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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.


Lean In

The sultry summer heat on San Juan Island has brought with it the mid-day flies that come with this time of year. The horses run for the deep shade of the trees and stand stoically noses low and strategically placed next to swishing tails with their friends to keep the insect irritation to a minimum.


This time of year I am up early to work in the pre-dawn and dawn cool, I settle down to my computer for writing and video editing in the mid-day heat (and napping too, if I am honest). Then as sunset approaches and the day cools off once again, the insects retreat to wherever insects retreat to, I am back to work outside with the horses.


Every time of year brings with it a different variety of challenges. We adapt and adjust as best we can to whatever reality is in the moment and that leaves me thinking more deeply about this concept of adapting and adjusting.


The reality of life will never be all good or all bad, there will always be some mixture of things in life we enjoy, accept, tolerate, fight against, or run away from.


In Freedom Based Training® we help horses develop as much enjoyment of life as possible through our feel and timing of actions around them and with them. When the horse is in a state of enjoyment we do our best to be quiet, be in flow, and harmonize with them deeply, so the horse links that feeling of enjoyment with being in the company of a human.


Reality is more dynamic than that though, what do we do with the rest of the inevitable feelings?


Lean in.


Lean into the experience of reality. Sometimes we can change it, sometimes we can accept it, and sometimes we choose to leave that moment in favor of something different.


We can’t know which response to a situation is the right one until we take the time to be deeply curious about it.


This is what I teach my horses.


Some people call it desensitization, anything the horse doesn’t enjoy or accept needs desensitization work so they don’t run away from it or fight against it. That is fine as a basic understanding of desensitization but when we look more deeply at the idea it lacks the real art of relationship that makes this work with horses so fun!


The deeper art of desensitization with horses starts with developing the understanding and perception of the human. Whatever the horse is feeling, good or bad, my job is to lean into it so I can be interested and curious about it. Do not fix it as fast as possible, be interested and learn from it!


If the horse is in a state of acceptance about anything this means they don’t particularly care one way or another. This thing we are doing or this place we are in, it doesn’t matter, it could continue or it could end and it doesn’t seem to matter one way or the other.


Then when we lean into this moment, we get curious about it. Looking more deeply, is that really true? The only constant in life is change. Where we are and what we are doing is going to change at some point. Can we predict how it is going to change? Is that horse going to move from acceptance into that ultimate goal of enjoyment in a few moments? If we think that might happen we wait for it.


If our leaning in and being curious leads us to think acceptance is going to downgrade into a feeling of tolerance where we are still doing or being where we are. Then the time becomes limited before the inevitable fight or flight response in the horse shows, so it is time to change something. Change the tide so the feelings will head towards better not worse.


The more we lean into understanding feelings with curiosity, the sooner we see the potential emotional tide shifts coming. The sooner we can see the potential of the horse feeling better or feeling worse the better choices we can make about being in the right place at the right time for our relationship with them. The better our timing can be.


Now, it is going to go all wrong sometimes! This is reality, and we can’t be in the right place at the right time all of the time. Sometimes we are going to find ourselves in the middle of a situation where the horse has left all the reasonable emotions behind and is stuck in a full stress response of fight or flight. We get to lean in and be curious about those moments too. As we observe we can notice what seems to trigger more stress and more of the coping systems of fight or flight? On the flip side, what seems to trigger a lowering of stress and less of the coping systems of fight or flight?


It is only after we lean in and are curious that we can make fully informed decisions about what actions to take. The goal is to turn the tide toward better feelings, but we have to remember it is a tide that ebbs and flows. Change is the only constant in life and it will always be getting better or getting worse in a feeling sense.


Our job is to paddle out in the surf and lean into the experience. Be deeply curious and interested in all the currents around us, then catch the next wave of enjoyment. As the wave carries us toward shore each time we get to decide, do we walk away now for the day remembering that note of enjoyment, or do we paddle back out into the surf to lean into the experience again and catch the next wave of enjoyment we find?


Ari and I have been practicing this as I start to lean over his back from above and let him hold my weight for moments here and there.


That moment of holding a human’s weight on his back, it is in a stage of tolerance for Ari right now. If I use my powers of observation, feel and timing, I know when to wait and I know when to change something, and I know when to walk away for the day. I intend to teach Ari the same skills.


When Ari feels something unfamiliar, he will freeze first for a moment. If Ari can lean into that experience and be curious about the weight of a person draped across his back he will move from that freeze state to a thinking state. That thinking state is the start of enjoyment.


For Ari it will be a process of thinking and freezing, thinking again and freezing again, if he can keep moving back and forth between the two he is leaning into the experience and it has a high probability of developing into more and more enjoyment.


When I work this process it isn’t really about teaching Ari about weight on his back, that is the shallow goal. The deeper goal if I lean in as a horse trainer, is to teach Ari to lean into the experience with me.


Get curious, not afraid.

Get interested, not aggressive.


The more we lean in, the better life gets.


The other stallion, Atlas, and I are working on this also. When I reach out to stroke his cheek, every instinct in him yells to run away from that touch (and honestly I consider that an improvement over the natural fight and attack tendency Atlas had in him when he arrived here).


On the surface it looks like my job is to desensitize Atlas to touch. To teach him to accept it.


I want to take it farther than that though, I want to teach him to lean into experiences he doesn’t understand. I want to teach him to reach for thinking out of the natural moments of freeze. I want to teach Atlas to surf the waves of emotion that are the reality of life. Not running from them or fighting against them as he has had to to survive in the eight years he lived before he met me.


So I lean into the experience with curiosity and interest as I hope to teach Atlas to do also. Is it getting better or is it getting worse?


When I stroke Atlas’ cheek inevitably he freezes first and with curiosity I assess the potential for the feeling to get better for him? Can he lean into this? Lately, the answer is yes and as I see the eyes turn toward me, and the ears shift in my direction in curiosity and interest. I can see the thinking starting and the enjoyment being triggered in him. I drop my hand to my side and give Atlas space to lean in, in a thinking way, and get to know me. He breathes on my cheek, and nuzzles my hair, and runs his muzzle up and down my arm in investigation.


This is Atlas’ wave of enjoyment and at its best moment I walk away to leave him with that feeling and that memory of us together.


The more we repeat that, the more Atlas realizes it is good to lean in. It is good to be us.


If you want to see some of this “leaning in” training in action. I post update videos each week in Patreon and I would love for you to join us.


I will never know everything there is to understand in this world, but I will keep leaning into the things I don’t know yet, and as I learn I will share.


Thank you for enjoying the journey with me.


Hooves and Heartbeats,









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