Skip navigation

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.


The Good F Words and the Bad F Words

I was working my way through airport security this morning, at the beginning of a two-month teaching tour, with a grin on my face and a spring in my step.

I am keenly aware that not everyone feels this way about travel, and I feel a wash of gratitude when I look around and observe the overwhelming stress around me in my fellow travelers, that I simply do not share.

Why is that? Why does the same situation elicit profound and overwhelming stress in one being while stimulating joy, exuberance, and entertainment in another?

As a horse trainer I am always bridging the gap between my own human experiences and the things my horses might experience that are similar. I know I run the risk of over anthropomorphizing, but so long as I keep that in mind, I think the comparisons are worth making.

Stress is interesting to me as theoretical construct explaining why, when, and how we feel the way we do. Horses and humans.

Add just enough stress to life and curiosity, interest and learning are stimulated. Life becomes better.

Add too much stress and those very things that bring color and fullness to life become overwhelming, anxiety producing, and injury causing.

What causes the same situation to be a perfect level of stress in one individual, and too much stress in another individual?

I think change and focus are the keys to understanding this.


Change is constant in everyone’s experience. For instance, the change from breathing in to breathing out, everyone experiences a certain number of times in a minute.

When you raise the number of respirations in a minute out of the normal rate, that is an example of another change in experience. Some individuals will be exhilarated, and some will be riddled with anxiety by that change. Why?

Because we all judge and assess constantly on a subconscious level. The last time a change like this was noticed, did it lead to feeling better or feeling worse?

In a healthy individual, focus on new change in life is balanced with familiar change and this is what keeps stress at a positive, intensity.

The thing an individual (human or horse) focuses on becomes the main contributor to raising or lowering stress.

I might focus on my feet on the ground. My feet on the ground always feel this way as I shift my weight from heel to toe in a predictable pattern of walking. This set of changes triggers familiar and positive predictions in the brain and lowers stress.

I might notice the air smells different than usual, unfamiliar as I am surrounded by new and different things. I don’t have enough life experience in situations like this to know if the different smell is going to lead to life being better or worse, so this raises stress.

I drink some water and notice it sliding down my throat in the same way it does every day, quenching my thirst and this change from less hydrated to more hydrated is familiar, comfortable, and lowers stress.

The pattern of life experience goes on. Focus on a familiar good change, stress lowers, focus on an unfamiliar change, stress rises.

There are a million changes happening to us and around us all the time, which changes we notice determine if the stress is going up and down in a life enhancing way, or if stress is going perpetually up in a way that triggers actions of self-defense.

Our self-defense against too much stress looks like Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The bad F’s

The opposite of self-defense is connection and connection exists in the good F’s. Friends, Forage and Freedom (and yes, you can laugh if you want, but I think this is as true for people as it is for horses).

Depending on what momentary change you focus on, stress is going up or coming down in waves all the time.

Friends communicate, triggering thinking which is the opposite of freeze (freeze = a focused fixation on something). Thinking lowers stress, freeze shows us stress is rising.

Friends make space to be together, triggering the feelings of yielding which is the opposite of flight (flight = trying to get away). Yielding lowers stress, flight shows us stress is rising.

Friends play, causing laughter and entertainment, which is the opposite of fight (fight = pushing against someone to cause discomfort so they change).  Play lowers stress, fight shows us stress is rising.

Forage is the food, water, and air we consume every day to stay alive. Good quality in the right quantities has a profound impact on a body’s stress levels and the likelihood that an individual will be able to find balance in patterns of focus that raise or lower stress in healthy or not healthy ways. I think perhaps all of us would do well to acknowledge how big an impact this has.

Freedom is the degree to which an individual realizes they have choices.

That is probably the most profound statement in this blog post and instead of explaining it, I am going to let you think on it yourself and realize how far reaching the implications are.

The good F’s friends, forage and freedom lead to patterns of focus that see a balance between familiar good changes and new changes or familiar bad changes that keep life rich and beautiful.

The bad F’s, fight, flight, and freeze can be tolerated in small doses, but when these patterns of self-defense become the most common reaction to life, we know stress has gotten too high.

In an ideal world when training horses (or traveling through airports) we find a balance between noticing familiar good changes that lower stress and new changes or bad changes that raise stress, and we help our friends do the same.

I am realizing that Freedom Based Training® is simply about training focus, within the scope any individual is willing to consider it.

If I can help a horse find a balance between focusing on the things that lower stress and the things that raise stress, they experience stress as a good thing that makes life interesting and beautiful.

If I can nurture and develop a horse’s focus changes, they realize they have increasing freedom to choose what they think about. With practice they can choose to focus on the things that keep stress in the good zone.

I can be that friend for a horse that nurtures connection and lets self-defense fall away as unnecessary.

I can do the same in an airport as I strike up a conversation with a stranger and we laugh together at some unfamiliar change.

Life is beautiful when we see it that way.

Hooves and Heartbeats,



Sunset from the Brussels Airport.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: