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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.

 

If Only I Were More Perfect…

Over the last few weeks… No, correct that, over that last few months, Atlas has pushed me again and again to reframe what success is for us.

 

I know that the path to success isn’t linear, and there is often a jumbled or confusing path of progress on the way to “success”, whatever that means to the individuals experiencing it. Atlas seems to be walking me through this confusing maze of double back, turn the corner, head right, think you are headed toward success… only to find yourself turned around again not sure where you are headed at all.

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It would be easy to blame Atlas’ past trauma for our difficulty in progressing forward in this relationship, but more often I find myself blaming my lack of perfection in personal choices.

 

If only I had not scratched my nose in that moment… then he would still trust me instead of going galloping away again. If only I had moved more slowly to avoid triggering the anger, pinned ears, and threatening gestures from him. If only I had finished my session before the wind picked up, if only I had remembered to put both coats on before we started so I wasn’t shivering, causing him to doubt my confidence, if only I had better rhythmic breathing that would continually prove to Atlas I could be counted on… if only, if only, if only.

 

Whatever Atlas’ past trauma was, it has left a residue of perpetual tension in him that is unlike anything I have ever experienced in any relationship with horses before this. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be perfect enough for him. No matter how hard I focus, and study, and plan, and breathe, I still consistently fall short.

 

Often, we get a few days of brilliant progress where his trust starts to blossom, where everything falls into place. Then something as simple as the wind picking up spins us around in a dizzying, frustrating, jumble of events leaving us far apart from each other yet again.

 

I blame my greed for wanting too much too soon when Atlas cannot meet me in that kind of trust yet. I blame my worry when I look at his hooves needing a trim and I can’t in good conscience continue to practice partnership at a distance. I blame the horrible people who broke Atlas’ faith in humanity to begin with. I blame anything I can think of, to lessen the guilt I feel for not being perfect enough today, to be trusted by Atlas.

 

Blame won’t solve it though; only consistent effort to build again will get us where we want to go. No matter how many times we get torn down or turned around, we simply must build again and learn to do it a little better every time.

 

In the beginning of the project, my plan with Atlas was to make personal choices around him with good feel and timing so he experienced good feelings in association with me. This passive leadership style would ostensibly lower his stress levels so we could build a relationship of consistent trust and good feelings.

 

When I came to understand that was not working for Atlas as readily as I had anticipated, I bowed to reality and added movement to our program. You can read about those realizations in the blog post “Walking A Horse Down”.

 

https://equineclarity.org/2019/03/03/walking-a-horse-down/

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Movement and leadership lower stress, so if I reach the conclusion that my passive leadership choices are not consistent enough; we must use movement to help him feel better in my company.

 

In order to get that movement I used dominant leadership (the willingness to make him uncomfortable on the way to getting comfortable doing what I ask). However there is a problem for me, and that is: I don’t like being dominant. Because I don’t like being dominant, I keep trying to slide back into being an assertive leader instead.

 

Assertive leadership is where we ask nicely and the horse agrees nicely, no discomfort necessary… but you cannot just be an assertive leader, you have to earn the right to be an assertive leader with the quality and quantity of your passive and/or dominant leadership history.

 

When you try to be assertive without enough good history of passive or dominant leadership to back it up, you just become irritating. The more you irritate the horse, the higher you raise their stress in association with you and the worse the relationship gets.

 

When I realized my walking with Atlas was starting to irritate him more every day instead of lowering his stress as I had intended, I had to change my plan yet again.

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More dominant, less assertive: I had not earned my assertive leadership yet when it came to causing movement.

 

A passive leader makes more personal decisions than their partner (moves their own feet more).

 

An assertive leader makes decisions for their partner (causes their partner’s feet to move) while moving together in harmony.

 

A dominant leader makes decisions for their partner (causes their partner’s feet to move) while moving less than their partner.

 

In order to stop being irritating to Atlas I needed to be willing to make him uncomfortable to cause movement, but then I needed to be still while he carried out that stress reducing action.

 

I brought a chair into the round pen, I used my rope to cause him to move off at a walk, and then I sat down. When Atlas would stop I would stand up from my chair and use my rope again, sitting down as soon as he was walking again. If he was angry or irritated I would toss my rope in his direction to cause him to trot or canter for half a lap, then step in front of his drive line to bring him back to walk before sitting down in my chair again.

 

Within a very short time all of Atlas’s irritation disappeared, and his walk became consistent and rhythmic around me. It seemed Atlas was willing to do almost anything to keep me sitting down in my chair.

 

When it felt like Atlas had lowered his stress enough through the rhythm of his walking, I would stand up and walk to the opposite side of the arena, which would cause him to stop and look at me. Then I would play with my passive leadership, moving my body around him with feel and timing. Different from what I had done before, I did not try too hard to be perfect; I just did a casual job of being normal in my efforts.

