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Tag Archives: horsefilm

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.

 

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

 

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,

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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,

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

The Project:

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

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The Goal:

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

 

The 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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Patreon.com where I post weekly update videos.

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.

 

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.

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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”.

 

https://equineclarity.org/2019/03/03/walking-a-horse-down/

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

 

 

To Ride Or Not To Ride

In the world of humans and horses there is all sorts of debate about the morality of riding horses and it is something I spend a great deal of time thinking about.

Ari and I are getting close to a time where riding may be one of the things we can enjoy together and I find myself hesitating. The question is: Why am I hesitating?

Is it due to the morality of the subject? Were horses meant to carry weight on their backs? Do we as humans have any right to ask them to do so?

These are questions worth asking, but no matter how many angles I look at it from, the answer must be that it depends on the situation.

I firmly believe horses want some balance of easy harmony with friends contrasted by diversion and entertainment. The variety they experience of both harmony and entertainment determines the richness of their life experience.

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In an ideal world all harmony and all entertainment would be healthy for a horse, but in the real world healthy is a matter of perspective.

If you really enjoy something you might choose to do more than is absolutely healthy in a physical sense, but the emotional component of enjoyment holds its own value.

For a horse, the factors of physical health and emotional health all weigh in as reasons to do anything. How much time is spent eating, how much time is spent playing, how much time is spent walking, how much time is spent running, how much time is spent doing what the horse wants personally, how much time is spent doing what a friend wants the horse to do? For any horse, there is a balance in all this that works for them and brings a quality of life.

I believe being ridden by a human can add to the quality of life a horse has as it adds both experiences of harmony with a partner, and diversion and entertainment in the variations of experiences that can be shared.

Many people would ask me, what about the damage that can be done to a horse’s back by carrying weight? My reply is: The factor of weight and physical damage is one of many factors that is considered, but I do not think the fear of damage is something that should rule every decision we make.

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Quality of life considers potential damage but is not ruled by an absolute avoidance of it.

Horses eating grass is my favorite example of this. My mares are far too fat, and they are very happy. I believe they would be physically healthier if I put muzzles on them or locked them up so they couldn’t eat so much grass or forced them to exercise so they were slimmer and more athletic. However, I am not sure they would be happier. Given the balance of choices, they prefer to be as they are.

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I believe it is not so much about questioning if riding is healthy, it is questioning if riding adds quality to the life my horse and I share?

My warmblood Zohari is in his early twenties and had a bit of a health issue this spring when he got bitten by a spider and stopped eating for a while. He lost a great deal of muscle across his topline and we have been slowly working on feeding him back up to full health. Recently I have started riding him again, for five or ten minutes a day.

I must weigh the pros and cons of the enjoyment we both get from this activity together, against Zohari’s less than perfect back health. There is no absolute answer of right or wrong when you take enjoyment of the moment into account. There is only what feels right and a million factors that weigh into that feeling.

For me, the choice to ride without tack helps me feel the horse’s engagement in the activity with me. It helps me make the choice to ride or not to ride. It brings a richer, more connected experience for me and the horse together.

I do believe in tack and all the reasons for it. Saddles make carrying weight more comfortable for a horse, halters and bridles bring safety in situations where you must change a horse’s focus more quickly than the horse might choose. Everything has its time, its place and its reason.

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I would simply hope that quality of life for both horse and human become the driving force for any choices we make.

With Ari, I believe learning to carry weight on his back will allow him and I an interesting diversity of experience together.

Ari was an eight-year-old stallion living wild with a herd and thousands of acres to explore before he came to live with me. While I think he is grateful he isn’t starving anymore, has water easily available every day, and he enjoys his life here, it is not a very diverse experience. The things we can do together are limited by safe enclosure of the paddock fences.

Riding will open a new range of variations of experiences to share together.

Why do I still hesitate?

Two reasons:

The first is my interest in Freedom Based Training® and taking the time it takes to build enjoyment in everything we do together one tiny step at a time without any tools or incentives beyond our simple shared harmony. Every tiny step of diversity we learn to enjoy together brings richness to our shared lives. On the way to developing riding together, there is a vast and valuable range of experiences that do not need to be rushed, they want to be savored.

