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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.


Dancing Across Costa Rica

Now that a couple of weeks have passed and I have had a chance to soak in the revelations that occurred during the filming of “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”, I thought it was time to write a few of them down.

The journey across Costa Rica, traveling roughly 190 miles (305km) from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, mostly on foot, in the company of horses. This is the kind of journey you can prepare for all you want physically, but there is no way to understand the emotional and spiritual ramifications until you simply show up and live them one step at a time.

The premise of this project was to take two horses out of desperate circumstances and take them on a trek across the country as their first steps into a new and better life, showing them along the way that human beings could be trusted despite all their previous experiences that might have led them to believe otherwise.

As training horses and humans together is my profession, I travel all over the world and see a common theme in these partnerships. Trust in partnership is earned, and often it seems that past experiences undermine the efforts to earn that trust. This has often left me asking: How do we rise above our history? How do we become better partners despite who we have been, instead of letting what we have experienced hold us separate in distrust?

Andrea, as our on the ground expert in Costa Rica, chose the horses for this adventure and had their physical needs attended to with vet and farrier and good nutrition for six weeks before our start date. When I arrived at the end of January, they were still hesitant about people, but no longer ran in the other direction at the sight of us.

Apollo was my partner. Five-year-old Costa Rican Quarter Horse type build with a quick reflex to act big and intimidate. Offense was his best defense against a world that had treated him badly. Scars on his back from badly fitting saddles, scars on his head from bridles that had worn through skin into sensitive flesh, and wolf teeth broken in half, most likely from the relentless yanking of a bit pulled back hard in a mouth strapped shut. Even after dental work took care of the teeth and he had six weeks of kind people showing up to the pasture to bring good food, Apollo had little reason to believe we were different from the people who had hurt him.

I was there to prove to him that his life was indeed different in all good ways now.


In a situation like this I would usually take time, as much time as needed, to build trust slowly, but as a trainer I am often asked the question: What if you don’t have time? How do you build trust faster?

“Taming Wild: Pura Vida” was my opportunity to see what was possible around building trust faster.

The first thing I realized was that the roads were so rocky in Costa Rica there was no way we could travel without hoof boots and some substantial hoof protection. We had anticipated this and the people at Cavallo had supplied us with donated boots perfect for the job at hand. Considering that these horses had so recently come from questionable living circumstances, I also realized I had not allowed enough time before the start date of our trek to teach Apollo to wear hoof boots!

We also had beautiful bareback pads donated to us for the trek by FRA which would need to be introduced gently at some point in the adventure, when the time was right. However, the pressing need was getting the hoof boots on gracefully before we started day one of the trek.

The first day I got kicked at, the second day I got bitten, the third day I wised up and got us moving, because that was the premise of this project. Movement and leadership lower stress. Horses act defensively in fight, flight or freeze when their stress is high or their trust in their partner is low.

If I wanted Apollo to be a positive partner, I needed to give him leadership and movement that would allow him to move beyond the defensive behaviors he understood and help him develop the kind of choices and actions that could earn trust from a human while allowing a human the opportunity to earn trust from him.


So we walked – with a halter on Apollo and a lead in my hand, We walked around the pasture in circles waiting for the signs that stress was decreasing for Apollo.

What are those signs you ask: Simply Fight, Flight, and Freeze being expressed in more functional and less reactive ways, the key sign for Apollo being his freeze response. Even though fight was his go-to defense, when I got too close or stayed close too long, the freeze response was apparent far earlier than the fight response.

So we walked. Apollo’s ears hung out to the sides like a donkey’s in a perpetually frozen expression of frustrated self-focus. He didn’t want to walk, he didn’t think his stress levels needed adjustment, and the only reason he was moving was his learned helplessness about halters and lead ropes.

The thing about leadership is it comes in three forms and I have come to understand this so much more deeply through this adventure with Apollo.

  1. Passive Leadership – The leader moves their own body with good decision-making skills, and the followers take note and are impressed.
  2. Assertive Leadership – The leader asks the follower to move their body in a particular direction and gets a ‘yes’ answer.
  3. Dominant Leadership – The leader asks the follower to move their body in a particular direction and has no problem creating whatever discomfort is necessary to get a ‘yes’ answer.

However, you cannot be assertive until you have invested enough in either dominant or passive leadership. If you try to be assertive without a strong enough base in either passive or dominant leadership, the horse will simply say no. If you give me enough time I will come at this problem in a passive leadership kind of way, but if you put a time frame on results, there might need to be some sort of dominance to speed up development. This project of “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” was about exploring how little dominance we could use, and still operate on the time frame we had ahead of us.


