Relax

Compassion not Compulsion

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.

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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.

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Comfort Zones

We all have them – those places where we feel at ease and the places where we want to escape, run, leap, dive under to find to a better feeling.

Sometimes being forced (or choosing to step) outside of our comfort zone can grow us forward; sometimes, it frays the insulation on our nerves to a point of shorting out.

Human, equine, canine, all of us face daily comfort glitches. For horses, their comfort zone is usually a certain distance away from a scary object. As they move a bit closer, they enter a “flight zone” where they go on alert and prepare to bolt. Closer even, their “fight” zone puts adrenaline into the bloodstream and they are ready to lash out if necessary.

Thinking about it, this applies for peeps and dogs, too. We all prepare through stages to protect ourselves.

One way to expand our comfort zones and feel at ease in more situations is to condition our responses and our bodies for coping. With our horsemanship, we do exercises that increase our balance and dexterity so that we become more comfortable when faced with a riding challenge.

A Dharmahorse exercise is to ride with a round cushion on our head to refine our balance – gradually moving up through the gaits as we gain proficiency. We walk, on the ground, with a book on our head first. The soft cushion is used mounted because horses don’t appreciate books falling onto their butts! Some don’t much care for the cushion, either.

You can work on hip control and pelvic tilts by placing that book on a table, hanging over the edge a bit. When you push the book forward with your hip bones, that is the tilt used to secure you in sitting trot or at canter. It is like pushing a swing forward as a child.

If you use one hip to push the book at an angle, you are practicing the aids for canter leads and lateral movements. The main thing to remember is to keep the hips loose and flexible so you have free range of motion. The rider’s seat starts out as interfering, becomes “following” and eventually influences the horse. We must have total control of our hip movements. This actually makes us more secure and we can move from one level, one gait, one path to the next with confidence.

From Yoga to dancing to tight rope walking; anything that increases your strengths (physical, emotional and mental) will expand your comfort zone.

Be bold, be aware and push the boundaries, just a bit!

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Living in the Past

Happy… and I’m smiling… with apologies to Ian Anderson, I find myself reviewing so much of my life with horses and the lessons they have taught.
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As a riding instructor, I often quote old instructors from my own past and even more often, tell the tales of horses (also teachers) from my past experiences.

When working in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, I saw the deep learning that occurred with equine contact and felt it myself, as well. The past might be, at times, a lingering vision of dreams not realized or a small voice drawing one into regret – but it need not be. Just as we choose our focus in the moment, we can choose the things remembered.

I have had riding instructors ask me to dismount and tell me that I had “no idea how to put a horse on the aids”. What I chose at that moment was to learn how to do so!

I have had instructors teach me how to breathe properly; how to understand gravity; how to calm and center myself and how to raise my energy and my vibration. These things have served me well beyond the riding – they have kept me safe in bus stations; helped me find strength when I needed it (when loading hay or changing a tire) and allowed me to feel grace and peace most of the time. I draw these positives from my past.

The horses set examples beyond my expectations year after year by being the greatest friends anyone could have. They always have shown me the energy I was projecting by reflecting it honestly back to me. That has been a valuable gift.

When I talk and teach about the “Well of Experiences”, those drops that have filled it (both positive and negative) actually are subjective in a way. At least for us as humans – we can choose to learn from every experience and therefore make them positive in their end results.

My beautiful picture

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Without Pain…

“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.

My beautiful picture

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.

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Find Yourself

Every morning when we wake up, we face ourselves. While our thoughts may be of work to be done, plans to be made or people to please; our first awareness each day is of our own embodiment. I have found that if I wake up to chaos – a jumbled bedroom, a messy bathroom, a kitchen in disarray – my awareness is naturally negative. If we begin each morning defeated by circumstances and our own thoughts, how can we expect to grow and accomplish things?

Simplicity can free you. I had a riding student whose business was teaching people to un-clutter their lives. When offered a brochure, she would read it and hand it back, making a note if necessary in her own little book. She did not even take on, momentarily, the objects that would become clutter in her life. Her car was clean, neat, simple inside and out. I can only imagine how her home would be! Her life, truly, must have been (and is, she is just no longer my student) filled with clarity.
After knowing her, I took a long look at my own “feng shui”, the energy of our home and stable. I found that I had, once again, accumulated tons of things I did not need, but felt compelled to hang onto… just in case. Now, I must quickly say that you have always been able to walk freely throughout my home and see every wall, window, piece of furniture, etc. But, the clutter was there on the surface and, with the picture of my former student’s probable abode in my head, I decided to find myself under the accumulation.

A roll of trash bags in hand, I started at one end of the house and worked my way through… I only partially filled one large trash can, but I had opened up my world and the morning after, I faced a lovely bit of simple neatness. With wonderful dogs sharing our home, I know it will never be spotless – but organized it must remain so I do not lose myself again under the insulation of clutter.

And insulation it can be. If you want to disappear and be “comfortably numb”, nothing works quite as well as just not caring, not cleaning and being a victim. Slipping quietly into the cocoon of the “setting sun world” where you do not have to shower, shave, dress or be productive. It can happen. Then, when your senses return, you see the sadness of it and look to the “great eastern sun”, the sun rising on your world and shining light into all the corners.

You take a deep breath, then another, clearing the “mind” and “soul” clutter with each exhalation. You begin to see everything around you, the trees, the earth, the horses and dogs and the world you create as sacred. Then you see yourself as a genuine, good human being and you find the joy of a day spent in meditation with a pot of tea and a cheese sandwich and it hits you – life is its own answer.

