The Compassionate Equestrian: Loving Horses with Heart

A new game-changing book lays out 25 principles for caring for horses

Posted Jun 07, 2015

Horses are "in." These most amazing equine beings are found worldwide in wide-ranging environments ranging from those in which they're cherished and loved and considered family members to those in which they're wantonly treated as unfeeling objects, not unlike other nonhuman animals (animals) who live with humans worldwide.

With permission of the author
Source: With permission of the author

I don't know much about horses, but every time I'm around them I'm floored by their presence and sensitivity. I always tell myself I need to spend more time with them and now, after reading Dr. Allen's Schoen and Susan Gordon's new book called The Compassionate Equestrian: 25 Principles to Live by When Caring for and Working with Horses (see also)I most surely shall do just this (you can read Chapter 10 here). Dr. Schoen's previous books were very well received and I'm sure his latest one also will enjoy a wide and global readership. The Compassionate Equestrian is strongly evidence-based and its numerous important messages go far beyond horses. It has received strong endorsements and its description reads as follows:

This marvelous book, borne of a unique collaboration between Dr. Allen Schoen—a world-renowned veterinarian and author—and trainer and competitor of many years Susan Gordon, introduces the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation. These Principles, conceived by Dr. Schoen and Gordon, are a set of developmental guidelines, encouraging a level of personal awareness that may be enacted not only through the reader's engagement with horses, but can be extended to all humans and sentient beings he or she encounters. The 25 Principles share stories and outline current, peer-reviewed studies that identify and support methods of training, handling, and caring for horses that constitute a safe, healthy, non-stressful, and pain-free environment. Through their Compassionate Equestrian program, the authors encourage all involved in the horse industry to approach training and handling with compassion and a willingness to alleviate suffering. By developing deeper compassion for their own horses, and subsequently, all equines, equestrians transcend their differences in breed preferences, riding disciplines, and training methodologies. This leads to the ability to empathize and connect more closely with the “global collective” of horses and horse people. In doing so, a worldwide community of compassionate equine practitioners and horse owners will emerge, which will not only benefit the horses: People involved with horses are found in many influential segments of society and have the potential to affect wide circles of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers from every walk of life. These are simple changes any horse person can make that can have a vast impact on the horse industry and society as a whole.

Dr. Schoen meets my late dog buddy, Jethro: The magic touch

The Compassionate Equestrian is laden with gems that apply to numerous animals. There is a strong Buddhist tone to the book, and reading it gave me a very warm feeling. I wasn't at all surprised by how much this book touched me. Years ago Dr. Schoen treated my late dog buddy, Jethro, with unbelievable compassion and love (please see "Letting A Friend Go: We Usually Know When It's Time To Say Good-bye"). His mere presence clearly made Jethro (and me) feel very comfortable and Jethro allowed Dr. Schoen to touch him on his back where no one else could go, including me, because touching him there was very painful. I watched with head-shaking incredulity how Dr. Schoen gently talked with -- not to or at -- Jethro about how he was going to touch him and I could feel Jethro almost melt as he focused on him. A few times Jethro looked over to me for assurance, I'm sure, and I simply nodded my head up and down to let Jethro know all is well, Dr. Schoen can be trusted. And, a few minutes after Dr. Schoen touched and kept his hand on Jethro's back, he got up and walked up our dirt road in a springy gait, as he hadn't done in months because of the pain. I remember Jethro kept turning around to look at Dr. Schoen and me with a facial expression that we read as thanks and incredulity -- am I really doing this? The next morning Jethro got up, bounded down the stairs to the front door, looked at me saying something like, "Come on man, I gotta meet my friends," and pranced out of the house as if he hadn't missed a beat. He ran down the road to greet his friends Lolo and Aspen to show them that he was feeling much better, and the three dogs ran around here and there as they had for many previous years. Jethro clearly benefited from Dr. Schoen's magic touch. And, so too did his friends and I. 

These memories make me teary and some parts of The Compassionate Equestrian also brought tears to my eyes. What came to me while reading this fine book is a message that always rings true: You simply cannot be too kind or too nice to other animals who depend on us for their very lives. And, they repay us in countless ways and we just need to be open to the different ways in which they express their heartfelt gratitude. Portrayals of dogs (and other animals) as machines who only act as if they care about others or experience other emotions misrepresent whom these nonhumans truly are, and thank goodness these mechanistic explanations are rapidly dying out -- as they should -- as the comparative database for the cognitive and emotional lives of a wide variety of animals grows almost daily. 

