Franklin Levinson
Corfu, Greece

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March 7, 2011
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The Empathetic Horseman Part I

In today's world where there is much suffering and fear, I think empathy is in short supply. What exactly is empathy? Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary offers this definition: "... the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ..."

I believe and teach that success with horses is a life-enriching process. Through developing the personal attributes (positive attitudes, patience, compassion, acquiring wisdom and learned practical skills) of what it takes to be successful with horses, these attributes can become habitual ways of thinking and being. Practicing empathy towards horses prompts the human to tune into and consider the feelings of another individual and to have the desire, first and foremost, to assist in the elimination of those fearful feelings (suffering) and help the animal to trust and feel safe. Striving to be an empathetic horseman certainly creates more opportunities for greater success with our horses, and, perhaps, in other areas of our lives as well.

Having an empathetic response to another is different from a sympathetic response. A sympathetic response is passive, implying feeling sorry for someone and/or the situation and can easily make the sympathizer feel superior. "I am fine and you are not. Good for me and too bad for you, poor you ..." might be underlying ego-based thoughts. Having sympathy keeps a distance between the sympathizer and the one with the problem. The sympathizer remains separate (and safe) from the focus of the sympathy. It appears to be a function of the ego, as opposed to empathy, a function of the heart.

Hence, being empathetic might be considered a higher and more altruistic approach in response to another's pain, discomfort or suffering than merely being sympathetic. Actually feeling what another is feeling is an empathetic response, and might actually motivate someone to attempt to relieve the suffering of that person (or animal). An empathetic response brings individuals together to resolve an issue that may only be relevant to one of them.

Horses have two basic responses to their environment - feelings of safety or feelings of fear. For horses and humans alike, safety only exists as a feeling inside of us. For example, we either feel safe enough to get on an airplane (or horse) or we don't. One aircraft is no safer than another actually. We trust it is safe enough to go on the plane, or, for some unknown reason, we feel it is unsafe to take that trip and get on that plane. This is called listening to our intuition. Our intuition is the voice inside of us that communicates how we feel about a particular circumstance or situation (safe or not safe), and to which we then respond.

Additionally, feelings can become habitual just like thought patterns, physical ways of moving, and routines. "Old habits die hard," is a very true statement, I think. Changing our minds and beliefs can be very difficult. The ego resists this sort of change tremendously, wanting to control everything from a self-appeasing standpoint.

Fortunately, horses do not have this sort of ego desire for self-aggrandizement and control over everything. It only wants to feel safe and its ego is devoted to pushing the horse in that direction where safety can be felt. A horse will fend for itself and become its own leader in the absence of another good, trusted leader being with it. This "fending for itself" behavior can be aggressive and dangerous. But it is still based in the fear of not surviving. When horses are made to be afraid over even a brief period of time, this fear engenders habitual feelings for the horse, and the behavior accompanying it becomes habitual as well.

All aggressive, stubborn and unwanted behavior from a horse is not that the horse is being bad. It is only the horse trying to assure its survival. Thus, humans should never take anything personally a horse does and never judge horses as being "bad." They are as innocent as children, only more dangerous when scared.

This understanding of the true nature of horses can go a long way in resolving undesirable behavior using a more compassionate and leadership-based approach, as opposed to trying to force a horse to do something it is afraid to do. The horse is merely feeling it may not survive. When humans tune into and actually empathize with the fear that horses can have, a natural response is compassion and a desire to help the horse understand there is nothing really to fear, that it will survive, and it can try to do what the human is asking.

Fear is created within us from many sources. It is all basically the fear of not being able to survive. All fear stems from that. If something is unknown, new or different we think or feel we may not survive experiencing it and, thus, we feel fear. When we are moved out of our habitual zone of comfort, the ego does not want that and creates fearful feelings and resistance from the erroneous belief it won't survive. If we are in pain, we think we may not survive and again, fear is created. If we are confused, unsure, lacking much understanding of something or without prior experience of it, it is unknown to us. Then it is possible we can become afraid of not surviving it.

Through empathizing we come to feel the fearful feelings a horse is having and become motivated to help the animal release those feelings. Having fear is a form of suffering. Aside from the kind of fear that keeps us from running in front of a train, most fear, I think, is fear of something in the future, something unknown and that has not occurred. People who worry excessively are suffering from their fear. Folks who never leave their comfort zone suffer from their fear because those comfort zones always eventually change with the circumstances of life. Thus they are unprepared and unwilling to face anything new or challenging.

