Interesting, Familiar, or Comfortable?

Elsa Sinclair; with Kaimanawa stallion Hawk; photo by his owner/trainer Jane Lenaghan of Riverbank Farm and Equine.

Thank you Jane Lenaghan for hosting our weekend!

Elsa Sinclair of Taming Wild– my second clinic experience ever with her last weekend, four glorious days of profound learning. So much unpacking to process; but I can honestly say if you get a chance to learn from this marvellous woman, seize it with both hands!

What follows is my interpretation of what I learned from our time with Elsa this weekend.

Two of my own beautiful horses, McCoy and Apache, both got to attend, as our friend Sandy Beardmore travelled down to participate too, and she needed a pony to share the experience with.

Elsa has a unique way of looking at the world which has resonated strongly for me, and hugely influenced my way of being with horses (specifically being, not doing).

I think of it (my translation/interpretation) in the context of taming, vs training. Not because we are not ‘training’ (everything does affect behaviour eventually and there is actually an agenda; just not about performance, just feedback at the early stages) but because this stuff is more about establishing mutuality in terms of trust, communication, and leadership; before we use any human tools (halters, leads, sticks, food, ropes) if at all.

Taming Wild is indeed about taming our own wild streak inside- the impulse to control, to do, our own lack of patience.

This type of work started for me with working at liberty with a little chestnut wild Kaimanawa mare in 2012; and I have been lucky enough to have the validity proven by several horses since; including those that I have worked with from the wild, and domestic horses from my own herd and those of my students.

When I discovered Elsa, my whole world exploded open with new possibilities. Here is someone who lives and breathes this work. Not only does she exemplify the experience, she provides and teaches a beautiful structure that scaffolds the whole experience, to help us stay focused and mindful and progressive. Her depth of understanding, due to dedication and literal years spent in solely practising this stuff to the degree of gaining assertive leadership via building trust and passive leadership, is quite frankly astonishing.

Under Elsa’s incredibly discerning eye, I underwent something transformative this weekend, as did McCoy. In dropping my assumptions, and in allowing him total free choice without the weight of my concerns, he showed me a side of himself that I had never seen in our 8 years of knowing each other.

Bravery. I never knew how brave he could be.

To see this horse full of curiousity about something new and interesting, instead of being filled with fear, was gobsmacking. To see his thresholds dissolve, to have him insist on leading an exploration into areas that usually would send him into a spin- I don’t have adequate words to describe how huge this change was.

Me, trying to be as interesting as the excavators.

McCoy is smart, dominant, cheeky, larky and playful at home. His main interests are herd, and environment. Take him out of his home territory and he’s spooky, tense, reactive, and hits many thresholds.

This I have dealt with from the start point 8 years ago of likening him to riding a knife edge- one slip and there’s blood- to the point today that we ride (or wander) out together happily, and usually have fun, but always in the back of my mind was the conviction that he relies upon and gets his confidence from me. He usually looks confident from the outside, but I knew that to scratch the surface was to reveal a reactive prey animal. His life seems full of thresholds; which I knew how to honour, and wait out, and overcome.

Our typical ride out would usually at some point hit a threshold, which we would deal with by me waiting, breathing, maybe initiating a retreat, before we could advance.

This weekend was entirely different. It was the first time ever that I have been in a clinic with him, and at the end of each session, he did not want to leave the arena.

I get this at home in my own little arena, which is familiar and comfortable to him, and often means fun play such as clicker training or walking meditations together as well as practising and building upon our abilities to play, yield, and think. However at away fixtures, anything too new or interesting; the prey animal comes out and he tends to flash back to twitchiness and concern, though as time together progressed, he would hold his act together and cope, because he feels safe with my leadership.

At outside fixtures such as clinics, the feeling I am used to is that he will tolorate or accept the clinic work, but not really enjoy it to the point that he would prefer it to being allowed to rest in his familiar yard, and really he would just like to go home.

