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The Project:

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


_I0A3935The Goal:

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


Counting Breaths

Mouthful after mouthful of hay, ripped clean out of the hay net with hardly a pause, Atlas has figured out that eating here in his new home is good. The protruding ribs and hip bones are starting to look softer and his muscles are starting to take on curves they didn’t have a week ago.

I notice this, and I notice the raven flying overhead. I notice the deer walking through the yard to our right, and the late insects twirling around in seamlessly aimless spins through the air. I notice the leaves starting to change color on the oak tree outside, and the dead limb on the cherry tree that needs to be trimmed off.

This week I have found I have a great deal of time for noticing things as Atlas buries his head deep into his food and eats like there will never be another meal.


On the one hand it is good that he is eating; he needs it before the weather starts to turn cold and inhospitable. On the other hand, there is a level of obsession that could use softening, and that is where I come in as a leader to help out.

In the first days, anytime I moved too much he would become very afraid and start to run and snort. So my job was to invest in as many hours as needed using purely Passive Leadership. That meant moving as little as possible and making very good decisions about how often to move and how long to be still.

As we moved from the first week to the second week Atlas began to sometimes show disinterest in my company by looking neither toward me nor away, and by completely focusing on what was in front of him as if I was not there. This was exactly the next step I was hoping to see and it gave me permission to start using Supportive Leadership.

Supportive leadership at this stage of the game means I am moving around more than Atlas is. It might be cleaning up the manure from the paddock, it might be trimming the branches of the trees, or taking a walk or stretching my body. As soon as I see a focus change I like (which is pretty much ANY focus change at this point in the process), I return to flow and harmony, matching Atlas to the best of my ability. He has the power to bring us together as partners, and he is learning how to use it.


When Atlas takes that brief moment to look up from his hay, changing focus before reaching for his next bite he is taking an action that brings me back into flow with him, my feet the same as his, my body stillness the same as his, and my focus complementary and watching out for danger while he is vulnerable eating. This enjoyment of togetherness is something Atlas has learned to enjoy over the last week, and now he is learning that something as simple as a focus change is how he can ask for this flow in partnership with me.

Every yin must have it’s yang, and every like must have something in contrast that is less liked. So in counter to the Passive Leadership, pure flow and as little change as possible, we have Supportive Leadership which is movement and change, not a direct request for Atlas to do anything different, simply a set of actions that allow Atlas to realize he can ask for a return to flow and Passive Leadership with a positive change of focus, when and if he chooses.

At the start of this process it was easy to get the paddock cleaned of manure, because Atlas would dive deep into his eating and I would walk back and forth with a manure fork cleaning up and putting everything in the one pile I do hope he starts using more of the time.


Then Atlas realized he had the power to ask me to be still and he started to use it. It also seemed he learned to count. I had decided eight breaths was a reasonable amount of time to be in harmony with Atlas while he fixated on eating hay. If I got to the eighth breath and he had not looked up to notice anything different yet, I went back to whatever job I wanted to get done, then he changed focus and I took one last step and fell back into flow with him. This was all fine until Atlas learned that looking up and around every seventh breath kept me nicely in quiet Passive Leadership with none of that less desirable extraneous movement.

Once Atlas learned that, it started to take me close to two hours to complete the paddock cleaning I had in mind, instead of the five minutes it should have taken. For ten or fifteen minutes at a time Atlas would remember to look up every seven breaths or so and keep me still, then he would forget and become immersed in his hay eating and I would get a little work done before he asked me to came back into flow with him again.

On the one hand I am internally cheering for him that he figured out the pattern and he knew how to positively ask me for what he preferred. On the other hand I was honestly frustrated with how long it took to get a simple job done.

It won’t always be like this though, later on I might have a six or four breath limit on how long I will stand quiet while he hyper focuses on his hay, or I might require two or three or four focus changes before I come back into harmony with him. For now, I have to keep the game simple and easy for Atlas to figure out the rules.

This is about strengthening Atlas’ desire to communicate in a thinking way.

When horses come from stressful pasts they know how to communicate with fight, or with flight, and while we have to listen and understand, that kind of communication is not the kind we want to nurture and support. The thinking kind of communication is what needs to be fostered.


Before I start asking for anything from Atlas, he needs to know that he can ask for what he needs, in a way that is good for both of us.

When we take away all the tools that might be used to cause pressure or direct reward we have no way to manage the fight or flight anymore. In Freedom Based Training® our only course of action is to strengthen the thinking ways of communicating until they are so habituated and normal for the horse that fight and flight don’t feel like good options anymore.

This week I thought I was doing so very well with this process, and we had worked our comfortable flow distance down to half a horse length frequently. I could imagine the feel of Atlas’ fur in my fingers and I thought the touching distance was mere days away.

Then the incident with compost bin happened and I changed my mind.

I was standing a fair distance away, surveying the territory while Atlas dozed next to a big green plastic compost bin in his paddock. He decided to turn around, so I also decided to walk around him in a big circle until I could take the last step and find flow again. Only, Atlas misjudged his distance from the plastic bin and it ever so slightly brushed against his leg as he turned. The speed at which he went from sleepily turning to firing out with a hind hoof and putting it right through the side of the bin was shocking. The loud noise of the plastic breaking sent him in a snorting trot circle that brought him right back to stand next to the now broken bin. It seemed he wasn’t afraid of the bin, only the noise it had made when he destroyed it, once the noise was gone he could return to his nap.


While Atlas returned to his nap, I returned to my watching of the territory, but this time with a newfound respect for the touching distance. I have taken a hint from the hole in the compost bin and I will not be brushing up against Atlas’ body casually any time soon.

When it comes time for us to touch it will be when he is fully awake and aware and has told me he is ready.

For now, I will count my breaths and watch the world go by as Atlas adjusts to our new partnership. Everything will happen when he is ready. Right now he is ready to explore these transitions between Passive Leadership and Supportive Leadership and I will show up consistently to play that game with him for as long as he needs.

There will be a point where he is ready for the next step and it will be natural and easy because I didn’t push for too much too soon.

Count my breaths, pay attention, and respond, respond, respond. This is how we build the foundation for everything in our future.

If you are curious to see the next piece of the relationship puzzle falling into place, I am thrilled to share the journey with you all!


Every Friday for the duration of this project I will be posting a video of our progress on Patreon:

Dates are not firmly set yet, but within the next ten days we go pick up the Mustang stallion that will be joining Atlas and I on this journey. I am so very curious to see who stands out in the crowd and comes home with me to teach us all so much in the year to come.

Hooves and Heartbeats,










    • Ritambhara Tyson
    • Posted September 30, 2018 at 6:20 pm
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    Will the two stallions be in the same paddock or will you be dividing your time in separate spaces? I am loving how detailed your blog is about when to move and when to stay in flow. It really makes sense.

    • The two stallions will be in separate paddocks to start. Once they are feeling settled the plan is to open all the gates and make all the paddocks into one big one that they can use as they choose while living together. I am glad the details are making sense, I will continue to share them as best I can.

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