Freedom Based Training and Western in the middle of nowhere of Portugal

This is the place where nobody hears you scream,” my husband says as we drive up the last hill to the main house at Sundance Ranch in Portugal. We have not driven more than 3 km on dirt road, but it feels far off the beaten track. In the directions it says: “It feels like a long time, because you cannot drive very fast on this road. Do not give up and do not despair” I love it already!

All of us have come along on this trip, me, my husband, and our two daughters at 8 and 11 years old. Our oldest daughter, Eline, rides, and looks forward to this trip almost as much as me, while the other two are not as keen.

In the middle of nowhere – the ranchhouse is the white building. Can you spot it?

Meeting Sandra

When we arrive at Sundance Ranch we are met by Sandra. We arrive in the evening after many hours of travel and she has dinner ready for us. Around the dinner table, she tells us about the ranch and her philosophy about keeping and training horses. She originally has a degree in business and a career in management consulting and training. One day she decided to follow the dream of working with horses, and so it was.

She says that she, in the last year especially, has followed Elsa Sinclair and her training methods after meeting her at a course Elsa held in Portugal. Elsa Sinclair is a pioneer in Freedom Based Training since starting her project; «Taming Wild». It all started by her asking herself the questions; “What if horses were given a choice? Would they let us ride? Without force or tools to bribe them?” She wanted to see if this was possible, whether she could start with a completely new horse untouched by humans and develop a method of communication completely free of physical aids. The result was an inspirational documentary that we saw on this first evening at Sundance Ranch. This was the very core of what this place was all about.

Sundance Ranch

Meeting Sandra gave me a lot of inspiration! I haven’t tried this exercise yet, but perhaps I will one day when no one is watching.

Day 1 – Introduction to Freedom Based Training
After a good night’s sleep, we are ready to go at 10 a.m. Since we are only staying here for 2 days, and we are the only guests, Sandra has compressed the weekly program, so we can make the most of our stay. Each session is about 3 hours, and usually consists of groundwork, riding lessons, theory or trail riding. Our first session consists of theory, Freedom Based Training and a riding lesson.

I have been given Ramses who is a large Oldenburg gelding with a background in dressage and hunting. Eline gets Salti, who is an older gelding with an unknown past, but his sceptical nature reveals that he hasn’t had an easy life.

Our first task is to go into the pasture to get to know the horses and be accepted as their partners. No easy task in such a short time, but we learned a lot. It was important to interpret their subtle signals and not go too fast. Sandra tells us that it is not natural for the horses to be immediately physical with each other and it can be uncomfortable for them if we go directly to them to touch them. They can tolerate it, but they do not necessarily like it. You have to look at the individual horse and see how you can approach without the horse showing signs of being uncomfortable. You have to back off before the horse chooses to leave, and to do this you have to be sensitive to their signals. It can be anything from the ears’ position, the movements of the lower lip, and more clear signs that the horse takes out its frustration by attacking other horses nearby.

Freedom Based Training

Hanging out with the herd doing nothing.

Something else Sandra also asked us to notice is how the horses together are synchronized. Most often they stand in parallel and move together. This was very evident in this herd that naturally had divided into small groups of friends. Alternatively, they may also be complementary when they are close to each other to help each other with itching or chasing away flies with their tails.
When we were to work with our horses, she asked us to implement this by being synchronized with the horse and behaving like a member of the group. We would stand and move with them and we could try out different distances and see what the horse responded best to. Depending on the type of horse we had, we should also behave as leaders and show this with a confident body language; look for “dangerous lions” and lead the way to where we should move.

It turned out that my horse, Ramses, was very relaxed and friendly, so to get a bigger challenge I got another horse for this work that I would also ride later; Vento. He was more reluctant and sceptical. I was a little overly anxious and thought it went rather well, so I started scratching his neck. Sandra then pointed out that she could see from his facial expression that he tolerated it, but that he didn’t necessarily like it. He eventually became frustrated and tried to release this tension by threatening to bite his mate. I had to tone it down and go slower.

So, we stood there, me and Eline, among all the horses trying to get some signs of acceptance. Our eyes met a few times, and we giggled a little bit about the situation, but we both thought it was very exciting. She was also much more patient and sensitive than me and eventually got a good connection with her horse.

Ideally, we would like the horse to have the desire to be with us so much that it practically put its nose into the halter itself, but that was a bit unrealistic due to the short time we had available. However, we tried our best and could eventually put the halter on and take them with us. This practice gave us a lot of inspiration for working with our own horse at home, slowly and patiently.

Day 1 – Riding lesson
Then it was time for a riding lesson. I got Ramses, an Oldenburg which had big movements and was picky about rider’s seat. This was why he was given to me, after I told Sandra that my seat and posture on the horse needed some work. We rode in western saddles and with a side-pull, i.e bitless, so there were several things that were new to us. I felt like a beginner!

Even though the discipline was western, Sandra knew her things about classical dressage too. It was not typical western, where you ride with one hand and without any contact. We used both hands on the reins, focusing on the correct seat and to give as small signals as possible to the horse.

Sundance Ranch

Eline and Sandra watching me struggle.

She observed me riding for a few minutes. “You’re working too hard and asking for too many things at once. You never take the pressure off the horse,” she said to me. I had trouble with the horse falling to the inside, and that there was too little impulsion. It was hard to get everything in place! She asked me to concentrate on one thing at a time and do this one thing properly before moving on to the next step. “If you want the horse go forward, ask for it first by thinking about it and generating energy, then give a clucking sound, and if he still does not respond, then you can use your legs. This is the theory of anticipation. By being consistent with this every time we ride, the horse will anticipate what comes next and eventually react only to changes in your energy without you having to do anything else. When he reacts, take the pressure off and keep it off until he slows down again”

This theory was the basis of all the exercises we did, and it took a lot of concentration! It is very difficult to hold back when you are used to giving several signals at once. This probably sounds like a matter of course for you readers who have ridden dressage for a while but remember that I am practically self-taught and have many bad habits.

