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Introducing the Chaos Theory and Spiral Dynamics to Horsemanship

Disclaimer: The thoughts and ideas expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to diagnose or treat any issues in horses or humans. Readers should consult with a professional for specific concerns or conditions.


Regardless of your religion or belief system, it is important to understand that everything on this planet is governed by a set of natural laws and universal principles. This can be incredibly empowering in life and relationships IF you take the time to learn what these laws and principles are and how they work. I like to call it being a “conscious player in the game of life”.
In this article I am going to introduce a few of these laws and explain how they relate to our equine partners, who are in essence, pure consciousness. Chaos Theory, The Law of Balance, The Law of Eristic Escalation, and Spiral Dynamics.
These concepts are important to horsemanship because they offer a deeper understanding of the dynamic and often complex interactions between horses and their environments, including their relationships with humans. These theories can significantly enhance training, behavior management, and the overall welfare of horses by providing frameworks that acknowledge and utilize the natural tendencies of equine behavior. Here’s how each of these theories plays a crucial role in horsemanship:
In simple terms, Chaos Theory is the point at which order moves to disorder or vice versa. Chaos Theory is crucial in horsemanship because it highlights the sensitivity of horses to initial conditions and small changes in their environment or handling. This sensitivity can lead to large and sometimes unpredictable responses. By understanding that small adjustments in training techniques, handling methods, or even daily routines can have profound effects on a horse’s behavior and performance, trainers and owners can more carefully plan and execute their interactions with horses, aiming to achieve positive outcomes without unintended consequences.
But to FULLY understand Chaos Theory, we must also bring in the “Law of Eristic Escalation”.
The Law of Eristic Escalation states that when you impose order, chaos is created to the same degree of the imposed order. Adding to this law is Fenderson's Amendment which proposes that the tighter the order is imposed and maintained, the longer the chaos takes to escalate, BUT the more it does when it does! (Law of Eristic Escalation, n.d.).
This law, stating that imposing order can often lead to chaos, is particularly relevant in training environments where discipline and control are emphasized. It serves as a caution against overly rigid training methods that can suppress a horse's natural instincts and lead to stress or behavioral issues. Instead, this law encourages a more flexible and understanding approach to training, where natural horse behaviors are respected rather than stifled, leading to a more harmonious relationship between horse and handler.
Another law to take into consideration is “The Law of Balance”, which states that nature is always governing things back to a state of homeostasis. So, when one energy rises, the opposing energy rises to the same degree.
In the context of horsemanship, this law underscores the importance of equilibrium in a horse's physical and emotional state. It reminds trainers that every training action they take will elicit a response from the horse, which seeks to restore balance. Understanding this can help trainers ensure that they do not push the horse too far too quickly and that they provide recovery and relaxation periods that are essential for the horse’s mental and physical health.
You might be thinking, “What the heck does this have to do with my horse?!”
Well, I will start with a question. What is the MAIN element that horses respond to?
The answer is Pressure.
The term "pressure," now central to many disciplines including horsemanship, was first introduced by Blaise Pascal in 1647. Originally derived from the Latin "pressura," meaning "action of pressing," Pascal used it to describe physical forces acting on a surface. Over the centuries, the concept of pressure has evolved and expanded into metaphorical realms, including psychological and emotional fields. In horsemanship, the application of pressure is multifaceted. It encompasses the physical touch, such as the use of reins or a rider's legs to guide a horse, but extends into the psychological realm where it influences behavior and response. When we apply pressure in training, we're communicating with the horse, asking for attention, response, or movement. The art of horsemanship involves applying just enough pressure to guide but not so much as to overwhelm. This delicate balance requires understanding and sensitivity to the horse's reactions, making the historical depth and nuances of the word "pressure" incredibly relevant to how we train and interact with our equine partners today.
Horses' social hierarchy is very similar to humans and in the natural herd environment, horses are self-organizing. Each member of the herd expresses traits in each moment to maintain balance within the present environment. The other impacting component to the horse and human relationship is a horse's instinct to blend in with the herd. For example, if you are the horse that stands out in the valley, you will become the target of the wolf. A horse's ability to communicate through mirror neurons and the morphogenic field gives them all the information they need to innately adapt to the environment they are in. (Issuu, n.d.).
This is where it gets interesting. The application of chaotic dynamics to psychological behavior is an innovative theoretical development because it proposes that human systems are open, nonlinear, and self-organizing. According to Rae Blackerby, “Most current psychological models fail to address the metaphysical conditions inherent in the human system, thus bringing deep errors to psychological practice and empirical research”. (Blackerby, 1993)
As stated in the Law of Eristic Escalation, the more order (containment/pressure) imposed on your horse, the more chaos is created. The chaos may be exposed externally through oppositional behavior, OR it may go internally and turn into an illness like ulcers or colic. There are different ways that we put pressure on horses. The most obvious way is physical pressure; cornering, tying, pulling on the reins, using a tiedown, etc. We also put mental and energetic pressure on them through our own behaviors, environmental responses, energy, and energetic repressions.
From my observation in the horse community for the past 20 years, I have frequently seen people trying to calm their horses down by applying pressure. If the horse is antsy, they grab the halter and hold it firmly, putting pressure on the head and trying to hold them in place or smacking them in the belly to get them to stand still. It may work at that moment, BUT over time the behavior becomes more aggressive OR the horse becomes more nervous internally. All this pressure builds over time until either the horse has a catastrophic explosion OR entropy sets in at a cellular level and illness or injury shows up, eventually taking the horse's life.

