Stormy May Interview
One With Horses - Chapter 2
Choosing to ride or not to ride
Stormy May was a horse trainer, riding instructor and competition judge until the day she realized that somewhere she had gone off course. She made a choice to leave behind the life she knew. She sold her ranch, bought a video camera and plane tickets and set out on her odyssey to find a different way of doing things.
The result was the highly acclaimed film The Path of the Horse (2008). The documentary was part of Stormy’s vision to help people understand horses at deeper levels so they could end conflict in their relationships, communicate compassionately, and experience peace. I was invited by friends to a screening of the film when it first came out and it gave me clear answers to many of my questions about traditional horse methods. Ten years later, I emailed Stormy May requesting an interview with her for this book. She graciously accepted and this is the conversation we had.
STORMY: Why do we want to be with horses? What are we doing here together?
STORMY: If you had to choose one, which is most important to you: riding horses or being somebody who understands and respects the horse’s wisdom and can communicate compassionately?
I wanted both of those. To be able to ride and also be a compassionate person who understands and respects the horse’s wisdom. For many years I searched the world for ways to ride bridle-less and saddle-less. I figured that was the best test of a horse being a completely willing partner.
I tried different ways to develop that connection. I needed to prioritize the relationship and learn how to tell if the horse was freely choosing to be ridden. What I found was that most horses would typically say “no” if I gave them a real choice with no consequences.
Faced with this revelation that harmonious connections with horses weren’t necessarily going to involve riding or training, other things started falling into place. I realized that this whole riding and training struggle was based on me believing that this was the best way to relate to a horse. When I was really honest with myself, I realized I didn’t come up with the idea, I mimicked others who did it.
When I became able to empathize more with the horse’s perspective, I saw that those years spent developing my training techniques were more of a distraction from what I was really searching for which was peace and harmony with horses and in all of my relationships. I saw that the world doesn’t need more trained horses. The inhabitants of the world need to be fed, to be safe and to be happy.
We, humans, need to learn how to satisfy our own needs so that we aren’t looking to our animals, to our family or to our governments to fix things for us. We need to learn to be okay within ourselves. Once we find that, all the rest of our relationships with others, including horses, won’t be harmful because we don’t need others to be different to make us okay. We don’t need to manipulate. Why would you even need to put a halter on a horse if you don’t need the horse to go somewhere for you?
LISA: When you take it that far, do you feel like you have any answers?
STORMY: Yeah, absolutely. I have found a path that, on a daily basis, enables me to feel fulfilled and joyful in the moment. Enjoying these moments with my animal family and with my human family is my thing! What I’m working on right now is developing great relationships, deep understanding and compassion with whomever I’m with.
I’ll give you a metaphor. You know when somebody is driving around in a car and another driver does something they see as dangerous, and the first driver gets upset inside their own head? We call it road rage. If you really look at the situation, the first driver doesn’t know why that second driver did that thing, they really have no idea. When we get upset about someone else’s behavior, the one we hurt is ourselves and possibly our passengers. In our lives, we’re driving around in our own heads -- mad, upset or frustrated. We can’t get our partner to do this or our horse to do that.
The way out is to know yourself and to understand that the root of the problem is in yourself. The other person or the other horse is just doing what they are doing. To be at peace with the moment and with yourself, you have to start with being at peace with what is.
If my horse doesn’t pick up her feet, getting mad is one way to deal with it. Maybe I’ve seen the farrier do something in that situation that looks like getting mad, but maybe there’s somebody else who can do it differently. If a good relationship is your end goal, you’re going to have to experiment and try a lot of different ways of being with each other.
For me, I had to start with no restraints. If you’re restraining somebody to be together, you aren’t developing trust and respect. That’s rule number one: a horse has to come of their own free will. Not because you’re bribing them with food, unless it’s an emergency and you really need to catch them. But if you’re working on your relationship, you have to do it with no restraints. Not even a small space. Preferably, as large an area as you can have, and then ask the horse if he or she wants to be with you. If you’re still asking how you will end up riding, you’re missing the moment. Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t. That isn’t part of developing a relationship. Maybe it develops that way and maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re developing a relationship so that you can ride, you’re not taking into consideration that the deeper you understand the horse, you may come to understand that the horse doesn’t want to be ridden. It’s a unique exploration.
