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The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


Emotional Sit-Ups


This week Atlas and I had yet another heartbreaking backslide in progress.


There were long sleepless nights spent beating myself up for not seeing it coming, for not taking the right actions to support Atlas, for feeling like I had failed him yet again.


As much as I do my best to remember this is a learning process and in learning there are mistakes that we then learn from, I am still so very sad when I see a horse overwhelmed by stress.


I retrace my steps a million times in my mind trying to determine what I might have done differently that would have supported that horse to feel okay instead of overwhelmed.


This particular week the weather got a great deal colder and I didn’t realize that would be a problem. Then, one morning when I was sitting next to Atlas my mother walked by in the woods above us and she and I had a casual conversation. During the conversation and as she walked away, I noticed all of Atlas’ muscles locked up in extreme freeze as he looked at the environment in a state of high alert. We worked for a while longer (mostly distance work of being together in harmony) and I thought the tension had melted away.

Then my daughter came by and I walked over to the far fence to chat with her. As she and I were laughing and talking Atlas started pacing the far fence line from us in extreme agitation like he couldn’t get far enough away from us (something he has never done before).

When my daughter left I closed the round pen gate to give him some structure and moved to the center to sit down, asking Atlas to walk around (instead of pacing one side) hoping some time in rhythmic movement while I was quiet and still would settle him as it has in the past. This has been a daily practice for us to help him have some healthy physical movement that he lacks living without a herd to move him and to help wear his hooves down since I am not able to trim them yet.


Instead of walking calmly off as he usually does, Atlas started pinning his ears at me and getting closer in an agitated, aggressive looking way. I didn’t feel directly in danger but I thought it was going that direction if I didn’t do something proactive soon.

My paddocks are just not big enough for the kind of distance Atlas wanted in the state of stress he felt in that moment… so instead of stepping outside the paddock as I would have done if I felt I had unlimited time, I chose a small amount of dominance, moving abruptly to send him into trot every time he pinned his ears at me.


Within a half an hour the ear pinning had stopped, but even as we settled back into flow and harmony, Atlas would no longer let me get within a horse length from him. No matter how tactfully I tried, he would bolt away from me if I stepped within his personal bubble… that behavior continued for a couple of days and I felt heartbroken that we were in this place of deep mistrust yet again.
In hindsight I wish I had moved my conversation with my daughter farther away the moment I saw the pacing begin, and when I came back I wish I had taken 10 minutes to work at a distance from Atlas outside the pen (maybe even from the woods above where my mother had been earlier) before going in and suggesting he move his feet with consistency and rhythm to walk that stress off. I don’t think I did things completely wrong… it was just a little too much too soon on top of stacking triggers for Atlas and I think I could have handled it with more grace to begin with.


We live and we learn, and this week Atlas helped me make some mistakes to learn from.


In hindsight, in this particular week with Atlas, I was able to pinpoint three specific triggers: the cold, the conversation with my mother standing in an unusual place outside the paddock, and then the conversation with my daughter closer to Atlas than he was comfortable with. However, there were probably more triggers I do not know about. It is rarely one thing that causes a backslide, instead it is many.


I can’t know if perhaps:

  • A fox ran through the paddock scaring Atlas just before I arrived
  • Atlas tweaked his back getting up from a nap and he was in pain
  • Atlas ate something funny in his hay and his stomach hurt
  • There was a smell in the air or a noise on the wind that reminded him of a past event that was traumatic for him


There will always be too many factors for us to know exactly why our horses feel overwhelmed by stress. The good news is, we don’t need to know why to be able to help.


When the horse is overwhelmed, it has an automatic reaction to go to fight or flight or freeze. My job is to find the edge of that reaction and work on the tolerable side of the issue where the horse is capable of responding in a functional way (thinking, yielding or playing).


The more repetitions we have of positive response to stimulus around the horse, the stronger the emotional “muscles” get and the less likely the horse is to feel overwhelmed in future situations that are similar.


I refer to this exercise as “Emotional Sit-ups”.
As humans we like to know why a horse feels overwhelmed, but I encourage everyone (including myself) to not worry about it too much. Simply take into account the factors you can see that overwhelm your horse, break them down into smaller sections and see if you can work under the threshold of being overwhelmed so your horse can practice as many good responses as possible.


I find the analogy of physical work to emotional work helps me be patient with the process. Emotional sit-ups, just like physical sit-ups can be exhausting and the horse can only do so many in a session before they need to rest and recover for the next session where we can start again with new strength.


My job as a trainer is to read the probabilities: is this going to get better or is this going to get worse?


How much practice can we functionally handle, staying within the realm of positive responses?


My job as a teacher is to admit I do not always get it right. I too stumble, fall, scrape my emotional knees and feel overwhelmed. Then I pick myself up and wipe off the coating of shame I feel after a fall, after causing overwhelm in my horse, or after failing to see the environment was becoming overwhelming. I learn from the experience and then do better next time.


For Atlas and I, when we fall down and make mistakes and get overwhelmed, we build resilience together from the experience.


When we get the feel and timing just right for the perfect sets of  “emotional sit-ups”, we get stronger and more confident so that we can keep our feet and navigate the world as it comes at us, no matter what happens.


Part of me hopes we get so strong we never experience a backslide of progress ever again. Part of me knows it is the balance of successes and mistakes that keeps life interesting, so we will simply take it all as it comes.


If any of you are curious to see this concept of “emotional sit-ups” in action, I have posted a video on Patreon this week of Atlas and I practicing.


Here is to living and learning, resilience and strength.


Hooves and Heartbeats,







The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


Discovering Interests

From my early childhood of galloping trails and jumping jumps with wild abandon, to my intense study of dressage and biomechanics of horse and human in my early adult life.


From my study of the equine mind and motivation patterns in “Natural Horsemanship” style training to my later development of Freedom Based Training®.


From the filming of “Taming Wild: A Girl and a Mustang” as a challenge to myself to think outside the boxes of horse training I understood, to later challenging myself again to cross a country with rescued horses while filming “Taming Wild: Pura Vida”.


Now I am at home in the present moment filming the third movie, “Taming Wild: Evolution” looking even deeper for answers.


I ask myself often, why do I do this?


What is my motivation to show up day after day and explore the realms of what is possible in the company of a horse?


There are many things we could fill our time with, yet for some of us everything feels better in the company of a horse.


My “why” reaches back to the childhood awe I felt when I realized a horse could lend me their strength and speed when I was riding, so that I too became stronger and faster like the horse whose grace I was borrowing.


Now, as an adult, I still ride but it isn’t the ultimate goal of being with horses for me anymore.


My ultimate goal now is the development of diversity in shared enjoyment, horse and human together.


If I want to share in the strengths of my horse, what do I offer in return?


I like the challenge of asking myself, “can I offer my strengths and skills in a great enough diversity of ways to the horse that they are interested in offering theirs to me in return?”


When I opt out of using halters or sticks or fences to control a horse, I also opt out of the dominant boundary setting that many horses appreciate.


When food is not something I bring to the horse and it is only one of many environmental options we share, I lose an intensity of power to reward or develop specific behaviors that shape the horse to share my human interests.


When freedom becomes the basis for building relationships, the mental agility of horse and human becomes the valued commodity.


This mental agility is what I develop when I take away all the tools and obvious rewards between horse and human.


This is why I train horses.


My own mental agility is both the challenge and the reward.


In reality, I am spending time with horses while they train me.


The end result is that we train each other to be better versions of ourselves.


The question of relationship starts with a natural community instinct that horses and humans share. Are you interested in the same things I am interested in?


