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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.


Valuing Easy

This week Atlas touched me for the very first time. It was an incredible welling up of courage for him to reach that last couple of inches and make contact, his nose to my fingers. We had put in over a hundred hours of time BEING together at distances that were comfortable for him. We had slowly and gently increased the variety of ways and places we could share space. Some days I wondered if he would ever be brave enough to touch, perhaps this being together with a buffer of air always between us, was all we would ever be able to do.


Some days when I was particularly sad or frustrated by the lack of trust I could see in my two stallions, I stepped away to go visit Myrnah and Cleo and bury my face in their manes and feel the sweet yielding softness of their dense fur under my fingers. Reminding myself all the while that everything develops, and I need to give Atlas and Ari time, they will not stay the same forever. With gentle feel and timing from me, over time, they too will learn that people being close is a good and wonderful thing.


The day Atlas finally touched me, he had been staring for the longest time, ears pricked, nostrils softly flaring as he breathed in the scent of me. My hand was outstretched and his neck was outstretched in return toward me. This reaching toward each other was something I had been developing with him, always respecting his comfortable buffer of air between us and always retreating to an easier distance before that curiosity, bravery, and interest in me waned. In this particular moment, it was the end of the day, and almost dark, and before I could pull my hand away and return to my lookout post several horse lengths away from Atlas, he made a bold reach and touched my fingers firmly with the bridge of his soft muzzle, square between the nostrils.


As soon as Atlas felt his nose actually touch my fingers, panic took over and he leapt away from me with a dramatic explosion of limbs, scrambling for traction to propel him far away from this new sensation. I moved also, but with more steady quiet rhythm, traveling around him in a circular fashion looking for the next place of harmony we could find together.


In Atlas’ sudden burst of courage, he had tried to do too much too soon, and it had scared him.


We took some time to do things he was good at, and share space in ways he felt confident about, then before the end of the session we had returned to practicing those brief moments where I could reach toward him while he reached toward me, and then I could retreat to an easier distance with appropriate timing, while his bravery and curiosity were still strong.


I think this is one of the greatest gifts of Freedom Based Training®. The necessity of valuing what is easy in a partnership, more than we value the pushing forward and making progress into the new and interesting.


When we have tools, such as food rewards or halters or flags or fences to push a horse against, the horse becomes willing to spend more time in discomfort than if we do not have those things.


Because a horse wants the apple or carrot, the horse will try hard to hold themselves in the discomfort of learning to find the action necessary to earn them that food reward. Because the horse has a halter on and knows it cannot leave, it will try harder to tolerate the discomfort of learning something new to find where the pressure is relieved and life feels easier again. Horses become willing to stretch their comfort zones and tolerate the discomfort of learning and growing faster than they might naturally choose, when we use extrinsic motivators.


In Freedom Based Training® we still exist in a world where the horse feels more pressure sometimes and less pressure other times, but the only reward for tolerating discomfort is the ease of flow and harmony between horse and human that comes afterward. This allows the horse more room to think about their voluntary participation in any event.


With Freedom Based Training® we spend hundreds of hours investing in everything that is easy together so that the horse grows in confidence that being in a relationship with us is about feeling good together. Only from that basis can the horse learn to tolerate moments of learning discomfort, then over time, the horse will develop an acceptance of learning discomfort, and then with more time the horse starts to look forward to and enjoy learning because it is more interesting than all the things the horse already knows.


First though, we need to invest in easy!

With Atlas and Ari I am committed to listening to them about what they think is easy and what they think is difficult. I started by standing outside the fences and paying attention to their body language. Did they move away from me, or toward me? Did they want more space from me or less? How many different variations of together could we experience over and over and over again that Atlas and Ari considered easy?


The value of easy is not talked about enough in horse training.


We need so many repetitions of easy that the horse starts looking voluntarily for something interesting.


Hopefully horses reach for the next new piece of learning within the range of what they can tolerate. If they overstep what they are capable of doing, like Atlas did when he touched me for the first time, we have to consider easy again, and building confidence from the place of doing easy things.


In Atlas’ case, I have chosen to carefully slow him down so he doesn’t scare himself again. When he reaches for me, I make sure I have enough buffer of air between us that I have time to pull away before he makes contact.


Again and again Atlas gets to reach for me and have me pull away to an easy and comfortable distance before he makes contact.


I reach toward Atlas, Atlas reaches toward me, and then before the whiskers brush my hand, I confidently walk away to the distance I know is easy.


Will this take a hundred repetitions or a thousand before we feel the stress is low enough to actually touch in a way that doesn’t scare Atlas? I don’t know, but I know what I am looking for.