LISA: This is very different from the traditional horse world perspective. Many people may have a hard time letting go of the idea of riding or the goals they have. The hardest part might be for them to let go and be with what is.
STORMY: When you talk about it like you’re going to have to give up something, that’s not it. That’s not the path.
For me, it was not giving up anything to stop riding. It was a relief! It was a feeling of finally being able to be friends with horses without being aware, in the back of my mind, that what I was doing was hurting and exploiting them. I wasn’t giving anything up. I realized it was a little voice in my head that was trying to convince me, “They aren’t valuable if they can’t be ridden.” It’s what I had been taught. Maybe they do have a value if they’re not ridden and that’s what I wanted to find out.
I discovered that our connection was night and day different once I didn’t need anything or want anything from them, other than to support them being safe and feeling good in their bodies. So much has changed from me seeing myself and getting to the core of what I want with horses. And now, all I want is for them to be happy and as healthy as possible, and for me, too. How can we both be happy together? There are things that they like that I do and there are things that I like that they do.
I would estimate two percent of riding, as it’s done today, is not physically and mentally harming the horse. Ninety-eight percent of riding that’s done today, that I’ve seen, is traumatizing the horse physically and/or mentally. Most people don’t realize that. I didn’t realize it for thirty years. I didn’t realize the extent of what was happening. Now that I do, I certainly wouldn’t want to go there again. I’m not giving anything up. Everything is coming into harmony and alignment because I’m seeing things as they are.
Would you saddle and bridle your best friend and ride her around? No! You just wouldn’t do that! Maybe you get a piggyback ride for two minutes, but that’s it.
LISA: What do you think the role of the horse is now? A friend, a partner, an equal being? In this increasingly urban environment, there aren’t many open plains for them to run free. The land is being encroached on by the human population and the Bureau of Land Management is culling wild horses.
STORMY: I can hear that your belief is that there is not enough space for them. In reality, there is land that could support all the horses that are alive today. Maybe if we controlled breeding for a while, that could be enough to sustain them. Of course, it would be cruel to turn out some horses who have been born and raised in captivity to an environment they are not used to. I’m not saying to turn them all free.
Let’s provide them with the next bigger living arrangement. Make it a nice place for them, just as if they were your relatives and they need a place to live. That’s why I’m involved with creating sanctuary.
There are sanctuaries for wild horses and semi-wild horses. I’ve travelled to these places all over the world: France, Poland, Norway, Canada, USA. There are herds I know about in Argentina and Germany. It’s wonderful to see what people are doing with the resources they have. We can’t beat ourselves up for not having it good enough for the horses. We can know that we’re doing our best to give the horses more than they’ve been used to while still maintaining a safe living environment for everyone. We are their guardians.
We have to take responsibility for the lives that we’ve created. I’m talking about the horses who have been bred and born in captivity. As a true horse lover, you want the best for them. That’s where people are stuck because they don’t realize the extent of physical and emotional harm that we are doing. Who are we to breed them, hold them captive, tell them where they’re going to live, how much space they’re going to have and what they’re going to eat? It’s very controlling.
Humans have control issues. We want the easy, immediate, close way to have horses at our disposal. We want the convenience of not letting them roam, rather than time roaming with them and cultivating ourselves to be the kind of creature they would choose to be near.
The important piece we need to find is how we can cultivate mutual enjoyment and discover what they are teaching us that improves our way of being human. We, too, have a mammalian nervous system that needs space, roaming, freedom, respectful connections and the ability to “go away” physically while maintaining our own mental awareness rather than “checking out” or “learned helplessness” in order to “stay” physically contained, but not truly be cognitively/emotionally/sensorily ‘present’ in our environments that are also highly controlled, manipulated, and artificial. That’s why I think The Path of the Horse documentary is so powerful because it shows you exactly what it looks like when you pull on a bit, and what it looks like when you take a thermogram or ultrasound after a horse has been ridden. It’s clear there’s damage being done.
