The Benefits – or Not – of Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nick" - photo by Natascha Wille

“Nick” – photo by Natascha Wille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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HEROES for HORSES

As I’m reaching the final chapters on the first-edit of The Compassionate Equestrian, I’ve been thinking a bit more about Chapter 25 – Birth to Completion Life-Cycle Tracking.  This is a new term and a new idea for the equine industry at large.  It is also the key reason why I began writing about compassion and horses.

When I was in film school several years ago I was doing research for my student documentary about rehabilitating off-track thoroughbreds.  I went to the nearby riding club, a long-established community of primarily hunter/jumper and dressage barns, to look for a good story.  I was in luck.

I discovered a trainer  who had just purchased a 3-year old tall, handsome, grey gelding from a stable at Vancouver’s race track, Hastings Park.  He had a slight injury on one tendon, probably sustained in his final race, which he had won.  The short video I produced was only a superficial hint at the legitimately dark side of thoroughbred racing.  I wanted to slant the story to the happier endings of fortunate ex-race horses who find their way to a caring home and a chance at a second career.

http://vimeo.com/14392790  (link to my student film:  Racing Machine –  A Thoroughbred Story)

When the film instructor saw my rough cut, he immediately focused on the more contentious tidbits and told me I had to bring more “conflict” to the short documentary.  “That’s what makes a good doc” he said.  Me, being the non-confrontational, non-argumentative type, cringed at the idea but proceeded with further research anyway.

The thoroughbred racehorse, "Machine"

The thoroughbred racehorse, “Machine”

All I can say is that what I found out about the “deep, dark” side of the horse industry shocked me.  Even as a professional trainer all these years, I had no idea how many horses were ending up in slaughterhouses every year, and why.  I had no idea how horribly  horses were treated once they left the auction houses or race track.  I made myself look at the reports and videos on the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition website.  Most horse-people will not want to see this side of our industry, but I believe they need to.  My eyes were definitely opened.  Not only that, but my heart went out to all of the world’s homeless horses to the point that I felt overwhelmed and somewhat helpless at not being able to help them all, relieving them of a potentially terrifying completion to their lives.  Over 100,000 a year in fact.  Really??!!  Where are all these horses coming from?

http://defendhorsescanada.org/

I’d also found a very knowledgeable researcher who gave me a plentitude of information to mull over and include in the bigger film I was determined to produce.  The more I spoke to her, and the more I learned about homeless equines and their fate, the more I realized I would need a massive legal team to protect both myself and sources from the underworld of cabals that make their living on the acquisition and sales of unwanted horses.

So I shelved the film and looked for other ways I could help educate and enlighten the horse industry.  Then Dr. Schoen and I met in 2012 and through our dialogues, began writing the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation, followed by the book, which will be released in the spring of 2015.

While working on  the outline for the documentary I befriended a couple of extraordinary advocates for equine welfare.  They have both been on the “front-lines” of the worst of the worst kind of treatment you can image horses having to endure.  Most of us who love horses couldn’t possibly deal with what they have seen.  They are my heroes.

Brogan Horton is in her twenties and runs Animal Rescue Unit at her home in Maine.  Brogan is the kind of person who will put on a suit and lobby Congress on behalf of the wild burros and mules, or hook up her horse trailer and spend her last few dollars to go pick up a horse in need of rescue.   Animal Rescue Unit is an organization dedicated to revealing the truth about animal suffering, specializing in investigation, rehabilitation, education and legislation for animal welfare.  The following link is one of many heart-warming stories from ARU, and one with a very happy ending.  Further links to ARU information are included in the article, and Brogan can be found on Facebook for anyone interested in following her activities and if possible, helping with donations for the rescued animals.

http://www.pressherald.com/people/cth/donkey-delivers-a-christmas-miracle_2013-01-07.html

The other hero is Brogan’s former partner in another very intense animal welfare investigation organization, Richard Couto of Animal Rescue Mission.  Both Brogan and Richard are well trained and have been on some of the more dangerous missions regarding equine welfare.  Most of us in the horse world have no idea what goes on behind the fences and walls around illegal slaughter farms in Miami.  Nor would most of us want to know.  It’s cruelty to animals beyond our comprehension.

Richard became the exceptional cruelty investigator  he is today after rescuing a thoroughbred ex-racehorse from one of the illegal farms.  The horse, Freedom’s Flight, is a descendant of Secretariat.  Richard found him tied to a tree at the farm, next in line for a terrible demise.