At a core level, all of us seek a state of feeling better, however our individual strategies for feeling better vary in style and effectiveness.


A horse that seeks boundaries, someone else to tell them what to do or where to be, is a horse that does not know how to direct their own focus in ways that develop better feelings. I enjoy the challenge of keeping that sort of horse company in freedom as they develop skills of focus that make them the sort of partner that doesn’t need boundaries to lean on in the future.


A horse that eats perpetually is a horse that has a very narrow perspective on what might cause better feeling. I enjoy the challenge of keeping that horse company and celebrating every small stretch of their comfort zone that shows them better feelings come from far more opportunities than food.


Mental agility happens when the thoughts are collected enough to allow focus to change and move and adjust in the best direction in each moment.


What is the best direction for focus? The direction that makes us feel better. The more varieties of focus we have that make us feel better, that we can choose from moment to moment, the more diverse and interesting life becomes.
When a horse focuses on something that makes it feel worse, you will know, because it triggers actions of fight, flight or freeze.


When a horse focuses on something that makes it feel better, you will know, because it triggers actions of thinking, yielding and playing.


In freedom, a horse can choose what they want to focus on, and sometimes they choose something that feels bad. In those situations, I am happy to be their companion, but I will not be in harmony in any way with the decision to feel worse.


In contrast to that, when a horse focuses on something that makes them feel better, I am going to find as many ways as possible to be in harmony with those choices.


This is the base on which Freedom Based Training® works.


Horses (and humans) crave companionship. We all want friends who are interested in the same things we are interested in.


In freedom sometimes we lack the mental agility or mental collection to make the right choices of focusing on the things that make us feel better together.


As a horse trainer in freedom, I have to develop my own mental agility and mental collection first, leading by example, showing the horse that I am with them when they are making good choices.


From this foundation, the relationship is all about building variety.


How many different ways can we experience the world together and feel better?


Matching behavior and matching focus is the obvious reinforcer in Freedom Based Training®. When both horse and human value the same things there is harmony.


Horses will work and develop their behaviors to achieve harmony if it is offered the right way. The need for community is built into us all and is a deeply powerful motivator for development.


Complementary behavior and focus is where the art of the relationship is developed. Complementary behavior is where we are different from each other, yet still in harmony


The horse looks to the right, the human looks to the left. Looking different places, complementary to each other because as a partnership we now know the world is safe in both directions.


The human looks at the environment and the horse sinks into self-focus getting a little rest for a moment. Focused in different places, complementary to each other because one is keeping the other safe while the other rests, later the roles may be reversed.


The human stands still the horse moves around in a circle at speed, complementary to each other because one is the center point of the action and the other is the action, later the roles may be reversed.


Those are three simple examples, but the variations you might think of are potentially infinite.


My point is that, in a relationship you do not need to always be the same as the other to be in harmony. Harmony can be either matching or complementary and both are of value.


The key is variety, how many different ways can life be experienced as we seek better feelings together?


The discovery of variety is why horses want to play with humans, and humans want to play with horses. We don’t know what is possible until we try it.


Life with horses is endlessly diverse, and profoundly simple all at the same time.


Today, I feel the awe of those contrasting and yet balancing thoughts.


I will never know everything there is to know, but each day I practice I will learn a little more, and my mental collection and agility will become a little stronger.


Here is to all the horses who help me develop.


Here is to all of you, interested in some of the same things I am interested in.


Here is to our community, sometimes matching, sometimes complementary.



Hooves and Heartbeats,



(I have made a video about this subject, titled “Matching Focus, Complementary Focus”. If you are curious for some visual demonstration of the ideas in this blog post, join us at: )

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.


Pressure Added to Tension = Explosion


It has rained and rained and rained and rained since I have been home.


Beautiful soft northwest dripping, followed by torrential downpours, followed by living in a cloud, followed by steady relentless streams of water making their way through every part of the living experience.


Each sort of rain experienced individually is beautiful, however, when you put them all together in a seemingly endless experience, it leads to a fair amount of tension in the horses.


I watched Occasio start to tiptoe around Ari, giving him more space than usual and watching his best friend with care for permission before walking past him to drink at the trough or eat at the hay hut.


I watched Atlas get more and more sensitive to noises in the environment, startling and spooking at things that wouldn’t have bothered him a week before.


I watched the herd out in the big pasture seem to spread out more than usual across the valley, giving each other more of a buffer against irritating each other.


Then the sun came out, the world became the peaceful haven of comfort it had not been in the weeks before and everyone slept. Long deep sleeps of recovery from the tension built up in endless rain.


Following the sun and the sleeping, I watched Occasio and Ari eating hay with their noses touching once again, and engaging in the play that looked more fun and natural than the restlessness of the weeks before.


I watched Atlas’ ears twitch and follow sounds in interest again instead of leaping out of his skin in the explosive movements of defense seen the week before.


I watched the herd in the field gather a little closer together in enjoyment of company.


This natural ebb and flow of stress is one that is always changing and will always be changing, and yet as a human with a training plan I sometimes forget I need to adapt along with the environment we live in.


The variable of stress that is most interesting to me right now is the variable of past experience and trauma in a horse’s life.


Trauma is any past experience that hardwires a brain to automatically defend itself against others, instead of connecting and collaborating with others.


Some horses like Atlas have good reason for the trauma they feel seen in the physical scars of past abuse.


Other horses like Occasio are born with such a high natural sensitivity that living what would be a normal life for most horses seems to trigger some degree of emotional trauma. Occasio is a story for another day, but he is an interesting side note on the subject of trauma.


Any degree of stress will predispose a horse to defend instead of connecting, but the interesting thing about a horse with trauma is that an act of defense will often lead to more stress that leads to more defense etcetera… the circle goes on in a devastating pattern.


A horse without a history of trauma will defend itself in a state of stress, then it will feel better, stress will go down and connection with friends and the world returns to normal.


This is a profound difference I am learning to respect in my training with Ari and Atlas.


With Ari, I am allowed to make mistakes and I am forgiven when I misread the level of stress in a situation. If I blunder into a moment of stress, adding too much pressure to pre-existing tension, Ari might defend himself for a moment with some degree of fight or flight. Then when I take an action to help lower the stress in the situation and re-approach the subject I blundered through so badly before, I am allowed a second chance to get it right.


With Atlas, I have to proceed with considerably more care. If the environment we are in is causing tension in Atlas, I must take care that any pressure I add has an outcome of lowering that stress he feels, not pushing him over the edge into fight or flight.


If I get it wrong with Atlas it can sometimes feel like watching a long chain of dominos, one clicking into the next and the next and the next, knocking down that long chain of trust we took months to build.


The weather, or the any random factor in the environment might raise my horse’s stress, but depending on their past experience with trauma, my contribution to their experience can feel like a shoulder rub relieving tight muscles, or the careful detaching of wires in a bomb about to explode.


The training in a horse/human relationship has two parts to it.

  1. Positive development of connection above and beyond defense.
  2. The ability to recover from mistakes that trigger defense.


When I get my training right, I know exactly how much pressure is acceptable or even helpful to a horse in the natural state of stress they feel. This strengthens the first point of training.


When I make mistakes in training, I learn more about how much stress is too much stress for the horse I am with, and the horse learns how to recover from that feeling of momentarily being overwhelmed, when I have mistakenly added too much pressure to tension. This strengthens the second point in training.


In Freedom Based Training®, one of the things we work on is strengthening the horse’s ability to self-soothe using their brain and focus changes.


We do this by linking feelings of pressure to thinking.


Anything that would cause fight or flight in high doses, will cause thinking in lower doses.


