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The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

Hurry up and Wait

“Taming Wild: Evolution” has started filming!

After so much planning and organizing and working to get all the pieces in place, the first horse is finally here. Now I wait with as much presence and skill as I can muster, for Atlas to realize his life is better with me.

Atlas is over sixteen hands tall (I roughly gauge that as I watch him from my safe distances) and he is rough as a horse who has been through the rodeo circuit as a bucking bronco has every right to be.

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When I met him he was living in a herd of stallions in a pen, all of them heading to slaughter shortly as the unwanted category of horses that don’t buck hard enough to keep working in the rodeo, and horses who are now too aggressive and distrustful of humans to find a place in gentle society.

Breaking my heart as it did to leave the others behind, I chose Atlas out of the group as the horse that might come home with me for the filming of “Taming Wild: Evolution”.

Under extreme pressure some horses shut down and take all their feelings and expressions internal, they just stop relating to the world. That was mostly what I saw in the group of stallions that day. Atlas was a little different in that his ears and his eyes never stopped moving. He didn’t like us humans there anymore than the others, but he was willing to take action without provocation to put himself where he needed to be, while the others seemed to wait for a bite or a kick or someone to scare them into a response.

Freedom Based Training® is the slowest way possible to train a horse, and if I am going to film a movie about this incredibly gradual developmental process, I need to pick horses that are reasonably extroverted in their actions and emotions. Atlas fit the list of requirements.

The horse dealer that sold him to me was colorful on the phone, but a man of few words once we were in person and the recording started. On the phone I got, “that horse is a fucking psycho, why do you want a horse like that?” In person it was the more toned down version of “Like I told you in the beginning, I never ever let these kinda horses go out in the public, cause I don’t want no blood on my hands, I don’t wanna see anyone get hurt.”

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Loading, I watched the horse dealer skillfully keep himself safe on the other side of metal panels as he used a flag to push Atlas into my horse trailer. The very same trailer I used seven years ago to bring Myrnah home for the first Taming Wild movie. I have learned so much since then, and I have a feeling I am about to learn so much more.

This horse was afraid, with every reason in the world to be afraid. Now he and I just needed time to ease that fear, soften that aggression and start over.

The trailer ride home was supposed to be six hours in total, but we hit traffic and missed our ferry, so my day turned into a fifteen hour marathon of events from the time I stepped into the car in the morning until we unloaded Atlas into his new home in the dark of the evening.

I didn’t mind though, listening to Atlas snort his huge dragon snort again and again as he moved around his new paddock in the dark of that first day, I was glad he was safe. My exhaustion was a small price to pay for this chance for him to start again. He and I together.

Now it was all about feel and timing between us.

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In the morning I started outside the fences, making responses to Atlas’ movements. I needed him to learn that what he did mattered and I listened. My responses might be different from other people he had met in his life, but our communication would be consistent and he could count on me.

What I see often in horse human relationships is that people push a horse when they see it is already afraid or in flight, and when a horse gets aggressive or pushes into a human there is a momentary instinctual freeze or backing off in the human that gives the horse a moment of relief. This is how horses learn to be aggressive.

I need to change that conversation with Atlas from the very beginning, even if it only subtly from outside the fences.

Here are my ground rules:

If any part of Atlas moved toward me (eyes, ears, or any part of the body) I would move toward him.

If any part of Atlas moved away from me I would move away also.

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I needed to be smart and take small enough steps toward him that I did not provoke an aggressive reaction. Also I needed to be wise about taking big enough steps away from him that I remained working at a distance range that was acceptable to him.

Those simple rules, with good feel and timing, plus time equals success in partnership.

How much time? I don’t know yet, but I am going to find out.

On the first day we spent four hours together broken up into short sessions throughout the day. I worked mainly just inside the fence where I could duck through to the outside if I needed to, but I never did need that escape.

This conversation Atlas and I were having was a new set of rules for him, so there were moments where my decision making felt dicey like perhaps I had pushed just a little too close to him too soon, but I wanted to maintain my consistency stepping toward him when he came toward me. He would look at me and I would take the smallest possible slide of a foot toward him. I was being consistent, but tactful as the tension in his neck and back and eyes, along with the planted feet told me he would fight back if I pushed in too close.

It was almost as if he expected that one of us had to scare the other one. Either I was supposed to chase him, or he was going to have to chase me off. This conversation of subtle movements and distance changed all the rules he knew.

Day one was all about long distances, and only sometimes working in as close as two horse lengths from him, but mostly farther away than that slowly and gently working my way around his body in circles.

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Day two there was considerably more ease in his body language and I spent more time at the two and three horse length distances.

Day three there started to be some yield to Atlas’s movement and he was comfortable with me walking along with him (at an appropriate distance) instead of the circles around him from the previous days. He nibbled grass and watched the world go by while I stood guard next to him, vigilant about everything so he could relax. Occasionally we even got as close as one horse length of distance between us.

From hour to hour it doesn’t look like much is happening between Atlas and I, but if you know what you are looking at you can see a deep and meaningful language building.

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I am feeling the “hurry up” because I desperately want Atlas to trust me enough to trim those big overgrown hooves. Yet, I know I will wait for as long as he needs because overgrown hooves are nothing to worry about in comparison to the life we just pulled him from.

I will put in the time, and he will tell me when the time is right for us to take the next steps into doing more together.

For all of you who are curious about the process with Atlas and the mustang stallion that will be arriving in a few weeks, consider joining us on Patreon where I will be posting update videos each week and answering questions about all the details of the process as we develop together.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

There is so much to learn and I can’t wait to share it all as it evolves in “Taming Wild: Evolution”.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

Blind Date

Yesterday I went to a horse auction. It was a small auction with only twenty-two horses being sold, and it was not very far from my home, so it was a comparatively gentle opportunity to do this thing I had heard about, but never dared do. I watched the crowd measure up the animals and I watched the animals cope with the noise and the chaos and the dust. I watched, and I listened, and I learned, and I mostly kept the tears at bay.