Some people show more ability to move towards and through scary situations than others. They are not as easily made fearful by the unknown, as some individuals tend to be. The reasons for this are varied and many such as: parental input, environmental influences, childhood experiences, traumas and crisis we have lived through, support from friends and family, perhaps some genetic influences, and much more. Other individuals seem to be always timid, fearful, doubtful, nervous, and overly cautious and shy away from anything unknown or new.

It is the same for horses. Generally, as individuals mature and experience more of the world around them, it might be expected that this experience of actually living life over time will help develop some feelings of safety and assurances that constant fear is unnecessary and that survival is mostly assured. However, if our life experiences contain too much abuse, confusion and uncertainty, then our fearful habitual thinking and feelings can develop even more. The reality of it is that survival is never fully assured. However, we can come to feel that we will survive most often through positive experiences of things that were previously unknown. In humans this could be called "faith." In horses it is called "trust."

I have made the development of trust and the elimination of fear my main agenda when training horses. Beyond riding, or any activity I might want to have with a horse, the important thing is whether or not the animal feels safe. If it does not feel safe, it is reasonable for me to expect resistance from the horse to comply with any requests I may make of it. From going over a jump, to loading in a trailer, to having a pleasant trail ride, if the horse is afraid, then chances are there will be behavior I do not want that might possibly be dangerous to me and/or the horse. As horses are prey (eaten by predators) and therefore flight animals (prone to immediately running away if fearful feelings are present) it is reasonable to take an approach to horses that helps them to feel safe. Moving thoughtfully, calmly and precisely when around horses can facilitate this.

One of the most important aspects of being successful with horses is the level of our consciousness when with them. Being self-aware and conscious around horses helps us humans to behave more appropriately. Being unconscious of our movements, our level of distraction or lack of self-awareness can have serious consequences for us if we inadvertently, and even innocently, scare a horse when we are close to it. Empathizing with a horse all the time when we are with it, as we would with our children, will help us, and the horse, to avoid a dangerous event or accident from happening.

Any discussion of feelings, i.e. emotions, warrants a mention of emotional intelligence (EI). This definition is offered by Wikipedia: "... the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth." From this definition we might surmise that the ability and willingness to empathize would be very valuable to us personally.

From the ground-breaking book "Sacred Commerce" by Ayman Sawaf and Rowan Gabrielle, comes this poignant statement: "By mastering the realm of feelings with the proper use of Emotional Intelligence, we can have access to reserves of previously untapped power ... towards ever greater ... success ..." More success with our horses through Emotional Intelligence and empathy is very appealing, I think, and will surely help us attain a higher level of functioning in our other endeavors as well.

Watch for Part II in an upcoming issue of the Fence Post.

In today's world where there is much suffering and fear, I think empathy is in short supply. What exactly is empathy? Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary offers this definition: "... the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ..."

I believe and teach that success with horses is a life-enriching process. Through developing the personal attributes (positive attitudes, patience, compassion, acquiring wisdom and learned practical skills) of what it takes to be successful with horses, these attributes can become habitual ways of thinking and being. Practicing empathy towards horses prompts the human to tune into and consider the feelings of another individual and to have the desire, first and foremost, to assist in the elimination of those fearful feelings (suffering) and help the animal to trust and feel safe. Striving to be an empathetic horseman certainly creates more opportunities for greater success with our horses, and, perhaps, in other areas of our lives as well.

Having an empathetic response to another is different from a sympathetic response. A sympathetic response is passive, implying feeling sorry for someone and/or the situation and can easily make the sympathizer feel superior. "I am fine and you are not. Good for me and too bad for you, poor you ..." might be underlying ego-based thoughts. Having sympathy keeps a distance between the sympathizer and the one with the problem. The sympathizer remains separate (and safe) from the focus of the sympathy. It appears to be a function of the ego, as opposed to empathy, a function of the heart.

Hence, being empathetic might be considered a higher and more altruistic approach in response to another's pain, discomfort or suffering than merely being sympathetic. Actually feeling what another is feeling is an empathetic response, and might actually motivate someone to attempt to relieve the suffering of that person (or animal). An empathetic response brings individuals together to resolve an issue that may only be relevant to one of them.

