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Monthly Archives: December 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.


Emotional Sit-Ups


This week Atlas and I had yet another heartbreaking backslide in progress.


There were long sleepless nights spent beating myself up for not seeing it coming, for not taking the right actions to support Atlas, for feeling like I had failed him yet again.


As much as I do my best to remember this is a learning process and in learning there are mistakes that we then learn from, I am still so very sad when I see a horse overwhelmed by stress.


I retrace my steps a million times in my mind trying to determine what I might have done differently that would have supported that horse to feel okay instead of overwhelmed.


This particular week the weather got a great deal colder and I didn’t realize that would be a problem. Then, one morning when I was sitting next to Atlas my mother walked by in the woods above us and she and I had a casual conversation. During the conversation and as she walked away, I noticed all of Atlas’ muscles locked up in extreme freeze as he looked at the environment in a state of high alert. We worked for a while longer (mostly distance work of being together in harmony) and I thought the tension had melted away.

Then my daughter came by and I walked over to the far fence to chat with her. As she and I were laughing and talking Atlas started pacing the far fence line from us in extreme agitation like he couldn’t get far enough away from us (something he has never done before).

When my daughter left I closed the round pen gate to give him some structure and moved to the center to sit down, asking Atlas to walk around (instead of pacing one side) hoping some time in rhythmic movement while I was quiet and still would settle him as it has in the past. This has been a daily practice for us to help him have some healthy physical movement that he lacks living without a herd to move him and to help wear his hooves down since I am not able to trim them yet.


Instead of walking calmly off as he usually does, Atlas started pinning his ears at me and getting closer in an agitated, aggressive looking way. I didn’t feel directly in danger but I thought it was going that direction if I didn’t do something proactive soon.

My paddocks are just not big enough for the kind of distance Atlas wanted in the state of stress he felt in that moment… so instead of stepping outside the paddock as I would have done if I felt I had unlimited time, I chose a small amount of dominance, moving abruptly to send him into trot every time he pinned his ears at me.


Within a half an hour the ear pinning had stopped, but even as we settled back into flow and harmony, Atlas would no longer let me get within a horse length from him. No matter how tactfully I tried, he would bolt away from me if I stepped within his personal bubble… that behavior continued for a couple of days and I felt heartbroken that we were in this place of deep mistrust yet again.
In hindsight I wish I had moved my conversation with my daughter farther away the moment I saw the pacing begin, and when I came back I wish I had taken 10 minutes to work at a distance from Atlas outside the pen (maybe even from the woods above where my mother had been earlier) before going in and suggesting he move his feet with consistency and rhythm to walk that stress off. I don’t think I did things completely wrong… it was just a little too much too soon on top of stacking triggers for Atlas and I think I could have handled it with more grace to begin with.


We live and we learn, and this week Atlas helped me make some mistakes to learn from.


In hindsight, in this particular week with Atlas, I was able to pinpoint three specific triggers: the cold, the conversation with my mother standing in an unusual place outside the paddock, and then the conversation with my daughter closer to Atlas than he was comfortable with. However, there were probably more triggers I do not know about. It is rarely one thing that causes a backslide, instead it is many.


I can’t know if perhaps:

  • A fox ran through the paddock scaring Atlas just before I arrived
  • Atlas tweaked his back getting up from a nap and he was in pain
  • Atlas ate something funny in his hay and his stomach hurt
  • There was a smell in the air or a noise on the wind that reminded him of a past event that was traumatic for him


There will always be too many factors for us to know exactly why our horses feel overwhelmed by stress. The good news is, we don’t need to know why to be able to help.


When the horse is overwhelmed, it has an automatic reaction to go to fight or flight or freeze. My job is to find the edge of that reaction and work on the tolerable side of the issue where the horse is capable of responding in a functional way (thinking, yielding or playing).


The more repetitions we have of positive response to stimulus around the horse, the stronger the emotional “muscles” get and the less likely the horse is to feel overwhelmed in future situations that are similar.


I refer to this exercise as “Emotional Sit-ups”.
As humans we like to know why a horse feels overwhelmed, but I encourage everyone (including myself) to not worry about it too much. Simply take into account the factors you can see that overwhelm your horse, break them down into smaller sections and see if you can work under the threshold of being overwhelmed so your horse can practice as many good responses as possible.


I find the analogy of physical work to emotional work helps me be patient with the process. Emotional sit-ups, just like physical sit-ups can be exhausting and the horse can only do so many in a session before they need to rest and recover for the next session where we can start again with new strength.


My job as a trainer is to read the probabilities: is this going to get better or is this going to get worse?


How much practice can we functionally handle, staying within the realm of positive responses?


My job as a teacher is to admit I do not always get it right. I too stumble, fall, scrape my emotional knees and feel overwhelmed. Then I pick myself up and wipe off the coating of shame I feel after a fall, after causing overwhelm in my horse, or after failing to see the environment was becoming overwhelming. I learn from the experience and then do better next time.


For Atlas and I, when we fall down and make mistakes and get overwhelmed, we build resilience together from the experience.


When we get the feel and timing just right for the perfect sets of  “emotional sit-ups”, we get stronger and more confident so that we can keep our feet and navigate the world as it comes at us, no matter what happens.


Part of me hopes we get so strong we never experience a backslide of progress ever again. Part of me knows it is the balance of successes and mistakes that keeps life interesting, so we will simply take it all as it comes.


If any of you are curious to see this concept of “emotional sit-ups” in action, I have posted a video on Patreon this week of Atlas and I practicing.


Here is to living and learning, resilience and strength.


Hooves and Heartbeats,







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.


