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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.

 

The Road We Travel 

After six months of persistent study, Atlas and I finally have had a breakthrough in trust I feel I can count on. I think Atlas is feeling that as well.

This week, for the first time ever Atlas came over to me, all the way to me, and not because I was standing near the food and he was hungry, or I was near the gate that he wanted to go through. It was in the middle of a big open space with many options for Atlas to choose, and he still chose me.

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I wanted to jump up and down with glee to celebrate his new level of bravery and connection to me, but of course I didn’t. Instead I sat down on the ground in the shadow of his great big head and I watched the world for him while he fell asleep less than an arm’s length away from me.

The way it happened, I was walking out into the paddock with the intention to join him and spend some time breathing and moving around him and walking him down if he needed it, as I do several times every day. Atlas was on the far side of the paddock and as I stepped onto the sand, I got a message on my phone that I stopped to answer. As I was doing that Atlas started walking toward me.

Now, I have a commitment to this theory of shared action, so as he walked toward me, I took the smallest most gentle and rhythmic steps I could toward him. I know this theory of shared action is why Atlas has taken so long to walk toward me, if I did what normal horse trainers do, such as standing still (becoming completely passive) or backing off to draw him in, I could have encouraged this behavior much sooner in our relationship.

Instead, I took the slower route, anything we do, I make sure we do it together. The number one reason for walking toward Atlas as he walks toward me is because drawing a horse in to me physically too soon, when he has a history of attacking people, seems like a terrible idea. The number two reason is, I believe this commitment to shared action is the way I can establish a more bonded relationship where I don’t need tools or food rewards to control behavior.

The last couple of weeks I have immersed myself in a commitment to holding my own rhythm better. Breathing, walking, changing focus, everything I do is based on a reliable metronome-like dependability.

Atlas can hold his breath or alternate between immobility and erratic movement while I hold steady to my personal rhythm. I am devoted to the idea that he can join me in that rhythm or not as he chooses, but I refuse to join him or mirror his unpredictability. It has been a task of herculean proportions holding steady and reliable to my personal rhythm and I realize how much I lean on the natural rhythm of my mustangs when training. Mirroring horses is as natural for me as breathing.

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The exhaustion I was feeling every day from this effort with Atlas was profound, so I went looking for help and found it in an app for my phone. Soundbrenner is a musician’s application that emits a metronome beat I can lean on and it has a corresponding wrist watch that silently holds the same rhythm as a vibration. The day I found that app and starting using it, the visible releases in Atlas doubled and my available energy to spend time with him each day, doubled as well.

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Now here we were, less than an arms-length from each other by his choice and all I  could think, was: “Don’t mess this up Elsa, Atlas is trusting you that this is ok, you have to prove his trust is warranted.”

To prove to Atlas this new-found bravery and interest in me was warranted, I sat there and breathed like my life depended on it, like Atlas’ life depended on it.

Half an hour later I reached my hand up to him, and he reached down to me to touch that hand with his nose. I pulled carefully away from him as I stood up and he watched me peacefully as I walked back to my house.

This breakthrough with Atlas has me thinking about the difference between traumatized horses and unhandled horses and why we might choose to work with them differently. A few weeks ago, I chose to start using the fences more with Atlas to let him feel pressure to change for the better. This was different from my standard practice of Freedom Based Training®, but his perpetual stress and discomfort in the world seemed to need more help than I had been able to give him working in FBT alone.

I wrote about this in the blog “Walking a Horse Down” and I am grateful I had this method to fall back on when it became clear to me Atlas needed more support.

Why did Atlas need more support? Why did we seem to make progress for a week or ten days and then backslide dramatically into distrust and defensiveness again?

Here is a theory I have developed that makes the most sense to me:

When we train horses, we have this road we are traveling together. On one side of the road is a drop-off where the horse feels overwhelmed and shows it in defensive actions of fight or flight. On the other side of the road is a drop-off where the horse feels shut down and shows it though the defensive action of freeze, becoming absent or dissociated from a situation.

The trainer has the job of keeping the horse on this road of development where they can experience thinking, yielding and playing, the good feelings in life.

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Some horses have a wide road and there is room to play between the lines. Every time you go to the edge and then get safely back to the middle, trust is built. The horse realizes that learning new things leads to good feelings and their road gets wider.

Horses who have been traumatized have developed a very narrow road, sometimes it feels like walking down a tightrope with them and keeping from falling off the sides into overwhelmed or shut down is nearly impossible. Every time you lose them to shut down or being overwhelmed, they link the experience of learning with you to feeling worse.

Their patterns of self-defense get strengthened and their road gets even narrower and this results in the breaking down of trust between horse and human.

As a horse trainer, it is not always me at fault when the horse falls off the safe road of good feelings. The environment always plays a part as well. Something as simple as a change in weather can make our road treacherously narrow. I might walk into in the paddock in the morning and find my horse has already stepped off the edge and is hanging onto the cliff face of anxiety.

The theory of Freedom Based Training® is that we play within the lines of the road. When we touch the edges we learn new things, stretching the comfort zone, and that exploration makes our road wider, our trust stronger and our possibility of falling off the edges less likely. Even when life throws us challenges that narrow the road, we have plenty of road to spare.

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With a traumatized horse the road is so narrow that external events can cause far too much damage and it becomes impossible not to fall off and get stuck in the weeds of bad feelings. Every time we fall off and cannot find our way back to good feelings, we make the edges more unstable, we break trust between horse and human, and the road becomes narrower still.

This is what I had been experiencing with Atlas. We were getting to know each other better, we were getting better at staying on the road, but our road wasn’t strong or wide. It felt like any progress we made with building a wider road was temporary and we could not trust the edges.

The problem is you need to go to the edges to make that road wider, and this is the reason I think sometimes a traumatized horse might benefit from the use of tools or food rewards in training.

When I chose to “walk Atlas down”, he had moments where he felt trapped between me and the fence. He was falling off the road of good feelings, he was angry, evasive, and defensive. The fences allowed me to keep Atlas walking when he didn’t want to, he couldn’t just get away from me and end this uncomfortable relationship, we had to work through it together. We were spending time off the edges of the road, but we were doing it in a way that was without doubt going to bring us safely back to the middle of the road and good feelings together.

This visitation of the edges, with a guaranteed way back to better feelings in short order, this is what makes our road wider.

The road becomes wider because the horse experiences learning new things and sees that good feelings follow. This link between learning and better feelings give them security and motivation to do and learn more in partnership with humans.

The use of tools or food rewards keeps the horse involved in that learning through feelings of being overwhelmed or shutdown and then out the other side of the process, back to a better feeling.

This is the reason we might choose to use tools to train a traumatized horse.

When we take away all the tools in Freedom Based Training®, we need to stay on the road. We need better feel and timing as trainers, and more skill navigating new situations. Without tools we have to be careful not to stray too far off the road of good feelings and training must progress more slowly and gently.

This is the reason we might choose to train without tools. It makes us better trainers, and if we do it well, the learning process is more enjoyable for the horse in every stage.

For myself Freedom Based Training® is still my preferred method of training.

For Atlas, when the weather changes in a way that upsets him or he has a fight with his friends, or something I can’t control makes our road too narrow to safely navigate, I will choose to walk him down. Even if it means Atlas feels some pressure from me and the fence together in the process, I feel the positives outweigh the negatives in his case.

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With the occasional help of the fence I can push him over the edge, off his feel-good road, into the weeds of shutdown or overwhelmed on the side, without losing him completely. Then I can safely bring him back to the middle repeatedly until our trust is strengthened once more and his road has become a little wider and a little safer for us to play in-between the lines with no tools.

Atlas’ whole life seems better now that we took the time to go off the road of good feelings, stay together, not give up, and make it safely back up on the road finding those better feelings together.

This is how I understand my choices now. Tools and food rewards (used well) allow a trainer to use the edges of the road as a bigger part of the process and let the horse experience those stronger feelings of discomfort and defensiveness, knowing that the bad feelings are temporary, and the trainer can get the horse back to the middle of the road of feeling good effectively.

If my road with a horse is wide enough for me to play within the lines in freedom, that is how I prefer to live.

If I can’t seem to stay on the road with a traumatized horse, I might choose to use a tool to safely hang us off the edge into overwhelm or shutdown and then bring us home safely to a better feeling, as many times as it takes to make our road wider, safer and a beautiful place to live.

There are many roads to Rome. We don’t just get to choose which road we travel; we also get to build the foundation of our road as we go.

Here is to the building of a path that suits you and creating a journey you and your horse look forward to every day.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

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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.

 

Breathe Like your Life Depends on It!

