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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.

The Cause Of Stress


This summer as I have watched my bachelor band of horses turned out on pasture I have been mulling over the causes of stress.


I know that stress causes horses to act in self-defense and that self-defense will show as Fight, Flight, and Freeze.


But what causes the stress in the first place?


I know when horses act in these self-defensive ways, friends dislike it and respond with their own self-defensive actions.


In order for herd life to become good again, someone has to be the “bigger horse”, and respond to the situation instead of reacting. By this I mean they need to find a way to lower their own stress enough to respond in community-oriented ways, such as, Play, Yield and Think.


As soon as one horse invests in the community with enough Play, Yield, and Think actions, the rest of the herd can join the good behavior and for that moment stress goes down and the entire herd can rest and enjoy that togetherness.


Lately, I have felt the strain of being the “bigger horse” or the “bigger human” in my case.


I watch the herd, watch for the horse with the most reactiveness (Fight, Flight, and Freeze), causing stress for the rest of their herd mates. I step in and spend hours every day doing the things I know will help the stressed horse feel better, so they can then pass it on and help everyone else feel better.


But for me the stress of feeling like I can never do enough is draining.


Last week I felt like I had gotten things to a good place with Atlas when I noticed Ari needed some help and Occasio was running a close second in overreactions and obvious stress.

However, before I could make time to do the work I knew would help, something had overwhelmed Occasio and he bolted around the paddock like an overweight ping pong ball, tearing down hot wire, pulling wood posts out of the ground on both sides of the paddock, and then jumping two more sets of simple electric wire fences before freezing at the far bottom corner of the field, terrified to do anything other than wait for someone to come rescue him.


I was glad for the far fence line I put in with care this spring. Tall, tight, elasticized, and safe Finishline Fencing that did finally stop Occasio’s mad dash long enough for me to show up and give him the help he needed.


Was it a bee sting or a fly bite that raised Occasio’s stress so dramatically?


Did Atlas overcorrect Occasio’s bad behavior to set off that chain of events? (I don’t think so as they were the best of friends with no hint of apprehension when I put them back together.)


Did Occasio touch the electric wire on purpose with his nose out of boredom and then overreact when it hurt more than he expected? (Yes, I have seen him do that, so it is possible).


Did Occasio get his tail caught in the fence and then tear it all down because the wire was chasing him? (This feels like the most likely explanation, but it is still only a guess).


I have no idea what happened because I wasn’t there when it did.


All I can do in a situation like this is pick up the pieces, rebuild the fences, and keep Occasio in the solid metal enclosure of the round pen he can’t destroy for long enough to allow his stress levels go down.


In the state he was in after the event, it looks likely he would tear down more fences with the slightest provocation. My job always is to keep him safe from his own bad decisions until he is in a state of mind to make better ones.


When I get back in the morning the round pen is covered edge to edge in a million tiny piles of manure. Occasio is an emotional wreck, still jumping out of his skin at every sound and Atlas, who is keeping him company, is coping with his friend’s self-defense mechanisms by ignoring them.

Atlas is the master of freeze, if he can’t do anything about it, just pretend it isn’t there for as long as possible. This is a pretty good self-defense mechanism and I like that it doesn’t seem as destructive as other options he might choose.


The surest way I know to help a horse out of stress is to alternate walking with resting, a LOT of walking and resting.


I offer Occasio the halter and he gratefully nuzzles his nose into it. He has learned a halter is helpful when he is wearing one with a responsible person attached to the other end, a person who can make good decisions, a person he can trust.


With a wiggle of my fingers in Atlas’s direction I get him moving at a steady, rhythmic pace and Occasio follows, tucking his nose in Atlas’s tail while I walk beside them both.

We do 20-30 minutes of walking until I hear them both starting to breathe better, then I take the halter off of Occasio and leave them to rest while I go take care of other chores.


I come back, offer the halter to Occasio again and we repeat the process.


Four hours of walking the first day after the event and Occasio is settled enough to be allowed out in the big pasture with Ari where he can spook or startle and have a long way to go before he hits a fence he might tear down.


Three and a half hours of walking the second day leaves me confident enough to let him spend some time free with Atlas in the smaller pasture too.


I am cautiously pleased we sorted out the stress from such a big event in only two days and I turn my attention to other things that need doing.


A few days later, Occasio’s stress has risen again and I have not had time to help him. The wind picks up and Occasio decides the leaves moving in the trees are now far too frightening and he can’t leave the bottom of the pasture anymore. Ari, Raam, and Zohari can all walk around the pond to find shade and get to the water, but Occasio just stands at the bottom fence line calling mournfully for his friends to come back.

