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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.

Training Versus Development

My recognized job title might be that of “Horse Trainer”; my business cards read “Equine Development Specialist”. Are they different or one in the same? The last week has me thinking…. training versus development, what’s the difference?

Here is what I think. Training is building a set of habits or skills in a time frame. Development is setting up the environment to allow growth at ones own rate and speed.

Training conforms the trainee to what we think they should be. Development allows them the freedom to be whatever they are fostering and encouraging the best they can be.

Training follows a predictable path of cause and effect creating results; development is an organic evolutionary process where the positive results are often dramatic and surprising.

What I do is somewhere in the middle. I feel that the grey area between training and development gives me the best of both worlds. Wherever safety might be an issue, I tend toward the predictability of training. Where I want that inexplicably beautiful connection and bond with my horse, I lean toward a developmental process.

With Myrnah, in this project with no tools, I have an opportunity to lean a little farther into development instead of training. Without her full participation in the process I am lost. She has to want to do everything I want to do, because I don’t have any tools to push her into doing things she would rather not.

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.

Training has a time frame in mind and an idea of what the horse should know by now (such as not to kick at me or threaten my safety). The advantage of that method is the predictable results to pressure and release, and the horse seeming to know “wrong from right.” The disadvantage is the beast-of-burden, dull attitude that can occur in any of us when we feel like we should be different than we are. All of us want to be unconditionally loved and appreciated and we cannot really be the best of ourselves when we are told we are not good enough constantly. Horses are no different from people in that respect.

So what might last Wednesday have looked like if I had taken the developmental approach?

First off, when Myrnah started pinning her ears at me in the specificity exercise, I would have slowed way down, spent more time in advance and retreat, spent more time being playful and affirmative, and been less attached to specificity happening any time soon.

Secondly, once I realized the step I had missed, the hind end yield, I would have spent more time quiet and still with my hand on her side, waiting for her to choose her response to my presence, giving her all the time in the world to decide she wanted to yield and work with me, making sure I released my focus and appreciated her the moment our connection and cooperation got stronger.

Thirdly, if she had kicked at me, and I was in a developmental frame of mind, I wouldn’t have let fear dictate my response. Fear caused me to be desperate about getting our cooperative connection back in a hurry. If I hadn’t been afraid of getting hurt or losing out connection, I would have just stepped out of the way and backed off, playing with the gentle intensity of drive and draw just like we did in the beginning of our relationship to bring our connection back and start over.

It’s all about time really. There is a brilliance in each of us that blooms with focus, attention, love, devotion and plenty of time. Under the pressure of a limited time frame, we can get a lot done and feel good about our competence, but the question remains: Is the immediate competency worth the brilliance we sacrifice in the process?

I gave myself a year to train Myrnah without tools. A dear friend said she wished I wouldn’t put a time limit on this process, and I think I now understand her sentiments. None the less as a horse trainer, and an equine development specialist, for my own education, I want to feel the pressure of a time limit. I want to see how close to a developmental process I can keep us in spite of a time frame. Nothing is black and white. Life is shades of grey between extremes. For me seeing the extremes helps me figure out where I would like to stand in the middle ground.

Training versus development is a thought-provoking contrast. While the world might ask me to train horses on a time frame, and I would like to think I am good at it I also hope to get so good at the developmental processes that people see it, and want it and will start to value the brilliance of connection above and beyond physical competence in the moment. Myrnah is here to help me strengthen my skills of development.

So here is to the unique, the surprising and the inexplicable connection between horse and rider. May I have the fortitude and patience to wait for it, nurture it, and encourage it in every way.

Elsa Sinclair

For all who were wondering, Cleo continues to be an amazing horse. Her powers of focus and her desire to connect make working with her a brilliant experience every day. Every time her tension drops another notch and she seems a little more comfortable in her life, I feel like I have just won the lottery. Its a slightly different process than Myrnah’s but I still do my best to keep the ideas of training versus development clear in my thoughts as we progress. Thank you Cleo for continuing to be such a wonderful teacher.


  1. I appreciate your reflections on training and development. Rocky and I live in cowboy country. A society where western horses are trained to work or to compete. Although no one openly criticizes my slow approach where neither of those are my goal, I sometimes feel the pressure to conform coming from within myself. For me it is a development of my self confidence. To be with Rocky in the moment of this day, enjoying him, realizing his potential for development, but being content with small and steady progress – that makes my heart soar. It is between Rocky and me.
    The balance of time for me is the fact that in this part of the world many precious horse souls are sent to auction where their fate is often tragic. The farm where I bought Rocky just sent a truckload of mares and young horses off to that fate. Horses that were bred in hopes of financial return on their bloodlines, but that now are a financial burden. Fine horses sold by the pound. Rocky may have been on that truck if I had not purchased him.
    So, the time limit for Rocky and me is our lifetime. An uncertain time, for who can know its limit. That my heart soars in the time with him is all I need.
    Your photos are beautiful. They speak volumes.

    • Thank you Debbie, Rocky is one fortunate horse to have found you. Keep up the good work, may we all lead by example. Happiness is contagious, Show those cowboys how happy you and Rocky are and make them jealous!

    • Bonnie Beresford
    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:16 am
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    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Elsa. Training versus development — somewhat like the age-old distinction between training and education, where training is the instruction of skills, education is a “leading out” that sets up and allows the emergence of understanding. Development is more than that when it lays the groundwork for the growth of the self.
    To set a time frame, or not? Sometimes a deadline, hard or soft, gives you a roadmap with a destination but you fill in the route. Leave room for side-trips to unexpected treasures. What you did was not wrong and Myrnah is resilient. Unexpected consequences provide their own education for the teacher.

    • Thank you Bonnie for that, you give me some perspective on it all.

  2. Wonderful post Elsa. Somehow it also fits in with Carolyn Resnick’s blogpost of today, about having a plan but being prepared to change plans if necessary, being a flexible leader.
    Does your time limit of one year in this process imply that after that year you are going to be using tools after all?
    (By the way, thanks for you e-mail, I e-mailed you back ;-))

    • After my year is up, I will have to decide what comes next. In a perfect world I would love to do a second year and see what happens next, year two including the foal as well… but I want to finish the first one before I decide if tools are a good addition, or if simple continues to be the most interesting course for us. Taking things one step at a time keeps everything manageable for me to think about.

      • You’re absolutely right, the ‘Here and Now’ is always the best advisor, thanks for reminding me ;)!

  3. Elsa, I think you have provided part of your own answer, in that you already have dramatic and surprising results this early (4 months) into your project. You know this, so your timing of your self-defined schedule is justified, enviable, perhaps. Thanks for the thought provocation(s)! 😉 Michael

  4. Lovved reading this thank you

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  1. […] and then back off from it into our state of flow… that would be the development I spoke of in development versus training. If I feel the need to wrestle with negativity instead, I can always push harder and see what […]

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