Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 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.

The Simple Things

Fingers combing through a knotted mane, those first hesitant steps- horse hooves following human feet, fear turning into curiosity, horse noses rustling across coats, hands, faces and tangling in windblown hair.

It’s the simple things in life that make it worth living and also send time speeding past in a blinding flash. I can’t believe it has been an entire week since I last blogged, yet here I am again.

Myrnah and Cleo are progressing at what feels like light speed. I  lose all track of time when I am with them, and each new development fills me with a giddy rush.

From an outside perspective our progress is slow and gradual. I sit down to watch the video we have taken and it amazes me to see how long we have actually spent working on something. In real time, I am so immersed in our process it passes by in a flash; in hindsight on video, I realize the hours and hours the mares and I have amassed together.

Cleo continues to be more hesitant about sharing space with me, yet she is far more curious and interested, almost desperate to interact. I am listening to her this morning: walking, walking walking, through the sheds, round the paddocks and back again, I am sure pushing Myrnah along in front of her. She isn’t mean at all, just restless. She needs more to do, and when I show up to spend time with her, stroke her, practice having her give to pressure, comb through her mane… her relief from boredom seems  palpable. She loves being social and entertained.

Cleo is a riot of fun, still caught between the extremes of fear and curiosity. It is exciting for me to see the space between fear and curiosity grow as she learns to be more comfortable just existing. If I move quickly anywhere behind her she is quick to bolt away, and when she approaches me it is still usually with careful hesitant steps. Yet you can see her wanting more. The other night I was sitting with Myrnah while she ate hay in the shed. Cleo came in, one careful step at a time, and then, half way to us, she had to reach over the sidewall and nudge a shovel with her nose, causing it to fall with a clatter and a bang. Myrnah and I sat there watching the whole thing and were unsurprised by the clatter. Cleo jumped a foot in the air and looked at me accusingly as though the surprising noise was somehow my fault.

I just want to laugh all the time when I am with Cleo, though I know she needs so much more quiet understanding to develop steadiness. She seems to carry a desire for more entertainment wherever she travels. We put the halter on this week, and started developing the communication about following the feel of the lead with her nose and neck. Perhaps the feet will follow soon, but for now I am thrilled with the ease of the small developments. The first time of putting the halter on was beautifully uneventful, like she had been wearing a halter all her life. With Cleo it is going to be an ongoing balance between progressing constantly forward to satiate her need for entertainment, and going slow enough to help her develop steadiness and comfort in life.

Myrnah is a love- gentle and kind and happy to just be with me. She is happy to be stroked all over, pick up her hooves for me, and she is getting quick to walk over to me any time I ask. Our relationship seems companionable and easy. We have been practicing turning her nose toward me from pressure of fingers wrapped under her chin. That happens from a feather-light touch for the most part now. Then we progressed to asking her to turn towards me from one hand behind her ears and one over her nose. Yesterday we were able to lose the hand on her nose and she turned toward me from only the hand behind her ears. It’s a simple thing, and also one of those things that makes me grin from ear to ear.

If all goes as planned I will be riding Myrnah before too long, and when I do it will be without any tack. Right now we have gotten to the point that she can turn her nose from pressure right behind her ears. Little by little we are going to work that understanding back, until I can turn her with my fingertips on the sides of her withers. Each little step along this path gives me confidence the future developments may really all work out. Time will tell, yet the future looks pretty bright from here.

This week we took the tall metal panels away from some of the wood fences. I felt confident the horses were not going to jump out, and with the metal panels we were able to make an extension paddock into the grass out one of the gates from their main paddock. Myrnah will follow me around now, if I am carrying a bucket of fresh cut grass and agree to share it with her every so often. Cleo will follow Myrnah. So every day at some point I call them over and the three of us make our way to the grass paddock together. The fact that I take them to good places and share what food I have with them helps them to see me as a leader.

While they are grazing I will sit in the shade of the hawthorn tree and just spend time with them. Occasionally though we play a leadership game: I stand up and stare at one of them. If it is Cleo she will stare back at me for a long time, all grazing forgotten. I think that is important- the two of us paying attention to each other for as long as it takes to get comfortable together. If she goes to graze again I take a step closer; if she takes a step toward me I sit down or look away. As soon as she touches me with her nose I go back to sitting in the shade, games are put aside and grazing continues. Myrnah is quick now: the moment I look at her she leaves her grass and comes right over to say hi, nuzzling my fingers or face to check in. She has figured out it is a small thing I am asking for, and the sooner she comes over to say hi, the sooner I sit down and relax, and the sooner we can all go back to doing what we were doing. Myrnah is very practical and easygoing that way. I feel incredibly fortunate she was the horse that chose me for the project.

Looking through pictures I found this one that Cameron took of us the other day. Though Myrnah is still very thin with all her ribs showing, is it my imagination or is she getting wider? What do you think? Is she pregnant?

