A friend explained this concept to me a few weeks ago as I described to him how one of our horses in Sanctuary gets confused when a rider gets on him and “disappears” from sight. A light bulb turned on in me. Diamond is not being obstinate, not obtuse, he genuinely does not understand what has happened to the person who mounts him.
While that may seem hard to fathom, after years now of working to heal his lameness, we had not been as connected to him as a riding horse. When soundness returned, we were careful to move gradually with him under saddle, making certain the footing for him was cushioned and that he only walked (for months). With another horse in the arena or with me walking along watching him and coaching a rider, he seemed confident enough and willing to engage. I remained dedicated to getting and keeping him physically sound, without realizing that he had big gaps in his education and perception.
As students tried to take him out on the rail in the arena, away from me or another horse, he would worry. The rein and leg aids seemed to have little meaning to him. I knew he had been at a camp in the mountains, doing trail rides with children before he came to us. Thinking about this, I began to figure out that Diamond was comfortable as a “follower” and he likely only walked down the trails with his nose at another horse’s bum. He did not conceptualize a person sitting in the saddle giving him signals… he followed the other horses.
So, when we do a lesson on him, our success in getting him away from me and listening to his rider came with having his rider talk her directions to him continuously. If he is hearing her verbal signals, he stays connected enough to feel at ease and go where she wishes. If she is silent, he shuts down as if he has dropped an anchor and his confidence evaporates!
I then began thinking about the trainers who bring a young horse’s head and neck around to the saddle as they mount and stand during those first rides. It does effectively keep the horse from bolting, rearing or bucking, especially if one is starting the youngster without assistance – but now, I realize that the horse really sees where the rider has gone!
Oh yes, horses have great peripheral vision and can certainly see that something is there on their sides, but to know that a person is up there… I’m just not sure it comes by default.
We are working with Diamond. Filling in gaps, substituting the leg and rein aids for verbal aids. As time passes, I see him becoming more confident. I like him a lot and I want him to be able to comprehend what is going on, not just act as an automaton from being flooded and losing his desire to live. That’s not the way we operate here.
I think about this constantly. I had some interaction with a woman who was chastising me for using a wand to direct my horse around me (loose in a turn out, no round pen, no lines or ropes) as he circled me happily. She is an advocate of clicker training.
So am I. I worked at a rescue that brought in Draft mares and foals from the PMU industry. There was an aggressive mare there whose daughter was still with her as a coming 3 year old! I used the clicker schooling (marking desired behavior) and was able to accomplish a lot with the mare to make her safer and help her understand us.
I trained Saddle Seat at one point back east; I rode colts off the track aiming to make them H/J prospects while in Florida; I had a blind retired Eventer that I rode! I worked with 3 year old colts and fillies who had never seen a human being until they were chased into stock trailers and unloaded into my barn aisle! I rode most of them eventually, but it was a long journey to get to the trust.
I rode under Charles deKunffy and trail rode my own mules… there are hundreds of ways to do things with horses and all of them are correct IF they do no harm.
You know why people get adamant about a particular style of training or handling or feeding a horse? It is because they’ve had success with it. That’s all. And because many roads can lead to the same destination, many people have lots of successes. That’s very cool!
I sit here tonight thinking about how new, green horse peeps must feel confused or overwhelmed sometimes (especially with the endless information online) and wonder which is the “Right Way” with horses.
Imagine how confused and overwhelmed horses must feel by our methods! Truth is, horses are beyond remarkable. They can go from “owner” to “owner” and have to relearn or rethink what the signals and responses are from person to person. And try they do – horses want to please us!
If you are working with your horse and you are both safe and happy and understanding each other. You are doing it the Right Way.
That is our motto at Dharmahorse Equine Sanctuary. It has more to do with the handling and schooling of horses than with our mission of rescue and care, but it is a thread that weaves itself through every endeavor. Compassion is more about empathy than about sympathy. While the two seem synonymous, they have distinct differences. We can feel both toward a horse who arrives starved, injured or abused, but it is the empathy that feeds compassion. Being able to imagine oneself in the “shoes” of another is the first step toward true compassion.
And life experiences give us that empathetic ability. Experiences are gathered through life like points on a scale from mild to extreme and we all have our own unique set of them. If we have never stubbed our toe, we do not cringe and gasp when someone describes ramming their foot into a cabinet in the dark. We can say that we “feel sorry” for them (sympathy), but we don’t relate on a comparative level. We have no empathy with them.
Compassion comes from awareness. With horses, we need to “think like a horse” to understand their perspective as prey animals designed to move across vast distances as part of a herd. Any life with us requires that they adapt to being confined on some level and dependent upon us for all their needs.
We need to become aware of how our lifestyles can impact the animals’ lives. They certainly learn to adapt to us, but that can sometimes mean that they acquire strange (to us) behaviors as coping skills. At the Sanctuary, we have a young horse who was starved nearly to death twice before she was three years old! Food triggers unusual behaviors in her (understandably) that include kicking the pipe bars of her fence as if to say “Don’t forget me!” as we start feeding a meal. We see these adaptations and adjustments in all the species we bring into our lives.
