How Well We Sit

For those readers who are non-riders, I am hoping this post might convey a new idea or observation relating to the importance of how someone sits on a horse and also provide some value to those who do plant their seat in a saddle on a regular basis. Although, as with much of The Compassionate Equestrian, we can extrapolate the equestrian issue at hand to something relating to our interactions with humans – in this case the horse’s possible discomfort at having a rider on its back to the human idiom…”that doesn’t sit well with me.” Given the rash of hostilities on our planet at the moment, there is much we could refer to that does not sit well with just about anybody. I almost feel a twang of guilt writing about something as mundane as a seat on a horse. However, this is our particular niche and there is a lot going on in the horse world that requires continuous vigilance too. And we know how soothing a connection to a horse or other animal can be in times of trouble. Whether seated on a horse or seated on a meditation cushion, there are specifics to both that can help us on our journey to becoming more compassionate beings.

I have spent countless hours lately scoping out the online world of equestrians and equestrian sports, lurking in some forums, watching YouTube videos and writing down the number of “likes” on horse-based home pages. The vocal majority in the digital horse community lately appears to be in regards to developing relationships with horses, identifying all of the wonderful feelings that can arise in humans when interacting with horses, and the joys of beautiful photos of prancing stallions working at liberty or guided by the hand of a handsome, masterful horseman. There are very deeply rooted desires in most human beings who long for that kind of partnership with an iconic animal that represents freedom, power, and the very essence of the natural world. The number of clinics, facilitators, workshops, and growing businesses dedicated to the non-riding aspects of horses seems to be expanding exponentially.

On the upside, this allows renewed and ongoing interest in horses from the media and general public, helping to build audiences and prevent horses from going the way of vinyl records and cars without power steering. The curiosity about horse herd dynamics and the effect of horses formally engaged in programs that utilize their “therapist” qualities has also afforded many horses that may be unsound for riding to be useful in a career that supports their care, but does not require them to be physically fit enough to carry a rider.

The mere image of a gorgeous horse can uplift one’s heart, and in my own opinion, if a person wishes to be around horses, they absolutely should be, in any way their circumstances and resources allow for that to happen. There are so many horses in need of extra attention and care that it would be a wonderful thing to match more compassionate, caring people with those animals that could use the grooming, handling, and exercise, with trainers, horse owners, and other professionals who would be willing to connect the right people with the appropriate animals. Unfortunately in our libelous society it is no longer a simple matter of “sure, you can come and ride my pony whenever you like”, but here in Canada you can at least become a member of your provincial Equine Canada affiliate and be covered by a basic insurance policy automatically, with further options available for instructors and businesses.

In light of the loving, horse-hugging/kissing imagery and practices we are cautioned in the rise of misconceptions that horses should only be worked at liberty, ridden without saddles or bridles, and are able to be started “without force” by anybody who has been to a few workshops. The unfortunate limitations created by a vocal social media presence have led to a huge missing or forgotten detail amongst this demographic; that of proper equitation and its contribution to the health and welfare of a horse. With all of the sweetness and oxytocin-releasing activities now abundant in the horse world, for many, the anthropomorphizing of the horse has created an industry subsection where people are forgetting about the intricacies and amount of time it takes to ride really well. It is true that riding with wanton abandonment does come naturally to some people, but not to all, and it can set unsuspecting newcomers up for potentially dangerous situations, especially where children and inexperienced riders are put on horses without helmets or protective footwear. Even for someone with good balance and the ability to sit upright on a horse, it still takes a long time and a lot of quality instruction to be able to apply the aids correctly and learn to school a horse so that it continues to make progress or at least maintain fitness.

I have had some beginner to intermediate level students who just seemed to have an inherent sense of balance, flexibility, strength and muscular symmetry, not to mention confidence on a horse. Sorry ladies, but almost all such students were boys or adult men. We could get into a discussion about gender differences in the pelvic floor, hips and thighs, but that is another issue. I do find it interesting though that all of the most popular clinicians advocating a particular style of horsemanship are men who ride extremely well themselves, and generally in a western saddle. I have witnessed some training methods originating with European men lately that are not translating well to North American women either, although the fundamental ideas are sound.

Due to misunderstandings and terminology used around the label of “horsemanship,” Dr. Schoen and I have chosen to use equitation in reference to our 25 Principles (in The Compassionate Equestrian) instead of horsemanship. Good horsemanship is ultimately included as part of equitation, and even further, the emerging field of Equitation Science* is providing us with the research and scientific backing in support of how horses are best trained and handled in ways that keep them sound of both mind and body. For example, researchers have determined through objective, quantitative research that rising trot and riding in a two-point (hunt seat) position place the least amount of stress on the horse’s back and are best for stabilizing the rider [1].

York Equestrian

Developing the balanced seat and learning to ride with independent aids. http://www.yorkequestrianridingschool.com

For all of my searching around the world wide web for tidbits of traditional, classical horse training and riding techniques, I have found the real gems and voices of reason still existing, but buried under the hundreds of thousands of “likes” on sites that are appealing more to people’s emotional reactions to images and possibly the feelings of freedom they would have riding bareback, galloping through fields of tall grass and blooming flowers. Such images, after all, are far more likely to grab readers quickly scanning their news feeds than a picture of the anatomical construct of a rider’s lumbar-sacral anatomy and how it should be placed in the saddle, followed by an explanation of why it should be situated in such a way and how it biomechanically affects the horse’s musculoskeletal system and way of going. Yet, there are marvelous opportunities to be gained from studying those images and exercises of correct alignment (such as in The Riding Doctor, by Beth Glosten MD, pub. June 2014 Trafalgar Square Books – http://www.horseandriderbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=H&Product_Code=RIDO&Category_Code=WNEW).

