Happy Horses

Riding Holiday Portugal

I believe that God did not design the horse to be ridden. Whether you call it God or evolution or nature, it is a fact that horses are not especially well designed to carry weight on their backs. In fact, they are designed for exactly what they do in nature: most of their time is spent grazing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other with their muzzle all the way down. This is how a horse in nature spends about three-quarters of its time. The biggest part of the remaining time is spent resting. A very small amount of time is used walking from one place to the next, for example to the water and, in case of danger, in flight.

When I want to ride, however, I put weight on their backs, my own weight plus my clothes and my equipment usually and then I often want to do strange things like trot around a giant sandbox. The horse, of course, sees no point in this and might actually end up suffering emotionally as well as physically from what I insist on doing. So what is the solution? Many people just give up riding, but I’m a stubborn girl and I really enjoy riding. So I try to find ways to make riding at least ok for my horse, both psychologically as well as physically. And once I’ve discovered a trick or two, I really want to pass these on. So that’s what I do at my courses at Sundance Ranch.

Riding Holiday Portugal

Here’s a quick list of all the things that I believe we can do for our horses:

Western saddles spread the weight of the rider over a larger surface on the horse’s back, thus making it easier to carry us for a longer amount of time. Western saddles also seem easier to fit.

To further protect my horses’ backs, I really work on the rider’s seat. It’s the only topic in your first lesson with me and we will come back to it again and again during the week. Only if you can sit in balance and harmony with your horse’s movements at each gait, can it possibly be ok for the horse to carry you. I see no point in going to faster gaits or specific exercises before the seat is reasonable.

Bits may be useful for higher dressage, but for most of what I do in my riding, bitless is perfectly fine. I have found that it is entirely possible to collect a horse in a simple sidepull bridle since collection comes from the hind end and not from pulling on the reins. Many people say that it’s acceptable to use a bit, as long as you don’t pull on the reins. I don’t think my horses enjoy carrying a bit of metal around in their mouths and I also do not think that I can keep myself from pulling hard when I get scared, so I doubt that most of my riders can either. So, bitless it is.

The way you communicate with your horse is fundamental for making his or her life easier. The ask should be as soft as possible, the horse should understand what is meant and the release should come as quickly as possible after the horse even starts to think in the right direction. All that is logical and simple, but the application is not, so we practice on the ground and in the saddle.

Working in the riding arena makes a lot of sense for me when I want to teach my students or exercise my horses, but the horses sure get bored with it. So do the riders and therefore I make sure we mix lessons inside the arena with rides out in nature. After all, who says you cannot teach on the trail?

The amount of work done also matters for physical and emotional well-being. My lessons don’t last longer than 45-50 minutes and my trail rides rarely reach two hours. If my bum hurts, I bet so does my horse’s back. Most of my horses work one or two sessions during the week and have the weekends off. They also get months off in the summer and winter, except when they need training. Training can be necessary to keep the body fit and flexible or to make the horse more motivated.

Finally and possibly most importantly, the rest of their lives should be as good as possible. Horses need adequate care from vet and farrier, they need adequate feeding, but mostly they need the three Fs, as specified in “The Horse’s Manifesto” by Lauren Fraser: Friends, Forage and Freedom. Therefore, my horses live in herds, out on the pasture all year round and have grass and/or hay available to them at all times. If they are this happy in their free time, I’m sure it makes it ok to work for me a couple hours a day!

These are the principles I live by and these are the principles I teach in my course. I have found that my guests really enjoy feeling a connection to these happy horses and love to learn to contribute to this happiness. In the end, everyone is happy, both humans and horses.


Horses rescued from garbage dump – a happy story from Sundance Ranch in Portugal

Horses rescued from garbage dump

This summer Sandra, who runs Sundance Ranch in Portugal, found out about a couple of young Lusitano mares who lived in horrible conditions at a garbage dump. She decided to go and have a look. What she found was two mares, 3 and 5 years old, hungry, full of eczema and open wounds. She couldn’t leave them there, so she went back to her ranch immediately to get her trailer and take them home.

The mares, Imelda and Luana, came from a breeder who wasn’t able to take care of the horses any longer.  She sold them to her farrier who never paid for them, nor took care of them. It ended up with a Facebook ad that got picked up by Sandra.

Freedom Based Training

At Sundance Ranch, the horses are trained by the principles of Elsa Sinclair, “Freedom Based Training”. In practice, this means to establish and develop the communication between horse and human by only using body language. This form of training should be without any kind of physical tools or bribes, so the setting is as natural as possible for the horse and it is free to leave the game at any time.

