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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.

 

Dark Night of the Soul

April Fools’ day sent me sprawling emotionally. Thank you Atlas for humbling me yet again.

Yes, in the end of March I wrote about our: “breakthrough I thought we could count on!”

I could see the light at the end of the tunnel for Atlas and I, and we were steadily moving the right direction… and then yet again I was wrong.

This is the dark beauty of being a researcher. We come up with a plausible hypothesis and then we take action to test it out. The results come in and we get feedback about where we were wrong, and where we were right.

That last part, “feedback about where we were wrong, and where we were right,” is sometimes about as clear as mud, and I am up to my knees in it mucking around trying to figure it out.

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I am going to read this in the future and laugh at the things that baffled me then.

However, it rarely feels funny in the dark moments searching for truth. When I get stuck, I feel dark and depressed, like I have no business being a research trainer. I should stick to the tried and proven theories that the other great trainers of the world have already tested for me.

Yet still, I find I am driven to search for better solutions.

Here is what happened to make me question everything with Atlas, again.

We had a foggy day, and something about the air currents that day made the fog horns sounding on the ocean also reverberate through our little valley. Every time the noise echoed around us Ari and Atlas would startle and stare in the direction of the ocean to the west.

By the time the fog had burned off Ari had let it go and was back to his happy-go-lucky self. Atlas was an emotional wreck and I couldn’t get anywhere near him, again.

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I thought, no problem, we have a solution now, we will just walk together until this stress dissipates for him.

We walked on and off all day and even though he walked with his ears pinned for most of the time, he rarely licked or chewed, his muzzle was held tight and unflinching, and every slight noise made him leap out of his skin, I still had confidence we would get through it together. This was not going to be a big backslide in progress like past events had been, I was determined.

It would take over an hour in each session for Atlas to settle enough to reach out and touch my hand, finishing the session, his entire body shaking with fear as he made the effort. I would leave him to eat for a while and then come back to repeat the process.

The next day our first session seemed hopeful, and Atlas seemed not quite as afraid or angry as he has been the day before.

The second session changed everything.

Atlas decided he didn’t want to walk anymore, and he was mad as hell with me for suggesting it.

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I knew I could wave my arms and scare him into it, but if I did that, then what did I have left to defend myself with if he got really angry and threw himself at me?

So instead we held a sort of a stand-off where I would walk toward him, very slowly, four beats breathing in for one step, four beats breathing out for the next step. Atlas would back away from me very slowly, with his ears pinned.

I honestly wasn’t sure if he was going to keep yielding or attack, but my instinct bet on him choosing yield as the better option, so long as I kept it slow enough for him to think.

Around and around and around the paddock we went like this. Each step I took toward Atlas causing an angry backward yield step from him.

Occasionally he would come out of his furious self-focus, the ears would flick forward and I would pull my focus off of him to look out over the valley and breathe.

When his muzzle had stopped twitching and I had given him time to just be peaceful and easy with me, I would look at him again and he would instantly pin his ears at me again, and the process would repeat.

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Atlas did not want me there, I was the source of his discomfort more than I was the source of any comfort and he was angry with me.

I felt like I had failed him again and it was killing me. More than that, I realized I was afraid of him for the first time since we had met.

At this point I got sick, and found myself too weak to do anything more than the basics of care with the horses. I spent an entire day in bed sleeping and feeling miserable, when I woke up the next day I knew I had to change something.

What do I do if Atlas refuses to walk his stress off, and I don’t feel like I have the luxury of time to start again with the distance work, building trust over time until he will accept closeness once more…

I always tell my students that you earn the right to be an assertive leader by investing in the relationship either passively or dominantly.

Assertive leaders ask for things gently, kindly, and without extreme pressure. If you have enough invested in the relationship the horse will say “yes” to what you ask, but if you do not, your gentle requests will become irritating to the horse and the horse will start to become more and more dysfunctional in their behavior toward you.