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The second reason is more personal and harder for me to share. Fifteen years ago, I rode with skill and ease that I no longer have. I remember what it was like to handle any challenge on horseback with total confidence that I could be in the right place at the right time with the right balance to allow the horse to carry me forward with ease. My life was filled with galloping and jumping and technical trails. While doing all these things I lived for analyzing and improving on the perfect alignment of the human body in dynamic harmony with the horse’s body at every turn.

Life happens and I got sick. I ended up with bouts of vertigo that come and go with random unpredictability. The powerless feeling that comes when you cannot crawl from one side of a room to another without falling on your side repeatedly is one I would not wish on anyone.

Fifteen years later I am better, I no longer have vertigo bouts of that severity and I know how to take better care of myself than I did then. However, I am not the same as I was, and my balance is a shadow of what it once was.

Now when I sit on a horse, I thank that horse for their patience and their kindness to me. When my head spins for a moment unexpectedly I will need to grab hold with my knees, contracting with an uncomfortable tension as I fight to stay vertical and find my center again. I will find center again; I will relax and release with the horse in flow and harmony and there will be many beautiful moments we share.

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I still believe those beautiful moments riding are worth the times I have to work through the difficult moments. The horses that know me well are comfortable taking a deep breath and stabilizing for me when I need it.

Ari has never carried a rider, and so I hesitate as I ask myself: Can I ride well enough, with enough balance and harmony to make this new experience good for both of us?

In all honesty, I don’t know, just as none of us can ever know the future.

I do believe I can do well enough for Ari as a rider, so long as I take it a moment at a time, a step at a time, and build one experience of enjoyment after the next with Ari. If we do this right, we will have as much patience as we need for each other when balance needs to be found again.

For now, until the time feels right for Ari and me to ride together, I will invest my time riding the horses that know me well. Honing my skills, rebuilding my riding muscles, and remembering how much fun can be had between horse and human in the whole range of activities riding includes.

For all of you who consider that question, to ride or not to ride. I would tell you, follow your heart, weigh each situation individually, and above all else, read the horse not the rule book.

There is no absolute right and wrong, there are instead a million variations in the ways we can improve the quality of life for everyone.

Consider them all and forge ahead into all the enjoyment possible for you and your horse.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

If you would like to see a video about my perspective on riding, join us on https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild where I post weekly update videos on everything Taming Wild.

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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.

 

Taming the Wild Want…

Ari and I were standing on the hillside together breathing hard for a moment as we regained our composure. Ari licked and chewed and snorted as I looked out over the valley and thought about my next choices.

I am reminded time and again that training horses in collaboration with their needs and wants is a journey of self-discovery and often an exercise of taming my wild wants.

All independent beings have a tendency to want what they want when they want it. Then for most of us independent beings, we find one of the things we want is to be in a relationship with another being of equal status that also wants what they want when they want it.

If what I want and what my partner wants is valued equally what do we do when those wants appear to be opposed?

On this particular day, this conundrum is what Ari and I were navigating.

Ari wanted to nap under his favorite tree in the paddock. I had placed a bucket out in the woods for me to sit on or stand on, I wanted Ari to take a walk with me out to the woods to find it, then he could resume his nap while I sat beside him. A simple game we had played before and one I thought was well within our range of capability.

After a few minutes of being together and exchanging the pleasantries of the day I asked Ari to walk with me. Ari took a few steps and stopped so I asked again and he again took a few steps and stopped.

Ari wanted to nap, I wanted to walk and I thought I could talk him around to my point of view so I kept asking. However, here is what happens when two independent beings have opposing wants: Fight, Flight or Freeze.

I often think Ari has a bit of a sense of humor in this relationship we are building. I ask him to take a walk too many times and so he does, but then he keeps on picking up speed until we are running through the woods side by side right past the bucket that was my goal all the way to the far side. We regroup for a moment, enjoy the view together, then I ask him to walk again and he says yes, and then kicks into a little bit of flight so we find ourselves running through the trees again back to the home paddock and his favorite shade tree where he again informs me he would like to resume his nap.

