When I founded Cold Moon Farm LLC in 2015, I created the following Mission Statement:
“Cold Moon Farm is a working horse farm dedicated to promoting the principles of sustainable living, conservation, and the highest standards of compassionate horsemanship.”
For me, compassionate horsemanship lives at the intersection of the following beliefs: the importance of using evidence-based and humane handling, care, and training techniques, whether mounted or unmounted; respecting the horse as an autonomous, sentient being who chooses to comply with human requests but is never obligated to do so; and a strong commitment to doing our best to ensure that every interaction with our horses is positive, respectful, and fair. In addition, compassionate horsemanship includes understanding how the physical and emotional well-being of the people in a horse’s orbit impacts the animal’s care and well-being.
At the time, I had never heard anyone else cite compassionate horsemanship as the bedrock foundation to their practice. What I didn’t know back then was that Allen M. Schoen, DVM, and Susan Gordon had just co-authored a book called The Compassionate Equestrian: 25 Principles to Live by When Caring for and Working With Horsehttps://www.horseandriderbooks.com/store/the-compassionate-equestrian.htmls, published by my friends at Trafalgar Square. In fact, this book wouldn’t cross my path until 2022, and when it finally did, I was pretty floored by the synergy between these authors’ ideas and my own.
As the title implies, The Compassionate Equestrian defines 25 principles underscoring how the act of compassion must affect every action or choice we make around horses and toward each other. Schoen and Gordon discuss ideas ranging from the highly specific (a good rider is a physically fit rider, and a fit rider knows how to slowly condition their horse for peak performance) to the highly esoteric (integrating concepts from Schoen’s Transpecies Field Theory and elements of quantum physics and neurobiology). They discuss individual accountability, and then ask how the collective face of the equine industry might change if everyone involved put compassion forward as our most important and essential concept.
In this blog, I hope to offer just a taste of where my own beliefs and those of the authors intersected. For organizational purposes, I have grouped them into “individual” actions and “collective” actions, but this is pretty simplistic. In reality, even just one individual choosing to begin her journey as a compassionate equestrian will positively impact the collective equestrian community, because she will send ripples of compassion through her every interaction.
After you have reviewed some of these ideas, I am interested to know whether you can recognize an area in which you might shift your thinking, behavior or inner beliefs to embrace “compassion” as the first and most essential quality. How could such a shift make a positive impact on your life? On equestrians in general? Or even on the world at large?
Compassionate Equestrianism—Individual Actions
Ultimately, it is at the personal level where compassionate equestrianism resides. After all, despite our best efforts, we cannot control the behavior or actions of others; in fact, it is hard enough at times to navigate our own way in the world.
Education The compassionate equestrian is on a personal quest to always know better, and to always do better—not because it will earn her better ribbons, or because her barn mates will look up to her more, but because it is the right thing to do for our horses. She understands that the horse’s welfare is of the highest importance at all times, and therefore asks questions when she does not understand, calls it a day when something doesn’t seem quite right, and constantly assesses whether what she is asking of the horse is reasonable and fair. Horses do express their physical or emotional discomfort, but often in ways that are not clear to humans. The compassionate equestrian seeks to become educated enough that she notices her horse’s sometimes subtle signals of distress. When something is off, the compassionate equestrian promptly secures the assistance of qualified, trained professionals to address the issue. In any situation, she decides for herself if what she is asking of her horse is truly in his best interest.
Being Present When we interact with a horse, we expect him to pay attention to us—so it is only fair that we do the same in return. To borrow a concept from my years of yoga practice, the troubles, worries and stresses of our “real lives” will all be waiting for us when we leave the barn. If we do not release them before entering the stable, those distractions will not only impact how we communicate with our horses, they color the interactions we have with everyone in our orbit. They shape our behavior and our responses to challenge. When we arrive at the barn, we need to take time to pause—for however long is necessary—to center our hearts and minds. The compassionate equestrian enters the barn community with the intention of having an open heart and tolerance for those around her.
