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Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

“No Dust”

What a beautiful concept…. “No Dust” is something I have heard often throughout my study of Natural Horsemanship, and was brought into focus again for me, reading Lillan Roquet’s blog the other night. Thank you Lillan.

So what does it mean? In the simplest terms, I believe it means training without chaos.

Why would that be valuable? I think it is valuable because it is enjoyable.

Isn’t the dust and chaos stirred up by excitement, energy and life valuable too? Yes, I think so. Here is how I think about it.

(And yes, those are the kinds of conversations that bubble on through my head on a daily basis)

I believe “No Dust” can be correlated with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, theories on Flow. His chart is a brilliant tool, one that I often find myself pondering.

Flow is a mental state where high skill and high challenge is paired in time and space, the skill and the challenge evenly matched. Mihaly developed the idea with humans in mind; I have found it beautifully applicable to animals as well. “No Dust” could be considered the cowboy’s version of Flow, or Flow could be considered the psychotherapist’s version of “No Dust.” The reason to correlate them, is the chart Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brings to us.

Each of us has our own perception of what our skills are. High or low in the chart is a measure of our self perception. It is applicable to anyone, in any circumstance. When it comes to finding the state of Flow, or getting in the Zone (as athletes have been know to call it), self confidence can be as much a factor as tangible skill.

“No Dust” could be considered the process of learning and developing in a state of Flow. The challenges faced match the level of self perceived skill. In this amazing state, you lose your sense of self, your sense of time, mastering the challenge at hand becomes it’s own reward. Skills expand and develop naturally without stress. This I believe is life at its best.

As you see from the chart, it isn’t an exact point, it is a range. Bump the challenge up a few notches higher and all of the sudden your skills don’t look quite so top notch in comparison to what you are facing. You find yourself in a state of excitement or arousal. Can you learn what you need to know and increase your skills enough to be successful?  This is fun; many live and breath for this state. What is life without the high? This is the state of accelerated learning.

Bump the challenge up higher, or knock down your sense of skill and all the sudden you find yourself in a state of Anxiety. Here the learning starts to shut down. The desperation for skill clouds judgment and logic. We start questioning why we would even want to face this challenge. We start looking for a way out. If we can persevere in this uncomfortable state, it sometimes yields a breakthrough learning experience.

You are getting the idea of the top half of the chart.

Now let’s go back to flow, and what happens when the challenge seems not quite so challenging, or our skill seems beyond the challenge. We then enter a state of control. We know what to do, and how to do it. There is a sense of achievement in doing it well. This is where habits are built. A calm and steady sense of accomplishment makes it feel worthwhile, even though our skills are not particularly developing.

Raise the skill a little higher, or lower the challenge and boredom starts to kick in. Here is where we start questioning why we would want to do this, and we start looking for a way out. If it is a challenge necessary to the quality of life, we hope we can persevere and develop a habit of accomplishing the task without much thought. Leaving our minds free to ponder the more interesting things life has to offer.

In horse training, we usually think in terms of carrots and sticks. Reward and punishment. As I am going to be beginning a project where the stick is left in the barn, and it will take a little while before a mustang even knows what a carrot is…. I have to think outside the box. Beyond carrots and sticks. I have to ask what other reasons there are that a  horse would choose to become my partner? I believe horses have the same desire to feel good that we do as humans. We all choose partners in life because we are social creatures, we feel better in company. I believe we feel better in company because we challenge each other. Our sense of self is expanded and developed because of how we inspire one another. What kind of partner will I need to be for my horse to cause him to choose my company, for reasons beyond reward and punishment? I believe the concept of “No Dust” is going to be important as I explore this.

Horses have a higher flight instinct than people, they are quicker to look for a way out when things get stressful or boring. We humans have confronted that problem simplistically with round pens and ropes to make sure they can’t get away. Once they can’t get away, we can train with as much dust as we want. Create a large disparity between what a horse knows how to do and what he must do and he has to learn a great deal quickly. His anxiety and worry will create dust and chaos as he tries to run, and finds he can’t. If he can’t escape, he will have to learn to cope with whatever challenges he faces.