Standing in the evening sun on a beautiful spring day next to Atlas, I watch out over the meadow, counting my breaths. A bald eagle swoops down to pick up a stick from the field for his nest building. A hawk darts through the deeper trees to my left on errands I can only guess at. The frogs start their evening serenade.

I breathe, I count, I wait.

Atlas’ muzzle jumps and twitches and shivers and quivers like the end of his nose has been taken over by a crazy spirit. I watch these physical developments Atlas is experiencing from my peripheral vision as I more directly study the valley in front of us and breathe.

Taming Wild isn’t about taming a wild horse, though on the surface it can seem to mean that. Taming Wild is about taming the wild in myself of wanting too much, too soon. Before I met Atlas, I thought I had developed a profound degree of patience and I was proud of that. Now Atlas is helping develop a whole deeper level of patience in me that is exposing pockets of wild impatience and calling on me to find better ways to tame them.

We spent the last few weeks in a process of walking Atlas down off his stress every day. I have observed some days I am good at this and other days I don’t seem able to help Atlas nearly as much.

I have spent countless sleepless nights staring at the moon and listening to Atlas walk around the paddock below my window. I know we had a good day when his steps are measured and rhythmic as he walks from his water to his hay, and out to the arena and back. I know we had a less successful day when I hear a night full of spooking and stumbling and erratic movements from one place to the next, punctuated with loud, abrupt, exhalations of breath.

I want to fix this for Atlas right now! This is the wild in me. I don’t want him to have to experience such chaos and upset as part of his life anymore! There is nothing here that will hurt him, and I want him to know that, believe that, and feel it in a way that lets him live a normal life.

Selfishly, I also want to touch him. I have never had a horse as a companion for so many hours without touching as a huge component of our communication. I know many ways I could coerce Atlas into the touching aspect of the relationship, and sometimes I am tempted to use food more directly as a means to an end, but we are not there yet.

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The reason I set this project as an experimental year is to help me in these moments of wanting to speed up progress. For this year, as long as I can keep both of us safe, our job is to tame the wild of wanting too much too soon, and let the relationship evolve naturally.

That is easier said than done.

What if a horse has everything they need without being pressured to alter themselves to get it? To what degree would they choose to develop a relationship with a human voluntarily? To what degree can I use the power of my personal choices in the spaces around a horse to build trust and a sense of well-being?

These questions put the pressure on me to tame my own wild of wanting too much too soon and wait for what Atlas wants to develop.

So here we are, standing side by side for hours at a time, breathing and waiting.

I teach in all my courses, that rhythm is confidence for a horse. As we develop their sense of rhythm, we develop their comfort and confidence in life.

What I have noticed over the last week is how difficult rhythm is for Atlas, and how some days I am able to support him better than others.

The walking down of his stress worked so well because the rhythm of our steps helped Atlas find the rhythm of his breathing, and it helped me find the rhythm of mine at the same time. This predictable rhythm helped Atlas find his sense of curiosity and interest and once that started to blossom, we didn’t need to walk as much.

However, once we didn’t need to walk as much, I noticed our sense of rhythm grew faulty and then we seemed to get stuck in a rebounding set of emotions. Atlas bounced back and forth between angry and interested and back to angry. He was interested so often I wasn’t sure I should make him walk anymore, but I didn’t want to perpetuate his anger and defensiveness either.

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I tried walking around him in circles when he was angry, hoping the rhythm of my strides would be enough to help him find curiosity again, and it worked… but seemingly this solution was a little less effective every day and I was not sure why.

I tried dancing around Atlas to help him find his way from anger to curiosity. This had worked brilliantly with Apollo in our project trekking across Costa Rica. This week it worked for a few moments with Atlas, but then I did too much too soon, and Atlas spun to kick at me for the first time ever. He didn’t make contact, but it was deliberate, and I saw far too many details of the soles of his hind feet as they paused in the air under my nose.

I decided in that moment that I needed go back to my quiet walking down of the stress for Atlas any time I saw the anger come up in him. While dancing around him might have rhythm for me, the intensity of the movement caused emotional chaos for Atlas instead of the rhythm I was hoping to stimulate. No more messing around with different ways to support him feeling better. I needed to stick to the basic idea of rhythm, for both horse and human.

Rhythm equals confidence.

Atlas and I needed to move in ways that let both him and I feel that consistency of rhythm.

Then I stumbled on these two TED talks and I realized there was another facet of rhythm I had been neglecting that might be all the difference between the better and worse days working with Atlas.

Dr. Alan Watkins is funny and easy to listen to and he has a better way of explaining how all this works than anyone I have ever known. If you have not seen these two talks, I encourage you strongly to take a few minutes to hear him explain.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q06YIWCR2Js

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_fFattg8N0

For me the deep take away was the awareness of the rhythm and smooth consistency of my breathing. Perhaps the quality of that determines the quality of support I could give Atlas. I knew his natural rhythm of breathing was erratic most of the time, I also knew that I tend to fall into breathing and acting like my horses. With my mustangs, this tendency to fall into mirroring them has been a value and an asset that bonded us together and gave us strength.

Perhaps when I mirrored Atlas and fell into breathing erratically like him, I only compounded his discomfort in life?

So, I took this to heart, and I focused with all my power on my breathing consistency. Steady and rhythmic and reliable, starting the count at one again every time I saw a moment of curiosity, every time I saw a lick or a chew or heard a deep breath, or saw that crazy twitching of the muzzle.

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My breathing rhythm was supporting Atlas in finding good feelings and experiencing them for as long as possible.

If I got to the count of four breaths and Atlas seemed stuck, self-obsessed, or angry I would look directly at him, to motivate some change. If he could flick an ear or show me any sign of trying to find a better feeling I could work that circle around him slowly and gently, with the rhythm of my feet helping him feel the stability he was lacking.

If he confronted me with anger as I looked right at him, I would walk directly toward his eye with the kind of intensity I thought might nudge him into rhythmic steps of his own as directly as possible. Our walking together to find that rhythm seems to be the most effective way to help Atlas find a better feeling when he can’t, when he is simply stuck.

Two things happened as I started to intensify my focus on my responsibility to breathe for Atlas.

One, it is an exhausting practice, and over and over I find myself sucked into mimicking Atlas instead of holding my own breathing consistency.

Two, it works. Atlas is developing a soft positivity about life that is a relief to me beyond words. We hardly ever need to walk anymore, and while I am still waiting and breathing more than I ever have with any horse I have ever known, I can see the tensions unraveling in Atlas.

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Even on the days we need to walk more, we can now do this in the presence of Zohari and Atlas does not seem in any way tempted to take his frustrations out on his friend like he did before.

Most exciting for me is seeing the moments when Atlas starts to walk toward me. It is only a step or two sometimes, when his curiosity becomes so strong, that he wants to get closer to me. That step or two is the start to a whole new way for Atlas to be with humans.

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In those moments that I see curiosity win over defensiveness for Atlas, my job is to breathe.

Breathe like my life depends on it, and breathe like his life depends on it.

Steady, rhythmic, smooth, and consistent.

This I can do, and this I will continue to do for Atlas until he can do it for himself. Then maybe someday, Atlas will be able to do this for me when I am having a rough day.

I have posted a video in the Patreon group so you can see the details of this part of the process. If you are curious, join the group and you will have front row seats as this all evolves.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

If you have the inspiration to try this with your horses, this idea of breathing like your life depends on it, let me know how it goes, does it affect your horse and your relationship like it has for me and Atlas?

Rhythm equals confidence.

Confidence makes life comfortable.

Here is to more of that in everyone’s lives!

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

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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.

 

Wandering Together

This week it was time to open the gate for Ari and I, and start wandering a little farther from home.

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The paddock has been a good place for our relationship to build a strong foundation.

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However there is a whole big world out there waiting to be explored together!

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The timing for wandering out together felt right for Ari and I, at this stage of our relationship.

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He gets to decide where we are going.

I get to decide where I stand or walk in relationship to him.

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In this way Ari is the assertive leader as he decides what we do together.

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I am the passive leader, as I make good choices in my feel and timing of where, when, and how to be with Ari, as we wander together.

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Browsing for good things to eat is Ari’s first priority, and I am happy to keep watch for him while he satisfies that desire.

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While Ari is browsing it is also a perfect opportunity for me to practice leaning on him, watching him carefully so my weight comes on and off of him at good times. This builds the good associations we will need later, when riding becomes something we can also do together.

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Sometimes, when you are wandering through the woods browsing and exploring… things smell funny, and then you cannot help but laugh!

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And after you laugh, it feels even better, to just be together.

