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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.


Specificity and skipped steps


It seems Myrnah and I have reached a step in the process that is not as graceful as all the previous steps have been. Specificity is proving to be more difficult for us than anything we have done yet. I don’t know if I am excited by the challenge, or disappointed in myself for not setting up the course of learning better. A little of both I think.


Last week was all about traveling together, developing our ease and relaxation in movement. Myrnah more or less got to choose where we traveled; I just asked her to keep moving. Everything Myrnah and I have done together so far has had a large element of choice on her part. If I wanted to trim her hooves, I let her decide where she wanted to stand to have them done; and, if she changed her mind, I picked up my trimming tools, followed her to the new spot, and started again. If I asked her to turn, I wasn’t too particular about where we were headed so long as she yielded the direction asked. If I asked her to back up and she turned around in the process, that was fine too, so long as she stepped back for me. We were building a basis of communication, and I wanted all the pieces to feel easy. Little by little she became more accurate in her responses and I was thrilled.

This week I set up a pattern to build specificity. Walking together, rest in movement, the gate open between the woods and the arena, Myrnah could take me wherever she liked. New addition to the game: I added a couple of tires, double-stacked in the arena. If Myrnah was interested in investigating them, we could stop and rest there; everywhere else we needed to keep moving.


The idea is to teach Myrnah to sidle up to something (like a stack of tires) to let me get on. The first step in that is to get her to be interested in something tall that I can stand on. It worked like a charm and pretty soon those tires were like a magnet- the only place she wanted to be.


From the first step of investigating the tires to get a rest from perpetual movement, we built to my standing on the tires while we both took a break. Then on Wednesday I started getting specific; Myrnah needed to put her side to the tires before we could both relax. As soon as she was in position, I would sit down and take some time to just be still with her.


Getting Myrnah in exactly the right spot beside the tires was challenging for her. Anything so specific is new to us, and she didn’t want to do it. While I was happy to give it up and go walking instead, she didn’t want to do that either. She wanted to just rest at the tires in any position she chose, and so Myrnah started pinning her ears at me.


This is where I think there is a balance to be struck. “Confidence-in-one’s-self” and “confidence-in-others” need to be in balance. Myrnah has a great deal of natural self-confidence. When her confidence in me is lacking, it is easy for her to start being angry. Wednesday she had a perfectly good idea of what we should do together: (standing relaxed at the stacked tires) My idea of alternating walking and standing at a specific spot next to the tires seemed like a terrible idea to her. Too much confidence in herself and not enough in me lead to some angry gestures.


I am generally intolerant of anger, so I jumped right on it, and thought, what do I do with my other horses to build their confidence in leadership? I work on our yields: front-end, back-end, and sideways. Myrnah’s front-end yields are soft and easy; her back-end yields are relatively undeveloped. Back-end yields are something I kept putting off until our bond felt stronger. Well obviously here was a gap in her education and a missed step in the process.


What happened when I went to push her hind end away from me Wednesday? She told me NO. I pushed harder and she showed me she had feet to kick me with… hmmm, pushing harder obviously wasn’t going to get me anywhere I wanted to go. (and yes I was thinking all this would be so much easier if I had rope right now and could just make her do it).


So take a deep breath and break it down. We take a walk and then I play with gently putting my hand at the back of her belly to suggest she just look toward me with her nose. If her nose tips toward me, her hip will at least energetically yield, even if it isn’t physically apparent. The problem is she won’t even do that.  On this day a hand on the side of her belly puts Myrnah into a strong opposition reflex, sending me running out of the kick zone. So I yell and jump up and down and clap my hands and run in circles driving her nose away from me until she looks at me with curiosity, and comes back with her ears forward. Then I sit on the ground, breathing hard, and wishing I hadn’t put off this step in the training. Breath caught, we try it again.


Sometimes, if I get my tact just right her nose comes toward me when I place a hand on the back of her belly, and I quickly reward that by moving my hand onto her withers and simply walking with her. Sometimes my tact is off, (or hers is), and I get the opposition of her hind end suddenly thrown in my direction; then I have to resort to acting like a crazy person, running around, moving her front end away from me until she musters up the positivity to look at me and ask what in the world I am doing, and wouldn’t it be nicer if we both stopped and just hung out together. ( I always say yes to that)


A horse’s confidence in others is based on their respect and their respect is based on their willingness to yield physical space. Willingness equals a positive attitude. When Myrnah started showing aggression, I knew her confidences were getting out of balance and we needed to build a little more respect and confidence in me, her person, and hopefully her leader.


I wish I had spent more time teaching her to yield her hind end earlier in the game. Without rope or stick I wasn’t sure I could, but now I see it is a critical piece that is fundamental to later progress.