Discovering Interests

From my early childhood of galloping trails and jumping jumps with wild abandon, to my intense study of dressage and biomechanics of horse and human in my early adult life.


From my study of the equine mind and motivation patterns in “Natural Horsemanship” style training to my later development of Freedom Based Training®.


From the filming of “Taming Wild: A Girl and a Mustang” as a challenge to myself to think outside the boxes of horse training I understood, to later challenging myself again to cross a country with rescued horses while filming “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”.


Now I am at home in the present moment filming the third movie, “Taming Wild: Evolution” looking even deeper for answers.


I ask myself often, why do I do this?


What is my motivation to show up day after day and explore the realms of what is possible in the company of a horse?


There are many things we could fill our time with, yet for some of us everything feels better in the company of a horse.


My “why” reaches back to the childhood awe I felt when I realized a horse could lend me their strength and speed when I was riding, so that I too became stronger and faster like the horse whose grace I was borrowing.


Now, as an adult, I still ride but it isn’t the ultimate goal of being with horses for me anymore.


My ultimate goal now is the development of diversity in shared enjoyment, horse and human together.


If I want to share in the strengths of my horse, what do I offer in return?


I like the challenge of asking myself, “can I offer my strengths and skills in a great enough diversity of ways to the horse that they are interested in offering theirs to me in return?”


When I opt out of using halters or sticks or fences to control a horse, I also opt out of the dominant boundary setting that many horses appreciate.


When food is not something I bring to the horse and it is only one of many environmental options we share, I lose an intensity of power to reward or develop specific behaviors that shape the horse to share my human interests.


When freedom becomes the basis for building relationships, the mental agility of horse and human becomes the valued commodity.


This mental agility is what I develop when I take away all the tools and obvious rewards between horse and human.


This is why I train horses.


My own mental agility is both the challenge and the reward.


In reality, I am spending time with horses while they train me.


The end result is that we train each other to be better versions of ourselves.


The question of relationship starts with a natural community instinct that horses and humans share. Are you interested in the same things I am interested in?


At a core level, all of us seek a state of feeling better, however our individual strategies for feeling better vary in style and effectiveness.


A horse that seeks boundaries, someone else to tell them what to do or where to be, is a horse that does not know how to direct their own focus in ways that develop better feelings. I enjoy the challenge of keeping that sort of horse company in freedom as they develop skills of focus that make them the sort of partner that doesn’t need boundaries to lean on in the future.


A horse that eats perpetually is a horse that has a very narrow perspective on what might cause better feeling. I enjoy the challenge of keeping that horse company and celebrating every small stretch of their comfort zone that shows them better feelings come from far more opportunities than food.


Mental agility happens when the thoughts are collected enough to allow focus to change and move and adjust in the best direction in each moment.


What is the best direction for focus? The direction that makes us feel better. The more varieties of focus we have that make us feel better, that we can choose from moment to moment, the more diverse and interesting life becomes.
When a horse focuses on something that makes it feel worse, you will know, because it triggers actions of fight, flight or freeze.


When a horse focuses on something that makes it feel better, you will know, because it triggers actions of thinking, yielding and playing.


In freedom, a horse can choose what they want to focus on, and sometimes they choose something that feels bad. In those situations, I am happy to be their companion, but I will not be in harmony in any way with the decision to feel worse.


In contrast to that, when a horse focuses on something that makes them feel better, I am going to find as many ways as possible to be in harmony with those choices.


This is the base on which Freedom Based Training® works.


Horses (and humans) crave companionship. We all want friends who are interested in the same things we are interested in.


In freedom sometimes we lack the mental agility or mental collection to make the right choices of focusing on the things that make us feel better together.


As a horse trainer in freedom, I have to develop my own mental agility and mental collection first, leading by example, showing the horse that I am with them when they are making good choices.


From this foundation, the relationship is all about building variety.


How many different ways can we experience the world together and feel better?


Matching behavior and matching focus is the obvious reinforcer in Freedom Based Training®. When both horse and human value the same things there is harmony.


Horses will work and develop their behaviors to achieve harmony if it is offered the right way. The need for community is built into us all and is a deeply powerful motivator for development.


Complementary behavior and focus is where the art of the relationship is developed. Complementary behavior is where we are different from each other, yet still in harmony


The horse looks to the right, the human looks to the left. Looking different places, complementary to each other because as a partnership we now know the world is safe in both directions.


The human looks at the environment and the horse sinks into self-focus getting a little rest for a moment. Focused in different places, complementary to each other because one is keeping the other safe while the other rests, later the roles may be reversed.


The human stands still the horse moves around in a circle at speed, complementary to each other because one is the center point of the action and the other is the action, later the roles may be reversed.


Those are three simple examples, but the variations you might think of are potentially infinite.


My point is that, in a relationship you do not need to always be the same as the other to be in harmony. Harmony can be either matching or complementary and both are of value.


The key is variety, how many different ways can life be experienced as we seek better feelings together?


The discovery of variety is why horses want to play with humans, and humans want to play with horses. We don’t know what is possible until we try it.


Life with horses is endlessly diverse, and profoundly simple all at the same time.


Today, I feel the awe of those contrasting and yet balancing thoughts.


I will never know everything there is to know, but each day I practice I will learn a little more, and my mental collection and agility will become a little stronger.


Here is to all the horses who help me develop.


Here is to all of you, interested in some of the same things I am interested in.


Here is to our community, sometimes matching, sometimes complementary.



Hooves and Heartbeats,



(I have made a video about this subject, titled “Matching Focus, Complementary Focus”. If you are curious for some visual demonstration of the ideas in this blog post, join us at: )