 

There was a big sign on the wall, “all livestock sold by the pound unless otherwise stated – 73 cents per pound”.  I watched as a big untrained quarter horse mare came across the sale pen. No one seemed to want her for more than $400, and the man leading her around bluntly told the crowd, “Either one of you buy her for over $500 or I sell her later for meat.” The crowd stepped up and someone handed over the necessary $500 to take her home. She was a big mare, so I think it is possible that buyer turned around and sold her for meat at a profit later that day, but I hope not. I hope she has a chance to live the rest of her days in a pasture with friends.

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As I prepare for this next film “Taming Wild Evolution” I am searching for my horse partners. One Mustang stallion directly off the range that knows very little about people, and one stallion from the domestic world that perhaps knows too much about people and needs to learn to trust again. It is the search for the domestic horse that sends me on blind date after blind date, looking for the right partner and wishing I could save them all as I walk away again and again with tears in my eyes.

 

I am going to spend a year with this horse and spend countless hours going through pictures and video footage to tell a story. This horse can’t be too white or too black because that makes the filming infinitely more difficult to do in a way that is easy for people to see. It can’t be too young because if all goes well I will be riding at the end of the year, and I feel strongly about not putting weight on an undeveloped spine. It can’t be too introverted, because a horse that pretends everything is fine until it can’t take it anymore, only trying to kill you in a last desperate attempt to survive, that subtlety of character will film as a willing partner in most people’s eyes and they won’t see the danger I hopefully never trigger in the course of Freedom Based Training®.

 

I need an extroverted stallion, over five years old and coming from a background of human handling that has led the horse to lose faith in humanity.

 

The problem is not that they don’t exist in America, the problem is there are too many that fall outside my particular parameters. Too many horses that call me out on blind date after blind date and I have to see them, hear them, give them my time, my space and my blessing, while I still have to walk away and hope they land on their feet with someone kind.

 

As I watch the plight of so many sad horses, I am not proud to be human right now, but I am determined to be a little bit of light in this human world, in the best way I know how.

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Last week I made the effort to train and hone my skills with a rescue horse I had never met before. This was an effort to pour considerable time into a relationship with a horse I did not know, and I might not meet again. I wasn’t there to change him or train him, I was only there to get to know him, while I developed my own skills of feel and timing.

 

The SAFE organization was happy for me to come and spend a day with Mason, a beautiful red bay thoroughbred, out in his paddock and they were happy to tell me as much or as little as I wanted to know about this blind date we were setting up. It was a relatively kind situation for me to walk into because, while Mason showed a body full of scars that spoke to a hard life in his past, his future was bright. He was a horse who seemed to resist training with difficult explosions of flight when he got overwhelmed, and yet he was one of the lucky ones who had found a person who wanted him in their life regardless of his difficulties. Mason was currently living at the rescue, but would be soon moving to his new home.

 

I was there to learn from Mason, and I had the calming knowledge that he had a person who cared greatly about him and would be there for him, even when I walked away at the end of our blind date.

 

In this particular situation I had seven hours to spend with this horse before he went into the stalls for dinner, where guests were not invited to linger. My normal training challenge this past month had been eight hours spent with one horse in one day, but there was no particularly good reason for this time frame, it was just an arbitrary number. Seven hours was going to teach me a significant amount also.

 

It was important to me that I listen to the horse in the current moment more than I tried to understand any of his past. I didn’t mind that I was told he was explosive in flight when too much pressure was put on him, but I didn’t need to know why. I could see he was covered in scars, but I didn’t need to know the stories behind the scars. I simply needed to be present with this horse, asking nothing of him, while I listened to him deeply and made choices around him, so I could hone my personal understanding of feel and timing to a sharper point of accuracy.

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Now at first I started by harmonizing with Mason from a medium distance while he grazed, perhaps a horse length away from him or a little more. This is my most comfortable distance and it is where I feel I have the best rhythm in my movements as I respond to the thinking twitches of ears and subtle shifts in mental awareness as the horse looks from one thing to a different thing.

 

Mason seemed reasonably comfortable, sometimes getting close to a fence and letting me know I had stayed on that side for a bit too long by forcing me to choose a different place. Other times edging closer and closer to me as we stepped our way into a touching distance. He for the most part ate grass and seemed to accept my presence, only occasionally giving me any attention at all.

 

His pasture mate on the other hand almost seemed to be in competition with me (I have no idea if that assessment has any place in reality, I am only relating what I felt as I observed). I would match Mason’s feet positions and steps from where I stood about a horse length away, and repeatedly Mason’s pasture mate would step neatly between us matching his feet to Mason’s as well, while making sure my only next choices could be farther away not closer to his friend.

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I noticed more often than not they matched each other in mirror image, opposite hooves moving in harmony like kids running a three-legged race instead of the left foot – left foot, right foot – right foot I feel like I usually see in horse partners.  I don’t know what significance this holds if any, but I made a mental note to keep my eyes open for the kinds of situations that seemed to bring out one way of partnership versus another.

 

A few hours into the project Mason was moved from the grazing pasture to the dirt lot with hay to eat and a larger group of horses to interact with. In the new space I spent an hour or so partnering at my most comfortable distance and then I decided it was time for me to experiment with my distance partnership.

 

Distance is not usually something I practice, because I love being close to horses, and most of my horses love being close to me. However, I know the new stallions for this next movie are not going to start out that way, and I need to hone my distance partnership skills!