The stronger this link becomes between pressure and thinking, the further apart those theoretical trust dominos become for a horse like Atlas.


As we space the emotional dominos farther apart by linking pressure to thinking, hopefully Atlas will be able to handle pressure on tension with more grace, and he will be able to recover from mistakes in the relationship where too much pressure on tension is applied and we perhaps knock one domino of trust over, instead of an entire chain.


It is my job to read the situation and strive to be the kind of person my horse wants to connect to.


It is also my job to get it wrong sometimes, knock hopefully just one domino of trust over and show my horse it is ok to have a moment and recover from it.


We can get it wrong, then re-approach, and then stand that domino of trust up again, stronger this time.


As the horse learns to self soothe, and emotionally stabilize themselves, pressure on tension becomes a good thing on the way to feeling better. Instead of a bad thing, diffusing a bomb that might go off in your face.


Now, I simply must pray for grace and the awareness to know when Atlas’ emotional dominos are stacked too close together and proceeding with care is the game. Also knowing when he has the emotional resilience to allow me to be more human, making the occasional mistake.


The reality of life will always play a part in this understanding of what is possible between me and the horses. Living in the pacific northwest, the cascades of water all around us are a common factor that I love on most days, while I also acknowledge for all of us that puddle dancing might look a little more like a stoic rain meditation when too many days of it get strung together.


Wish me Luck!

Hooves and Heartbeats,



(If you would like to be part of the group with access to weekly video updates on the study of all this I talk about here in the blog posts, I encourage you to join us at )








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.


How you feel is more important than what we do


After seven weeks of teaching around the world I am home again.


The dripping rain falling on evergreens and moss soothes my soul and feeds my mind. My thoughts are swirling with all I have seen and processing so much I have learned.


This morning as I woke up to the crunch of footsteps over gravel as the horses walked under my window, I realized, in a nutshell the thing I now understood most deeply is this:


How the horse feels is more important than what we do together.


That is the basis for the relationships we build.


It sounds simple, but there are immense and fascinating depths to that statement that I study every day.


The end goal is that my horses have habits and patterns of feeling so good in my company that together we will reach into the unknown and do a wide variety of things that bring richness and joy to our lives.


The reality is all of us have to know hardship of some variety before we know what good is in contrast.


As much as I would like to find a way around that, I haven’t found it yet.


The type of training I do is called Freedom Based Training®.


This means the horses are free to do absolutely anything they choose, as we work around them in patterns that show the horse, we make good choices for ourselves therefore we can be trusted.


It is standard classical conditioning we are doing, but it builds a new level of feel and timing in the human as we learn to build associations in the horse.


With practice and repetition the horse begins to see a pattern: When they are naturally feeling better, they will see and feel that I fall into harmony with them. When they are naturally feeling worse they will see I keep moving around them until the emotional tide changes and they start to feel better. When I see they are feeling better again I will fall into harmony with them again.


With enough repetition the patterns of harmony or disharmony become linked to the emotions.


Harmony = feelings getting better


Disharmony = feeling getting worse


To be clear, getting better does not mean great, and getting worse does not mean terrible. It is just an indication of ebb and flow of the tides of emotion.


It is only after these associations are built that I think any concept of togetherness can exist.


Togetherness and harmony must be to be linked to feeling better if we want to do things together.


Any living being will instinctually avoid doing things that make them feel worse.


In contrast, any living being will instinctually seek out the things that make them feel better.


We must teach the horse to avoid disharmony between us if we want to build a strong sense of togetherness.


In contrast we must teach the horse to seek harmony and by extension, togetherness.


Exactly how we do that is an art form.


This is the art form I have devoted my life to studying, and as study goes, I often have to remind myself; When I get it wrong, I have learned something important and when I get it right, my horse has learned something important.


I have to admit, I prefer it when the horses do more learning than I do, but we are a team so, sometimes I also have to experience the worse to see the contrasting better.


When I say “How you feel, is more important that what we do,” I don’t mean I will always make you feel good, that isn’t my job. I mean to say I will continue to make good decisions around the horse, until they associate me with good feelings and good times.


Then, from that foundation, we can build a wide and diversely entertaining range of things we might explore doing together.


That is the life I choose to live with horses!

I hope my study gives the world little food for thought.


Hooves and Heartbeats,



If you are curious about this ongoing study I am doing, check out Patreon/ for weekly updates in video form. I promise to share both my successes and my mistakes with you, so we can all learn together.


The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


The Good F Words and the Bad F Words

I was working my way through airport security this morning, at the beginning of a two-month teaching tour, with a grin on my face and a spring in my step.

I am keenly aware that not everyone feels this way about travel, and I feel a wash of gratitude when I look around and observe the overwhelming stress around me in my fellow travelers, that I simply do not share.

Why is that? Why does the same situation elicit profound and overwhelming stress in one being while stimulating joy, exuberance, and entertainment in another?

As a horse trainer I am always bridging the gap between my own human experiences and the things my horses might experience that are similar. I know I run the risk of over anthropomorphizing, but so long as I keep that in mind, I think the comparisons are worth making.

Stress is interesting to me as theoretical construct explaining why, when, and how we feel the way we do. Horses and humans.

Add just enough stress to life and curiosity, interest and learning are stimulated. Life becomes better.

Add too much stress and those very things that bring color and fullness to life become overwhelming, anxiety producing, and injury causing.

What causes the same situation to be a perfect level of stress in one individual, and too much stress in another individual?

I think change and focus are the keys to understanding this.


Change is constant in everyone’s experience. For instance, the change from breathing in to breathing out, everyone experiences a certain number of times in a minute.

When you raise the number of respirations in a minute out of the normal rate, that is an example of another change in experience. Some individuals will be exhilarated, and some will be riddled with anxiety by that change. Why?

Because we all judge and assess constantly on a subconscious level. The last time a change like this was noticed, did it lead to feeling better or feeling worse?

In a healthy individual, focus on new change in life is balanced with familiar change and this is what keeps stress at a positive, intensity.

The thing an individual (human or horse) focuses on becomes the main contributor to raising or lowering stress.

I might focus on my feet on the ground. My feet on the ground always feel this way as I shift my weight from heel to toe in a predictable pattern of walking. This set of changes triggers familiar and positive predictions in the brain and lowers stress.

I might notice the air smells different than usual, unfamiliar as I am surrounded by new and different things. I don’t have enough life experience in situations like this to know if the different smell is going to lead to life being better or worse, so this raises stress.

I drink some water and notice it sliding down my throat in the same way it does every day, quenching my thirst and this change from less hydrated to more hydrated is familiar, comfortable, and lowers stress.

The pattern of life experience goes on. Focus on a familiar good change, stress lowers, focus on an unfamiliar change, stress rises.

There are a million changes happening to us and around us all the time, which changes we notice determine if the stress is going up and down in a life enhancing way, or if stress is going perpetually up in a way that triggers actions of self-defense.

Our self-defense against too much stress looks like Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The bad F’s

The opposite of self-defense is connection and connection exists in the good F’s. Friends, Forage and Freedom (and yes, you can laugh if you want, but I think this is as true for people as it is for horses).

Depending on what momentary change you focus on, stress is going up or coming down in waves all the time.

Friends communicate, triggering thinking which is the opposite of freeze (freeze = a focused fixation on something). Thinking lowers stress, freeze shows us stress is rising.

Friends make space to be together, triggering the feelings of yielding which is the opposite of flight (flight = trying to get away). Yielding lowers stress, flight shows us stress is rising.

Friends play, causing laughter and entertainment, which is the opposite of fight (fight = pushing against someone to cause discomfort so they change).  Play lowers stress, fight shows us stress is rising.

