Posts Tagged With: horsemanship

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.


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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Polished Pitch Forks

I was talking with a student yesterday, telling him about my experience at one of the country’s most respected schools of horsemanship. You see, in the mid 1970’s, I was one of 21 people from all over the world selected to ride for one scholarship at Morven Park International Equestrian Institute. This world renowned school is in Leesburg Virginia, near Washington DC. I was in Roswell, New Mexico…

I was writing articles for magazines: The Chronicle of the Horse, Horseplay, Dressage & Ct and others. I saw an ad for the scholarship and applied, giving Mr. deKunffy and some other instructors I had ridden under as references. I was around 23 years old, but had been operating my own school for 5 years. The move to Roswell came after our family’s corporation went bankrupt. My father’s alcoholism caused the bankruptcy and soon after, his death. I had very little financial resources and, after notification that I was one of the selected few, had to figure out how to get back to Virginia!

I could afford a bus ticket. Because we were required to bring a saddle, bridle, boots and helmet, I called the administration and asked if I could come without a saddle. They approved it. I rode the Greyhound buses to Virgina; boots, bridle and helmet in my lap in a tote bag, a backpack holding my breeches, clothes, swimsuit and flip flops. It was summertime. I sported a very dramatic farmer’s tan on my face, shoulders and 3/4 of the way up my arms.

MPIEI had arranged a shuttle from a nearby hotel, so that was my destination and, by taxi. I settled into my little room at the hotel the night before our exams began. I brought protein type bars and vegetarian “jerky” with me and planned to eat each supper somewhere cheap. There was no good place within walking distance, so I ate suppers in the hotel restaurant, using up my emergency money.

That first day we were assigned horses and divided into 3 groups, each to ride in the indoor school, showing our Dressage. There was some confusion because I did not have a saddle – I was put in the last group and a kind young woman from the second group offered her saddle for me to use. But, the staff had found a saddle for me and brought up a fresh, black, 17.3 hand gelding straight from his box stall. The saddle-offering young woman took her sweet, well mannered mount (a chestnut, 16 hand gelding) back to the stables. I kept telling myself to “BREATHE”!

My gelding was certainly gorgeous. He had a huge stride that took a little getting used to – but I had ridden ponies, Arabs, my brother’s Shire TB cross… I was adjustable. But this black horse bucked. Just for the fun of it. He had floating half passes at canter and a mean bronc inspired flying change. It popped me forward every time, but I kept on top of him and held back the need to break into tears.

That saddle was slick, so I had to move a bit to get back into position after every change of rein and Big Black Bronc took every shift to mean something and most of the time he decided it mean “crow hop” or “bury head and neck between front legs”. I stayed on! But I began to get nauseous thinking about the next day and jumping…. Crikey. We were required to continue with our assigned mounts. I decided to apply everything Mr. deKunffy had taught me, philosophically and equitation-wise and at least survive this.

When I went to supper that second evening, having now made a couple of friends, I watched the slender, beautiful, very tan girl from Florida flirt with the wait staff. She got a note from the chef asking for a date. She got free dessert. She told us that her dad was going to pay for her enrollment at MPIEI, but she was trying for the scholarship anyway – if she won it, she could use the money for a new car (yes, it was comparable and no, she did not win).

It was hot in Virginia and I was NOT used to the humidity anymore! I decided to take a swim to cool off and to enjoy the pool as the evening turned to night… the bluish lights around the pool made my very pale skin look ghostly white, except of course, where my face and arms were as brown as coffee from the southwest sun. Gorgeous Florida girl came to swim, too and she had a tan all over. I felt so self conscious, I went back to my room, took a cold shower and went to bed. I had to leave the television on to cover the strange noises in the hall.

Morning back at MPIEI had us in a classroom watching videos, hearing lectures and taking written exams. They had doughnuts and coffee and I devoured them. Then, we had free time to explore the stables. The barns were incredible. The arenas impeccable. The jump courses were dazzling, the indoor schools felt like churches to me. As I absorbed the beauty and tidiness, I began to notice that all the tools, hung perfectly in each barn’s aisle, were polished. I am serious, the shovels and pitch forks and rakes and hoes had all their metal parts polished. Mental note to myself was – guess who polishes these!