If a dog runs to the closet at 3:00 AM and starts digging in the corner (don’t yell “bad dog!” – I always say, “Good dog doing a bad thing”) we must try to understand why this is happening and give him something else to do.
Most predators, like our dogs and cats, re-act to stimulus. Their instincts are intact, even if the most hunting action they get is trying to locate the piece of popcorn that shot under the refrigerator last week. So the best trained dog and the sweetest cat in the world will both re-act without thinking when a bird flops down from the rafters to grab a grasshopper.
As you become aware of the instincts and qualities that your animal shares with his species, you can prepare his surroundings to enhance the things you want and to discourage the things you don’t want from him. Socializing a dog with people and other animals is of supreme importance because those very instincts that ensured his species’ survival in the past are the deep seated stimulus that could spark an attack under certain circumstances.
And teaching a horse to lead and tie and stand for the hoof trimmer or Veterinarian and to load into a trailer, etc. can ensure that his future life, should it turn out in another person’s care, will be free of the brutality someone might resort to in an effort to accomplish their goals. A horse with a broad education and exposure to many stimuli is less likely to panic when facing something new.
Compassion encompasses the training and treatment of horses if we wish to communicate on the deepest level. This also extrapolates to our interactions with all animals and even each other. Especially with children and young animals, our first feeling might be that they are deliberately challenging us when, in all likelihood, they are simply confused or uncertain. By taking a moment to breathe and “put ourselves in their place”, we can draw upon compassion to solve problems.
A horse living 22 hours in a box stall is very much like one of us living in a large closet. When the door is opened and we walk out into the fresh air, we might very likely need to kick up our heels or squeal for joy. A dog living at the end of a chain would likely become overwhelmed with enthusiasm upon seeing anyone who might spend some time with him. Feeling sympathy, we could feel sorry for them and say, “Oh poor creature”. Feeling empathy, we can imagine ourselves in similar circumstances and look for a way to help. By discussing the animal’s situation with the owner, we might find a way to help them build a proper fence to allow more freedom… some compassion based, creative thinking might help everyone involved. Empathy for an owner who has a horse or a dog he cannot handle could lead us into brainstorming solutions. Criticism, anger and blaming will certainly not help an animal, an owner, the situation or our own blood pressure (except in cases of abuse, when intervention through the authorities is needed). To begin with compassion, with empathy, has at least the possibility of improving a situation.
And holding our own actions up to the light of compassionate care, we can see when rushing a horse through a needed lesson or skipping over the foundation building experiences needed, especially for the young horse, will actually take longer than deliberate, consistent communication.
Putting ourselves “in his shoes”, we can see how the horse who is afraid to make a mistake becomes robotic and stingy with his responses to our requests.
We see how people who connect with the hurt and hurting horses can find healing for themselves as well. We are all in this together.
Our lives – and those of our horses are filled with experiences. You can think of these as drops like water that fill a “well”. Of a positive or negative nature; these “drops” determine what we expect from current circumstances and experiences!
This is a Natural Path of simple, mutual respect that brings Harmony to our relationship with Horses.
If your horse has mostly negative experiences in his “Well”, with every new experience he faces, his expectation will be something negative! Only by patiently and consistently adding positive “drops”/experiences, can you overcome the initial response of fear, anger or apprehension that is generated by negativity.
And a being whose experiences have been mostly positive will be open and often eager to face a new experience.
In my favorite book, “Shambala, sacred path of the warrior”, Trungpa Rinpoche talks about the true warrior attaining a state of gentleness. About the Dralas, energy beyond aggression and how our true natures are fearless.
“It is not just an arbitrary idea that the world is good. but it is good because we can experience its goodness.” He says, “Shambala vision is tuning in to our ability to wake ourselves up and recognize that goodness can happen to us. In fact, it is happening already.”
“The whole idea of struggle brings you to a point of conflict, the antithesis of horsemanship.” If things seem to be going wrong in your training, first look to the possibility of confusion. The horse wants to please. It is his nature to yield and to avoid conflict. If he seems unwilling to comply with your wishes/requests/demands, consider the possibility that he is confused and does not understand your aids. First look to fixing yourself. Make your language clearer, your communication more basic. Go to a simpler task, a slower gait, a smaller jump, use a milder bit, remove force, and concentrate upon influence. If your hose is acting out of character, consider that he feels poorly or that something is hurting him. Check your equipment, his body, his hooves. Give your horse a chance to tell you why he is not cooperating before you decide to attack him.
Consider how often he is ridden. If you work him hard every day, be sure to vary your routine. Drilling him over and over with the same patterns of schooling will either bore him into quiet, dull submission or drive him to rebellion. Neither is appealing. If you can only get to him once a week, the excitement and newness of your contact with him many be overly stimulating. He may have trouble concentrating for the first hour you are together, so do not make any demands upon him in the beginning of your time together beyond simple safety. After the freshness has worn off, begin a schooling session that takes into account the time that has passed since your last contact. Much improvement can be had with a review of old skills, a lesson on new, logical movements, finishing with a session of easy, well-honed skills that allows the horse to feel successful.