 

Because movement and the dominance to start the movement had become part of the plan, I welcomed Atlas becoming irritated with where I chose to stand, or fearful with how I chose to move. Either of those responses from him would be my signal to send him walking again and go back to sitting in my chair. If my efforts at passive leadership were not good enough to lower his stress, then we would simply switch tactics and use dominant leadership instead.

 

Atlas is a horse that will spend five hours at a stretch standing at one feeding station without moving. Atlas is a horse that does not let other horses move him, and he is not inclined to move himself. Atlas’s trauma leads him to be distrustful of any social engagement and the choices that anyone (horse or human) might make for him or around him with any degree of closeness.

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I have realized it is important for me to reframe my idea of success with Atlas. Our relationship is no longer about discovering how much trust can be built working from passive leadership gently into assertive leadership as the original goal of this project was. Our relationship is simpler now and my job is to use any tools I need to consistently help Atlas lower his stress enough, to choose social engagement.

 

All night, every night, Atlas has unlimited hay and the companionship of his best friend Zohari who is an uncomplicated friend. Zohari is happy to be a companion at distances that don’t irritate Atlas, and he seems content to be there for Atlas without needing anything from Atlas.

 

During the day Atlas goes in the round pen and I do four to six sessions a day with him. I start with passive leadership and if my choices around him are not good enough to inspire trust as I get closer, I then ask him to move and I go sit in my chair to wait until he feels better, then we repeat our passive and supportive leadership practices. When I feel we have reached the best moment of trust possible for that session (Atlas is showing signs of relaxation while I am closer to him) we end and I go get him some hay or grass to eat.

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The rhythmic movement helps Atlas process any residual stress he is feeling and let it go. The dominant leadership of me causing him to move while moving very little myself, and then the passive and supportive leadership of my moving around him with good feel and timing also help lower his stress when I do it well. The new food delivered at the end of the session and at the peak moment of trust in that session helps bring good association with what just happened and helps motivate him to reach for that feeling of trust again next time he is in company.

 

We repeat this four to six times a day with variations to keep it interesting. Some sessions we do with just Atlas and I, some sessions Zohari joins us for the walking and the interacting, some sessions Occasio joins us instead of Zohari. Some sessions the horses choose to walk a bigger circle and step over the small logs I have placed around the round pen, some sessions the horses choose to walk a closer circle next to my chair and the feed bins they know I will fill at the end. Some sessions I stand in the middle still and breathing, or I sit in my chair, play music, read a book, and in some sessions I even chat with friends on my phone as the horses walk around me. Sometimes I walk to the other side of the round pen and then back to Atlas to initiate interactions, other times Atlas gets brave enough to walk right in and join me where I sit in my chair.

 

One of the brilliant side effects of this plan is the sand of the round pen we walk in is helping Atlas self trim those hooves I can’t touch or trim yet. The more he walks, the healthier he becomes, and the healthier he becomes the better relationship we are able to build.

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This is a routine that seems to be working for Atlas and he is starting to choose interaction instead of isolation more consistently.

 

I get to be human and less than perfect when I practice my passive and supportive leadership. On the days and in the moments I get it just right, we are back on track with the original intent of the project. In the moments I am just not perfect enough in my personal choices around Atlas to help him, we use the tools of round pen, rope, and food rewards to set him up for success in the relationship and life together.

 

Atlas gets to feel better in my company four to six times a day, in whatever way that is possible for him.

 

I get to sit back and wait for him to process whatever residual stress he has that keeps us apart and unable to relate. Atlas’ stress isn’t my fault when I am not perfect enough. I can give it my best shot to be perfect enough for him, but when I am not, I now have solid alternate plans to help him.

 

I have reframed what I consider success for Atlas. It isn’t about how much we can do together anymore, success for Atlas and I is now about how much he voluntarily engages in the social interactions of life, with me and with the other horses.

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When Atlas can play successfully with Occasio and there is no fight I have to break up between them, it is a win. When he volunteers to smell up and down my arm investigating and discovering human smell it is a win. When he messes up my hair and knocks the sunglasses on my head gently askew it is a win. When he reaches out repeatedly to touch his nose against mine it is a win.

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I think I am learning more every day how to set Atlas up for those wins, but I promise I will keep studying and sharing what I find as the horses continually set me up for more twists and turns of progress on the way to whatever success is for us tomorrow.

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If you are curious to see in action any of what I have described in this blog, join the group on Patreon.com where I post weekly video content about it all.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

 

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

 

TamingWild.com

 

One Comment

  1. Elsa, Great post! Boy this takes learning from the challenging horse to a whole new level. It is said that the more challenging the more we learn, and I am in awe of your patience, persistence and love for Atlas. Kate Wood


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