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Monthly Archives: March 2019

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.

 

Wandering Together

This week it was time to open the gate for Ari and I, and start wandering a little farther from home.

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The paddock has been a good place for our relationship to build a strong foundation.

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However there is a whole big world out there waiting to be explored together!

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The timing for wandering out together felt right for Ari and I, at this stage of our relationship.

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He gets to decide where we are going.

I get to decide where I stand or walk in relationship to him.

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In this way Ari is the assertive leader as he decides what we do together.

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I am the passive leader, as I make good choices in my feel and timing of where, when, and how to be with Ari, as we wander together.

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Browsing for good things to eat is Ari’s first priority, and I am happy to keep watch for him while he satisfies that desire.

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While Ari is browsing it is also a perfect opportunity for me to practice leaning on him, watching him carefully so my weight comes on and off of him at good times. This builds the good associations we will need later, when riding becomes something we can also do together.

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Sometimes, when you are wandering through the woods browsing and exploring… things smell funny, and then you cannot help but laugh!

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And after you laugh, it feels even better, to just be together.

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The wonderful pictures in this blog and all the others come from my amazingly talented photographer Kevin Smith. We have made a video of this exploration of the woods together and shared it in the Patreon group. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ari and I cordially invite you to join us and see our video, along with weekly video updates of all our adventures.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

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.

 

Curiosity and Interest  

It has been over a week now of immersing myself in this new way of being with Atlas. A week of walking together.

My mind is challenged in a good way as it is confronted with the use of a methodology I always knew I had “Walking a horse down” but didn’t want to use.

If you missed the last blog post about my turning point, you can find it here: https://equineclarity.org/2019/03/03/walking-a-horse-down/

When I started this project, my goal was to prove that a damaged, abused, and traumatized horse could be nurtured into health using exactly the same methods I used to bring Myrnah into the domestic world in the first Taming Wild film.

I was high on life with the success Myrnah and I had found together and then shared with thousands of people and horses around the world. I wanted to take those same methods and apply them to bring about miraculous change and beauty in a horse that everyone had given up on.

I have always told my students that Freedom Based Training® is the slowest possible way to train a horse, and it is a method that perhaps benefits the learning of the human far more dramatically than it benefits the horse. This week my pride is feeling the trueness of that statement and while my ego is bruised, my understanding of how everything works is growing profoundly.

I still believe in the idea that a damaged, abused, and traumatized horse could be nurtured into health using exactly the same methods I used to bring Myrnah into the domestic world in the first Taming Wild film, but in reality, I might not currently have the time to do so.

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A horse with a healthy mind meets me on a level playing field and every good or bad choice I make around them is judged at face value. A horse with extreme trauma judges me from a perspective of extreme bias. Every good choice I make is judged with a perspective that it might have been an accidental occurrence, and the momentary good feeling cannot be counted on. While every bad choice I make by accident or bad feeling that happens in association with me, is judged as proof that I am indeed untrustworthy.

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Five months of attempting to prove to Atlas that I am worthy of trust simply by my own actions around him, has led down a winding road of beauty and heartbreak. I see glimpses of the horse he might become, for a day or a week here and there, and then some random occurrence in the environment will tip the scales the wrong way and we backslide again, returning again to fear, and anger, and catatonia.

We have been fully successful establishing a relationship where outright physical aggression is no longer Atlas’s first choice and for that firm success I am grateful. Beyond that point, all our relationship successes have appeared to be a momentary exploration of what might be possible for him sometime in the future, but cannot hold steady against the internal angst that life seems to trigger for Atlas.

I keep thinking, if I can just sense that moment when his inner worry is building too much, if I can see what happens before Atlas implodes or explodes. If I can glimpse what is happening before it all goes wrong, then I can take the right action around him to show him I understand, that we can become a united force to develop a better life for him.