I have previously written a blog post on Elsa Sinclair and her methods. You can find it here; Elsa Sinclair and her ways of Freedom Based Training.

Basic training and care

As these were youngsters they hadn’t been handled a lot, so Sandra and her team had some work ahead of them, not only taking care of their physical needs as forage and medical care, but they had to get started on the training. The plan was to make them feel safe and confident enough to be able to put them up for adoption. The process was documented in a series of 5 short videos. You can find these here.

Practically, it is hard to follow the principles completely, and in the daily routine, it was necessary to use some physical tools as a halter and lead rope. As these horses needed to be followed up closely on hoof care, vaccines and other medical care, it was important to work on this in the beginning. They would do this step by step out in the field by building trust and confidence.

Sundance Ranch groundwork

Groundwork and preparations for trailer loading

As they progressed they started some basic groundwork by halter and lead rope to establish confidence and boundaries together with the leader. Another exercise that was introduced was to step up on a ramp on the ground as a preparation for trailer loading. They also had to practice on separating the two mares as they were very dependent on each other. Everything was introduced slowly to avoid stress and negative experience for the horses.

Adoptive home in Denmark

Imelda and Luana turned out to be a couple of calm and willing horses, and it didn’t take long before they had found new homes. Two Danish women wanted to adopt them, so in October they are moving to Denmark. I’ll try to follow up on the story after they have arrived in their new home.

We wish them good luck and are happy that these horses get a new chance in life.

Well done Sandra!

Elsa Sinclair and her ways of Freedom Based Training

In May 2018 me and my family went to Portugal for a riding holiday – to Sundance Ranch. I had already had e-mail communication with Sandra, who owns the place, for a few months. We had discussed our thoughts around keeping and training horses – both in general and in connection with riding holidays.

I felt that I really had found the place that was aligned with my ideas and values, and this trip was a step in the right direction for me and for what I want to accomplish with this blog.

A couple of days before arrival she sent me an e-mail saying that I should check out Elsa Sinclair and her Freedom Based Training. She told me that they have implemented her methods of communication with the horses at Sundance Ranch, and that this is something we will go through. I must admit that I had never heard of Elsa before, so I started to search for information. I became very fascinated by this woman!

The Taming Wild project

It all started with a question; What if the horses were given a choice? Would they let us ride them? Without force or tools to control and without bribes to lure them? These questions were burning inside of her for an answer, so she initiated a project called “Taming Wild”.

The idea was to start with a wild horse with no previous experiences with humans and try to develop a method of communication based on body language. Would the horse allow her to ride without using any physical tools? She gave the project one year and documented the process. The result was an inspiring documentary that I recommend for you to see. It can be found here.

The adoption of a wild Mustang

To find a suitable horse without previous experiences with humans, she chose to adopt a wild Mustang. The Bureau of Land Management manages the number of wild horses in the US, and due to overpopulation, they gather a large number of horses each year and put them up for adoption. Elsa picked out a mare that had just arrived, and that was fresh and inexperienced. She was given the name Myrnah. Along with Myrnah they also brought a second mare, so they had company in each other.

Patience and self discipline without physical tools

In the documentary we are following Elsa and Myrnah through ups and downs through the year, and it is fascinating to see the kind of self-discipline and patience she possesses, how persistence she is and what results can come of that. As she writes in her blog;

“This is the slowest possible way to train a horse, and this is the most important piece of Freedom Based Training for me. Taming that wild streak inside myself that wants what I want when I want it”

This is so true! I can recognize myself in this together with my horse quite often. I want a relationship with my horse based on mutual respect and trust, but when he wants something else than me, and when he is not motivated for the tasks I give him, it is easy to just demand him to do it. I want what I want when I want it!

Elsa worked slowly step by step, only by using bodylanguage, patience and presence with a horse that is free to leave at any time. No physical tools were used, no fences to push her against, and no treats. She reached her goal, and in the end, she got permission to get up and ride.

In my opinion this can be achieved by all of us, but we have to think outside of the box and accept that it takes time – a lot of time! We may not have this time available, or we might not want to give it the time it takes? Even though it is not realistic or necessary for everyone to follow this method, I’d wish that we at least could implement some of it in our daily routine with the horses.  Spend more time together without making any demands and give the horse time to think and react when asking for anything.


Elsa Sinclair has clinics around the world, have on several occasions been to Sundance Ranch where her principles are practiced. If you don’t have the opportunity to take part in her clinics, you can learn it there. I just got a little taste of it when I visited Sundance Ranch as I only had a couple of days available, but I got a lot of inspiration and want to learn more!

I recommend that you take a look at her blog; https://equineclarity.org/