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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.

“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

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


  1. Dear Elsa,
    Another fine lesson-blog, matching where I am currently training, IMAGINATION—and I remembered my cross-country ski training coach’s top tip, “Leave it wanting more, with a little snow on your head.”(Meaning try each time a little harder until you make a minor mistake) Winning advice. Thanks for the chart, what a great way to resolve inner and outer misdirection into focused intent! And that video is exactly what we were discussing, a bunch of ‘bites’ eventually collected as a full DVD. On with the QUEST! Love, Michael

  2. That’s a great post. Thanks for posting that chart.


  3. Thanks for your whole work on this website. Kim

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  4. This is a comment on the whole wonderful story of you and Myrna, and the other horses who contribute to the story. Its fantastic! I’ve been reading it slowly over the last few weeks, looking forward to the next instalment every time I come back to it and a little bit sad to have finished it now. There are so many words of wisdom and beautiful thoughts, so many points that are so relevant to me and my gorgeous horse, and that I want to tell people about. At the moment ‘looking for the yes’, and ‘movement, connection, quiet’ are meaning so much to me but I feel sure that I’ll be coming back to look at it again and find that different things will resonate. So this is just to say thank you for your honesty and for undertaking the project, and for being able to translate the things that horses spend so long trying to teach us so clearly into English! If you ever come to Australia I’d love to know!

    • Katy,
      I am so glad this is not over, and you get to enjoy more with me. I would love to visit with you! I am sure a trip to Australia is somewhere in my future! Hang in there, I have to get the movie made, and then I get to think about the next pieces of the journey!

6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] we do that links back to one of my first blogs about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s chart and the state of […]

  2. […] relationship with our horse. There is a sense of flow in relationship as there is in anything else. Csikszentmihalyi’s chart is applicable here as […]

  3. […] are looking for the sense of flow where challenge and skill are both within range, the challenge at hand pushing the skill to evolve. […]

  4. […] a perfect world the majority of our training is spent in a state of flow where we can see the whole picture, negativity and positivity in balance, the emotional outlook on […]

  5. […] Enjoyment is the magical feeling of being in the “zone” or the state of “flow” […]

  6. By Choosing Life | Meditations on Equestrian Art on 19 Nov 2015 at 9:30 pm

    […] feel hard, then messy, and then, as we get comfortable, it feels gorgeous. This can be plugged into Csikszentmihalyi’s chart that I love to think about when addressing the state of flow. When we look at change, we look at […]

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