When Atlas touched me the first time, he wanted to be brave, but his ears and eyes were locked staring at me in a frozen position that let me know that his brain wasn’t fully in a thinking operative mode. I hadn’t planned for us to touch, but Atlas moved so quickly I didn’t have time to protect him from his brash decision.


Lesson learned, no real harm done, now I am more careful. Now Atlas and I practice reaching toward each other with large gaps of time spent at the easy distance between each effort to try something new. This new thing we are doing demands respect, because it isn’t easy yet.


When something becomes easy we will know because we will see the brain is more likely to start thinking instead of reacting. We will see the eyes and ears move softly, instead of held in a rigid freeze. When the brain is frozen, the reaction of fight or flight is likely to follow, when the brain is thinking it will move easily into yielding or playing.


I know the theory, but I will admit it is real work for me to practice all that I preach. Going on the fifth hour of a day with the stallions, often my brain is sluggish and I just want something interesting to happen. Easy feels boring and I don’t want to practice the same thing over again and again and again.


This is where the real work is. This is where I dig deep and I learn. How many different variations of paying attention can I practice, while the stallions get to experience easy with me?


It is an ongoing journey, but I know I will be better for it in the long run. Filming this movie is a huge motivation for me to tolerate the discomfort of learning. So, I dig in and watch and plan and practice everything that is easy, in as many variations as I can come up with. I have to believe in the process and do the work, that is how I learn.


If you are interested in more details and discussions, we have both ongoing in the Patreon Group and would love you to join us there!


These early days of the first touches with the stallions are precious in their own ways, yet I am also dreaming of all the dynamic and interesting learning ahead of us… only when Atlas and Ari are ready of course!


Hooves and Heartbeats,





  1. Hi Elsa,

    Your patience is a wonder to behold! As you say “I have to believe in the process and do the work, that is how I learn.” and I for one am glad that you are doing it so that I don’t have to! I guess that the work you are doing is akin to that done by pioneering research scientists – pushing at the boundaries to discover what is possible in areas where nobody has done it quite like that before. And one day we all get to benefit in some way by learning from the one who had the courage to go down the road less travelled.

    I admire you for that so it is therefore not my intention to deliberately introduce a note of doubt but rather to ask about your deeper thoughts during this process with Atlas. Do you think there is any possibility that in stepping back into Atlas’s comfort zone after his momentary fright at his first touch that you may inadvertantly confirm to him that yes, that touching thing is something scary and best avoided …. that it is better to go back to keeping his distance? I’m thinking about the way people are taught to overcome phobias by gradually increasing exposure to the thing that is feared. If the person is allowed to always back away and retreat from the frightening thing they may never progress beyond the “safe distance” – at some point they do have to face up to the self imposed challenge in order to fulfill their desire to overcome their fear. However, if there is no time restraint on it will they ever get to that point because there is always a way out? I don’t know. I’m not an expert in that area of psychology but I would be interested to know your perspective.

    I appreciate it is different with horses as they do not have the same reasoning capacity as humans but then again when people have phobias their reasoning mind goes out the window and they react from the fear in their subconscious, from the emotional core of them. In the end the only way they can overcome the fear is with conscious reasoning and gradual exposure and it is the conscious reasoning which in the end allows them to take that final step in overcoming their subconscious programming.

    Could it therefore be counter-productive to allow limitless time? At what point does hundreds of hours become too many hours? I guess in a very real way time will tell but it would be interesting to know your perspective on it with the experience you have gained in a lifetime with horses and particularly with Myrnah. I hope that this question may have been answered in part in Pura Vida where there was a time constraint present. Most people reading this blog have such time constraints in their lives affecting their relationships with their horses and if Freedom Based Training is to be of value to the everyday horse owner then I don’t think time can be disregarded.

    Keep up the good work Elsa – our pioneering researcher!

    Kind Regards

  2. I am learning and to a very very small degree trying to mimic a bit of what you are doing. My neighbors have asked me to try and trim their very abused sweet gelding who is 5. He was previously shod and done so by roping each of his legs. He was treated very badly with no love or patience. His hooves are not horrible but do need to be done. I am now using food (after a few weeks trying without…because he is not mine and I only have time to do about 15minutes here and there with him) as a reward but at Liberty in his 1 acre paddock. Just today he finally started to want to engage with me, in regards to lifting his legs and I can see your theory of doing what’s easy is going to be what’s key to earning his trust. I love that you always say we can put a bit of FBT in everything we do even if it’s not FBT solely. Your patience is contagious and I know it’s what is needed from me from this horse ….Stetson. Thanks for all the great knowledge you explore and share.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] It took him over ninety days of this practice before he reached out to touch me voluntarily for the very first time. When he did choose to reach out, touching me, he scared himself and it took a long time before he was willing to try touching me again. (I wrote about this in the blog post titled “Valuing Easy”) […]

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