One gem I found especially interesting in The Compassionate Equestrian centers on the question, "Are you taking your stress and tension into the barn and literally 'spooking' your horse?" (p. 113) I've often wondered about this in my studies of dogs and their humans (please see "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks"). Preceding this question are some tips about "Compassionate skills for riding 'playful' and 'spooky' horses." They include patience, curiosity, confidence, and focus. It was precisely this approach that allowed Dr. Schoen to move right into Jethro's heart. I'm often prone to substitute "dogs" in discussions of horses or other animals with whom I'm more unfamiliar, and you can do this as well because The Compassionate Equestrian isn't only about horses. 

Another sidebar I found of great interest is titled "The roots of compassionate equitation" (p. 131). Here, the authors stress the interdisciplinary nature of compassionate equitation that is based on fields such as contemplative neuroscience, quantum physics, and interpersonal neurobiology. Not surprisingly, there also are some simple guides about what causes horses pain and pleasure.

A brief interview with Dr. Schoen

I wanted to learn more about why Dr. Schoen and Susan Gordon wrote their new book, so here is a brief interview with Dr. Schoen.

WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK?

As a veterinarian, I found myself always exploring new ways to help heal animals that did not respond to conventional medical approaches. After over 35 years of developing integrative veterinary medicine, I realized that there are even more comprehensive, expansive approaches to healing. After taking some personal contemplative time out, I found myself integrating the latest research in the neuroscience of compassion and quantum physics with the human animal bond creating a deeper approach to health and healing of all beings.   

The Compassionate Equestrian unfolded through synchronistic meetings with individuals such as my co-author, Susan Gordon, a holistically oriented horse trainer who was on her own journey looking at a broader view of living with and caring for horses. The 25 principles of being a compassionate equestrian are a result of our joint discussions on how to help horses and their humans be ambassadors for helping all beings to be more compassionate, kinder, and happier.

A long answer to a short question, so the book is the next step of my continuous evolution exploring what is ultimate healing. It has come through me as an invitation to horse lovers and all animal lovers to help co-create a more compassionate, healthier, and happier world.

HOW DID YOU COME TO THE CAREER YOU HAVE?

After graduating from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine I was practicing in New England, treating all creatures great and small. I found my passion was to see what I could do to help animals that were not responding to conventional medicine and surgery. This journey led me to exploring and pioneering veterinary acupuncture, botanical medicine, manual therapies such as chiropractic care, and biophoton medicine as well as numerous other complementary approaches. I also realized the incredible healing power of the human animal bond and wrote about that in my previous books such as Kindred Spirits. My career seems to be a continuous exploratory journey developing new approaches to a more expansive view of what ultimate healing is for animals, humans, the environment and the world.

WHAT ARE YOUR MAJOR MESSAGES? ANY OTHER WORDS TO YOUR READERS?

The Compassionate Equestrian is an invitation to all horse lovers to help co-create a more compassionate, kinder, healthier, happier world beginning with themselves, their horses, the equine community and expand that out to society and the world. One message is, as Gandhi says, “be the change you wish to see”.

I am in the midst of finishing a new book with similar insights for dog lovers and all animal lovers.  Together we can all be of incredible benefit in a world that seems to be spiraling deeper into fear and greed. We can be compassionate friends to all beings, creating another alternative, a world based on compassion and loving kindness to all beings, including ourselves. Together, we can be an effective force co-creating a healthier, happier world. Stay tuned for my next book and websites and help co-create a more loving, interconnected, more balanced society.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this landmark book. You can read The Compassionate Equestrian through from cover to cover or skip around. I'm sure you'll return many times to certain sections of the book that are of more interest than others. There are numerous positive lessons deeply rooted in compassion that can help each of us expand our compassion footprint (see also) and rewild our hearts that pertain to our interrelationships with a wide variety of nonhuman beings.

The Compassionate Equestrian could be a game-changer if we take to heart and practice the numerous messages that fill its pages. It is that inspirational. And, it's really not that difficult to be kind and compassionate to the fascinating animal beings with whom we share our magnificent world.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservationWhy dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

The teaser image of Shiloh courtesy of Nina Ekholm Fry.