This clinic however, was different. There were no behaviours instigated or asked for from me; he got to make all the choices, and he was so into it, that even in between forays out of his yard to graze, the urge to do more was so strong that grass was ignored and he was pulling me towards the arena for more!

A bit of context:

Behind the arena (which we have visited before the changes so he and I both were surprised by this) the beautiful forest of trees we were used to seeing there is being decimated by Transpower, as it is a fire risk to power pylons.

Consequently, the whole place looks entirely different; wide open sky, the river stop bank visible, pylons themselves revealed, stumps and logs instead of the familiar trees, and big yellow excavators, diggers and bulldozers dotted around as the job wasn’t finished. Fences had been torn down and rebuilt, all changes that would have usually caused massive concern in this horse who typically has trouble getting out of our own front gate if the neighbour puts a wheelie bin out, or (horrors!) turns on a sprinkler.

I first saw this devastating change, and I must admit my heart sank. Not only sadness for the loss of the trees, but also an expectation that this huge change would definitely bring up some stress in my environmentally challenged horse.

Well, goes to show how wrong I can be. What a contrast.

At the outset this weekend, he was cautious, curious and a little concerned; but instead of freeze/flight we had exuberant play, and by the end of his first session he was welded by fascination to the closest barrier between him and the devastatingly changed landscape, and did not want to leave to return to the boring safety of his familiar yard at all, where he always stays when at clinics at this property.

The ‘interesting‘ was for once not desperately, frighteningly ominous, but piquing, positive and playful.

For the first time, I saw him react positively to something ‘interesting’ instead of his usual apprehension and need to cling to his far preferred ‘familiar’ and ‘comfortable’ zone.

To start with I turned him and Apache out in the arena to settle and have a look round while we started the clinic with a presentation from Elsa. They immediately started to investigate the boundaries, neighbouring horses, and the far end where the diggers were parked up amongst the clearing work.

By the time we humans got back to the arena, he and Apache were already as close to the changes as the fence would allow. When our turn was over (an hour of intense matching play, curiousity, mindfulness and creativity flew by in what felt like 10 minutes!) as I took him back towards the familiar, comfortable but boring yards, he dragged his feet, and was clearly yearning to go back to properly investigate the changed landscape.

That afternoon, when offered an opportunity to get out and graze while we audited others, he instead opted to take myself, Sandy, and Apache our on an adventure. I was at his tail, and he went straight past the arena to the far gate, and very obviously requested that I open it! He then pioneered an exploration through the actual landscape beyond the arena, all his idea, where we closely examined and sniffed every stump, log, and machine, and then forayed even farther on his urging. We entered into spaces unknown; and ended up in a jumps paddock hidden from view from all by the remaining trees, where he wanted to play exuberantly around the obstacles. We couldn’t linger, alas, as I knew Jane was about to do a liberty walk along the same route with her stallion Hawk and Elsa for their session (see first pic of this accomplishment) so we needed to get out of their way.

McCoy did not want to come back, and on returning to the familiar area, tried his best to repeat the circuit we had just travelled.

Mind blown. What had happened to my threshold fearing horse?

The following morning, I got there extra early. After a night of processing, I had decided I would offer him a chance to have another early explore before the clinic started.

However, it was now a working week day, and alas the diggers were already in action by 7am, dust and logs and roaring machinery and whirring saws, moving sometimes close, sometimes away, and of course no chance of going into the actual work space. My hopes of sneaking him out for another exploration dissolved- I even doubted that he would go anywhere near that arena that day- the machines were going hard out right next to it! A changed but still landscape is one thing. An actual forest deconstruction zone full of noisy moving hazards was surely on a whole new level of ‘interesting‘, and surely would tip into the ‘too frightening to look at’ zone.

I was wrong.

McCoy couldn’t wait to drag me to the arena, again ignoring lush grass, and he spent the first hour of the morning pressed against the arena fence closely watching the operators work as his preference.

