Today I am so proud to introduce you to one of my dearest friends, Shannon Riley. With a deep passion for horses as well as Ayurveda, she is merging these two worlds together.
If you are interested in learning more, check out her website: www.wildcomefree.com
Since our early teenage years, Shannon and I have gone on for hours talking about animal training methods and philosophies. To this day I remember and cherish those moments. With the two of us living on different continents now, conversations I had with Shannon often come to mind or I wonder what she might think about something that I just witnessed with an animal.
Which is why I invited her onto my blog to hear what she has to say. Guess what, guys? … she said yes! So now I’ll stop writing and let her get a word in. Enjoy this interview and let us know what you think in the comments or by writing either of us an email.
1. What is Ayurveda?
Translated simply from Sanskrit, Ayurveda is the „Science of Life“, or the „Wisdom of Longevity“. Originating in India over 6,000 years ago, it shares its roots in ancient Tibetan Medicine with Chinese Medicine. The modern tradition was brought to the West a few decades ago by a few notable doctors and practitioners who studied the science in India, perhaps the most notable being Vasant Lad. Ayurveda is based in elemental theory that offers a perspective of looking at the body, whether it belongs to humans or animals. Looking at the relationships between the elements, we learn to understand the roles of ether, air, fire, water and earth, and how they work to support the body in balance, or weaken the body in dis-ease.
Commonly called „poor mans medicine“, Ayurveda amazes me at how it can be so empowering to each individual to help understand the cause of symptoms they are experiencing, and how to respond to alleviate the symptoms and uproot the cause with simple lifestyle or dietary changes.
As far as my own personal translation, since I began my studies of Ayurveda in 2012 at the dhyana Center in Sebastopol, CA, Ayurveda meant something very simple: how to understand myself at the most basic level. During my studies, I learned how to utilize herbal remedies, nutrition, pancha karma cleansing techniques, yoga, and body work to balance the systems and elements within the body. Breaking everything down into elements really helped me make sense of patterns I’ve experienced with thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations my entire life.
As I deepened my connection to my body and to Ayurveda, I felt as though I had finally revealed my true identity. And that’s not to say that I felt perfect or complete, but I felt strangely at ease with the things that used to bother me so much and make me question „why?“ to no end, because I had a comprehensive way to reason and intuit why these imbalances were present on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level. Of course, since beginning my journey with Ayurveda I have come to feel that it is about understanding we are made up of relationships with the elements, and if we need help finding balance, the wisdom is within us as well as out there if we choose to seek it.
2. How do you apply what you learned from Ayurvedic teachings to your work with animals?
In many ways, Ayurveda has changed the way that I approach life, interact with people and care for myself. Perhaps most of all though, it has enriched the way I work with clients animals and care for my own. With my knowledge of Ayurveda, I approach interactions with animals not only from the perspective of a trainer, but also as a „health detective“. My teacher DeAnna Batdorff taught us as students to think of ourselves as health detectives when we make assessments about a clients health, as though the symptoms are pieces we add together until we see a glimpse of a greater picture showing the cause and solution. As I apply this to animals, I see not only behavioral issues that have evolved to become destructive patterns for their owners, but an elemental equation that underlies it all. The key to applying Ayurveda to animal training is to understand that assessing how an animals organs, tissues and bodily systems are ticking to support their health can explain why a potential undesirable behavior is present.
For example, one case study in which I integrated Ayurveda with my horse training was with a horse who had suffered a severe stifle injury just months after being adopted by my client. As the horse began a course of rest and rehabilitation to heal his injury, he began exhibiting unpredictable and aggressive behavior. The horse that my client had seen up until that point was just the tip of the iceberg, given what emotions and physical sensations were swimming under his skin leading up to the injury. He became dangerous to work with as he would kick, bite and attempt to bolt whenever he was taken out for gentle exercise.
While it is somewhat common for horses recovering from injury to have wild energy that is difficult to rein in as they are kept in small confined areas much of the time to prevent reinjuring themselves, the interesting thing about this horses behavior was that he was like a completely different horse each day, one second turning from cold and dull to hot and anxious. Assessing his condition from an Ayurvedic standpoint, he was in a state of chronic depletion which made it so that he had a very small window for error. Overall his body had little energy reserves to buffer his nerves response to stimuli, making it so that the slightest pressure could send him over the edge. Whether malnourished, dehydrated, or fatigued by constant stress, many humans suffer from chronic depletion which makes them feel like their nerves are shot or they are easily overwhelmed by too many inputs, which was exactly what led to this horses unpredictable, erratic behavior.
