr. Schoen says:

“Differentiating self from other promotes suffering, and the trainings in which you see that everyone is suffering and that you’re here to be of benefit to others then those areas in the brain responding to joy and bliss light up. The Buddhists talk about altruism being of benefit to others and that may be a more positive, higher evolutionary form of thinking beyond survival mode.

What this means regarding The Compassionate Equestrian’s perspective is that if we can bring compassion – the awareness of the intelligence – the personalities and awareness of the neurochemistry and neuroscience that horses and all other species have the same mind-traffic and all the same fears and survival mechanisms that we do, then theoretically being more intelligent we have the ability to go beyond that base-level mode of survival instincts and train ourselves to be more compassionate. By spreading that mind-stream in a horse barn, show, or any place where humans and animals interact we set a whole new bar for compassion and it can evolve person-to-person, person-to-horse, barn-by-barn, and so on.”

While the effects of secondhand smoking have been highly documented, it seems like we’re just beginning to understand how secondhand stress can affect us too. By becoming aware of this fact, and how it will also affect our horses when we show up at the barn, it presents us with the opportunity to determine how we will change ourselves to be more conscious of the effects we have on others, and how we can make the world a more compassionate, less stressful place for everyone we encounter.

123rf.com stock photo

Secondhand peace 🙂

A Symbiosis of Two

In another life I would have been a scientist.  “Zoologist” was my choice, in fact.  I love the research and putting together original ideas to formulate new theories or prove existing ones.  Back in the 1970s though, when I was in high school, there was little thought given to directing girls towards fields of science.  I fell behind in math after a change in school systems and nobody seemed to notice or care much, and I was too shy to ask for help.  Meanwhile, I found myself with a four-year-old appaloosa filly and a yearling appaloosa colt that turned my analytical mind to that of wonder at how I, a slight teenage girl, could develop such a close relationship with horses as to be able to manage these two young training projects and not get hurt in the process.

I studied the works of great classical master trainers and was always excited to try out their techniques on my horses, then go back and study more.  The colt wasn’t even rideable until he was two so I “played” with him for a year and a half while he grew into a full stallion.  By the time I had started him under saddle we could practically read each other’s minds, and he seemed to clearly understand what I was saying to him in the way that a small child would act and respond to body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and actual words.  Sometimes his responses were startling and very unexpected.  I believe we developed what the researchers in the story at the subject of this blog post from TheHorse.Com have termed “co-being”.

This young horse, in my opinion, actually evolved in his intelligence above and beyond what he would have had he been left in the wild or simply turned out with other horses and not interacting so much with a human in his formative years.  I believe I also developed what I refer to as a “sixth sense” of reaction-time and horse-like responses to visual and auditory stimuli as a result of handling not only such a young horse, but one with the developing hormones and behaviours respective of a typical stud colt.

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

The 2 year-old Top Canadian & Susan

I am grateful that researchers are now identifying the drivers behind such evolutionary development, and am extremely thankful that a veterinarian such as Dr. Allen Schoen emerged as an early pioneer in the field of integrative, holistic veterinary medicine, and has never stopped exploring the ways animals can be healed and communicated with beyond conventional approaches.

His theories regarding the energetic fields that develop between a horse and rider support the possible reasons that my young horses and I were able to merge together and feel as though we could respond to each other’s thoughts and emotions with split-second timing and clear understanding.

* * * *

Please enjoy Dr. Schoen’s commentary on the article:  Some Horses, Riders Have “Co-Being” Relationship:

I am pleased to see these universities undertaking these studies on what they term “co-being theory”.

In my book “Kindred Spirits, How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live” that I wrote in 2001, I proposed what I call “co-species healing”, how we both can heal each other.  I also began to describe what I feel more and more confident actually exists, is actually, a new level of conscious evolution in all animals when they are in the presence and continued interaction with humans.  Recently, I have termed and copyrighted the terms “Trans-species Field Theory”©  and the “Compassionate Field Theory” © proposing that new energetic fields actually develop between humans and animals when we are interacting regularly together.  My theories are based on a combination of the research documented by HeartMath between humans, the latest in neuroscience and the latest in research in mind body medicine and compassion.  I extrapolate all this research to interactions between humans and animals when they interact with each other.

In my blog, Kindred Spirits Project, I have collated videos and articles that document the interactions between different species that transcend our current beliefs and knowledge about how they “should” interact with each other.

I believe we are co-creating an entirely new field based on an expanded level of awareness of human animal interactions.  I believe that animals that interact regularly with humans are developing areas in their brains that create new firing of neural nets and then new wiring of their neural nets to encompass a new level of awareness and consciousness in regards to interacting with humans. They are evolving beyond just “horsing around” or being in a herd and acting out of herd behavior, even beyond mirroring or mimicking humans. I believe they are developing new levels of communication with humans, based on their observations of human behavior and new levels of trans-species communication at many levels.  We then co-create a “trans-species” field, transcending the individual field.  Rupert Sheldrake has coined the term “morphic fields” between animals, like fish swimming together or birds flying together  Sheldrake; Morphic Resonance Introduction.  I feel that there are actually these “trans-species” fields of interactions that develop.  When we take responsibility for our part in creating those fields, and then focus our intention on compassion for all beings and have that intention as part of our energetic field, then we can create the “compassionate field” that I observe clinically in my practice and call the “Compassionate Field Theory”©.

