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Monthly Archives: June 2019

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.


The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.


Nurturing Something Bigger Than Yourself

Atlas learned something new this week that touched me more deeply than I ever expected.


Atlas learned to breathe on my face as a form of communication.


On and off through our partnership there have been moments when Atlas would reach out, the edge of his nostril fluttering against my cheek in an exploratory venture to know me. I had to be exceptionally still when he did this as any movement at all, even the wind catching the end of my hair a little would send him into a blind panic of flight.


This week this same exploratory action became something very different.


Over the past few weeks we have stepped away from Freedom Based Training® and have been helping Atlas with a little more pressure than I would ordinarily employ. We have been developing his tolerance for closeness through the stress lowering tactics of enforced rhythmic movement in the company of other horses.


You can read more about that here in the blog post “Dark Night Of The Soul”.


Each session after Atlas’ stress is low enough that he is willing to consider stretching his comfort zone, we can go back to the practice of Freedom Based Training®. I am very honest that this is not an experience of freedom for Atlas because he knows, if his stress raises to a dysfunctional level for our partnership, I will take dominant leadership again and send him back out to walk for as long as it takes to reach a functional level of stress.


If I were doing pure Freedom Based Training®, I would keep my actions below any level of triggering a horse into a dysfunctional state and if I mistakenly triggered the horse I would apologize and start again with less intensity.


Atlas seems to be benefiting from a little more structure and a little more pressure in our training together. That means my ideals of training in freedom get to take a second chair to the bigger priority of quality of life for Atlas.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps me decide this.

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Firstly we look at the physiological needs: Food, water, warmth and rest.


Atlas does well with the first three. He eats and drinks well and looks comfortable, but he seldom sleeps and it is rare that I see him lying down or even with dirt on his coat showing me he has lay down at some point. Since I have been training with a little more clear pressure on him and using that pressure to get him interacting with the other horses positively, he does seem to be sleeping better.


Second we look at the safety needs: Security and Safety.


That is where we run into real problems for Atlas. His previous life left him with deep emotional scars and an apparent equine version of PTSD. His stress levels often skyrocket, triggered by seemingly inconsequential things, and it is clear from the fight, flight and freeze he exhibits in his every day habits around the paddock that he regularly does not feel safe.


Third we look at the belonging and love needs: intimate relationships and friends.


Without the second tier of needs secure, the third tier can only occasionally be satisfied.


I believe regular and rhythmic movement in the company of friends is a key to helping Atlas regulate his emotions and find the basic security and safety he needs to feel. Only when his security and safety needs are met is he able to put energy into the next stage: Building stable and fulfilling bonds with others.


This tier of belonging and love is where I think enjoyment in life starts to blossom for individuals and I think we see it in the ability to nurture something bigger than one’s self.


When physiological needs and safety needs rule the direction of energy, we see hair trigger reactions into fight, flight, and freeze as an individual struggles to survive. They cannot nurture anything outside themselves while the self is at risk.


This is normal and natural, and heartbreaking all at the same time.


A horse that can only think about themselves, or the world around them in terms of self-defense is doing their very best to attend to the basic needs that have to be secure before we can build a better life above that.


I want to talk about the natural bridge that happens between self-defense, self-service, and the nurturing of things outside of the self.

61613527_1064032417137923_1453721459032588288_nWhen Atlas feels like his basic needs are at risk he has to act in self-defense. Once he starts to trust that the basic needs are met, he is not going to go directly to nurturing others, he is instead going to take the halfway step of seeing what he can do for others that will serve him.


This self-serving is an important part of the process that grows and develops eventually into the value of nurturing harmony in the group.


Working with Mustangs out of the wild I have been fortunate enough to have many emotionally stable individuals who already feel their basic needs are sufficiently met and are ready to nurture things outside the self. This is how Freedom Based Training® was developed.


Atlas is helping me understand that there is a foundation of needs that must be stabilized through understanding self-defense and self-service before a horse is willing to harmonize and nurture outside relationships.



The last blog post I wrote was about training using theory of “Happiness In The Here and Now” and while that methodology will always be my goal in training, I am willing to train differently for the good of the horse’s quality of life.


Basic needs first.


Atlas’ past life taught him humans cause pain and take away his safety and security. He seems to feel the same way about horses that push on his personal space. In any situation where humans get too close, or horses push too close he is triggered quickly into fight, flight or freeze. Those are the obvious triggers, then we add a million other small events like wind blowing or the smell of smoke where we find Atlas is perpetually stuck in the self-defense patterns of trying to feel safe enough.


To coax him out of self-defense it seems the next best step is self-service.


What things can Atlas learn to do that “buys” him comfort, instead of fighting for comfort out of desperation?


I stepped in and gave him an either or situation: walk around the round pen until you feel better, or feel pressure from me that puts you into flight for a few moments. In this situation if he was fully in self-defense he might have charged at me, or run until he hurt himself badly, or shut down and simply refused to move. We were in a stage in our understanding where I could set him up to choose self-service instead of self-defense. We continued having Atlas walk around the round pen (as slowly as he wanted) with these options until we saw a glimmer of a possibility that he could show interest in something other than himself, specifically, when he could reach out to touch me briefly.


When Atlas could touch me (even the smallest hesitant touch) I would feed him his next meal reinforcing that this choice was one of successful self-service.


If you do this, then you get that.


We slowly built this up until I could stroke Atlas’s face. He doesn’t take pleasure in being stroked yet, but he knows I will stop stoking when he becomes a tiny bit more interested in something outside of himself (preferably me). Twitches of an ear or a leaning into the hand on his cheek are my cues we are starting to nudge our way into more of a relationship and a little less of Atlas simply looking out for himself. So I pull my hand away and give him the space he prefers, resulting in confirmation for Atlas that those actions of being interested or leaning into my touch are self-serving and result in him being more comfortable.


I am realizing that I need to reinforce Atlas’ actions that are self-serving and a means to an end now because that builds the habits he will use later when he can take more of an interest in partnership, after his basic needs are secure.


This week Atlas realized reaching out to smell my cheek was an action he could take that was much more self-serving than it was dangerous for him. Atlas realized if he was breathing on me, I was not petting him and he now had a new way to control that situation.


If he pulled away a little I would reach out and gently stroke his cheek. When he showed a little interest in me I would pull my hand away for a few breaths and then repeat… however, if Atlas reached out for me and breathed on my neck and my cheek it stopped me from petting of his cheek indefinitely. If he investigated me thoroughly enough I would end the session and go get his next meal.


Would I rather he only breath on my cheek simply because he loves that moment with me? Of course I would rather that!


However, I am learning that a horse easily triggered into self-defense, needs us to honor and reinforce their choice to act in self-service. If they do something we like it becomes currency or payment for us doing something they like in return.


In this process I keep an eye on the goal, and I look for those moments or fragments of actions that show inclination to nurture relationships or things outside the self.


Atlas and I are going to nurture his ability to choose self-service over self-defense and then from there we can nurture his choices of self-service into actions that build bonds and relationships for the sake of relationship itself.


A step at a time I will help Atlas build the bridges from one way of living to the next with increasing possibilities of enjoyment in life.


For now, I will simply melt a little more each time he chooses to reach over and breath on my cheek with that beautiful scar covered nose of his.


It is a simple thing, but so much more than he ever would have offered before.


Thank you Atlas for teaching me more about foundations and bridges and working a gentle step at a time toward a life we enjoy living together.


Hooves and Heartbeats,