With the halter and lead, Apollo had enough previous experience of dominant training – he had a sense of learned helplessness about being led. That learned helplessness of his allowed me to be an assertive leader, and he said yes easily to walking around in circles with me in the pasture. However, the frozen self focused expression on his face let me know his stress levels were still high – too high to attempt putting hoof boots on without getting kicked.

So we walked until his focus changed and he noticed something other than himself (less freeze meant his stress was coming down). On that cue from him I would switch to purely passive leadership, matching him exactly as we looked in the same direction and settled into whatever speed or stillness he preferred. Passive leadership and mirroring became the reward for his effort to hold a more functional stress level. After a few breaths I would approach and stroke his legs. Sometimes I could stroke his legs until he felt better about it (and then go back to passive leadership at a distance he liked); sometimes I could see his fight instinct starting to rise and I would go back to my assertive leadership and ask him to move in a walk again until he felt better and we could start over. Using this method I was able to teach Apollo to wear his boots before the trek began. I didn’t get kicked anymore, and he didn’t get forced into wearing the boots in any overly dominant fashion.


One could argue that leading Apollo around by a halter reinforced his learned helplessness and was therefor a form of dominance, but I see it as a spectrum. The more discomfort the horse has to endure to learn, the more dominant the training is. The less discomfort they have to push through, the closer to assertive it is on the spectrum.

The end goal of training, if you are doing it right, is more enjoyment in more things at the end of the day. Your choices of how to get there are going to be passive leadership, dominant leadership, or, if you have enough trust foundation, assertive leadership.

Trust is built when you prove to a horse they feel better because of their association with you, in an ever-increasing variety of situations.

In “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” we had a predetermined distance to travel every day and a goal to use that distance wisely as proof to the horses that they would feel better because of our relationship. (Our guide was very specific that we couldn’t be out after dark since that was when all the truly venomous creatures came out to explore.)

Horses are designed to move, and as long as they can set the pace, their stress levels go down and their enjoyment of life goes up when they move their bodies. I knew this fact before we started the project, but how do you let the horse set the pace and still make it to your destination before nightfall?

To answer this question I found again that focus work became the key for Apollo and me – focus work and dancing.

Really? Dancing is your horse training secret?! (You ask in disbelief); and my answer is yes, for Apollo and me dancing was the thing that made it all come together and here is why:

If leadership and movement were the keys to helping Apollo find functional stress levels for our developing relationship, then what did I do to as a leader to bring the fight, flight, and freeze down without sacrificing the movement we needed to get to camp by nightfall? I danced!


Apollo walked down the road with ears still hanging out to the sides like a donkey’s in a perpetually frozen expression of frustrated self-focus. He didn’t want to walk, he didn’t think his stress levels needed adjustment, and the only reason he was moving was his learned helplessness about halters and lead ropes. While he did this, I danced around him – just a bouncy little hop and a skip here, there, and everywhere as I visited the area in front of him and then beside him and then on the other side and then farther away and then closer to and so on with as much enthusiasm as I could muster in the sweltering heat. Why did I do this? Because I was exhibiting passive leadership as I took the first step and the last step moving around him again and again in ways he could learn to appreciate. Did he appreciate my dancing? No, not really, but when he would flick an ear in momentary appreciation of some sight or sound around us I would STOP DANCING and become JUST LIKE APOLLO. That is the passive leadership action Apollo appreciated.

What I have found is that horses appreciate having a partner in life, and when we match and mirror at a distance that feels good to them, they then start to crave that experience.

It didn’t take Apollo very long to realize that a tiny bit of interest from him to his environment, a tiny little shift in focus from self to something else, would cause me to match and mirror him. So before long he was looking keenly at anything and everything around him to keep me from being such a silly dancing bird around.

I don’t think he minded the dancing all that much, but dancing was the right contrast to let him realize how much he loved the matching and mirroring instead.

Then, the more he looked around, the more keen he became to see what was around the next corner, and then the faster we went and the better job we did getting to camp in reasonable travel time.

The more curious and interested Apollo became, the more he enjoyed his time with me, and the more he enjoyed his time with me the more he trusted me when a new circumstance came up for us to experience together.

It wasn’t a straight upward line of progress exactly like that, but if I paid attention and danced when it was called for, and matched and mirrored in flow with Apollo when that was called for, our relationship just got better and better and better.

