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The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

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

 

Dancing Across Costa Rica

Now that a couple of weeks have passed and I have had a chance to soak in the revelations that occurred during the filming of “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”, I thought it was time to write a few of them down.

The journey across Costa Rica, traveling roughly 190 miles (305km) from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, mostly on foot, in the company of horses. This is the kind of journey you can prepare for all you want physically, but there is no way to understand the emotional and spiritual ramifications until you simply show up and live them one step at a time.

The premise of this project was to take two horses out of desperate circumstances and take them on a trek across the country as their first steps into a new and better life, showing them along the way that human beings could be trusted despite all their previous experiences that might have led them to believe otherwise.

As training horses and humans together is my profession, I travel all over the world and see a common theme in these partnerships. Trust in partnership is earned, and often it seems that past experiences undermine the efforts to earn that trust. This has often left me asking: How do we rise above our history? How do we become better partners despite who we have been, instead of letting what we have experienced hold us separate in distrust?

Andrea, as our on the ground expert in Costa Rica, chose the horses for this adventure and had their physical needs attended to with vet and farrier and good nutrition for six weeks before our start date. When I arrived at the end of January, they were still hesitant about people, but no longer ran in the other direction at the sight of us.

Apollo was my partner. Five-year-old Costa Rican Quarter Horse type build with a quick reflex to act big and intimidate. Offense was his best defense against a world that had treated him badly. Scars on his back from badly fitting saddles, scars on his head from bridles that had worn through skin into sensitive flesh, and wolf teeth broken in half, most likely from the relentless yanking of a bit pulled back hard in a mouth strapped shut. Even after dental work took care of the teeth and he had six weeks of kind people showing up to the pasture to bring good food, Apollo had little reason to believe we were different from the people who had hurt him.

I was there to prove to him that his life was indeed different in all good ways now.

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In a situation like this I would usually take time, as much time as needed, to build trust slowly, but as a trainer I am often asked the question: What if you don’t have time? How do you build trust faster?

“Taming Wild: Pura Vida” was my opportunity to see what was possible around building trust faster.

The first thing I realized was that the roads were so rocky in Costa Rica there was no way we could travel without hoof boots and some substantial hoof protection. We had anticipated this and the people at Cavallo had supplied us with donated boots perfect for the job at hand. Considering that these horses had so recently come from questionable living circumstances, I also realized I had not allowed enough time before the start date of our trek to teach Apollo to wear hoof boots!

We also had beautiful bareback pads donated to us for the trek by FRA which would need to be introduced gently at some point in the adventure, when the time was right. However, the pressing need was getting the hoof boots on gracefully before we started day one of the trek.

The first day I got kicked at, the second day I got bitten, the third day I wised up and got us moving, because that was the premise of this project. Movement and leadership lower stress. Horses act defensively in fight, flight or freeze when their stress is high or their trust in their partner is low.

If I wanted Apollo to be a positive partner, I needed to give him leadership and movement that would allow him to move beyond the defensive behaviors he understood and help him develop the kind of choices and actions that could earn trust from a human while allowing a human the opportunity to earn trust from him.

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So we walked – with a halter on Apollo and a lead in my hand, We walked around the pasture in circles waiting for the signs that stress was decreasing for Apollo.

What are those signs you ask: Simply Fight, Flight, and Freeze being expressed in more functional and less reactive ways, the key sign for Apollo being his freeze response. Even though fight was his go-to defense, when I got too close or stayed close too long, the freeze response was apparent far earlier than the fight response.

So we walked. Apollo’s ears hung out to the sides like a donkey’s in a perpetually frozen expression of frustrated self-focus. He didn’t want to walk, he didn’t think his stress levels needed adjustment, and the only reason he was moving was his learned helplessness about halters and lead ropes.

The thing about leadership is it comes in three forms and I have come to understand this so much more deeply through this adventure with Apollo.

  1. Passive Leadership – The leader moves their own body with good decision-making skills, and the followers take note and are impressed.
  2. Assertive Leadership – The leader asks the follower to move their body in a particular direction and gets a ‘yes’ answer.
  3. Dominant Leadership – The leader asks the follower to move their body in a particular direction and has no problem creating whatever discomfort is necessary to get a ‘yes’ answer.

However, you cannot be assertive until you have invested enough in either dominant or passive leadership. If you try to be assertive without a strong enough base in either passive or dominant leadership, the horse will simply say no. If you give me enough time I will come at this problem in a passive leadership kind of way, but if you put a time frame on results, there might need to be some sort of dominance to speed up development. This project of “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” was about exploring how little dominance we could use, and still operate on the time frame we had ahead of us.

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With the halter and lead, Apollo had enough previous experience of dominant training – he had a sense of learned helplessness about being led. That learned helplessness of his allowed me to be an assertive leader, and he said yes easily to walking around in circles with me in the pasture. However, the frozen self focused expression on his face let me know his stress levels were still high – too high to attempt putting hoof boots on without getting kicked.