Here is where I offer up my most sincere and humble apologies to all the horses I have hurried though the learning process. I had tasks I wanted to accomplish, a strong skill set I thought we needed to build together and never enough time. Pair that with my lifetime of riding horses, an over confident perception of my own skills, and young or green horses with lower confidence in their individual skills….  My desire for a state of Flow, to be in the Zone, or even the high of exceeding my known skills often led to pushing horses faster and harder than was optimal.

I believe, like an athlete building muscle, there is a certain amount of stress that can be productive in learning, but the more stress you put on something, the more recuperation time you have to allow for. In my history, I haven’t always made the time for both, and while I am proud of the relationships I have with my horses and what we have accomplished together, I feel I have seen the break down of confidence sometimes because I was in a hurry. In that hurry, training through the dust seemed the best and most exciting way to proceed.

As I turn over a new leaf here in 2011. I have entitled this blog Meditations on Equestrian Art. In a relationship, the skill set of both parties must be considered. So how do we place a horse and rider of different skill levels into that amazing state of flow together? How do we find that place where time disappears, learning happens with inexplicable ease, and the joy of the moment outweighs any possible future reward.

Within the art of meditation I believe is a possible answer. There is an entire world of introspective challenge that I can control for myself. My awareness of self can be my malleable playground keeping me firmly grounded in Flow, as I allow my horse to walk step by step through his developmental process. Where I might otherwise drift into boredom with his pace of learning, I can reach toward self-awareness, ever challenging myself to feel more deeply. We will learn our physical tasks together, while we grow as individuals side by side.

A relationship naturally seeks to combine the skill set of both partners. I now think this can be best developed if I pay close attention to the “Dust” or chaos, and respect it as a temporary lapse in partnership and a mismatch between skill sets. Perhaps a little “Dust” is just a catalyst that focuses us,  however, beyond a certain level I believe it is counter productive and tends to erode confidence and trust.

When I begin this project next year with a new horse, I will have the added incentive to be aware. If I create too much dust in THIS project, this horse will have the freedom to walk away. Training in flow, is the only way to go this time.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

Here is some of a presentation I did in 2009, based on the ideas of training in Flow.

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

A story of Mustangs

I want to tell you a story: a story to rescue you from the wintery cold of January and take you to sand and sun, heat and salty sweat. I may live in the damp and temperate Pacific Northwest, but my mind refuses to stay put. It forever drifts south bringing me dreams of languid afternoons and dry open vistas.

Nevada in August of 2005 was all of that for me. The Mustangs of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, scheduled to be rounded up and adopted out, drew me south. Sheldon has a reputation for beautiful wild horses and a desire to keep the numbers low enough that other species of wildlife have room to thrive. Their systems of managing the Mustangs are not as organized and stable as the Bureau of Land Management, so at that time, they needed adopters who could be there shortly after the horses were driven into the corrals. Adopting them out quickly- no branding, and no pre-adoption health care. Just the basics of placing horses in good homes. That suited me.

I wanted a horse as close to natural as possible. With the transition from wild to domestic as smooth as it could be. I wanted a horse that had been tough enough to live in the wild for years, a horse that knew it didn’t need me to survive. I wanted to be the first person to offer that horse a partnership, and learn from that horse learning to trust and bond with me of it’s own free will.

As always, this story is bigger than just me and what I wanted. Though that is perhaps what propelled it, I had incredible support from family and friends and it was an adventure for all of us. Cameron, my daughter, 3 years old at the time, left San Juan Island with me and we made our way to Seattle/Tacoma airport to pick up her Dad, returning home from a month of work in Russia. East we drove, to buy the perfect stock trailer- lightweight enough to be pulled behind the Land Rover, small, simple, roomy, and, excitingly bought with the money I had made working at a horse farm when I was sixteen. Money put away for a rainy day, and gloriously spent eleven years later in the hot August sun of eastern Washington. From there we headed south to Nevada, towing a trailer, newly named Mozambique.

