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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


  1. “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.”

    Dear Elsa,
    I have only just discovered your blog and am undertaking a reading from the very beginning. Only through Janurary’s entries am I, and so many things you have shared are a reflection of where I am now in my life with horses. This is something, actually, that I am finding with horse lovers all over the world–an evolution unfolding before our eyes!

    I sure appreciate your notion that you are proceeding in this “project” in a backwards fashion–and you do a great job of illuminating the difference between what you are undertaking and what is typical whether it be traditional dressage or Natural Horsemanship. What I want to relay is that in my mind these past few years lies an intuitive sense that coming to the horse with only yourself and your intention for mutuality is the way humans and horses came to be together from the very beginning (Neolithic or earlier) and for me (I don’t believe humans ate horses first and domesticted them later) this represents a “primal connection”…everything else seems to be an adulteration to this in my present opinion. So, I don’t think you are coming at things backwards at all–rather you are reclaiming the approach to horse/human relationships that was our original heritage!

    Now, I must go off to be with our “wild” horses and save reading more of your journey for later.

  2. It is almost as I read my own words. The things you talk about here are going through my mind every day and I am fascinated by these thoughts and questions. This makes the journey with horses so interesting and beautiful.

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