 

Mason ended up being the best teacher I have ever had in this distance partnership. As soon as I was on the far side of the paddock it was like his brain unlocked. His ears started gently and easily changing focus all the time, his eyes started seeing things and changing focus categories with effortless ease. All of a sudden Mason was a million times more involved in being part of life around him. I had thought he was perfectly happy with me at the medium and close distances, but only when I stepped out to the farther distances did I see him really come alive and dynamically enjoy the world in a different way.

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Now, on this particular day it was interesting to note, it wasn’t just me, it was the other horses also. When they were close, Mason shut down a little. He did not seem unhappy, simply less involved in living. When Mason had space, it was like his brain woke up and he could fully enjoy everything he saw and heard around him. He liked his friends, he just changed who he was a little and seemed to become smaller and less involved when his friends were close.

 

I have never seen anything quite like this in any of the horses I have spent time partnering, and for me it was the perfect experience to hone my skills in the area Mason seemed to most enjoy my company.

 

In hour number five, I am often most tired, so when Mason stepped under the apple tree to take a deep nap, I let myself step in close and work at my happiest distance, almost touching. For about an hour I stood or crouched next to Mason while he slept, watching for nonexistent danger so he could feel safe, and changing position around him to assess the safety from a different place each time he flicked an ear.

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Then Mason woke up and I saw that the slight freeze habits of the morning were greatly minimized after his long freeze of napping and rest.

 

In this optimal state of rested awareness, Mason and I were joined by the people at the rescue who love him and care for him, and I was able to share the things I had seen and learned throughout the day.

 

I continued to work my partnership from the far side of the medium distance, while his other human friends played with partnering him from various places of closeness and we talked about his responses.

 

You could see how stepping in close led to an instant freeze and his eyes and his ears slowed in their responsiveness to everything, as if his brain was working through peanut butter.

 

For the rest of the day I talked theory with the humans who came to join Mason and I, and I think I was able to shed some light on perhaps why he explodes into flight when he feels the pressure of training, but it seems his brain is stuck in slow motion. If you can’t think your way to a solution in training, the only option that seems left to relieve pressure is to run like hell or fight back. Luckily for everyone Mason wasn’t a natural fighter, he was more likely to run like hell. He wanted to be with people, he seemed to like people, his brain just moved really slowly when they were close to him and that caused him problems trying to learn the kinds of things people expected him to learn.

 

I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Was Mason born like this which led to people abusing him? Or did people create this by causing Mason so much stress every time they were close that he developed a habit of freeze that then led to him getting abused more. I don’t know, and I am not sure I need to know. I simply know that we can help.

 

With good feel and timing Mason can learn to think as clearly in close partnerships as he does in distance partnerships.

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This process of Freedom Based Training® where we help horses be the best version of themselves voluntarily is slow to develop, but it often works where other types of training have failed.

 

I know I learned a huge amount from my blind date with Mason, and hopefully I left a little light and understanding in the hands of the humans who work with him every day.

 

Now, I just need to find my partners for the Evolution project so I can put all I learned from Mason into practice in a long term experiment for the world to share with me. I want to show how Freedom Based Training® can be effective in rebuilding broken trust or building trust to begin with. Domestic or wild, untouched or abused, the concepts apply equally regardless of the horse or their history. I want to show how good feel and timing and a deep well of patience can be applied to create the kind of relationship with horses we all want: collaborative, voluntary, deep and rewarding.

 

For any of you who might want to watch the Evolution project up close from week to week, I did just open up a Patreon platform where I will share weekly videos and insights on the process with the two stallions. I would love for you all to join me on this adventure.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

 

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

ps. for those of you receiving this via email, I do have a short video attached to the end of this blog post that you can see at EquineClarity.Org

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

Unapologetically Happy

When was the last time you were completely and totally unapologetically happy?

 

For me it happens in the early mornings as I am walking out to see the herd of horses. The fog is slowly lifting and sunlight is filtering through, bringing us all into the bright sunny day ahead.

 

For me, the more deeply I feel I know and understand the horses, the better I can find my place among them and the richer that happiness feels.

 

A couple of weeks ago I set myself a weekly challenge to spend eight hours in a single day with one horse. I started “The Eight Hour Challenge” with Cleo who I know well. Then the second week I continued, “Playing with the Foundations of FBT”. I did this with a horse that belongs to a friend of mine; this horse Lily has deeply fascinated me for a long time.

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This week it was time for me to return back to my roots and the horse that started it all: Myrnah.

 

Here is the funny thing about me, I feel like I need to earn my happiness, and work at increasing it perpetually. I fully believe everything in life waxes and wanes in natural cycles and we get more of what we pay attention to.

 

If I want more happiness in my life, I need to pay attention to the things that foster happiness.

 

Connection with Myrnah was my focus for eight hours on this beautiful day in August, however I wasn’t going to do it the easy way, I was in deep for learning!

 

When Myrnah and I are close together or touching our connection feels effortless and her focus changes are so fluid and easy as she does whatever it is we are doing together.

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When I am farther away Myrnah seems to ignore me completely and while it doesn’t feel like she is overtly pushing to get closer to me, or trying to get away from me, I often find myself somewhere completely different than I had intended to be and I was never quite sure how that happened. On this day I was determined to practice this thing I wasn’t good at!

 

I would stand in flow with Myrnah about twenty feet away, watching her with my peripheral vision to see any changes of focus that would signal me to move slightly to my new place of harmony with her. When she walked I would do my best to walk with her holding my relationship in space with her… yet somehow I found myself on her right shoulder about six feet away over and over again. It was funnier than anything to see how deftly Myrnah put me where she liked me.

 

I persevered and kept using my supportive leadership and walking to find my distance flow again. After a particularly good stretch of harmony, I would relent and drift in closer to that six foot distance or touching that Myrnah and I love so much. Then when I could I would drift back out to the challenging distance again. I walked and walked and walked all day struggling to establish distance, and while Myrnah didn’t seem to object, she certainly didn’t make it easy for me to do.