We will just have to keep taking pictures and see what happens. One step at a time we will travel through everything together. I am glad I can share this with everyone. It is all way too much fun to be kept to myself!

Elsa Sinclair

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.



Rules of Engagement

I am sitting down to write this on Wednesday, exactly one week into the project. One week ago we pulled in the drive, big red truck and a trailer full of mustangs. Deliriously tired, we unloaded them into their new home and the year’s challenge had commenced. I blogged on Friday still running high on the new thrill, and then the exhaustion set in for real- no matter how much I rested it seemed almost impossible to catch up.


It is hard for me to imagine how Myrnah feels. Rounded up by helicopter on Saturday, loaded into a trailer with her herd and driven three hours to the corrals in Burns, Oregon on Sunday. Monday, watched by strange people with binoculars and cameras, the herd constantly moving back and forth along the fence line as far away as they could manage, searching for an escape. Tuesday, herded through the chutes, branded, vaccinated, wormed, separated off into a paddock by herself, and then, in a chaos of galloping hooves, run into a small trailer with a horse she had never met. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning demanded a constant shifting of weight to stay balanced as we traveled through an onslaught of lights, sounds, and traffic- a general bombardment of the senses with all things new.


Tired as I was, I am sure it was nothing compared to the exhaustion Myrnah was recovering from this week.


I don’t know if that exhaustion helped or hindered us. Regardless, I am surprised and pleased by how quickly everything is evolving.


Wednesday: I spent three hours with the horses building advance and retreat of eye contact, sharing space and allowing them to touch me. Myrnah progressed to letting me approach and reach out to her, her nose reaching out to me in return. Cleo was less interested so I thought here was the perfect opportunity to treat them differently: Myrnah, the horse for the experimental project (no tools) and Cleo, the horse to train with the usual tools. So, when Cleo was not interested in me, instead of taking the time to go slow with advance and retreat of eye contact, I chose to move her around using the fences to help her feel the pressure I wanted her to associate with avoiding me. It is a big space with lots for her to hide behind, so I only moved her around slowly. Mostly walk, some trot unintentionally. Turning her and moving her again and again until she was willing to look at me, repeating when she looked away. It worked, I got the desired result of her firmly focused on me any time I requested it… but it felt an empty victory. I didn’t like the degree of force I had used to get her to that point. I liked they way I got there with Myrnah, which lead me to the decision to treat them the same, at least until it was time to put a halter on Cleo.


So here are the rules.

1. The horses always have an exit route open.

Any time they feel too much pressure, they can walk away. When I approach, I do my best to never block their escape. Have I gotten it wrong sometimes? Unfortunately yes. The first day I got kicked at once by Myrnah when I approached and she felt trapped between me and Cleo. Sure, it wasn’t a fence I pushed her into but without an exit route available; flight turns into fight. I wasn’t very close- no harm done- but it reminded me to stay tuned into the rules I had set myself.

2. Anytime the horse wants a rest all they have to do is reach out with their nose.

I started developing this communication the first time I reached out to the horses. All they needed to do was reach toward me in return, and I would walk away, or turn away, or sit down. They reach toward me, and all pressure comes off. If I want them to be willing partners, they need to feel like they have some control of their situation. They need a positive way to say NO. If I don’t give them a way to say no, their only choices, when they get overwhelmed, are to run or fight. When they reach out to me, I stop everything, take a deep breath, and then, when they are unconcerned, I start again.

Thursday: Cleo started getting curious, still very hesitant about me though. I kept our interactions brief and frequent, either her choosing to come touch me followed by me walking away, or me reaching out to her and walking away after we touched- the back of my hand to the front of her nose. Myrnah was happy to be stroked over most of her body, only rarely reaching back to stop me with her nose.


Friday: They both seemed completely at ease stomping in and out of the trailer to clean up the hay from the trip, even with me sitting only a few feet away. Myrnah seemed comfortable being stroked all over her body, ears, eyes, legs and tail… I even think I may have found a few itchy spots, though her response is very subtle. Cleo kept walking over to me, sniffing me all over and then shaking her head like I smelled bad… only to do it again and again. It is awesome to see that curiosity.


Saturday: Myrnah started walking away sometimes, not like she didn’t want to be with me, just like she had some other places she wanted to go. I would just rest my hand on her withers and walk with her; eventually we are going to travel together, we might as well start playing with the idea now. Interestingly, she took me right into the trailer, all the way to the back, where we hung out as she cleaned up the last bits of hay. I can’t believe she was wild one week ago- I know domestic horses that are not that trusting! Cleo definitely wants to be part of the action, and got right between Myrnah and me to let me know it was her turn at one point. She really only trusts me when I stay in front of her, though she did let me stroke her neck and take the number tag off.


