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The Project:

Mustangs directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, Communication through body language, Tools used only for safety, never to train.

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.


Safety Before Comfort


In Freedom Based Training the thing we learn most about is Feel and Timing. This elusive Feel and Timing concept is talked about throughout ALL horse training, and its value applies universally to any training system regardless of how brutally fast you choose to train or how peacefully and slowly you choose to nurture evolution.


When we take away all the small spaces and all the tools (including food rewards), what we have left is a relationship with a horse where they are willing to be fully honest with you, as their partner, about how good your Feel and Timing is… and how much personal development you need to invest in.


Freedom Based Training slows down the horse training process in a way that allows us to read the horse and see clearly what we did right, and what we did wrong, and make the personal changes to our actions. Learning Where to be, When to be and How to be to make life better for horse and human together!


The better your Feel and your Timing, the faster you will be able to train a horse quickly, and the deeper a relationship you will be able to build slowly. I am more interested in the latter.


The question I think I get asked most often is:

“Where can I practice Freedom Based Training?”

In the pasture in the middle of the herd?

In a separate paddock?

In the round pen where my horse can’t see anyone else?

While they are eating grass?

When they are on sand or gravel with no grass around?

Or in the woods…

Or in the field…

Or with my dogs playing underfoot…

Or quietly alone?


The varieties of locations we can be with our horses will always have an effect on how things go. Depending on the challenge we feel in the location, our feel and timing is going to need to be adequately on point to accommodate any anxiety that is produced by where we are together. The challenge that is posed by any particular location is going to be the sum of what the horse feels and what the human feels because that is the partnership in development.


If I am very confident, then I can support a horse that is less confident, and that also goes the other way around. A horse that is very confident can support me if I am feeling unconfident.

Confidence usually leads to good Feel and Timing, and that understanding of where to be, when to be, and how to be together is what relationship depends on.


So where do we practice? Where do we work? Where do we train? The answer to those questions is always, where you are most confident. You in this case refers to the collective confidence of both you and your horse combined.


Start there, because confidence is safety, and safety always comes first.


Later, test out your Feel and your Timing by going together to places that hold more tension or anxiety for you to work through together. Choosing where to work or train is the first question of Feel and Timing. Knowing WHERE to be.


This week Myrnah and I discovered a location we hadn’t considered before, and I have to admit that it stretched my comfort and confidence in an uncomfortable way, but I am going to share the story with you.


When I read a horse, I can see lack of confidence in clear ways (if I am paying attention). This lack of confidence, a feeling of being unsafe, or emotional unstable, is always going to show up as either fight, flight or freeze.


Fight can be as subtle as the ears pinning for a moment or the tail angrily swishing… or it can be outright dangerous as in a strike, bite, kick, or attack.


Flight can be as subtle as a horse that continues to turn or shift abruptly so they have the last word on position relative to their partner… or it can be as obvious as an outright bolt.


Freeze can be as subtle as a fixation on any particular point of attention… or it can be as obvious as a horse unable to breathe or move until they faint or fall over.


This week I discovered that Myrnah and I work well in amongst the other horses, and we work well as soon as we are far away from them. However, there is a “WHERE” that we have always chosen to push through without addressing – that in-between place where you have begun to walk away from the herd but you haven’t left completely yet.

I noticed this is where “fight” comes up for Myrnah, which tells me, she doesn’t feel entirely safe walking away from the herd with me. It’s not terrible, I can go out there without any tools, without any food rewards, and ask her to come with me and she will, but the pinned ears as we walk through that in-between no-man’s land leaving the herd is unpleasant for her until we get far enough away to feel confident again.


That place of leaving the herd is our challenging location – the WHERE that will help us grow together.


I hate to admit that something as simple as this is tripping me up as a trainer. Clearly this is where my Feel and Timing need to be more on point so that Myrnah learns to feel safe here, to trust me in this situation, and eventually to enjoy walking away from the herd as my partner.


Safety comes first, comfort second, because a horse can only be as comfortable as they feel safe.


How do we make a horse feel safe? By acting like a leader. Passive leader, assertive leader, dominant leader, take your pick and choose your time frame. The horse doesn’t mind which you choose, but they do need to feel they have a leader they can trust in order to build a sense of safety.


With Myrnah, my biggest fascination is the passive and assertive conversations. Those are the leadership roles I want to be best at. A passive leader develops trust so slowly you can barely see it happening, but the end result is something so deep there is nothing quite like the connection that comes from it.


The assertive leader can only come into play when both partners are reasonably stable emotionally. If there is too much fight, flight or freeze, the choices must become more passive or more dominant to help a horse feel safe.


Being assertive is asking for things in a way where when you accept the “yes” answer from the horse that means you are the leader and the “no” answer from the horse means you are now the follower. If a horse is unstable emotionally, they do not want a follower, they want a leader to make them feel safer. So every time you ask them for something assertively and they say “no”… you have just made them feel less safe. How does a horse say no? By showing you some degree of, Fight, Flight or Freeze.


So here Myrnah and I were, walking away from the herd together and I finally confronted the fact that I was not addressing her ears-back demeanor. She was showing me a small degree of fight, and I was not willing to become more passive or more dominant. I just kept pushing through it assertively every time I asked her to leave the herd, and every time we walked away from the herd, she told me she felt unsafe doing it.