 

As I watched throughout the day (one hour in the early morning, and then seven more hours in the afternoon and evening) I saw how much more social Myrnah is than most horses. She drifts around the herd in continuous close partnership with one horse partner after the next and she LOVES her friends. The interesting thing is she particularly loves a friend who will push her a little. When a horse would approach with pinned ears and a nod of their nose, Myrnah would pin her ears too and grumpily move her feet to accommodate their push… and then the two of them would settle, staying in perfect flow with feet matching stride for stride, step for step for ages. It was like the push was the glue that stuck them together, and that togetherness brought Myrnah so much peace and contentment.

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Now, I had taken the task on of being her partner passively and supportively with as much distance as possible, and since there was no push between us it also felt like there was no glue. I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I felt completely unnecessary to Myrnah in this endurance day of partnership.

I persevered, because I really felt like there was something important for me to learn from this.

 

I watched and mirrored, and found new places of harmony on the thinking moments I saw in Myrnah. When she did not let me hold my chosen place of harmony I walked and walked and walked until I saw a thinking moment that might yield better success for us feeling the flow together.

 

By the end of the day I felt more connected to Myrnah than I have in a long time.

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It was perhaps one of the most challenging eight hours I have ever spent with a horse. I could see how perpetually happy Myrnah was all day with all her various friends, and I only seemed to make the friend list if I was close enough to touch her. I wanted more connection with her than that; I wanted to mean more to her than everyone else seemed to! I had to laugh at myself as I realized I was in that trap of wanting what I wanted when I wanted it! That wild streak in me needed to be tamed and I needed to show up and pay attention to building what I wanted, one small success at a time.

 

When I walked out into the early morning fog to see her the next morning that unapologetic happiness for us seemed deeper and cleaner than ever before and I think it wasn’t only me, it seemed deeper for her too.

 

I am eternally grateful for everything Myrnah has taught me, and continues to teach me. Connection with her is my unapologetic happiness.

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What is your source of unapologetic happiness? What would you do to foster it and let it grow?

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

 

TamingWild.com

(for those of you who get this by email, click on the title at the top to see the video on the blog site)

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

Playing With The Foundations Of FBT

My beautiful dapple-grey partner for the day was subtly and gently displeased with me, and I was not sure why. From reading her body language I knew she was displeased with me, because there was no yield in her movements, and I was working hard to figure out where to be in the spaces around her to find the partnership where yield became easy between us.

I was standing about twelve feet from her shoulder, out in an arena that was next to the stable where she had been eating hay for the last couple of hours. Lily was watching the neighborhood around her paddock and I was watching it with her.

Without any warning I could see, Lily turned directly spinning on her haunches so that suddenly I was at her tail and she was walking away from me. That was a movement I had no way of keeping up with, and there was no way for me to continue to hold the spot twelve feet from her shoulder that I had chosen to be, so faced with this communication from Lily, I walked around her (in the opposite direction of the spin, so I was not chasing her head as she turned) and look for my next spot to choose, hoping that it would be a place she appreciated my company more.

If I got it right I would know because Lily’s movements would start to show yield and become softly easy for me to match step for step. This is the simple quiet communication horses are always giving out.

The horse says to us: If I make it easy for you to move with me, or stand with me, you are in a reasonable place in relationship to me and you know this because of the yield in my movements.

If I move in a way you cannot hold the place in relation to me that you chose, you chose the wrong spot, or you chose to be there too long. You will know this as I try to get away from you and show some small degree of flight, or I push into you and show some small degree of fight.

I believe horses broadcast these messages to each other and us perpetually, but sadly, often, no one is listening.

On this day, I had decided to give myself fully to understanding Lily and listening to her for eight hours.

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Why eight hours? Because it was a length of time that challenged my stamina and skill in a reasonable way, and I have found something often changes for me and the horse together in a particularly beautiful way somewhere between hour six and hour eight.

In this particular moment of our session (about two and a half hours into the day together) we had spent most of our time in the stable as Lily ate hay from the hay bag on the wall, and interacted with the horses around her. Now we had taken a walk out to the arena for a moment and Lily was telling me that all my choices of place were wrong, or too long.

I determinedly tried to do better, circling around her until I saw that change of focus or ear flick that gave me a hint she was thinking more, and I might be in a spot that was acceptable to her. When I saw that flick of an ear from Lily, I came back into flow matching her feet and her focus, only to see her spin slowly away from me again letting me know I was wrong. Wrong place Elsa, too long.

Each time I walked a circle around again looking for the right place and thinking I had found it I would come back into flow, and again Lily would spin slowly away from me.

Frustrated with my lack of understanding as I listened to Lily, I kept trying to get it right and after five attempts to explain it to me, Lily decided to get more direct in her communication. Turning her quiet flight away from me into fight towards me, Lily pinned her ears to her neck and marched directly toward me in a threatening way, forcing me to put my arms out to defend myself as I skirted past her.

Then the light bulb of understanding turned on for me. I was too close!!! My adjustments from twelve feet away to fourteen feet to sixteen feet and from left side to right side and back side were all good tries, but not actually the right answer. Lily at that moment wanted me a good sixty to a hundred feet away.

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Why didn’t I figure that out sooner!

I fully believe if I had intuited that “right decision” of where to be and taken that choice of place, then Lily would have felt like I really was listening and I really understood her in that moment. As it was, we had to work at communicating until we figured out how to be together peacefully.

Once I adjusted my position to one much farther away, Lily’s movements became much easier to flow with and she let me know I was on the right track to understanding her in that moment.