We also worked with circles and especially eight-shapes only by using the seat – a very useful exercise for me. Eventually, we went over to try the same only with a neck rope, because then you could not cheat by using the reins. I got a lot of inspiration here for what I can practice at home!

Eline was riding at the same lesson, but I was so concentrated on the tasks that I barely got to see what she did. She rode past me every now and then in with a smile on her face. She seemed to be enjoying herself!

Day 1 – Trail ride
After lunch and some time for relaxation it was time for the next session. In the first part, we continued the work of being in the herd with the horses. I tried again with Vento, who was still not very interested, and I believe he would rather be left alone than coming with me to ride. We took our time and observed the horses’ reactions to our presence. Eline got a new horse this time; Real, which was a very steady and calm horse – perfect for her to ride on the trail.

Then we went out for an hour’s trail ride in the area, Eline, Sandra and me. For safety reasons and because of the terrain, they usually go at a walk. There were some steep climbs and in return great views along the way. Nature was at its lushest at this time of year (May) and we enjoyed it!
Vento was a fun horse to ride with a lot of character, and he reminded me a lot of my horse back home. He had a lot of energy, but wasn’t comfortable with going in front, so we stayed behind Sandra in the beginning. After a while he got braver and led the group with confidence. Although he was very energetic, he would always respond to my signals when I needed him to slow down. A very nice and sensitive horse!

After all the day’s impressions, we were quite tired when the evening came, but in a good way. We had learned a lot and looked forward to continuing the next day. We went to bed early.

Day 2 – Ground work and riding lesson
The next day the training session started at 10 a.m. and we started working with the horses in freedom out on the pasture as the day before. Eline got Salti to work with again, but this time he had a strange behavior. Every time she came and stood beside him he turned a little irritated to her and let his nose touch her hand before turning back. He repeated this several times, and Eline became very confused. He didn’t leave, nor tried to bite after her – only a touch with the nose. Sandra came in to help, and it turned out that this was something they had worked on earlier. Because of his skeptical nature, she had given him this tool of communication, so he could be understood without having to become aggressive or running away. When he did this, nose to hand, he expected to be left alone. When he was not understood, he was clearly frustrated, and Eline did not understand either. It was fascinating to observe. When this became a two-way communication, and she backed off when he asked for it, it went much better and she eventually got him in without protests.

Before the riding lesson, we did some ground work, and were to guide the horses through obstacles that Sandra had placed in the arena. We needed to focus on communication and trust in these exercises. We sent the horses through the obstacles on their own, and although they had done this before, there were still some of them they weren’t completely comfortable with. In these cases, it was important not to stress the horses, but rather take a few steps back and start again with small steps. It was about getting as many “yes” answers from the horse as possible, little by little.

Sundance Ranch ground work

Sometimes the horses like to play with the obstacles on their own.

Today’s riding lesson for my part with Ramses had the most focus on engagement, rhythm, self-carriage and correct bend. The first priority was to make the horse lose tension. “We need a relaxed horse before we can work on anything else,” Sandra says. We also rode through the obstacles we used earlier, which required precision as everything was supposed to happen with as light aids as possible. Eline in particular thought this was a lot of fun, and again we received a lot of inspiration for what we could do at home.

Day 2 – Round pen and trail ride
In the afternoon session, and our last before we moved on, we did some work in the round pen. “I do not really like to use a round pen too much as it puts a lot of pressure on the horse, but it’s a very useful exercise for us to become aware of how our own body language and energy levels affect the horse,” Sandra says. We worked to adjust the horse’s speed and direction by adjusting our position and energy. The result of a few minutes of training was “join-up”, where the horse is invited in and follows you as you move around. The theory behind this is that it is more comfortable for the horse to be with you than to be pushed away, so it chooses the most comfortable option.

I had never worked in a round pen before, so this was interesting to try. I have worked a lot with lunging, and you can work on the same things there, but then I think the lunge line becomes a disturbing element. On the other hand, the round pen may seem a little claustrophobic to the horse with these walls around a small enclosure. I’m sure there are many opinions out there about this.

Then it was time for the last trail ride. We took a different trail this time and were also accompanied by Nina, who lives in the area and who helps Sandra with the horses. It was a nice trip, with the same horses as the day before and with stops for grazing, chattering and laughter. A good ending!

Me and Vento on the last trail ride.

Now I have not mentioned anything about my husband and our youngest daughter. They were basically left to themselves in the two days we were there, spending the time relaxing and hanging out with the other animals on the ranch that consisted of dogs, cats and donkeys. They also took a longer drive out to the coast, to Porto das Barcas, and a trip to the nearest village, Odemira. They thought Sundance Ranch was a very nice place, but if we were to stay for more than two days I think they would have been bored. In other words, Sundance Ranch is better for true horse enthusiasts as it is all about the horses.

Overall impression
I left Sundance Ranch full of inspiration and I would love to stay there for a longer period to learn more – especially about Freedom Based Training. Sandra is living her dream and is eager to communicate her knowledge and values. She markets herself as a provider of horse-friendly holiday courses, and she delivers on that. I really do not think there are many places that provide a better life for the horses than this. The horses have freedom, a safe herd, constant access to forage, a river that flows through the pasture, and last but not least, they are treated with the humility and respect they deserve.
We’ll see you again!