Forage is the food, water, and air we consume every day to stay alive. Good quality in the right quantities has a profound impact on a body’s stress levels and the likelihood that an individual will be able to find balance in patterns of focus that raise or lower stress in healthy or not healthy ways. I think perhaps all of us would do well to acknowledge how big an impact this has.

Freedom is the degree to which an individual realizes they have choices.

That is probably the most profound statement in this blog post and instead of explaining it, I am going to let you think on it yourself and realize how far reaching the implications are.

The good F’s friends, forage and freedom lead to patterns of focus that see a balance between familiar good changes and new changes or familiar bad changes that keep life rich and beautiful.

The bad F’s, fight, flight, and freeze can be tolerated in small doses, but when these patterns of self-defense become the most common reaction to life, we know stress has gotten too high.

In an ideal world when training horses (or traveling through airports) we find a balance between noticing familiar good changes that lower stress and new changes or bad changes that raise stress, and we help our friends do the same.

I am realizing that Freedom Based Training® is simply about training focus, within the scope any individual is willing to consider it.

If I can help a horse find a balance between focusing on the things that lower stress and the things that raise stress, they experience stress as a good thing that makes life interesting and beautiful.

If I can nurture and develop a horse’s focus changes, they realize they have increasing freedom to choose what they think about. With practice they can choose to focus on the things that keep stress in the good zone.

I can be that friend for a horse that nurtures connection and lets self-defense fall away as unnecessary.

I can do the same in an airport as I strike up a conversation with a stranger and we laugh together at some unfamiliar change.

Life is beautiful when we see it that way.

Hooves and Heartbeats,



Sunset from the Brussels Airport.

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.


Lean In

The sultry summer heat on San Juan Island has brought with it the mid-day flies that come with this time of year. The horses run for the deep shade of the trees and stand stoically noses low and strategically placed next to swishing tails with their friends to keep the insect irritation to a minimum.


This time of year I am up early to work in the pre-dawn and dawn cool, I settle down to my computer for writing and video editing in the mid-day heat (and napping too, if I am honest). Then as sunset approaches and the day cools off once again, the insects retreat to wherever insects retreat to, I am back to work outside with the horses.


Every time of year brings with it a different variety of challenges. We adapt and adjust as best we can to whatever reality is in the moment and that leaves me thinking more deeply about this concept of adapting and adjusting.


The reality of life will never be all good or all bad, there will always be some mixture of things in life we enjoy, accept, tolerate, fight against, or run away from.


In Freedom Based Training® we help horses develop as much enjoyment of life as possible through our feel and timing of actions around them and with them. When the horse is in a state of enjoyment we do our best to be quiet, be in flow, and harmonize with them deeply, so the horse links that feeling of enjoyment with being in the company of a human.


Reality is more dynamic than that though, what do we do with the rest of the inevitable feelings?


Lean in.


Lean into the experience of reality. Sometimes we can change it, sometimes we can accept it, and sometimes we choose to leave that moment in favor of something different.


We can’t know which response to a situation is the right one until we take the time to be deeply curious about it.


This is what I teach my horses.


Some people call it desensitization, anything the horse doesn’t enjoy or accept needs desensitization work so they don’t run away from it or fight against it. That is fine as a basic understanding of desensitization but when we look more deeply at the idea it lacks the real art of relationship that makes this work with horses so fun!


The deeper art of desensitization with horses starts with developing the understanding and perception of the human. Whatever the horse is feeling, good or bad, my job is to lean into it so I can be interested and curious about it. Do not fix it as fast as possible, be interested and learn from it!


If the horse is in a state of acceptance about anything this means they don’t particularly care one way or another. This thing we are doing or this place we are in, it doesn’t matter, it could continue or it could end and it doesn’t seem to matter one way or the other.


Then when we lean into this moment, we get curious about it. Looking more deeply, is that really true? The only constant in life is change. Where we are and what we are doing is going to change at some point. Can we predict how it is going to change? Is that horse going to move from acceptance into that ultimate goal of enjoyment in a few moments? If we think that might happen we wait for it.


If our leaning in and being curious leads us to think acceptance is going to downgrade into a feeling of tolerance where we are still doing or being where we are. Then the time becomes limited before the inevitable fight or flight response in the horse shows, so it is time to change something. Change the tide so the feelings will head towards better not worse.


The more we lean into understanding feelings with curiosity, the sooner we see the potential emotional tide shifts coming. The sooner we can see the potential of the horse feeling better or feeling worse the better choices we can make about being in the right place at the right time for our relationship with them. The better our timing can be.


Now, it is going to go all wrong sometimes! This is reality, and we can’t be in the right place at the right time all of the time. Sometimes we are going to find ourselves in the middle of a situation where the horse has left all the reasonable emotions behind and is stuck in a full stress response of fight or flight. We get to lean in and be curious about those moments too. As we observe we can notice what seems to trigger more stress and more of the coping systems of fight or flight? On the flip side, what seems to trigger a lowering of stress and less of the coping systems of fight or flight?


It is only after we lean in and are curious that we can make fully informed decisions about what actions to take. The goal is to turn the tide toward better feelings, but we have to remember it is a tide that ebbs and flows. Change is the only constant in life and it will always be getting better or getting worse in a feeling sense.


Our job is to paddle out in the surf and lean into the experience. Be deeply curious and interested in all the currents around us, then catch the next wave of enjoyment. As the wave carries us toward shore each time we get to decide, do we walk away now for the day remembering that note of enjoyment, or do we paddle back out into the surf to lean into the experience again and catch the next wave of enjoyment we find?


Ari and I have been practicing this as I start to lean over his back from above and let him hold my weight for moments here and there.


That moment of holding a human’s weight on his back, it is in a stage of tolerance for Ari right now. If I use my powers of observation, feel and timing, I know when to wait and I know when to change something, and I know when to walk away for the day. I intend to teach Ari the same skills.


When Ari feels something unfamiliar, he will freeze first for a moment. If Ari can lean into that experience and be curious about the weight of a person draped across his back he will move from that freeze state to a thinking state. That thinking state is the start of enjoyment.


For Ari it will be a process of thinking and freezing, thinking again and freezing again, if he can keep moving back and forth between the two he is leaning into the experience and it has a high probability of developing into more and more enjoyment.


When I work this process it isn’t really about teaching Ari about weight on his back, that is the shallow goal. The deeper goal if I lean in as a horse trainer, is to teach Ari to lean into the experience with me.


Get curious, not afraid.

Get interested, not aggressive.


The more we lean in, the better life gets.


The other stallion, Atlas, and I are working on this also. When I reach out to stroke his cheek, every instinct in him yells to run away from that touch (and honestly I consider that an improvement over the natural fight and attack tendency Atlas had in him when he arrived here).


On the surface it looks like my job is to desensitize Atlas to touch. To teach him to accept it.


I want to take it farther than that though, I want to teach him to lean into experiences he doesn’t understand. I want to teach him to reach for thinking out of the natural moments of freeze. I want to teach Atlas to surf the waves of emotion that are the reality of life. Not running from them or fighting against them as he has had to to survive in the eight years he lived before he met me.


So I lean into the experience with curiosity and interest as I hope to teach Atlas to do also. Is it getting better or is it getting worse?


When I stroke Atlas’ cheek inevitably he freezes first and with curiosity I assess the potential for the feeling to get better for him? Can he lean into this? Lately, the answer is yes and as I see the eyes turn toward me, and the ears shift in my direction in curiosity and interest. I can see the thinking starting and the enjoyment being triggered in him. I drop my hand to my side and give Atlas space to lean in, in a thinking way, and get to know me. He breathes on my cheek, and nuzzles my hair, and runs his muzzle up and down my arm in investigation.