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The wonderful pictures in this blog and all the others come from my amazingly talented photographer Kevin Smith. We have made a video of this exploration of the woods together and shared it in the Patreon group. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ari and I cordially invite you to join us and see our video, along with weekly video updates of all our adventures.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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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.

 

Curiosity and Interest  

It has been over a week now of immersing myself in this new way of being with Atlas. A week of walking together.

My mind is challenged in a good way as it is confronted with the use of a methodology I always knew I had “Walking a horse down” but didn’t want to use.

If you missed the last blog post about my turning point, you can find it here: https://equineclarity.org/2019/03/03/walking-a-horse-down/

When I started this project, my goal was to prove that a damaged, abused, and traumatized horse could be nurtured into health using exactly the same methods I used to bring Myrnah into the domestic world in the first Taming Wild film.

I was high on life with the success Myrnah and I had found together and then shared with thousands of people and horses around the world. I wanted to take those same methods and apply them to bring about miraculous change and beauty in a horse that everyone had given up on.

I have always told my students that Freedom Based Training® is the slowest possible way to train a horse, and it is a method that perhaps benefits the learning of the human far more dramatically than it benefits the horse. This week my pride is feeling the trueness of that statement and while my ego is bruised, my understanding of how everything works is growing profoundly.

I still believe in the idea that a damaged, abused, and traumatized horse could be nurtured into health using exactly the same methods I used to bring Myrnah into the domestic world in the first Taming Wild film, but in reality, I might not currently have the time to do so.

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A horse with a healthy mind meets me on a level playing field and every good or bad choice I make around them is judged at face value. A horse with extreme trauma judges me from a perspective of extreme bias. Every good choice I make is judged with a perspective that it might have been an accidental occurrence, and the momentary good feeling cannot be counted on. While every bad choice I make by accident or bad feeling that happens in association with me, is judged as proof that I am indeed untrustworthy.

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Five months of attempting to prove to Atlas that I am worthy of trust simply by my own actions around him, has led down a winding road of beauty and heartbreak. I see glimpses of the horse he might become, for a day or a week here and there, and then some random occurrence in the environment will tip the scales the wrong way and we backslide again, returning again to fear, and anger, and catatonia.

We have been fully successful establishing a relationship where outright physical aggression is no longer Atlas’s first choice and for that firm success I am grateful. Beyond that point, all our relationship successes have appeared to be a momentary exploration of what might be possible for him sometime in the future, but cannot hold steady against the internal angst that life seems to trigger for Atlas.

I keep thinking, if I can just sense that moment when his inner worry is building too much, if I can see what happens before Atlas implodes or explodes. If I can glimpse what is happening before it all goes wrong, then I can take the right action around him to show him I understand, that we can become a united force to develop a better life for him.

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Instead, again and again and again I seem to miss the cues (if they are even in existence to read) and I am in the wrong place at the wrong time when the anxiety overflows for Atlas. He feels terrible, and I am blamed yet again in association with whatever caused his life to unravel into chaos once more. The trust I thought we had built between us crumbles to dust yet again.

If only I knew how to be in the right place at the right time for Atlas more consistently.

This past week has been about admitting, I do not currently have the skill in Freedom Based Training® it would take to nurture Atlas into the kind of mental health I need him to have, living in this domestic world with me.

We needed more tools and more support.

“Walking a horse down” is a concept I used before I ever knew it had a name. When I was ten years old, I was given an uncatchable pony named Chocolate to catch every day from a hundred-acre pasture. That pony taught me a lot and walking a horse down became a way of life for me.

(You can see Chocolate and I together here in the blog “Why Freedom Based Training®?”) https://equineclarity.org/2016/09/12/why-freedom-based-training/

It was only later I learned that Native American people had been using the technique to gentle horses far before I was even born.

Five months into this project of filming “Taming Wild: Evolution”, it was time for me to put my original goal aside and reach for a training method I knew would help Atlas find his trust in me in a more consistent way. I needed to be associated with more good feelings than bad, and I needed to do it in a way that allowed me to make those mistakes of being in the wrong place at the wrong time without eroding the trust that was so very fragile between Atlas and me.

In the past, uncontrollable events with bad outcomes made Atlas the victim of circumstance. Humans were present when he felt terrible, so humans became a thing to be defended against.

Powerless to control bad outcomes, the best a horse can do is to minimize them through self-defense.

Self-defense and the bad side of stress comes in three forms, fight, flight, and freeze.

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The more fight, flight, and freeze are perpetuated, the more curiosity and interest are killed.

The brain chemistry can feel overwhelming to study, but this short video has a very clear and simple way of explaining it:

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=267957677203615

I believe curiosity and interest are the factors that will heal a traumatized mind, but a traumatized mind will not want to risk letting down any of their self-defense patterns that have kept them alive so far.

So, what do we do?

If we have the skill, we can simply be present and meditate our way through the layers of self-defense with a horse. Being present, being aware, being in the right place at the right time to prove that curiosity and interest pay dividends of good experiences and that that self-defense is a pale and weak choice in comparison.

If we do not have the skill to meditate our way into finding interest and curiosity, then we must use the horse’s movement to affect the body in a way that allows the horse to lower its defenses. Only then will the mind start to soften, allowing interest and curiosity the room they need to grow.

Atlas and I walk together, because the ways to find curiosity and interest again are through meditation and exercise. Without a herd of horses to provide the exercise support, my skills in working Atlas through the Freedom Based Training® meditation have not been sufficient in my five months of attempting it, so now we walk.

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Walking Atlas down lets the gentle exercise coach him into finding the next better feeling.

Feelings go through:

  • Anger (fight)
  • Fear (flight)
  • Catatonia (freeze)

And then as the horse walks, it starts to find moments of:

  • Brace (fight in refusing to move, threatening the mover)
  • Distraction (flight of the mind)
  • Disinterest (freeze)

And then with more walking, we start to see moments appear from the good sides of the stress spectrum.

  • Curiosity (the good side of fight, the beginning of play, “what happens if I do…?”)
  • Yield (the good side of flight, making room for a partner)
  • Interest (the good side of freeze, ears start moving, eyes start looking, thinking is beginning)

 

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When the good side of the spectrum starts to happen, friends want to spend time with you, and when friends want to spend time with you, life starts to open up in its potential for enjoyment.

How do we know what is being felt? How do we know if the feeling falls on the good or the bad side of the stress spectrum?

It is fight if you just want something to stop happening, it is curiosity or play if you are interested about how you can shape the thing that is happening and enjoy it.

It is flight if you just want to get away from what is happening, it is yield if you can make room for what is happening and shape the event in a way that brings enjoyment.

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It is freeze, if you just want to pretend what is happening is not happening. It is thinking and interest if you can be in harmony with what is happening and engaged in seeing the outcome.

A good life doesn’t necessarily have to include friends, there are stallions out in the wild who choose to walk away from the herds and live solo, and there are humans who choose to live in solitude, but for most of us, friends make life better.

I believe the reason this is true is because good friends foster the mental and emotional skills that allow us to experience the good side of the stress spectrum. Thinking, yielding and playing, and these are the same mental and emotional skills that make life enjoyable.

It all starts with curiosity and interest.

Walking a horse down is one way to find those. Once we have found that glimmer of curiosity, then we can foster it with meditation, being present, and learning to be in the right place at the right time for each other in a greater and greater variety of situations.

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I have posted a video this week about Atlas and myself in our first week of using this theory. Join us in the Patreon group to see it and new videos each week in the ongoing development of “Taming Wild: Evolution”.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

I hope this blog has piqued your curiosity and interest. If it hasn’t, don’t worry, I will keep writing and helping you walk your stress levels down with a continuing cascade of words, until you too are curious enough to want more.

Here is to curiosity and interest making life worth living.

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.

 

Walking a Horse Down

It was a perfectly lovely winter day. A chill in the air and a little wind blowing through the leaves on the trees around us.

I was standing next to Atlas simply being, feeling, watching and waiting, as I have been doing for months. 156 days to be precise.

I was thinking about what we have done together, how much our relationship has developed and how many setbacks we have had in the developmental process. What if this is it? What if standing together is the full extent of our skills together when this project is over?

If he was living as a wild horse living on healthy range land where he could care for himself, I would feel nothing but gratitude about the trust we have built and the time we enjoy spending together.

Living as a domestic horse, I worry that I cannot keep Atlas healthy and safe if I cannot touch him or move him around from place to place gracefully.

 

I have given myself a year to simply wait and see what happens, letting Atlas decide the timeline for our development. I have been determinedly patient with the setbacks in trust when the weather turned, or the smoke from a fire upset him, or fights with Ari injured him, or the many other things that seem to undermine my efforts to explain to Atlas that life with humans will be ok for him now.