I tell all my students, when you are confronted with fight, flight or freeze in a relationship, take a moment, take a breath, take a walk, and then re-approach with more tact.

Neither Ari nor I want a relationship where our partner blindly says yes to everything we want, nor do we want a relationship where our partner gives up when we say no or our wants seem to be opposing.

Relationships are about finding common ground to stand on and common ideas to share.

If I was going to re-approach Ari with more tact I was going to need to tame the want I felt to take this walk out to a specific place in the woods, while setting the situation up so he could also tame his want to sleep under his favorite tree.

What is possible between us today in this moment?

With more tact and better feel I asked Ari to take just a few steps towards the woods, and then back up a step toward his favorite tree, and then we rested for a long while, doing only things well within our comfort zone.

Ari gets to nap and feel sleepy while I lean on him and rest my cheek on his back, enjoying the peace together. Sometimes when he looks a little grumpy I can stroke his neck or rock his body a little and cause a change of focus for the better and then we resume simply being together.

When I think the likely answer might be yes, I ask Ari for a few more steps out toward the woods but again, we stop before his wants and my wants run into each other.

Rest and repeat.

Slowly, gently, and peacefully Ari and I make our way out to the woods and the bucket that was my goal, two or three steps at a time with many rests to soak up the beauty of the day and allow Ari his desire to nap.

Ari makes room for my wants, but only when I tame them to what he thinks is a reasonable level. I make room for Ari’s wants while also encouraging him to tame his wants and be a little adaptable to mine.

When we take food rewards and tools of pressure out of the conversation with a horse, we start to see how to collaborate with them. We start to see that the horse’s wants are every bit as valid as our own wants and the coming together of their wants and our wants is the foundation of the relationship.

A year from now, I might be able to ask Ari to leave his napping plans to walk with me and he will happily put them aside for a while because he knows what I ask is reasonable. However, the way I prove to Ari consistently that my requests will be reasonable is to stay under the threshold of fight, flight and freeze as we work together.

Believe me, I am far from perfect and often my wild wants get the best of me. The point is, when I make a mistake and push Ari into fight, flight or freeze, I notice, take responsibility for my part in the equation and think my way through it to a better relationship.

The fun part is, I find horses learn by example. While I will get better at asking for reasonable things from Ari and tame my wants when I see I am provoking too much fight, flight or freeze, Ari will develop slowly and surely in the same way. When Ari sees that he is provoking too much fight, flight, or freeze in me, he will learn to tame his wants a little to find common ground with me.

A little at a time we will build and strengthen our collaborative desire to find common ground and common ideas to share, and that makes life more fun for both of us.

Ari and I were lucky enough to have someone filming this week as we navigated our way from his napping tree to my destination of choice out in the woods. I have put together a video of the process and posted it on Patreon. I encourage you to join us there for weekly video clips of inspiration and ongoing conversation about these ideas.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

Collaboration with horses might be slower than training them using stronger methods, but the way it feels to develop together this way feeds my soul and builds a life I want to live. I am happy to share my musing and learning along the way and I appreciate the community you all contribute to when you take a moment to read or watch.

Life is better together, thank you!

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.

 

Dark Night of the Soul

April Fools’ day sent me sprawling emotionally. Thank you Atlas for humbling me yet again.

Yes, in the end of March I wrote about our: “breakthrough I thought we could count on!”

I could see the light at the end of the tunnel for Atlas and I, and we were steadily moving the right direction… and then yet again I was wrong.

This is the dark beauty of being a researcher. We come up with a plausible hypothesis and then we take action to test it out. The results come in and we get feedback about where we were wrong, and where we were right.

That last part, “feedback about where we were wrong, and where we were right,” is sometimes about as clear as mud, and I am up to my knees in it mucking around trying to figure it out.

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I am going to read this in the future and laugh at the things that baffled me then.

However, it rarely feels funny in the dark moments searching for truth. When I get stuck, I feel dark and depressed, like I have no business being a research trainer. I should stick to the tried and proven theories that the other great trainers of the world have already tested for me.

Yet still, I find I am driven to search for better solutions.

Here is what happened to make me question everything with Atlas, again.