Horses have two basic responses to their environment - feelings of safety or feelings of fear. For horses and humans alike, safety only exists as a feeling inside of us. For example, we either feel safe enough to get on an airplane (or horse) or we don't. One aircraft is no safer than another actually. We trust it is safe enough to go on the plane, or, for some unknown reason, we feel it is unsafe to take that trip and get on that plane. This is called listening to our intuition. Our intuition is the voice inside of us that communicates how we feel about a particular circumstance or situation (safe or not safe), and to which we then respond.

Additionally, feelings can become habitual just like thought patterns, physical ways of moving, and routines. "Old habits die hard," is a very true statement, I think. Changing our minds and beliefs can be very difficult. The ego resists this sort of change tremendously, wanting to control everything from a self-appeasing standpoint.

Fortunately, horses do not have this sort of ego desire for self-aggrandizement and control over everything. It only wants to feel safe and its ego is devoted to pushing the horse in that direction where safety can be felt. A horse will fend for itself and become its own leader in the absence of another good, trusted leader being with it. This "fending for itself" behavior can be aggressive and dangerous. But it is still based in the fear of not surviving. When horses are made to be afraid over even a brief period of time, this fear engenders habitual feelings for the horse, and the behavior accompanying it becomes habitual as well.

All aggressive, stubborn and unwanted behavior from a horse is not that the horse is being bad. It is only the horse trying to assure its survival. Thus, humans should never take anything personally a horse does and never judge horses as being "bad." They are as innocent as children, only more dangerous when scared.

This understanding of the true nature of horses can go a long way in resolving undesirable behavior using a more compassionate and leadership-based approach, as opposed to trying to force a horse to do something it is afraid to do. The horse is merely feeling it may not survive. When humans tune into and actually empathize with the fear that horses can have, a natural response is compassion and a desire to help the horse understand there is nothing really to fear, that it will survive, and it can try to do what the human is asking.

Fear is created within us from many sources. It is all basically the fear of not being able to survive. All fear stems from that. If something is unknown, new or different we think or feel we may not survive experiencing it and, thus, we feel fear. When we are moved out of our habitual zone of comfort, the ego does not want that and creates fearful feelings and resistance from the erroneous belief it won't survive. If we are in pain, we think we may not survive and again, fear is created. If we are confused, unsure, lacking much understanding of something or without prior experience of it, it is unknown to us. Then it is possible we can become afraid of not surviving it.

Through empathizing we come to feel the fearful feelings a horse is having and become motivated to help the animal release those feelings. Having fear is a form of suffering. Aside from the kind of fear that keeps us from running in front of a train, most fear, I think, is fear of something in the future, something unknown and that has not occurred. People who worry excessively are suffering from their fear. Folks who never leave their comfort zone suffer from their fear because those comfort zones always eventually change with the circumstances of life. Thus they are unprepared and unwilling to face anything new or challenging.

Some people show more ability to move towards and through scary situations than others. They are not as easily made fearful by the unknown, as some individuals tend to be. The reasons for this are varied and many such as: parental input, environmental influences, childhood experiences, traumas and crisis we have lived through, support from friends and family, perhaps some genetic influences, and much more. Other individuals seem to be always timid, fearful, doubtful, nervous, and overly cautious and shy away from anything unknown or new.

It is the same for horses. Generally, as individuals mature and experience more of the world around them, it might be expected that this experience of actually living life over time will help develop some feelings of safety and assurances that constant fear is unnecessary and that survival is mostly assured. However, if our life experiences contain too much abuse, confusion and uncertainty, then our fearful habitual thinking and feelings can develop even more. The reality of it is that survival is never fully assured. However, we can come to feel that we will survive most often through positive experiences of things that were previously unknown. In humans this could be called "faith." In horses it is called "trust."

I have made the development of trust and the elimination of fear my main agenda when training horses. Beyond riding, or any activity I might want to have with a horse, the important thing is whether or not the animal feels safe. If it does not feel safe, it is reasonable for me to expect resistance from the horse to comply with any requests I may make of it. From going over a jump, to loading in a trailer, to having a pleasant trail ride, if the horse is afraid, then chances are there will be behavior I do not want that might possibly be dangerous to me and/or the horse. As horses are prey (eaten by predators) and therefore flight animals (prone to immediately running away if fearful feelings are present) it is reasonable to take an approach to horses that helps them to feel safe. Moving thoughtfully, calmly and precisely when around horses can facilitate this.

