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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.


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,







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