Undergoing months of supplemental herbs to support his immunity, increase circulation and help his kidneys and adrenals adapt to stress, as well as body work to unwind holding patterns and strengthen his tissues with his owner, this case study became a completely different horse. A testament to treating the cause rather than the symptoms, I was honored to witness the transformation of this horses mind, body and spirit.
I read my animals pulses and track their behaviors in response to different training practices. I love this question, and could go on and on about magical experiences I’ve had supporting my own animals in healing through health crises. Suffice to say for now, I apply Ayurveda through investigating many different layers of an animals mind, body and spirit, to best understand how to support and create harmony with the animal.
3. Tell us more about the „Braiding Horse Feathers“ project.
Braiding Horse Feathers was inspired by two things: my recent knowledge of the real definition of horsefeathers, and my mustang Sage. To begin with, Sage was the true original inspiration for this project. As a weanling, she was rounded up from US public lands in Northeastern California. I adopted her four years ago, and have known her all along to be just as wild and full of pride as I imagine she was as a foal roaming free with her band. Each winter, Sage gets these impressive dreadlocks, which I joke is a sign of her innate wildness, and the most impressive thing about her locks is that in spite of being combed out my me each day, they are spun together as though by the wild western winds themselves as soon as I turn her back loose to pasture.
Untangling Sage’s mangled mane every winter has become a ritual for me, and in my vocabulary the words horse and feather were only ever used together when I would describe her wild hairs. Naturally, given my imagined definition of the word, when I learned what horsefeathers actually meant, it was a bit of a shock. Horsefeathers is a common yet old-fashioned slang term, translating as a kind way of calling bullshit. Somehow, when this true definition met my grooming ritual with Sage, I got to thinking about what Sage might say if she could speak about the displacement of wild horses from public lands.
It may be a radical thought, but I don’t believe that rounding up horses is going to solve to cause of degradation in the West, but maybe will alleviate the symptoms of overgrazing temporarily. While I’m not sure what the best solution is to satisfy ranchers, the government, and advocates for wild horse preservation, I decided I wanted to share the meaning of horsefeathers and my experience with mustangs in a whole new way.
Braiding together strands of Sage’s hair uprooted by our grooming ritual, I began making bracelets for friends and family. Utilizing the amount of horsehair I end up with from grooming mustangs I work with, I created this project to sell handmade braided horsehair bracelets and donate a portion of proceeds from selling finished pieces to support the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. If animals could talk, I believe my mustang Sage would express her approval of my untangling her wild mane for this good cause.
4. Over the years, you have collected a lot of experience gentling wild mustangs. How has this changed and affected you? Do you find yourself communicating differently with people and other animals because of it?
Growing up, I always knew horses were magic. The first time I met a mustang, untouched and still shaking from being rounded up, being worked with at a ranch where the owner would gentle mustangs and help find them forever homes, I realized that there was still so much humans didn’t know about the magical powers of a horse.
Interestingly, gentling mustangs has offered the most rewarding and most challenging experiences of my life. I worked temporarily at a wild horse sanctuary in Northern California where over 200 mustangs were free to roam, and I was responsible alongside two friends who are talented horse trainers for taming twenty six young mustangs. This was the happiest I think I have ever been in my life, surrounded by horses in the middle of nowhere, miles from a town which had a population of less than 200 people. It was challenging to return home to civilization after that, and the experience definitely changed me for life.
In the way that I relate to people, I find myself sometimes approaching others with quieted energy as though they were a horse, especially when I am working with clients who have experienced severe trauma. It is unspoken in our interaction, but I relate to the trauma that a human has experienced, whether physical or emotional, the same way that I relate to a mustang who has been severed from everything it has known, from the land and members of its band that gave it a sense of belonging. There is so much suffering in the world that cannot be undone, and I believe approaching a person or animal who has seen great suffering with a gentle hand and open heart can be the inspiration they need to decide the world could be a safe place for them, and they could learn how to belong again.
5. How have animals helped you through hard times? What is it about animals that can lift us up and make us feel better?
Plato quoted in The Symposium, „According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.” I often joke with people that I don’t know where I would be without animals, and in all honesty, I can’t imagine a reality without animals because it feels like imagining my life without my head or my body; as though without them, I simply wouldn’t exist.
People talk about the love of their lives as their soul mate; that person they spend their whole life seeking who is perfectly made for them. It might sound strange, but I call the animals I care for my soul mates. They balance and reflect aspects of me, and when we are together it feels harmonious. I am not shy about calling them the loves of my life, and my experience with my animals shed a new light on Plato’s quote.