Being adventurous, we couldn’t resist taking the shortcut that looked like it would save us hours of travel time. By the time we realized it was not even paved, and lead us through some pretty wild places, we were committed and loved every moment of it. I am sure our Land Rover Zambezi was grateful to finally get some off road time, living up to it’s Land Rover heritage.

Winnemucca, Nevada- way more fun to say, than visit. Except for the draw of the Mustangs of course. There we met up with Kaitlyn, thirteen years old, a student of Natural Horsemanship with me, and brilliant with horses already. Kaitlyn came along with her Dad and sister, there to help her pick out her new Mustang partner. The six of us wound our way across the valley to the corrals, in awe of the choices that lay before us. Of the two hundred plus wild horses brought in only a couple of days before, We could only take two home…

Blistering heat, sweat dripping without pause, patches of skin burnt to a crisp where sun screen had been forgotten, all that was of no particular importance to Kaitlyn and me. The horses, it was all about the horses. They had been brought through the sorting chute shortly after being rounded up, teeth looked at briefly to get a rough idea of age, an orange number painted on the rump and a tag strung under the throatlatch with the same number. Then they were separated into three groups: stallions, mares with foals, and mares without foals. We were given a printout, with the horses’ numbers, and corresponding ages. I was looking for a mare between the ages of 4 and 7, old enough to know herself and who she was, young enough to be open minded about all the changes she would be faced with. Kaitlyn was looking for a younger mare. One she could grow up along with.

I saw Saavedra in the first few moments I was there. She caught my eye, a flash of sleek black in the midst of the crowd- then I lost sight of her, and didn’t see her again until two days later. The horses were frightened of people, they would huddle at the far end of the paddock, until someone walked to the other side, and then they would all flee as far away from humans as they could manage. We spent those three days crouched behind binoculars asking each other things like. “What do you think of number 132? Tucked behind the bay horse… wait she’ll come out in a moment, I’m sure she will…”

We watched the stallions too, not because we were considering adopting one, just because they were amazing. The sheer power those horses possess takes your breath away. And when they hurl themselves against the metal panels, testing the unfamiliar limits of space, they make you feel small, and humble. They are raw horse power of which I have not seen the like of anywhere in domesticity.

After days of watching the horses interact with each other, poring over our conformation books, talking about the pros and cons of potential partners….  Kaitlyn and I made up our minds. She chose a yearling filly she named Yahzi, I chose a five year old mare I named Saavedra. I am still amazed, the first mare that caught my eye was the one who came home with me, even after considering all the others. Looking back, I have no doubt at all I chose the perfect horse for me.

They drove as many horses as they needed to, through the chutes that day, in order to sort our two out. The handlers deemed Yahzi a sweetheart who would adapt to her new life quickly. They warned me to be careful of Saavedra, she still bears the white hairs on her shoulders where she cut herself repeatedly, fighting as she came through the chutes. After the papers were signed, and the official necessities organized, they herded our mares into the trailer and closed the door quickly behind them. We had thirteen hours to drive, a ferry to catch, and another hour and a half after that before we could let them out. We were given specific instructions NOT to open the doors before we were backed up securely to their new pens where they would live until they learned to trust people.

Thirteen hours driving non-stop, and three-year-old little girls strapped in car seats are not a natural combination. So, the drive had to happen through the night. John and I switched off, taking cat naps when we were not driving, though John did the lion’s share, letting Cameron and I sleep peacefully most of the way. The Mustangs traveled restlessly, running circles in the trailer when large trucks thundered past. The Land Rover stoically did it’s best to maintain course in spite of the horse power behind, trying to pull us off the road and back into the wild.