Atlas and I began our time together with a simple and basic idea. If he moved away from me in any way, I also moved away from him. Our first job was to reinforce the idea that moving away from things you are afraid of is preferable to attacking things you are afraid of.

Over the days, weeks, and months I have watched his underlying fight instincts fade away with constant reinforcement that moving away from humans when you are concerned is understood and supported.

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It took him over ninety days of this practice before he reached out to touch me voluntarily for the very first time. When he did choose to reach out, touching me, he scared himself and it took a long time before he was willing to try touching me again. (I wrote about this in the blog post titled “Valuing Easy”)

https://equineclarity.org/2018/11/06/valuing-easy/

Little by little, we worked at building his trust, and I would find he improved to a new level of trust and then something would happen in the environment and we would backslide, his trust in me crumbling under the weight of the momentary trauma.

It feels to me as though Atlas’ traumatized brain takes every small event of fear or pain and uses it as proof that trust is pointless, and self-defense is necessary.

Perpetually, I felt like I couldn’t win for losing.

With Ari, who is from the wild and has no traumatic history with humans, there is a healthy mind to work with. Small events of fear or pain are viewed as anomalies, or accidents. He doesn’t hold onto them as proof of anything other than a cue to pay attention and learn something.

This is the interesting difference that I am studying in this project. I had no idea how deeply traumatized Atlas was when I brought him home from the kill buyer’s feedlot. I had no idea how successful and independent Ari was as an eight-year-old stallion when I brought him home from his recently wild and free life in Nevada.

In comparison to these two stallions, Myrnah in the first movie was a walk in the park for me to learn from. A four-year-old mare, pregnant and starving from the range, with no real trauma associated with humans. From Myrnah’s perspective, I was associated with this new place where she had all the food and water she could want and a sense of safety with good friends surrounding her.

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Myrnah was an ideal partner for my first experiment in Freedom Based Training®.

Atlas and Ari are challenging me to develop a better understanding of everything I know.

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Early this week Atlas and I were standing and watching the view across the meadow together when the wind caught a dry leaf and blew it up in the air between us.

From the reaction of Atlas spinning and bolting away you would have thought that leaf was trying to kill him.

For the next hour, I used every bit of perseverance and tact I could muster to work around him, watch the environment, and build his trust again to get close.

It took an hour before he would reach out again for one tiny touch of his nose to my hand. I felt like his trust in me was lost, crumbled into nothing under the weight of a dry leaf blowing in the wind.

I watched from my house and saw for the next 24 hours how every noise unhinged his mind from rational thought. He would walk in the horse trailer to eat his favorite kind of hay, only to bolt out again in terror when he heard a noise. He avoided tight places and looked shut down and trapped even when he stood in the middle of the open arena.

My heart broke for him and I wished I could explain to him that one blowing leaf was just a bit of life, it was not the proof he had been looking for that everything was out to hurt him.

My sadness was deep, and I felt like I had failed him. One hundred and fifty-six days spent together and still all it took was a leaf blowing in the wind to prove to him he couldn’t trust me, or anything at all.

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It was time to change tactics.

In Freedom Based Training® we build strength in the horse’s ability to think, reason and feel good in company, then we use those things to build movement together. Think first, move second.

In other types of training, it is the other way around, we move the horse’s feet to access their brain. We cause the horse to move and shape those movements to develop the horse’s thinking mind. Move first, then learn to think.

There is a stress reduction for horses when they move in company. Herds traveling together with rhythm and flow lower stress and build healthy minds.

If Atlas lived in a healthy and dynamic herd, they would provide the security for his traumatized mind to rest and heal.

I have tried to let him live with Ari, but the pressure was too great and the space too small for their dynamically different personalities. I have found him a friend in Zohari, but all the two of them do together is eat and sleep… neither of them is inclined toward any stress reducing movement.

Without a functioning herd to help him, it seemed it was time for me to step up and help Atlas find a more functional level of day-to-day stress. Perhaps in a more direct way than I have been able to do with Freedom Based Training®.

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In all my teaching of Freedom Based Training® I have always encouraged my students to use this work in combination with any other discipline or training methodology they use. The combination and synergy of good ideas can be a beautiful thing and I like to see the energy and inspiration it fuels for students. It seems now it is my turn to look for that synergy of good ideas and methodologies.

There is a concept called “walking a horse down”. I have used it successfully in many situations and I have my own way of doing it. The basic premise is to simply cause a horse to walk, and to walk with them until they feel better. A very dominant trainer might use it to exhaust a horse so it can no longer resist the things they do to it, but the concept doesn’t have to be used with that intensity. The concept can be used with kindness and gentle awareness to help a horse.

I have resisted walking Atlas down up until now for two reasons.

  1. Sometimes you need a tool such as a rope or a flag to push an aggressive horse away from you. If I had tried to walk him down in the beginning of the project, I would have had to use such tools to create enough pressure, and even with the tools, I still would have risked him turning to attack me as that was an established behavior for him that had been successful in the past.

 

  1. Once they are willing to walk, horses will get tired and want to get away from you, so you will find yourself pushing them against the fence that stops them from escaping your pressure. There is nothing free about this concept, but I felt it was time to help Atlas find more comfort in life, even if I had to step away from Freedom Based Training® for a moment.

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I wish I had a functional herd of horses to put him in. I wish I did not worry so much about having a potentially dangerous stallion in captivity that might hurt someone in a moment of stress. I wish there was more space, more freedom, and more friends who could support him in healing his traumatized brain.

As it is, I am going to trust the five months we have invested. These five months spent reinforcing his ability to walk away instead of attack, will let me walk his stress level down without any tools to push him. I am going to trust I can work around the fences in a way that helps him feel better more than he feels trapped. I am going to trust I have enough feel and timing so that I can apply this theory in a way that will help Atlas feel better sooner than I might be able to do with Freedom Based Training® alone.

Here is the plan. I look directly at Atlas’ eye and walk toward the side of his head slowly with rhythm and predictability. Atlas will walk away expecting me to back off also, but now the rules have changed, the goal of walking a horse down is to walk together for as much distance as it takes to feel better together.

Because I believe in leaving the door open to developing thinking patterns, I don’t just walk until Atlas is exhausted. I leave an option open for him to convince me to pause this project of walking his stress levels down. He can be interested or curious about me as I walk toward him. Both eyes, both ears, on me for a moment, this I will reward and reinforce by instantly turning to watch the environment for eight breaths. Then we start again.

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Two things lower stress: leadership and movement. Using my gentle variety of walking a horse down, Atlas can choose to notice me (the leader because I am making more decisions than he is) and be interested. He can also move away from me and we can walk together. I am willing to let him choose whichever he prefers in any moment.

The first time I tried this, we walked for most of an hour. I finished in a moment when Atlas turned to look at me in curiosity and licked and chewed. He then stood like a statue for an entire hour moving only his ears. I watched from my house as he stood with strange immobility. I think he was sleeping, but I also think he was processing what had happened. When he finally moved it was to yawn repeatedly and stretch hugely before meandering into the barns to eat some hay.

The second time I walked Atlas down, he was angry and spent much of the time with his ears pinned to his neck, repeatedly turning his haunches to me as I gently circled around helping him find his walk again, he repeatedly grabbed bites of manure to eat as he walked, I think the need to chew something to sooth the stress coming up in this process led to a behavior I have never seen in him before. Further, his penis stayed half dropped swinging back and forth for almost the entire session, also something I had never seen in him before. We ended with a peaceful moment together and this time he only needed a few minutes of processing time before he went back to eating hay.

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The third time I walked Atlas down he showed many of the same angry expressions and defensive gestures and he did charge at me once, but changed his mind to run away when I threw my hands in the air dramatically. Despite the anger in most of the session, we again finished in an easy moment together.

The fourth time we practiced walking, his attitude had shifted, and he looked at me with curiosity so many times we did very little walking. For the most part we just watched the meadow together with Atlas glancing over at me, ears pricked and eyes soft, over and over. In this session, I did a little less than an hour as I wasn’t sure how long the soft curiosity might last and I wanted to end on that feeling.

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The fifth time we practiced walking, he chose to gallop away from me with speed and intensity every time I looked directly at him. I would walk slowly and perpetually around the paddock until he stopped and then walk toward him again. After about five minutes he found his walk with more fluid and easy movement than I have ever seen in him. Then after about forty-five minutes he found his curiosity in me again.

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After the first session of walking Atlas down, I noticed him rolling in the sand for much longer than he usually does. Over and over and over in big displays of luxurious scratching. Then he got up very slowly to shake in a way that shook all the skin over his entire body in a looseness I had never seen before. I watched his ease getting in and out of the horse trailer to eat at night improve dramatically. The instances of him exiting in the hurry were very few and far between. Mostly he could step in and out calmly when he chose to, and this continued to be the case even after the more challenging sessions.