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I had invested so much with Atlas passively I thought I had earned the right to ask him to walk gently and be successful, and I was correct for a while. Then I learned that an environmental impact like the fog horns brings his stress levels so high it results in less relationship credit to use.

In this situation when my credit ran out, and Atlas was no longer was willing to walk, I kept asking him to at least change focus for me, and this repeated asking in a quiet way with long durations of eye contact became more and more irritating to him.

This mired us deeper and deeper into a hole where he was angry and I was frightened, and yet neither of us was willing to back down.

I thought maybe I just need to persevere and keep putting gentle pressure on him to change focus and he would start to come around to seeing my request helped him feel better. I would work for hours every day and we would see progress from the start of the day to the end of the day, but the next day Atlas was even more angry and resistant, and I found myself feeling more afraid of him.

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I think we had to do this for a while so I could see clearly, that I am not above the rules.

The rules were going to force me to reinvest in the relationship either passively or dominantly; no more gentle persistence of asking for things.

I might be skilled enough in my feel and timing of assertive leadership to win the battle of wills for the day, but I was losing the overall goal of having Atlas associate me with better feelings the next time he saw me.

With summer coming I am feeling the time pressure to develop our training faster for many reasons. Trimming his hooves is becoming a more immediate concern. I would like to move him from the paddock to the pasture with its less secure fencing, and I would like to have some peace of mind that I could attend to him if any health emergency arose. Given all these factors, I chose the dominant leader option.

I will still spend some time in passive leadership at a distance every day, but it can’t be my only solution because it simply is taking too long for Atlas.

I brought a rope out and placed it on the box in the middle of the arena, and I promised myself I would use it to scare Atlas if he tried to threaten me in any way. I knew I could throw the rope just right to make Atlas feel trapped between me and the fence, making me the dominant leader and ending the argument quickly, allowing us to find our walk again. Once we could walk, I knew I could become re-associated with Atlas’ good feelings.

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This is the most interesting part of the story. Once the rope was somewhere I could reach for it, I never needed to pick it up. My confidence was high again and Atlas started responding to me completely differently. I now moved in clear confident ways, so he felt the pressure between me and the fence as the right amount of dominance. Any face-off between us was quickly finished and we had found our walk again.

Once we found our walk we found our consistent good feelings together and relatively quickly we found ourselves back to the level of relationship we had at the end of March.

A trust we can count on and reliable good feelings we can find together, even at close distances.

This week, I even got my first whinny from him when I walked by the paddock.

It is humbling to see in hindsight the mistakes I made over the last couple of weeks, but I share them with you all so you can learn from them too. I posted a video of this challenging time with Atlas in the Patreon group and I welcome you to join the group to share the journey with me.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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I feel a strong optimism about the path ahead for Atlas and me now, but if history is any indication he probably has a great deal more to teach me. I promise to keep you posted of all I learn.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

8 Comments

  1. A whinny!! The most wonderful sound in the world.

    • Yes indeed! Music for the soul!

  2. Whenever you feel down, give any one of us a call and we will listen, understand and help you back up. again. This work is important. For so many of us you are leading the way towards what we want and need to know in our quest to be better for our horses. What a wonderful ending. Atlas is the ultimate teacher. He is pushing you hard. Dig deep.

    • Kim, I almost cried reading this. You have no idea how much that offer of support touched me after this dark hole I recently pulled out of. Thank you from the depths of my heart. Atlas is pushing me hard, and I will dig deep and meet him! Thank you for cheering us on!

  3. Yea I think a great deal more to teach all of us is likely. Good job finding your way they the darkness to regain your confidence.

    • Thank you Barb, The light at the end of the tunnel is welcome indeed, but I agree there is no doubt Atlas will take me though other tunnels with twists and turns along the way. That is what makes this an adventure!

  4. Does he need some time to unwind? LOVE all your patience and not giving up on him!! Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, I am sure he does need some time to unwind… that is the art work of this, when do we push for a new view point, and when do we rest in the current view point and build strength for tomorrow. Navigating it a day at a time!


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