Horses reproduce more quickly than their natural predators are able to keep up with. The land they are given to live on at a certain point is not adequate for their numbers, so I understand why people manage them they way they do. I am grateful I am allowed to offer a home to and learn from such magnificent animals. My heart still aches for them though, as they are torn from the freedom they grew up in, and must adjust to sharing their lives with us.

We made it safely home to our island paradise. Saavedra and Yahzi came out of the trailer to a land of lush green they had probably never seen the likes of. To this day, I think they can’t quite believe the wealth of food laid out at their feet day in and day out. It is a far cry from the sparse sage brush of Nevada.

As the adoption rules state, the mares were kept in small pens until they could be reliably haltered and led. When my mother, a great advocate for freedom, let me know she believed we could get them out of those pens and released free in the pasture with our other horses within 10 days. I didn’t believe her. I wanted to do things gently, and as slowly as necessary. I know people often train wild horses with classic round pen techniques, running them until they are willing to face their fear of people. They often put a halter and lead on, letting the horse drag it around for days, so they submit to the fact that someone can pick up the end of the rope any time and bend the horse to their will. I wanted none of that.

My thought was to take those ideas of pressure and release and lower the intensity, lower it until I felt it was a process in which the horses could be willing partners. Kaitlyn and I took it to a game of eye contact and release of eye contact. Just staring at those horses was enough pressure. It didn’t take them long to figure out, if they stared back at us, we would shift our attention, perhaps sit down, or pretend to read a book. (the original outline of the plan was to actually read the book, but we found the process was much too exciting to be able to do anything other than revel in the moment). Teaching those horses to make eye contact led very quickly to their being curious. Once they were curious, it was an easy step to sharing space and touch, then rope and halter were accepted simply, without fanfare.

My mother was right. Within ten days, they were free again. This time out on the lush green grass of the Pacific Northwest. To this day, they have never questioned their basic partnership with people. It still amazes me they were willing so quickly to give their trust. It is a gift I hope I never take for granted.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

Instincts and Leadership

Trail riding, without any gear on my horse’s head, gives me a thrill every time I do it. The feeling that runs up my spine is inexplicably sublime. It’s amusing to look back in time and see how far I have come. Years and years ago, I remember studiously working away at my dressage skills, while my friend (and later mentor) Sus Kellogg galloped circles around the field below, her horse wearing nothing but a saddle and a string around his neck. I didn’t understand how that could be interesting to her. I thought, “Really, what are they achieving out there?” It is amusing how real and logical that perspective seemed to me at the time. Now, years later, I get it. I understand the high that comes from that bond and that trust, making the gear, piece by piece, obsolete.

In the upcoming project, I am proposing to do it all backwards. Instead of slowly eliminating the devices that give me control, as the bond and the trust warrant it, I am proposing to start without the devices of control and build the bond and the trust first. Daunting? Yes!

So spending time with less gear on my mare, Saavedra, as we hit the trails this week has flooded my mind with new thoughts. When she is in top form, it is outrageous fun: communicating with her using my focus, my body weight, my legs on her sides, my fingertips on her neck. Then, at times, we will reach a point on the trail where she feels my decisions are not ones she would like to share. I would like to go right; she would like to go left. That is when I am grateful for my tools. All it takes is picking up the string tied around the base of her neck to convince her my direction is really the way we should go together. A bit farther down the trail perhaps we come across a plastic bag someone has carelessly left at the base of a tree. Her instincts start to kick in (flight). It is as if she says, “See, I told you we shouldn’t have come this way. Now let me get us out of here, away from that thing!” And then again I am glad for the string around her neck. I can run that string a little farther up toward her head, where she is more sensitive. The pressure there causes her to turn her nose and look at what she thought was frightening. If she can look at it, instead of running away, and take a few deep breaths, she realizes it is nothing dangerous after all, and we can go on our way without worry.