Dancing as a training technique sounds simple and silly, but really it was just the application of the basic ideas in a new way. Passive leadership lowers stress, and in Passive leadership the leader moves their own body with good decision-making skills, and the followers take note and are impressed. The more we can lead passively, the less we have to lead dominantly; and the more effectively we show leadership, the more likely it is the horse will say yes when we ask them nicely to do something for us.

This trip across Costa Rica with horses ended up being harder than I ever imagined in some ways, and more gratifying and successful than I ever thought it could be in other ways.


If you asked me what the one biggest significant factor was in our successes? I would tell you it was the dancing, but more than the dancing it was the knowing when to dance and when to harmonize with Apollo. It is a little unconventional, but if you ever think you have to dominate a horse to get a job done in a short time frame, you might just try dancing instead, with a counterbalance of harmonizing when the stress goes down and the harmony instincts kick in for both horse and rider. So, dance with your horse and enjoy the moments of harmony!


You never know; it might just make life more fun for everyone on the way to building beautiful trust and bonding between horse and human.

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.


The Big Red Button


It is right there – red, shiny, catches your attention. What would happen if you pushed it? You know you shouldn’t, it doesn’t belong to you, but the curiosity flares every time you see it. Big Red Buttons beg to be pushed!


Now there are some personality types for whom this is not an issue, but for me this is a lifelong dilemma. When there is a button there and you are not sure what it does, don’t you just want to push it and find out?


Or sometimes, even when you do know what that button does… you have to push it anyway, simply because nothing else is happening at the moment and something happening would feel more productive than nothing happening.


I am sure by now you have figured out I am not really talking about a plastic red button on an otherwise empty wall; I am speaking as I often do, metaphorically.


As I work with a horse, I am working to develop our comfort zones so that we will have more and more things we can do together that bring us joy. There are of course the learning stages of tolerance and acceptance that need to be worked through on the way to joy, and that is what I study and teach in Freedom Based Training.

In this blog post I want to talk about Intolerance – those things the horse says NO to. When the horse says I won’t do that, I can’t do that, I don’t feel like doing that. Most of us horse trainers are taught to find those things and then work them out. That is our job!


Most of us who aspire to be horse trainers think this is what horse training is.


The common saying is the comfort zone is only growing when you are uncomfortable.


I would like to challenge that.


A student asked me the other day if she should take it personally that some days her horse didn’t seem at all interested in doing things with her when she came to see him. So I had to turn that question around and ask, should your horse take it personally that you don’t seem interested in hanging out at the hay pile with him while he eats?


Part of being in relationship is the basic premise and fact that we will bring interest and diversity into each other’s lives. Taming Wild is about taming that wild streak we all have within us that wants everything the way we want it right away. When we tame that wild streak, we open the door to being curious about all the things we could enjoy together.


There is a problem though; we get bored with someone else’s desires and we want them to want what we want.

And if the horse does not want what we want, how many times do we need to ask them and make them say “no” to us again and again and again?


I find the horse saying “no” is the biggest irresistible red button for people.


If a horse loves to jump jumps, what do people do? They keep asking it to jump higher and stranger things until it says; “No, I can’t do that.”


If a horse likes to walk through the fields, what do people do? They want to canter or gallop until the horse says; “No, that scares me and I just want to run home where it is safe when you ask me to go that fast.”


This seems to be our human nature; we always want a little too much from our partners.


I am as much to blame on this account as anyone is and so I find myself asking WHY?


Why do I get bored with what the horse finds enjoyable? Why do I find myself wanting to reach for that “NO” answer from the horse and push us right over the edge of the comfort zone? Why is my wild streak so incorrigible sometimes?

Part of me wants to say it is simply my training, because horse trainers are generally paid to work horses through the things they are intolerant of until they accept or enjoy what was once an answer of “no”.


However, I know now for a fact that my best training comes from being curious and gently exploring all the possible fun things I can do with a horse. Why am I always tempted to reach for the red button and make my horse say “no” to me yet again?


I think the answer is in our understanding of stress levels.


Stress is a good thing, it helps us grow and learn and develop, and when it is at a functional level it bonds us together with our partners.


When stress is at a dysfunctional level, all of us will tend to take actions of Fight, Flight or Freeze that alienate us from our friends.


Recently I have been spending some time working with a beautiful grey Arabian mare. As I do my passive leadership work, I get a chance to watch Lily interact with her herd mates. When she is at a functional stress level she has friends, the other horses will flow and find harmony with her, but, when her stress levels increase beyond a certain point, she goes looking for ways to bring them down to a functional level again.