This is Atlas’ wave of enjoyment and at its best moment I walk away to leave him with that feeling and that memory of us together.


The more we repeat that, the more Atlas realizes it is good to lean in. It is good to be us.


If you want to see some of this “leaning in” training in action. I post update videos each week in Patreon and I would love for you to join us.


I will never know everything there is to understand in this world, but I will keep leaning into the things I don’t know yet, and as I learn I will share.


Thank you for enjoying the journey with me.


Hooves and Heartbeats,









The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


I am a Research Trainer

As I step toward the trail with Ari for the hundredth time I am laughing at myself. For weeks I have wanted to take him out of his paddock on the loop trail around the meadow. The area including the loop trail is all fenced so there is no fear of losing him, but so far success in leaving the home paddock in any way has eluded us.


We walk a little side-by-side, arcing left and right in the kind of gentle turns a horse naturally likes to make.


I think of aiming for the trail as a wide road, where so long as he is headed generally the direction I would like I leave him to choose the arcs and turns that feel comfortable to him.


We stop every five or ten steps to watch the world, because this watching of the world together is a thing we easily agree on. A moment we can share contentedly.


I am learning where the intersections are between Ari’s desires and my desires. How many different things can we share and enjoy together that we both might choose?


This is my field of research.


Freedom Based Training®


No tools, no obvious extrinsic rewards, just me and the horse and the environments we are traveling through. When we simplify the relationship to this degree what is still possible?


I have found that taking a few minutes to ask these questions deepens a horse human relationship dramatically in beautiful ways. I love to teach courses in this and help my students know their horses more deeply, improving the quality of life for everyone.


My job as a research trainer is to put myself on the cutting edge of difficult with a horse, learn from it, and share it so my students can take what I have learned and use it in simple ways with their horses, in their lives.


Freedom Based Training® is not so much a way of training a horse as it is a way of living that delves deeply into understanding who we are in relationship with someone else.


It is a journey that seeks to find out what is possible through freedom of choice, and how many ways a horse might choose to say yes instead of no, to being together.


What if my horse keeps saying “no” to me? What if my horse does not want to be with me in the ways I want to be together with them?


Well, then you are on the cutting edge of your own research.


The space between the yes and the no is where the work is done.


If you give me a small fenced space, halter and a rope, or a pocket full of food rewards I can dramatically alter the scope of things my horse might choose to do with me in a positive way. This is interesting too, but it is not my current field of research.


I have plans for developing that side of my horse training also. “Coherence and Clarity” as a way of being, training and developing horses and humans together is in the planning stages. I am excited to develop that side of my research training as well, because honestly it is fun to think of all the ways I might set the horse up better to say yes.


Atlas has forced me into exploring some of the ideas that might be part of “Coherence and Clarity” because part way through the current project it became clear that safety and quality of life for him were not good enough when we approached our relationship purely from the Freedom Based Training® perspective.


Quality of life comes first in my priorities, before freedom of choice and the two are not always compatible.


What I am finding is freedom of choice is an awesome field of research that has brought me more personal growth and development than anything I have ever studied. That is exciting and well worth my time as I explore what is possible between the yes and the no a horse might offer.


When a horse says no to me, I have asked for too much too soon and I missed my mark to explore what is possible in the realm of yes answers.


With a horse like Atlas I had to admit that his previous life of abuse had led him to a place where his yes answers to humans (and other horses) was so limited it affected his quality of life in sad and profound ways. Atlas’s determination to say no and defend himself from relationship in general was so ingrained that freedom of choice was giving him the choice to destroy his quality of life at every turn.


When I realized my research in this area of being together was setting Atlas up to feel worse perpetually and spiral his physical health downward in a bad way I changed plans and stepped tentatively into my next field of research.


I had planned to explore “Coherence and Clarity” in a few years, after the filming of “Taming Wild: Evolution” was complete with Ari and Atlas and my exploration of the cutting edge of Freedom Based Training® had been satisfied a little more.


However, as they say: Man plans and God laughs.


So now I have two possibly complementary projects running at the same time.


Ari and I are researching Freedom Based Training® in purity. Developing my understanding of what it means to nurture and foster Ari’s yes answer to an ever-expanding realm of things we can do together.


Atlas and I are learning to assess where and when freedom of choice is a healthy thing for him and our relationship. We are also exploring how this idea of “Coherence and Clarity”, using tools of fences, ropes and food in kind and gentle ways, can improve Atlas’ quality of life dramatically in the here and now.


I will be honest, I am challenged in big ways by both of the stallions and I am grateful everyday for the generosity of Myrnah and how kind she was to me in those early days exploring Freedom Based Training®, while we were making the first film.


There are days I wish I could just take out my clicker and my pouch of food rewards and train systematically to teach the horses to say yes to more things.


There are days I wish I could use the roundpen like I did in my past life of a results based trainer and teach the horse to say yes consistently like I did before.


However, that is not my job anymore. There are many very good trainers out there filling that need and helping humans with horses in those ways.


My job is different. My job is to research the intersection of free will and collaborative evolution between horses and humans.


What is the scope of opportunity between the natural answers of yes and no?


How do I shape my personal behavior to develop more yeses than noes in the relationship?


How broad a range of things can a horse enjoy doing with me, leading us from yes answer to yes answer?


How do I take the no answers I get from a horse and learn from them, without developing a habit in the horse of saying no to the things I suggest?


This way of being with horses is not for everyone, but I am discovering there is a growing number of people in the world like myself that are curious to know.


How can free will be nurtured in a way that supports relationships?


With Ari and I over the last couple of weeks I have been forced to understand him better as an individual. He is not like Myrnah who was naturally very curious and brave. Ari is like Ari and to build a relationship with him I have to know him.


Ari is independent and self-confident. Ari likes comfort and familiarity far more than he likes interesting things.


When I decided the next step of our development together should include exploring a new trail through the woods, my tact in presenting that idea to a horse like Ari is challenged.


Respecting Ari’s free will, the theory is to look at the trail and be interested in it from a safe distance. Then when the emotion attached to that action of looking at the trail is as good as it possibly could be, we retreat to doing something easier together.


The more times we repeat that action together, the more the curiosity grows and with each repetition the feeling of what a safe distance is, will grow closer to the trail and eventually lead us down the trail.


Myrnah taught me this theory is good and works well.


Ari is teaching me a new level of patience and tact, because honestly I keep trying to approach my relationship with Ari with the same feel and timing I learned with Myrnah and they are not the same horse.


Different horses require different feel and timing and that is what makes this all so endlessly interesting.


When I push too hard Ari pushes back because he has the power to say no to me. I ask him for one step too many toward the trail, he feels it is unsafe and turns to run back up the hill to his favorite spot next to the cedar trees.


I run with him because if it is happening anyway, we might as well use the opportunity to get comfortable with running together. There will be a time when we want to trot or canter with me sitting on his back, doing it side by side seems like a good practice step on the way to that. It was not the thing I intended to practice today, but researching freedom of choice in relationship does not lead to doing exactly what you plan all the time.


Ari and I settle to a walk and then a halt at the top of the hill and I again ask him to turn and look in the direction of the trail.


From this safe place it is easy for him to say yes to me, and we flow in harmony together on that easy yes answer.


I ask for a few steps in the direction of the trail and Ari says yes again, because that is easy in this place of safety. We flow and enjoy that success.


The question and the real work come as we get close to the gateway that leads into new territory.


Do I understand Ari enough to know when the best feeling possible has happened?