Let’s put those two pictures side by side and see which one gets the most “likes” on Facebook. I think we already know the answer to that, especially as so many social media users are very young and will take the time to make comments. The kids and professionals who are already working hard on their equitation, showing, and horse care are far too busy in the barns and arenas to pay much attention to what is going on in the rest of the equine industry unless it is something that affects them personally. In mixed-discipline barns where there are some people practicing newer forms of horsemanship philosophy and techniques, I have been hearing stories of heated dialogues and questionable methods leading to much tension and outright clashes amongst riders, as well as a few very bad accidents.

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet!) www.horsemanmagazine.com

The wonderful freedom of galloping bareback (although we always recommend the rider wear a helmet and boots!)
http://www.horsemanmagazine.com

Murdoch Method

How the rider’s skeletal anatomy looks when seated on a horse bareback. http://www.murdochmethod.com

In the “old days” (such as when I was showing the most – 1970s & 1980s) equitation classes were judged on seat, position, and use of the aids. We all knew as riders that a good seat and hands were the mark of a competent rider, and the making of a willing, happy equine partner. Pretty straightforward amongst both western and english styles, but no easy feat so far as being a consistent winner in equitation classes. Yes, of course those competitions still exist, but the participants are few compared to the audiences that turn out looking for ways to connect to equine nature and work from the ground. Sure, there were also some quirky trends in the 80s, such as “piano hands”, and the “point & perch” riding, but savvy judges and course designers who had ridden through the previous decades found ways of separating those who could really ride from those who were merely able to hold their position on a well-trained horse.

Nowadays, however, I see little to no emphasis placed on the quality of how well someone is sitting on their horse, yet it is the foundation so far as being able to ride without doing harm. It seems to me that horses used to stay a lot sounder than they do now, especially when it comes to neck, back and hindquarter problems. This is in spite of updated knowledge in saddle fitting and considerable advances in veterinary diagnostic technology. With all of the issues Dr. Schoen and I have observed in our respective fields, we feel that bringing compassion to the equine world at large involves a suggestion to look into one’s heart and ask if the pressure being inflicted on the horse is legitimately to its benefit, or to its detriment. We realize the answer to that will vary extensively until there is more evidence revealed through formal studies in Equitation Science.

A rider may have a great relationship with a horse on the ground, but what value is left if that relationship disintegrates due to a heavy and unbalanced seat? I have seen many riders of all ages who would benefit greatly by spending some time on the longe line, providing of course, their horse is also trained correctly and safely on the longe. Oftentimes this is not the case either, as a lot of horses are chased in round pens or longed on very short lines and do not stay on a large enough circle.

In the current equine world many seem to have forgotten one very important thing… teaching people how to ride properly with an emphasis on solid basics. While vocal about creating harmony and not using force (great trainers were never apt to use “force” anyway, and always start horses with careful groundwork), in the sea of popular buzzwords, for some strange reason, there is a big, confusing, gap between bonding with one’s horse and the value of riding with due care and attention to one’s equitation so as to create the least amount of stress on the horse as possible when asking it to walk, trot, canter, jump, and everything in between.

I used to work at one of the top show jumper barns on the west coast and we always used to joke about “equitating” properly. These were the young, talented riders who had horses and trainers at barns on both sides of the continent, qualifying for the big medal finals and making it to the top of the junior rankings. There were a lot of issues in those barns during that era that certainly didn’t make us perfect. I am happy to this day that I made the decision to remain removed from the craziness and partying that went on. The underlying dark side still permeates show activities and there are some people who continue to see horses as expendable commodities that can be pushed past their limits with drugs and procedures until they simply cannot be worked any further. I am mortified when I hear of youth who are competing for national standings talking about “putting a needle in their horses” so they can get around a class without blowing up or breaking down. In many cases it would be nice if there actually were a better relationship between the horse and its rider. There is something going amiss with the entire equestrian world and one poignant missing element at both ends of the spectrum seems to involve the key question we ask throughout The Compassionate Equestrian… and that question is “what is most compassionate for this horse?”

We look forward to the forthcoming advances in Equitation Science and in the ongoing research in human-animal communication and relationships to help us create a more compassionate world for everything we do that involves horses, and all of our animal and human companions. That actually does sit rather well… 🙂

– – – – –

*What is Equitation Science?

Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering. Equitation science uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain horse training, for example from a learning theory perspective that removes anthropomorphism and emotiveness.

Read more about the ‘Advent of Equitation Science’ – by P. McGreevy (2007, Veterinary Journal 174, 492–500)

http://www.equitationscience.com

 – – – – –

[1] Peham C1Kotschwar ABBorkenhagen BKuhnke SMolsner JBaltacis A.

Vet J. 2010 Apr;184(1):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.04.007. Epub 2009 May 9.

A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot.

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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.

 

http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2013/10/21/f-bombs-or-friendly-words-is-social-media-making-us-rude/

 “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.

 

http://www.thubtenchodron.org/DailyLifeDharma/speaking_of_the_faults_of_others.html

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Countdown!

Countdown!

   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.

windhorse

(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.