The following is an article written by Elsa Sinclair, the San Juan Island native who pioneered Freedom Based Training™ in her movie Taming Wild. Elsa visited Safe Harbor last week to spend some time with Mason. Elsa has been working with several horses to explore the foundations of FBT, to discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language. She writes about a few other recent sessions she’s done on her blog, but this was her first time working with Mason:
Last week I made the effort to train and hone my skills with a rescue horse I had never met before. This was an effort to pour considerable time into a relationship with a horse I did not know, and I might not meet again. I wasn’t there to change him or train him, I was only there to get to know him, while I developed my own skills of feel and timing.
The SAFE organization was happy for me to come and spend a day with Mason, a beautiful red bay Thoroughbred, out in his paddock and they were happy to tell me as much or as little as I wanted to know about this blind date we were setting up. It was a relatively kind situation for me to walk into because, while Mason showed a body full of scars that spoke to a hard life in his past, his future was bright. He was a horse who seemed to resist training with difficult explosions of flight when he got overwhelmed, and yet he was one of the lucky ones who had found a person who wanted him in their life regardless of his difficulties. Mason was currently living at the rescue, but would be soon moving to a new home.
I was there to learn from Mason, and I had the calming knowledge that he had a person who cared greatly about him and would be there for him, even when I walked away at the end of our blind date.
In this particular situation I had seven hours to spend with this horse before he went into the stalls for dinner, where guests were not invited to linger. My normal training challenge this past month had been eight hours spent with one horse in one day, but there was no particularly good reason for this time frame, it was just an arbitrary number. Seven hours was going to teach me a significant amount also.
It was important to me that I listen to the horse in the current moment more than I tried to understand any of his past. I didn’t mind that I was told he was explosive in flight when too much pressure was put on him, but I didn’t need to know why. I could see he was covered in scars, but I didn’t need to know the stories behind the scars. I simply needed to be present with this horse, asking nothing of him, while I listened to him deeply and made choices around him, so I could hone my personal understanding of feel and timing to a sharper point of accuracy.
Now at first I started by harmonizing with Mason from a medium distance while he grazed, perhaps a horse length away from him or a little more. This is my most comfortable distance and it is where I feel I have the best rhythm in my movements as I respond to the thinking twitches of ears and subtle shifts in mental awareness as the horse looks from one thing to a different thing.
Mason seemed reasonably comfortable, sometimes getting close to a fence and letting me know I had stayed on that side for a bit too long by forcing me to choose a different place. Other times edging closer and closer to me as we stepped our way into a touching distance. He for the most part ate grass and seemed to accept my presence, only occasionally giving me any attention at all.
His pasture mate on the other hand almost seemed to be in competition with me (I have no idea if that assessment has any place in reality, I am only relating what I felt as I observed). I would match Mason’s feet positions and steps from where I stood about a horse length away, and repeatedly Mason’s pasture mate would step neatly between us matching his feet to Mason’s as well, while making sure my only next choices could be farther away not closer to his friend.
I noticed more often than not they matched each other in mirror image, opposite hooves moving in harmony like kids running a three‐legged race instead of the left foot – left foot, right foot – right foot I feel like I usually see in horse partners. I] don’t know what significance this holds if any, but I made a mental note to keep my eyes open for these kinds of situations that seemed to bring out one way of partnership versus another.
A few hours into the project, Mason was moved from the grazing pasture to the dirt lot with hay to eat and a larger group of horses to interact with. In the new space I spent an hour or so partnering at my most comfortable distance and then I decided it was time for me to experiment with my distance partnership.
Distance is not usually something I practice, because I love being close to horses, and most of my horses love being close to me. However, I know the new stallions for this next movie are not going to start out that way, and I need to hone my distance partnership skills!
Mason ended up being the best teacher I have ever had in this distance partnership. As soon as I was on the far side of the paddock it was like his brain unlocked. His ears started gently and easily changing focus all the time, his eyes started seeing things and changing focus categories with effortless ease. All of a sudden Mason was a million times more involved in being part of life around him. I had thought he was perfectly happy with me at the medium and close distances, but only when I stepped out to the farther distances did I see him really come alive and dynamically enjoy the world in a different way.
Now, on this particular day it was interesting to note, it wasn’t just me, it was the other horses also. When they were close, Mason shut down a little. He did not seem unhappy, simply less involved in living. When Mason had space, it was like his brain woke up and he could fully enjoy everything he saw and heard around him. He liked his friends, he just changed who he was a little and seemed to become smaller and less involved when his friends were close.
I have never seen anything quite like this in any of the horses I have spent time partnering, and for me it was the perfect experience to hone my skills in the area Mason seemed to most enjoy my company.
In hour number five, I am often most tired, so when Mason stepped under the apple tree to take a deep nap, I let myself step in close and work at my happiest distance, almost touching. For about an hour I stood or crouched next to Mason while he slept, watching for nonexistent danger so he could feel safe, and changing position around him to assess the safety from a different place each time he flicked an ear.
Then Mason woke up and I saw that the slight freeze habits of the morning were greatly minimized after his long freeze of napping and rest.
In this optimal state of rested awareness, Mason and I were joined by the people at the rescue who love him and care for him, and I was able to share the things I had seen and learned throughout the day.
I continued to work my partnership from the far side of the medium distance, while his other human friends played with partnering him from various places of closeness and we talked about his responses.
You could see how stepping in close led to an instant freeze and his eyes and his ears slowed in their responsiveness to everything, as if his brain was working through peanut butter.
For the rest of the day I talked theory with the humans who came to join Mason and I, and I think I was able to shed some light on perhaps why he explodes into flight when he feels the pressure of training, but it seems his brain is stuck in slow motion. If you can’t think your way to a solution in training, the only option that seems left to relieve pressure is to run like hell or fight back. Luckily for everyone Mason wasn’t a natural fighter, he was more likely to run like hell. He wanted to be with people, he seemed to like people, his brain just moved really slowly when they were close to him and that caused him problems trying to learn the kinds of things people expected him to learn.
I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Was Mason born like this which led to people abusing him? Or did people create this by causing Mason so much stress every time they were close that he developed a habit of freeze that then led to him getting abused more. I don’t know, and I am not sure I need to know. I simply know that we can help.
With good feel and timing Mason can learn to think as clearly in close partnerships as he does in distance partnerships.
This process of Freedom Based Training® where we help horses be the best version of themselves voluntarily is slow to develop, but it often works where other types of training have failed.
I know I learned a huge amount from my blind date with Mason, and hopefully I left a little light and understanding in the hands of the humans who work with him every day.
Now, I just need to find my partners for the Evolution project so I can put all I learned from Mason into practice in a long term experiment for the world to share with me. I want to show how Freedom Based Training® can be effective in rebuilding broken trust or building trust to begin with. Domestic or wild, untouched or abused, the concepts apply equally regardless of the horse or their history. I want to show how good feel and timing and a deep well of patience can be applied to create the kind of relationship with horses we all want: collaborative, voluntary, deep, and rewarding.