There’s been constant correspondence chatter on social media for months now from those who took on ‘wildie’ ownership after bidding at Innisfail [auction] following the March 2015 government sanctioned capture/cull/sale. Some were stallions, mares, youngsters, mares-in-foal (one mare dropped a foal three days later so a two-for-one package there!). A collection of new owners went onto Facebook, posting up videos and progress reports, often bravely reporting disasters as well as excellent moments.
Mops, who officially came into my life in April 2014, is one of that wildie clan (known as mustangs in the States). When we knocked him out for a canny foot trimming move for no memory trauma (that deal took some mental gymnastics from the human here! although I admit I missed out one detail – a wildie’s fine tuning on sense of smell; the vet’s surgical gloves for the IV needle were definitely a serious danger factor), his teeth proved he was five, not the four that had been suggested. There’s a deal of difference between a four- and five-year-old bachelor stud (one yet to form his own herd). Yes, he’d just been gelded, but hormones can circle around for three to six months, plus it was another full year of living wild experiences into his brain box.
Where I lucked out was his mind, and temperament. This horse had no aggression. Fear, yes, but aggression just isn’t his style. I remember first seeing him, mud covered, one stage off real starvation (the winter had been long, hard, cold and brutal along the Foothills) and looking at the space between his eyes, the shape of his head. Where I lucked out (again) was his amazing balance and self-carriage – once we start seriously driving and practising, this horse is so naturally cat-footed, in balance, that’s one thing that is right off the need-to-work-on-this list. How super!
I personally started studying horse language after watching a 2003 round pen demo with Chris Irwin working with three high-danger horses. I watched for 2 ½ hours and had to leave, a massive headache from watching so intently to try to work out what the hell this man was doing. He was generous with explaining, but there was so much body language he’d adopted into his own movements it was a huge amount to absorb. In the end it was about three years later I got the deal fairly consistently so I didn’t have to think, drop shoulder, move hip, move feet, fold, take off core energy pressure (see what I mean about concentration?!). When I went to watch him recently in another horse language demo, there were three brand new observations and I thought, ah, here we go again – !
There were other horsemen too – and horsewomen – who’d worked with mustangs down in the States, often very different methods, the Extreme Mustang Makeover crowd were generous again, many very talented trainers (one is on the prime time list of the upcoming Retired Racehorse Makeover at Lexington). A gentleman who keeps his horses near to where mine are over-wintered had worked with wildies, packing and driving, and a few old-timer ranchers who have range riders on their high lease land cattle grazing all drummed in the same deal time and time and time; once you have that trust, you have it forever.
But. You have to earn it.
It made me super conscious of never allowing myself to make a mistake, to think about every move that would have an outcome, to be more patient than a stone, always. Patting is a human thing entirely and was one of the first pointers to me how much we humans are so in the face, in the space, of our domestic horses who become deadened, or resigned, or sometimes plain angry depending on their own breed and temperament. Mops told me, loud and clear, that patting was a really stupid idea.
It also became super-obvious the human fixation with a horse’s head and front end; the engine’s at the back, and so is its capacity to move the horse around you. I knew Mops had been roped, he told me that too loud and clear and that he, along with the rest of the four-leggeds, have a memory second only to an elephant. A neckline one night proved a disaster and when I realized we had a real issue here. It was also the moment I vowed to him I would never ever ‘pull’ the front end around, and abandon completely pressure, pull and release (which he’d been handled with after capture).
Instead, he had to move his backend into gear and free up the front end – pure biomechanics really and where collecting text-books and DVDs on that science started, expensively to pile up on the old Victorian pine bread table.
Three days later working a real tank of a horse in for schooling and I found myself, in exasperation, prepared to haul. I stopped, appalled at being so crass, put my feet on the ground, apologised out loud, and started again. An animal communicator had told me horses, like many animals, tend to think in visuals and I ran a mental video tape of a horse in perfect light balance in passage and was amused to find the ‘tank’ moved off quite differently. Coincidence?
The other big deal, after months of working with Mops no less than two hours a day, every day, right out the back door almost, was the home herd loose in the front pastures and he had very different perceptions about each other. I bumped into artist and wildlife photographer Maureen Enns, author of the best-selling Wild Horses, Wild Wolves and she was personally convinced wildies, and therefore Mops, regarded his domestic brethren as inferior beings. I went home, a bit daunted actually with how to get him liking domestic horses and vice versa. Watching interaction, albeit with the corral fence between the two groups, I realized she had a serious point and really started sweating.
Thinking lateral (those 4 a.m. insights, you know those?), I went cunning, moved the home herd to their wintering pastures of a quarter section (tough, I know, they love that place!) but kept Mops and Apache, the complicated pinto boy who has yet to lay an ear back even, on the home pastures. The Apache’s the glue-in-the-herd horse, bless him, and the two of them, initially aloof but quite polite, tolerated each other. Finally it was onto one shared hay net at nights, hay scattered in closer and closer piles, and with the grazing areas moved larger and larger, with electric tape on until the middle stages. The nights got longer and darker and on the first dawn light I would go and search them out, shallow breathing, fingers crossed that my tactics were working. It didn’t help, I might add, that the pinto has gate opening abilities Houdini would admire.
Then, finally, over to integrate with the herd, knowing the appaloosa was going to be the issue. The Fox has an inner thug quality and this was ‘his’ herd. Oh my. I chopped and changed between two areas, who went with who. One episode had me wincing, of the appaloosa backing Mops into a corner and then going in for the attack. And an interesting dynamic came up. Pushed into a corner, only then would this wildie defend, really retaliate; the pasting match had my eyes crossing, wincing. I split them up for another week, and then Mops realized if he was crowded by the hay bale area, he could slyly jump over one rail lower than the others and have the five round bales to himself all night long. Often I’d find him back with the others by the morning, until eventually the whole issue just melted away – having this amount of space to move away from pressure – and wildies don’t do pressure naturally – they move away from it – I really think just took the mental load for him onto this-is-easy.
I’ve been sick with lung infections during August and September, and early October wasn’t prime either, so Mops hasn’t been handled much recently. I called them in, the white alpha mare The Best as always leading them in (she is strict on etiquette) up to the feed buckets (yes, ‘oat cuisine’ has its points!). I went around, checking legs and feet, a scratch on a neck here and there, talking. Mops was fifth on the list; I walked up, the head came up, the eye watching, aware, but not hard, as in the very early days of our acquaintance. I poured a few oats onto one flat hand, asked him to stretch out and forward and around me to get the offering.
There was no hesitation. All those hours and hours of foundation work so paid off.
What I owe him is how I move now around ‘domestic’ horses. I think about polite behaviour, how they would expect another horse to move or stand or push them into order. Would you like someone who came up to within two inches of your face and stared into your eyes? Who pulled you around by your nose when really it’s your core and hip/pelvic area that begins movement?
The bend-release thing has proved to be huge, stretch release one side of the ribcage laterally, which then relaxes the diaphragm which then releases up into the atlas joint, jaw chew, and hey presto, soft eye! Works every time, every horse…one super tense not-very-confident horses came in for schooling work and adapting the idea riding, he’s walking out all alone miles backcountry, confident, steady breathing too.
Mops, my teacher. Bless him.