I needed to hone my Feel and Timing in this situation!

Where to be, When to be and How to be.


So I worked on being a passive leader and making decisions around her that caused her to feel better. I waited for the right moment when her confidence was highest, and I had appropriately rewarded that good feeling in her. Only then did I ask her to take a step away from the herd, and if it was a confident step, I made sure to reward it with partnership in the best ways I knew how.


I would love to tell you my feel and timing was so perfect that I only asked at the right times and we accomplished this task of walking away from the herd in complete and full confidence, but that is not true. I am learning, and sometimes I asked at the wrong time, and Myrnah told me about it with ears back showing me how she felt. So, I would back her up a step closer to the herd and ask her how she felt now. If she still felt unsafe, we would back another step closer to the herd, continuing on one step at a time until she felt better. Then I would work on strengthening my passive leadership until I felt it was strong enough for me to ask for a step away from the herd.


I spent three hours working on this project this afternoon, and I am thrilled to say that slowly, gently and surely we made it from the far pasture through the blackberry bushes all the way up to the water troughs away from the herd, and then walked back to the herd again together, and all our steps forward were confident and positive. If they were not, we backed up closer to the herd until it felt better and then tried forward again at a better time.


I believe, by taking the time to hone my Feel and my Timing like this, I become a better horse trainer. At some other time, if speed is essential and I need to step into a dominant conversation with a horse, I will be able to do it better because I took the time to learn where to be, when to be and how to be with horses.


I encourage you to take the time to learn when you can. Use your understanding of location to challenge the skills you have built in places of confidence, and let those challenges perpetually strengthen the bond you have with your horse.


Feel and Timing is what relationship is all about.


Using your feel and timing correctly builds a sense of safety.


Safety is the foundation that comfort and enjoyment grow from.


Enjoy all the moments you spend developing with your horse, and regardless of whether you choose to train faster or slower, hone your feel and timing of where to be, when to be, and how to be, so that everyone feels safe. That is what I wish for everyone.

Hooves and Heartbeats,



  1. Thank you for this interesting post. how do you define dominant leadership? For example, If a horse doesn’t want to stand for the ferrier and begins to back up or even rear and the ferrier resorts to the use of a gum chain to convince the horse to stand still to make things safer and get the job done does this fall under the umbrella of dominant leadership? Did this use of the gum chain tool create a situation where the horse felt safer or did it just cause the horse to be more afraid of the gum chain then the Ferrier’s action on her/his hooves? You commented that it doesn’t matter to the the horse which form of leadership the human chooses to use. Is that true even when more drastic forms of dominance are used as in the situation I described ? In the situation I observed the horse did stand still with gum chain and was shod but the next time the ferrier was out and just tried to look at an abcess developing in a hoof on the same horse the horse was again reactive and there were no ferrier tools involved. The horse clearly didn’t trust the Ferreir lifting her hoof. The horse did not feel safe.

    • Diane, I define dominant leadership as when we use extrinsic motivators as consequences to help the horse decide to do something they might otherwise not choose. So yes, putting a gum chain on a horse to motivate them to stand still is Dominant leadership, and Yes I believe leadership of all varieties makes horses feel safer in the moment. However, if the feel and timing are not correctly applied, then the end result can be less trust instead of more. Trust has to be followed by some sort of improvement in feeling from the horse, and that improvement in feeling has to be reinforced with partnership to build everyone to a place of perpetually more trust and then more comfort. As human beings, if we practice being a leader in passive and assertive ways, then in those moments of dominance when something needs to get done quickly we can do it with feel and timing that results in building more trust, not having it deteriorate in the way you describe above. Simply put, dominant leadership can be well done, or poorly done. When I say it doesn’t matter to the horse which form of leadership we choose to use, that is assuming we lead well, regardless of how much force we put behind it. Is that clearer?

  2. Hi Elsa,

    So good to see another post from you! I haven’t actually checked but it feels like quite a while since the last one – but then you have been very busy as an “international equestrian” so it is perfectly understandable ,,,,though you’ve no doubt been back a while – welcome home!

    Feel and timing is one of those stock phrases often bandied about between horse people in conversations about training and I think frequently it is said with little understanding about what it actually means. After reading your post I confess I have come to the realization that I too have been guilty of using that phrase in a muddy, fuzzy kind of way – with half an idea of what I mean …….. but if I’m honest ……… not really. What does it actually mean at the business end of an interaction between a horse and a person rather than as an abstract concept that we discuss intellectually?

    Language is so important and after reading your alternative description of what timing actually means I experienced one of those “light bulb” moments. Yes, of course, it seems so obvious now I can hardly believe that I had such a lack of understanding! “Where to be, when to be, how to be.” OK, so it doesn’t roll off the tongue like “feel and timing” but my word it is so much more meaningful and clear. Thank you so much for that simple explanation!

    As always, really enjoyed this latest post.

    Kindest Regards

  3. Thank you so much for noticing and sharing this subtle and important recognition of that in-between place. How often that comes up for all of us in many ways. These posts are such a blessing for me, and therefore my horses, and all relationships. Take care! Connie

  4. Fantastic post Elsa. I have loved bearing witness to your lessons with Myrnah this week, though your online class, it was a real aha moment for all of us i think.

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