One of the most important aspects of being successful with horses is the level of our consciousness when with them. Being self-aware and conscious around horses helps us humans to behave more appropriately. Being unconscious of our movements, our level of distraction or lack of self-awareness can have serious consequences for us if we inadvertently, and even innocently, scare a horse when we are close to it. Empathizing with a horse all the time when we are with it, as we would with our children, will help us, and the horse, to avoid a dangerous event or accident from happening.

Any discussion of feelings, i.e. emotions, warrants a mention of emotional intelligence (EI). This definition is offered by Wikipedia: "... the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth." From this definition we might surmise that the ability and willingness to empathize would be very valuable to us personally.

From the ground-breaking book "Sacred Commerce" by Ayman Sawaf and Rowan Gabrielle, comes this poignant statement: "By mastering the realm of feelings with the proper use of Emotional Intelligence, we can have access to reserves of previously untapped power ... towards ever greater ... success ..." More success with our horses through Emotional Intelligence and empathy is very appealing, I think, and will surely help us attain a higher level of functioning in our other endeavors as well.

Watch for Part II in an upcoming issue of the Fence Post.

In today's world where there is much suffering and fear, I think empathy is in short supply. What exactly is empathy? Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary offers this definition: "... the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ..."

I believe and teach that success with horses is a life-enriching process. Through developing the personal attributes (positive attitudes, patience, compassion, acquiring wisdom and learned practical skills) of what it takes to be successful with horses, these attributes can become habitual ways of thinking and being. Practicing empathy towards horses prompts the human to tune into and consider the feelings of another individual and to have the desire, first and foremost, to assist in the elimination of those fearful feelings (suffering) and help the animal to trust and feel safe. Striving to be an empathetic horseman certainly creates more opportunities for greater success with our horses, and, perhaps, in other areas of our lives as well.

Having an empathetic response to another is different from a sympathetic response. A sympathetic response is passive, implying feeling sorry for someone and/or the situation and can easily make the sympathizer feel superior. "I am fine and you are not. Good for me and too bad for you, poor you ..." might be underlying ego-based thoughts. Having sympathy keeps a distance between the sympathizer and the one with the problem. The sympathizer remains separate (and safe) from the focus of the sympathy. It appears to be a function of the ego, as opposed to empathy, a function of the heart.

Hence, being empathetic might be considered a higher and more altruistic approach in response to another's pain, discomfort or suffering than merely being sympathetic. Actually feeling what another is feeling is an empathetic response, and might actually motivate someone to attempt to relieve the suffering of that person (or animal). An empathetic response brings individuals together to resolve an issue that may only be relevant to one of them.

Horses have two basic responses to their environment - feelings of safety or feelings of fear. For horses and humans alike, safety only exists as a feeling inside of us. For example, we either feel safe enough to get on an airplane (or horse) or we don't. One aircraft is no safer than another actually. We trust it is safe enough to go on the plane, or, for some unknown reason, we feel it is unsafe to take that trip and get on that plane. This is called listening to our intuition. Our intuition is the voice inside of us that communicates how we feel about a particular circumstance or situation (safe or not safe), and to which we then respond.

Additionally, feelings can become habitual just like thought patterns, physical ways of moving, and routines. "Old habits die hard," is a very true statement, I think. Changing our minds and beliefs can be very difficult. The ego resists this sort of change tremendously, wanting to control everything from a self-appeasing standpoint.

Fortunately, horses do not have this sort of ego desire for self-aggrandizement and control over everything. It only wants to feel safe and its ego is devoted to pushing the horse in that direction where safety can be felt. A horse will fend for itself and become its own leader in the absence of another good, trusted leader being with it. This "fending for itself" behavior can be aggressive and dangerous. But it is still based in the fear of not surviving. When horses are made to be afraid over even a brief period of time, this fear engenders habitual feelings for the horse, and the behavior accompanying it becomes habitual as well.

All aggressive, stubborn and unwanted behavior from a horse is not that the horse is being bad. It is only the horse trying to assure its survival. Thus, humans should never take anything personally a horse does and never judge horses as being "bad." They are as innocent as children, only more dangerous when scared.

