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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.

 

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

19 Comments

  1. Thank you for this awesome sharing. I remember you saying one day that horses doesn’t have problems with dominance. It looks like it helps Atlas to walk out his traumas with grace like this!

    • Thank you Florentine. I think this will help Atlas walk out his traumas with grace… time will tell and I will keep everyone posted on the developments. 🙂

  2. I am so happy that you found this way of easing his fear. He is so lucky to be with your gentle and persistent help.

    • Thank you, I will continue to be gentle and persistent and it will be interesting to see what Atlas decides next!

    • Sophia Strang Steel
    • Posted March 3, 2019 at 11:08 am
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    Gosh, Atlas is very blessed to be with as compassionate a human as you Elsa. We can hear your soul searching but as you say, here is to movement and leadership. We are learning so much from all your work thank you for sharing this.

    • Thank you Sophia, I am happy to share my soul searching and where it takes me. The more we all help each other the better life gets for the horses!

  3. Elsa you’re inspirational… your patience and foresight just continues to impress.
    I have completely changed the way we work with our herd thanks to your story of Myrna and no this walking down with Atlas and being honest enough to say taking the best from many masteries is just how I see my work.
    I love it.
    Thanku.
    AJ

    • You are most welcome! I am so glad to hear the FBT stories continue to help you and your herd!

  4. Fascinating Elsa. I’m so glad you have more toys in your box that might help Atlas, and it sounds very promising. I’m wondering if it’s possible that Atlas suffers from ulcers? I understand that if he was, there might not be anything you could do to heal them. In any case, I found this process of thought on your part super interesting and I hope it will continue to be a good plan. -Kim

    • Kim, I think it is highly likely that Atlas suffers from ulcers. I keep good hay in front of him 24 hours a day and I think that is helping his over all digestion. I am working at lowering his stress levels as you know… and perhaps someday he will trust me enough to let me try some other treatments. For now, we will just keep working on it a day at a time in the ways he can tolerate.

  5. I am reading about your journey with Atlas with great interest. I am very happy that you see through him and can change from your research goal, to help him. I am looking very much forward to how you two will progress. Take care and all the best to you.

    • Thank you Bele! Always learning! I am grateful for Atlas for pushing me down different paths of exploration in my efforts to help him 🙂

  6. Are you familiar with LIMA principles? In situations where the horse has previous trauma associated with people, positive reinforcement is the recommended way to help change their associations and build new neural pathways. I have yet to meet a qualified behaviourist that does not recommend positive reinforcement as the go to. Giving him a new environment with more space and horses is a food start, but what can you then also offer from yourself? Walking a horse down still involves negative reinforcement as he finds your presence aversive. Improving his feelings about people is what will bring about the most change.

    • Meg, I am in big support of positive reinforcement for anyone who is interested in taking that path. There are many roads to Rome and I personally am choosing to explore some different ones that appeal to me more on this journey with Atlas. For anyone who is interesting in using the LIMA principles exactly as they are laid out, bravo! The world is a big place and the options for developing healthy and comfortable lives are varied as well. I am in full agreement with the idea ““least intrusive, minimally aversive.” however I might have some different opinions about what actions that might or might not include. If someone wanted to go to their local feedlot dealer and ask him to sell them the most traumatized dangerous stallion he finds, and then make movie about training that stallion using the strict guidelines of LIMA as they see them… I would watch that movie and be fascinated! There are more horses out there in need, than there are willing people to help them. I think the greater variety of ways we can explore and develop training, the more we can encourage people to step up and try to help the horses.

    • From Meg’s comment: “…but what can you then also offer from yourself? ” As I understand it, a main point of Elsa’s work is to ask “what if?” Horses bond with other horses, chickens, goats, donkeys–what can a chicken offer a horse? Why can’t a person offer the same as a chicken? Could it be simply companionship? Could that be enough? I think it’s a question worth asking. And what if some “negative” reinforcement ultimately empowers a horse who has previously learned that he is helpless? What we really need as humans working with horses is to first of all understand ourselves, to be honest and mindful, be sure that emotion is absent. Then we need to understand the horses, their language, what they’re telling us. It is not uncommon, I believe, that a person jumps in with little of the above and follows a trainer who seems to be doing great things, regardless of positive/negative methods. It looks so compelling to stand on a horses back, or have it canter circles around him. But is the horse happy? Any method can be abused or misused. And horses end up with baggage/expectations/assumptions/helplessness with regard to people. There is so much language out there about horses being naughty, lazy, herd bound. Can we spend more time observing and learning. This is why I am drawn to FBT. It asks a great question–can I be enough, just as I am? And Elsa is putting in the (grueling, in a human’s mind) time to try to answer this.

        • quietinmotion
        • Posted March 24, 2019 at 6:06 am
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        Thank you Kim, It has been an intense couple of learning weeks for me as I deeply ponder what it might be about my companionship that makes it enough as a reinforcement. I think we can be enough just as we are, and at the same time, we ARE so much more potentially than we give ourselves credit for. I will keep doing the study gladly and sharing it! I am so glad you are enjoying the journey with me.

    • Our human intellects are addicted to categorizing everything, putting everything neatly into boxes of good and bad, right and wrong to help us make our decisions about what to do, how to act in any given situation. By searching for the definitive “right” answer and convincing ourselves we have discovered it we then fall into the trap of “belief” and henceforth cut ourselves off from seeing any other possibility – the belief in one particular mind-set prevents us from being open-minded to any other answers to the question. Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask ourselves is “Is it useful?”

      There are many ways to train horses and depending upon the situation some are more useful than others at that given moment – none have “ALL the answers”. It is of course good that we are evolving our consciousness to realize that non-violent ways are inherently preferable so adopting the principles of LIMA and FBT are wonderful developments in horse training. But it never needs to be an either/or choice – both have their applications depending upon the given situation.

      On the whole humans have so much choice with everything in life that we can often become paralyzed in wondering what is the the very best, most “right” choice, to the point that we are simply unable to act in any way and we become sort of “shut down” ourselves. So we eagerly “believe” in anything that seems to have all the answers because it relieves us of the responsibility to keep making choices. I would suggest that in a herd of horses each individual does not enjoy 100% freedom 100% of the time. Sometimes they are put under pressure by other horses to move and often it is to the benefit of the herd but also, quite often, to the benefit of that individual horse who is relieved to have the decision made for him or her and is happy to be able to express being a natural follower.

      So I applaud Elsa for having the courage to be open-minded enough to see the possibility that in this particular situation an alternative approach “may be useful” in helping a confused and/or shut down horse to either come to a decision or be gently, non-violently pressured into relieving it of the responsibility to make a choice.

      How a horse as traumatized as Atlas would react using only the principles of LIMA is another experiment waiting to be done for anyone wishing to take it on – but it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that it will be a better way that’s a “belief” and in practice it may not work out that way. That’s what ground-breaking experiments are all about.

        • quietinmotion
        • Posted March 24, 2019 at 6:09 am
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        Thank you Gary, love this sentence “Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask ourselves is “Is it useful?” I am perpetually fascinated with asking this question. There are so many choices and so many in particular that seem worth exploring. It feels good to be curious interested and alive right now. I am happy to sharing all I discover as it becomes clear.

  7. Brilliant and inspirational. You have a gift, Elsa.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] 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/ […]

  2. […] wrote about this in the blog “Walking a Horse Down” and I am grateful I had this method to fall back on when it became clear to me Atlas needed more […]

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