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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.

 

The Road We Travel 

After six months of persistent study, Atlas and I finally have had a breakthrough in trust I feel I can count on. I think Atlas is feeling that as well.

This week, for the first time ever Atlas came over to me, all the way to me, and not because I was standing near the food and he was hungry, or I was near the gate that he wanted to go through. It was in the middle of a big open space with many options for Atlas to choose, and he still chose me.

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I wanted to jump up and down with glee to celebrate his new level of bravery and connection to me, but of course I didn’t. Instead I sat down on the ground in the shadow of his great big head and I watched the world for him while he fell asleep less than an arm’s length away from me.

The way it happened, I was walking out into the paddock with the intention to join him and spend some time breathing and moving around him and walking him down if he needed it, as I do several times every day. Atlas was on the far side of the paddock and as I stepped onto the sand, I got a message on my phone that I stopped to answer. As I was doing that Atlas started walking toward me.

Now, I have a commitment to this theory of shared action, so as he walked toward me, I took the smallest most gentle and rhythmic steps I could toward him. I know this theory of shared action is why Atlas has taken so long to walk toward me, if I did what normal horse trainers do, such as standing still (becoming completely passive) or backing off to draw him in, I could have encouraged this behavior much sooner in our relationship.

Instead, I took the slower route, anything we do, I make sure we do it together. The number one reason for walking toward Atlas as he walks toward me is because drawing a horse in to me physically too soon, when he has a history of attacking people, seems like a terrible idea. The number two reason is, I believe this commitment to shared action is the way I can establish a more bonded relationship where I don’t need tools or food rewards to control behavior.

The last couple of weeks I have immersed myself in a commitment to holding my own rhythm better. Breathing, walking, changing focus, everything I do is based on a reliable metronome-like dependability.

Atlas can hold his breath or alternate between immobility and erratic movement while I hold steady to my personal rhythm. I am devoted to the idea that he can join me in that rhythm or not as he chooses, but I refuse to join him or mirror his unpredictability. It has been a task of herculean proportions holding steady and reliable to my personal rhythm and I realize how much I lean on the natural rhythm of my mustangs when training. Mirroring horses is as natural for me as breathing.

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The exhaustion I was feeling every day from this effort with Atlas was profound, so I went looking for help and found it in an app for my phone. Soundbrenner is a musician’s application that emits a metronome beat I can lean on and it has a corresponding wrist watch that silently holds the same rhythm as a vibration. The day I found that app and starting using it, the visible releases in Atlas doubled and my available energy to spend time with him each day, doubled as well.

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Now here we were, less than an arms-length from each other by his choice and all I  could think, was: “Don’t mess this up Elsa, Atlas is trusting you that this is ok, you have to prove his trust is warranted.”

To prove to Atlas this new-found bravery and interest in me was warranted, I sat there and breathed like my life depended on it, like Atlas’ life depended on it.

Half an hour later I reached my hand up to him, and he reached down to me to touch that hand with his nose. I pulled carefully away from him as I stood up and he watched me peacefully as I walked back to my house.

This breakthrough with Atlas has me thinking about the difference between traumatized horses and unhandled horses and why we might choose to work with them differently. A few weeks ago, I chose to start using the fences more with Atlas to let him feel pressure to change for the better. This was different from my standard practice of Freedom Based Training®, but his perpetual stress and discomfort in the world seemed to need more help than I had been able to give him working in FBT alone.

I 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 support.

Why did Atlas need more support? Why did we seem to make progress for a week or ten days and then backslide dramatically into distrust and defensiveness again?

Here is a theory I have developed that makes the most sense to me:

When we train horses, we have this road we are traveling together. On one side of the road is a drop-off where the horse feels overwhelmed and shows it in defensive actions of fight or flight. On the other side of the road is a drop-off where the horse feels shut down and shows it though the defensive action of freeze, becoming absent or dissociated from a situation.

The trainer has the job of keeping the horse on this road of development where they can experience thinking, yielding and playing, the good feelings in life.

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Some horses have a wide road and there is room to play between the lines. Every time you go to the edge and then get safely back to the middle, trust is built. The horse realizes that learning new things leads to good feelings and their road gets wider.

Horses who have been traumatized have developed a very narrow road, sometimes it feels like walking down a tightrope with them and keeping from falling off the sides into overwhelmed or shut down is nearly impossible. Every time you lose them to shut down or being overwhelmed, they link the experience of learning with you to feeling worse.

Their patterns of self-defense get strengthened and their road gets even narrower and this results in the breaking down of trust between horse and human.