Maybe he wants to be a digger driver when he grows up!

This horse, who I have never seen roll or lay down away from his home turf, who was terrified even of cars when I first met him, and who flinches whenever a motor vehicle passes him, actually lay down and rolled, twice, in front of the diggers as they roared and whirred just meters away over the fence.

He was also not the only one. Apache was less fascinated but just as brave- she initiated the rolling.

All of the horses at the clinic were totally chilled about it.

Sam and Poppy in their happy place.

So what happened?

Why, after all our time together, was this such a huge difference this time?

I already knew eight years ago not to push him through thresholds of fear. He was such a scared and shut down horse, he used to hold his breath if I looked at him. Through retreat, we had inchwormed into advance via pauses and two steps backwards whenever he grew tight. I have seen how athletically his flight and fight can come up, and I had been determined that with me, he would know that I am the person who doesn’t shove him off any cliff, but who holds his hand and waits for his courage to come up. Over time, I became his ally and support. He relied upon me and my leadership.

Too much?

But here’s the deal. In Elsa’s Freedom Based Training(TM) we provide what horses crave by matching and mirroring their movements, orientation and positioning, just as we see herd animals do for each other. They are profoundly aware of the space between each other, and how each of us add or subtract harmony in how we behave in that space. They use this to communicate, to establish trust, and to define leadership via choices made in every moment.

At every threshold, McCoy would halt and stare. And I would wait.



I was habitually matching and mirroring and providing the Flow of Harmony with him in those tense moments. Yes I was doing the right thing by not nagging or pushing or insisting, but inadvertently I had classically conditioned my horse to associate that sense of freeze as something we two did together. I was providing synchrony with his freeze.

Also, the thresholds always happened on my watch.

What I mean by that is that usually when out of the familiar and comfortable zones, we would be there at my behest; meaning I was in the leadership role. McCoy and I have a good relationship based on years of time and training together, and my leadership for him is usually very easy, the longed for ‘assertive leadership’ in Elsa speak which simply means that when the leader asks a question, the answer is ‘yes’. So when he stops and stares, and I do to, he knows from all that shared experience that eventually he will stop fixating and will be able to change focus or let down, and when he does, we will overcome that threshold.

I think that just knowing that end game of the pattern that we had repeated so many times was in itself a factor that added to or even created the freeze. The freeze was his comfort when I was in charge.

At this clinic, I wasn’t in charge. There was no request to go closer, no gentle expectation to wait longer and eventually overcome. Instead all the approach and retreat was his own idea from the outset, and I simply was along for the shared experience.

Thankfully, Elsa went into this for me, and while I know this was my very first experience with consciously bringing this aspect of our truth up to play with, I think I have just the corner of a deeper understanding that I can now tease out in our interactions.

So- in practical terms, what to do when it is my turn to lead, when I make the decision to head out into the wilderness, and when a threshold does arise?

Yes wait; but don’t be associated with that freeze. Wait, but don’t synchronise. Time to adjust my gear, braid my hair, or his, look around and keep an eye on the other horizons, fiddle, anything but match and mirror the still freeze without actually asking for him to change focus or do anything. I know I will get that ear flick when he is ready- I’m here, waiting, but that freeze has nothing, nothing to do with me.

Elsa has said that familiar, comfortable and interesting are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Things can be familiar but not comfortable, or familiar and comfortable for example. A horse who is used for police work would be very familiar with interesting! It’s my conviction, for another example, that a horse who is obsessed in a good way with learning new things (I have this horse too) is very comfortable with ‘interesting‘.

In Freedom Based Training(TM), we are accomplishing many things, but one is to teach a horse to self soothe. McCoy showed me last weekend, that he can indeed cope very well with ‘interesting‘ and not only accept it, but actually, truly enjoy it.

I cannot wait to meet our next threshold, and to practice not freezing. But funnily enough, in our two rides out since the clinic, we simply haven’t hit any thresholds at all.

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reason,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.

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