The Darkside of the Olympics for Horses
One With Horses
Chapter 1: Perspective
Reshaping Our Beliefs
The Disillusioned Dream
It happened on a Tuesday during the worst week of my life. An unexpected time for an epiphany. Everything around me was crumbling. My once perfect relationship was disintegrating in a flurry of abuse. Depression had locked its brutal claws on me from head to toe. As an American living in Australia, I felt alone with no secure sense of home. Yep, this was not the best Tuesday.
But I did have something that I knew would never let me down. Something that had always saved me during tough times in the past. A world I understood better than my own. Horses. And on this Tuesday I was photographing top equestrians during an Olympic training clinic. As my camera clicked away, the power and majesty of these graceful creatures distracting me from my woes, something began to happen through my viewfinder. A moment of awakening. I saw, as if for the first time, the pain, stress and abuse these beloved horses were enduring.
Over the next week, I couldn't get away from thinking about the images I had captured. The horse who had sliced his belly open jumping over the arena fence shifted in my mind from suffering a momentary lapse of concentration to bearing the consequences of a desperate attempt to escape. The white-lathered foam streaming from the mouth and nose of another was no longer the result of simple exertion, but the manifestation of misery. And there was the mare who was dangerously overheating because stress had shut down her ability to perspire. I realised the way I had viewed the human/horse relationship was completely and shockingly wrong. I felt sick. There had to be another way. Must be. A better way to connect with horses in a meaningful way without making their lives miserable.
After seeing the pain, stress and injury these horses endured, there was no way I could continue on the path I had been following. It contradicted my whole reason for being with horses in the first place. It seemed insane that this could be happening. I didn’t have the expertise that the Olympic equestrians had, but what I did have was common sense and compassion. I could plainly see the anguish in the horses’ eyes.
Why couldn’t the other riders see what I could see? Was it because their perspective was skewed by the investment they had made in reaching a particular goal? Was it because they were so heavily invested in the status quo that they had no desire for change? If your whole life is geared towards riding and training horses and you are committed to achieving a goal such as going to the Olympics, you need to be heavily invested in a certain outcome. This risks you becoming blind to the negative effects of your actions. You are, in a way, brainwashed to that way of thinking. Perhaps you are being trained by the best instructors in the world and are spending a huge amount of financial and energetic resources. You are being shown how to do things from people who are authorities. Maybe they are Olympic gold medalists themselves.
Was there another way? That’s what I wanted to find out. My search led me to John Chatterton. A natural horseman living in Australia. John showed me the secrets of bonding with horses without domination. He began to chip at my traditional notions of horsemanship. He showed me another way of connection between horse and human through communication, allowance, patience and non-judgement. There was no turning back. I continued to develop knowledge and skill. Eventually, I discovered Stormy May, whose film The Path of the Horse introduced me to Alexander Nevzorov and Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. They proved that it was possible to ride at an exceptionally high level with no gear at all.
For the next 16 years, I trained with numerous coaches and mentors. I was able to differentiate between masters and showmen. I saw many wannabe gurus peddling their natural horsemanship clinics, books and DVDs promoting methods even more violent than the worst dressage techniques. I called it ‘natural horsemanshit’ and I could smell it from a mile away. Separating the wheat from the chaff, I sifted through many approaches and so-called ‘experts’ until I found the most gifted teachers with incredible insight into the practice of compassionate horsemanship.
And then something surprising began to occur. What started as a search for practical application and new principles of horsemanship, transformed into a journey of life lessons. In combination with the wisdom learned from the horses, I realised the perspective and qualities that improved our experience with horses could affect every other aspect of life. The conversations I had with top horse experts revealed common themes of compassionate connection with horses and all animals, of expanding our awareness, and of the way nature is guiding us towards conscious evolution.
For me, the first step was a shift in perspective. This was brought home when I asked Level III Instructor Sandra Pearson Adams, who has spent a lifetime with horses and performed at a very high level, how we know if we’re on the right track to enhancing a horse’s life. She said, “I don’t think we really do enhance a horse’s life. I think what we do is we take over the responsibility of him finding food and we look after his health. But I don’t think a horse wakes up each morning thinking, ‘Goodness me, she’s not getting me to the Olympics, I’ll have to change my owner.’”
It was time to question what I had thought was the normal way of doing things.
The Parable of the Roast
A little girl was watching her mother prepare a roast for the oven, carefully cutting the ends off both sides before placing it in the pan. The girl asked, "Why do you cut the ends off, mom?" And her mother replied, "Because my mother taught me how to cook and this is the way she did it." So the next time the little girl saw her grandmother, she asked, "Grandmother, why do you cut the ends off the roast before putting it in the oven?" And her grandmother replied, "Because that's the way my mother showed me how to do it." Luckily, the little girl's great grandmother was still alive and the little girl went to visit her. The girl asked her great grandmother the same question and her great grandmother said, "Because many, many years ago, we only could afford a small oven. I had a pan that fitted inside it perfectly, but it was a wee bit small for a roast. So I always had to cut the ends off to make it fit." "Aah," said the little girl. "Now I understand. Mother and grandmother just did it exactly as you had done. They learned how but forgot to ask why."