The two things that bring stress down are:

  1. Leadership – Someone who makes decisions that are accepted by others.
  2. Movement – The contraction and extension of muscles in a rhythmic way that moves energy through the body.


So when Lily’s stress levels increase, I watch her reach for that big red button just like I do. She walks around the paddock pushing on the other horses until one of them says “NO” to her in a big enough way she accepts their decision. As soon as that happens, you can see her stress dissipate, and she can fall into flow and harmony with the leader she just found for herself.

As a horse trainer I am a little different. I am not going to accept the answer “no” from a horse because I don’t see that as beneficial for anyone. “Yes” answers grow the comfort zone; “no” answers keep the comfort zone rigidly in place. Yet watching Lily lower her stress levels by pushing on her friends until they set a boundary for her makes me wonder if that is why I reach for the red button also? Am I making horses set a boundary for me to make me feel better? Even if I push through their intolerance to get a “yes” answer of some sort before finding harmony with a horse, did I first have to set them up to give me a boundary so my personal stress levels would go down?


It is a question worth thinking about.


Acting on this premise has led me to a brilliant set of sessions with horses lately. When I am tempted to go push that red button and do something the horse is likely to say “no” to, instead I ask myself the question, what can I do to take personal responsibility for my stress levels.


The two things that bring stress down are:

  1. Leadership – Someone who makes decisions that are accepted by others.
  2. Movement – The contraction and extension of muscles in a rhythmic way that moves energy through the body.


So I apply those principles to myself. Leadership – make a decision for Elsa that will be accepted by the horse I am working with. Movement – walk rhythmically around my horse until I feel better.

Once my stress levels are at more functional levels, I am more likely to ask my horse for things they will say “yes” to.


The same goes for my horses, The more functional level their stress is, the more they will ask their friends for things that might evoke a “yes” answer, leading to harmony and flow.


The less functional the stress levels are, the more likely the boredom/freeze, flight, or fight come into play and the horses go looking for those red buttons, those “no” answers, and those boundaries given by a moment of leadership that bring the stress levels down temporarily.


What we do in Freedom Based Training is work to bring stress to a functional level for everyone involved by taking personal responsibility for our stress and letting the horses take personal responsibility for theirs.

The other day at the end of a three-hour training session with Lily, I stood with her as she ate some Alfalfa. Then we walked together as she smoothly stepped in on Daisy’s pile and Daisy moved easily away to find a different pile of hay, between them an easy flow and harmony with no need for any display of boundaries. Then you could see Lily’s tension rise; she needed that red button, so into Mouse’s stall we went, too strong, too fast and Mouse felt pushed enough to kick out at Lily, giving her leadership and a boundary and making her back off. Lily seemed to feel better instantly, THEN she took a breath and very gently worked her way into flow and harmony at Mouse’s pile. One step forward and pause, another step forward and pause, one step back to give him a moment, then one step forward again. When she made it all the way to the hay pile, she didn’t eat right away. She looked around for a little while, showed some interest in the hay and then backed off and watched the barn for a moment again before she reached down and took a bite. Before long they were munching side by side in flow and harmony together.


Like any good horse trainer, Lily didn’t take “no” for an answer in that situation. She persisted until she got the answer of “yes”. She used advance and retreat (movement and leadership) to lower Mouse’s stress level until his likely answer was “yes”, then she took a bite of his hay.


The question simply is: Did she really need to come in so strong and fast in the beginning and make Mouse kick at her before she did it right?


How often are we all guilty of the same process where we need to push that big red button and get a big “no” answer before we slow down and develop our relationship and the things we do together in a fully functional way.


Perhaps if we put a little forethought into our actions, we might see where those big red “no” buttons are and resist pushing them to ease our own boredom or lower our own stress.

When we refuse to push the button that makes others create boundaries for us, then we truly start to take responsibility for our own stress, our own wild streak, and our own capability to make everything better for everyone.


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.

Check it out! We are translating the blog into more languages. Please excuse the learning process and pardon us for the two extra Dutch emails you may have received as we figured out how to link the languages. Enjoy!

Surfing the Emotional Waves

I had a great conversation with a student this week and she broached a subject that many shy away from. I, however, find myself intrigued, fascinated, and unable to stop thinking about it.

Are we at the mercy of our horse’s emotional state? What about that horse that seems to love you one moment and then wants to bite your head off the next?