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Instead, again and again and again I seem to miss the cues (if they are even in existence to read) and I am in the wrong place at the wrong time when the anxiety overflows for Atlas. He feels terrible, and I am blamed yet again in association with whatever caused his life to unravel into chaos once more. The trust I thought we had built between us crumbles to dust yet again.

If only I knew how to be in the right place at the right time for Atlas more consistently.

This past week has been about admitting, I do not currently have the skill in Freedom Based Training® it would take to nurture Atlas into the kind of mental health I need him to have, living in this domestic world with me.

We needed more tools and more support.

“Walking a horse down” is a concept I used before I ever knew it had a name. When I was ten years old, I was given an uncatchable pony named Chocolate to catch every day from a hundred-acre pasture. That pony taught me a lot and walking a horse down became a way of life for me.

(You can see Chocolate and I together here in the blog “Why Freedom Based Training®?”) https://equineclarity.org/2016/09/12/why-freedom-based-training/

It was only later I learned that Native American people had been using the technique to gentle horses far before I was even born.

Five months into this project of filming “Taming Wild: Evolution”, it was time for me to put my original goal aside and reach for a training method I knew would help Atlas find his trust in me in a more consistent way. I needed to be associated with more good feelings than bad, and I needed to do it in a way that allowed me to make those mistakes of being in the wrong place at the wrong time without eroding the trust that was so very fragile between Atlas and me.

In the past, uncontrollable events with bad outcomes made Atlas the victim of circumstance. Humans were present when he felt terrible, so humans became a thing to be defended against.

Powerless to control bad outcomes, the best a horse can do is to minimize them through self-defense.

Self-defense and the bad side of stress comes in three forms, fight, flight, and freeze.

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The more fight, flight, and freeze are perpetuated, the more curiosity and interest are killed.

The brain chemistry can feel overwhelming to study, but this short video has a very clear and simple way of explaining it:

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=267957677203615

I believe curiosity and interest are the factors that will heal a traumatized mind, but a traumatized mind will not want to risk letting down any of their self-defense patterns that have kept them alive so far.

So, what do we do?

If we have the skill, we can simply be present and meditate our way through the layers of self-defense with a horse. Being present, being aware, being in the right place at the right time to prove that curiosity and interest pay dividends of good experiences and that that self-defense is a pale and weak choice in comparison.

If we do not have the skill to meditate our way into finding interest and curiosity, then we must use the horse’s movement to affect the body in a way that allows the horse to lower its defenses. Only then will the mind start to soften, allowing interest and curiosity the room they need to grow.

Atlas and I walk together, because the ways to find curiosity and interest again are through meditation and exercise. Without a herd of horses to provide the exercise support, my skills in working Atlas through the Freedom Based Training® meditation have not been sufficient in my five months of attempting it, so now we walk.

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Walking Atlas down lets the gentle exercise coach him into finding the next better feeling.

Feelings go through:

  • Anger (fight)
  • Fear (flight)
  • Catatonia (freeze)

And then as the horse walks, it starts to find moments of:

  • Brace (fight in refusing to move, threatening the mover)
  • Distraction (flight of the mind)
  • Disinterest (freeze)

And then with more walking, we start to see moments appear from the good sides of the stress spectrum.

  • Curiosity (the good side of fight, the beginning of play, “what happens if I do…?”)
  • Yield (the good side of flight, making room for a partner)
  • Interest (the good side of freeze, ears start moving, eyes start looking, thinking is beginning)

 

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When the good side of the spectrum starts to happen, friends want to spend time with you, and when friends want to spend time with you, life starts to open up in its potential for enjoyment.

How do we know what is being felt? How do we know if the feeling falls on the good or the bad side of the stress spectrum?

It is fight if you just want something to stop happening, it is curiosity or play if you are interested about how you can shape the thing that is happening and enjoy it.

It is flight if you just want to get away from what is happening, it is yield if you can make room for what is happening and shape the event in a way that brings enjoyment.