I am excited to see that there are variations on this theme evolving elsewhere, especially at universities.  I used to be a Clinical Assistant Professor at both Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine as well as at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, but now focus more on how these theories may be demonstrated and manifesting in clinical practice in horse barns as well as anywhere where humans and animals interact.

 Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD (Hon)
Dr. Schoen with a client's horse

Dr. Schoen with a client’s horse

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

THE SEASON FOR GIVING and LETTING GO

Recently Dr. Schoen and I were discussing the concepts of “giving” and “letting go” and how they metaphorically apply to both our lives and the aspect of equitation that allows a horse to move more freely forwards.  This is the time of year we transition from a season of gift-giving to that of self-reflection and New Year’s resolutions, making decisions we hope will allow us to move forwards in our own lives, perhaps letting go of old habits or thought patterns that have held us back in the past.

So often we think of “giving” as meaning something we have to pay for, wrap up, order online, transport, mail or otherwise involve ourselves in a complex set of activities in order to complete the giving of the gift.  For some people the act of giving comes with the expectations of getting something in return.  Such an attitude can create disharmony and stress for both the giver and the receiver.

When we give with compassion it is to be given from the heart for the benefit of the recipient, and without the plotting of what might be given back in exchange.  Ultimately, as we practice compassion, we soon realize there is so much joy in giving it’s an instant return to us in the feeling we personally receive from a genuine sense of contributing to the benefit of another being.

 Maynard's Pony Meadows, Vancouver

Maynard’s Pony Meadows, Vancouver
photo by Susan Gordon

One of the hardest things for me to teach a rider was the “giving rein”.  As with the letting go of aspects of our lives we want to stay in control of, most riders have a difficult time giving the hand forwards, releasing contact with the rein even if only for a moment.

Of what benefit is this to the horse? As an instructor, when I’m watching from the ground and I see the precise moment the horse is ready to reach a little further into contact, lift his back and shoulders, lengthen his neck, relax the poll, and open up the stride without increasing tempo, I will tell the student “give the inside hand forwards”.  I want them to learn to feel this moment for themselves and respond at first consciously and then subconsciously as a conditioned response that instantly rewards the horse for his willingness to move forwards.

This concept is fundamental to the traditional training of horses that develops their ability to carry a rider through all gaits and all activities, building a stronger muscle-bridge across the topline, allowing the horse to remain as sound as possible for its entire working life.

So why would giving a rein forwards, gifting the horse with freedom and relaxation, be so difficult?

Dr. Schoen and I related this to the personal filters people maintain as they interact with their horses.  There is such a connection between the hand and the horse’s head and we often don’t realize how much of our emotional “stuff” we are relaying to the horse via rein tension and how it may be affected not only by the level of skill of the rider, but the degree of mindfulness in applying the various rein aids.  After all, the only thing the horse has to go by in reading the mood and instincts of the rider is the feel they are receiving through the rider’s body.  The horse is an instantaneous biofeedback mechanism and even more so when we are attached to it with a set of reins.

“Letting go”, when combined with the concept of “giving” is a very personal thing.  To be compassionate to yourself and “let go” of the parts of your life that need to be released can be considered a gift to yourself with no attachments or expectations of the outcome.  Simply observing the results will tell you what you need to know as a response to that exercise of “letting go”.

There may be many old imprints and programs in your psyche afffecting both you and your horse in a controlling kind of way that creates continued stress in both your life and your riding.  Dr. Schoen treats many horses who are so tight in the neck and poll from being held rigidly and not allowed to reach forwards and downwards into the rider’s hand.  I see the same thing in almost every horse I’ve worked with as well.

When a student finally softens their hand forward in just the right moment and just the right amount, and I see two beautiful beings working in instant joy and harmony, I see the true meaning of “giving”.  It is a very subtle, almost imperceptible moment of awareness that occurs between horse and rider, rider and themselves, and then extends back to other horses and riders at the barn and inevitably, everyone who encounters that rider and that horse in the other aspects of their lives.

As those special “letting go” and “giving” moments are increased and become part of the subconscious practice, first with the self, with the horse, and then recognized by others, they become the personality and identity of that person and compassion becomes central to their lives.  Everyone, everywhere benefits from that very fundamental, simple concept.

Giving does not have to involve a credit card, rushing around through a shopping mall, stressing over what to buy for whom or elaborate trinkets.  Sometimes it’s ourselves we need to give to, which could mean reflecting on concepts that are keeping us on a tight rein and preventing us from moving forward in life.  Give a smile to someone who needs it, give a bit of your time to help an elderly person with their groceries, and give your horse a pat on the neck.  What you actually receive in return may be the greatest gift, ever.