What do we do with that in the realm of Freedom Based Training?

My answer is, yes, in Freedom Based Training we are at the mercy of the emotional current, because in this way of training they are free to feel the way they feel.

Giving your horse the freedom to feel however they are feeling allows us to know them at a much deeper level. These emotions are the way we are able to read our horse’s stress levels. Yet how we surf these waves of emotion has everything to do with the relationship that evolves out of it.


When you have a partner who is very emotional, there are waves of emotion they feel and will emote that can knock you down like the crash of a wave when you are not looking, or can lift you high and carry you. It is all in how you respond. Yes, I know that the idea that we could possibly surf the intensity of our horse’s emotion is hard to see when we have been knocked down for the fifth time and have come up spitting sand.

Stepping out of my ocean analogy for a moment, let us think about what most horse trainers do when a horse gets overly emotional.

The conventional norm is to let the horse know that their behavior is inappropriate by making “the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy”. That means, if a horse bites you, you do something it doesn’t appreciate, like making a loud noise to surprise them, or chasing them around the round pen until they wish they had never thought about biting you, or backing them up until they wish they had controlled themselves instead of striking out.

Therein lies the crux of the problem though. If a horse controls themselves and doesn’t strike out when they feel the impulse, the stress that was the energy underneath that emotional impulse doesn’t go away, instead it gets buried to be dealt with later.

So what do we do in Freedom Based Training when a horse bites you?

Well, if we are doing our job as a passive leader that will never happen in the first place. The study of passive leadership is all about being in the right place at the right time.

So that means, if your horse is feeling the kind of stress that might lead to an emotional outburst, DO NOT get that close to your horse!

There is so much we can do for our partnership without ever getting inside the strike zone that there is no good reason to still be standing there when the horse strikes!

Instead we do our work as a passive leader to lower the stress our horse feels until we see that the emotional climate is one that we want to step into.


What if we don’t want to be at the mercy of the horse’s time frame? What if we want to do something with our horse when they feel too stressed to say yes easily to us in that particular moment?

This is where dominance training is a beautiful thing. When we set up the extrinsic motivators correctly, the horse learns to put aside how they feel and simply go with our request. This is not wrong or bad; I actually think it is a good life skill for horses to have. The caution that goes along with dominance training is, how intense is that stress bubbling under the surface for your horse? Are they actually capable of holding themselves together and being open-minded about what you want to do? Is that stress going to explode all over you in a moment when their emotions cause the horse to tell you how they really feel.

A dominant trainer with good feel and timing will ask a horse to put aside how they feel for a moment and do what is asked. Then they choose activities with the horse that lower stress so that there are no pent-up emotions to explode unexpectedly later. A good dominant trainer will know that the causes for stress are many and varied and things like body pain or fear will have to be addressed for stress levels to go down.

A good trainer promises, if the horse is willing to put their emotions aside for the moment and not act with an excess of fight or flight, they will in return help the horse process whatever stress is underneath that emotion and let it go in a healthy way.

Now if we don’t have the tools at hand to dominantly ask horses to stop expressing the emotion they feel, what do we do instead?

Instead we work on the underlying stress with leadership and movement. When we take time to mirror, match, and be a partner to our horse while making good choices about where to be around them in time and space, this will lower the stress they feel. VERY gently and VERY slowly the horse will feel better and better until they have nothing to be overly emotional about.


This practice is NOT something that can be done once and then forgotten because stress is an ongoing evolution of events for everyone. Every day as a passive leader we have to walk into the relationship asking, “What is possible today; what, where, when, and how do I need to be to best effect this partnership for the long run?”

If my horse slept funny and their back hurts, they are going to be more stressed and emotional that day. Some horses will freeze up and not want to move, some will leap and buck more trying to work it out, and some will spook and jump out of their skin at every sound as their flight instinct comes up strongly in their state of vulnerability.

What I have found is that when I take time to be a partner to my horse in a way that allows them to feel however they feel and also not be alone, and when I do this in a way that lets them know I am attentive and aware and taking actions that keep us both safer, then their muscles soften and little by little they are able to breathe through and walk off whatever stress they were feeling.

The important thing to note is that in passive leadership I do not CAUSE the horse to feel better; I simply partner with them in good ways and wait for it to happen naturally.

What I find is, to the degree that they are willing to let their stress down, they will be willing to take suggestions from me, such as, perhaps if we take a walk together you will feel better. Or, perhaps, if I rub your back here the muscle will release and then you will feel better. I call these sorts of actions assertive actions, and they can only be received if the horse is in an emotional equilibrium that allows us to surf the emotions together.