Controlling our Ego One concept I especially loved from The Compassionate Equestrian (and I will paraphrase here) is that there are two beings living inside each of us—our ego, and our “inner wise-guide”. All of our actions and choices will be driven by one being or the other. Ideally, we learn to follow the energy of our “wise-guide” more than our ego. When we ask our horse to do something for us, we need to know that what we are asking is within his skill set, his fitness level, and is in his best interest. If we are asking for something outside of those parameters, it is likely to satisfy our ego—and this is not the action of a compassionate equestrian. There will be times we make mistakes when it comes to our horses; after all, we are only human. When we follow our egos instead of our wise-guide, causing stress or pain to our horse, or to others around us—we forgive ourselves, and actively work to change as we move forward. Just as it takes a body’s systems years to adapt to the physical demands of increasing levels of performance, it will take time to train our mind to prioritize the wisdom of our wise-guide over the ego’s desire for quick results, rewards, and recognition.
Only when we are able to let go of our own ego can we fully embrace the practice of compassion. For most of us, it will take concerted attention to notice where our motivation is coming from, and to shift away from the demands of our greedy ego. In fact, Gordon writes, “Decreasing the destructive impact of egoic tendencies in a very ego-based business will be one of the biggest challenges to unifying a global community of horse people” (pg. 368).
Compassionate Equestrianism—Collective Actions
Practicing compassion is both a habit and a skill; just like other habits or skills, we get better at it the more we do it. It is most difficult to practice compassion when circumstances are challenging, so it is important to cultivate compassion during routine occurrences every day, until it becomes a comfortable and familiar way of navigating the world.
What would this look like in practice? For starters, we can celebrate everyone’s victories, whether or not they seem significant to us. Smile and say to them, with genuine positive energy, “I am happy for you.” Do the best you can, to the best of your ability, in every action you undertake. If someone offers unsolicited feedback, assume their good intent.
For professional equestrians especially, the horse industry can test a commitment to compassion. When clients are making demands, or bills are coming due, or a top horse has had to be sold, the unrelenting pressures can make even the kindest human turn hard. These challenges can lead to burnout and unhealthy coping mechanisms, or even cause equestrians to question why they got involved in the industry in the first place.
And so, I will argue here that it is perhaps toward these most stressed, challenged or embittered equestrians that individuals must attempt to direct the greatest amount of compassionate energy. For our own protection, being compassionate doesn’t mean that we must keep ourselves or our horses within their orbit. But we can still project toward them, in Schoen’s words, “loving-kindness” and the sentiment, “I wish you well.”
Additionally, we must remember that no one is at their best, all of the time. When an equestrian is scared, or angry, she will behave in a self-protective way toward her horse and others around her. When she is naïve, inexperienced, or uneducated (as we all are at some point in our equestrian journey), there is an overload of information available at her fingertips, and she may not know whose wisdom to turn to. We all must hold the belief that the majority of equestrians want what’s best for their horse. As professionals, it is our duty to present them with the most current, evidence-based information, and help them to determine the best path forward, for them. Further, we have a duty to work to prevent harm, when it is within our power to do so—essentially an equestrian version of the Hippocratic Oath. To quote directly from The Compassionate Equestrian, we ask, “What is the most compassionate way to meet the needs of the horse and the capabilities of the rider?”
Finally, as a compassionate equestrian community, we must commit to collectively caring for all equines, at all stages of their lives. This would look like an industry committed to ensuring there is a home for every animal it produces; that every equine is provided with humane care and living conditions that allow them to thrive at all stages of life; that every equine, from an early age, is handled and trained so that a lifetime of safe interactions with humans are possible. When the quality of an animal’s life has declined to a point where they are always in pain, or are at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, or are otherwise not able to express the natural qualities inherent to being a horse, a compassionate equestrian community will ensure their humane transition. In a compassionate equestrian community, these actions are the expectation, not the experience only of those horses lucky enough to “fall into the right hands”. A compassionate equestrian community holds its own members accountable, whether they are a backyard hobbyist or top competitor.
With compassion at the core of all equestrian activities and pursuits, we can expect to evolve into a community that shows respect for its members, honors individual responsibility, and unifies the diverse interests of equestrians across disciplines, breeds, and skill levels.