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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.


Pressure Added to Tension = Explosion


It has rained and rained and rained and rained since I have been home.


Beautiful soft northwest dripping, followed by torrential downpours, followed by living in a cloud, followed by steady relentless streams of water making their way through every part of the living experience.


Each sort of rain experienced individually is beautiful, however, when you put them all together in a seemingly endless experience, it leads to a fair amount of tension in the horses.


I watched Occasio start to tiptoe around Ari, giving him more space than usual and watching his best friend with care for permission before walking past him to drink at the trough or eat at the hay hut.


I watched Atlas get more and more sensitive to noises in the environment, startling and spooking at things that wouldn’t have bothered him a week before.


I watched the herd out in the big pasture seem to spread out more than usual across the valley, giving each other more of a buffer against irritating each other.


Then the sun came out, the world became the peaceful haven of comfort it had not been in the weeks before and everyone slept. Long deep sleeps of recovery from the tension built up in endless rain.


Following the sun and the sleeping, I watched Occasio and Ari eating hay with their noses touching once again, and engaging in the play that looked more fun and natural than the restlessness of the weeks before.


I watched Atlas’ ears twitch and follow sounds in interest again instead of leaping out of his skin in the explosive movements of defense seen the week before.


I watched the herd in the field gather a little closer together in enjoyment of company.


This natural ebb and flow of stress is one that is always changing and will always be changing, and yet as a human with a training plan I sometimes forget I need to adapt along with the environment we live in.


The variable of stress that is most interesting to me right now is the variable of past experience and trauma in a horse’s life.


Trauma is any past experience that hardwires a brain to automatically defend itself against others, instead of connecting and collaborating with others.


Some horses like Atlas have good reason for the trauma they feel seen in the physical scars of past abuse.


Other horses like Occasio are born with such a high natural sensitivity that living what would be a normal life for most horses seems to trigger some degree of emotional trauma. Occasio is a story for another day, but he is an interesting side note on the subject of trauma.


Any degree of stress will predispose a horse to defend instead of connecting, but the interesting thing about a horse with trauma is that an act of defense will often lead to more stress that leads to more defense etcetera… the circle goes on in a devastating pattern.


A horse without a history of trauma will defend itself in a state of stress, then it will feel better, stress will go down and connection with friends and the world returns to normal.


This is a profound difference I am learning to respect in my training with Ari and Atlas.


With Ari, I am allowed to make mistakes and I am forgiven when I misread the level of stress in a situation. If I blunder into a moment of stress, adding too much pressure to pre-existing tension, Ari might defend himself for a moment with some degree of fight or flight. Then when I take an action to help lower the stress in the situation and re-approach the subject I blundered through so badly before, I am allowed a second chance to get it right.


With Atlas, I have to proceed with considerably more care. If the environment we are in is causing tension in Atlas, I must take care that any pressure I add has an outcome of lowering that stress he feels, not pushing him over the edge into fight or flight.


If I get it wrong with Atlas it can sometimes feel like watching a long chain of dominos, one clicking into the next and the next and the next, knocking down that long chain of trust we took months to build.


The weather, or the any random factor in the environment might raise my horse’s stress, but depending on their past experience with trauma, my contribution to their experience can feel like a shoulder rub relieving tight muscles, or the careful detaching of wires in a bomb about to explode.


The training in a horse/human relationship has two parts to it.

  1. Positive development of connection above and beyond defense.
  2. The ability to recover from mistakes that trigger defense.


When I get my training right, I know exactly how much pressure is acceptable or even helpful to a horse in the natural state of stress they feel. This strengthens the first point of training.


When I make mistakes in training, I learn more about how much stress is too much stress for the horse I am with, and the horse learns how to recover from that feeling of momentarily being overwhelmed, when I have mistakenly added too much pressure to tension. This strengthens the second point in training.


In Freedom Based Training®, one of the things we work on is strengthening the horse’s ability to self-soothe using their brain and focus changes.


We do this by linking feelings of pressure to thinking.


Anything that would cause fight or flight in high doses, will cause thinking in lower doses.


The stronger this link becomes between pressure and thinking, the further apart those theoretical trust dominos become for a horse like Atlas.


As we space the emotional dominos farther apart by linking pressure to thinking, hopefully Atlas will be able to handle pressure on tension with more grace, and he will be able to recover from mistakes in the relationship where too much pressure on tension is applied and we perhaps knock one domino of trust over, instead of an entire chain.


It is my job to read the situation and strive to be the kind of person my horse wants to connect to.


It is also my job to get it wrong sometimes, knock hopefully just one domino of trust over and show my horse it is ok to have a moment and recover from it.


We can get it wrong, then re-approach, and then stand that domino of trust up again, stronger this time.


As the horse learns to self soothe, and emotionally stabilize themselves, pressure on tension becomes a good thing on the way to feeling better. Instead of a bad thing, diffusing a bomb that might go off in your face.


Now, I simply must pray for grace and the awareness to know when Atlas’ emotional dominos are stacked too close together and proceeding with care is the game. Also knowing when he has the emotional resilience to allow me to be more human, making the occasional mistake.


The reality of life will always play a part in this understanding of what is possible between me and the horses. Living in the pacific northwest, the cascades of water all around us are a common factor that I love on most days, while I also acknowledge for all of us that puddle dancing might look a little more like a stoic rain meditation when too many days of it get strung together.


Wish me Luck!

Hooves and Heartbeats,



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