However, just to be sure I got the message, Lily did something I have been noticing frequently when horses don’t want to have a close partnership with someone. Lily went and found her other friends, Mouse and Koa, and she placed herself directly between them in a way that made it very difficult for me to even try to get closer. Message received loud and clear Lily, I am listening and I will respond in a way that lets you know I am listening.

Because Lily was in the stable at that point, I chose to be her partner from outside, standing in the aisle of the barn. I was outside the bars and I did my best to move positions on the momentary signs of thought I could see in the flick of her ears, the theory being that noticing those thinking moments and responding to them with finding a new place of harmony, before I wore out my welcome in the place I was standing, was perpetually proving to Lily I was listening and I was responding to her. Even from outside the bars of the stable, I can listen to Lily, and I can respond. If I do it right, and I make the right choices, Lily will let me know by showing more and more yield in her movements so we can go places together when she chooses to move. If I do it wrong, there will be some degree of fight or flight letting me know I need to make better choices if I want her voluntary partnership.

Over the next month or six weeks, as I work to develop my personal stamina for my next year long Taming Wild project, I have decided to take one day each week to spend with a new and different horse.

During this day I am not aiming to change to help or develop the horse I am with, instead my goal is simply to hold space for them and be WITH them in the best ways I know how. My job is to observe them deeply and learn who they are in each moment we are together. As I grow to know them better, I can anticipate what they might choose to do next and I can place myself in the best location to partner them in their moment-to-moment choices.

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The theory of Freedom Based Training® starts NOT from a place of changing the horse, instead we change ourselves and hone our skills of where and when to be around the horse so that they become more and more interested in partnering with us.

We are attempting to change our own skill of body placement around them so they are in the frame of mind where they start to voluntarily develop into easier partners.

Later, from that foundation I will be able to more directly ask a horse to develop good partnership skills. Today’s task with Lily was simply to hone my own partnership skills while listening to Lily’s feedback deeply.

I noticed that Lily started the day in self-focus and I was making my responses as she made subtle focus shifts from one version of self-focus to another. Such as, pulling the hay out of the hay bag in one moment, to chewing the hay she had just pulled out in the following moment. Even though there was no obvious change in the ears or the eyes in the difference of those two actions, I would chose to respond to Lily’s small change of thought, moving to a new place around her.

If I could change places around Lily in a moment I thought there was more thinking, I would move only briefly returning to harmony as directly as possible.

If I had no thinking change from Lily and I had to move for any other reason, I would continue to walk around her until she showed me a thinking moment to let me know, THAT spot of physical relationship is one that might work for us.

My job was to listen to Lily and do my best to respond to her subtle body language conversation. I was not just doing whatever I felt like around Lily, I was taking small actions in response to her positive communication.

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What happens all too often in relationships is we do what we feel like until someone gets irritated enough to yell and get our attention that we should have made a different choice. In contrast to that, passive leadership is about making responses to positive communication (those subtle thinking moments) because I believe if we deeply listen and respond to the positive communications, there is less and less need to for the louder communications of fight or flight.

Lily showed me this throughout the day as she was mostly self-absorbed and did what she felt like as I shadowed her to the best of my ability. Every once in a while, Lily would put herself in a place that irritated Lovey, or Koa or Mouse and would get chased or threatened with some intensity. I could see it coming and would be for the most part walking away before it happened (leading Lily by good example that she could choose to follow or not).

Horses crave social interaction, and they seem to often feel much better after some conversation with each other. The problem is, if no one makes the effort to respond to subtle positive communication, they are going to have to push on each other harder to get any attention from their friends.

After every negative interaction with her paddock mates I observed Lily markedly happier with more thinking moments and more focus changes, with signs of licking and chewing and yawning and deep breaths. In a strange way irritating her friends into chasing her was rewarding for Lily, because she felt much better after they paid attention to her and gave her some response.

My job was not to change this, my job was to observe and learn and continually show Lily that I was responding to her small thinking moments, so she didn’t have to get loud or irritating to get my attention.

Throughout the day, slowly and surely, there was more and more yield in Lily’s movements, less and less pushing on and irritating her friends and each of my next responses to Lily started becoming easier to gauge and choose correctly.

The important thing for me is that I was not trying to make this change happen in Lily, I was trying to train my own awareness and responsiveness to her. Lily’s positive changes were an accidental by-product of my practice.

It was hugely gratifying in this situation to see the partnership with Lily grow easier for us both as the day went on. From the deep self-focus of the morning I watched Lily vary in thinking patterns, changing between patterns of more or less diversity as she focused around herself on a greater or lesser variety of things. As I observed and responded I saw a gradual overall change in the way Lily thought about and considered the world.

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As Lily’s thoughts became more diverse and had a wider range of interest, it became easier for me to be in the right place at the right time. I could see the eyes and the ears change first, and then the feet would start to move following her thought. This was very different from the beginning of the day where thought changes were very subtle and Lily’s feet seemed to move, propelled with no thought or plan behind the movement. In those moments I felt forced into supportive leadership where I had to keep moving my feet until I saw some sign of thinking change again, that led me back into Flow and Passive leadership.

Every moment I could see clearer thinking from Lily I wanted to jump up and down and cheer, and then I would remember, that isn’t the goal today that is the side effect of this work. The goal is for Elsa to get better and better at responding to the positive thinking and yielding signs. What Lily chooses to do with that is not my job to change; it is simply feedback on how well I am doing making my perpetual choices around her.

Still, when I get positive feedback that the general trend between us is better… I want to jump up and down and cheer.

But I don’t.

Instead I breathe, and match Lily, and think deeply about how I might do it better in the next moment and the next moment and the next.

This is my work, and I love it.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

The Eight Hour Challenge

How deeply do any of us know our horses?

 

I once read that to feel loved is to feel known and I think there is some truth to that. To really know someone requires an intense curiosity and an experimental willingness to take action and adjust action depending on the response received.

