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Tag Archives: stress

The Project:

Mustangs directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, Communication through body language, Tools used only for safety, never to train.

The Goal:

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


Positive Stress

Sitting on a train on my way to the Brussels airport where I will fly to Portugal for the next workshop, I have a few moments to write down some thoughts.

This teaching trip has been an amazing opportunity to see the work I do in Freedom Based Training through different eyes yet again. Though I am teaching the same ideas I learned with Myrnah while filming the movie Taming Wild, every place I go and every group I share with asks questions that help me see things from a different angle. The more teaching I do, the better I get at explaining the ideas. I always joke that by the time I am ninety-years old I will be very, very good at this!

For now I will share what I know. I will share the things that have worked for me, and all the while I will watch my students carefully and take note of the things that work for them.

The students in New Jersey are different from the students in Ireland, and different from the students in the UK, and different from Belgium and Portugal. Yet, even with all the variation, there are more commonalities than differences, and those commonalities let me know I am on the right path teaching what I am teaching in Freedom Based Training. We all simply see things from slightly different angles.

If you had told me six years ago this life of international travel and worldwide friends would be my way of life, I would have laughed. Six years ago I was a small-town single parent with a small-town horse habit that I supported with a small-town business of teaching and training horses and people to the best of my ability. I had no plans or thoughts of ever building a life that was bigger in any significant way.

Even when a student asked me those pivotal questions that became the birth of Taming Wild and everything that was to become Freedom Based Training… even then I had no thoughts beyond my small quiet and personal experience. I started writing a blog that I thought a few people might read, and then I made a movie that I thought a few people might enjoy.

Even when the movie picked up momentum and I started to teach a few people the things I had done in the movie… even then I had no real understanding that this all was becoming so much bigger than anything I had ever imagined or anticipated.

Here I am six years later finally embracing the reality that all this is so much bigger than just me and my simple quiet life tucked in the northwest corner of the United States. And so, as life gets bigger and more complicated for me, I am finding myself considering the role that stress plays for all of us. For horses and humans alike, life sometimes gets bigger and more full of events than we had ever anticipated.

Sitting in a pub, late in the evening with Nicole in the UK, we were talking about stress and the positives and negatives, and how that is unique to different individuals. Why is that? What is it that makes stress a good or a bad thing?

I believe stress is a continuum and some stress is the vitality of life. Stress is the thing that causes us to be interested, to seek answers, to play. Life without any stress would become stagnant and uninteresting. Some people would simply call the positive side of the spectrum “interesting” instead of stress; however, something interesting to one person (or horse) is terrifying to another person (or horse). So I think, if we can call the complete spectrum by the same name, we gain understanding of how others feel when it is different from how we feel.

I believe we can see the level of stress a person or a horse is feeling by how they exhibit Fight, Flight or Freeze: Depending on where for them this stress is on the spectrum, they will be more or less functional in relationship with others.

All of us have a moving target of how much stress might be a positive factor in our lives, and how much stress might begin to feel like too much – threatening injury and destruction instead of the growth and development we all hope for.

I believe this is a very simple equation.

  1. Too much stress will drive us apart from others and cause us to feel alone.
  2. The right amount of stress will foster and support bonding and relationships.
  3. Not enough stress will eventually become stressful in it’s own way as growth is what helps us connect to others.

Like almost everything I teach and believe in, the essential concepts are simple, but the depth of understanding is profound.

The right amount of stress for any individual is going to depend on more factors than we will ever be able to control, so, as any good horse trainer does, I look for the controllable factors.

  1. Any experience outside of the comfort zone is going to increase stress.
  2. Leadership and movement decrease stress.
  3. Harmony, Flow, Matching, and Mirroring make the most of the bonding opportunities, building relationships with our horses when stress is at a functional level.

So that brings us to the question, how do we read our horses stress levels and see what is developing so we can take appropriate action with appropriate feel and timing?

These coping mechanisms are familiar to almost everyone: Fight, Flight and Freeze.

What I think are not talked about enough are the positive and beneficial sides of Fight, Flight and Freeze.

Flight can be displayed functionally when a horse simply and easily moves away from pressure or discomfort. It can also be displayed in a dysfunctional way in the form of bolting at high speed with no thought of what obstacles lie in the path of travel.

Fight can be displayed functionally when a horse is playful. It can also be displayed in a dysfunctional way as an attack of hooves and teeth.

Freeze can be displayed functionally when a horse pauses for a long moment to think before taking action. It can also be displayed in a dysfunctional way when a horse becomes catatonic or rigid or unresponsive to all outside stimuli.

Stress-coping mechanisms exist on a range and what is functional for one horse or human is not for another. These ideas will need to be adapted to the uniqueness of any partnership.

When we see the physical manifestations of stress, we need to ask ourselves, on a spectrum is this stress getting better or is this stress getting worse? For this unique relationship that I am in, does this amount of stress foster and support our relationship?

As we assess this from moment to moment it gives us a gauge of what we might do to help develop a better relationship with our horses.

Quite simply, if the stress is positive and enhancing the relationship, we need to offer the horse more harmony, flow, matching, and mirroring behaviors.