On the up side, Myrnah’s extreme opposition prompted my own desperate measures, which caused her to look at me in a new and curious frame of mind. Her ear pinning seems to be melting away, her specificity of standing exactly at the mounting block has improved dramatically, and her offers of focus, arc and softness in her body while we walk together are so beautiful they make me want to cry.

So thank you to the exercise of specificity for showing me our missed step in the process. I love everything I am learning through this, even if I don’t always get it right the first time.

Elsa Sinclair


  1. You gave Myrnah great freedoms from the first day out the trailer into your protected ‘realm (How else do I describe your Island jewel of stables and pastures in the velvet green of the Northwest?), so could she be, now, making up rules to fit circumstances (‘I’m going to stand HERE until I want stand over THERE)?
    Perhaps you have a greater success with your project than anticipated—she is confident to tell EXACTLY how she feels, what she wants and now expects you to pick up on it.
    Like a person.
    Isn’t what this project is, in part, treating a wild animal like a partner who communicates without fear of correction or rejection? If so, you are way ahead of the rope-and-stick techniques. So you missed a step—THAT’S FANTASTIC! Now you get to ‘do-over’ like with a human friend…who has to accept your re-attempt, having to cover something like hind-end yielding.
    You have an intense and interesting long-term conversation going here….person to person…. 😉 Michael

  2. I believe this is a very interesting development Elsa! I agree with Michael that Myrnah showing exactly how she feels is in fact a great thing. You would have reason to worry if she would just shut down instead. Her showing her personality to you is a gift.
    However I do understand your thoughts of perhaps having missed a step. On the other hand… have you indeed missed that step? Perhaps you could look at it like this: isn’t it just the essence of a process like this that the steps are shown to you exactly at the right place and time? And that this moment was apparently the right time for this particular step? Not earlier, like you thought, but right now? There’s an interesting thing about balance, in my view: balance is always taking care of itself. We don’t have to worry about it, because any imbalance will always be shown to us anyway, we only have to keep our senses open, like you are doing all the time.

    A practical question: have you taught her to first just tolerate your hand at the ‘yielding spot’ on her belly, without trying to yield her? I noticed with my own horses that this is often a forgotten step that should precede any attempt of yielding, no matter on what part of the horse, e.g. head, shoulder, belly, hind end. Especially touching the head and hind end seems to provoke feelings of irritation very easily (in my experience). Therefore I think it is important to first have them accept a hand on the spot 100% before attempting to give some kind of cue with it. But perhaps you already did this ;-).
    When you ask her to yield your hand on her belly and she responds by throwing her hind end in your direction, would it then be possible to keep your hand very lightly on that spot until she stops coming towards you, or would that be too dangerous (I don’t know how agressive she is exactly)?
    Another question: I’m curious, can you explain why you would ‘have to resort to acting like a crazy person, running around etc.’ when Myrnah throws her hind end at you?

    P.S.: are you allowing yourself in this project to use food as a reward? For instance, when Myrnah does something very well, could you fetch her a bunch of grass from the other side of the fence? Or do you consider food also to be one of the forbidden tools?

  3. I am following this adventure with fascination. I applaud and admire your patience, perseverance and imagination and trying to learn all I can from your experiment. Thank you and “bonne continuation” Elsa and Myrnah – and how is Cleo coming on?

    • Cleo is amazing. I included a picture and a little update in this weeks blog. Just for you 😉 I will try to include her more in the future, she really is a huge help to me thinking though my processes. Glad you are enjoying the ride with me, pass the blog on to anyone you think might like it, this is for everyone 🙂

  4. Elsa,

    I think Myrnah’s reaction wasn’t a “hole” but rather part of her moving forward by seeing where YOU are at. Could it be she is getting confident enough about other aspects of her learning and accepting that she now is checking in with you to check your leadership abilities?
    Or perhaps she IS that sensitive. But only you can judge that and deal with it as you think you should.
    Regardless the reason, I think it is a wonderful thing that happened as it allows the both of you much more avenues of learning.
    And we are the awe-inspired recipients!
    Thank you!

    • Maggie, you and Shitani were a big part of helping me think through the blog this week. Thanks for working through the ideas with me, I see everything clearer when I can talk about it all. 🙂 Elsa

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Last week I fell more into a training routine when I pushed harder than usual to try to get the hind end yield. When I realized I felt I had missed a step in our process, I then felt we SHOULD have been able to do it by now. Without the training tools on hand to help me threaten her into submission, Myrnah kicked at me under that kind of pressure. Then when safety felt at stake, I maxed out the tools I did have to re-engaged her: running around clapping my hands, yelling…. and then getting quiet when she came to me with her ears forward again. Simple cause and effect: pressure to make the unwanted action unpleasant, release to make the wanted action pleasant. […]

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