In my journey with horses, I've discovered that introducing a bit of controlled chaos can significantly enhance both training and the overall growth of a horse. The idea is not to unsettle or stress our equine partners unnecessarily but to gently push the boundaries of their comfort zones in ways that promote learning and adaptability. Here's how I approach this concept in my daily interactions and training sessions:
Guided Variations
I believe in keeping things interesting for both myself and my horses. By slightly varying our daily routine—such as changing the order of exercises or introducing new, simple obstacles—I've noticed my horses become more attentive and engaged. It's about creating a learning environment that is both stimulating and safe, avoiding overwhelming them while encouraging curiosity.
Systematic Habituation
Anxiety in horses can often be managed through systematic habituation, NOT to be confused with desensitizing. For example, if a horse is nervous about the sound of clippers, I'll introduce them slowly. Initially, the clippers are off and simply present during grooming. Gradually, I'll turn them on without using them, and over time, use them as normal. This methodical approach allows the horse to acclimate to potentially scary situations without fear. One of my key strategies is to gradually expose my horses to a variety of experiences. This could be as simple as taking a different trail than usual or exposing them to unfamiliar sights and sounds around the barn. I start with low-stress situations to build their confidence. The goal is to prepare them to handle unexpected situations with calm and assurance.
Strategic Creativity
I'm a big advocate for encouraging horses to think independently. Setting up an obstacle course with multiple paths or solutions helps develop their problem-solving skills. I let them navigate with minimal guidance to boost their decision-making capabilities, which is essential when faced with real-life challenges.
Feedback Loops
Using feedback from the horse is crucial in this process. I carefully observe how they react to each new challenge and adjust accordingly. If they cope well, I might increase the challenge slightly; if they show signs of stress, I’ll dial it back. It’s all about finding that balance where the horse feels challenged but not threatened.
Introducing controlled chaos into your training regimen isn't about making things harder; it's about making them better. It’s about preparing your horse to face the world with confidence and curiosity, enhancing their ability to adapt and thrive in a variety of situations. This method has not only improved my horses' training outcomes but also deepened our connection, as they learn to trust in my guidance through unfamiliar territory. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that controlled chaos should never be implemented with a horse you have not built a relationship with first. Every horse is unique, and recognizing and respecting their individual responses to stimuli is key to successfully implementing these strategies. Adjust your approach based on your horse's specific needs and watch as they grow into more capable, confident companions.
To harness the principles of Chaos Theory here is a structured approach to introduce changes:

Exercise: Incremental Adjustment Technique

1.    Identify the Change: Clearly define what new technique or adjustment you want to introduce. For instance, changing the pressure applied through the reins.

2.    Introduce Gradually: Instead of making the change all at once, introduce it gradually. Start with a very subtle adjustment during a low-stress, familiar exercise where the horse feels comfortable.

3.    Observe Responses: Pay close attention to how the horse responds to the change. Note any signs of confusion or discomfort, as well as positive responses.

4.    Adjust Based on Feedback: Use the horse's feedback to guide how quickly or slowly you proceed with the change. If the horse seems confused or distressed, scale back the change and introduce it more slowly.

5.   Document the Process: Keep a training diary to track what changes have been made and how the horse responded to each. This record can be invaluable in understanding the impacts and guiding future training.

6.   Consult Expertise: If unsure about the reactions or progress, consult with a professional trainer who can provide insight and guidance based on their experience with similar situations.

Now on to Spiral Dynamics…

The theory of Spiral Dynamics originated with professor Clare W. Graves in order to help him organize the many approaches to human nature and answer questions about psychological maturity. Spiral Dynamics is a system that consists of 8 interconnected levels or value systems. Each of them is represented by a different color and a unique set of priorities, beliefs, and perceptions that equate to certain levels of consciousness. (Foresight, n.d.). After spending countless hours observing, interacting with, training, and being trained, I have observed a similar hierarchy of consciousness in my relationship with my horses. Some may argue that horses are not conscious and don’t possess critical thinking abilities. I am not here to argue that. I aim to simply share my observations and experiences in relation to the spiral dynamic theory.
If you want to learn more about human spiral dynamics, you can simply Google it and find hundreds of charts and articles. However, the purpose of this article is to discuss what I have observed to be the 8 levels of spiral dynamics in horsemanship. 
Survival, Herd Mentality, Power, Collection, Achievement, Confidence, Curiosity, and Connection.