Here’s a link to Richard’s bio:

http://www.animalrecoverymission.org/about-arm/founders-bio/

So in The Compassionate Equestrian, Dr. Schoen and I are doing our best to use language that inspires, unifies, and opens the hearts of equestrians.  We are coming from many years of experience in our collective fields and understand how easily one person’s opinion can immediately send another person into a defensive mode.  Or how upsetting some of these more difficult issues can be.  We also understand that people don’t want to discuss death, so we refer to the “completion” of life.  It’s why Principle 25, which recognizes “the importance of applying the Cradle-to-Cradle model of life-cycle assessment and tracking to the equestrian industry” – has been left to the end of the book.  Chapter 25 is also still largely unwritten as we structure the program and gather further information as to just how it could be applied to help the “global herd” of horses in need.

There isn’t an easy way to convey this information to a  generally loving, compassionate community of horse-people who are active on a day-to-day basis with these beloved animals.  It’s our belief that every human has the opportunity to be compassionate towards all beings, and that compassion just needs to be awakened.  In the hardest times, in the most difficult circumstances, and in facing the darkest side of humanity…that’s when extending compassion may become extremely challenging.

It’s the purpose of The Compassionate Equestrian and The 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation to assist in the compassionate awakening of horse-people everywhere.  We hope that through their own personal practices, they will be able to see the need for compassion to be extended to all horses, and everyone who’s involved with them.  With such mindfulness, we can come together as a world-wide community and find a way to become heroes for horses ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

“Just” a Trail Horse

 

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

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

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

Shadow

Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

Trail running!

Trail running!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy trails to all!

Happy trails to all!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willy’s Light-headedness

I’m not sure if my last post made it to followers.  It certainly didn’t get to my e-mail box so this is an extension to the story of how light, or photonic therapy, saved my horse’s life.

The week after his series of three BioScan Light treatments was a happy week for Willy, and for me.  He was able to roll again, his gaits were good, and he seemed happy.  While of course the photonic therapy couldn’t eliminate all the lumps, bumps and turn the clock back to his youth, there was a spring in his step again and we were back in the saddle.  I went from making a decision about whether or not to euthanize him to deciding how to celebrate his 25th birthday.

Unfortunately as I led him through the barn one afternoon an aggressive mare lunged at him over the top door of her stall, surprising us both and catching Willy across his forehead with her incisors.  She left a deep gash above his left eye that began bleeding profusely.  Given his expression it obviously hurt quite a bit and I made a quick call to the vet.  I thought this would need stitches given the width and depth of the injury.

Willy

Willy – always letting you know how he feels!

Describing the nasty wound, our old-fashioned country vet said he’d prefer not to put stitches in a horse’s head due to the risk of infection and the difficulty in bandaging the area and keeping it clean given the equine tendency to rub on such things.  Like they do with show braids.  He suggested keeping an eye on it and making a “fresh wound” after it scabbed over, repeating the process until it was healing cleanly.

I put Willy in an empty box stall instead of returning him to the pasture with a rapidly-swelling, bleeding forehead and thought of the studies I’d read about the ability of red light to increase wound healing and tissue regeneration, to relieve pain and inflammation, and to prevent tissue death.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933784/  (Effect of Pulsing in Low Level Laser Therapy)

The only problem was I didn’t have a device that could deliver the specific frequencies of light and I needed it right away.  Willy was not going to let me anywhere near his head.  Any attempts to clean the wound were met with pinned ears and a “don’t you dare” expression.  Remembering I had a red bicycle light in the house, I thought I’d have nothing to lose by giving it a try.  It was so low-level as to be well out of the infrared range, and it certainly didn’t pulse, but it was LED-based nevertheless so it was worth a shot, even if the effect was minor.

I returned to the barn with the bicycle light in hand.  Willy was still in distress and not wanting me near his head.  That is, until he saw the red light in my hand.  I held it up to him and his expression changed immediately.  He literally dropped his head into my hand and allowed the light to be placed over the open wound.  Obviously the memory of what he felt during the BioScan treatment was still fresh in his mind.

I continued to treat the injury daily for a few days with nothing more than the bicycle light and was amazed at how quickly and cleanly it healed over.  I pretty much left it alone after that and within 10 days the hair was growing back.  The horrible looking wound needed no further treatment as it healed so well there was no scar, and no white hair as frequently occurs in horses at the site of a traumatic injury.

After I had a device made with the correct frequencies, I’d offer it to Willy who would turn his body into the light pad and point with his nose, indicating where he wanted the diodes placed, or he would ignore it altogether, which I took to mean he felt just fine that day.

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.

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