As I walked about the stable yard this evening, I felt a deeper connection to my past. I was remembering past stables, past horses – but not in a regretful or comparing way – I felt a keen sense of it all being linked. As if the energy of all the things I have done, seen and been were just as real and immediate as what I was doing tonight. I felt more real. more valid, more present than I have felt in years. It reminded of my childhood when I would spin head over heels under water in my grandfather’s pool with a swim mask on; churning thousands of bubbles, then release and let myself float to the surface with those bubbles… watching them… being them. In those moments, I felt connected to all the water on the planet. It was as if all water everywhere was dancing with me.

Tonight, I want you to feel deep connections to the important things in your life. I found the clarity and inspiration of my meditation to be my catalyst. It never hurts to relax. It never hurts to just breathe. It is powerful to take a penetrating look directly at yourself and allow that vision to become something awesome.

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Deep Breath… thinking in simple solutions first, holding the form!

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Years ago, I took my Lipizzaner mare, my friend Judy and my little Iberian bay mare to a Maj. Gen. Jonathan R Burton Dressage Clinic at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. We were joined by a student of mine, Pam, driving her own truck and trailer while I took us over in my big horse van.

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As I pulled off the highway and made my way to the base, the van suddenly began groaning and making scraping sounds that were every bit as scary as the startling sound of a blow-out! I still had control, so I pushed onward to the stables and leaped out of the cab as soon as I could park.

We pulled down the ramp and sides and got our mares out quickly. They both had strange expressions across their faces.

I walked around the van, smelling a hot but not smokey odor… I looked under the box, but didn’t really know what I was looking at. So, I went over to Pam’s pick up and looked under it. I saw that her drive shaft was held up by a little cushioned bracket (I came to know as a “pillow block”). I observed that my van’s drive shaft was tilted downward and there was no similar object supporting it.

We all rode in the Clinic and worked with our horses. Then I started searching through my boxes and bags in the cab of the truck. I found a hugely thick leather strap with a clunky buckle, a can of hoof dressing and a big piece of wire that I figured might serve me.

I pulled the drive shaft up with the wire and secured it to another shaft running along the length of the van’s box. Then I covered the inside of the strap with hoof dressing and fastened it also to lift and hold the turning drive shaft. Then I started the engine, pulled forward and back a few times… it all held, seemed to be balanced… so Judy and I loaded the mares and set off for Las Cruces!

We made it!!

A few years later I was backing my old (very old!) Suburban out of my driveway when it made a hideous sound reminiscent of that horse van – drive shaft episode. I figured I was in real trouble (financially). I called my friend Judy (same Judy). Her husband immediately came out to try and fix my Suburban. Judy and I went in the cottage for tea and biscuits while he crawled under…
He walked in with a tiny stone in his hand, smiling. That stone had gotten itself into my brake pad or shoe or whatever and had made the sound that stopped my breathing for that awful moment.

My car was fixed. No big repairs. No bills. No problems. I taped the stone to the metal glove box as a reminder to think of the simple things first!

And to take a Deep Breath!

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And the winner is…

A “Win – Win” situation… I hear that often. It is a truly profound statement when it is used. Most times our society is equating winning with being higher, better, stronger, smarter than others who must, therefor, lose.

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.

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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!

 

I once was told that my ideas were too “simplistic”; that the way I lived was “idealistic”. How COOL! I will gladly fly the SIMPLE flag and hold myself to the idealistic standards of compassion and trust. If we all just cave in to the idea that struggle, brutality and force are the normal aspects of life and relationships… well, what sort of life and relationships will we experience?
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Yes and No

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.

My beautiful picture

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.

My beautiful picture

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.

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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.

 

 

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Being Fully Present

A long while back we harnessed our pony, Andy, hooked him up to the cart and taught some driving lessons at Dharmahorse. It was a great day for doing this since our earliest student could not make her lesson and it gave me the chance to take our late morning student on a brief drive around the property just for fun.
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The lessons on driving went well and when my young student arrived early, we just popped on her helmet and sat her beside me in the cart. What happened next was so interesting to me! She had never ridden in a pony cart. She was thrilled to do so, but she talked the entire time. I realized that she would never remember the look of Andy’s cute little bottom swinging with his stride as we rolled along. She will not someday think, “wow, I know what breeching and a crupper look like” or “the pony wears blinkers to keep his attention forward” – No, she was never fully present in that cart and I’m certain that years in the future, should someone ask if she has ever ridden in a horse drawn cart, her answer will be “no”.

It really was that disconnected. Now, sometimes we disconnect out of fear or anxiety about a situation. That is me on a roller coaster; just hurry and get me off of the bloody thing. Sometimes our mind is chattering so much that our focus is unclear or distorted. Often, we are just in the habit of being scattered.

So, like my young student, I know that I can hold myself separate from my experiences if I forget to focus and be fully present in the moment. Often, I have too many things on my mind. I have to know how each horse is feeling and what each student needs and match riders to horses for the benefit of both – while remembering to check on my brother and soak the food for the dogs and pay the water bill and move hay up for supper and get the dumpster out for the truck, and, and, and… you get the picture. It is something we all do.

I think of this series of mind checks and balances as a kind of lack of trust. As if I do not trust myself to remember what needs to be done, I constantly review and often chastise myself for any daydreaming or simple useless conversations. My, my… it is harder to release yourself from your own authority than it is to slip away from the domination of another. Just to relax is priceless and it is the foundation of being fully present in the moment. One must relax.

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