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It is freeze, if you just want to pretend what is happening is not happening. It is thinking and interest if you can be in harmony with what is happening and engaged in seeing the outcome.

A good life doesn’t necessarily have to include friends, there are stallions out in the wild who choose to walk away from the herds and live solo, and there are humans who choose to live in solitude, but for most of us, friends make life better.

I believe the reason this is true is because good friends foster the mental and emotional skills that allow us to experience the good side of the stress spectrum. Thinking, yielding and playing, and these are the same mental and emotional skills that make life enjoyable.

It all starts with curiosity and interest.

Walking a horse down is one way to find those. Once we have found that glimmer of curiosity, then we can foster it with meditation, being present, and learning to be in the right place at the right time for each other in a greater and greater variety of situations.

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I have posted a video this week about Atlas and myself in our first week of using this theory. Join us in the Patreon group to see it and new videos each week in the ongoing development of “Taming Wild: Evolution”.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

I hope this blog has piqued your curiosity and interest. If it hasn’t, don’t worry, I will keep writing and helping you walk your stress levels down with a continuing cascade of words, until you too are curious enough to want more.

Here is to curiosity and interest making life worth living.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Walking a Horse Down

It was a perfectly lovely winter day. A chill in the air and a little wind blowing through the leaves on the trees around us.

I was standing next to Atlas simply being, feeling, watching and waiting, as I have been doing for months. 156 days to be precise.

I was thinking about what we have done together, how much our relationship has developed and how many setbacks we have had in the developmental process. What if this is it? What if standing together is the full extent of our skills together when this project is over?

If he was living as a wild horse living on healthy range land where he could care for himself, I would feel nothing but gratitude about the trust we have built and the time we enjoy spending together.

Living as a domestic horse, I worry that I cannot keep Atlas healthy and safe if I cannot touch him or move him around from place to place gracefully.

 

I have given myself a year to simply wait and see what happens, letting Atlas decide the timeline for our development. I have been determinedly patient with the setbacks in trust when the weather turned, or the smoke from a fire upset him, or fights with Ari injured him, or the many other things that seem to undermine my efforts to explain to Atlas that life with humans will be ok for him now.

Atlas and I began our time together with a simple and basic idea. If he moved away from me in any way, I also moved away from him. Our first job was to reinforce the idea that moving away from things you are afraid of is preferable to attacking things you are afraid of.

Over the days, weeks, and months I have watched his underlying fight instincts fade away with constant reinforcement that moving away from humans when you are concerned is understood and supported.

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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”)

https://equineclarity.org/2018/11/06/valuing-easy/

Little by little, we worked at building his trust, and I would find he improved to a new level of trust and then something would happen in the environment and we would backslide, his trust in me crumbling under the weight of the momentary trauma.

It feels to me as though Atlas’ traumatized brain takes every small event of fear or pain and uses it as proof that trust is pointless, and self-defense is necessary.

Perpetually, I felt like I couldn’t win for losing.

With Ari, who is from the wild and has no traumatic history with humans, there is a healthy mind to work with. Small events of fear or pain are viewed as anomalies, or accidents. He doesn’t hold onto them as proof of anything other than a cue to pay attention and learn something.

This is the interesting difference that I am studying in this project. I had no idea how deeply traumatized Atlas was when I brought him home from the kill buyer’s feedlot. I had no idea how successful and independent Ari was as an eight-year-old stallion when I brought him home from his recently wild and free life in Nevada.

In comparison to these two stallions, Myrnah in the first movie was a walk in the park for me to learn from. A four-year-old mare, pregnant and starving from the range, with no real trauma associated with humans. From Myrnah’s perspective, I was associated with this new place where she had all the food and water she could want and a sense of safety with good friends surrounding her.

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Myrnah was an ideal partner for my first experiment in Freedom Based Training®.

Atlas and Ari are challenging me to develop a better understanding of everything I know.

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Early this week Atlas and I were standing and watching the view across the meadow together when the wind caught a dry leaf and blew it up in the air between us.

