One Mustang directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, Communication through body language, Tools used only for safety, never to train
To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.
Horses as a Spiritual Practice
Bugs! Swarms of little, tiny, annoying midges finding every nook and cranny of the body to bite and irritate. This year in Redmond, WA my pastures seemed to be infested! I was at my wits end and beside myself with worry for my horses. My three, Myrnah, Cleo and Zohari, seemed defenseless this particular year, and every day I saw bigger chunks of flesh peeling from between their legs and across their stomachs with swelling distorting their natural shapes and turning them into grotesque elephant-skinned versions of themselves. So uncomfortable, it looked like they waddled across the fields so slowly trying not to let their thighs touch. It had reached the allergic response stage I had watched clients struggle with in their horse management, but never personally dealt with. My boarder, the cute little paint-mare Kiera, trotted gay little circles around my three with seemingly not a bite on her. It wasn’t just the pasture with its swarms of midges; it was all three of my horses unable to cope for some reason this year. I tried every bug spray and lotion I could find to combat it (thank goodness for “Where’s that Blue Stuff”, a lotion for rain rot and scratches that gave them the only relief I could find and helped repair their abused skin).
Finally I could watch them suffer no more and I made arrangements to flee the swarms of devastation. Kiera went to board with a neighbor’s horses and my three loaded into the horse trailer and took off for the cool, windy freedom of the San Juan Islands.
My mother and my daughter live still in the beautiful valley where the movie Taming Wild was filmed. We call it Plumb Pond and it is about as close to heaven on earth for horses as any place I know. It had been three years since my horses had been there and it was like taking them home. A hundred acres of fields and ponds with fragrant cedar trees to sleep under in the heat of the day and nine other horses, all of them long time friends.
Horses have complex social lives when we give them the chance, and I believe the glow of health I have seen blossom on my horses in the last month has been as much about the richly emotional interactions they have all day long with their friends as it is about the healthy living they do galloping up and down the hill every day across the wide expanses of grass together. Sometimes I wonder how I could ever have taken them away from this wonderful place.
In the past month I have traveled from the high mountain grasslands of Kamloops, British Columbia, to the tropical paradise of Maui, to the lush grass valleys of San Juan Island. I travel on the call of horses and people who want to learn some of the things Myrnah and my other horses have taught me. Each place I go I have found myself part of dynamic and interesting horse herds that differ from each other in more ways than you can imagine. This barrage of experiences has left me both brimming with ideas and peacefully empty and present.
I am beginning to realize there has been a shift for me in how I view my time with horses. Once upon a time I was a trained professional and horses were part of a sport I loved. From Eventing to Endurance to French Classical Dressage to the levels of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, there was always another thing we were aiming to achieve skill in. How good one was at the chosen discipline was a gathering of skills, and the more skills one had, the more fun one could have with a horse.
While I still believe this, I find there is a new discipline that has become more important to me than any of the sport aspects one can explore with a horse. It is a discipline no one ever talks about, and I find myself wondering if I am the only one enraptured by this.
Freedom Based Training is what I call this thing that I do with horses now. It really is training as much for the person as it is for the horse. We all have an innate desire to be free and to want what we want while living our lives in pursuit of happiness. Training is the thing that naturally happens when we realize we want partnership as much as we want freedom. In every partnership we realize each partner is unique, and only if both parties are willing to grow and train and learn together can we find the hand-in-glove easy depth of connection we long for.
Myrnah and I developed these ideas when we were filming the movie Taming Wild. In the movie we had one year and a very specific goal – to be able to ride together without any bribes or tools of force. This goal was so task-oriented it was still almost like a discipline of sport. I found myself mapping progress and making lists and pushing to develop skills so we could achieve our goal together. And yes, the more skill we developed the more fun it became.
The year of the movie was more about sport than spirituality because it was more about my wants and desires than Myrnah’s. It was by accident that the spiritual aspect of this process was born and I fell in love with a whole new way of being with horses.
What if we start from the basis that there is nothing that needs to be changed or developed? What if we start with the premise that the horse is exactly perfect already, and the person is too; the only thing in need of development is the depth of bond between them. What are the things we then do to create connection that honors both horse and rider’s innate desire for freedom of choice?
This, I find, is more of a spiritual practice than it is a sport.
My horse wants to eat grass; I want to ride and run through the fields! My horse wants to sleep with the herd under the trees; I want to go for a trail ride, climb a mountain and explore the world. My horse wants to run with the other horses; I want to stand peacefully and watch the magnificent beauty pounding with incredible horsepower past us.
It sounds impossible when you lay it out like this, and that is why we have halters and bridles and whips and treat-pouches for training. We think we need to overpower a horse’s desire to be free and replace it with incentive to do the things we want to do. If one is interested in sport, then yes, most likely you are going to have to invest in incentives.
I find I am increasingly more interested in the core of this relationship. If we strip away the incentives, what is underneath? What are the things we can do together that build a bond that nurtures our freedoms and develops our desire to stretch and encompass the wants of our partners as well as our own?
I am finding that sport and spirituality are not separate or exclusive, you can combine the two ideas in whatever proportion works for you. I am finding the more time one puts into the development of the spiritual side of riding, the better the sport side becomes as well.
The curiosity for me is the better I get at the spiritual side, the less often I am willing to put on a halter, or reward a behavior with treats in order to achieve an end goal. I find I am much too fascinated by the natural evolution of partnership in a spiritual sense, and the sport of achievement doesn’t hold the same thrill for me that it once did.
I still love my work as an instructor, helping students and horses develop partnership and achieve their goals of sport. Finding the right incentive to help partners stretch together is fascinating.
However, when I walk into a lesson, I find I no longer have any idea of what horse or rider should or shouldn’t do.
What do you want?
What does your horse want?
How do we make that work for both of you?
That is what matters to me.
I will be leading an Online interactive course on Freedom Based Training starting in September. I am only taking on twelve students and will be personally available for coaching on a one on one basis during each week between classroom sessions. Email me at Elsa@TamingWild.com or click here for more details if you are interested in taking part in this learning opportunity.