Do I know when to retreat to something easier as a reward and reinforcement to all the yes answers Ari has given me in the right direction toward learning something new together?


Or do I push just a little too far, causing Ari to feel unsafe and find we are running up the hill again to start at the beginning again?


I always tell my students, if the horse says no to you, then you are learning how to have better feel and timing. Learning is good. If the horse says yes to you, then the horse is learning to enjoy a greater variety of things with you. That learning is good too.


For the sake of building a good relationship with the horses, we need more yes answers than no answers.


For the sake of pushing humans to understand feel and timing better, we need to value those moments the horses say no. We don’t need to rest there or reward or enforce that answer of no because saying no to each other perpetually is not beneficial to a relationship, but we do need to appreciate the growth opportunity in it.


Hundreds and hundreds of growth opportunities later Ari and I are now able to walk the loop trail together around the meadow. He is saying yes more often, and no less often. Not because he was forced to change his answer, but because I got better at knowing how and when to ask.


This is the kind of training I am fascinated by and want to research.


If you want a little more of this in your life with your horses too I encourage you to join us on Patreon. Watch some of the videos I have made about learning to travel the loop trail with Ari and see the updates on all this research from week to week.

In this project there is some Freedom Based Training® where I use no tools at all, and some “Coherence and Clarity” where I use tools to the extent it helps Atlas find a better quality of life with me.


I will always be a research trainer, on the cutting edge of what I understand. The horses will always be pushing me to understand it all better and I will continue to endeavor to share what I learn with all of you.


Thank you for taking the journey with me, and supporting the ongoing research.


Here is to learning how freedom of choice can lead to better relationships and deeper bonds.


Hooves and Heartbeats,




The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


Nurturing Something Bigger Than Yourself

Atlas learned something new this week that touched me more deeply than I ever expected.


Atlas learned to breathe on my face as a form of communication.


On and off through our partnership there have been moments when Atlas would reach out, the edge of his nostril fluttering against my cheek in an exploratory venture to know me. I had to be exceptionally still when he did this as any movement at all, even the wind catching the end of my hair a little would send him into a blind panic of flight.


This week this same exploratory action became something very different.


Over the past few weeks we have stepped away from Freedom Based Training® and have been helping Atlas with a little more pressure than I would ordinarily employ. We have been developing his tolerance for closeness through the stress lowering tactics of enforced rhythmic movement in the company of other horses.


You can read more about that here in the blog post “Dark Night Of The Soul”.


Each session after Atlas’ stress is low enough that he is willing to consider stretching his comfort zone, we can go back to the practice of Freedom Based Training®. I am very honest that this is not an experience of freedom for Atlas because he knows, if his stress raises to a dysfunctional level for our partnership, I will take dominant leadership again and send him back out to walk for as long as it takes to reach a functional level of stress.


If I were doing pure Freedom Based Training®, I would keep my actions below any level of triggering a horse into a dysfunctional state and if I mistakenly triggered the horse I would apologize and start again with less intensity.


Atlas seems to be benefiting from a little more structure and a little more pressure in our training together. That means my ideals of training in freedom get to take a second chair to the bigger priority of quality of life for Atlas.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps me decide this.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 10.35.02 AM

Firstly we look at the physiological needs: Food, water, warmth and rest.


Atlas does well with the first three. He eats and drinks well and looks comfortable, but he seldom sleeps and it is rare that I see him lying down or even with dirt on his coat showing me he has lay down at some point. Since I have been training with a little more clear pressure on him and using that pressure to get him interacting with the other horses positively, he does seem to be sleeping better.


Second we look at the safety needs: Security and Safety.


That is where we run into real problems for Atlas. His previous life left him with deep emotional scars and an apparent equine version of PTSD. His stress levels often skyrocket, triggered by seemingly inconsequential things, and it is clear from the fight, flight and freeze he exhibits in his every day habits around the paddock that he regularly does not feel safe.


Third we look at the belonging and love needs: intimate relationships and friends.


Without the second tier of needs secure, the third tier can only occasionally be satisfied.


I believe regular and rhythmic movement in the company of friends is a key to helping Atlas regulate his emotions and find the basic security and safety he needs to feel. Only when his security and safety needs are met is he able to put energy into the next stage: Building stable and fulfilling bonds with others.


This tier of belonging and love is where I think enjoyment in life starts to blossom for individuals and I think we see it in the ability to nurture something bigger than one’s self.


When physiological needs and safety needs rule the direction of energy, we see hair trigger reactions into fight, flight, and freeze as an individual struggles to survive. They cannot nurture anything outside themselves while the self is at risk.


This is normal and natural, and heartbreaking all at the same time.


A horse that can only think about themselves, or the world around them in terms of self-defense is doing their very best to attend to the basic needs that have to be secure before we can build a better life above that.


I want to talk about the natural bridge that happens between self-defense, self-service, and the nurturing of things outside of the self.

61613527_1064032417137923_1453721459032588288_nWhen Atlas feels like his basic needs are at risk he has to act in self-defense. Once he starts to trust that the basic needs are met, he is not going to go directly to nurturing others, he is instead going to take the halfway step of seeing what he can do for others that will serve him.


This self-serving is an important part of the process that grows and develops eventually into the value of nurturing harmony in the group.


Working with Mustangs out of the wild I have been fortunate enough to have many emotionally stable individuals who already feel their basic needs are sufficiently met and are ready to nurture things outside the self. This is how Freedom Based Training® was developed.


Atlas is helping me understand that there is a foundation of needs that must be stabilized through understanding self-defense and self-service before a horse is willing to harmonize and nurture outside relationships.



The last blog post I wrote was about training using theory of “Happiness In The Here and Now” and while that methodology will always be my goal in training, I am willing to train differently for the good of the horse’s quality of life.


Basic needs first.


Atlas’ past life taught him humans cause pain and take away his safety and security. He seems to feel the same way about horses that push on his personal space. In any situation where humans get too close, or horses push too close he is triggered quickly into fight, flight or freeze. Those are the obvious triggers, then we add a million other small events like wind blowing or the smell of smoke where we find Atlas is perpetually stuck in the self-defense patterns of trying to feel safe enough.


To coax him out of self-defense it seems the next best step is self-service.


What things can Atlas learn to do that “buys” him comfort, instead of fighting for comfort out of desperation?


I stepped in and gave him an either or situation: walk around the round pen until you feel better, or feel pressure from me that puts you into flight for a few moments. In this situation if he was fully in self-defense he might have charged at me, or run until he hurt himself badly, or shut down and simply refused to move. We were in a stage in our understanding where I could set him up to choose self-service instead of self-defense. We continued having Atlas walk around the round pen (as slowly as he wanted) with these options until we saw a glimmer of a possibility that he could show interest in something other than himself, specifically, when he could reach out to touch me briefly.


When Atlas could touch me (even the smallest hesitant touch) I would feed him his next meal reinforcing that this choice was one of successful self-service.


If you do this, then you get that.


We slowly built this up until I could stroke Atlas’s face. He doesn’t take pleasure in being stroked yet, but he knows I will stop stoking when he becomes a tiny bit more interested in something outside of himself (preferably me). Twitches of an ear or a leaning into the hand on his cheek are my cues we are starting to nudge our way into more of a relationship and a little less of Atlas simply looking out for himself. So I pull my hand away and give him the space he prefers, resulting in confirmation for Atlas that those actions of being interested or leaning into my touch are self-serving and result in him being more comfortable.


I am realizing that I need to reinforce Atlas’ actions that are self-serving and a means to an end now because that builds the habits he will use later when he can take more of an interest in partnership, after his basic needs are secure.