 

I believe there is some degree of love in every relationship, including our relationships with our horses.

 

In most horse training we ask a horse to know us and pay attention to how their actions and choices affect us as humans. We expect a well-trained horse partner to be in the right place at the right time and to adjust their behavior to suit us perpetually.

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In Freedom Based Training® I start from the other side of the equation. How well do I know my horse? How well can I express that understanding to my horse?

 

If I know my horse doesn’t like it when I stand too far away, then a short amount of standing far away may be interesting to them, but if I stand far away for too long or too often, my presence becomes a burden on their experience. If I deeply know my horse I will know how long it is appropriate to do anything, and where the line is between interesting and irritating. I will be able to take action before I become irritating, and I will be able to regain our state of harmony in good places and ways frequently.

 

To really know my horse, I have to put aside my personal desire that my horse know me. In Freedom Based Training®, I have to trust that what I give will come back to me. Or more directly, once I have given enough of my attention and I know my horse deeply, I have earned the right to ask them to know me in return.

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This depth of relationship building is the foundation for what I do in Freedom Based Training®, and I have found there is an awesome side effect to this work. The more time spent really knowing a horse, and taking actions in a way that prove to them that they are known and understood, the more they seem to make this same effort towards others. Then all their relationships improve, both with people and other horses. This deeply affects the quality of a horse’s life with the other horses in their herd.

 

This week I noticed my mare Cleo had gotten in an emotional rut. I don’t know why, I just know that as I was watching the evidence of action in the herd, I was seeing a downward spiral. Cleo was angry and quick to pin her ears and push the others, then instead of yielding to her and finding harmony together, the other horses in the herd would simply walk away from her to find harmony with someone else instead. Cleo was so grumpy and unpleasant no one wanted to be with her, no one wanted to be curious about what she needed and no one wanted to help her lower her stress by being her partner. The more disinterest the horses showed, the more ugly Cleo’s behavior became and the more ugly her behavior was the more disinterest it created in her friends.

 

I do work with Cleo for an hour or so each day, but my usual Freedom Based Training just wasn’t seeming to make much of a difference to Cleo in the rest of her life this week.

 

I decided this was my perfect opportunity to prove my worth as Cleo’s partner and see what happened with some intense investment in attention from me.

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The challenge:

 

Eight hours in one day spent in the best mirroring, matching, flow and harmony I could manage.

 

The means for me to do this were based on the first two leadership styles in the leadership spectrum:

 

Passive Leadership and Supportive Leadership

 

Passive Leadership is the most important, because it is where I am curious about how to shape my actions around Cleo to know her deeply.

 

Where can I place myself in harmony with Cleo and then when it is time to change, where is the next place I can place myself in harmony with Cleo. If I know her, I can make decisions of where to stand and they will feel good to her, if I do not know her well enough, she has to move her own body until I am in a place that works for her. By deeply knowing a horse we take the pressure off them to make themselves comfortable and we take the responsibility to be in the right place at the right time. The more consistently we do this, the more they feel they can trust us and the lower their stress levels become.

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Sometimes though, I am going to make mistakes and the place I choose to be will cause Cleo to make a counter decision to let me know I was in the wrong place for the wrong amount of time. That is when I would get moved into supportive leadership.

 

Supportive leadership is where I start taking action, by walking around my horse (or stroking or petting or rocking my horse), experimenting with distance from my horse and my style of action. As I experiment with all this I am aware of the surroundings and being deeply curious about which place I am in when Cleo starts to think more and show better feelings. When she does that it is my clue to come back into harmony with her.

 

If I deeply knew Cleo I could have gone right to that spot directly before she got uncomfortable. When my feel and timing is off, Cleo shows that discomfort by moving in ways we cannot move together. However, knowing someone is always a process of experimentation, and if we don’t know where to be we have to simply try things until we get positive feedback from our horse that we are now in the right place where harmony can resume.

 

Every “right place” we choose to be with our horse has an expiration date. Our job is to change places of harmony before the one we are in becomes stale.

 

This process of choosing the next best place of harmony and flow with a horse perpetually is an awesome challenge. Try doing it for eight hours and you might be amazed with what you learn.

 

Now, this is not normal behavior in a horse herd or between a horse and a human because this intensity of perpetual awareness and responsiveness is exhausting. I actually have only attempted this intensity of training and relationship a few times in the many years I have been doing this. Even when I was in the depth of training in the first movie, my norm with Myrnah was between four and six hours a day, not eight.

 

Watching the development in Cleo blossom in this eight hour challenge this week changed my mind about my personal willingness to dive deeper and work longer. The results were so interesting with Cleo, I find I want to try it again, with different horses and see what happens.

 

For the first four hours Cleo was often grumpy with her horse friends in the herd, and I moved often and experimented heavily to find the right places to be. After the first hour, I was exhausted from the effort so I chose to go have a bit of a nap in the shade of the hedgerow. About fifteen minutes later I was wakened by a soft nuzzle from Cleo on my leg. It was interesting to me that of all fourteen horses in the herd, Cleo was the one who came over to wake me when she felt I had slept long enough. I stepped back up to my challenge and resumed my efforts in matching, mirroring, harmony, and flow with Cleo.

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Then, all the horses took a nap under the deep shade of the cedar trees and my job got much easier, standing in harmony and flow with Cleo as she slept. When all the other horses chose to leave the shade and move off to their grazing on the other side of the pond, Cleo chose to stay in the shade with me, sleeping longer than everyone else. I believe it was my company that allowed her to stay longer and rest more, without me there I don’t think she would have taken that time as I have never seen her off by herself, she always goes where the herd goes.