To go back to the ocean analogy, if the emotions are at a reasonable level for my horse and me (the waves are not too big or overpowering), we can do something together and ride that wave of emotion until its intensity diminishes, leaving us both exhilarated by the experience. Emotion is a beautiful thing if it gives you the energy to do things together that make you both feel better when you are done!


If the horse is too stressed, then it is better if I simply stand back, let them know I am there for them, and act like a partner without interfering or getting close enough to irritate them. I find, with time and patience, the stress will go down, and THEN I will be able to step in more assertively and be a more direct cause for the horse to feel better.

As it usually does, the question of dominant or passive leadership comes down to the question of how much time do we have and how safe are we if we choose to let stress and emotion evolve naturally?

I am so excited to begin filming on the second Taming Wild movie seven weeks from now. This second project will give us a chance to explore the evolution of partnership with a horse including some of the time and safety constraints that affect most relationships.

In the first movie I was able to take a whole year in a very safe environment to work through the process of developing passive leadership until it evolved into assertive leadership, and those emotional waves were really something Myrnah and I could ride together.

In “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” we have set up some real-life situations where we are rescuing the horses from lives that have given them cause for stress, and potentially the kinds of emotional chaos that comes from that stress.


We are going to tackle the challenge of surfing those emotions together with our horses while trekking the width of a country.

Is it possible to safely allow horses to feel how they feel in a real-life situation like this? Honestly, I think I am going to learn how to surf a whole lot better as we go. Hopefully, I don’t come up spitting sand too often because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wish me luck! And, if you want to be on the list to get a copy of the movie as soon as it is finished, you can pre-order it here!

This is going to be an adventure worth sharing!

Hooves and Heartbeats,



The Project:

Mustangs directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, 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.


Finding Your Niche


As the rain sheets down outside in the wee hours of the morning, I am curled up on the couch with the dogs all around me and I am thinking about how I got here? How is it that this is my place in society? What were the actions that led to this moment?


Or perhaps it wasn’t my actions at all that brought me to this place in life. Perhaps it was the actions of all the tribe around me, supporting and propelling me forward as I learned.


When I help horses and people to develop their relationships, I have this theory I operate on. The theory is that each one of us has this wild streak inside us that wants what we want when we want it! All of us are perpetually making decisions about how independent we are going to be to chase after our wants, or how much we are comfortable dominating or motivating others to give up their personal wants to instead team up with our cause.


Here is the key thing to realize though. We all crave a community, and, to the degree the community is self-motivated and intertwined with us and our actions through free will, we are more content individually as well.


Horses crave a herd-life existence; I believe people do as well.

I also believe that this community living is an endless dance between the personal wants of an individual and the wants and needs of their partners. You see these wants and needs are many and varied, and this is the original barter system we all live with.


You scratch my back, I will scratch yours.


There is this funny thing I see in my herd of horses that illustrates the challenge. We have both Arabian horses and Mustang horses mixed together in a herd and their needs and wants are very different when it comes to scratching each other’s backs. Mustangs have fairly tough skin and really like another horse to dig in hard with the teeth and give a good deep scratch. The Arabians on the other hand are fairly thin skinned and like an easy gentle itch. When a Mustang and an Arabian stand together to itch each other’s backs you will see the Arabian cringing as they drop their back lower and lower away from the vigorous attention of the Mustang, while the Mustang itches harder and harder as if in an effort to show their partner how they would like to be itched.


In their effort to get what they want, both horses are left somewhat incapable of giving their partner the right attention.


Now as human beings I think we get ourselves in these kind of binds all the time, and it is a task of our intelligent brains to sort out how to give our partner what they need or want while communicating our own needs and wants. We are all different, we are all unique, and that is what makes our world so very interesting and diverse to live in. It is also the very crux of every challenge we face.

As it is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, I am inspired to thank all my teachers and all my students who have helped me understand this diversity and beautiful mosaic of characters that make up my community.


I couldn’t do what I do today if it were not for everyone who has taught me along the way. Yes, EVERYONE, I have interacted with in all different levels of the intensity spectrum has given me an important piece of the puzzle.


This gratitude I speak of is very important to me, and I feel I need to speak of it given the extremely gentle and quiet nature of the work I do with horses now. Sometimes the community I am in would ask me to disown or march against the more dominant methods of training horses and that is not my style. I do not believe in a “me-against-the-world” model of living. I believe I am learning from the world as I interact with it and make my own choices.