I am not afraid of work. But, sometimes excessive work would wear out my injured hand and I kept thinking that I should have told them about it…

Not to worry, the jumping exams seemed to seal my fate. Big Black Bronc was true to form. We jumped a 3’3″ course, then they put the jumps to 3’9″. The jumps looked small from on top of him (where I stayed, by some miracle of pure willpower), it was the giant leaping buck after each landing that made me gasp in panic. Tan face now pale and ghostly, I rode the best I could and even tried to smile.

We had coaching. They had their (internationally respected) instructors and head master evaluating us and giving us instruction. They kept telling me to lean back; lengthen BBB’s stride when he gets all “bottled up”; use more inside leg to outside rein. I did my best. In the end, BBB started looking quite brilliant and I was breathing and being more assertive. I learned a lot. I was glad I had gone and tried, but I knew I was not the winner.

The next day, I sat in the grass with the director of the Institute. The other riders seemed intimidated by him (he is famous) and I figured, what the heck, here is a chance to keep learning. I asked him about collection and compression; I asked him if he felt certain breeds were dramatically better than others; I asked him he thought the injuries to my hand were my biggest limitation. He said that, for any of us, our biggest limitations were “between the ears”. I decided to be unlimited.

We rode through jumping grids. I studied charts in the classrooms showing muscle structure and relationships to the human body. When I got back on the bus to return to New Mexico, I silently thanked BBB for showing me that I could conquer that fear and that I could learn from him how to ride him. I put my now grungy, sweat covered, Spanish top Marlboroghs, my bridle and helmet back into the tote… let the bus driver put my backpack into the luggage bin and I gathered change from the bottom of my purse to buy candy bars and juice at the bus stations all the way home.

I returned to Roswell feeling strong. The girl who won the scholarship was not one of the riders who could pay for it if not the winner and her Mom had come with her to be supportive. It was the right choice. I came home with new determination for my own school of horsemanship. And I knew that, at no point in my life, would my mucking tools be polished. And that was just fine with me.


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Wishes and Horses

Lots of talk is going on about the rich being the ones who can afford to have horses. Of course, horses make us rich (with love, experiences, joy, etc.) but I don’t think that’s what they are talking about!

My personal story is one of financial extremes and of finding ways to keep horses in my life experience no matter what. Only twice in my life did I have to give my horses to incredibly good homes because I was not going to be able to care for them properly. In those cases, I did what was right for my horses, period.

Now, at Dharmahorse, we are running on a “shoestring”, so to speak, and I find creative ways to support my horses’ Well Being. My feeling is that to give up the “newest/best” electronics and putter along successfully with my old laptop is no real sacrifice! And to get my clothes from Thrift Stores, books from Coas and barter lessons for hay just make for lots of adventures in the process. I don’t even want manicures (hey, I clean horses’ sheaths so fingernails need to be short), pedicures, hair styling or make up – although massages would be nice…


But our horses get massages because of how hard they work giving lessons (it isn’t easy to be ridden by several different people each week) and I buy good shoes because my feet work really hard!

It’s a matter of priorities. I teach because I want to share what I learn and be a light of compassion for horses. I can have several great horses in my family because they help work to cover expenses. We are a team with a purpose.

As we gather great people around our company with similar philosophies and priorities, I find that my own joy increases and the energy expands each day. I used to be tired and now I get inspired. I used to get scared and now I feel excited. We can all express these positives in our lives – we’ve come this far. We are still kickin’! If we faced the challenges of the past and came through intact, surely what we face today (and tomorrow) cannot be insurmountable.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

We don’t have to be “rich” to have horses but we become rich when we have them! To properly care for them, we must prioritize their wellbeing and often get creative!

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Lines of Communication

Riding and teaching lessons yesterday and turning horses out today, I have been thinking about how we communicate our desires and directions to horses through the reins, lead, line, etc.

