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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.


Idealism versus Reality

As I walk through the paddock, Atlas’ eyes track my patterns. I notice how soft the muscles through his face are now. Those deep dark eyes a physical expression of the quote, “still waters run deep.”


Atlas is not so still anymore though; he is less and less still every day. As if the emotions he feels are slowly being allowed to surface. For all of us mere mortals who live with him, we need his emotions to show so we can adjust our behavior appropriately as his friend and companion.


So far my work with Atlas, understanding the needs of a horse from a deeply traumatized background, has led me to some distinct conclusions.


  1. The quality of the three Fs (friends, freedom and forage) has huge impact on a horse’s ability to heal.


  1. Friends and Freedom give a horse circumstances where exercise naturally occurs. If those two factors are limited, adding rhythmic movement to a horse’s daily life dramatically improves their ability to heal.


  1. If a horse has learned to hide their emotions from past traumatic experiences, mistakes in action around them (re-triggering trauma) becomes inevitable.


  1. Re-triggered trauma raises the current stress levels dramatically, and it will take time for that stress to come back down to functional levels.


  1. Even after stress has come down to functional levels, trust will need to be rebuilt around the actions that triggered the high stress state.


  1. The best way to rebuild trust is extreme predictability.


  1. Challenge (anything that causes a horse to think and adapt) needs to have more predictability. Reward (anything that reliably triggers better feeling in the horse) needs to have more variety.


  1. The correct balance between challenge and reward is what helps the horse show their emotions appropriately instead of hiding their emotions until an explosion of action occurs.


I write these eight points down for you because I feel some regret that I didn’t know these points sooner for Atlas’s benefit. I do my best for him with what I know, and then, when I have learned more everything goes better.


In my idealism at the beginning of this project I put Ari and Atlas together too soon. Two stallions with hugely different temperaments from hugely different backgrounds in a space that was likely too small for all those differences. My idealism about friends and freedom led to the reality of fight and injury and broken trust.


Reality led me to adapt. Settling Atlas with a quieter undemanding friend in Zohari. While settling Ari with a more suitable companion in Occasio.


Idealism gave me hope that my herds of two had enough space to move together that they could take care of their exercise needs. Reality showed me this was only true for Ari and Occasio.


Reality showed me that Atlas’ stress levels and corresponding reactions to the environment (freeze and explode and freeze again) put him in a downward spiral of re-triggering trauma, perpetual and awful to watch.


Reality led me to step in with some clear boundaries and consistent exercise routines that broke the downward spiral and allowed Atlas to settle, building trust in everything again.


Idealism led me to believe I could read Atlas’ body language well enough to touch the edges of his comfort zone and stretch it without pushing him to react in fight or flight, perpetually strengthening his trust in my decision making.


Reality showed me that Atlas often hides how he feels too deeply, I push too far at the edge of his comfort zone, trust is broken, and much more time than I imagined is needed to repair that broken trust.


Idealism led me to think I could apologize to Atlas and try again. Do all my actions with better feel and timing the second or third or fourth time I tried them… again.


Reality showed me that I could not read Atlas as well as I thought I could and was making more mistakes than I was taking correct actions. Breaking more trust than I was building.


Reality led me to read more, study more and ultimately understand the necessary balance between the predictability of challenge and the variety of reward.


Idealism led me to think persistence in trying harder to do the right things around Atlas would eventually win him over and let his past trauma melt away.


Reality led me to understand the idealism of a pure Freedom Based Training® approach was probably only possible with this traumatized horse if the friends, freedom and forage equation was in the right balance at the start, and I truly felt I had all the time in the world.


Idealism still dances in and out of my every day. It is the thing that keeps the sparkle in my eye and the inspiration in my work.


Reality is the force that keeps me coming back to the drawing board to learn more.


The reality with Atlas is settling into a beautiful rhythm in the last few weeks, and I think I have finally completely accepted I need a few more tools to help him manage the fight and flight he feels when I get my part of the dance wrong. Too much too soon is not something that I can successfully avoid with this horse, so instead I will embrace it.


I approach him exactly the same way every day, several times a day. As I work through the steps stretching the edge of Atlas’s comfort zone, I watch carefully to see if I can read his emotions accurately and predict when he will become overwhelmed and take flight from me.


Some days I do not read him correctly and some action of mine sends him into flight. We take that opportunity to make our way to the round pen that is part of his paddock and let him exercise at the walk or the jog for twenty or thirty minutes.


Atlas needs consistency of challenge in his life. Hidden emotions, leading to miscommunication with humans, leading to flight, always leads to time exercising. Slowly and gradually moving in a rhythm to let that spike in stress work out of his system. If I need a flag and a round pen to support that for Atlas, I will use those for him.


At least once every hour, at a moment when Atlas is particularly comfortable in his own skin I add the reward of a handful of sunflower seeds in a pan. Intensifying the rewards of working with me allows me to add more variety to reward. Sometimes I sit with him while he eats, sometimes I stand, sometimes I sing, sometimes I lie on the ground, sometimes I watch him, sometimes I watch the environment, sometimes the pan is up high on a box, sometimes the pan is down low in a hole in the ground, sometimes the pan is near me, sometime it is far from me. When you have a food reward that is strong enough you can add variety in how the horse experiences it.


This food reward was not possible in Atlas’ first year because he refused to trust eating anything other than hay. For the first year I struggled with my idealism of using flow and harmony as the only reward with Atlas. This has worked well with most horses, but Atlas’ past trauma led me to getting it wrong as often as I got it right. Varieties of flow and harmony only work if you choose the right places and the right amounts of time to be in harmony, as soon as you do it too long or in the wrong place it becomes a subtle form of punishment instead of the reward intended. Adding food to our patterns this year with an understanding of successful variations has helped Atlas greatly!


Some days I do read Atlas correctly all day and I am successful in staying under that threshold of fight or flight, and I can walk away from the conversation with him at a high point of comfort and good feeling in under an hour every time, so he can go eat some hay in peace and freedom before his stomach gets too empty.


On a day like that I feel I am working the project as I intended. My idealism of Freedom Based Training® intact!


The downfall of this I find, is how many days Atlas goes without exercise. The more days he has gone without exercise the more hidden his emotions become, the harder time I have reading him and more likely it becomes that I will make mistakes in my feel and timing.


Instead of holding too tightly to my idealism of Freedom Based Training® and then regressing back to the place of making mistakes, I will choose to push the edges of the comfort zone past the safety zone on purpose, to see how much Atlas will stretch, and how well I can read exactly where the breaking point will be? If I run my hand down his neck to the shoulder and see him freeze, does stroking his shoulder three more times before I retreat back to the neck cause him to run or cause him to think and settle? Can I guess which one it is going to be?


If I do too much Atlas will go to flight, and then we can do the exercise he seems to need for his mental health, so that tomorrow will be easier.


If I progressively and consistently build up to what I think is too much for Atlas, but he chooses to drop his head, twitch his ears, and take a deep breath, that is the edge of the comfort zone successfully stretched. Perhaps on a day like that we can skip the exercise and just enjoy being together with a little less intensity.


Variety of rewards, consistency of challenge.


This seems to be the key to helping a horse from a traumatic history heal and connect with others again.


I believe the foundation for progress is always going to be the three good Fs in balance, Friends, Freedom and Forage. When we can’t get that balance right we may need to add other things for mental and physical health.


When you get the foundation right then you can play with idealism.


Atlas is teaching me the reality of working from a less than perfect foundation, to build forward into a better life.


May the learning continue! I am sure Atlas still has much to teach us all!


Hooves and Heartbeats,






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