I believe tools help us override a horse’s desire to flee from danger. Horses generally run first, think later. Using tools we can put pressure on them to think sooner- to use their partnership skills instead of their prey animal instincts. The question that now arises for me is: without those tools to help me override the flight instincts, how am I going to stay safe with my horse?

Two solutions come to mind. First, I set my horse up to succeed. I ONLY move outside his comfort zone one small bit at a time, so we cultivate the habit of thinking through challenges together. If the challenges we face are only slightly more difficult than what he is already confident in, then he may never feel he has to react out of fear to stay safe. The second solution is to build a strong base of sensitivity to yielding from pressure on the ribs. When a horse is afraid of something, or doesn’t want to go in a certain direction, we would normally use the sensitivity of his nose to manage the instinctual responses that follow. Another option would be to look at the physiology that comes up with fear and manage that, before the flight instinct kicks in. As Pat Parelli so eloquently says. “You gotta know what happens before what happens happens.” When fear comes up for a horse, they get tight, their breathing gets shallow and then exaggerated, their neck comes up, their body gets rigid and straight, as an arrow prepared for flight. If we can use pressure on the ribs to ask them to soften, yield and break that straight-as-an-arrow flight position, I believe it gives them a chance to take a breath, and reconsider whether flight is actually necessary. Once the flight instinct subsides, you have a horse who will consider being your partner and follow your leadership once again.

Then, the leadership question arises. What is the difference between leadership and domination? Carolyn Resnick’s videos have been thought provoking for me this week. She says a leader makes requests, and makes those requests at a time when the answer is likely to be yes. A dominant makes demands, and there are repercussions if those demands are not met. I think it is probably not an either/or situation in real life. It is more shades of gray, a continuum any of us may fall somewhere on, on any given day. Mark Rashid writes beautifully about the difference between passive leaders and dominant leaders. Dominant leaders are tolerated, challenged often, and respected only as much as necessary. Passive leaders are revered, rarely if ever challenged, and usually respected without question. If we think of it as a continuum: on one end, the passive leader whose requests are respected, the other end the dominant leader whose demands and shows of force are respected. I think we all would like to get as close to the passive leader side of the spectrum as possible; it is just easier said than done.

Natural Horsemanship has attempted to teach people how to do this as a process, through the use of phases. Always start with a suggestion, then a request, then, if those are not respected, progress to telling the horse what he must do. If then if that still is not respected something uncomfortable must happen to cause the horse to think your leadership is worth respecting next time around. Most Natural Horsemanship methods use this progression with the idea that, as time goes on, the horse will become more and more sensitive to passive leadership and the partnership gradually will become more harmonious.

There are no absolutes in a relationship. Every connection is unique and beautiful in its own right. Wherever each of us falls in the spectrum of leadership, we will learn and grow from it regardless. Because I am venturing into building this relationship without the use of stick or rope, I believe I will be pushed to learn a great deal about what it is to be a passive leader. I have no hooves to kick with, nor teeth suitable for a punishing bite. Without stick or rope, I will be limited in how much I am able to dominate my horse. While I am limited in one area, I will be required to grow in others.

It looks as though this project will be coming at everything backwards. Instead of using dominance to establish respect for passive leadership, I will be building passive leadership from the ground up. Instead of slowly eliminating the devices that give me control, as the bond and the trust warrant it. I will be starting without the devices of control, building the bond and the trust first.

I wonder, approaching everything from the other side, how much will my horse and I accomplish together in one year? Regardless of how large or small our skill set is at the end of the year. I believe the education gained will be above and beyond my imagination.

Here is to relationships! They are each as unique and perfect as a snowflake.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

Wow….. I think that is perhaps the best word for this past week. To start the new year off I presented this project, with the guidelines drawn in broad strokes. I set the next year for contemplation and development of plan. Letting my horses, my students, my friends and family help me pave the way for a process I believed had never been attempted. I began the blog and I was blown away by how many people were interested. Thank you all for your inspiring words of support.