We must become light, consistent, clear and immediate with our language of the aids through these lines… we will really miss out, though, if we neglect to “hear the horses” through these same lines of communication. When I am leading a horse to the field, I don’t just pull him along like a red wagon, nor leave him floating in the breeze like a bobbing balloon at the end of a string. No. I keep a light feel of the lead rope and listen to every signal and pre-signal he communicates to me as we walk down the lane. This is why I prefer all cotton, long lead ropes with trigger snaps – they just feel right in my hands.

When riding, I stretch my outside rein, feeling what the horse is saying to me. I keep an elastic, massaging inside rein (barely perceptible, the nuance of a tiny vibration…), allowing the horse to ask me questions and tell me how he feels about his balance and his pace.

On the longe, I’m not sending the horse out on a circle like a model airplane to zoom about and possibly crash – I am “riding” with my body language and listening through that longe line to every signal conveyed by my equine partner.

It is more about a conversation than it is about a performance, and, if we think and act this way, our horses sigh a sigh of relief about finally being heard.


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Paths and Habits

We are all influenced by our past experiences: they create our habits which work either for or against us on our life paths. This is also true for our horses. Each experience is the catalyst for an equine habit.

A horse will move in a certain way, react in a certain way, approach us in a certain way depending upon the habits he has formed.

I personally drive a car the way I do because of past experiences (they collectively form my driving habits) and that recognition helps me understand my horses’ and my own behaviors.

The three glaring habits I have as an automobile “pilot” make total sense to me:

My first car was an old Mark ll Jaguar with brakes that worked intermittently (!!!), teaching me to pump the brake pedal immediately upon feeling it sink to the floor while I pulled up on the emergency brake lever in between the front seats. This is why, if driving a car with a brake lever beside my hip, I keep my hand on it the entire time I’m moving… not out of fear and not even with awareness, it is just a habit formed early on that kept me from zooming through intersections or spinning out on sharp curves should those old Jaguar brakes fail.

Many years and vehicles later I had both a VW Bug and an old VW Bus (on which I painted clouds and a third eye). Driving an air cooled engine, I realized that straddling a plastic bag in the road that I did NOT see in my rear view mirror afterwards meant it had been sucked up onto the engine and said engine would burn up… now, without thinking about it, I drive around plastic bags and if that’s not safe to do, always look to see that it is flapping around behind me. It’s a habit.

And one time I drove a 3 cylinder Chevy Sprint that got 52 miles per gallon (yes, seriously) and was an automatic (transmission) with A/C! The fact that it went from 0 to 60 MPH in 12 minutes was no deterrent for me, I just planned ahead – AND, when at a stop light, I would of course turn off the compressor to the air conditioning and turn it back on after gathering a little momentum when the light turned green. So… now, at stop lights, I do the same thing in my Camry and it baffles passengers. Yet I understand my own reasoning!

So, when working with a horse who, say, backs up three strides every time he halts – I figure it is some sort of habit he learned from another human or from a past situation and I just work to replace it with a new habit. When I’m with a friend who walks sideways 10 feet away from a fence with a dog on the other side, I figure there is a reason behind that habit.

Horses, Humans, Dogs – we all act the way we do with habits formed by past experiences. And we can all replace unwanted habits with new ones – yet, in stressful situations we most likely will revert to the old, familiar habits! Something familiar is comforting, even when it is as weird as dodging plastic bags on the road and stopping on the shoulder to look for them if they disappear beneath the car!

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Days end

Such a long day for us today. Starting with a very good lesson on balance and posting the trot with a student on sassy Hank, it ends now, 12 hours later with feeding the herd in the soft evening light. I feel the Autumn. The day itself was spent enlarging the small arena here. It started as a round pen, jumbled together with what materials I could afford at the time.


The round pen started out where my Mother’s mobile home now sits. It was relatively portable, so we moved it. The new location was smaller, so the pen became so, as well. After a year and a half, it felt like it was closing in on us! We have a big turnout / arena area, but often need two places to work at the same time.