For some people that’s okay, people eat animals. But who are you to ask that of the animal? Basically, you ask them to give you their health and wellbeing, so that you can do your thing. Maybe some horses would let you ride them. If you still want to ride, I’d recommend doing it without a saddle or a bridle, in a big open field, and see how it goes. Give the horse a fair chance to express himself and then go for it. I spent years doing that and it was really fun. I had one horse, out of all the horses that I had been working with, that said, “Sure, get on, let’s go!” If he’d get too fast, I’d jump off and he’d stop and wait for me to get back on again. That’s what I mean when I mention the two percent who are doing it without harm. They are out in a big field, the horse has all their needs met, and then the human is meeting them and coming into relationship and seeing if they can create an enjoyable experience for both horse and human.
Another thing I’ve seen is that people discover an even deeper relationship when they don’t use treats.
LISA: Don’t you think horses enjoy treats?
STORMY: Sure, and they enjoy massages, they enjoy rivers and ponds, having free roam. There’s so much we can give them that they enjoy.
I used to give treats all the time. For training, it typically works. But then, some of my friends stopped giving treats and reported that the level of harmony in the herd was better. So, I decided to experiment and I stopped giving treats for a month or two at a time, and I realized that with the treats comes this high level of anxiety.
It brings a whole other conversation that’s not normally present in a horse’s conversation. A horse doesn’t bring another horse treats. They might be grazing together where there’s nice grass, but that’s different.
They still get everything they need. I may give them apples and I’ll throw them all over the pasture. But I’m careful with that because the high sugar content is not necessarily good for their diet. People often give treats because they think they are helping the horse, but it might be hurting the horse depending on what else the horse is eating and other physiological factors.
The work I do with horses starts with the basic needs of the horse being met. He or she has friends, enough room to exercise to be healthy, enough food to eat all the time, access to clean water all the time and then I just bring myself. Then I discover what the horse wants with me. It’s not about treats. They like scratches, they like standing together quietly swishing flies, they like me to investigate things that they’re worried about. Sometimes there will be a noise in the grass, or a smell, and I’ll walk up to it and check it out and let them know if it’s okay or not. I might know that a gate has been opened, so I’ll walk with them and lead them over to where they can now go. I’ll help them explore what they are curious about.
LISA: What would you do if you had a horse who had trust issues, perhaps a racehorse off the track? To help them to feel safe and enjoy being around you after they’ve had a lot of trauma, carrots can be so helpful. They love them! It makes them realize that you’re not coming to do something to them, but you’re offering them something nice that they’ll enjoy. It shifts their head a little bit. I understand what you’re saying, but maybe I’m attached to feeding carrots!
STORMY: You’d have to try it. Try going a month without giving them carrots. Still give them carrots if you want them to have them for their diet, but give them in a bucket with their feed. Experiment with not giving carrots when you go out to see them. Then you’ll see if they’re coming for you or if they are coming for the carrots.
If you want them to come for you, then you have to be attractive whether or not you have carrots. Even some of the top trainers are using carrots. Horses like to be around carrots! Especially when you’re not asking them to do anything too bad, they’ll agree to give you a ride for a carrot. But you can’t stop the exploration there. Would you give me a ride even if I didn’t have carrots? Separate the carrots from the relationship and see what happens. I wouldn’t have known what would happen until I tried it.
I still give them treats very occasionally, but most of the time when I’m out there with them, there’s nothing else. And they aren’t looking to me for that. It feels good, it feels like we are enjoying each other’s company. We are all showing up with our beings, rather than our craving for treats.
LISA: So once all the horses’ needs are met, what’s in it for them? Can you explore how we can support them rather than exploit them?
STORMY: It can be as practical as taking care of their feet. Are their feet in good shape or do they need attention? Is there a burr in their tail that needs to be removed? Are they having chewing problems? You look at them like you look at your dog. How can I make you healthier? Are you eating a healthy diet?
You have to drop the idea of ‘what’s in it for me?’ It’s not like I want you to be healthy so we can go on rides. That part just drops away. If you feel like you’re giving up riding, it’s too soon. You have to keep doing it until you’re ready to find a more harmonious relationship.