Seeing the positive results after the first few sessions, I believe Atlas is more comfortable in his own skin from this work. As his well-being is my priority beyond my research studies in Freedom Based Training®, I believe I will continue to walk his stress levels down at least once a day to augment the Freedom Based Training® I do with him.

Perhaps in the spring when the bigger pastures are open and I can put him out with the bigger herd of horses he won’t need my help as much, but while he needs it, I will provide it to the best of my ability.

I believe lowering the general day-to-day stress level for Atlas is the key for him in adapting to life as it happens… those blowing leaves, or howling foxes at night I have no control over. I can’t help him directly with those, but I can help him have the cognitive room to process them.

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Here is to movement and leadership and the hope that I can provide enough of both to help Atlas let go of the damaging stress responses, Fight, Flight and Freeze. The better he feels, the more his life can become full of the good things in relationships, the Thinking, the Yielding and Playing.

 

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.

 

Challenges Bring Strength

I can hear the words of my good friend Michele pounding through my brain on repeat. “Running in snow makes you so strong!”

I needed that encouragement, I needed to hold on to something good that might come out of the past week of snow and ice we had here in the Pacific Northwest. Now that the snow is slowly melting and we are returning to the more temperate climate we are all accustomed to here, I can feel the truth of that resounding statement.

“Running in snow makes you so strong!”

After working through a week of challenging weather, the return to normal temperatures brings with it an ease in my existence that wasn’t there before. The cold can’t seem to drive its icy fingers through me like it used to, the wind in my hair feels playful instead of daunting, the quick run up the hill behind my house now holds the promise of time to settle my thoughts instead of the bone-weary exhaustion it held during the snow.

Challenges bring strength, and when you have surpassed a challenge, the return to normalcy brings a new ease to life.

With my current research project of training horses in freedom, I struggle with this concept of challenge.

Horses (and many humans as well) would choose ease over challenge most of the time. Yet without some challenging contrast in life, ease never feels as satisfying as it could.

My research centers around this.

How do you train a horse in freedom to seek challenges in a good and healthy way that helps them grow and develop to find the resulting depth of ease that comes after the effort is invested?

In the wild there might be a lack of food, water, breeding opportunities, or safety if the predators are hunting. Each one of these things develop a challenge that requires a wild horse to solve the difficulty and to find ease again.

When I bring a horse into captivity, I solve many of these things for them. Food is available all the time in ample quantities, as is water. Boys and girls are either separated or neutered so breeding opportunities are no longer a puzzle to be solved for and where I live there are no big predators, so safety is not the life or death situation that it might be in the wild.

When horses are faced with this life of ease, boredom sets in and creates a whole different kind of stress, and a whole different kind of challenge.

The challenge is now about spatial relationships and the harmony or lack of harmony in moving from one place of comfort to the next.

The more dysfunctional stress a horse feels the more you will see fight or flight involved in these decisions of where, when and how to be with each other. The more functional the stress is for a horse, the more you will tend to see play, yield, interest, curiosity and thinking in the decisions of where, when and how to be together.

This is my research project. How do we build habits of functional stress instead of dysfunctional stress for horses?

Challenges are necessary as a contrast to ease.

Something interesting needs to exist to counteract the stress of boredom.

How do we shape a horse’s response to challenge and interesting things into functional stress instead of a dysfunctional stress?

A horse that handles challenge well, can have very high stress in a very functional way. After a challenge or a puzzle is solved and the stress is released, that horse then feels a deep ease in contrast to the stress that was just experienced.

A horse that handles challenge with less adaptability is easily overwhelmed, and that can be observed in the fight, flight and freeze behaviors that are expressed. When fight, flight and freeze are engaged, it is difficult to solve a problem, or work through a challenge successfully and the corresponding ease after success is hard to find.

I believe we shape a horse’s response to challenge by intensifying the problems to solve, only to the degree the horse can meet them in a functional way.

It becomes a simple developmental system.

I change the spatial relationship between me and the horse and observe.

The horse is going to solve for comfort in a functional or dysfunctional way.

If the horse has a dysfunctional response (fight or flight) I did too much too soon of something.

If the horse has a functional response (thinking, yielding or playing), I chose just the right spatial relationship challenge for us in that moment.

My job as a trainer is to present an evolution of varying challenges that cause functional stress in my horse, and then enjoy the ease of flow and harmony with them as each puzzle is solved.

There are many great trainers around the world that do this brilliantly with tools to stop the horse from leaving when the stress starts to feel dysfunctional. The horse learns that dysfunction is only acceptable in a freeze response, while fight and flight are conditioned out of them. When tools are used well, it is a beautiful thing to see horses blossom into more functional adaptive lives, learning to think instead of reacting.

The beauty of training in freedom, as I am in this research project, is that the horse can tell me loud and clear when my feel and timing needs to improve. I have no tools to control fight or flight, so I need to manage the challenges presented instead. This freedom for the horse challenges me to be a much better trainer than I would have to be if I was using tools to control the horse.

Without tools, I have very little control of the horse and at the same time, I can’t control wind or snow or the fox that might run through the paddock in the night frightening the horses. The external circumstances will always be a factor in the level of stress a horse feels.

The only thing I have left to control is myself.

I observe what the factors are, and then gauge my personal choices to fit the time and space that the horse and I are living in.

Challenge creates functional stress, the horse solves for comfort, The horse and human experience ease together, and then the cycle repeats.

Atlas finds he can handle much more challenge from me with functional stress responses when he is not eating, and his friend Zohari is close by. If Atlas is hungry and focused on eating, or his friend is out of sight, I know I need to lower my expectations of the level of challenge I can present.

Ari is different.

Ari finds he can handle much more challenge from me with functional stress responses when he is eating, and his friend Occasio is out of sight. If Ari is napping or watching the environment or his friend Occasio is too close, I know I need to lower my expectations of the level of challenge I can present.

I expect all of this will change for the better with time and practice so both Ari and Atlas will see challenge as a positive part of their lives in a greater and greater variety of situations.

If I do my job right with good feel and timing, I will teach my horses to have functional stress responses to higher and higher stress situations.

As a horse’s skill in functional stress responses increases, their ability to solve for comfort also increases, and then their ease in life will feel more and more profound and satisfying in contrast to those challenges.

I made this video for my Patreon group last week, and decided this week to make it public. Here is a look at me and the horses working through the system I talk about in this blog post, in the snow.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/snow-24732774

I share a video every week in the patreon group and there are always fun conversations that develop around the videos. If you enjoy this video, I do hope you join us on the Patreon group for more like it.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

I may not love the snow, but I know it makes me stronger. I also know it is simply beautiful to film in with the horses. So, we embrace the challenge, solve for comfort, and then revel in the ease that is felt after the puzzle is solved.

 

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.

 

Set Up for Tomorrow

Yesterday I did not pick up Ari’s hooves even though I know I can now. Yesterday I did not practice wrapping my arm all the way over his back, even though I know I can now. Yesterday I did not get close to Atlas more than once, even though we spent hours together. Yesterday I did not push Atlas’s boundaries beyond his firm comfort zone, not even once.

Instead I spent over six hours with the stallions, simply being attentive and choosing my actions around them wisely while reading the micro changes in their bodies to let me know if my choices from moment to moment were on an improving trend or a degrading trend (helping the horses feel better or feel worse).

This is the real work for Freedom Based Training®. Even though I did nothing outside the comfort zone for either horse yesterday, I feel more successful in my choices than most days.

I do not judge my success of today by the changes I see today, only by the changes I will see tomorrow.

More importantly, if the changes I see tomorrow surprise me and are for the worse not the better, that is a good thing not a bad thing. Because how else would I know that the things I did yesterday were choices that need to be weighed, considered, honed and developed?

This is the real work. Do the very best we know how to do in setting up for tomorrow, then tomorrow assess how well we did and do better. We can only do better when we know better and we can only know better by practicing and then assessing.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Thank you, Maya Angelou.

We have been taught as a society that we are judged on the improvements we can show. The value of our work is measurable by what has changed for the better toward our goals. I am reasonably comfortable with this, but I am not comfortable with the pressure and speed we are all expected to perform under.

What happens if you simply slow down and lower your expectations for success, or even your expectation to be able to judge success today? If all you do today is set up for success tomorrow, you can only judge today’s work tomorrow.

I think slowing down and lowering our expectations makes us the kind of horse trainer that horses might choose to be around and choose to work with cooperatively.

I ask myself, what can I do today that makes picking up Ari’s hooves easier tomorrow?

