A Marvelous Assistant; The Horse


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

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

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

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

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


Leif Hallberg, M.A., LPC, LCPC


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


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

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


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

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


The Equine Assisted Therapy Workbook

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

About the blogger:

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









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


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

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

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


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

Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



CLICK on this link to read the entire article:

UC Davis Uses Software to Map Equine Pain

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


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

About the blogger:

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











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.)



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.”



Judge Not – Or A Lot… It’s Your Choice

Compassion is about “the other.” It means that we recognize the suffering of another, and have a desire to alleviate their suffering. Still, we find that many people understand compassion through their own filters and experiences, and may find it difficult to have compassion for others who exhibit behaviors that they deem to be non-compassionate. This is why compassion requires study and practice. It tends to challenge us the most in situations where our compassionate nature may become somewhat compromised.


One of the key barriers to compassion is our human tendency to gravitate to negativity, judgment and blame. It seems to be the “default” mechanism in our base-line nature. In the horse world, we can find many examples of divisive, inflammatory language in that regard. We even go to horse shows and pay a lot of money to be judged!

photo: irishtimes.com

photo: irishtimes.com


Dr. Schoen and I have just finished writing a very lengthy manuscript and we could have written more. We realized that The Compassionate Equestrian is not only a teaching journey for others, but it became a progressive journey for ourselves in writing the book and putting together the beginnings of the program. I have personally changed the way I use language and have become more acutely aware of my tendency to place judgment on others, even after years of contemplative study and telling myself I should know better.


And telling myself “I should know better” is an example of self-judgment, which requires an exploration of my own self-compassion, then self-forgiveness.


In 1977 I took riding lessons from one of Canada’s most respected hunter/jumper and dressage judges and Technical Delegate for the 3-Day Eventing discipline. She took me to horse shows as her assistant and taught me the finer points of determining who would be placed in what order according to the highest standards of the sport. It is not an easy job! In the end, somebody is very happy and somebody is ultimately very disappointed and blaming their loss on the judging.


For some reason, we are not as good at relaying the positive, more caring side of our observations, especially when it comes to photographs on social media sites. Not being present to voice an opinion in person seems to have sparked a modern-day phenomenon amongst not just horse-people, but people in general who tend to make a habit out of posting negative, sometimes extremely inflammatory comments, at the sight of a photograph of something as innocent as a moment caught in time, where something does not agree with their perception of “all that is right and good with the world.”


Some people blame social media technology itself, while others have declared it is simply humans displaying their innate feelings without having to actually confront the objects of their judgments.



 “Technology and social media can certainly make negativity more visible,” he said. And social media amplifies messages instantly, giving no time for second thoughts.


Either way, I found it difficult to not take critical judgments personally when I was a professional trainer, and I still get a familiar little twinge in my stomach if someone posts a potentially inflammatory, negative remark about a photo I have put on our Facebook page. This is where I have a conversation with myself about meeting the needs that are behind one’s feelings about those comments. What compelled that person to find fault with something in the photograph? Why do I think that I must take responsibility for how that person feels about the photo?


The dialogue is very interesting. Some people can relate to what is positive in the photo and mention what they like, while others immediately gravitate to faults that relay visual information contrary to the observer’s perception of “what is compassionate about this photo?”


For the most part, the riders in the photos probably love their horses. They most likely feel as though they are compassionate equestrians and are doing everything right with their horses. Today’s picture was a lineup at a show, with riders anxiously waiting for the class results to be called. They may all feel like winners. They aren’t thinking what some people may have judged as “that horse is over-bent”, or “that’s a terrible bit to put in a horse’s mouth”, or “horses should never be forced into the show ring like that.” The list could go on.


Even if there is truth in the judgments, why are we compelled to make them? Why can’t we look at the same photo and say, “those horses have beautiful, shiny coats and are obviously very well cared-for”, or “the riders are so well turned out, they must have worked hard for this moment”, or perhaps something like, “this style of riding doesn’t agree with my version of compassionate training, but even so, I feel compassion for these people, as they believe they are doing the right things for their horses.”


If we judge them with divisive language, they will put their energy into becoming defensive, as this is what happens when people feel criticized instead of engaged with empathy.


This is the enigma we find with introducing compassion across the broad expanses of breeds, disciplines, training methods, and human nature within the collective of horses, and well beyond. It is part of the challenge in building a new paradigm for a compassionate community of horse-people that transcends our personal needs and wants, in consideration of horses at large. If we can accomplish this in the equine world, we can accomplish it for humanity in general.


I found this wonderful article on Speaking of the Faults of Others and will continue to share excerpts on The Compassionate Equestrian’s Facebook site. You are invited to join the dialogue, and choose how you will judge the pictures, or not.



“I vow not to talk about the faults of others.” In the Zen tradition, this is one of the bodhisattva vows. For fully ordained monastics the same principle is expressed in the payattika vow to abandon slander. It is also contained in the Buddha’s recommendation to all of us to avoid the ten destructive actions, the fifth of which is using our speech to create disharmony.











   It has actually happened. In the weeks since acquiring a so-called “smart” phone, time does seem to have condensed and almost a month has gone by since my last post. Truly a phenomenon of the modern world. Perhaps I have just been so fully immersed in the final phases of writing The Compassionate Equestrian with Dr. Schoen, that the early days of summer have already slipped by in a blink. I haven’t even been to a horse show yet this season, but I do plan on heading to Spruce Meadows sometime soon to catch up on the activities of some of my favorite jumpers.

   I also made a quick weekend trip to the extraordinary, famous retreat center in Big Sur, California, Esalen. This is a place where life-transforming “incidents” occur and one can release past traumas, move forward, and awaken to a world of self-advancement with renewed energy and purpose. I am learning to speak with the power and intent that drives The Compassionate Equestrian on its path to making the earth a better place for horses and their humans.


(image: http://dungkarling.tripod.com/id7.html)

   Sadly, I have recently learned that one of my former riding students broke her back. I was on a trip to Arizona a few months ago, and while visiting my old barn, this very astute, lovely lady happened to stop by. She was thrilled to see me and excited to tell me about the new horse she had just purchased. The last time I had worked with her, several years ago, she was still on the longe line on a schoolmaster, slowly developing a correct seat. She had very little time to ride and was a long ways from riding independently, much less owning a horse.

   As happens far too many times, the horse she purchased this year was not suitable for her skill level. It was a gaited horse with a lot of forwards energy. In the story that was relayed to me by friends last week, the student had hired a trainer who insisted on using a noseband with spikes in it to control the horse.

   One day, while riding alone, the horse was spooked by a loose horse and the still-novice rider did what most riders would do in that instance, which is to grab at the reins to keep her horse from running off. Unfortunately the horse’s reaction was in response to the pain of the spiked noseband and it flipped over on its rider, causing the severe injury. Luckily, she is not paralyzed from the fall and will recover, but ultimately, such an accident can dramatically change a person’s life.

   It seems like every time I ride, go to a barn, speak with other riders or former clients, I am reminded as to why Dr. Schoen and I have written The Compassionate Equestrian. It seems like it cannot get out to the horse world fast enough.

   As it is, we have tremendous confidence in our wonderful publisher, Trafalgar Square Books, to produce a book we will be extremely pleased with, and one that we can send out on the back of the Windhorse with prayers and blessings for all equines and their people. For this generation, the next, and all to come, we wish for compassion to become the base of all training methods, for the benefit of all beings.