So we walked until his focus changed and he noticed something other than himself (less freeze meant his stress was coming down). On that cue from him I would switch to purely passive leadership, matching him exactly as we looked in the same direction and settled into whatever speed or stillness he preferred. Passive leadership and mirroring became the reward for his effort to hold a more functional stress level. After a few breaths I would approach and stroke his legs. Sometimes I could stroke his legs until he felt better about it (and then go back to passive leadership at a distance he liked); sometimes I could see his fight instinct starting to rise and I would go back to my assertive leadership and ask him to move in a walk again until he felt better and we could start over. Using this method I was able to teach Apollo to wear his boots before the trek began. I didn’t get kicked anymore, and he didn’t get forced into wearing the boots in any overly dominant fashion.

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One could argue that leading Apollo around by a halter reinforced his learned helplessness and was therefor a form of dominance, but I see it as a spectrum. The more discomfort the horse has to endure to learn, the more dominant the training is. The less discomfort they have to push through, the closer to assertive it is on the spectrum.

The end goal of training, if you are doing it right, is more enjoyment in more things at the end of the day. Your choices of how to get there are going to be passive leadership, dominant leadership, or, if you have enough trust foundation, assertive leadership.

Trust is built when you prove to a horse they feel better because of their association with you, in an ever-increasing variety of situations.

In “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” we had a predetermined distance to travel every day and a goal to use that distance wisely as proof to the horses that they would feel better because of our relationship. (Our guide was very specific that we couldn’t be out after dark since that was when all the truly venomous creatures came out to explore.)

Horses are designed to move, and as long as they can set the pace, their stress levels go down and their enjoyment of life goes up when they move their bodies. I knew this fact before we started the project, but how do you let the horse set the pace and still make it to your destination before nightfall?

To answer this question I found again that focus work became the key for Apollo and me – focus work and dancing.

Really? Dancing is your horse training secret?! (You ask in disbelief); and my answer is yes, for Apollo and me dancing was the thing that made it all come together and here is why:

If leadership and movement were the keys to helping Apollo find functional stress levels for our developing relationship, then what did I do to as a leader to bring the fight, flight, and freeze down without sacrificing the movement we needed to get to camp by nightfall? I danced!

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Apollo walked down the road with ears still hanging out to the sides like a donkey’s in a perpetually frozen expression of frustrated self-focus. He didn’t want to walk, he didn’t think his stress levels needed adjustment, and the only reason he was moving was his learned helplessness about halters and lead ropes. While he did this, I danced around him – just a bouncy little hop and a skip here, there, and everywhere as I visited the area in front of him and then beside him and then on the other side and then farther away and then closer to and so on with as much enthusiasm as I could muster in the sweltering heat. Why did I do this? Because I was exhibiting passive leadership as I took the first step and the last step moving around him again and again in ways he could learn to appreciate. Did he appreciate my dancing? No, not really, but when he would flick an ear in momentary appreciation of some sight or sound around us I would STOP DANCING and become JUST LIKE APOLLO. That is the passive leadership action Apollo appreciated.

What I have found is that horses appreciate having a partner in life, and when we match and mirror at a distance that feels good to them, they then start to crave that experience.

It didn’t take Apollo very long to realize that a tiny bit of interest from him to his environment, a tiny little shift in focus from self to something else, would cause me to match and mirror him. So before long he was looking keenly at anything and everything around him to keep me from being such a silly dancing bird around.

I don’t think he minded the dancing all that much, but dancing was the right contrast to let him realize how much he loved the matching and mirroring instead.

Then, the more he looked around, the more keen he became to see what was around the next corner, and then the faster we went and the better job we did getting to camp in reasonable travel time.

The more curious and interested Apollo became, the more he enjoyed his time with me, and the more he enjoyed his time with me the more he trusted me when a new circumstance came up for us to experience together.

It wasn’t a straight upward line of progress exactly like that, but if I paid attention and danced when it was called for, and matched and mirrored in flow with Apollo when that was called for, our relationship just got better and better and better.

Dancing as a training technique sounds simple and silly, but really it was just the application of the basic ideas in a new way. Passive leadership lowers stress, and in Passive leadership the leader moves their own body with good decision-making skills, and the followers take note and are impressed. The more we can lead passively, the less we have to lead dominantly; and the more effectively we show leadership, the more likely it is the horse will say yes when we ask them nicely to do something for us.

This trip across Costa Rica with horses ended up being harder than I ever imagined in some ways, and more gratifying and successful than I ever thought it could be in other ways.

 

If you asked me what the one biggest significant factor was in our successes? I would tell you it was the dancing, but more than the dancing it was the knowing when to dance and when to harmonize with Apollo. It is a little unconventional, but if you ever think you have to dominate a horse to get a job done in a short time frame, you might just try dancing instead, with a counterbalance of harmonizing when the stress goes down and the harmony instincts kick in for both horse and rider. So, dance with your horse and enjoy the moments of harmony!

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You never know; it might just make life more fun for everyone on the way to building beautiful trust and bonding between horse and human.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Comment

  1. Elsa! You’re an incredible amazing person. I love reading your blogs. I also really enjoy reading your daughter’s. I will get in touch about ordering this video. I truly believe you should submit an article (they’d pay you if accepted) to Psychology Today and the New England Medical Journal. You have touched on how to get past bad history and it applies to people as well as animals. You’re awesome!!!!! So happy to say I know you 🤗🤗🤗


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