I ask myself, what can I do today that makes being closer to each other seem more feasible to Atlas tomorrow?

Then I hone the feel and the timing of the small tasks that come before the big tasks.

How many times can the horses feel good about the smaller tasks that build up to the bigger tasks tomorrow?

Tomorrow, perhaps picking up Ari’s hooves will feel so effortless that that task becomes the thing we practice in preparation for handling them with a rasp to trim the edges the following day. Or the day after that.

Tomorrow, perhaps being close to Atlas will feel so effortless that that task becomes the thing we practice in preparation for touching him.

The goal has changed from doing the thing outside the comfort zone (where society has taught us our worth is measured) to doing the thing just on the inside edge of the comfort zone.

Do the thing that is possible in order to improve the feelings of well-being associated with it. The thing that is barely possible to do… leave that for tomorrow.

Work on the foundation for what you want to do tomorrow and build that foundation so strongly that tomorrow you can do it with joy for both the horse and the human.

I am writing this for me as much as I am writing it for everyone else. At the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, I know New Year’s resolutions abound for everyone.

I am suggesting, that you give yourself the gift of time in your resolutions.

Work today to build good feeling for the things you might do tomorrow.  Work today on your set up for tomorrow, then look forward to learning from tomorrow how you can set up better in the future.

If you are always learning how to set up better for tomorrow, then in your learning you are always a success. This is what I want for myself in the year to come. This is the gift I want to give you in the year to come.

Set up for success, then assess how well set up for success you feel the following day, improve, and repeat.

If you would like some inspiration for how you do this, I just posted a three-part lecture on Patreon I think you really might enjoy. The lecture is part theory and part personal stories from the trek across Costa Rica we took in the beginning of the year, while we were filming Taming Wild: Pura Vida.

The lecture is here in three parts:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/intro-to-freedom-23657959

https://www.patreon.com/posts/intro-to-freedom-23658111

https://www.patreon.com/posts/intro-to-freedom-23658145

 

It is posted publicly so you can see it even if you are not a member yet. I do hope you enjoy it and decide to join us as a member for weekly updates and inspirations to make 2019 your best year ever, while at the same time also helping me in filming, documenting, and sharing the developments ahead!

A Happy New Year to you and yours!

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.

(Photo taken at Lime Kiln Point, a few miles from my home)

The Goal:

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

 

A Grand Experiment

The full moon is reflecting off of every surface outside and the night is bright and quiet as I write. Here in the San Juan Islands we have just passed through an incredible windstorm that brought many trees down including one on the paddock fence, rattled all the roofs and kept the horses on edge for days. No one is hurt, but I think everyone is grateful for the quiet after the storm.

 

I find myself reflecting on intensity in life and the ways we all experience comfort and discomfort. The ways we sometimes protect ourselves from discomfort and the ways we sometimes walk head on into the wind and drink up the chaos and beauty of it all.

 

At the beginning of the week Atlas and Ari had another big fight, and this one resulted in Atlas becoming injured. Nothing life threatening, just a chest wound from a bite in the heat of battle. I understand stallions fight sometimes and they have their own social structures to build that might be outside the realms of my comfort zone. For that reason, I did not separate them immediately afterward, I watched and tried to understand.

 

Unfortunately, Atlas’ injury and ensuing weakness intensified his tendency to freeze and tune out the world which seemed to anger Ari and the attacks from Ari became more frequent and more intense in an effort to wake Atlas up. When I noticed Atlas starting to look over the fences in a searching way he never had before, I realized my space was simply too small for these two and all their differences. It was time to close the gates and separate them again, at least until Atlas healed.

Ari seems lonely since I separated them, and Atlas seems relieved. They still touch noses through the fence and the intensity of difference between them seems less dramatic every day. Atlas is still the first to pull away seemingly wanting more space to be peaceful. Ari only allows him that because the fence stops him from following and pushing for more attention.

 

I have had these issues before when putting Mustangs and domestic horses together. For Mustangs, staying aware is a life or death matter and they have very little tolerance for herd mates who freeze up and miss things happening around them. There is nothing more irritating to a horse that is quick to fight than a friend who is quick to freeze. Given enough space the horses always work it out, but space is a key factor and not a luxury I have with Ari and Atlas.

 

I have a strong belief that life is about learning. If we don’t know something, we get to try it, and then assess the results.

 

Life is all a grand experiment and we learn a little more every day.

 

I continue with my personal experimental work of Freedom Based Training® and it is so slow with these two that I am continually grateful Myrnah was such a generous partner to learn with in my first project. I remind myself over and over that slow isn’t bad, I am simply learning different things than I learned in the first project.

 

With Atlas there seems to a be a strong correlation between the time I invest simply being with him in ways he appreciates (meaning we are together with the buffer of space between us) and how much I can ask him to stretch his comfort zone. The thing I ask for when I can afford to stretch the comfort zone, is that he be interested or curious when I reach out to him.

I find he can match me reaching out to some degree, but it is a real effort for him, and you can see him grow more fatigued with each repetition. Some days he can manage a touch, the softest finger against nose moment. Other days all he can do is reach toward me, stopping short of any contact. If I ask too many times, he shuts down completely and pretends I do not exist. When this happens, any further movement I make toward him results in flight and I have hours of reinvestment in the relationship, being with him at distances he can handle before he is ready to try being interested in me again.

 

I think this is the grand experiment of the project. If I invest in doing primarily things the horses choose, and then, with good feel and timing asking for the things I might choose, how much can we ultimately do together?

 

I think of this on a spectrum, as I think of most things. It isn’t black or white, it isn’t all or nothing.

 

On one end of the spectrum are the things the horse might choose that we can do together. On the other end of the spectrum are the things I might choose that we can do together. In the middle of that is a whole world of variations we can play with.

 

In Freedom Based Training® I start with things the horse would choose, and I figure out the places around them it is most comfortable for me to be while we experience life together.

 

Then I start venturing into the places around them that are less comfortable, in small enough doses that it is reasonable for them.

 

With patient practice and repetition the horse’s comfort zone grows and the places I choose to be that were once uncomfortable become comfortable.

 

After we have established touch as a comfortable way of being together then I can start adding moments of pressure.

 

At first the pressure is what I call desensitizing pressure, that means I only aim for the pressure to cause interest or thinking of some sort, no movement yet.

Once desensitizing pressure is established then I can start to play with sensitizing pressure which means I expect the horse to move a little when I ask.

 

If I ask too much too soon, I will get fight or flight instead of yield and then I must go back and figure out what is possible in this relationship. What are we capable of together?

 

Investing hundreds of hours doing things the horses might choose is the foundation for everything else! This is the grand experiment of Freedom Based Training®, if I invest enough in doing the things the horse finds enjoyable, how much will the horse then be willing to try new things with me?

 

Then, after we do new things successfully can I link them emotionally to other things that are deep in the comfort zone, such as simply being together in harmony.

 

When we as human beings do training with tools or food rewards, we can ask the horse to do things for us because of an extrinsic motivator, then over time the horse learns to enjoy the things they are being asked to do and the extrinsic motivators become less and less necessary.

 

I am simply turning things around. If we take away all the obvious extrinsic motivators what is the natural evolution of building a relationship and the variety of things you can enjoy together in that relationship?

 

There are many days I wonder if I will get to the end of this experimental year and the horses will still have very little increase in skill to show for my time investment. The stallions are so much more difficult than Myrnah was for so many reasons and at this point I simply have no idea what our result will be at the end of this year.

 

The one thing I know is I asked for a challenge and I got it. Ari and Atlas are going to push my understanding of Freedom Based Training® far beyond anything I have learned before.

 

At this point with Atlas, sometimes we can touch and sometimes we can’t. I am learning to read probabilities of success from moment to moment with him based on more subtle signs than I have ever before noticed. Thank you, Atlas.

 

At this point with Ari I can handle every part of his body (apart from his mouth and his ears) and as I run my hands over his body, I find many moments of focus change, interest, and curiosity stimulated. When the weather is good and the stress levels are naturally low, I have started venturing into asking Ari to pick up a hoof for a moment or take a step back when I ask. I am learning to calm my greedy self that wants two steps of back up the very moment one step feels ok to Ari. I am learning to put my greed aside and read Ari’s probability of success instead.

Push a little when Ari is bored, release to flow when he is interested. Repeat as possible. The goal is to build an association of feeling good, being interested and curious when pressure is applied.

 

Thank you, Ari for helping me find the rhythm and consistency of developing new skills on your timeline.

 

How much is possible from this foundation? I don’t know, it is all a grand experiment!