Every day I am learning from my community and every day that is making me a better part of my community. I will always have my own personal wild streak that wants what it wants when it wants it. I will also always have my heart and my intellect to help me tame that wild streak into something that helps me be a beautiful part of my community, and that is something I want perhaps even more than the personal wants and needs.

There is an evolution of being for all of us and the right teachers and students appear at the right times to help us carve our own niche in the community.


I am profoundly grateful to my early Pony Club teachers who taught one perception of what community with horses might be, and my time with the Linda Tellington Jones community as they showed me what community with horses looked like from their perspective. The French classical dressage masters, and also the more German perspective on dressage, the event trainers, the endurance riders, the Centered Riding, Feldenkrais and Alexander technique practitioners. The huge range of communities that bridge every variety of perspective, from clicker training and Friendship Training to behaviorists, ethology, and telepathic communication. The Natural Horsemanship trainers from Tom Dorance and Ray Hunt to John Lyons, Parelli and Buck Branaman. This list is by no means exhaustive and I am grateful to all of them and many more for what they taught me. There are videos on the internet of my studying Parelli skills, and, while that is not the kind of work I do with horses anymore, I would not be able to do what I do now if it were not for the education I have had in the past and all the teachers who showed me what they know.


I am grateful to all the teachers who have discovered their niche in the community and then shared it with me. I only hope to be able to do the same and share who I am in my community through the niche I have built around Freedom Based Training.


Freedom Based Training is just one perspective out of many; it is not more right than anyone else’s perspective. However I do believe what I do and what I teach will, in its own way, help shape the larger equine community. If I can add a little bit of beauty to the world while I am here, then I have done my part.


For all of you who enjoy Freedom Based Training with me, I encourage you to take it in, make it yours and let it become a vital part of who you are in your unique niche in the world.


I don’t hope train anyone to be exactly like me. You can be YOU, with your own wild streak and your own ways of taming your wild streak to find your niche in the community.

I am here cheering you on, appreciating you for being part of my community, glad I am a little part of yours sharing so much good in the world.


Hooves and Heartbeats,



P.S. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please stop by the Kickstarter for the second Taming Wild Movie and take a moment to support it. I really need all my community to propel this movie through to the finish. Thank you! ~Elsa

The Project:

Mustangs directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, 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.


A Sense of Belonging


A question came up recently that strikes right to the core of what I do and why I teach.


“How do you reward behavior you like in your horse?”


My answer in true therapeutic form is to turn it around and ask you the same question with a twist: “How do you reward any behavior that you like from any of your friends?”


I would bet you can think about that for a little while and consider the ramifications of how differently we treat animals than we do humans. You might even think to ask why that is?


With our human friends we don’t have a bridle to release the pressure on as a reward (at least not in the social circles I travel in), and it’s generally thought a little strange if we hand out candy every time someone makes us smile.


So what do we do?


Maya Angelou suggests there are four things that we are asking each other all the time:

  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I am special to you by the way you look at me?

When the answer is Yes, we have a sense of belonging that makes us feel safe in the world.


This need for safety in our community, and the feeling of belonging where we stand in time and space I believe runs true for humans and horses and dogs… and most likely many other species as well.


This need I believe is the driving force for developing intrinsic motivation to do any of the things that get done in life.


Now let’s talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for a moment. If we strip away the obvious and familiar EXTRINSIC motivators of pressure and metered reward, what we are left with is our body movements and personal choices in time and space.


When I find some way to express to my horse that:

  1. I see them.
  2. I care about them being there.
  3. They are enough as they are, or there is something within their capability they can do for me that makes them enough.
  4. They are obviously important to me by the way I act.


My expression of those four points would be EXTRINSIC motivators for a horse to choose to be with me. I have filled their needs and satisfied them with a sense of belonging with me.


Now, in Freedom Based Training we do our best to take all that a step further – INTRINSIC motivation.

INTRINSIC motivators are feelings that come from inside one’s self that seem to have no obvious source. INTRINSIC motivators are triggered feelings that come from the habitual patterning of the brain.


In other words, when EXTRINSIC motivators consistently cause good feelings, the brain patterns in such a way that all similar circumstances will tend to evoke the same good feelings for seemingly little or no reason.


I believe to the degree behaviors are INTRINSICALLY motivated they are stronger than behaviors that are EXTRINSICALLY motivated.


