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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.

Fear and Curiosity

The dictionary describes Curiosity as “a strong desire to know or learn something.” Fear is described as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” I would like to present the idea that a highly functioning individual will have a tendency to tackle fears with curiosity, leading them to learn about the subject until it no longer causes unpleasant emotion. Fear and Curiosity may well be linked in a beautiful cause and effect. While fear is an emotion most would rather avoid, curiosity is one of the most enjoyable emotions to be experienced.

While I was with Myrnah today the wind was whipping wildly, trees violently throwing themselves in every direction, leaves and branches swirling, crashing, and falling gracelessly to the ground. I felt like a mad woman to be out working with my horses regardless of the weather, yet there we were.

We took our work out into the front yard today. The tarp on the large stack of firewood was flapping on one side, the cat chose to accompany us hither and yon, and the noise of stormy weather was often disconcerting. I was impressed that Myrnah chose to come out the gate with me none the less.

I put my hand on her withers and told her to lead the way, take me wherever she would like to go. Today was about exploring. Today was about confidence, curiosity and bravery.

Through the narrow gap between the porch and the house where Myrnah tends to scoot past at the trot, every few steps I would ask her to back a step and wait. Giving her thinking brain a chance to work and her flight instincts a chance to settle. Then on we would go. Success! For the first time we made it all the way past the car with no panic and flight from claustrophobia. Causing her to back up a step gave her a moment to look left and right, to be curious about the tight space, the car and the porch, instead of simply running from it.

In that situation Myrnah’s fear is high and curiosity is a weak fledgling emotion, so I didn’t ask her to stand any longer than she chose to. The back-up merely reminded her that curiosity was an option. When she chose to look hard at her surroundings, ears pricked and neck arched, I was still and quiet, breathing deep and relaxed as I allowed and supported her desire to understand the tight space. We stood still together until she was ready to move again, then we would repeat it all a few steps later.

Working with a young horse in particular, the world is new, experiences are all fresh, and fear and curiosity hang in a balance. While Myrnah seems like an old soul at times, and appears more mature than domestic horses her age, I want to remember, she is only three-years old. The time I invest now, fostering and developing her curiosity while allowing the reflexive patterns of fear to weaken and fade away is worth the investment a hundred times over.

So when she chooses to take me out on a walk, around the front yard, and into the woods we have never traveled through before, between the car and porch, between the bin full of hoses and shed full of hay racks, past the flapping tarp, while leaving her companion Cleo behind and out of sight on the other side of the house- just Myrnah and I exploring the world together. When this exploration causes Myrnah to stop short, ears pricked, body tight, eyes hard and focused, I stop with her and just breathe. That is the moment when curiosity and fear are in a battle: fear says it is too dangerous to go on, curiosity wants to pay attention and focus in to understand the world.

If I rush the moment, pushing Myrnah on, she may be brave and lean on my confidence, but I rob her of the moment to build her own curiosity and self-confidence. If I wait, Myrnah’s curiosity will bloom, and each time it does her self-confidence in the world around her will become a little stronger.

Yes, sometimes I want to be impatient and just get a horse going, and sometimes it is a useful skill for the horse to lean on their rider’s confidence instead of needing their own in a particular moment. Right now, in this project, with Myrnah so young and so much life ahead of her, I prefer to invest the time- no rush. On a day like today, every time a tarp flaps, or the cat runs by, or a branch crashes to the ground in the woods, I choose to use those moments to be still as I watch fear develop into curiosity for Myrnah.

The key is the willingness to be still and pay attention. Curiosity will bloom if you give it the time and the focus.

All of Myrnah’s basic skills with me continue to progress, going forward and backward, yielding the forehand, and even yielding the hind-end. All those basic skills can often help build curiosity. Fear leads to flight, so when I feel Myrnah pulling away from something- to flee from what she doesn’t understand- I can suggest a turn, or a back up to give her a moment to realize she has a choice. She can choose to learn, or she can choose to run. Both are valid; learning is just more fun than fear.

If I can help Myrnah know she has a choice and build her habits of curiosity instead of fear, I feel I have done well. Everything we do together is only better on a basis of self-confidence.

To wind and wild weather, to fear and curiosity, and to the quiet moments that allow us to become the best of ourselves.


Elsa Sinclair


    • Bonnie Beresford
    • Posted November 25, 2011 at 7:59 pm
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    Lovely commentary, Elsa, and thanks for the inspiration for me to work in a similar manner with my 2 and a half year old filly. She is intelligent and alive to the world around her, and taking time to walk with her into parts of the world that are new and unknown, and helping her to stop and consider her choices, and support and encourage her curiosity, and allow myself to be associated with her triumphs, sounds like a splendid plan.

    • Bonnie, your filly will thank you a million times over for your understanding. She is one lucky horse to have you.

  1. Your writing is so clear, your journal puts us right there with you—a thrilling take of this immense learning-quest. Vivid! 😉 Michael

  2. Very interesting post Elsa! I wish I could have been there to see it. I will work with this concept of being still and breathing deeply with my own horses more, thanks for the inspiration!
    The Fall season seems to cause a lot of distress in horses sometimes, because of the wind and all the movements and noises that come with it. Yesterday my mare Kría was very fearful in the arena and roundpen. She was convinced there was something very scary in the far distance and it took me quite some time to get and hold her attention with me. Like you wrote, being able to yield the fore- and hind end, just by looking or lightly touching with my hand or whip, helped her a lot to put her focus more on me and in the end she settled down more and more. But after our work together her fear returned and again, she was the only horse in the herd panicking at that time. Strange…

    • Marja, I think just like us, sometimes horses loose connection with their community. You were able to help her settle and be an emotional support, but then when she went back into the herd, she perhaps felt alone again. None of the rest of the herd was interested in moving her around, or comforting her and helping her find connection again, they just left her to work it out on her own. No judgement, not bad or good, just life happens differently all the time, for both horses and people. Perhaps what makes it so interesting 😉

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