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The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, 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.

Check it out! We are translating the blog into more languages. Please excuse the learning process and pardon us for the two extra Dutch emails you may have received as we figured out how to link the languages. Enjoy!

Surfing the Emotional Waves

I had a great conversation with a student this week and she broached a subject that many shy away from. I, however, find myself intrigued, fascinated, and unable to stop thinking about it.

Are we at the mercy of our horse’s emotional state? What about that horse that seems to love you one moment and then wants to bite your head off the next?

What do we do with that in the realm of Freedom Based Training?

My answer is, yes, in Freedom Based Training we are at the mercy of the emotional current, because in this way of training they are free to feel the way they feel.

Giving your horse the freedom to feel however they are feeling allows us to know them at a much deeper level. These emotions are the way we are able to read our horse’s stress levels. Yet how we surf these waves of emotion has everything to do with the relationship that evolves out of it.


When you have a partner who is very emotional, there are waves of emotion they feel and will emote that can knock you down like the crash of a wave when you are not looking, or can lift you high and carry you. It is all in how you respond. Yes, I know that the idea that we could possibly surf the intensity of our horse’s emotion is hard to see when we have been knocked down for the fifth time and have come up spitting sand.

Stepping out of my ocean analogy for a moment, let us think about what most horse trainers do when a horse gets overly emotional.

The conventional norm is to let the horse know that their behavior is inappropriate by making “the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy”. That means, if a horse bites you, you do something it doesn’t appreciate, like making a loud noise to surprise them, or chasing them around the round pen until they wish they had never thought about biting you, or backing them up until they wish they had controlled themselves instead of striking out.

Therein lies the crux of the problem though. If a horse controls themselves and doesn’t strike out when they feel the impulse, the stress that was the energy underneath that emotional impulse doesn’t go away, instead it gets buried to be dealt with later.

So what do we do in Freedom Based Training when a horse bites you?

Well, if we are doing our job as a passive leader that will never happen in the first place. The study of passive leadership is all about being in the right place at the right time.

So that means, if your horse is feeling the kind of stress that might lead to an emotional outburst, DO NOT get that close to your horse!

There is so much we can do for our partnership without ever getting inside the strike zone that there is no good reason to still be standing there when the horse strikes!

Instead we do our work as a passive leader to lower the stress our horse feels until we see that the emotional climate is one that we want to step into.


What if we don’t want to be at the mercy of the horse’s time frame? What if we want to do something with our horse when they feel too stressed to say yes easily to us in that particular moment?

This is where dominance training is a beautiful thing. When we set up the extrinsic motivators correctly, the horse learns to put aside how they feel and simply go with our request. This is not wrong or bad; I actually think it is a good life skill for horses to have. The caution that goes along with dominance training is, how intense is that stress bubbling under the surface for your horse? Are they actually capable of holding themselves together and being open-minded about what you want to do? Is that stress going to explode all over you in a moment when their emotions cause the horse to tell you how they really feel.

A dominant trainer with good feel and timing will ask a horse to put aside how they feel for a moment and do what is asked. Then they choose activities with the horse that lower stress so that there are no pent-up emotions to explode unexpectedly later. A good dominant trainer will know that the causes for stress are many and varied and things like body pain or fear will have to be addressed for stress levels to go down.

A good trainer promises, if the horse is willing to put their emotions aside for the moment and not act with an excess of fight or flight, they will in return help the horse process whatever stress is underneath that emotion and let it go in a healthy way.

Now if we don’t have the tools at hand to dominantly ask horses to stop expressing the emotion they feel, what do we do instead?

Instead we work on the underlying stress with leadership and movement. When we take time to mirror, match, and be a partner to our horse while making good choices about where to be around them in time and space, this will lower the stress they feel. VERY gently and VERY slowly the horse will feel better and better until they have nothing to be overly emotional about.


This practice is NOT something that can be done once and then forgotten because stress is an ongoing evolution of events for everyone. Every day as a passive leader we have to walk into the relationship asking, “What is possible today; what, where, when, and how do I need to be to best effect this partnership for the long run?”

If my horse slept funny and their back hurts, they are going to be more stressed and emotional that day. Some horses will freeze up and not want to move, some will leap and buck more trying to work it out, and some will spook and jump out of their skin at every sound as their flight instinct comes up strongly in their state of vulnerability.

What I have found is that when I take time to be a partner to my horse in a way that allows them to feel however they feel and also not be alone, and when I do this in a way that lets them know I am attentive and aware and taking actions that keep us both safer, then their muscles soften and little by little they are able to breathe through and walk off whatever stress they were feeling.

The important thing to note is that in passive leadership I do not CAUSE the horse to feel better; I simply partner with them in good ways and wait for it to happen naturally.

What I find is, to the degree that they are willing to let their stress down, they will be willing to take suggestions from me, such as, perhaps if we take a walk together you will feel better. Or, perhaps, if I rub your back here the muscle will release and then you will feel better. I call these sorts of actions assertive actions, and they can only be received if the horse is in an emotional equilibrium that allows us to surf the emotions together.

To go back to the ocean analogy, if the emotions are at a reasonable level for my horse and me (the waves are not too big or overpowering), we can do something together and ride that wave of emotion until its intensity diminishes, leaving us both exhilarated by the experience. Emotion is a beautiful thing if it gives you the energy to do things together that make you both feel better when you are done!


If the horse is too stressed, then it is better if I simply stand back, let them know I am there for them, and act like a partner without interfering or getting close enough to irritate them. I find, with time and patience, the stress will go down, and THEN I will be able to step in more assertively and be a more direct cause for the horse to feel better.

As it usually does, the question of dominant or passive leadership comes down to the question of how much time do we have and how safe are we if we choose to let stress and emotion evolve naturally?

I am so excited to begin filming on the second Taming Wild movie seven weeks from now. This second project will give us a chance to explore the evolution of partnership with a horse including some of the time and safety constraints that affect most relationships.

In the first movie I was able to take a whole year in a very safe environment to work through the process of developing passive leadership until it evolved into assertive leadership, and those emotional waves were really something Myrnah and I could ride together.

In “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” we have set up some real-life situations where we are rescuing the horses from lives that have given them cause for stress, and potentially the kinds of emotional chaos that comes from that stress.


We are going to tackle the challenge of surfing those emotions together with our horses while trekking the width of a country.

Is it possible to safely allow horses to feel how they feel in a real-life situation like this? Honestly, I think I am going to learn how to surf a whole lot better as we go. Hopefully, I don’t come up spitting sand too often because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wish me luck! And, if you want to be on the list to get a copy of the movie as soon as it is finished, you can pre-order it here!

This is going to be an adventure worth sharing!

Hooves and Heartbeats,



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