If the stress is becoming less functional for the relationship at hand, we need to offer more leadership and more movement.

This need for leadership causes us to ask what is leadership?

I believe leadership is the ability to make decisions that result in more harmony in a relationship.

Most horse training is done in a dominant way to some degree, where there is a building of pressure of some sort until a horse finds harmony with the human. When this is done well it is the fastest way to lower stress and find common ground in the relationship.

Freedom Based Training is about coming at the relationship from the other side: Passive leadership. This concept of Passive leadership is where we make decisions for our own body until we find ways to develop harmony with the horse, without needing anything from the horse. This is the slowest way to develop leadership and lower stress, however, the benefit in going slow is we have a better chance of having good feel and timing and being successful, even if it takes longer.

The higher the stress level a horse has, the better feel and timing a trainer must have to be successful at lowering stress to a place where bonding and connection are possible. If you choose dominant leadership, your skill might need to be very good indeed to be successful. If you choose Passive Leadership, it is the slower path, and all you need is mindful persistence of when to make decisions and when to flow with your horse.

In Freedom Based Training we learn how to read our horse, matching and mirroring them any time they are making efforts to lower their stress and connect with us more deeply, and offering them more good decisions any time they need help moving their stress in a better direction.

I believe relationships are all about feel and timing: when to be a leader and when to be a partner; and, regardless of which we choose, the overarching goal is always to have a positive level of stress and a better relationship as a result.

The better our relationship gets and the more functional the stress habits become, the more we can operate in a give and take easy back and forth of partnership and decisions. Those are the moments I live for with horses.

And then, at the end of the day, when I am sitting on a plane or a train and sorting out all the differing stresses in my own life, I have to consider perhaps this is not just about horse training… Overall in my life is this a functional stress level for me? Or am I starting to feel more alone and isolated in my stress? No matter what the answer is, I just spelled out the solutions.

Too stressed and isolated? Start making more and better decisions…

When I feel just the right amount of Fight (playfulness) Flight (adaptability to pressure) and Freeze (thoughtfulness), then my job is to roll with it, Harmonize and Flow with my life….

But honestly, training horses is so much easier than managing my own life. 😉

Hopefully this is good food for thought as you build your own relationships.

After Portugal I know I can’t wait to be back home, feet in the dirt, feeling fur in my fingers and the breath of horses on my neck again.

Hooves and Heartbeats,

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students

Communication through body language, Tools used only for safety, never to train


The Goal:

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


When In Doubt, Breath Out


It has been a stressful week. Wonderful stress, but stress none the less, and this body is feeling the effects. The Kickstarter has hit eighty percent funded for getting the documentary done! The end of the fund raising is in fourteen days and the excitement is palpable in the last push. Front_Of_Card_ELSAThis movie is really getting made. Please click here to see the trailer and help us hit the goal in the next two weeks.


The art of balancing my every-day work with students, my work at the computer connecting with an ever-expanding community about the movie, the physical work of keeping my barn running, and the juggling work of scheduling all the right people to all the right places at all the right times is exhausting. Some days it comes easily, and some days I wonder how long the body can function correctly on a sleep deficit with this degree of challenge and stress.


I sit down to write this blog and wonder if it is fair to write at this moment when I am perhaps not at my best. This is my 100th blog after all! Then I have to rethink that judgment – what if this is my best? And who am I to truly judge? Sure, stress isn’t comfortable, but it has its time, its place, and its uses.


A student brought up that same question recently; she said to me, “I feel like my anxiety and stress are making my horse uncomfortable, and I shouldn’t even be here”. In that moment my heart beat a little faster, and I felt for her in her moment of pain. None of us wants to spread that feeling around. So the real question becomes: How do I make this stress functional- For me, for my horse, for anyone who has to share space with me as I live through this._E0A0231The answer is not isolation or segregation. We are community; we need to reach out and bond with each other; that is how stress is eased and comfort is renewed.


We know that stress creates growth, and we know if we feed and nurture ourselves in times of stress it is a beautiful force of development, sculpting our life into the art it wants to become.


In a discussion with a teacher of mine a few weeks ago, she gave me this phrase that has been immensely helpful in recent events.


“When in doubt, breath out”


I have always known breathing is one of the keys and doing it better helps everything, but how do we do that when it feels impossible?


In the middle of an acute panic attack, or in the simpler moments of running late for a meeting, or riding an unpredictable horse, I will often hear the advice: Breath deep, breath again, keep breathing. And I try, fighting for breath after breath and feeling like I am failing, with every breath seeming more shallow than the last no matter how hard I try!


Here is why: when we are stressed, we feel as if we can’t get enough air into our lungs. So we inhale rapidly, forgetting to exhale fully.


We forget, breathing is something that happens naturally; it isn’t something we have to control. The body wants to breath!


So… When in doubt, breath out.


Try it: breath out as far as you can and then a little more and a little more – every last bit of air you can squeeze out of your lungs until you really can’t get any more out – and then just let go. You don’t have to try to breath in; it just happens. And with that inhalation we didn’t have to reach for, or try harder for, comes a wave of relief and relaxation.