These are the theories that drive Freedom Based Training.


In the beginning of a relationship and periodically throughout a relationship with a horse I find it is very important to give them what I call Free Flow.


What this means is, they do not have to do anything to deserve my being in harmony with them. When they step, I step; when they look at something, I do also. While I offer this Free Flow to my horse, the four ideas are in play.


  1. I see them, and they know this because I respond – everything they do is important to me and responded to or anticipated!
  2. I care about them being there, and they know that because I watch their body language and I see where I should stand next and when I should move so their comfort levels perpetually increase.
  3. They are enough as they are, that is what Free Flow is. The horse does not need to do or change anything to earn my harmony and partnership.
  4. They are important to me, and they know that by the way I scan the environment and watch carefully for danger when that is what they need, or, if we agree there is nothing stressful, I fully match or complement where their focus is. What is important to my horse is also important to me.


This list is obviously a list of things we can do to Extrinsically motivate horses to enjoy our company. How do we turn that EXTRINSIC motivation into INTRINSIC motivation? The answer: We repeat it often enough and, most importantly, we end every interaction on the best feeling possible.

You see, the brain is constantly recognizing and interpreting experience, and the last perception to occur in any sequence is what the brain grabs hold of and remembers best about that situation.


In Freedom Based Training that is an important concept we use perpetually. If I can CAUSE a good feeling (EXTRINSIC motivation) in any interaction and have the lasting memory of that interaction be good. then next time a similar interaction occurs, the horse’s brain will automatically fire off a good feeling through the body and they have instantly rewarded themselves (INTRINSIC) for participating in that interaction.


That brings us around to the original question.


“How do you reward behavior you like in your horse?”


Regardless of how we choose to live, life has to have the yin and the yang, the black and the white, the pleasant and the unpleasant because it is contrast that shows us the richness of life. Reward has to have a counterbalance of “lack of reward”.


When I spend time in Free Flow with a horse I am giving the horse exactly what they need in every moment (to the best of my ability), and during that time I am making a catalogue in my mind of everything that appears challenging for that horse – the things they would rather not do for very long. The better I know my horse, the better job I can do to shape our relationship into one where we both enjoy our time together to the utmost degree possible.

Then slowly and gently I can start using my personal choices as EXTRINSIC motivators. When I see a behavior I like, I reinforce it with Flow (harmony between the horse and me) doing something that is well within the comfort zone. This is no longer “Free” as it was earlier because the horse earned it by doing something I liked. Then, when the horse does something I don’t like, I am going to step into doing something challenging for my horse all the while looking for that moment when the challenging thing feels a little better than it did, at which moment I will go back to Flow with my horse. (Remember, building good feelings about challenging things is how we build INTRINSIC motivation for the horse to try challenges with you.)


You see it is all about the timing of when we take action that is different or challenging in some way, or when we take action to step back into Flow.


Using Flow and harmony as a motivator with your horse only works if you have done enough of it for free and they know they like it and want it.


If you are going to offer something as a reward, make sure it is something that has some degree of INTRINSIC good feeling attached to it. And if you offer something as a reward, there has to be a counterbalancing lack of reward somewhere in the experience. This is how motivation works.

Now that you know how this works, your choice is simply the degree of intensity you choose to use in any of your relationships. How much pressure is felt and how much reward is offered in contrast is up to you!


Freedom Based Training is all about subtlety and awareness. We are all training each other all the time whether we understand it or not.


Think about it next time you are with your human friends. How are they answering your four questions, and how are you answering theirs?


  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I am special to you by the way you look at me?


How is your brain patterned for expectation? And does that patterning and expectation of good feeling affect how much you want to be with those friends?


Can you see the balance between reward and lack of reward that gives us motivation to make certain behavioral choices?


If there is enough of a sense of belonging, we will do almost anything for our friends; and when we have the understanding that some small behavioral change will earn us more of a sense of belonging, we will do even more for our friends.


Horses are like this also.


The ways we express ourselves with horses will of course be different than we do with people, but I find the core values are very much the same. They might be prey animals while we are more predator like, but we are both herd creatures!


If you enjoyed this blog, please stop by the Kickstarter for Taming Wild’s second movie and take a moment to support it during November 2017!


I can’t wait to take all the theory that has been developed so far through Freedom Based Training and take it into action down the trail as we cross Costa Rica. The two horses who take that journey with us will teach us even more I am sure, and I can’t wait to share it in the movie “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”.


Hooves and Heartbeats,