My training had taught me how and now I was asking why? Why do I want to ride? Why do I use a bit? Why do I put shoes on my horses? Why do I keep them in a stable? Why do I spend my very limited time here on Earth doing so many things on autopilot? Why was I taught so many things that I now feel are incorrect?
It’s easy to take on what we are taught by our culture, by our schools, by our parents and teachers without question. When I spoke with Stormy May, she emphasised the importance of questioning our motivations:
Why do we want to be with horses? What are we doing here together? 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 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 hadn’t come up with that idea, I had mimicked others.
That’s what I was doing, mimicking others. I was cutting off the ends of the roast because that’s what others had taught me. What did I really want? I wanted connection; and to achieve that, I had to re-evaluate what I was doing and what I believed.
Releasing a belief system is a whole process in itself. Each time I’ve upgraded my beliefs, it feels like I have lifted the veil on a lie I’ve been fed. I’ve realised I have taken on society’s ideas of what is ‘normal’ without investigating the consequences. I haven’t seen what has previously been invisible to me – my cultural blind spots. One of horses’ many gifts is that they can lay bare our unconscious assumptions, increasing our awareness of ourselves and our behaviours.
I began to question everything. Why do horses need to be ridden with a bit and a whip, or even ridden at all? Why do I have to go to school, get good grades, go to university, get a good job, make money, buy a house, have children and then teach them to do the same thing? I realised what I had been told wasn’t necessarily true and it wasn’t the only way. My first reaction was anger. Yet I had to move on from the anger to look at my choices. What would I like to do? What’s the alternative? Maybe another option is better. Maybe I want to do things differently to what I was taught.
Finding what works for you requires deep exploration. Our hopes and dreams are often thwarted by obstacles. When you come up against an obstacle, whether with a horse or in your own life, at some point you have a choice to create a new possibility. I have found that the most difficult horses and most challenging life situations, the ones that have rocked me to the core, are the exact situations I needed to experience in order to grow. This is not necessarily easy. I often encourage my clients to continue working with a difficult or traumatised horse because those horses are the ones that stretch them into becoming more skilled and more compassionate. The trick is to fall in love with the obstacle.
When everything falls apart and nothing is working, if you’re willing to let go, you will create space for the new. Although we don’t have the power to change anything outside ourselves, we do have the power to change how we see a situation, to see apparent negativity as an opportunity to grow. Oftentimes it's easier to see the benefit in hindsight. The choice we make in each moment is to evolve and expand, or to stay stuck and contracted.
Most people say they want a connection with horses. What I've learned is that connection occurs in the apparent nothingness of each moment. It’s not striving, it’s not doing, it’s spending relaxing time together without an agenda. Nobody can learn or connect in a state of survival or anxiety. The stressed horses at that Olympic dressage trial could not learn or connect. When there is expectation towards a certain outcome, then there is a tension that makes it impossible to attain connection or oneness. We need to drop the expectations and shift our perspective to see what’s really happening.
Michael Bevilacqua, author of Beyond the Dream Horse and Senior Representative for Nevzorov Haute Ecole, had this to share:
I try to see what's in front of me. We often have many preconceived notions and we can miss so much. We can see things that are in front of us that are not there and vice versa. I try not to have any biases. I let people say what they have to say and let things unfold the way they are happening. I try to soak it in and take it in the moment, the way that it is. It slows me down and helps me to see what's really happening. Before, I used to have a very hectic life. I was very ambitious. The horses helped slow life down which has allowed me to see many things around me that I hadn't even noticed before.
Wisdom from the Horses
Perspective is the first step toward transforming our relationship with horses. When you let go of using restraints and allow horses the freedom to choose, you are also free to see the truth of what is happening. We then have a choice: do we carry on in the same way we've always done and get the same results, or do we listen to what the horses are telling us and discover another way of being that leads us straight to the essence of what we desire?
I've learned from the horses that they are equal spiritual beings. The viewpoint that humans are superior is not necessarily true. What makes humans superior to all other species? If anything, we have caused the most damage. So the idea of controlling others, which was taught to me by my culture, is opposite to my current understanding. This is the great unravelling, a total reassessment of the teachings of mainstream society that have been handed down for generations.
Horses have taught me to question my beliefs. For example, how can I love animals and then eat them? How can I change the world if I can’t change what I eat for breakfast? How can I say that I love my horse unconditionally and yet train him to be obedient so that I can ride him whenever I want? This is not love, this is use.
Since we no longer need horses to pull carriages, plough fields and carry us into battle, what is our new relationship? If it is for pleasure, then whose pleasure? If given a choice with no consequence, most horses would choose not to be ridden. Horses are sentient beings, with acute awareness and expanded consciousness. They are so much more than tools for humanity. Once you drop the need to use horses, then there is very little need for training. I had to think about this long and hard, especially since I spent so much time and energy becoming a riding instructor. Was this a cosmic joke?
After spending years riding horses, it was a surprise to discover that the process of training horses to ride them, to mentally and physically manipulate them, caused them trauma. I now have an opportunity to discover a new way of supporting these beautiful animals to thrive. It’s not a matter of altering my training techniques, it’s a complete paradigm shift, a perspective shift, to see them now as partners, friends, teachers and guides.