This week Atlas realized reaching out to smell my cheek was an action he could take that was much more self-serving than it was dangerous for him. Atlas realized if he was breathing on me, I was not petting him and he now had a new way to control that situation.


If he pulled away a little I would reach out and gently stroke his cheek. When he showed a little interest in me I would pull my hand away for a few breaths and then repeat… however, if Atlas reached out for me and breathed on my neck and my cheek it stopped me from petting of his cheek indefinitely. If he investigated me thoroughly enough I would end the session and go get his next meal.


Would I rather he only breath on my cheek simply because he loves that moment with me? Of course I would rather that!


However, I am learning that a horse easily triggered into self-defense, needs us to honor and reinforce their choice to act in self-service. If they do something we like it becomes currency or payment for us doing something they like in return.


In this process I keep an eye on the goal, and I look for those moments or fragments of actions that show inclination to nurture relationships or things outside the self.


Atlas and I are going to nurture his ability to choose self-service over self-defense and then from there we can nurture his choices of self-service into actions that build bonds and relationships for the sake of relationship itself.


A step at a time I will help Atlas build the bridges from one way of living to the next with increasing possibilities of enjoyment in life.


For now, I will simply melt a little more each time he chooses to reach over and breath on my cheek with that beautiful scar covered nose of his.


It is a simple thing, but so much more than he ever would have offered before.


Thank you Atlas for teaching me more about foundations and bridges and working a gentle step at a time toward a life we enjoy living together.


Hooves and Heartbeats,


The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


The Happiness of Here and Now

The Hawthorn flowers are in full luxurious bloom and I picked a branch of them to carry with me out to the horses. Something new, something different, I love the smell and I was curious what Ari and O would think.


Ari was unsure about the long, oddly wiggling branch of flowers, and preferred to keep his body at a distance at first. Occasio was sure eating them was the best solution to stop them from moving around with me.


There are a million different experiences we can have with our horses, our friends, our families. The thing that interests me most is why we choose what we choose?


I think all of us want two things. We want to feel normal, and we want to feel better.


Normal is our comfort zone where everything is safe and predictable. Everyone wants to stay in the comfort zone unless we feel stuck in “normal” for too long, and then we want something just a little interesting to break the boredom and help us feel better.


“Interesting” is the interaction between the self and the rest of the world that can never be fully predictable. Just the right amount of interesting makes life better, too much interesting and the defense systems of of fight, flight and freeze start to be activated.


This relationship between the comfort zone and interesting is why I train horses in freedom, and is why the process endlessly fascinates me.


When a horse is free of tools that restrain or motivate they give you more honest feedback of what they feel in every moment as it is happening.


When you train with pressure and release, or positive reinforcements such as food rewards, the horse starts to focus on how they will feel after the thing you are experiencing together.


I call this bridging of association, and while I use it for training in my own subtle way, it isn’t as interesting to me as the shared feeling of happiness in the here and now.


For example: if I invite a horse to step onto a wooden bridge they might do it to avoid the pressure of the lead rope or stick, they might do it because they think there will be a food reward after they do it, or they might do it because the sound of their hooves on the platform is interesting to them and brings up a feeling of curiosity.


I understand how to train a horse all three ways, and each way of training has its benefits, however, it is the third way that is the most interesting to me.


When we can do things with a horse because the thing we are doing is interesting for the horse, we are using the happiness of here and now to develop the relationship between us.


Can I use my feel and my timing of when I move that flower covered branch around Ari and Occasio? Leaving it close only as long as it is interesting, not long enough that it needs to be defended against?


If we dive deep into the art of training, do we know how to set up every experience so that moment is its own reward?


If we don’t know how to do that yet, we can always bridge associations in any number of ways. We ask the horse to try something too far outside their comfort zone and they will do it for us because we have built a consistent reward or release of pressure into the second part of the sequence.


If you do this, then you get that.


I do use this in my training, but it is not my ultimate goal. It is my fallback plan.


When I stroke Ari’s shoulder with the branch of flowers, I see I have overstepped the mark. It is too strange, too far out of his comfort zone and I see the freeze starting to build in his body. Ari is comfortable enough in this freeze I can wait for the slightest ear flick (thinking) and then I release the pressure he feels by moving the branch to his nose where he can smell the flowers.



Smelling the flowers is easier for Ari than being touched by the flowers, but it is still only in the tolerance phase of learning (he can only do it for a limited time.) So before it is too much for him, I pull the branch farther away to a distance that is more comfortable for him.


We bridge one thing to an easier thing, and then to an easier thing again. This bridging of association helps Ari broaden his comfort zone and learn to do a bigger variety of interesting things in his life.


The goal though, is to do this in such a way that we don’t need to build bridges as often.


The goal is to pet Ari with the flowers and watch him feel the moment and feel the emotional progression without the need for self-defense.


In an ideal world, as the flowers stroke Ari’s fur, I can see the stress signals move his ears between freeze and thinking as he experiences tolerance. Then he becomes more comfortable and accepting of the experience with the flowers and starts to shift his focus to the world around him and back to the flowers and then out to the world again. Then finally as it moves into enjoyment for Ari, I see the breaths become deeper and more regular, there is perhaps a snort or a lick and a chew, and that is where I take the flowers away to a new place or a new distance, where we might find our way to enjoyment yet again.


With good feel and timing, everything we do, in every place we do it, has the potential to become its own source of enjoyment.


If that doesn’t seem likely because the horse’s defenses are showing up in fight, flight, or freeze, then we learn to use advance and retreat and the bridging of associations to find happiness together.


I am glad I know about pressure and release training, and positive reinforcement training because they are good ways to build bridges of associations when training horses.


Most interesting for me though is the research I do in learning more every day about feel and timing and what it might take to do more of our training using the power of happiness in the here and now.


Ari will tell you I have a lot to learn still, and I am going to need my bridges of association for a long time to come even if I choose to use the subtlest forms possible.


The long game is to develop feel and timing to a point where the bridges are no longer necessary, and each moment becomes its own reward, building relationship between horse and human.


I guess you might say, I am both a dreamer and a researcher.


If you are curious to see my ongoing development of both dreams and understanding, join us on where I post weekly update videos.


Hooves and Heartbeats,


The Project:

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


The Goal:

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


If Only I Were More Perfect…

Over the last few weeks… No, correct that, over that last few months, Atlas has pushed me again and again to reframe what success is for us.


I know that the path to success isn’t linear, and there is often a jumbled or confusing path of progress on the way to “success”, whatever that means to the individuals experiencing it. Atlas seems to be walking me through this confusing maze of double back, turn the corner, head right, think you are headed toward success… only to find yourself turned around again not sure where you are headed at all.


It would be easy to blame Atlas’ past trauma for our difficulty in progressing forward in this relationship, but more often I find myself blaming my lack of perfection in personal choices.


If only I had not scratched my nose in that moment… then he would still trust me instead of going galloping away again. If only I had moved more slowly to avoid triggering the anger, pinned ears, and threatening gestures from him. If only I had finished my session before the wind picked up, if only I had remembered to put both coats on before we started so I wasn’t shivering, causing him to doubt my confidence, if only I had better rhythmic breathing that would continually prove to Atlas I could be counted on… if only, if only, if only.


Whatever Atlas’ past trauma was, it has left a residue of perpetual tension in him that is unlike anything I have ever experienced in any relationship with horses before this. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be perfect enough for him. No matter how hard I focus, and study, and plan, and breathe, I still consistently fall short.


Often, we get a few days of brilliant progress where his trust starts to blossom, where everything falls into place. Then something as simple as the wind picking up spins us around in a dizzying, frustrating, jumble of events leaving us far apart from each other yet again.