Sunday: I walked in the trailer to hang out with Myrnah only to have Cleo tell her to get out because she wanted to get in with me. Cleo got in, and then Myrnah got in again with her front feet just behind Cleo. So there we were all together in the trailer, me thinking, This is awesome that they both feel so comfortable with me in a very tight space. Then I realized I didn’t want to move and scare them out, so I was essentially stuck there until they decided to go do something else. There was little hay left, they were just cleaning up bits left on the floor and occasionally nuzzling me; nonetheless we were in there for about forty-five minutes before a fox ran across the paddock and gave them something more interesting to investigate. By that time it was fully dark and I was glad to go in to bed.


Monday: Cleo let me stroke her neck and back as far as the top of her croup, and down her front legs as far as the knees. I am keeping our interactions brief and frequent so she doesn’t get overwhelmed. The wonderful side effect of this is that she doesn’t want me to leave when I do. She watches me with Myrnah keenly and often takes steps in our direction, as though her hesitance and interest are hanging in a balance. Myrnah is picking up all four feet for me now- at first just picking them up and putting them down, and then with practice holding them up a bit longer each time. Her nose she will turn toward me from fingertip pressure, and she thinks about following me as I walk away, but only sometimes and only for a couple of steps.


Tuesday: Cleo let me stroke the full length of her back and over her rump, as well as all the way down her front legs. Running my hands down her lower legs still brings her nose around often, asking me to pause as she adjusts to me being in her space. Sometimes she holds her nose against my hand for awhile and we sit there quietly together; sometimes she just reaches back for a brief check in. Touching her belly or tail still causes her to take a quick step away: she feels too much pressure from that and there is not time to communicate, she can only react. I am sure that will change soon. Every day sees her more confident.

Those are the highlights: Wednesday to Wednesday, week number one. I will give you more next week.



Elsa Sinclair



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.

Meeting Myrnah

(pronounced Meer-nah)

It was 2 a.m. on Monday and I had woken yet again with a thrill of glee running through me. Today was the day the adventure really started. Sleeping on the couch at a good friends house in Seattle, I couldn’t believe that every time I woke up, eyes wide open ready to go, the clock would tell me to go back to sleep- it wasn’t time yet. Finally 3 a.m. rolled around and I was bouncing up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. A few minutes drive west to pick up Margaret, then we were off to Carnation to meet John and head south to Burns, Oregon.

Beautiful scenery driving down 395 through Pendleton and John Day. Great company and the drive went by in a flash. We checked into the hotel and then headed right out to the corrals. The wranglers were working on numbering, branding, vaccinating and worming the horses just in from Three Fingers and they said we were welcome to stay until they finished up for the day. It turned out the Three Fingers gather had finished early; half the horses were in the corrals, the rest were scheduled to arrive in trailers the next day. So John, Margaret, and I drove out around the pens, map and binoculars in hand. The first group was Three Fingers mares not yet sorted through the chutes. The second, Three Fingers mares and foals with numbers and brands freshly in place. Beyond that were the Jackies Butte dry mares, Jackies Butte mares with foals, Kiger dry mares, mares and foals who had been in the pens for a while, older dry mares in the trainer incentive program, Kiger stallions, geldings who had been there for a while, Jackies Butte stallions, and Kiger mares and foals.

Hundreds of horses, all of them temporarily there, waiting for adopters to find them and take them home to a new life. Being an adopter seemed like a huge responsibility- how would I know which horse to choose? The Three Fingers horses have the reputation of being flighty and hard to get close to, yet they were the group most recently brought in from the range and so the most appealing for my particular project. I watched them through my binoculars as they traveled back and forth at the far side of the pen, tightly packed and constantly moving they were difficult to observe. There was one mare though, with a lightning strike blaze on one side of her forehead, who kept looking right at us even when the others were looking desperately for some escape route. She was almost always on the side of the herd closest to us. I liked her herd placement and attitude, yet I dismissed her as being too long and rangy in build. I am usually drawn to a more compact body style. For two hours we watched the horses, and, while I caught glimpses of horses I thought I might be drawn to, they were only glimpses, fleeting and insubstantial. That night in our hotel room Margaret and I went through the video footage, and the mare with the lightning strike blaze kept jumping out at me as she seemed to own the camera, front and center.

The next day we were there at six thirty in the morning to continue the search. Even though there were hundreds of horses to choose from, our criteria narrowed it down to the geldings and mares with no foals. Thank goodness my trailer wasn’t bigger, otherwise it would have been mighty tempting to take a foal home as well.