We had a foggy day, and something about the air currents that day made the fog horns sounding on the ocean also reverberate through our little valley. Every time the noise echoed around us Ari and Atlas would startle and stare in the direction of the ocean to the west.

By the time the fog had burned off Ari had let it go and was back to his happy-go-lucky self. Atlas was an emotional wreck and I couldn’t get anywhere near him, again.

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I thought, no problem, we have a solution now, we will just walk together until this stress dissipates for him.

We walked on and off all day and even though he walked with his ears pinned for most of the time, he rarely licked or chewed, his muzzle was held tight and unflinching, and every slight noise made him leap out of his skin, I still had confidence we would get through it together. This was not going to be a big backslide in progress like past events had been, I was determined.

It would take over an hour in each session for Atlas to settle enough to reach out and touch my hand, finishing the session, his entire body shaking with fear as he made the effort. I would leave him to eat for a while and then come back to repeat the process.

The next day our first session seemed hopeful, and Atlas seemed not quite as afraid or angry as he has been the day before.

The second session changed everything.

Atlas decided he didn’t want to walk anymore, and he was mad as hell with me for suggesting it.

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I knew I could wave my arms and scare him into it, but if I did that, then what did I have left to defend myself with if he got really angry and threw himself at me?

So instead we held a sort of a stand-off where I would walk toward him, very slowly, four beats breathing in for one step, four beats breathing out for the next step. Atlas would back away from me very slowly, with his ears pinned.

I honestly wasn’t sure if he was going to keep yielding or attack, but my instinct bet on him choosing yield as the better option, so long as I kept it slow enough for him to think.

Around and around and around the paddock we went like this. Each step I took toward Atlas causing an angry backward yield step from him.

Occasionally he would come out of his furious self-focus, the ears would flick forward and I would pull my focus off of him to look out over the valley and breathe.

When his muzzle had stopped twitching and I had given him time to just be peaceful and easy with me, I would look at him again and he would instantly pin his ears at me again, and the process would repeat.

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Atlas did not want me there, I was the source of his discomfort more than I was the source of any comfort and he was angry with me.

I felt like I had failed him again and it was killing me. More than that, I realized I was afraid of him for the first time since we had met.

At this point I got sick, and found myself too weak to do anything more than the basics of care with the horses. I spent an entire day in bed sleeping and feeling miserable, when I woke up the next day I knew I had to change something.

What do I do if Atlas refuses to walk his stress off, and I don’t feel like I have the luxury of time to start again with the distance work, building trust over time until he will accept closeness once more…

I always tell my students that you earn the right to be an assertive leader by investing in the relationship either passively or dominantly.

Assertive leaders ask for things gently, kindly, and without extreme pressure. If you have enough invested in the relationship the horse will say “yes” to what you ask, but if you do not, your gentle requests will become irritating to the horse and the horse will start to become more and more dysfunctional in their behavior toward you.

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I had invested so much with Atlas passively I thought I had earned the right to ask him to walk gently and be successful, and I was correct for a while. Then I learned that an environmental impact like the fog horns brings his stress levels so high it results in less relationship credit to use.

In this situation when my credit ran out, and Atlas was no longer was willing to walk, I kept asking him to at least change focus for me, and this repeated asking in a quiet way with long durations of eye contact became more and more irritating to him.

This mired us deeper and deeper into a hole where he was angry and I was frightened, and yet neither of us was willing to back down.

I thought maybe I just need to persevere and keep putting gentle pressure on him to change focus and he would start to come around to seeing my request helped him feel better. I would work for hours every day and we would see progress from the start of the day to the end of the day, but the next day Atlas was even more angry and resistant, and I found myself feeling more afraid of him.

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I think we had to do this for a while so I could see clearly, that I am not above the rules.

The rules were going to force me to reinvest in the relationship either passively or dominantly; no more gentle persistence of asking for things.

I might be skilled enough in my feel and timing of assertive leadership to win the battle of wills for the day, but I was losing the overall goal of having Atlas associate me with better feelings the next time he saw me.

With summer coming I am feeling the time pressure to develop our training faster for many reasons. Trimming his hooves is becoming a more immediate concern. I would like to move him from the paddock to the pasture with its less secure fencing, and I would like to have some peace of mind that I could attend to him if any health emergency arose. Given all these factors, I chose the dominant leader option.

