A Happy Horse, of Course!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses don’t seem to have these problems.

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

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

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




Rescued by a Rescue

This is always a difficult time of year as it seems to emphasize the biggest differences between those who have enough money to celebrate the holidays with all the trimmings, and those who need help just to survive from day to day.  Whether it be homeless animals or homeless humans, the sad, shallow, look in the eyes is frequently the same and the aura of despair is palpable.  There never seems to be enough to give to relieve the suffering of so many.

I watched a video the other day that’s circulating the internet about a dog who was rescued from a junkyard.  A video crew followed the rescuers to the wretched, exposed pile of garbage the dog was living in, and being too weak and sick to fight, she was easily caught and taken in to the shelter.

Within a week or so of her recovery she was a completely different dog, and subsequently adopted another tiny, scared rescue who was brought to the same shelter.  The video ended with two joyful dogs and a plea for their adoption.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen rescued animals turn right around and rescue another.  Those of us who have had strays, rescues, and otherwise rejected animals know how much they seem to appreciate their fortuitous circumstances after finding an adopter.  It may also be the case that those of us who have known the hardships of not knowing who or where to turn to, and understand all to well what rejection feels like, may also be the ones who most quickly recognize those same feelings in animals.

One of the horse trainers I worked for was a self-proclaimed non-cat-lover and never would have kept one as a pet.  So I was shocked the day he showed up at the barn after teaching off site with a tiny, quivering tuxedo kitten in his hands.  He said the kitten mewed at him ringside so desperately he figured the dogs would have had him for lunch had he just left him there in the hot desert sun.

We set up a “cat stall” in the barn for the new arrival who let it be known he would have nothing to do with being a barn cat.  I took him into the house, thinking it would be temporary.  After tending to the afternoon’s training rides I went back into the house to find “Bonz” as he’d been named and he was nowhere in sight.  He was barely old enough to be weaned and I was afraid he’d crawled into a small, dark space somewhere, perhaps impossible to find.  After searching the house I went into my room and found he’d climbed up the comforter on my bed and was happily snoozing on my pillow.  This teacup-sized feline baby sure knew what he wanted!

Once big enough to go outside, the personable Bonz found a frightened tabby Manx kitten whom he adopted and also convinced to move into the house, teaching him what it was like to live in the lap of luxury!  My non-cat-loving partner now had two of them, and didn’t seem to mind one bit.

When compassion settles into the heart, all beings benefit.  When the opportunity arises to relieve the suffering of another, it just happens because that’s who you become.

I’ve witnessed something else in my own journey and immersion in the world of animals.  

Several years ago I was in film school working on a documentary about the equine slaughter industry.  It is a brutal, disturbing topic that was heart-wrenching to research.  I made myself watch the most horrific videos and read the statistics in spite of how hard it was to do so.  Even as a long-time trainer, I had absolutely no idea how many horses ended up in the kill boxes every year.  Thousands of homeless horses.  Rejected by humans for whatever reason… and there are many… not deserving the kind of fate they received.

I showed the film’s trailer to my class, made up primarily of city-dwellers with an interest in environmental and social justice issues.  

I had included undercover video footage of horses in the pens inside the slaughterhouse, and noted to the class how scared the horses were, knowing what was going on in there.  One close up of a distraught chestnut in particular, would be read by any experienced horseman as being in a very depressed, shut-down state.  Long past just the fear of the situation.

When I mentioned the expression on the horse I was met with blank stares from my classmates.  After a few awkward moments of silence, one of them finally said “how can you tell the horse is sad?”

I thought everyone, horse-person or not, could read the expression on this horse’s face.  Then I realized the truth of the matter was that wasn’t the case.

It made me realize why some people have compassion for animals and others do not.  They literally cannot read when a horse, or perhaps any animal, is signalling they are in fear, stress, pain, or depression.  I also realized how much work there is still to be done on a very large scale to help humans develop compassion for horses.  There are so many in the system now who are homeless, neglected and abused.   Apparently there are also many people who do not recognize the level of suffering these horses are experiencing.

It’s an interesting quandary, and one worth contemplating…  because those of us who have rescued horses know exactly how those horses have, in turn, rescued us.