Elsa 2018 – Day 3 (Day 1)

Expanding on the old, and opening my eyes to the new…

I woke up early on Monday. I was ready.

I figured that the morning theory session would be a mirror of the discussion from the Saturday (the first day of clinic 1), and I was excited to reconsolidate my learning, but I wasn’t expecting to learn so much more…

Spot the difference anyone…?!

Supportive and insistent leadership.

2 new words that bring a whole new depth to the way I think about my interactions with horses (and Lawrence in particular).

Over the last year I have been working with the Passive – Assertive – Dominant scale in mind, and until this last week I had thought of this scale as being a series of fixed points, a bar graph or pie chart if you will. When you are being passive, you are passive, then there is a point at which you hop across and become assertive, and so forth.

This had always brought into question for me times where I had started something, like rocking a body part, and had become unsure as to which part of the scale I was in. Was I being passive? Assertive? Dominant? How should I proceed? What’s the best next move? Should I persist or retreat?

And of course by the time I had gone through this cycle of overthinking I had lost focus, confidence and the connection with my horse, and would then have to try again to gain a better result and a better feeling.

So to come back to this to find 2 new categories could have been overwhelming. I’m barely managing 3, how on earth am I supposed to coordinate 5?!?!


It’s a spectrum.

Of course.

These new points on the scale are simply ways to help us categorise our behaviour and adjust our mindset appropriately. In reality, the leadership spectrum is just that. It’s a spectrum.

A continuous sliding scale that you can be at any point on at any time.

I honestly felt like a weight had lifted in my mind, and I no longer felt this pressure to know where I was on this scale all the time. I could be organic, and use these words as a baseline to see whereabouts I was and where I’d like to be, and work towards that.

Simple huh…(!)

So before we go any further perhaps I should define these words as I understood them:

Supportive Leadership:

– Being helpful. What can I do to help the horse feel better right now? When they are in fight/flight/freeze or when they dislike a decision I have made for example.

– How can I tailor my decisions for myself to best suit the outcome I would like? The phrase “where to be, when to be, how to be” comes to mind here in a whole different way!

Supportive leadership and passive leadership are about making decisions for your body only. You might choose to run your hand down your horses body or rock their leg or back or chest but you don’t want anything from them, you are simply trying to help them feel better.

Insistent Leadership:

– sits somewhere between assertive and dominant, where the discomfort is present but only briefly, or at a low level.

Insistent leadership is about making decisions for your body AND your horse’s body.

The conversation shifted to the different types of stress, and as we discussed fight, flight and freeze and their counterparts, something else clicked.

Quite recently I was in a car accident. (I’ve written more about this on my personal blog, girlbehindthewall.wordpress.com)

I could easily have died but I didn’t, and in the days after I came up to the yard to see Lawrence. I was still pretty much in shock, my shoulders, neck, back and legs were all starting to hurt and I was trying to reboot myself.

I walked over to the field where he was grazing and promptly sat down. I didn’t go to him to offer a horseman’s handshake, or whistle. Pretty soon he came over and started nuzzling. First my shoulder then my hair, then finally got me to play with his mouth. He stood by me for a while before leaving to rejoin his friends.

It had been wonderful to have him come to interact with me, I had already been so pleased, but talking about these different types of stress linked to everything together for me, and suddenly his actions became even clearer:

I, his herdmate, had entered the herd frozen, I hadn’t responded to him or taken leadership so he decided to become a supportive leader to try to help me unfreeze, then had stood with me in freeze and flow. I felt pretty honoured, I have to say…!

I also realised that it was important for me to replay this scenario again, and this time make sure to make him feel more successful; he hadn’t succeeded in breaking me out of freeze last time, due to a combination of my own shock and my lesser understanding of what was happening, but I wanted him to feel like a better leader next time. I could do that better now.

With that story and new understanding ringing in my mind, I went to get Lawrence. I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to the new people, horses or situations, and as I walked him up to the round pens, I could feel his anxiety rising. He was making lots of focus changes, but seemed to be getting stuck there, almost a focus change-freeze-focus change-freeze mindset. I sensed that if I left him alone mentally he was probably going to start feeling worse, not better, so I unhaltered in the round pen and started making lots of choices.