I will still spend some time in passive leadership at a distance every day, but it can’t be my only solution because it simply is taking too long for Atlas.

I brought a rope out and placed it on the box in the middle of the arena, and I promised myself I would use it to scare Atlas if he tried to threaten me in any way. I knew I could throw the rope just right to make Atlas feel trapped between me and the fence, making me the dominant leader and ending the argument quickly, allowing us to find our walk again. Once we could walk, I knew I could become re-associated with Atlas’ good feelings.

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This is the most interesting part of the story. Once the rope was somewhere I could reach for it, I never needed to pick it up. My confidence was high again and Atlas started responding to me completely differently. I now moved in clear confident ways, so he felt the pressure between me and the fence as the right amount of dominance. Any face-off between us was quickly finished and we had found our walk again.

Once we found our walk we found our consistent good feelings together and relatively quickly we found ourselves back to the level of relationship we had at the end of March.

A trust we can count on and reliable good feelings we can find together, even at close distances.

This week, I even got my first whinny from him when I walked by the paddock.

It is humbling to see in hindsight the mistakes I made over the last couple of weeks, but I share them with you all so you can learn from them too. I posted a video of this challenging time with Atlas in the Patreon group and I welcome you to join the group to share the journey with me.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

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I feel a strong optimism about the path ahead for Atlas and me now, but if history is any indication he probably has a great deal more to teach me. I promise to keep you posted of all I learn.

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.

Before Riding…

This week I thought I would talk you through a brief photo essay of some of the things Ari and I are doing to get ready for riding._I0A3115

The past few weeks we have developed Ari’s comfort in being leaned on. He knows how to brace his feet and find his balance accommodating me shifting around him and putting my full weight up against his.

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We have spent many hours going places together with Ari leading the way. This is important because once I am sitting on his back I will always be following his lead.

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We practice having my arms go up in the air so I am taller than normal, this is a minor change in comparison to sitting up on Ari’s back, but we have to start with small steps toward the end goal.

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As you can see Ari is not sure he approves of me being taller so close to him, so I do it only for a moment and then retreat to being a normal height.

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When Ari has made the most change toward better feeling that I think is possible for the moment, I offer him my hand, he touches in, and that is our agreement to change the conversation to something easier.

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Having me down low was a challenge for Ari at the beginning of our relationship. Now he finds it much preferred in comparison to the other option, me being taller than usual.

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Hugging Ari is a funny task that is important before riding because he has never experienced being squeezed by human limbs before.

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There will be times riding when I need to catch my balance and grab ahold of him for a moment with my legs or my arms.

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We need to make sure this is comfortable for him in relaxed situations before I ever try to do it in any situation with higher energy.

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Our next task to get comfortable with is jumping.

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After I sit on Ari, I will have to jump off of him at some point.

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As you can see, Ari is less than pleased with the jumping, so we keep it far enough away from him to be tolerable for now.

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With a little support from Ocassio and I over time, Ari will adapt and learn that jumping is amusing and not bothersome at all.

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Our final task this week is about buckets, and my ability to stand on them, as I will need to do to climb on for a ride.

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At this point in time, I practice far away from Ari.

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And often I practice when I am downhill from him so I am not too tall at first.

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As you can see, at this point in time, Ari likes the part best when he sees me stepping off the bucket to become a normal height again.

All of these tasks are approached with the best feel and timing I can manage. Ari is free to express how he feels about each action I take and the duration of harmony we share between actions. Ari’s feedback to me is my continuing education so I am perpetually learning to do this better.

The tasks are fun, but the way we feel together while we do them is so much more important.

I have posted a video on Patreon so you can see our practice of these things in action. If you are curious about this and ongoing stages of the process, I greatly appreciate your patronage joining the group and I will continue to share update videos every week.

https://www.patreon.com/tamingwild

Here is to horses teaching us well! Here is to us humans learning to listen better every day to become the best partners possible through all the fun tasks we might think up.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

Elsa

TamingWild.com

The Project:

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

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The Goal:

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

 

The 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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