This building of successes for both of you can eliminate the use of pain as a training tool. Equipment that inflicts pain is unnecessary if you take the time to school every small detail consistently from the most basic to the most complex. It is important that your horse feels successful and be rewarded for his cooperation. His desire to repeat the experience will be increased. If he feels that he can never please you or that he is never quite food enough, he will lose all desire to participate with you either under saddle or in the stable.
And it is dramatic when a rider is told to “show him who’s boss”; “you must win the battle with your horse”; etc.
Battle? If a battle ensues within a relationship with a horse, the human is 99% of the time the instigator. A battle can demoralize one of the parties and it invariably ends up being the horse.
So, this “Win – Win” situation sounds like the best way to approach relationships and dialog with horses… heck, with all beings! I have personally found my way there through decades of experience and relationships with Appaloosas. Oh, I have owned and schooled Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Mules, Quarter Horses… you name it! But the time I have spent with Appaloosas has honed my skills as a proponent of “The Middle Way” and brought me to a place of thoughtful consideration of the other party in each relationship. Appaloosas have an acute sense of what is fair and the ability to know if you are honest and mean what you “say”. They will hold you to task. And I appreciate that.
If we seek that “Middle Way” of partnership with our horses (and family and coworkers and neighbors, etc.), with respect for the other’s feelings – knowing that there are always reasons for how we all respond to life – we will All Be Winners. No One has to lose!
When you run a Sanctuary for horses, every day is unique… sometimes every hour! When you live in harmony with Nature (especially in the high desert), you have to cultivate an attitude of flexibility when it comes to weather, finances, social interactions, relationships and goal setting.
We are up with sun, we are online into the night, we are juggling bits of money to be spread across payments that grow exponentially. We see the shining stars every night with barn checks and we fall into bed having missed a bath or a shower 4 days in a row…
Then we wake to gentle rain and the scent of suppressed dust in the paddocks, soft nickers wanting breakfast and a stillness on the stable yard that gifts us a day of introspection and rest.
New volunteers often say they don’t know how we do it, day in, day out… old students remark about the changes in the past couple of years that leave us all spellbound. Visitors ask if this was what I had always wanted to do…
Yes… and no.
I had wanted to live in Australia when I was young. I had wanted to raise half Thoroughbred show ponies when I was a teenager. I had wanted to operate a school of gentle, classical horsemanship paired with dance when I was in my twenties. In my thirties, I wanted to write novels. All my life I wanted to grow my own medicines for my family… all my life I wanted to be cherished, just as all beings do.
This Sanctuary, here in the New Mexico high desert, in the middle of a winter rain, warm and drenching; this is a huge YES. The “no” part is that I did not realize in my youth how important this life would be.
A mentor of mine when I was young, Mr. Charles deKunffy, wrote a note to me decades ago. It said, “Kathy, out of great dedication grow fine things. YOU will contribute to the equestrian arts”. No kidding!! THAT motivated me to push on when I was exhausted or discouraged. THAT made me push on when my hand(s) couldn’t even lift a coffee cup. THAT made me push past the mental whiplash inflicted by an alcoholic father and the degradation of molestation. A simple declaration of one’s worth by an admired teacher can be the difference between life and not living.
So, I contribute; in ways I hadn’t realized would be my destiny. I have my connection to Australia that I now realize was a deep song in my heart. I have taught thousands of students, owned hundreds of horses, schooled hundreds more and stood by another hundred as they passed over… knowing that someone loved them, even though it was only me. I have healed and nourished and held more horses than I can count. Charles was correct… I was and am dedicated. I care.
And the horses here, a jumbled up group of almost every breed and age and background that one can imagine, these horses are the story to be told. Their stories. Colliding with humans, dancing with humans, fearing and respecting and loving humans they know us on levels we don’t know ourselves. I hope they know that I love them. Totally.
Am I pleased with direction this life of mine has taken? Yes. Just yes.
Time spent with horses is always time well spent. I remember my own childhood with horses and even when things went “wrong” for me and I was frustrated or angry – the horses taught me how totally nonproductive that was! As I work with new and young students in Horsemanship, I see how it takes them a while after first arriving, to settle and connect deeply not only with the horses, but with their own feelings and needs.
There is a great deal more to our Horsemanship than just riding. Being in the presence of horses helps us see our own issues in a new light. We can process problems while cleaning hooves and the horse will tell us if we are congruent or not – if he feels safe lifting a hoof for us; if he feels that we are clear and assertive; if he feels that we care or just do not!
Our relationship with a horse is like a dance. It is based upon communication and mutual concern for the other. “Love is the active promotion of the well being of the love object” (E. Fromm) When we learn how to love a horse, we learn how to love. When we learn how to communicate with a horse, we are more clear in our communications with other people.
Horses need to know when they are successful and are pleasing us. We often let them know when they are “wrong”, but forget to tell them when they are “right”…