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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.



This is a big and beautiful world we live in and there are so many paths to choose from as we meander or race our way through it. The questions are, what are we running from? Or what are we running to? Or are we just living the current moment?


What might be important along the way?


Horses and humans teamed up throughout history as travel partners, sometimes running towards something and sometimes running away from something; but regardless of the motivation, we discovered it was better to have a partner shoulder to shoulder with us as we went.


Over time we discover that some partners are easier to travel with than others and we start to distill the details down to discover what makes for an easier companion? What makes for a better travel experience, and how do we achieve that with different horses, or help others achieve that with their partner.


Each horse trainer has their own theories about what the key points are and over the years I have come up with a few ideas of my own as well. When I stumble upon an idea that seems to improve life for me and my equine partners, I share it with a few intrepid students. If I see theses ideas are indeed helpful, then they make it onto the blog and create a post like this.


Because I teach Freedom Based Training®, Freedom is always the idea that comes up first. Can we be free and also be partners? How would we do that? What does it look like to build a partnership between two free beings?

The second idea that comes up is Safety. How do we develop a feeling of Safety with partners who are free to make their own decisions? What does that look like?


It is only after we have tackled the ideas of Freedom and Safety that I am interested in delving deeper into what makes all this better, and for that we move onto the idea of Focus.


All of us, horses and humans alike, get better at what we pay attention to.


In this world of training horses what that idea has boiled down to is teaching horses to hold focus without wavering. Sometimes it is focus on the leader we want, so the horse understands what the leader is asking. Sometimes it is the obstacle in front of us that we want the horse to focus on, whether it is the jump or the raging river we are about to cross.


Regardless of where we want the focus to hold and what we want the horse and human to get better at together, I want to ask the pertinent question: Why is holding focus difficult to achieve with horses? Why do they fight us on holding a focus where we would like them to hold it?


I think that circles back to the first two ideas, Freedom and Safety.


All of us need to feel safe. All of us have some baseline of how much safety we are entitled to and how much we are willing to fight for that security in life. Only after a horse feels reasonably safe will it choose to do anything a partner asks.


We all, horses and humans alike, only give up our Freedom to the degree we feel we gain safety in return.

When we build a partnership with another being, it is this balance of freedom and safety that is always in flux. In Freedom Based Training® I aim to build as much of both as I possibly can – Freedom and Safety together!


Let’s talk more about focus.


While the end goal might be to hold the focus on one specific thing we want to get better at, what are the steps that might help us do this in a way that builds more and more trust between horse and human along the way?


I think it breaks down into five stages of learning.

  1. Change of Focus
  2. Using Drive to change focus
  3. Clearer focus changes
  4. Using Draw to change focus
  5. Holding focus


  1. Change of Focus

In the beginning of a relationship the horse still feels they are responsible for their own safety and they have not built enough trust to hand that job over to the human. Every time the horse notices a different thing (they change focus), they assess their relative safety. The wind in the tree, the dog moving across the yard, the bird that just flew by, the truck backfiring in the distance. All these things matter to a horse and in the beginning they are not going to be willing to give up any of their focus changes because their assessment is important to their future safety and comfort. I believe we honor this stage of the relationship in two ways. The first is to show them we are paying attention also! If we can change focus more often than the horse does, we are clearly keeping tabs on everything around us even better than the horse is. The second way is to acknowledge and appreciate each focus change the horse makes. This conversation of movements is key in building a horse’s trust. I find, the more consistent, rhythmic and diverse a horse’s focus changes are, the less likely they are to be afraid of anything. They have seen for themselves there is nothing to be afraid of. This is the first building block for a good relationship.

  1. Using drive to change focus

As we work through the first step of the process where we appreciate and reinforce a horse’s development of consistent, rhythmic and diverse focus changes, we will notice every horse has strengths and weaknesses in where they choose to focus. This is where we start the second step of the process by using drive. Drive is the use of pressure to move one thing away from another. I can “drive” the horse in a movement away from me, or I can “drive” myself in a movement away from the horse. To “drive” is to create some degree of distance for a moment. Hypothetically, if we have a horse whose strength is staring off over the horizon, then that is the thing they will choose to do more than anything else. If diversity of focus is the thing that brings confidence to a horse, each time this horse gets stuck staring over the horizon, I am going to introduce some drive until we get any other focus than the horizon; and then I am going to appreciate and reinforce the new focus. Changes are still the goal; the horse doesn’t need to hold focus where they are weak yet, only try it out when I ask them to. My job is to ask them to try a change, and then acknowledge and appreciate their effort. I find that focus changes lower stress in the horse, as long as they are not required to hold the focus longer than they would choose. As the horse learns to respond to my “drive” that helps them change their focus and incidentally will make them feel better, then the trust between us starts to grow.