I’m still learning everyday what it is about animals that makes us feel better as humans, or human-animals, and I have a feeling that the day will never come when I am done discovering all of their magic. My dogs are the ones I embrace when I need to cry and there are no words to explain my sadness. My horses are the ones whose breath I smell, inhaling the scent of dust and sweet grass when I am distraught with confusion about challenges I face. Their powers for soothing my worries and uplifting my spirit when I feel down is unlike any assurances I’ve felt from humans. When we see our souls‘ reflected in an animal, the possibility for growth, inspiration and insight is endless.
6. What differences do you see when teaching children about animals vs teaching adults?
Do they face different challenges? Are certain things easier for either?
My experience so far working with adults and children with animals has been a great lesson in throwing my prior expectations out the window. Regardless of age, and what I anticipated might be easier or more challenging depending on my clients age, I learned that the same core teachings with animals could be applied, only for different reasons. Specifically in my work with children and horses, I found that a big focus was simply on breathing. Originally, I didn’t intend to have just breathing be a focus, thinking that wouldn’t keep kids interested very well, but it became evident as I witnessed my clients holding their breath time and again when they were stuck in relating to the horse.
I had a preconceived notion that children were more fearless than adults in their approach to horses, since usually when they were injured, they didn’t so much break as bend. I believe one of the greatest things we can instill as a practice when we are young is breathing deeply, especially through times of trouble to help our nervous system stay calm and ensure our brain is receiving an abundance of oxygen to work on solutions. When it came to working with adults, I found that breathing would still be something I emphasized, but more so, as a reminder to not get stuck in a pattern that wasn’t working, or an approach that wasn’t serving their relationship with horses.
We learn so much through our experiences, whether we make mistakes or create success. In my experience, the greater challenge for adults can be letting go of their past experiences and surrendering completely to focusing on the moment. I find that focusing on the breath, for both centering adults in the present to meet animals where they are, as well as supporting children to overcome fears or trepidation, can be one of the greatest foundational practice in working with animals.
7. For those who don’t have much experience with horsemanship, explain how it is different than the „classic“ way of working with horses.
I first learned Pat Parelli’s definition of horsemanship when I was introduced to Natural Horsemanship at age 13. Parelli talked about horsemanship as simply, „horse and man going on a journey together“. To this day, I love this definition of horsemanship, though I have become a bit disillusioned by Natural Horsemanship. Practicing Natural Horsemanship through my teen years, I felt like I was in an exclusive club, fitting in with those who called themselves „natural“ versus „normal“. I began questioning this way of labeling our approach to relating to horses when I saw people who claimed to be superior over people who practiced classical horsemanship, which to them was I an inferior „normal“ practice. The classic approach to horsemanship for years has been to use force and unflinching equipment, to the extent where it is seen by many as the normal, expected course of relating.
While I still consider my approach to horsemanship to be „natural“, meaning relying on body language, trust and compassion, over force, intimidation and fear tactics, I found a flaw in making this natural approach alienate the classical or normal approach. If horsemanship by definition is about the journey of horse and man partnering, then it doesn’t matter what route we take, or what we call it. That is the only issue I face with semantics of different philosophies of horsemanship, like classical versus natural. In so many ways, horsemanship has been twisted and coined by one trainer and another as the latest and greatest fad. Rather than adopt any approach as dogma, I encourage those who may feel lost, frustrated, or hopeless about a particular approach to training that is not strengthening or mending their relationship with horses.
I urge everyone to question what is natural about our bonds with horses, and to find the way they want to unite with horses. Just as equally, it is also important to ask ourselves whether we have the right to impose our wills on horses and forgo relationships for competition or business. And especially, if we feel confused by what the right way of training may be, take a moment to ask, how do I want my horse to think of me? And how can I best earn my horses trust, respect and affection? On mankind’s journey with horses, we have made many mistakes by breaking horses rather than uniting with them, by pressuring them to do all the work rather then motivating them to meet us in the middle. I encourage people to question what is normal versus natural to them, and how they really want to spend their journey with horses. I hope for everyone, it may be a long and joyous one.
How is your view on dog training different than your average dog trainer? What does dogmanship mean to you?
My views on dogmanship can also be explained similarly through my philosophy of horsemanship. The correct, or right way of training dogs depends entirely on what the journey with the dog has looked like, and what we plan to be doing in the future with them. Dogmanship versus horsemanship, is of course dealing with an entire other species, not to mention a predator animals instead of prey animal, and so it is full of its own intricacies.
I suppose my view on dog training is different from fellow trainers in that I am all about adapting my approach to every individual person and dog, rather than offering a prescribed roadmap of what to do versus what not to do. This also relates back to my practice with Ayurveda, as I enjoy more than anything getting to know the rough and subtle details about a person and animal that makes up their strengths and weaknesses. Dogmanship at its crux is about working together with man’s best friend, whether facilitating search and rescue missions, assistance therapies, or being a trustworthy copilot in our everyday adventures, and tending to a foundation of a friendship that will last a lifetime.