I moved on every focus change, with purpose and energy, at least a few steps each time. I was careful not to stray too far, as I wanted to stay where I knew he was most comfortable with me being, at a close to medium distance at maximum.

All the time I was thinking to myself “I’m checking for mountain lions”, mountains lions over here? Mountain lions over there? Mountain lions behind? Mountain lions in front? I tried to keep myself busy so that he didn’t feel the need to move; I wanted him to feel like I had everything covered.

It took a few minutes but soon he began to change focus from mostly frozen herd and environment to some more positive things and categories. We had some relaxation, licking and chewing (learning focus), some more leader focus and the beginnings of self focus and specifically grass focus. I was feeling pretty proud of myself I won’t lie! I tried to play it cool but on the inside I was just so happy!

To go from always having an uncontrollable disconnect around new situations like this where he felt so alone and unable to comfort himself that he didn’t know what else to do except run and run and run, to being able to trust me long enough to let me be the leader and then to allow my leadership to make him feel better is a testimony to both of our growth as horse and human, and I was bursting with pride.

I started to test the boundaries now that I was getting more freeze in the self focus (grass), and play the can I game…can I touch this place and get my focus change? Can I move over here and get my focus change? Can I move outside the round pen and get my focus change?

Distance is tricky. I have to have good timing for distance work. If I stay too long or miss a small focus change he will come and find me to self soothe. Sounds great on paper right? And it feels great to an extent – everyone wants their horse to want to be closer to them, but I have to remember that this means we left this distance when he wasn’t feeling good about it.

To complicate this further, if I stay too long and he comes to get me, I then have to stay closer for a while; if I go straight back out he will come and get me almost immediately. So I lose my chance to correct my mistake as quickly as I would like.

Distance is tricky.

I have also seen other riders dealing with this mindset from their horses but flipped – you stay too close for too long and your horse will let you know and you then have to wait to go back again. This must be frustrating in a whole different way!

We were having a pretty great session. You know those ones where everything just goes right? I believe some trainers refer to it as the ‘golden window’…well let me tell you, the sun was shining in and that window was wide open!

Elsa came to ask me how I was getting on. I spoke to her a little about the body work I have been doing with Lawrence, and fortuitously I happened to be touching the top of his dock at the time; he has an old fracture there and he holds a lot of pain and tension there, so I work with the energy and fascia in that area to help release and relax and aid healing. As I was talking to her he changed his focus, she immediately pointed this out and I moved to a new place of flow.

Ordinarily I would have stayed longer, waiting for more, but as I left his relaxation and good feeling increased and the next piece of my journey with the physical work slotted into place.

I needed to stop being so direct line! Accept the small focus changes, and sure enough, when I returned to that spot later in, I got a much better focus change and consequently more physical release more quickly than ever.

Mind blown. This is going to change everything for me. The physical and the psychological are so intimately intertwined, and now I have the tools to build that bridge even stronger than before.

This needed some thought, and as I moved off to process and sink into some lovely calm and easy passive leadership for the remainder of the session, Elsa left me with one final thought:

How often do I freeze on a focus on Lawrence?…


Huh…I sense this horsemanship immersion journey is just beginning…!


Sorry it’s taken me so long to write this! I am discovering quickly that I need to take time every day to work on these posts, otherwise I get too stuck in my own head! Hopefully I will be able to complete this series now that I have a plan in mind, I hope I haven’t lost too many of you yet!

I had a request to talk more about the passive techniques you can use to deal with aggressive behaviour. I want to talk about this in Day 6, as we meet a yearling who puts the theory to the test, I haven’t forgotten, and am working hard to get these next thoughts onto paper!

As ever, I’d love to discuss any of this with any of you, if you have any questions comments or feedback they are more than welcome!

For now, peace out and pony love!



2 thoughts on “Elsa 2018 – Day 3 (Day 1)

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