I blame my greed for wanting too much too soon when Atlas cannot meet me in that kind of trust yet. I blame my worry when I look at his hooves needing a trim and I can’t in good conscience continue to practice partnership at a distance. I blame the horrible people who broke Atlas’ faith in humanity to begin with. I blame anything I can think of, to lessen the guilt I feel for not being perfect enough today, to be trusted by Atlas.


Blame won’t solve it though; only consistent effort to build again will get us where we want to go. No matter how many times we get torn down or turned around, we simply must build again and learn to do it a little better every time.


In the beginning of the project, my plan with Atlas was to make personal choices around him with good feel and timing so he experienced good feelings in association with me. This passive leadership style would ostensibly lower his stress levels so we could build a relationship of consistent trust and good feelings.


When I came to understand that was not working for Atlas as readily as I had anticipated, I bowed to reality and added movement to our program. You can read about those realizations in the blog post “Walking A Horse Down”.


Movement and leadership lower stress, so if I reach the conclusion that my passive leadership choices are not consistent enough; we must use movement to help him feel better in my company.


In order to get that movement I used dominant leadership (the willingness to make him uncomfortable on the way to getting comfortable doing what I ask). However there is a problem for me, and that is: I don’t like being dominant. Because I don’t like being dominant, I keep trying to slide back into being an assertive leader instead.


Assertive leadership is where we ask nicely and the horse agrees nicely, no discomfort necessary… but you cannot just be an assertive leader, you have to earn the right to be an assertive leader with the quality and quantity of your passive and/or dominant leadership history.


When you try to be assertive without enough good history of passive or dominant leadership to back it up, you just become irritating. The more you irritate the horse, the higher you raise their stress in association with you and the worse the relationship gets.


When I realized my walking with Atlas was starting to irritate him more every day instead of lowering his stress as I had intended, I had to change my plan yet again.


More dominant, less assertive: I had not earned my assertive leadership yet when it came to causing movement.


A passive leader makes more personal decisions than their partner (moves their own feet more).


An assertive leader makes decisions for their partner (causes their partner’s feet to move) while moving together in harmony.


A dominant leader makes decisions for their partner (causes their partner’s feet to move) while moving less than their partner.


In order to stop being irritating to Atlas I needed to be willing to make him uncomfortable to cause movement, but then I needed to be still while he carried out that stress reducing action.


I brought a chair into the round pen, I used my rope to cause him to move off at a walk, and then I sat down. When Atlas would stop I would stand up from my chair and use my rope again, sitting down as soon as he was walking again. If he was angry or irritated I would toss my rope in his direction to cause him to trot or canter for half a lap, then step in front of his drive line to bring him back to walk before sitting down in my chair again.


Within a very short time all of Atlas’s irritation disappeared, and his walk became consistent and rhythmic around me. It seemed Atlas was willing to do almost anything to keep me sitting down in my chair.


When it felt like Atlas had lowered his stress enough through the rhythm of his walking, I would stand up and walk to the opposite side of the arena, which would cause him to stop and look at me. Then I would play with my passive leadership, moving my body around him with feel and timing. Different from what I had done before, I did not try too hard to be perfect; I just did a casual job of being normal in my efforts.


Because movement and the dominance to start the movement had become part of the plan, I welcomed Atlas becoming irritated with where I chose to stand, or fearful with how I chose to move. Either of those responses from him would be my signal to send him walking again and go back to sitting in my chair. If my efforts at passive leadership were not good enough to lower his stress, then we would simply switch tactics and use dominant leadership instead.


Atlas is a horse that will spend five hours at a stretch standing at one feeding station without moving. Atlas is a horse that does not let other horses move him, and he is not inclined to move himself. Atlas’s trauma leads him to be distrustful of any social engagement and the choices that anyone (horse or human) might make for him or around him with any degree of closeness.


I have realized it is important for me to reframe my idea of success with Atlas. Our relationship is no longer about discovering how much trust can be built working from passive leadership gently into assertive leadership as the original goal of this project was. Our relationship is simpler now and my job is to use any tools I need to consistently help Atlas lower his stress enough, to choose social engagement.


All night, every night, Atlas has unlimited hay and the companionship of his best friend Zohari who is an uncomplicated friend. Zohari is happy to be a companion at distances that don’t irritate Atlas, and he seems content to be there for Atlas without needing anything from Atlas.


During the day Atlas goes in the round pen and I do four to six sessions a day with him. I start with passive leadership and if my choices around him are not good enough to inspire trust as I get closer, I then ask him to move and I go sit in my chair to wait until he feels better, then we repeat our passive and supportive leadership practices. When I feel we have reached the best moment of trust possible for that session (Atlas is showing signs of relaxation while I am closer to him) we end and I go get him some hay or grass to eat.


The rhythmic movement helps Atlas process any residual stress he is feeling and let it go. The dominant leadership of me causing him to move while moving very little myself, and then the passive and supportive leadership of my moving around him with good feel and timing also help lower his stress when I do it well. The new food delivered at the end of the session and at the peak moment of trust in that session helps bring good association with what just happened and helps motivate him to reach for that feeling of trust again next time he is in company.


We repeat this four to six times a day with variations to keep it interesting. Some sessions we do with just Atlas and I, some sessions Zohari joins us for the walking and the interacting, some sessions Occasio joins us instead of Zohari. Some sessions the horses choose to walk a bigger circle and step over the small logs I have placed around the round pen, some sessions the horses choose to walk a closer circle next to my chair and the feed bins they know I will fill at the end. Some sessions I stand in the middle still and breathing, or I sit in my chair, play music, read a book, and in some sessions I even chat with friends on my phone as the horses walk around me. Sometimes I walk to the other side of the round pen and then back to Atlas to initiate interactions, other times Atlas gets brave enough to walk right in and join me where I sit in my chair.


One of the brilliant side effects of this plan is the sand of the round pen we walk in is helping Atlas self trim those hooves I can’t touch or trim yet. The more he walks, the healthier he becomes, and the healthier he becomes the better relationship we are able to build.


This is a routine that seems to be working for Atlas and he is starting to choose interaction instead of isolation more consistently.


I get to be human and less than perfect when I practice my passive and supportive leadership. On the days and in the moments I get it just right, we are back on track with the original intent of the project. In the moments I am just not perfect enough in my personal choices around Atlas to help him, we use the tools of round pen, rope, and food rewards to set him up for success in the relationship and life together.


Atlas gets to feel better in my company four to six times a day, in whatever way that is possible for him.


I get to sit back and wait for him to process whatever residual stress he has that keeps us apart and unable to relate. Atlas’ stress isn’t my fault when I am not perfect enough. I can give it my best shot to be perfect enough for him, but when I am not, I now have solid alternate plans to help him.


I have reframed what I consider success for Atlas. It isn’t about how much we can do together anymore, success for Atlas and I is now about how much he voluntarily engages in the social interactions of life, with me and with the other horses.


When Atlas can play successfully with Occasio and there is no fight I have to break up between them, it is a win. When he volunteers to smell up and down my arm investigating and discovering human smell it is a win. When he messes up my hair and knocks the sunglasses on my head gently askew it is a win. When he reaches out repeatedly to touch his nose against mine it is a win.


I think I am learning more every day how to set Atlas up for those wins, but I promise I will keep studying and sharing what I find as the horses continually set me up for more twists and turns of progress on the way to whatever success is for us tomorrow.


If you are curious to see in action any of what I have described in this blog, join the group on where I post weekly video content about it all.



Hooves and Heartbeats,