9. I loved that you mentioned „(…) I was hit over the realisation that riding could be as therapeutic for horses as it can be for riders (…)“ in one of your blogs on your site.
Could you share with us some more about what you meant? How can riding be therapeutic for both horse and rider?
This is a powerful realization for me which I am still striving to better understand. The experience I wrote about in this particular post on my blog was when I witnessed a client’s horse respond under saddle as though he was enjoying so thoroughly the experience of being ridden. The reason this struck me so greatly was I often have to opposite experience where I watch the horse enjoy the groundwork and then under saddle is where issues arise to be solved and soothed. So many horses have negative experiences being ridden, and it really is no wonder since so many people say they are „breaking“ their horse under saddle when they first ride them. I would be resistant to trying something new for the first time if it was explained as something that would break me.
I went through a phase which lasted about six months where I didn’t ride my horse at all. I began discovering research that stated that horses structurally are not benefitted by people riding them, and I began to think that I was harming my horse each time I straddled her back. The guilt trip I put on myself was unnecessary, and I hope others don’t have to go through that unless their horse really has an injury that prevents them from being stable under saddle. During that time, I resented people asking me why I wasn’t riding my horse, as though I was tormenting her by not doing what I thought was destructive to her health. Eventually, a friend subtly expressed while looking into my horses eyes that she felt my horse missed me riding her.
Something deep in my bones knew prior to my guilt-trip and research paranoia that my horse enjoyed me being on her back, and especially, when she ran very fast with me on her back. I soon began to ease myself back into the saddle, and experienced again that feeling that I cannot do justice in explaining how therapeutic being on a horses back is. As I worked again at strengthening my riding muscles and my horses muscles, I delved into further research of how horses can be ridden in a way that is not only beneficial for the human, but for the horse.
And again, this is a subject that I could write for days on, but the juiciest revelation I had in my experience striving to make riding therapeutic for the horse just as well as for the human, was the moment I witnessed my client’s horse lift himself up and carry her under saddle in a way which clearly embodied joy and reverence. He knew he was respected, and trusted his person to treat him well and encourage full, proper movement under saddle. Having seen this, I have begun to form the belief that when we hold up our end of the work, in spite of the negative experiences that a horse has had under saddle, we are not harming them by being on their backs. Inspired by an indigenous perspective of taking care of the earth, we do not have to heal the horse, we just have to stop doing more damage.
10. Some say that horses should not be ridden, because they are not built for it. On top of that, many don’t invest enough time and money into a saddle that fits properly, which hurts the horse.
They also don’t ride well and yank a horse around with a bridle. What are your thoughts on riding horses in the first place?
Would the experience of owning and being with a horse be just as amazing and therapeutic for you, if you were to only do groundwork?
As I mentioned in my previous response, I do believe that riding horses can be a beneficial thing for both horse and rider. It really depends on so many factors, such as the tack and equipment being used, the health of the horse and the rider, and the foundation of training. Rather than advocate for people who may very well be harming their horses under saddle to stop riding, I encourage them to focus on groundwork as a basis for improving their relationship with the horse, which of course translates on the horses back.
I am a testament to how the experience of just being with horses and practicing groundwork can be just as amazing and therapeutic as riding. I currently have three horses; mustangs, Rowan age 4 and Sage age 5, and Morgan Arabian mare Jasmine who has been my trusty steed for going on twelve years. Jasmine and Sage are both good under saddle, only with my busy training schedule I spend much more time practicing groundwork than riding with Jasmine, and Sage who I call my wild Mongolian pony is amazing at groundwork but is too small for me to ride. Rowan the youngest, is ripe for being started under saddle, and opposite Sage, he among the tallest mustangs I’ve seen, which in my mind as a horse trainer, is only farther to fall to the ground.
I have been taking my sweet time getting Rowan’s mind sharp and training him on the ground so that I have a stronger safety net when I finally straddle his back if anything goes awry. Horses are fundamentally, always dangerous and unpredictable, but as good horse trainers with strong relationships with our horses we can minimize the risks and dangers greatly; but still they are present. I recommend groundwork highly to everyone who has horses, and also for those who haven’t spent much time with horses who may have previously thought the only thing to do with horses is to ride them. Working with horses, or playing with them on the ground can be just as rewarding and fun, and especially eye opening to understand the horse before you take the risk of getting on its back.
11. What is something about animals (and perhaps our interactions with them), that you wish you could shout from the rooftops for the whole world to hear?
My all-time favorite quote by Antoine de Saint Exupery: „You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.“!
Shannon (left) and I (right) riding together in California.
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