 

After that nap Cleo’s mood improved dramatically and she seemed appreciative of a greater variety of things. The better her mood was the greater likelihood I had of making the right choices and being at the right place at the right time. We rejoined the herd and then Cleo spent the rest of the afternoon taking me away from the herd to graze in odd corners of the pasture away from everyone in a way that seemed very unlike her normal behavior. We would be off by ourselves for twenty minutes or so and then wander back and pair up with one of the others for a while, before wandering off by ourselves for a few more minutes.

 

Cleo’s mood and positive outlook on life seemed to perpetually improve all day. By the time it was getting dark and we were in the last hour of the challenge Cleo seemed happily paired up with her best horse friends in a way I felt deeply good about. It was time for me to walk away, find my bed and think deeply about all I had learned.

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I hope my personal challenge inspires you.

 

How well do you know your horse?

 

How many hours would you be willing to spend with your horse without asking anything of them, and challenging yourself to your best feel and timing, resulting in the maximum amount of flow and harmony possible? What would you learn if you did that?

 

Are you willing to take the eight hour challenge?

 

Or perhaps six hours, or four hours would be a good challenge for you?

 

I picked ten hours the first time I did an intensive session of passive leadership; you can find the blog about that here:

https://equineclarity.org/2016/11/29/it-takes-time/

 

Eight hours seemed more manageable this time with Cleo.

 

Just remember, this work can be subtle, and sometimes you won’t see much change in the first few hours. So if you are interested and you can dig a little deeper, spend a little more time, and see what happens.

 

If you find yourself inspired to try it, I would love to hear how it went for you. Perhaps you could write down your experiences and share them here as a guest blog?

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

The Uniqueness of Now

I have been on this incredible teaching tour through Europe for a little over a month now and I have only a few more weeks to go. Nine clinics in seven weeks across six different countries and so many interesting horses and humans to study everywhere I go. I am in my element and I feel like I am being flooded by a sea of new ideas and understanding every day with every new situation I get to be part of.

Then, amidst all this brilliant travel and learning, while in the outstanding beauty of Ireland, I got a cold. One of those “tickle in your throat” that starts and you are sure it will just be momentary, and then the words coming out of your mouth start to break up and rattle and the frightening truth comes up hard in your face. The gift of being able to talk isn’t granted permanently, it can be taken away.

What happens if I lose my voice? I still have four more clinics scheduled, what if I can’t talk and no one can hear what I have to share? What if I have to cancel and let everyone down?

I would love to tell you I handled all this gracefully, but I didn’t. I excused myself early in the evenings and tried to sleep as much as I could, however, I also found myself in the usual trap of shame and guilt. I thought if only I had slept more, had more water to drink, eaten more carefully, exercised more, this would have never happened. If I had been a better person, I would not have been looking down the throat of failure. While all that may have a grain of truth, in those moments of trying to sleep and attempting to find my health again, it wasn’t helpful.

Then I arrived in Portugal and the wave of heat that met me outside the airport doors was like a new lease on life and my stuffy head started to clear.

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As with most things, once we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can see how to get there. What if I treated this as a unique experience? Not something I was afraid would last forever, ruining everything. What if I could be truly curious about what I experienced? I can breathe out of my left side, but not my right… interesting… but when I turn my head something shifts and it changes, I feel like one side of my head is a big as a balloon, while the other feels normal, interesting.

However, it can only be interesting if we start to believe it will not last forever. What if this tightness in my throat was a unique experience? What if today was the last time I got to experience it in my entire life? Would that make it more worthy of study? Instead of worrying that it would keep getting worse until it killed everything good in my life, what if I treated it as the only time I might ever get to experience this phenomenon of being human.

Here is where my personal revelation bridges into my work and something I have been thinking about a great deal over the last couple of weeks. This is where I get to step back into my comfort zone and start talking about horse training again.

I think this fear of something lasting forever and ruining everything is one of our biggest problems in relationships.

Whether it is a horse running and bucking and pacing endlessly because it wants to be somewhere other than with you, or a horse that stands like it is made of stone seemingly oblivious to your company, these sorts of situations seem to bring up the fight in people. I will be honest, they bring up the fight in me as well.

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I find I want to fix it, I want to make it change, I want to do something that makes the horse want to be in a good relationship with the human. I want to sweep in like the knight in shining armor and slay the dragon of bad behavior so horse and human can live happily ever after.

But that isn’t how Freedom Based Training® works, and I have embarked on a different journey here. Not one of knights, princesses and fairy tales, but a journey where we get to be deeply curious about whatever is currently happening. We get to pay attention to it, and respond to it until the inevitability of life happens and things change. I truly believe that paying attention and responding appropriately will nurture any experience into slowly becoming better. We don’t have to fight the bad to win the good, we just need to pay attention and nurture what we like in life.

What if we don’t like anything? What if it seems like there is nothing to nurture? What if it seems like it is only getting worse, not better? In these situations the instinct to fight or to freeze and give up becomes strong.

The solution? Fight needs to gently be nurtured into curiosity. Freeze needs to be gently nurtured into thinking.

How do we do that? Pay attention and count.

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If we see the horse is running then we walk back and forth around them. If the horse is standing without acknowledging our presence then we stand next to them. Regardless of how we need to be around them, we count our breaths. We need to be curious, how many breaths will it take until the next change in the situation?

Be in the present moment with curiosity and thoughtfulness and respond to every subtle change. The more responsive we are to change, the more change we will start to see.

If you have trouble like I do sometimes, wanting to fight for faster change, or wanting to give up and disappear because it feels hopeless to make any effort at all, consider this:

Every experience is unique in some way. This is absolutely the last time you will ever experience this moment. If you don’t pay attention and notice every detail, it will be lost forever. This is your one chance to experience this particular event.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to take the instinct of fight and turn it into play… or curiosity. Take the instinct of flight and turn it into yield where you make room for (and pay attention to) whatever is happening instead of running away from it. Take the instinct of freeze where you give up and disappear in your mind and turn it into the thinking and awareness your mind was designed for.