Midmorning we found ourselves in the covered space watching the horses come through the chutes to have their numbers put on and shots and branding taken care of. It was the Three Fingers mares who were so difficult to see when they were way out in the corrals. This way we could see them up close and get a sense of them from a nearer perspective. They were wild, throwing themselves against the metal panels, trying to climb out, banging and clattering or dropping their noses to the ground to stand shaking in abject fear. Then the mare with the lightning strike blaze came through, quite a bit taller than all the others, and so much calmer. She didn’t try to hide in fear, and while she would shake and pull away as far as possible when you came close, when she had a little space again she would lick her lips and seem to digest all that was going on with a grace none of the other horses seemed to have. At that point I knew she was the mare who needed to come home with me.

Her teeth were checked and they thought she was about three years old. She didn’t have a foal on her, and, when she was separated out to a different pen, she took the change with an easy style. I was in love.

John was torn between three mares: all horses who had been in the pens for a while, beautiful horses, but over the age of three and less adoptable because of that. By the afternoon he had decided on a three-year-old mare from the Stinkingwater herd area- beautiful mare, yet missing the tip of one ear, which is probably the reason she had not been adopted out earlier.

Once we had our horses chosen we thought it would be a week before they were ready to process us out. When they offered to load us up and get us out of there that afternoon, we were surprised and thrilled. That meant John could help us with the drive home instead of flying home ahead of us, Margaret could make it home in time for her boyfriend’s birthday, and I could just get home and started on this project without delay!

We left Burns at four in the afternoon. Driving through the night, over to and up I-5 was fairly quiet. The horses would startle when we were passed and the first freeway experience definitely sent them dancing in the trailer for a bit, but after that all was quiet. We did have one traffic jam for an hour where they were repaving in the middle of the night; even so, we were at the Anacortes ferry landing just before four a.m. in time to catch the four fifteen boat to Friday Harbor and unload the horses in their new home at about six thirty.

The girls came out of the trailer quietly, one step at a time, beautiful, tired, and very alert.

Over the next two days I spent time with them and have been blown away by how quickly they trust me, relaxing into their new environment.

My mare’s name is Myrnah (pronounced Meer-nah) which means beloved. John’s mare is Cleopatra, or Cleo for short.  Myrnah, being fresh from the wild, is a clean slate and very quick to adjust, trusting me to pet her all over her body and take her neck tag off already. Cleo has a little more doubt about humans from her year unhandled in the pens living with all the other horses afraid of people. It is so thrilling to see her break through and reach out to me, her trust growing each day.

We began with advance and retreat of gaze. Looking at them when they were trying to avoid me, looking away when they were interested or curious about me. This led them to investigate me, nuzzle my coat, and taste my hair. Then we played with me approaching round about and without looking at them, spending time sharing space, then we played with me reaching out to them and retreating when they were willing to reach out to me in return. When Myrnah was ready for me to pet her, I felt honored to be given that kind of trust.

All of this is moving much faster than I expected. While I have spent more than three hours a day with them since we got home, the time goes by in a flash and I find I can’t wait to get back out there to play with them again.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next week. I will keep you posted.

Elsa Sinclair

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.

Road Trip!

In a blinding flash, seven months have gone by, and the road trip is now: new tabs on the trailer and wheel bearings attended to, packing bags, checking cameras, hotel reservations, directions, and seemingly endless emails and phone calls working out details for the trip.

My daughter Cameron has decided to stay home with her Dad, leaving this traveling to the crazy adults: John, Margaret and myself. I will miss her youthful view of life and her intuitive advice helping me choose a horse. I understand though: the sixteen hours of traveling we did to get to the beach last week leaves a nine-year-old little girl less than enthusiastic about thirty-two more hours of driving over the next ten days. I leave San Juan Friday morning to work for the weekend, then we leave Seattle Monday morning bright and early, and aim to be back home again on San Juan Tuesday the 16th, new horses in tow. Keep your prayers out for us that everything goes that smoothly.

The first gather of August, Jackies Butte, was completed yesterday with 177 horses brought in and about 75 horses released back into the wild. There is a BLM facebook page (search for Bureau of Land Management – Oregon) if you want to look at more pictures and status updates of the gathers. Here is a page explaining about the current gathers of Jackies Butte and Three Fingers.

It looks like we may miss seeing the gather we were aiming for on Tuesday the 9th. Since Jackies Butte gather completed ahead of schedule, it seems they will be moving right on to gathering the Three Fingers herds, perhaps finishing before we get there. I am of mixed emotions about this. I did want to see the horses gathered in, watching their transition from freedom to captivity, however, I am told it is approximately another three hours drive southeast from Burns where they will set up the temporary pens to gather the Three Fingers herds. From there the horses will be trailered to the main corrals in Burns.

As I am working the weekend before we depart, leaving early is not in the cards for me, so we will let fate play it’s hand and roll with what opportunities are presented. If they are still gathering on Tuesday the 9th, I will be thrilled to go observe. If they are finished, I will be happy to just spend my time watching the horses in the corrals and getting on with the decision-making process.

I will do my best to post next Friday from the road and let you know how the trip is progressing.

Elsa Sinclair