Ultimately, anybody who is reading this blog post, and anyone who has or is reading The Compassionate Equestrian can visualize themselves as compassionate and empathic with horses. If you feel as though you aren’t there yet, you’re certainly on the journey to becoming more understanding of your horse’s needs and his means of communication.
Unfortunately, however, it has been brought to my attention that the very word, “compassion” seems to evoke a broad range of emotions and opinions from equestrians, and not necessarily on a positive note.
Does it have a religious slant that distances some riders? Do some feel that it means you can’t ever show a horse without having “do-gooder” looking over your shoulder? Does it mean you can’t achieve optimal results within your chosen discipline? Given the conversations I’ve had with one of our younger trainer-affiliates, it seems as though all of the above applies. This saddens, yet does not surprise me.
I’m searching for the answers that will convince a greater demographic of the equine world to take a look at what the 25 Principles have to offer. And, of course, the last thing we want is for people to feel guilty or “less than” if they are unable to live up to the highest standards of equine care and handling. The key point is self-awareness and being mindful of the needs of horses, without beating up oneself, or anybody else, for that matter. I also realize this is an extremely difficult concept to grasp for many people, which often makes it hard to meet people “where they’re at.”
We all know what the horse industry needs. From the highest echelons of the governing bodies of horse sports to the backyard recreational rider, we must have clarity, best practices, and enforcement of the welfare issues across the board that would help make this a better place for horses. Horses that are receiving at the very least, a home that provides them with the 5 Freedoms*. You only have to scroll through a few Facebook threads or online forums to find out what the extent of violations are though, even with just those five essential principles of animal welfare.
So let’s just drop the word, “compassion” for a minute. How about we replace it with… “kinder?” The kinder rider. How does that look? I realize that not everyone who has a horse actually rides them as well, so we’ll include those who wish to work at liberty or simply maintain horses as companions and provide them with a safe home. We imagine that a beautiful partnership must originate and equate with a kind and benevolent rider or handler. I guarantee you, however, that the perfect picture also has the tough parts, the ugly sections, the down moments, and the ones that make you just want to give it up. Everyone has those times too. What helps? That base of kindness, starting with being kind to yourself.
How does kinder compare to compassionate? Here’s the definition of kinder from thesaurus.com:
adjective, kind·er, kind·est.
-of a good or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person:
a kind and loving person.
-having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence:
-indulgent, considerate, or helpful; humane (often followed by to):
to be kind to animals.
Seems to fit with our Principles, right? Now, without judging the tack, the discipline, the breed, the person sitting in the saddle, observe the situation in question. You can be a very kind person, and still end up in trouble on a horse. The horse may not have had adequate training, he might be in pain, he might be too much horse for the rider, or he might have spooked at something and bolted.
If you happen to be a very kind person and a competent rider, but your young horse decides to have a bucking fit at a show and someone snaps a photo of you pulling on your reins and posts it on social media with disparaging comments, does this then make you an unkind, non-compassionate rider? No, of course not. You did your best in a testy moment, and the next thing you know, you are subjected to hateful comments in a Facebook group. Everyone else thinks they’re being compassionate with the horse because he’s being pulled on, not knowing what might have happened in the split second before the photo was taken, or the moments that followed. And no, this is not compassion. Remember, compassion is putting yourself in that saddle, in that moment. It’s not about feeling sorry for the horse and trashing the rider. Who, in fact, may truly be a kind and benevolent rider.
Where am I going with this? Well, I’d like everyone to consider the basis of what makes a kinder rider, and we’ll just sneak in the core of the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation. We don’t need to say it, we’ll just do it.
Take a few moments and some deep breaths when you feel the need to criticize another rider or horseman. Do the same before you engage with your horse to ensure you are calm, quiet, and thinking clearly. Examine yourself and your connection to the horses you work with. Certainly, there is no book, DVD, author, or online training program that is going to encourage you to be outright unkind and cruel to your horse (although if anybody comes across anything that promotes the deliberate causation of pain to animals, action should be taken with appropriate authorities). The big problem we have in the equine industry right now is a disconnect from the fundamental training principles that are first of all concerned with the soundness of the horse and his ability to perform tasks required by the trainer/handler.
The second issue is the misunderstanding of biomechanics and the progressive development of the musculoskeletal system of the horse that is tasked with working with humans in any capacity. Too many trainers are missing the years of correct training of the rider before they are able to transfer that knowledge to the education of a horse. Even horses working at liberty are subject to these principles, as they are required to maneuver through various gaits, obstacles, school figures and other unnatural exercises that may overtax tendons, ligaments and muscles.
A kinder rider knows that they need the basics of good equitation that will provide them with an independent seat, quiet hands, and correct application of the aids. It doesn’t matter if you ride bitless or show jumpers. You can’t replace the foregoing with anything else.
A kinder rider continues their education in their chosen discipline, always seeking to further understand the needs of their horses, and developing the ability to know when they can proceed with the horse’s training, and when they need to back off.
A kinder rider knows that not everyone has perfect moments with horses at all times. Even the nicest horses can be out-of-sorts, especially if something hurts. It is important to realize that even horses trained with zero pressure can injure themselves. They’re made of the same soft tissue, bone, and other biological components as we are.
A kinder rider enjoys the success of others and seeks out the experts who seem to have a history of keeping horses sound and content, even competing well in the show ring for many years. Horses that have been overworked, beaten, or poorly trained will show it. Sooner or later, even the most stoic ones will break down and expose the rider or trainer for their bad handling.
A kinder rider encourages others, especially youth, to follow their heart when it comes to engaging with horses. If a child wants to jump their pony, find them a pony who loves to jump and ensure that they are trained under the supervision of a benevolent trainer. If the child announces that they no longer wish to jump or ride, allow them to bow out with grace. Same with other disciplines. If the trainer is mean, insulting, never seems happy, please go somewhere else. Even if they produce the desired results and ribbons, everyone will suffer at some level.
A kinder rider is compassionate. There. I said it anyway. If you want to be stealth about “compassion,” I think kindness will suffice. And I think you’ll experience some pretty good results.
* The Five Freedoms is a core concept in animal welfare that originated in a UK government report in 1965 and was then refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It states that an animal’s primary welfare needs can be met by safeguarding the following five freedoms:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2.Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5.Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
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 since 2002. 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 EFT 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. Whalsten 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.