Just like with the carrots, you have to keep giving carrots until you want to try something else. When you’re ready to try something else, try it without carrots and see what happens. I have no judgement or conflict with the way anybody is doing anything with horses. They are holding their own experiments. Most people are following the big names, the textbooks, the videos and that’s fine.
If you want to experience something different, tell me where you’re at and I’ll tell you the next thing to try based on the exploration that I’ve been on and the fact that I’m in harmony in my relationships with horses and humans now.
We humans work hard and we save up for these expensive vacations so that we can go and relax and just be. It was my work to figure out how we can have this wonderful ‘being’ vacation with horses by enjoying them being horses. It’s like going to a wild horse preserve to marvel at wild horses being wild. You go to the sanctuary to be with these former working horses who have been enslaved in one way or another, and now see them being respected, loved, listened to and related to in a very kind and compassionate way.
I want to be kind and compassionate. That’s who I want to be. If I am being that in my relationship with them, then that’s what I experience in my life. It wasn’t there, to that degree, when I was riding and training. Certainly, people would send horses to me because I was the gentle horse trainer, but there’s a whole other level when you honestly consider what is in the horse’s best interest versus what do I want or what am I looking for.
LISA: Does the idea of calling yourself a horse trainer make you cringe now?
STORMY: Oh yeah, there’s no training at all anymore. It’s completely relationship-based. Of course, I still work on their feet or have the vet do their teeth. It’s not training, it’s a relationship. I ask for what I need, we make an arrangement and we work it out. Each interaction is unique because every horse is an individual and every moment is new.
I teach this way of being to others in a course called ‘Compassionate Communication with Horses.’ It’s a way to become awake, become aware, become present to what you’re doing, moment by moment, whether you’re with a horse or in the rest of your life so you can start to see what’s really going on versus the stories we make up about what’s going on.
When I’m with the horses, it’s great because they are so present most of the time. When I’m with them, I’m forced to stay in extended periods of presence, which then takes me out of my stories and into the wonder of the moment with whatever’s happening. This is why I love taking pictures and videos because I open to the beauty of what’s right here. It doesn’t even have to be a sunset, it can just be the light on a flower or the curve of a tree. It’s all so delightful because I’m really in the present moment, noticing what’s around me which is what gets lost when you have an agenda of what you have to do.
I befriend horses. I consider myself a horse advocate, speaking out for horses to have full rights to express themselves and live fulfilled lives. That’s what I do now. The magic of this is that it’s what most of us wanted as children who loved horses. And, it’s what we want out of being with people, too. It’s so simple. So available. Yet, so covered up by these other ways that are habitual and conditioned in our society. We can find the freedom to introduce something that the heart already knows it’s been looking for ever since it first started forgetting to just “be” and “explore” with curiosity and simplicity. Good medicine, in a world that needs it!
LISA: If you could change anything in the horse world, what would it be?
STORMY: I would have every person who works with horses feel complete empathy for the horses they’re working with. There’s a great book called Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke. It’s a science fiction book about a higher race of beings that comes down to earth. They go to a bullfight. In this bullfight, the matador goes to stick the spear into the bull and as he sticks the spear into the bull, everybody in the whole stadium feels the spear going into themselves. And that was the end of bullfighting. If you could feel it, you wouldn’t do it. In the same way, you wouldn’t ride your friend if you knew it was causing them pain. That would do it!
LISA: How can you help people to shift their thinking enough to entertain the ideas you’re presenting, and make the change you mention, to have total empathy for horses, all animals and the entire planet?
STORMY: The first, quickest, easiest thing is to watch The Path of the Horse. I’m so blessed that it turned out the way it did and touched so many people the way I hoped. Take an hour out of your life and watch it. If you’ve already watched it, see if you can get yourself in that space, where you can feel what’s happening to the horses in the video. Take it in. That creates the desire for something different. Until you’re feeling like you can’t go on like this anymore, you’re not going to be willing to change. You’re going to keep getting frustrated that you’re not getting what you wanted.
