The Buddha was once asked by a disciple, “Would it be true to say that a part of our training is for the development of love and compassion?” The Buddha replied, “No, it would not be true to say this. It would be true to say that the whole of our training is for the development of love and compassion.”
I would love to one day see the horse world take on this same vow. How great would it be if the whole of training was for the development of love and compassion?
Love and compassion are the basis for nonviolence. I believe that if we want true happiness, we must cultivate inner peace through nonviolence in our thoughts, words, and actions. There is no better place to learn nonviolence than in the barn. The lessons learned with your horse will ripple through your life and create miraculous changes. Below are six ways that you can focus on a nonviolent relationship with your horse.
Given that this is one of the building blocks of nonviolence, it makes sense to start with this value. My favorite definition of compassion is the desire to alleviate pain or suffering in another being. What happens when you look at riding and training through this lens?
There are a lot of traditional methods, tools, and ideas that do not fall within the realm of compassion. A major focus of horsemanship is on getting horses to do as we please rather than ensuring that they do not suffer in the process. Everything from keeping horses in stalls, to using a bit, falls into question when you have a desire to relieve suffering.
Take the time to consider what you are doing through the eyes of your horse. Is your horse experiencing any pain or suffering? Think about this from a mental-emotional perspective as well as the physical aspects. If your horse is exhibiting vices or behavioral issues, consider what is really going on under the surface.
In addition, look for ways to cultivate self-compassion. In what ways, if any, are you experiencing pain or suffering at the barn? Are you being kind to yourself? Are you honoring your emotions?
Compassion will help to guide you in your decisions and behaviors. Be kind to yourself in your thoughts and kind to others in your actions.
Connection points back to the other pillar of nonviolence – love. Love can, at times, be a hard concept to grasp. There are so many flavors of this emotion that it may be hard to identify exactly what that means. Connection, on the other hand, may be a bit easier to grasp. Connection indicates a relationship in which the connected parts are interdependent.
When you come together as a team with your horse, you are both relying on the other. Your experience of your relationship is intertwined with that of your horse’s. Together you must create a strong bond based on loving kindness, respect, and trust. The connection that you have is the glue for everything that you do with your horse.
It is important to consider this connection whenever you make a decision on your horse’s behalf. Every time you ask something of your horse or interact with your horse is an opportunity to either strengthen or weaken the bond that you have. To interact with nonviolence, you must make love your number one priority.
Consider the connection that you have with your horse. How strong is it? Are your intentions and actions helping you to bond? Or are your actions creating a harmful effect?
If you are to make love your number one priority, then you must not act out of fear. A Course in Miracles teaches that there are only two emotional states – love and fear. When fear creeps into your connection, it is easy to lash out in violent behavior. Fear is a very powerful emotion that can lead to strong actions and reactions.
Confidence is something that must be cultivated in both horse and human. Your horse’s negative behavior – like bucking or spooking – often stems from a lack of confidence in your horse. Just as your fear can lead to lashing out, the horse’s fear also leads to behavior that could be interpreted as violent. While your horse may not be intentionally trying to harm you, behavior stemming from fear can be very harmful.
In relationship, confidence looks like trust in your partner and your own ability. The amount of confidence that you and your horse exhibit shows the pulse of your connection. Building confidence takes time, but it is absolutely necessary for the success and enjoyment of your partnership.
Do you ever act out of fear? Are those behaviors nonviolent, loving, and compassionate? If not, what could you do differently?
How about your horse? Does your horse have confidence? Could you help him to build greater confidence and trust in your relationship?
While composure may seem to be very similar to confidence, I feel that there is a big difference. Composure is the ability to stay calm no matter what. Composure goes beyond overcoming fear and developing trust. It is the quality to fall back on when things are not going your way or when you feel under pressure.
In the barn, things happen. Sometimes everything seems to unravel before your very eyes. How do you handle that change, disappointment, or frustration? Having composure means that your anger and frustration does not get the best of you when things are not turning out as you had planned.
One of the major areas that we see violence in the horse world is due to a lack of composure. We see it when a rider hits a horse who refused to jump a fence or when a horse is a little too up and his rider pulls hard on the reins. Our emotions can get the best of us at times and that emotional response can lead to behavior that causes your horse pain and harms your relationship.
How much composure do you have in the barn? Do you ever lose your temper? Do you get frustrated and take it out on your horse? What could you do differently?
Good communication is absolutely key to nonviolent horsemanship. There are ways that we can manage our horses that cause pain and suffering, but most of the violence with horses comes through riding and training. Riding and training are both based on communicating with your horse through various natural and artificial aids. Your goal is to teach your horse to respond to your communication.
It is through these communication tools and techniques that you can create a strong connection, or a living hell, for your horse. When you lose your confidence or composure it is communicated through strong aids and body language. A lot of the time, the problem begins with poor communication and is then exacerbated with punishing communication.
You can learn to interact with your horse in a compassionate manner that allows for two-way understanding and respect. There is no need to be so strong in your body language and aids. I equate that to yelling at your horse rather than communicating in a strong, but loving way.
How clear is your communication with your horse? Do you ever shout at your horse through strong or harsh aids? What ways could you improve your communication to strengthen your partnership?
Violence is all about the use of force. I often see horses being forced to comply with human demands. Whatever form of control we use, a lot of training is an act of violence. Whether it is physical force and pain or more subtle forms of manipulation, coercion, and dominance, we do not often stop to ask for consent from our horses.
Traditionally, we communicate our desires, and then punish or reward our horse based on their response. This means that what we are asking is not a request – it is a demand. To have a truly nonviolent relationship, you cannot make demands of your horse. Instead, you must find a way to build a strong connection and then communicate with your horse your desires to interact. Your horse must be able to say yes or no.
If your horse is not giving you permission, then it is an act of violence to take what you want. Most horses will choose to work with humans when there is compassion, connection, confidence, composure, and communication in place. Not all horses will agree. Those that do agree may say otherwise at times. It is up to us to listen and work in harmony with the horses in our care.
Do you ever steal a ride on your horse when he is clearly indicating that he would prefer you to not climb on his back? In what ways have you manipulated, coerced, or bribed your horse to do something that you desired? Do you think it is possible to have a consensual relationship with your horse?
Start to look through the lens of nonviolence when you are at the barn. The above Cs will help you to remember what makes for an amazing relationship with your horse. When you follow these guiding principles, you will be amazed at how your horse responds over time.