I have begun journaling the inspirations, questions, and challenges each day brings. On Fridays I will compile some of the weeks musings into something hopefully fun and interesting to read. And I will of course keep you abreast of how the plans progress on the nuts and bolts of the project.  Blog by blog, those broad strokes of idea will get filled in with more detail. A year of preparation seems like a very long time in some ways. For me though, all the sudden I am down to only 51 more weeks and I am not sure that is long enough?

There is a good reason we use whips and bridles, saddles, and ropes to develop our relationships with horses. They are big, and very powerful animals. That which draws us to them, also causes us to carefully stay in control. Even those of us who choose to be less controlling of our horses are sensible enough to choose horses whom someone has already “halter broken” and then established habits of obedience to the handler. As human beings we walk horses through a process of submission, and we use our tools to reinforce those habits. Slowly, for some of us, over time, we start eliminating tools, trusting in the horses habit of partnership. Losing first the saddle, then switching the bridle for a halter, then perhaps the halter for a rope or a stick…. This process is breathtaking. The thrill we first felt on riding a horse, being allowed to share that power and speed, and trusting the horse to keep us safe. Every time a piece of control is dropped away, it has to be replaced with trust. When that trust in honored, there is nothing like it.

The challenge I have set myself is driven by curiosity. It is something I want to explore because I think it is fascinating. How much do we actually need the control that makes us feel safe? How much trust would the horse honor if given the chance? How much partnership would the horse offer of his own volition?

I thought this challenge had never been taken on before. The middle of this week I was bought up short by the discovery that someone else has already blazed the path before me. Carolyn Resnick called me up to offer her support, and encouragement. I discovered she has already been there and has written a book about it. At first, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t breaking new ground after all. Then I was awed and flattered that a trainer whose videos had inspired me as a child, had called me up, whole heartedly excited about my project.

So if I am not the first to attempt this, then I now have a compelling sense I am called upon to develop further in some direction what Carolyn started. Her book on the project and videos on her other work arrived in the mail today and I am excited to have a little more insight into the process ahead of me.

Here is the call for help. I am looking for an independent film maker interested in helping me document this process next year, and of course the funding necessary for such an undertaking. Can you help me spread the word? While the path may have been blazed before me, it has never been caught on film. I do believe this journey will be fascinating to many more than just myself.

I am blessed to live in the San Juan Islands. Lush, green and beautiful, I think it would be an incredible back drop for an intriguing question to be played out.

As always, I am curious. Lend me your musings, questions and ideas. Together we will lay a path for new things to be discovered.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

The Project:
One Mustang directly off the range
One trainer
No tools
Just body language

The Goal:
To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

The Challenge:
Without the common tools (bridle, saddle, whip, spurs), or the simple tools (halter, stick, flag) or even the simplest of tools (a rope) What can horse and human develop together?

Using only body language: Can we ride together? Can we move in harmony through all the different gaits? Can we jump? Can we travel together through a simple dressage pattern? Can we navigate a trail class? Can we ride in harmony among other horses and riders? Can we trail ride? Can we perform and inspire others?

There have been many brilliant trainers throughout history who have done all this. However, I don’t know of any, who have done so without the use of tools to dominate at some stage of the process. It is time someone took the challenge.

This Blog is building up to the challenge. For the next year, I Elsa Sinclair, will be posting once a week on the development of ideas. In 2012 the real work begins. One mustang, one trainer, one year.

As I travel through 2011, I have an amazing community of friends, family, and horses, who are going to be developing me for the challenge. Life is an unbelievable teacher. Causing me to think, allowing me to test out processes, discussing, debating, and creating new ideas.

So I invite you to follow along, read the blog, laugh at the meandering path of inspiration, and share with me your thoughts.

This is only the beginning. So to get started, I invite you to head over to the “About” page. Get to know me, the trainer side of the project, and let me know what you think of the challenge 😉

For more pictures and information visit www.equineclarity.com