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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.





All of us are either moving toward something we want, or away from something we don’t want. Usually it is some combination of the two that motivates us; however, if we can break it down to the simplest equation, life gets easier to understand. What are we paying attention to, and are we moving towards it, or away from it? Are we moving towards the life we want? Or are we running from the life we are afraid of?

This past weekend I attended a workshop put on by a mounted policeman, Bill Richey. Two days of smoke bombs, flares, lines of fire, hanging plastic, bridges, barking dogs, police cars, sirens and lights. I had intended to ride my mustang, Saavedra, through all this; however, she hurt herself a few weeks beforehand and left me without a ride. Several people jokingly suggested I take Myrnah and I laughed saying, maybe next year.

This time around my dear friend, Heather, jumped at the chance to send her four-year-old Gypsy horse Sage through the course with me. So Friday we loaded up the trailer with Cameron’s horse, Maharrah, Maggie’s horse, Joy, Sage as my mount, and we were off to Butler Hill Equestrian Center. For any of you interested there will be more of these clinics offered at Butler Hill. They do a wonderful job of putting them on, and everyone walks out of the clinic far more confident in day to day life than they arrived.

Throughout the workshop I had a great deal of time to watch and think about how things work. Sage, true to his Gypsy lineage, is a pro at handling chaos; so I got to sit back and watch the show everyone else put on as we walked through the obstacles. Starting with a simple sheet of plywood we formed a line and walked over it again and again until most everyone was OK with it. Then we added a bridge, walking around in a circle over the bridge and then over the plywood until everyone was fine with that… and so the obstacle practice continued. For the less tangible obstacles like noise, we rode drill patterns weaving in and out of the other horses, walking steadily on until the horses got used to the whistles, sirens, barking dog and so on. By day two everyone had progressed to navigating bridges with visually impenetrable smoke billowing from beneath, crossing lines of fire, and walking under hanging tarps and swinging curtains of clattering pipes.

All day I watched horses wrestling with the choice to run away or move forward where their riders asked and I came to this conclusion: a bridle is simply an attention-getting device. As you ride a horse toward an obstacle he is afraid of, his first instinct is to look for his escape route, and then run away. The bridle, depending on its severity and the horse’s willingness to have his attention directed, allows us to insist the horse pay attention to where we want him to go. If you cause enough pain, you can grab anyone’s attention, at least for a moment. Once the horse is looking in the right direction, pressure on the bridle releases, pain goes away, and the horse starts thinking perhaps the thing he was afraid of is actually less painful than the escape route he thought he wanted to take. And so, little by little, the horse learns that moving toward something his rider directs him to is far more pleasant than running away from something he thinks he might be afraid of.

We are all constantly weighing our options with more or less awareness depending on our stress levels. What feels better- what feels worse, it doesn’t have to be logical or rational. It is just that simple emotionally: we all want to feel better, and we will do whatever it takes. Horses run into burning barns because the familiarity of their stall feels better than the unfamiliar outside. People on a runaway horse will scream at the top of their lungs, not because it’s the smart thing to do, just because the scream makes them feel better.

We all do stupid things sometimes in an effort to feel better. What kind of pain, or attention-getting device would it take to redirect our attention and look at the other options? Here is what I think: the lower the stress levels, the more aware we can be about redirecting our attention. The higher the stress levels, the more pain it will take to redirect our attention. The beautiful thing about taking Sage, the Gypsy horse, through the course this past weekend was, he naturally doesn’t carry much stress. So riding him in a halter was easy. Add to that the nature of the course and the constant rhythmic walking we all did for hours on end, whatever stress was coming up was constantly being drained away. The less stressed we are carrying, the smarter we get and the clearer we can see options of where to move forward instead of panicking and running away.

So that brings me back to Myrnah and our training with no tools. If I don’t have a bridle as an attention-getting device, what will I do when she wants to go somewhere I do not want to go? What do I do when she decides something is frightening and she needs to run from it?

For now the working hypothesis is: Attention Attention Attention! I have to train her to bring her attention back to me or back to the the direction I choose over and over again. I have to train that habit in her so strongly that I don’t need pain to get it. I need to use persistence and timing to teach her to yield to the pressure of my fingertips. She needs to become patterned to yielding her attention whenever I ask, over and over and over again in low stress situations, so when stress increases in any given situation she has a pattern of behavior with me that will hopefully circumvent the need for a bridle.

This week we took our riding outside the paddocks and around the circle driveway. Slowly Myrnah’s confidence builds and she is willing to walk twelve steps instead of just seven, and then fifteen, and then more between each pause to gather her thoughts. Her deep breaths come more often, and I can feel the stress draining away as we travel together. My rides still only last for five minutes or less, but after a rest I jump on and we play again.

Wednesday we encountered a slight downhill, and as my weight shifted Myrnah lost confidence and gave a scoot and a buck. I jumped off and had her practice backing up the slight incline. Shifting her weight back will help her balance my extra weight as she carries me over terrain. If I had a bridle on her I could have quickly redirected her attention, helping her find her balance on the slope. Without a bridle and with her current stress levels about carrying weight, I didn’t have enough pressure to redirect her attention while I was on her. So I do whatever I need to do. Jump down, talk to her from a position she can hear me from, and then I can get back on to see what we can do together- after patterns of attention directing have been reestablished.

I never said this was the fastest way to train a horse, but I am without doubt learning more about how everything works through this process and Myrnah’s help. When Myrnah and I do get it right and I can get her attention with a whisper instead of a shout, every moment we spent getting there feels worth it.

So here is to redirecting attention and getting smarter as we figure out how to move forward into a life that feels better.

Elsa Sinclair


  1. It will take her 100 % trust in you and her looking to you for guidance in those uncertain times. As Ricky Ricardo once said, ” you’ve got a lot of explaining to do Lucy ! “

  2. I am convinced more than ever that as you leave Myrnah and the day’s lesson, she really does have the ability to add that lesson to her repertoire and level of learning. And she is able to build a lot on that. And recall it as she needs it. It has to be so or you couldn’t do what you are doing with her in any amount of time much less in such a short time.
    Proof again that horses are super smart and not only are capable of being “deep thinkers” but that allowing(acknowledging) their emotional needs, feeds their well-being and therefore allows them to “grow”.. And boy they DO have emotional needs that have to be satisfied in some way. If the emotional need is fed CORRECTLY, I believe it nurtures their ability to think, be confident partners and enjoy their parnership with us.

  3. Elsa, Your time at the beach in Oregon, the ‘Liberty Training’, free-working Mrynah at the overnight fairground camping lot and now this latest session are way-points indicating that your direction is true. Your ‘read’ on this project is accurate. Wow! 😉 Michael

  4. P.S. I’ve enjoyed your hats! 😉 M

  5. thanks for sharing your project link with me. I enjoyed meeting you last week and even through all the other people, noise, barking, police sirens, bridges, plywood, tarps, smoke bombs, flares, nervous horses ect….I noticed you right away as a calm spirit. I’m sure your project with Mynah will be a success. If I was many years younger I would have loved doing a project like that. But as the years go by you loose the trust and magic..replaced by what I’m taught to believe is common sense. Too many “what- ifs” get in the way.Thankyou for attending our clinic, it was a pleasure to meet you and your group, hope to see you again.
    kind regards, cindi
    butlerhill equestrian center

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