I’ve created a course to help people in this transition. It’s a combination of the best exercises I’ve found based on years of personal practice and the latest findings in neuropsychology that teach us how to essentially rewire our brains to find peace within ourselves and our relationships. When you come to peace within yourself, you will have peaceful, compassionate relationships with everything.
This is the answer: see myself now. If I’m not happy or if I’m that road-raging driver inside my head, I can fix it. Thank goodness there is something I can change and it’s my thoughts about what’s going on right now.
If you’re not happy and feeling unfulfilled with who you are right now, more stuff isn’t going to do it. What are we humans searching for? To have an awesome experience in life. Part of that is helping others have an awesome experience in life. So, when we can help horses have an awesome experience in life, we become more fulfilled. We find peace because we’re doing what we, humans, are here to do, which is to enjoy nature and help each other.
LISA: What important truth do most people disagree with you on?
STORMY: The thing that people have the hardest time hearing from me is that 98% of what we do with horses is hurting them mentally and physically. And if we’re hurting our horses, we’re hurting ourselves.
Whether or not we can feel it or are aware of it, we are likely to have a hurting, traumatized horse. What many of the veterinary schools are dealing with is healing horses from human-induced ailments and injuries. What trainers are doing is trying to heal the horses from human-induced mental and physical traumas.
Again, I’m not saying that it’s wrong. I’m just saying it is what it is. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. Just like I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat cheese. Do what you do. But, if you want something different, if you want to feel better, if you want to feel more in alignment with the planet and your horse, try doing something different and see what happens.
LISA: Once I saw the thermographic images of the ridden horse showing the hot spots, in red and orange, where the pressure of the saddle and rider was, compared with the images of the non-ridden healthy horse showing a cool, totally blue back, it became clear that the rider’s weight on the horse’s back causes damage. [Thermal image to be included]
STORMY: I didn’t know for myself if riding hurt horses, so I took a challenge: “Don’t ride for a year and see what happens.” It was only one horse that I didn’t ride for that year. For some period of that time, I was still riding other horses. Ultimately, I rode less and less because I saw my relationship change when I wasn’t riding. Mostly, my relationship with myself. I was liking myself a lot more. I was having more enjoyable times with the horse and myself on the ground than I was riding. Just try it. Then you don’t have to say whether you’re going to ride again or not. You won’t know unless you try it for yourself.
When I stopped, it was with the hope of riding again in a year and thinking it would be great. I did start getting on again with no saddle and no bridle, and it was great. It was wonderful. But ultimately, with that, I’ve done it, I don’t need to keep doing it. There’s nothing wrong with that exploration but I was just done with it. Now I have more time to work on human relationships. It takes a lot of time to develop that kind of relationship with a horse.
LISA: What brings you the most joy when you are working with or interacting with horses now?
STORMY: One thing that’s fun is when we’re just walking together because we both want to go to the same place. I feel like I’m part of the herd and they trust and know me, and they know I’m not going to hurt them or lead them off course. They know if they stick with me, things are going to go well. Sometimes it’s just sharing physical space together.
We have a trampoline in the pasture. I’ll lie on the trampoline and the horses will all be gathered around it just swishing flies and being still. It’s the ultimate meditation in nature with these huge horses who can be so still and peaceful. It’s the antidote for modern stress, timelines and agendas. Enjoying horses being horses is what brings me the most pleasure. And being able to be of service to that happening in the world.
LISA: It sounds like your work with the horses has progressed into human personal development.
STORMY: That’s the key! When we develop ourselves, we have more empathy, we have more compassion, we stop hurting others because we’ve stopped hurting ourselves. That’s the direction for anybody who wants to progress: work on yourself. Yes, it might be called ‘Compassionate Communication with Horses,’ but it’s actually ‘work on yourself.’
Get out of your own way so you can experience the joy, lightness and beauty that’s around you in this moment. This is what people are looking for. I healed enough within myself that I didn’t need to spend all my time with horses. Now I can have fulfilling human relationships and the horse can be a horse. Everybody’s happy.
LISA: That’s the point isn’t it? That everyone is happy.
STORMY: Exactly. That’s what we’re all looking for, whether we admit it or not. So why not learn directly how to be happy and then you don’t need the horse to do anything. The horse can be a horse.