From the reaction of Atlas spinning and bolting away you would have thought that leaf was trying to kill him.

For the next hour, I used every bit of perseverance and tact I could muster to work around him, watch the environment, and build his trust again to get close.

It took an hour before he would reach out again for one tiny touch of his nose to my hand. I felt like his trust in me was lost, crumbled into nothing under the weight of a dry leaf blowing in the wind.

I watched from my house and saw for the next 24 hours how every noise unhinged his mind from rational thought. He would walk in the horse trailer to eat his favorite kind of hay, only to bolt out again in terror when he heard a noise. He avoided tight places and looked shut down and trapped even when he stood in the middle of the open arena.

My heart broke for him and I wished I could explain to him that one blowing leaf was just a bit of life, it was not the proof he had been looking for that everything was out to hurt him.

My sadness was deep, and I felt like I had failed him. One hundred and fifty-six days spent together and still all it took was a leaf blowing in the wind to prove to him he couldn’t trust me, or anything at all.

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It was time to change tactics.

In Freedom Based Training® we build strength in the horse’s ability to think, reason and feel good in company, then we use those things to build movement together. Think first, move second.

In other types of training, it is the other way around, we move the horse’s feet to access their brain. We cause the horse to move and shape those movements to develop the horse’s thinking mind. Move first, then learn to think.

There is a stress reduction for horses when they move in company. Herds traveling together with rhythm and flow lower stress and build healthy minds.

If Atlas lived in a healthy and dynamic herd, they would provide the security for his traumatized mind to rest and heal.

I have tried to let him live with Ari, but the pressure was too great and the space too small for their dynamically different personalities. I have found him a friend in Zohari, but all the two of them do together is eat and sleep… neither of them is inclined toward any stress reducing movement.

Without a functioning herd to help him, it seemed it was time for me to step up and help Atlas find a more functional level of day-to-day stress. Perhaps in a more direct way than I have been able to do with Freedom Based Training®.

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In all my teaching of Freedom Based Training® I have always encouraged my students to use this work in combination with any other discipline or training methodology they use. The combination and synergy of good ideas can be a beautiful thing and I like to see the energy and inspiration it fuels for students. It seems now it is my turn to look for that synergy of good ideas and methodologies.

There is a concept called “walking a horse down”. I have used it successfully in many situations and I have my own way of doing it. The basic premise is to simply cause a horse to walk, and to walk with them until they feel better. A very dominant trainer might use it to exhaust a horse so it can no longer resist the things they do to it, but the concept doesn’t have to be used with that intensity. The concept can be used with kindness and gentle awareness to help a horse.

I have resisted walking Atlas down up until now for two reasons.

  1. Sometimes you need a tool such as a rope or a flag to push an aggressive horse away from you. If I had tried to walk him down in the beginning of the project, I would have had to use such tools to create enough pressure, and even with the tools, I still would have risked him turning to attack me as that was an established behavior for him that had been successful in the past.

 

  1. Once they are willing to walk, horses will get tired and want to get away from you, so you will find yourself pushing them against the fence that stops them from escaping your pressure. There is nothing free about this concept, but I felt it was time to help Atlas find more comfort in life, even if I had to step away from Freedom Based Training® for a moment.

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I wish I had a functional herd of horses to put him in. I wish I did not worry so much about having a potentially dangerous stallion in captivity that might hurt someone in a moment of stress. I wish there was more space, more freedom, and more friends who could support him in healing his traumatized brain.

As it is, I am going to trust the five months we have invested. These five months spent reinforcing his ability to walk away instead of attack, will let me walk his stress level down without any tools to push him. I am going to trust I can work around the fences in a way that helps him feel better more than he feels trapped. I am going to trust I have enough feel and timing so that I can apply this theory in a way that will help Atlas feel better sooner than I might be able to do with Freedom Based Training® alone.