They do come back, and then leave him again and still he will not follow. I watch as I do other things, hoping Occasio will become brave and push through his fear, but after it has been almost 24 hours without water I relent and go offer him the halter to bring him up past the trees to the water trough where he gratefully drinks.


I am glad I can help, but I have to ponder, what is the underlying cause of so much stress that sets off the cascading set of bad choices that leads to more and more stress?


This past week I have had many hours to think about it as we walk and walk and walk together.


The walking is effective when I do it and I see Occasio getting braver, taking care of himself, and making good choices. There are also days I just cannot make the time and then I can see the difference. The less walking we do the more reactive he gets and the less his friends want to interact with him. Then I see the downward spiral into self-defense and over reaction.


If I could figure out why this happens, maybe I could help Occasio help himself instead of having to show up for him every day?


The conclusion I have come to is this:


The cause of stress is powerlessness.


When a horse believes life is going to get uncomfortable and there is nothing they can do about it – stress goes up.


When stress goes up the body instinctively defends itself with Fight, Flight, or Freeze. Survival reactions.


Often these survival reactions alienate companions who have the power to help.


Personal power for a horse is the ability to think through a problem and make choices that ease discomfort without alienating friends. This means using Play, Yield, and Think to solve problems.


Trust in friends and leaders gives that power to someone else to think for you and solve problems to ease discomfort.


If the friends you trust don’t want to help, or can’t, and you feel powerless to solve discomfort… all that is left is self-defense, and that I believe is the cause of stress.


The more stress a horse feels, the worse they behave, and the worse they behave the more stress they feel, it can be a very difficult cycle to reverse.


When you are born like Occasio was, acutely oversensitive and athletic, with incredibly fast short-twitch reaction muscles, then it is possible a shadow on the ground can catch the eye by surprise, causing fear and flight that results in full body impact with another horse. When that horse also acts in self-defense by fighting back and biting or kicking Occasio hard, this chain of events leads Occasio to feelings of powerlessness.

Occasio simply lacks the self-control it takes to think first and act in a community minded way to feel better, and it is this lack of self-control (and frankly, immaturity) that makes him feel powerless. It is this powerlessness that raises his stress enough that the smallest trigger sends him into self-defense and perpetuates the cycle.


Life presents a problem, something that will cause discomfort for a horse.


The horse uses its brain to come up with an action to solve for comfort.


If the horse can solve for comfort for both self and community, stress goes down, thinking gets clearer, learning gets faster and harmony comes sooner.


If the horse reacts to the problem solving only for self-comfort, community bonds get weaker. When community bonds become fragile enough, that becomes a new problem to solve.


The more problems a horse faces, the more tired or overwhelmed it becomes and the more likely it becomes it will solve for self-comfort without any consideration for community comfort.


The opposite of powerlessness is shared power.


Shared power is the solution to stress.


If a horse can help themselves and their community in solving a problem (this means solving a problem using Think, Yield, and Play), their stress goes down and they become a better member of the community and they are more likely to get help from their community at a future time when perhaps they feel overwhelmed.


How is this different from codependency or giving power away which can create higher stress?


Giving power away is when horses discover the only way to feel better is to stop thinking and freeze, letting someone else make decisions for them. This is fine as long as the decision maker has a low stress level and makes good community minded decisions. It is incredibly destructive when the decision maker becomes stressed and starts solving all problems with Fight, Flight, or Freeze.


Codependency is where a horse discovers the only way to feel better is to cause someone else to feel better first. Then they start solving every problem for community comfort at the expense of their own comfort. Eventually the dependency will leave the individual stranded without resources and that will become a problem of its own.


Now we have come full circle.


Remember I said: “But the stress for me of feeling like I can never do enough is draining.”


This shows my codependency with my bachelor band of horses. I am solving for their comfort at the expense of my own comfort. It works as long as life doesn’t throw us too many problems in a row and I feel like I can keep up. Keeping them comfortable so that I can be more comfortable.


This past week there were too many problems to solve and the imbalance was made obvious.


If I am going to solve for both community comfort and personal comfort, I might need to take some of the responsibilities off of my plate.


If I really think Occasio is going to tear down the fences perhaps he needs to move to a safer place. If I really think the stallions are going to fight it is better to not put them in the same paddock that week (I did get this one right).


I am learning I cannot solve all the day’s problems, every day.


I can solve a few of them, and I need to keep the balance of solving for personal comfort as well as community comfort if I want my own stress to stay at a level that makes me the best part of the community I am capable of being.


Shared power is the solution.


Hooves and Heartbeats,
















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