  1. Clearer focus changes

In the beginning of this process, I am acknowledging and reinforcing every effort at focus change, awareness and mindfulness of the present from my horse. That means each flick of the ear, or wrinkle of the nose, or rotation of the eyeball in the socket is appreciated. By the time we get to the third stage the horse understands that focus changes make them feel better, but learning to be more aware with mindfulness and presence requires the building of new neural passageways in the brain. This building is a developmental process, and just like lifting weights development sometimes feels like work. When the horse is strong enough to make the small changes easily, we are going to start expecting the horse to try harder, rewarding only the bigger focus category changes. There are five categories we need to keep in mind:

  1. Self
  2. Herd
  3. Environment
  4. Leader
  5. Learning

As a student pointed out to me this week, the acronym would be SHELL and I think that is fitting, since awareness of all the categories does create a sort of shell of safety around the horse as it lends a moment of focus to each aspect of the horse’s life.




  1. Using Draw to change focus

This fourth stage is where focus work starts to get really fun for me as a horse trainer. Does my horse trust me enough to think my ideas are good ideas? Have I proven my decisions make my horse feel better enough times, that my horse is more interested in being a partner than they are in being free and independent? When I change focus, does my horse act in harmony with me? At this stage of the game I am expecting my horse to make choices that are either in harmony with me or complementary to me. If I look at the ENVIRONMENT, my horse does also – both of us in harmony. If I look at my horse and ask them to do something, that makes them my HERD focus, and my horse can be complementary in their focus by looking at me as the LEADER. Now… if they are not acting in a complementary or harmonious way with my focus changes, we know we have more work to do in the first three steps of the focus development stages.

  1. Holding focus

This is where most horse trainers start. When we ask a horse to hold focus, we are asking them to trust our assessment that nothing else is important. We are asking the horse to trust our leadership decisions so completely that they don’t need to question our judgment. That is a great deal of trust indeed. Given the right tools to train and prove leadership, some trainers and horses can indeed jump right to this fifth step and this holding focus together builds a beautiful bond. However, if you take away all the fences, all the halters and ropes and flags and sticks and food rewards, that is when you find you have to break down your building blocks to smaller steps and build it up one solid layer of trust at a time.


The work I do in Freedom Based Training® is not to negate any other forms of training; it is simply to ask these questions:


How would we build partnerships with horses if we took away all the physical tools?


If we can understand how training without tools is possible, can we use that knowledge to make our training and partnership building even better when we do use the right tools?


This January I am going to be asking those questions in the process of filming a second movie “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” 


In this second movie I will be teaming up with Andrea Wady who has run the business “Discovery Horse Tours” in Costa Rica for the last thirteen years and together we are going to rescue two horses who have been discarded by humans as worthless and train them towards a second chance at a meaningful life.


All of this training will be done in constant motion as we take an incredible trek across the country of Costa Rica from the west coast to the east coast.

Andrea and I will be using movement and leadership to build feelings of safety and comfort on our trek. We will be using whatever simple tools we need to keep everyone safe and putting to use all the knowledge we have to develop partnership along the way. I believe this movie will take the ideas that were pioneered in the first Taming Wild movie and put them in a framework that will be even more useful and inspiring to horse enthusiasts everywhere.


I am asking all of you to take just a moment and stop by our Kickstarter page and join our community around this movie. I will be working on a lot of different financial avenues to get this movie made. What I need from all of you is a showing of the number of people who are behind us.


Will you join us through “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” on this adventure of developing relationship between horses and humans?


Together I believe we can continue to inspire everyone to find their own personal adventures of beautiful partnership.

Here is to Freedom and Safety and Focus helping us all have better partnerships!


Elsa Sinclair


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