 

If you are curious to learn with me as it all unfolds, join us on Patreon where I post update videos of the process every week.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

 

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.

 

Everybody Wants Something

 

Being alive means having needs and wants that may or may not get met and everyone has different strategies for trying to sort this out.

This past week my two stallions had some figuring out to do, and it was very interesting to watch.

I have found the Mustangs that come into my care have a higher need for awareness in the herd than the domestic horses. I think this comes from living out in the wild where there are real dangers and issues to solve with sometimes dire consequences if left unsolved. Horses die if they are not paying attention, or if their herd mates are not paying attention for them in time to warn them of danger.

Ari has proved to be no exception in this need for awareness that I often see in the Mustangs.

Unfortunately, Atlas, does not seem as aware and does not seem to share Ari’s desire for constant vigilance.

Atlas seems to want peace and quiet and regular predictable schedules with easy companionship while he recovers from the difficult life he lived before coming here.

Ari seems to want entertainment, awareness, variety, and interactive friends to go along with his eating and sleeping.

On the surface it would look like these two horses are completely incompatible, but I think they are in fact very good for each other.

From Ari, Atlas will learn to wake up and see the world more than he might naturally do.

From Atlas, Ari will learn to slow down, take a moment, consider the options and choose wisely before taking action.

I think the two of them are very good for each other, but that does not mean it is always easy.

The way I understand this is: If you don’t get what you want easily, there are different types of behavior you can use to try and get what you want in life. I categorize them in three ways: Freeze, Flight and Fight. Each one of these runs on a spectrum that includes both functional and dysfunctional behavior patterns.

Freeze on one side is the catatonic state of believing there is no hope, there is no effort worth making, you are never going to get what you want, and you should just give up and die now.

This spectrum of Freeze runs through variations such as:

Dysfunctional Freeze where the giving up is temporary and likely to explode into the chaos of Fight or Flight at any moment.

Functional Freeze where there is time for rest and recuperation, it is like giving up, but in a healthy way where there is time for the body to repair and recover and then wake up feeling better and ready to take positive action toward the things you want in life.

Then on the most positive side of that spectrum there is thinking, where you see ears, eyes, and noses moving as the senses gather all the information available to make the wisest decision possible to get what you want in life. Thinking before acting is on the freeze spectrum because there is no action being taken in the body yet.

Flight is the spectrum of moving away.

The extreme version is at high speed to leave behind all the things you do not want.

Then it runs through a spectrum of leaving quickly while checking behind you to see if leaving is necessary.

Or making small evasive maneuvers simply to lose the company of someone who is giving you things you do not want.

Then there is the good side of the spectrum where you have somewhere interesting to go (better than where you are now and no longer want to be), and if your friends are fast enough to keep up with you, they are welcome to come along.

Or when you really want your friends to come with you there is a yielding feeling to every movement where you step gently out of a partner’s way, making sure there is room for them next to you and that they can keep up every step of the way.

Fight is the spectrum of pressure – putting pressure on others.

At the extreme version, Fight is full attack and violence.

Less intense Fight is irritating or annoying and gets the attention of those around you.

The good side of Fight is playful, sparing, competing to see who is best.

Or even more gently, the curiosity and inquisitive nature of someone investigating to see what is possible if you nudge just a little bit.

What I have found is that everybody wants something in life and the higher their stress levels are the more likely they are to use extreme strategies to get what they want (or give up on what they want). Fight, Flight, or Freeze with intensity.

As stress comes down you will start to see the more functional sides of the spectrum in action. Everyone still wants what they want, but they start being more strategic and intelligent about getting it.

Last week we had a cold snap and the tension levels went up as they often do in a weather change. Ari’s wants, and Atlas’ wants started being expressed in ways that irritated the other and eventually there was a fight.

As Atlas became more and more frozen and unaware of everything, Ari became more and more attacking. Eventually Ari thought he could get the attention he wanted from Atlas by coming on fast with arched neck and striking front legs. Atlas snapped out of his Dysfunctional Freeze and attacked back, and since Atlas is much bigger and much stronger, it didn’t go well for Ari.

As often happens when Freeze and Fight meet up at the extreme side of the spectrum, it is a little bit heart stopping to watch, and I felt grateful that both Ari and Atlas pulled away with only minor scratches in spite of the intensity.

I managed to catch the end of the fight on camera and posted about it in the Taming Wild Patron group.

You can see the video here if you are interested in joining us behind the scenes of the movie filming process:

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

I enjoy posting here on the blog an outline of what I am learning as I do this project. Patreon gives me an opportunity to dig a little deeper and share more details with community who might be interested. I do hope you join us.

The interesting thing that came out of this week and the big fight, was the considerations about herd behavior and how we might choose to deal with that in our everyday interactions with our horses.

I was asked why I didn’t step in to break up the fight and my answer was:

I did not intervene in the fight because I think it is likely that intervening in this case would only cause them to brew stronger feelings that would come out later when I wasn’t there. So, I stood back and filmed and tried to learn from the experience as I watched.

Watching gives me necessary insight into the patterns and likely responses of my horses.

Both Ari and I learned that Atlas is faster and stronger and more violent than he has ever shown before, if you push him too hard too fast. Good to know.

Atlas and I learned that Ari would feel better if everyone was more interested and responsive around him. Good to know, we can work on that.

So, if I am not going to intervene in a fight what would I do instead?

As a leader I think my best choice is to make a timely decision to walk away from brewing trouble, because getting stuck in the middle of a fight is not a good idea for anyone. When I see that tension is coming up, I walk away and make it clear that this is not a conversation I am interested in being part of. If either one of my horses followed my example there would be no more fights. I set the example and then I watch what choices they make.

They want what they want, and I will be able to see the level of stress they are feeling by the type of choices they make with each other.

I think this action of walking away does a couple of things for the herd dynamic. First, it shows the horses that walking away from a fight is an option, and that there is a good way to walk away. When I walk away I do it early so I do not have to run, I keep my steps steady and rhythmic, and I turn to face the action as soon as possible so the horses know I am paying attention.

I believe most fights are simply one horse’s need for more attention. Essentially, loneliness or insecurity are the causes of fighting. If there is enough attention given there is no need to push for more, with fighting actions.

Sometimes it seems fights are about resources (food or friends), but more often than not I see horses use resources as a means to an end to get more attention.

Atlas wants to be very quiet, introverted, and focused on eating and sleeping. Ari wants to be interactive and playful. Is one of them more right than the other? They both want what they want, and this week they had to fight for their rights to get what they wanted. Atlas is bigger and stronger, and he won temporarily. Ari isn’t going to stop wanting what he wants, he is just going to have to get smarter about how he goes about getting it.

Now, what about if I see a fight brewing, and I choose to step in the middle and protect one horse from the other? This is the more dominant management of the situation, and if there is a safety issue, I will do this, or if I am in a hurry to impress one horse more than the other, I might take sides like this. However, I believe the more passive leadership style has a deeper impact on the herd dynamics and greater learning value for everyone involved if you have the time and space to allow it.

If I dominantly protect one horse from the other, I do win a sort of appreciation from both horses, but unless I have some plan to help them both with the underlying need for the fight in the first place, it is only a temporary solution.

When I step in dominantly and stop a fight, I am simply telling them that my wants and needs override theirs, but when I am no longer there, they still will work out which of them gets to decide what is happening.

When instead I step away and then pay attention, I show them an alternate option to sorting out differences.

If Atlas could step away from Ari, but then give him full attention, there would be no need for the fight because Ari’s needs would be filled. If Ari could work around Atlas, stepping in and out of his comfort zone, Atlas would learn to be more aware. But this sort of helping of the other one is only going to happen gradually as their habitual stress levels get lower and as they learn what the other wants and needs.

Lowering the stress levels for everyone involved, that is my job. My hope is that as I lead by example, it will be easier and easier for my horses to choose similar healthy actions for getting what they want in life.

Only time will tell, and for now I am fascinated to be experimenting with all the possibilities in front of me.

I really do hope you join us on Patreon.com to see the weekly videos of the process and the making of the entire movie!

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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.

 

When I Make Mistakes…

 

The fact is, I am human and I make mistakes. I don’t often talk about those mistakes because I am striving to move past them and focus, focus, focus, on the solutions instead the problems.

 

I encourage my students to do the same thing. Notice your mistake, get through it as best you can, learn from it and make a better game plan for what you do next, but whatever you do, don’t dwell on what went wrong.

 

You see, I believe our brain tries hard to create the things we think about. So much of what we do is subconscious, and most of the time I don’t know why I moved my left pinky finger, or wrinkled my nose or looked at the ground before I started to walk. Maybe those things don’t matter, or maybe to a horse who speaks body language fluently I just said many confusing things all at the same time.