This understanding of the true nature of horses can go a long way in resolving undesirable behavior using a more compassionate and leadership-based approach, as opposed to trying to force a horse to do something it is afraid to do. The horse is merely feeling it may not survive. When humans tune into and actually empathize with the fear that horses can have, a natural response is compassion and a desire to help the horse understand there is nothing really to fear, that it will survive, and it can try to do what the human is asking.

Fear is created within us from many sources. It is all basically the fear of not being able to survive. All fear stems from that. If something is unknown, new or different we think or feel we may not survive experiencing it and, thus, we feel fear. When we are moved out of our habitual zone of comfort, the ego does not want that and creates fearful feelings and resistance from the erroneous belief it won't survive. If we are in pain, we think we may not survive and again, fear is created. If we are confused, unsure, lacking much understanding of something or without prior experience of it, it is unknown to us. Then it is possible we can become afraid of not surviving it.

Through empathizing we come to feel the fearful feelings a horse is having and become motivated to help the animal release those feelings. Having fear is a form of suffering. Aside from the kind of fear that keeps us from running in front of a train, most fear, I think, is fear of something in the future, something unknown and that has not occurred. People who worry excessively are suffering from their fear. Folks who never leave their comfort zone suffer from their fear because those comfort zones always eventually change with the circumstances of life. Thus they are unprepared and unwilling to face anything new or challenging.

Some people show more ability to move towards and through scary situations than others. They are not as easily made fearful by the unknown, as some individuals tend to be. The reasons for this are varied and many such as: parental input, environmental influences, childhood experiences, traumas and crisis we have lived through, support from friends and family, perhaps some genetic influences, and much more. Other individuals seem to be always timid, fearful, doubtful, nervous, and overly cautious and shy away from anything unknown or new.

It is the same for horses. Generally, as individuals mature and experience more of the world around them, it might be expected that this experience of actually living life over time will help develop some feelings of safety and assurances that constant fear is unnecessary and that survival is mostly assured. However, if our life experiences contain too much abuse, confusion and uncertainty, then our fearful habitual thinking and feelings can develop even more. The reality of it is that survival is never fully assured. However, we can come to feel that we will survive most often through positive experiences of things that were previously unknown. In humans this could be called "faith." In horses it is called "trust."

I have made the development of trust and the elimination of fear my main agenda when training horses. Beyond riding, or any activity I might want to have with a horse, the important thing is whether or not the animal feels safe. If it does not feel safe, it is reasonable for me to expect resistance from the horse to comply with any requests I may make of it. From going over a jump, to loading in a trailer, to having a pleasant trail ride, if the horse is afraid, then chances are there will be behavior I do not want that might possibly be dangerous to me and/or the horse. As horses are prey (eaten by predators) and therefore flight animals (prone to immediately running away if fearful feelings are present) it is reasonable to take an approach to horses that helps them to feel safe. Moving thoughtfully, calmly and precisely when around horses can facilitate this.

One of the most important aspects of being successful with horses is the level of our consciousness when with them. Being self-aware and conscious around horses helps us humans to behave more appropriately. Being unconscious of our movements, our level of distraction or lack of self-awareness can have serious consequences for us if we inadvertently, and even innocently, scare a horse when we are close to it. Empathizing with a horse all the time when we are with it, as we would with our children, will help us, and the horse, to avoid a dangerous event or accident from happening.

Any discussion of feelings, i.e. emotions, warrants a mention of emotional intelligence (EI). This definition is offered by Wikipedia: "... the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth." From this definition we might surmise that the ability and willingness to empathize would be very valuable to us personally.

From the ground-breaking book "Sacred Commerce" by Ayman Sawaf and Rowan Gabrielle, comes this poignant statement: "By mastering the realm of feelings with the proper use of Emotional Intelligence, we can have access to reserves of previously untapped power ... towards ever greater ... success ..." More success with our horses through Emotional Intelligence and empathy is very appealing, I think, and will surely help us attain a higher level of functioning in our other endeavors as well.

Watch for Part II in an upcoming issue of the Fence Post.


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The Fence Post Updated Aug 14, 2012 04:37PM Published Mar 7, 2011 03:13PM Copyright 2011 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.