As a horse trainer, it is not always me at fault when the horse falls off the safe road of good feelings. The environment always plays a part as well. Something as simple as a change in weather can make our road treacherously narrow. I might walk into in the paddock in the morning and find my horse has already stepped off the edge and is hanging onto the cliff face of anxiety.

The theory of Freedom Based Training® is that we play within the lines of the road. When we touch the edges we learn new things, stretching the comfort zone, and that exploration makes our road wider, our trust stronger and our possibility of falling off the edges less likely. Even when life throws us challenges that narrow the road, we have plenty of road to spare.

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With a traumatized horse the road is so narrow that external events can cause far too much damage and it becomes impossible not to fall off and get stuck in the weeds of bad feelings. Every time we fall off and cannot find our way back to good feelings, we make the edges more unstable, we break trust between horse and human, and the road becomes narrower still.

This is what I had been experiencing with Atlas. We were getting to know each other better, we were getting better at staying on the road, but our road wasn’t strong or wide. It felt like any progress we made with building a wider road was temporary and we could not trust the edges.

The problem is you need to go to the edges to make that road wider, and this is the reason I think sometimes a traumatized horse might benefit from the use of tools or food rewards in training.

When I chose to “walk Atlas down”, he had moments where he felt trapped between me and the fence. He was falling off the road of good feelings, he was angry, evasive, and defensive. The fences allowed me to keep Atlas walking when he didn’t want to, he couldn’t just get away from me and end this uncomfortable relationship, we had to work through it together. We were spending time off the edges of the road, but we were doing it in a way that was without doubt going to bring us safely back to the middle of the road and good feelings together.

This visitation of the edges, with a guaranteed way back to better feelings in short order, this is what makes our road wider.

The road becomes wider because the horse experiences learning new things and sees that good feelings follow. This link between learning and better feelings give them security and motivation to do and learn more in partnership with humans.

The use of tools or food rewards keeps the horse involved in that learning through feelings of being overwhelmed or shutdown and then out the other side of the process, back to a better feeling.

This is the reason we might choose to use tools to train a traumatized horse.

When we take away all the tools in Freedom Based Training®, we need to stay on the road. We need better feel and timing as trainers, and more skill navigating new situations. Without tools we have to be careful not to stray too far off the road of good feelings and training must progress more slowly and gently.

This is the reason we might choose to train without tools. It makes us better trainers, and if we do it well, the learning process is more enjoyable for the horse in every stage.

For myself Freedom Based Training® is still my preferred method of training.

For Atlas, when the weather changes in a way that upsets him or he has a fight with his friends, or something I can’t control makes our road too narrow to safely navigate, I will choose to walk him down. Even if it means Atlas feels some pressure from me and the fence together in the process, I feel the positives outweigh the negatives in his case.

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With the occasional help of the fence I can push him over the edge, off his feel-good road, into the weeds of shutdown or overwhelmed on the side, without losing him completely. Then I can safely bring him back to the middle repeatedly until our trust is strengthened once more and his road has become a little wider and a little safer for us to play in-between the lines with no tools.

Atlas’ whole life seems better now that we took the time to go off the road of good feelings, stay together, not give up, and make it safely back up on the road finding those better feelings together.

This is how I understand my choices now. Tools and food rewards (used well) allow a trainer to use the edges of the road as a bigger part of the process and let the horse experience those stronger feelings of discomfort and defensiveness, knowing that the bad feelings are temporary, and the trainer can get the horse back to the middle of the road of feeling good effectively.

If my road with a horse is wide enough for me to play within the lines in freedom, that is how I prefer to live.

If I can’t seem to stay on the road with a traumatized horse, I might choose to use a tool to safely hang us off the edge into overwhelm or shutdown and then bring us home safely to a better feeling, as many times as it takes to make our road wider, safer and a beautiful place to live.

There are many roads to Rome. We don’t just get to choose which road we travel; we also get to build the foundation of our road as we go.

Here is to the building of a path that suits you and creating a journey you and your horse look forward to every day.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

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2 Comments

  1. Really fascinating. This is one I will be coming back to several times: to understand it and then to understand it with regard to where I am with my horses. From previous posts, I have been incorporating breathing more, finding it helpful to get out of my head and reach for the rhythm it provides as well as what different kinds of breathing means to the horses I think. The shared action concept is new to me and so interesting. Thank you!

    • You are most welcome Kim! Shared action is I think an under utilized aspect of relationships with horses. I will continue to find good ways to share it and let it enrich others lives with horses as it has mine.


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