So today, after having started the new enlargement of the little arena last week; my working student and her Mom and Dad arrived early and stayed late as we all put up fence. I devoured homemade, fresh, soft pretzel rolls brought by said Mom and kept an eye on my Mom who needs attention and help throughout the day and night.

Last night, I had run down to Lowes to get landscape timbers for posts and 2X3 inch planks for the fence rails. Having worked constantly through the day since 6:30 AM, I treated myself to coffee and an omelette at IHOP. It was already dark outside, so I relaxed at my brightly lit, tiny booth and watched the servers go back and forth… their feet work hard, too. The coffee carafes were copper colored and reflected the lights from above in curving lines that sparkled. I tried to eat slowly mindfully, then drove down the rest of the hill for lumber.

Night time can be strange. The store felt huge and hollow, the Ladies’ room was downright eery as I fished for my little flashlight (just in case the lights would go out) for a sense of safety. I needed two big lumber carts, had to go from one end to the totally opposite end of the store to gather materials, constantly adding up the prices in my head. I did well. I spent only what I had allowed myself and it turned out today, I had exactly enough with 4 poles left over to make cavaletti!


Things here are not posh. We don’t really do posh. I’m lucky to keep my office and the adjoining bathroom clean for clients and friends to use. I’m not bad, just not particularly scrubbed most of the time! With the herd of 6 horses, now 3 dogs and my Mom to care for, I live a sometimes cluttered life. But no one suffers. That is a fact.

And now, we have a bigger small arena. I’m smiling a lot tonight. After the weekend lessons, I’ll be able to pay the hoof trimmer and buy white paint from Tractor Supply to paint the new arena fence.

Look for happiness at the end of each day. Expect joy at the beginning of each day. Touch every life you can with love. That is the way of the stablewomen.




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Win – Win

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.


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 others’ 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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The In Between Places

I was watching the sun light fade and night fall around us in the stable yard tonight… thinking about those “in between” times and spaces and ideas. Instead of just being black or white, the gray areas of dusk and dawn; of the beach between the hills and the sea; of life and what we call death. All of these are not just transitions, but places in their own right with a reality to be experienced, certainly, if not savored.


I also see the value of the dynamic approaches of horsemanship styles. And the multiple ways in which good health is preserved by natural methods. Those in between places serve to blend ideas and make useful all manner of things we might miss with a rigid mind-set. I love using Australian saddles for my riding lessons and I tell students that they are like a combination between western and english styles.

My Mother used to say she put sugar in her tea to make it sweet and lemon to make it sour, but the combination was better than either. The in between places are of blending and easing from one thing to another. The in between places are where we can linger, experiencing that gentle shift.

From this life to the next life is an in between place where I think elderly beings visit and sometimes linger when deep in sleep or daydreaming. Spring eases us into summer; autumn eases us into winter.

If we are going to climb to 14,000 feet, we linger at 8,000, then 10,000 feet, making an in between place to adjust to the altitude.

So, I wonder why we would expect such immediate, total obedience from an animal, a person or ourselves when faced with a change or a task? Depending upon the degree of the shift and how much change is required, there needs to be an in between place where the transition can flow with grace. When that cannot happen and a sudden or violent shift occurs, it is shocking and that shock will need to be addressed one way or another later on.

Being decisive is powerful. Being decisive is clear and planned and directed. It can be immediate in its application from the space of transitioning, but cannot act like the cracking end of a whip that then ricochets aimlessly. The in between place holds the form of the concept, decision or path and allows its unfolding without interruption or distortion. It may only hold it for a moment or it may hold the form for years.

My Mother likes limes and mint in her tea now. I ride and school horses in bitless bridles. We leave giant Yuccas in our turn out (that also serves as an arena) because we like Yuccas (and riding a circle around a giant “cactus” will sure keep a rider from leaning inward!) and the area becomes a kind of transition place between the round pen and riding out on the trail. An in between place…

We kind of “ride between worlds” at Dharmahorse –  taking what we find the best from many styles and methodologies in horsemanship and in healing. And we help horses and people shift gently from place to place; idea to idea. The world is full of possibilities.


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