Here is the plan. I look directly at Atlas’ eye and walk toward the side of his head slowly with rhythm and predictability. Atlas will walk away expecting me to back off also, but now the rules have changed, the goal of walking a horse down is to walk together for as much distance as it takes to feel better together.

Because I believe in leaving the door open to developing thinking patterns, I don’t just walk until Atlas is exhausted. I leave an option open for him to convince me to pause this project of walking his stress levels down. He can be interested or curious about me as I walk toward him. Both eyes, both ears, on me for a moment, this I will reward and reinforce by instantly turning to watch the environment for eight breaths. Then we start again.

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Two things lower stress: leadership and movement. Using my gentle variety of walking a horse down, Atlas can choose to notice me (the leader because I am making more decisions than he is) and be interested. He can also move away from me and we can walk together. I am willing to let him choose whichever he prefers in any moment.

The first time I tried this, we walked for most of an hour. I finished in a moment when Atlas turned to look at me in curiosity and licked and chewed. He then stood like a statue for an entire hour moving only his ears. I watched from my house as he stood with strange immobility. I think he was sleeping, but I also think he was processing what had happened. When he finally moved it was to yawn repeatedly and stretch hugely before meandering into the barns to eat some hay.

The second time I walked Atlas down, he was angry and spent much of the time with his ears pinned to his neck, repeatedly turning his haunches to me as I gently circled around helping him find his walk again, he repeatedly grabbed bites of manure to eat as he walked, I think the need to chew something to sooth the stress coming up in this process led to a behavior I have never seen in him before. Further, his penis stayed half dropped swinging back and forth for almost the entire session, also something I had never seen in him before. We ended with a peaceful moment together and this time he only needed a few minutes of processing time before he went back to eating hay.

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The third time I walked Atlas down he showed many of the same angry expressions and defensive gestures and he did charge at me once, but changed his mind to run away when I threw my hands in the air dramatically. Despite the anger in most of the session, we again finished in an easy moment together.

The fourth time we practiced walking, his attitude had shifted, and he looked at me with curiosity so many times we did very little walking. For the most part we just watched the meadow together with Atlas glancing over at me, ears pricked and eyes soft, over and over. In this session, I did a little less than an hour as I wasn’t sure how long the soft curiosity might last and I wanted to end on that feeling.

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The fifth time we practiced walking, he chose to gallop away from me with speed and intensity every time I looked directly at him. I would walk slowly and perpetually around the paddock until he stopped and then walk toward him again. After about five minutes he found his walk with more fluid and easy movement than I have ever seen in him. Then after about forty-five minutes he found his curiosity in me again.

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After the first session of walking Atlas down, I noticed him rolling in the sand for much longer than he usually does. Over and over and over in big displays of luxurious scratching. Then he got up very slowly to shake in a way that shook all the skin over his entire body in a looseness I had never seen before. I watched his ease getting in and out of the horse trailer to eat at night improve dramatically. The instances of him exiting in the hurry were very few and far between. Mostly he could step in and out calmly when he chose to, and this continued to be the case even after the more challenging sessions.

Seeing the positive results after the first few sessions, I believe Atlas is more comfortable in his own skin from this work. As his well-being is my priority beyond my research studies in Freedom Based Training®, I believe I will continue to walk his stress levels down at least once a day to augment the Freedom Based Training® I do with him.

Perhaps in the spring when the bigger pastures are open and I can put him out with the bigger herd of horses he won’t need my help as much, but while he needs it, I will provide it to the best of my ability.

I believe lowering the general day-to-day stress level for Atlas is the key for him in adapting to life as it happens… those blowing leaves, or howling foxes at night I have no control over. I can’t help him directly with those, but I can help him have the cognitive room to process them.

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Here is to movement and leadership and the hope that I can provide enough of both to help Atlas let go of the damaging stress responses, Fight, Flight and Freeze. The better he feels, the more his life can become full of the good things in relationships, the Thinking, the Yielding and Playing.

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com