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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.

 

Challenges Bring Strength

I can hear the words of my good friend Michele pounding through my brain on repeat. “Running in snow makes you so strong!”

I needed that encouragement, I needed to hold on to something good that might come out of the past week of snow and ice we had here in the Pacific Northwest. Now that the snow is slowly melting and we are returning to the more temperate climate we are all accustomed to here, I can feel the truth of that resounding statement.

“Running in snow makes you so strong!”

After working through a week of challenging weather, the return to normal temperatures brings with it an ease in my existence that wasn’t there before. The cold can’t seem to drive its icy fingers through me like it used to, the wind in my hair feels playful instead of daunting, the quick run up the hill behind my house now holds the promise of time to settle my thoughts instead of the bone-weary exhaustion it held during the snow.

Challenges bring strength, and when you have surpassed a challenge, the return to normalcy brings a new ease to life.

With my current research project of training horses in freedom, I struggle with this concept of challenge.

Horses (and many humans as well) would choose ease over challenge most of the time. Yet without some challenging contrast in life, ease never feels as satisfying as it could.

My research centers around this.

How do you train a horse in freedom to seek challenges in a good and healthy way that helps them grow and develop to find the resulting depth of ease that comes after the effort is invested?

In the wild there might be a lack of food, water, breeding opportunities, or safety if the predators are hunting. Each one of these things develop a challenge that requires a wild horse to solve the difficulty and to find ease again.

When I bring a horse into captivity, I solve many of these things for them. Food is available all the time in ample quantities, as is water. Boys and girls are either separated or neutered so breeding opportunities are no longer a puzzle to be solved for and where I live there are no big predators, so safety is not the life or death situation that it might be in the wild.

When horses are faced with this life of ease, boredom sets in and creates a whole different kind of stress, and a whole different kind of challenge.

The challenge is now about spatial relationships and the harmony or lack of harmony in moving from one place of comfort to the next.

The more dysfunctional stress a horse feels the more you will see fight or flight involved in these decisions of where, when and how to be with each other. The more functional the stress is for a horse, the more you will tend to see play, yield, interest, curiosity and thinking in the decisions of where, when and how to be together.

This is my research project. How do we build habits of functional stress instead of dysfunctional stress for horses?

Challenges are necessary as a contrast to ease.

Something interesting needs to exist to counteract the stress of boredom.

How do we shape a horse’s response to challenge and interesting things into functional stress instead of a dysfunctional stress?

A horse that handles challenge well, can have very high stress in a very functional way. After a challenge or a puzzle is solved and the stress is released, that horse then feels a deep ease in contrast to the stress that was just experienced.

A horse that handles challenge with less adaptability is easily overwhelmed, and that can be observed in the fight, flight and freeze behaviors that are expressed. When fight, flight and freeze are engaged, it is difficult to solve a problem, or work through a challenge successfully and the corresponding ease after success is hard to find.

I believe we shape a horse’s response to challenge by intensifying the problems to solve, only to the degree the horse can meet them in a functional way.

It becomes a simple developmental system.

I change the spatial relationship between me and the horse and observe.

The horse is going to solve for comfort in a functional or dysfunctional way.

If the horse has a dysfunctional response (fight or flight) I did too much too soon of something.

If the horse has a functional response (thinking, yielding or playing), I chose just the right spatial relationship challenge for us in that moment.

My job as a trainer is to present an evolution of varying challenges that cause functional stress in my horse, and then enjoy the ease of flow and harmony with them as each puzzle is solved.

There are many great trainers around the world that do this brilliantly with tools to stop the horse from leaving when the stress starts to feel dysfunctional. The horse learns that dysfunction is only acceptable in a freeze response, while fight and flight are conditioned out of them. When tools are used well, it is a beautiful thing to see horses blossom into more functional adaptive lives, learning to think instead of reacting.

The beauty of training in freedom, as I am in this research project, is that the horse can tell me loud and clear when my feel and timing needs to improve. I have no tools to control fight or flight, so I need to manage the challenges presented instead. This freedom for the horse challenges me to be a much better trainer than I would have to be if I was using tools to control the horse.

Without tools, I have very little control of the horse and at the same time, I can’t control wind or snow or the fox that might run through the paddock in the night frightening the horses. The external circumstances will always be a factor in the level of stress a horse feels.