When you start to reach for the functional side of the stress spectrum you will find life gets better, and as it gets better and you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, then you will know where to go and what to do next.

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To quote Mary Oliver,

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

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The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

Coming Home to Freedom Based Training

 

This is the hundred and fiftieth blog written for Meditations on Equestrian Art, and it seems momentous. Because of that importance I have sat down to write it a million times and a million times I have stood up and decided I have something else that needs doing.

 

After filming “Taming Wild: Pura Vida” and walking across Costa Rica, my public persona went a little quiet as I pondered, Who am I and what exactly am I bringing to the world?

 

After Costa Rica I found myself on a teaching tour through Australia and New Zealand and then back home to the lush green of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, all the while pondering, Who am I, and what am I sharing?

 

Here is what it comes down to.

 

I will be me and you will be you.

 

Out of that a relationship will develop.

 

The horse is perfect just the way it is, regardless of whether the horse is happy or unhappy, more stressed or less stressed.

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The human is perfect just the way it is, regardless of whether the human is happy or unhappy, more stressed or less stressed.

 

How is it that I can have a job if everything is perfect just the way it is? What is my role in the world? When I teach a course or a clinic or a workshop, isn’t my job to create change for the better?

 

That is often what I have thought, but I am coming to realize my job is not to create change. Change is inevitable; in fact, change is one of the few inevitable things in the world.

 

My job is simply to shine a light and develop the awareness of options.

 

Specifically, I choose to shine a light on the options that most people do not talk about in horse training: personal choices. Not the choices we make for our horse, but the choices we make for our own bodies.

 

When most people think about training horses or developing relationships, the goal is to change and develop the horse into being more of the horse you want. It becomes about limits, boundaries, direction, and teaching the horse right from wrong.

 

Often humans want the same kind of learning structure. They want to know the right or wrong actions to take in training their horse.

 

Freedom Based Training is different though. It isn’t about changing the horse or changing the human. It is instead about finding the harmony between horse and human exactly as they are.

 

THEN and only then do we start to consider what personal actions we might take that evolve and develop and grow the partnership into a greater variety of harmonious Flow states.

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This is the slowest possible way to train a horse because the primary focus is not on changing the horse, or even on changing the human. If neither the horse nor the human changes, we find there are actually a very limited amount of things horse and human would choose to do together.

 

So this is why I filmed “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”. I wanted to show the human world that I understood human needs with horses: to set a goal, work towards a goal, and achieve a goal, all within a shorter time frame.

 

I learned so very much in the process of doing that!

 

Exploring the grey areas of what is, what might be, or what could be, when we use tools to get a partner to an end goal with us, I realized I wanted so much more Freedom for the horses in my time with them.

 

I don’t want to have to make it to camp by nightfall, I don’t want to figure out the best way to manipulate the horse so that it makes it to camp by nightfall. I don’t want to use everything I know about lowering stress in horses to then take advantage of their lowered stress to cross terrain that possibly should never be crossed with horses.

 

Did I do all those things? Yes.

Did I learn important things by putting myself in that position? Yes.

Am I glad I did that? Yes.

Would I do it again? No.

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Now I feel a need to take a step back into who I really am and what Freedom Based Training really is.

 

I want to live a life where my horse is in a safe enough situation that they can make their own choices about what they want, and as the human I work within the range of what I want for my own body in time and space. Eventually, those choices I make for my own body will prove my worth in the relationship and I will earn the right to start asking for things from my partner.

 

The together part of the equation where horses do things that humans want – that goal is still there, but in Freedom Based Training the time frame gets taken away and we figure the relationship takes the time it takes.

 

This is the most important piece of Freedom Based Training for me. Taming that wild streak inside myself that wants what I want when I want it.

 

Costa Rica was an amazing adventure, and I am so glad I learned so much doing it. Now I am settling in to the purer practice of gentle evolution between horse and human.

 

My wild streak wants the world to appreciate the slow process with horses right now. My wild streak wants to please people and give them answers that train their horses faster. My wild streak wants to take the slow process of relationship evolution and make it faster. My wild streak is contradictory and wants all the things right now!

 

My wild streak is perfect exactly the way it is, and slowly, as I tame that wild streak that wants all the things it doesn’t have yet, life gets more enjoyable. Slowly.

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As I get ready to leave for the European teaching tour I am feeling the conflicts of my wild streaks. I want it all, and I want it now. I want to teach people that setting limits and consequences for our horses is one way to teach them, but not the only way. I want to shine light on all the options for training horses and building relationships that do not rely on boundaries, limits, and time frames. At the same time, I want to make people happy and help them get their horse to stop eating grass all the time so they can do more things together.

 

How do I accept everything as it is, shine light on what it could be, and work towards the possibilities without telling anyone they are wrong or bad for wanting what they want? Horse or human! Both the horse’s wants and the human’s wants are valid, even if the horse only wants to eat grass and the human wants to do something more interesting.

 

Between the human’s wild streak and the horse’s wild streak is where the art of Freedom Based Training is.

 

Everyone gets to be exactly who they are with their own personal wants, needs, and wild streaks, and I get to explore all the options for developing endless varieties of harmony between horse and human while letting them all be exactly who they are.

 

If any of this piques your interest, I hope I get to meet you and we can share some of the evolution of Taming Wild.

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

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Upcoming Clinics and workshops:

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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,

Elsa

 

TamingWild.com

 

The Project:

Horses from many walks of life, communication through body language, tools used only for safety, never to train.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/taming-wild-pura-vida/x/17824790#/

This is going to be an adventure worth sharing!

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

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