Integrating Spiral Dynamics into Horsemanship

Diving into the different levels of Spiral Dynamics really opens up new pathways for how we train and interact with our horses. By understanding where each horse is on this spiral, we can fine-tune our approaches to better align with their current state, promoting not just their growth, but also their overall well-being. This tailored approach helps us build healthier, more harmonious relationships with our equine friends. It's all about meeting them where they are and guiding them forward with empathy and insight.

1. Survival (Beige): 

Description: The survival level is focused on the horse's basic needs and instinctual responses. The primary concerns are safety, food, water, and shelter. At this stage, the horse's behavior is driven by the need to avoid threats and ensure its basic survival.

Actionable Step: Ensure a Safe Environment: Create a secure and comfortable environment for your horse. Regularly check the stable and pasture for hazards, provide fresh water, and ensure they have adequate nutrition. Spend time with your horse to build trust and reassure them that they are safe.

2. Herd Mentality (Purple)

Description: Horses at this level rely heavily on the social structure of the herd. They seek cues and guidance from other horses to ensure their actions are in harmony with the group, which provides a sense of security and belonging.

Actionable Step: Encourage Socialization: Allow your horse to interact with other horses regularly. Group turnout sessions can help them develop social skills and understand herd dynamics. Observing their interactions will also give you insights into their social behavior.

3. Power (Red):

Description: At the power level, horses start to establish dominance and rank within the herd. This stage is characterized by asserting strength and control to secure resources and status among peers.

Actionable Step: Establish Leadership: Through consistent and fair training, establish yourself as a trustworthy leader. Use clear boundaries and positive reinforcement to guide your horse, helping them understand your expectations and their place within the hierarchy.

4. Collection (Blue)

Description: Collection in horsemanship refers to a horse's ability to carry itself in a balanced and efficient manner. This level involves the horse responding to refined cues from the rider, leading to physical and mental harmony.

Actionable Step: Practice Groundwork: Engage in groundwork exercises that promote balance and responsiveness. Techniques such as lunging, long-lining, and in-hand work can help your horse develop the muscles and coordination needed for collection under saddle.

5. Achievement (Orange):

Description: Horses at the achievement level are trained to accomplish specific tasks and challenges. This includes learning complex movements, participating in competitions, and excelling in various disciplines.

Actionable Step: Set Goals: Establish clear training goals and work systematically towards them. Break down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps, and celebrate progress along the way. Regularly reassess and adjust your training plan to keep your horse motivated and engaged.

6. Confidence (Green):

Description: A confident horse is secure in its abilities and relationship with the rider. It trusts the rider and can handle new situations with composure, reflecting a deep bond and mutual respect.

Actionable Step: Expose to New Experiences: Gradually introduce your horse to new environments and stimuli. Use positive reinforcement to build their confidence in unfamiliar situations. Consistent, calm handling will help them trust you and approach new challenges with assurance.

7. Curiosity (Yellow):

Description: The curiosity level is marked by a horse's willingness to explore and learn new things. Horses become more engaged and interested in their environment, showing a desire to interact with new stimuli.

Actionable Step: Enrichment Activities: Provide your horse with a variety of enrichment activities. This can include obstacle courses, trail rides, and interactive toys. Encourage exploration and curiosity by creating a stimulating environment that piques their interest.

8. Connection (Turquoise):

Description: The highest level of spiral dynamics in horsemanship is a profound, almost spiritual connection between horse and rider. This is where both parties are in sync, communicating effortlessly through subtle cues and energy, achieving a state of true partnership.

Actionable Step: Develop Intuitive Communication: Spend quality time with your horse beyond formal training sessions. Engage in activities like liberty work and join-up, which foster a deep sense of connection and mutual understanding. Pay attention to your horse's body language and respond with sensitivity, cultivating a harmonious partnership

Thanks for joining me on this insightful journey through Chaos Theory and Spiral Dynamics in horsemanship. It's fascinating to see how these deep concepts can transform our understanding and interactions with our equine partners. By embracing the natural laws and principles that govern all behavior and relationships, we open ourselves to becoming more conscious and connected participants in the beautiful dance of life with horses. Here's to enhancing our bonds with these magnificent creatures through greater awareness and understanding. Let's keep exploring and growing together in this amazing equine journey!
Blackerby, R. F. (1993, January 1). Application of Chaos Theory to Psychological Models. NASA ADS.
Law of Eristic Escalation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2022, from
Foresight. (n.d.). Spiral Dynamics as a Tool for Social Change and Foresight. Houston Foresight.
‌ Issuu. (n.d.). Why horses are so in tune with human emotion. Retrieved from


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