The only thing I have left to control is myself.

I observe what the factors are, and then gauge my personal choices to fit the time and space that the horse and I are living in.

Challenge creates functional stress, the horse solves for comfort, The horse and human experience ease together, and then the cycle repeats.

Atlas finds he can handle much more challenge from me with functional stress responses when he is not eating, and his friend Zohari is close by. If Atlas is hungry and focused on eating, or his friend is out of sight, I know I need to lower my expectations of the level of challenge I can present.

Ari is different.

Ari finds he can handle much more challenge from me with functional stress responses when he is eating, and his friend Occasio is out of sight. If Ari is napping or watching the environment or his friend Occasio is too close, I know I need to lower my expectations of the level of challenge I can present.

I expect all of this will change for the better with time and practice so both Ari and Atlas will see challenge as a positive part of their lives in a greater and greater variety of situations.

If I do my job right with good feel and timing, I will teach my horses to have functional stress responses to higher and higher stress situations.

As a horse’s skill in functional stress responses increases, their ability to solve for comfort also increases, and then their ease in life will feel more and more profound and satisfying in contrast to those challenges.

I made this video for my Patreon group last week, and decided this week to make it public. Here is a look at me and the horses working through the system I talk about in this blog post, in the snow.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/snow-24732774

I share a video every week in the patreon group and there are always fun conversations that develop around the videos. If you enjoy this video, I do hope you join us on the Patreon group for more like it.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

I may not love the snow, but I know it makes me stronger. I also know it is simply beautiful to film in with the horses. So, we embrace the challenge, solve for comfort, and then revel in the ease that is felt after the puzzle is solved.

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and thorough discussion. I have a question about this paragraph:

    “There are many great trainers around the world that do this brilliantly with tools to stop the horse from leaving when the stress starts to feel dysfunctional. The horse learns that dysfunction is only acceptable in a freeze response, while fight and flight are conditioned out of them. When tools are used well, it is a beautiful thing to see horses blossom into more functional adaptive lives, learning to think instead of reacting.”

    It seems to me that there are key some steps you’re leaving out here (which makes sense as you are not here to talk at length about those other methods). But could you please verify that there is an art to taking a horse, conditioned to freeze only, from freeze o a more functional response? I mean it seems more brilliant to do that part as opposed to just conditioning them to freeze.

    • 🙂 Yes indeed! There are so many different varieties of training I can not talk about them all. This paragraph was simply to tip my hat and appreciate the trainers that use tools to help a horse find their way to patterns of high functioning adaptability. While there are less mature trainers who only know how to use tools to teach a horse to stop fight and flight, leaving freeze the only option left as a stress response. There are many other brilliant trainers out there who go the extra mile and use tools to help a horse to become a brilliant thinker and problem solver. I may choose to work without tools, but I know I share the same goals as other trainers who do use tools. That is a happier healthier horse to partner with.

    • Mary Crombie-Geer
    • Posted February 27, 2019 at 4:47 pm
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    • Reply

    Beautiful photo of Atlas in the snow, and a beautifully written description of what you are doing. Thank you.

  2. So when you say this: “The horse learns that dysfunction is only acceptable in a freeze response, while fight and flight are conditioned out of them” are you taking about the “great trainers” or the less mature ones? Sorry, I just don’t understand this comment because it seems freezing being the only acceptable response is not ideal. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Honestly, all trainers who use tools are to some extent teaching horses that fight and flight are not optional stress responses but freeze is moderately acceptable. If that were not true, there would be no need for halters or lead ropes, or small fenced areas. The best trainers move beyond that basis and work on creating a thinking horse so that control of the stress responses is less and less of an issue and that is a beautiful thing when it is done well. Creating the understanding for a horse that freeze is a more acceptable response in the human world than the other two options is a fact of life with horses. It may not be ideal, but it is a fact of life. I am attempting to work in a different way when I take away all the tools, but what I do is not practical for most people, Freedom Based Training is a research project for my education, it is an inspiration for everyone to perpetually do better by their horses and it is a brilliant way to develop horse trainers by letting the horses speak freely and express whatever they feel. Because FBT is so time intensive to do, it is important that I respect the other faster variations of training as well and the good trainers out there making horses lives better in all the ways they can. I hope that gives clarification?


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