 

The understanding of the subconscious mind and its tendency to try and create what we focus on, leads me to this conclusion: If I am thinking hard about all the times I have made mistakes causing my horse to lose confidence, then subconsciously my brain starts to recreate the tiny behaviors that led to those situations and then without consciously knowing it I am causing mistakes to happen all over again.

 

If instead I stay focused on the solutions, my subconscious will help me recreate all the small body behaviors that made me successful developing positive solutions at other times.

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When speaking with a horse using body language, I feel often like I am still in kindergarten in the first levels of fluency. Regardless of my level of conscious skill the thing I CAN know is the results I get. Each set of results leads me to assess what we did to achieve that, thereby educating me for future patterns of behavior that get the kind of results I want with my horses.

 

Every horse is different, and every horse has slightly different likes and dislikes. Every horse teaches me slightly different things about this beautiful, complex language.

 

Let’s talk for a moment about the nuts and bolts of what a mistake is with horses.

 

A mistake is something that causes you or the horse to not want to be together.

 

We know we made a mistake because there was more Fight, Flight, or Freeze in the relationship than one of the partners was comfortable with.

 

Now, for simplicity I am going to talk only in terms of Freedom Based Training® where there are no food rewards to keep a horse with you and there are no halters, ropes, or fences to keep a horse from walking away. (Once you add the tools that hold a horse close to you the mistakes often get a lot bigger before you realize they were mistakes.)

 

If I make a choice that causes a Fight reaction that is my biggest kind of mistake, because that one can be quickly dangerous.

 

If I make a choice that causes a Flight reaction, that is not so bad because it just means we need to find harmony and make amends from a greater distance for a while. Distance is not my first choice, but there is nothing unsafe about it.

 

If I make a choice that causes Freeze, that is only a problem to the degree that I am impatient. Freeze is something I can do with the horse and it can be a bonding, relationship building time for us. But only if I have enough patience and wisdom to wait for that Freeze state to evolve into a better feeling of Thinking, Yielding or Playing.

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Any time I make a mistake that causes Fight, Flight, or Freeze, I need to figure out what to do next.

 

Freeze is the easiest to solve.

 

Option one:

I walk around the space looking carefully in every direction for danger as I move, because making the horse feel like it has a partner looking out for it, will cause it to feel safer and will minimize the extremity of Fight or Flight that might occur after a dysfunctional Freeze. The movement of my body also has a small degree of effectiveness lowering a horse’s stress. I can come back into flow with the horse when I see they are thinking again.

 

Option two:

I wait in harmony with the horse because I believe the next thing to happen (no matter how long it takes) is that the horse will feel better and start to think.

 

Flight is a little more difficult to solve because I have a strong desire to stay in the relationship (not abandoning the horse), balanced with a strong desire to understand their request for more distance from me.

 

Option one:

If I think the Flight will be stronger than I can keep up with, I walk strongly in the opposite direction that the horse is moving to show them I am brave and will intercept any danger coming from that direction. (I know that seems silly if they are running from me, but it also lets the horse know I understand they would like to be farther away from me.) Once you see the horse settle you can start rebuilding the relationship from the distance the horse tells you they are comfortable with.

 

Option two is:

If I think the Flight will be short and might turn to yielding quickly (the horse moving in a way I can match and flow with) I can follow them and find harmony with them again as soon as possible.

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Fight is the most difficult mistake result to solve for, but it does happen sometimes so I need to be prepared for that also.

 

Option one: If I think this Fight is only getting worse, run like hell and live to make better choices another day! (Yes, I am not proud of this, but I have done it.)

 

Option two: If I think the Fight will be brief and resolve to any other possibility quickly, I will surprise the horse to break their pattern. For safety, I teach all my horses that ANY other response to my mistakes is preferable to Fight. To surprise a horse is quite dominant, it usually makes the horse so uncomfortable they immediately choose Flight instead of Fight and that is safer. My favorite methods of surprise are to jump up and down, or to throw my hands in the air dramatically as I step closer to the horse.

 

In this option, I have chosen to make a second less dangerous mistake (causing Flight) to break the pattern of the first mistake that caused Fight. There are a couple of problems with this option that everyone needs to be aware of before they try it.

 

The first problem is that an angry horse will attack more violently if you make the wrong choice and fail to cause Flight when you try to surprise them.

 

The second problem is if you make too many mistakes and use surprise too often, it stops being surprising and simply becomes annoying instead, which can cause a more violent attack.

 

The third problem is even if you succeed in surprising them into Flight, then you need to address that smaller mistake and rebuild the relationship from the bigger distance that came from the Flight behavior.

 

With Atlas who came to me with a history of aggression I had to be extremely careful that I didn’t make a mistake we would not be able to recover from.

 

The way I did this was to invest in our distance relationship. I was fully prepared to work from outside the fences for as long as I needed to and the goal was to gently and consistently teach Atlas that moving away from me was a more successful strategy for him to get comfortable than moving toward me.

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When we think of the spectrum from Fight to Play, it all includes an aspect of moving closer to each other.

 

When we think of the spectrum from Flight to Yield, it all includes an aspect of moving away from each other.

 

Any horse with an aggression problem is simply a horse who has found more comfort moving closer to others than they find moving away and this needs to be balanced out the other way before the aggression can soften and the horse can be safe to be around.

 

I knew I needed hundreds of hours of reinforcing moving away behavior with Atlas before I ever found myself in a situation where I had to surprise him out of a fight instinct. It would only be with those hundreds of hours of foundation in teaching him yielding that I would be safe enough to surprise him without risking the instinctual violent attack that had served him so well in his past life.

 

I taught Atlas this gently from a safe distance without ever needing to confront him.

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Every time he moved toward me I would either take one extra step toward him (this made him less comfortable because he did not want me close to him). Or, I would start walking around the paddock (on the outside of the fence if I felt I needed it for safety) and I wouldn’t stop walking and return to flow with him until he moved some part of his body away from me. The walking around the paddock worked because horses prefer harmony and flow with their herd and I only gave Atlas that harmony and flow if he moved away from me at least a little.

 

The other reinforcement for yielding we practiced was following Atlas. When Atlas walked to the water trough, I followed him in flow (at a distance he was comfortable with), but then I took one more step than he did. This way when we were standing at the trough and he was feeling that good feeling of drinking water it was after I had just pushed into his space, (not him pushing into mine). The same was true when he walked to his favorite outlook spot on the hill or to his favorite rolling spot or just the place in the sun he wanted to stand. Atlas got what he wanted just after I pushed into his space a little bit.

 

This taught Atlas that good feelings happened after I pushed a little bit closer to him. Less comfortable feelings happened after Atlas pushed closer to me.

 

When Atlas pulled away from me in any way that looked like he would not like to be followed I would pull away also and make the space between us bigger. This respect for his preferences is something that set him up to respect my preferences as well. My job is to set the tone for the relationship and then show Atlas that acting in this way together results in good feelings for him.

 

Now, I know that this early work Atlas and I did together is the reason why I still cannot touch him and all our relationship building is still being practiced at the non-touching distances. However, the safety I feel around him now is worth far more to me than any amount of touching ever could be.

 

This evening when I was working with Ari, I mistakenly stayed too close for too long next to Atlas who was eating from the same hay net as Ari. Atlas had a moment of anger at me pinning his ears, and while that mistake of mine might have cost dearly in the beginning of our relationship, it was not at all difficult for us to manage tonight. I simply took my hand quickly out of my pocket and threw it into the air dramatically and Atlas stepped hurriedly away in a few steps of flight, followed by a change of focus, his ears coming forward and a gentle reach out of his nose to check in with me that all was right between us again.

(This picture is from a different day and a different mistake, but it was one caught on camera so I thought I would share it with you) 

The important part though, is that I noticed what mistake I had made that caused Atlas’s anger in the first place this evening. Even if I know what to do about it when I make a mistake, I am better off working at appropriate distances with good feel and timing so I never need to fix the problem in the first place.

 

I aim to teach my horses to Think, Yield, and Play so completely they believe those are their best choices of action for getting the things in life they want. If we can strengthen the good stuff enough, we theoretically never will make a mistake that results in Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

 

Yes, I know we are all mortal and we all make mistakes that will need to be managed. Hopefully this blog post helps you to understand how you might manage those potential mistakes.

 

More importantly though, I hope you are inspired to invest more time in developing the Think, the Yield, and the Play in your relationships with your horses.

 

Join us on Patreon for more ongoing discussions about Freedom Based Training® and the filming of the movie “Taming Wild: Evolution”. Thank you to my current patrons for asking all the right questions that inspired this blog post.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

 

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com