There is that idea again – work smarter not harder.


We know breathing better reduces stress, but we also know trying harder to do everything right increases stress. So, when it comes to breathing, just focus on the exhale and let the inhale take care of itself.


In life we often try to do too much, work too hard, and control every aspect we are aware of. This is what makes stress overwhelming and damaging. When we can look at everything like breathing, focusing on the piece we can change and then letting go to let life propel the rest, That is when stress is a beautiful sculptor of our lives.


Our output of energy into the world is like our exhale. We can pour ourselves into life with every ounce of energy we have, and then there is a moment when we must let go to see what comes back in naturally. That letting go allows us to take a moment, sit back and see what is being created. When we can see some changes happening, then the stress starts feeling functional, and we can focus our next effort, guiding life where we might like to go.


There is a rhythm to this confidence in life. Breath in, breath out. Heart beat steady, footsteps sure. When this rhythm starts to feel too difficult, we know the stress – that can be a beautiful force in our lives – is losing functionality. When that happens we have to work smarter not harder. Breath out – fully, and then let go. Work hard – fully and then let it happen.


Here is to breathing being easy, and stress being beautiful! Let it roar! And then let life in!


Elsa Sinclair


The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language


The Goal:

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



Playing with Stress

Myrnah and I are still waiting for this foal. I think we have a couple more weeks to wait, yet this stage of pregnancy and the waiting involved seem to be stressful for both Myrnah and me. My mare who has been so rock solid through all the life changes we have experienced together is all of the sudden a different horse. When stress levels are up, life’s simple occurrences can cause an unwarranted intensity of reaction. The birds fluttering in and out of the bushes used to be a back drop for life, now who knows which bird is going to cause Myrnah to jump out of her skin, heart racing, causing both of us to search high and low for the saber-toothed tiger that must be lurking nearby. Looking for that tiger every few minutes is exhausting and stressful all on its own. Holding a level of tension that makes hyper vigilance, shock, and reaction likely is not a fun way to live. All other goals aside, this week has been simply about playing with stress. What can we do to lower the stress and make life easier to live in these last weeks of Myrnah’s pregnancy?

There are three solutions I know of to lower stress: movement, stillness and connection. As Myrnah becomes larger and her physical comfort decreases I think she moves around the pasture less. When she becomes still that baby is still dancing a salsa inside her belly and being utterly distracting from any sense of quiet or peace. Adding to those two factors it becomes more and more challenging for Myrnah to connect with me, or the herd, if she feels stressed, reactive, hyper focused on perceived danger, or spacey and unfocused in a rebound from being hyper focused a moment before.


What is stress? I think emotional stress is simply the energy you feel when life isn’t the way you want it to be, and you feel powerless to change it for the better. Stress can be good and it can be bad; the trick is to play with it in a way that brings the most benefit possible. We stress a muscle to make it stronger. We can’t make a muscle stronger without the stress to motivate change. Stress too much and you create injury; stress too little and the resulting change is little to none. In order to play with emotional stress we need to look at it the same way we look at the physical.


Myrnah is going through huge physical changes right now; her physical stress and her emotional stress are all intertwined. So the question for me is: what can I do to help Myrnah feel a personal power to make her life better?

Movement, stillness, and connection- first things first, we move together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder; we walk as far and as quietly as we need to. Doing it together gives us both a sense of connection. When that bird, dressed as a saber-toothed tiger, comes out of the bushes at us, after the reactionary leap we practice stillness for as long as Myrnah needs. Her ears pricked, eyes scanning every shadow for possible danger, she just needs to be still until she feels safe enough to move again. Once her heart rate has calmed and her hyper vigilance softened, we move again- step for step, each moment of rhythmic footfall bringing confidence back into the picture.


When I show up in the morning and Myrnah and I take our customary walk to the trailer for breakfast, some days she is connected and calm, and the trip takes only a moment. Other days, if Myrnah is stressed, it can take up to an hour to travel the hundred steps from the barn to the trailer as we weave loops and circles, double back, and start again, movement and stillness alternating until she has the confidence to walk that short distance up the hill.


Some mornings she stomps in the trailer and eats her handful of vitamins with gusto; some mornings all she can manage is a bite before she bolts out of the trailer telling me she is too worried and stressed to eat. So we walk some more, and rest some more, and I let her know I am there for her. Whether she feels connected or not, I am right there for her to connect with any time. Once we have walked for long enough, and the emotional stress has lowered, she can then walk into the trailer, finish her breakfast in peace, and we are ready to move on to other things.


I long for the calm and steady mare I brought home with me from southern Oregon in August. Yet I have to trust that making it through the stress she feels now in these last weeks of pregnancy is going to make us stronger together. It isn’t her fault that she feels the way she does. The changes she is experiencing internally are huge. If I can help her learn how to move and be still and connect in ways that lower her emotional stress, then hopefully the physical changes that she has no control over will be building and strengthening instead of overwhelming.

This week has been about playing with stress. The best way I know to lessen the negative consequences and increase the positive are to make it a game. Life is supposed to be fun as well as challenging.


Elsa Sinclair