Week 1

The two Mustang mares are still together. Zoe and I consider whether we will be able to separate them and lead them individually into the round pen. I am so excited about this first step in the horses’ “work.” We had taken the lead ropes off the halters the evening before, so to lead the horses, we need to put the ropes back on. The mares set us straight: Just clip a rope onto a Mustang’s halter? No chance! There was a good reason why the American trainer, who had halter-broken them and prepared them for transport, left the ropes on the halters. Mona warily watches my cautious approach. Because she doesn’t immediately turn away, but stays standing curiously, I am actually able to clip the lead rope onto the ring of her halter after a few minutes. It takes a little longer with Zoe’s cautious mare, but we have time.

The mares are relaxed and eating in their temporary stall.

It becomes clear to me during this first step of training that we can’t achieve anything with speed. This project will remind me time and again to approach this horse calmly, circumspectly, and without time pressure. What an undertaking!

I take Mona out of her stall, while Zoe stays with the other Mustang mare. She isn’t particularly bothered by the separation. I had expected a different reaction here, too.

Despite having grown up naturally in a herd, both horses seem to have a certain degree of independence. I wonder whether even just this first calm approach has been enough to build up a relationship to a human. I would be surprised if it had because that would be incredibly fast.

Mona follows me quietly for the 50 yards or so to the round pen, and looks around, but definitely doesn’t go into flight mode. Everything is new to her: the buildings we walk between, the other horses in the exercise pen that she can see next to the round pen. Another 50 yards away is the large indoor arena—but this building doesn’t seem to impress her either.

I enter the round pen ahead of her and she follows me willingly. How do you begin training a wild Mustang? I try to see Mona as a completely normal horse and think about what I would normally do.

I start with some simple exercises that are supposed to teach her to focus on me. I walk in circles and keep stopping and observing whether she is paying attention to me. I can see that she finds this difficult and keeps looking around her. As a result, she follows unsteadily, a little behind me. You couldn’t call it normal leading. I notice that being led on a rope like this doesn’t mean anything to her. Of course, she just isn’t ready for it at the moment. And why should she be? I feel the urge to let her go. I consider for a moment whether that is wise, and what could happen. Our round pen is fenced with panels so, in principle, escape is impossible. It is possible that I won’t be able to catch Mona again. However, as has been the case with other timid or anxious horses, good round-pen training makes it possible to build up a relationship with any horse that allows himself to be caught again. (Well, that’s my theory, anyway.)

So I risk it and remove Mona’s rope. Then, something astonishing happens. I had expected her to want to get away from me. I am familiar with that behavior from horses I have trained, when I “let them go” in the round pen. They run around and try to get the lay of the land. But not this Mustang mare—she just stays next to me when I unclip the rope. It simply does not occur to her to leave me or to run wildly around the round pen. I can’t send her away from me. Instead, she is intent on staying by my side.

Nevertheless, I want to give her the opportunity to move away from me. That’s what I would normally do when training a young horse. One of the reasons I do this is to establish my status as the “leader.” The idea is that I determine speed and direction, and establish my position in the middle of the circle—in a space that the horse shouldn’t enter without being asked. If I see that the horse is attentive and relaxed, I bring him into the middle. Within a very short time, I have laid the foundations for respect and trust. The difficulty with Mona is sending her away from me.

I wonder how this can be possible as horses are supposed to be flight animals! I actually manage to send her into trot for at least a couple of yards then bring her back to me. She is soon following me freely for the first time after bringing her in the pen. What a moment!

Mona follows me at liberty in the round pen for the first time. She seeks connection and contact.


Follow My Leader

“If you’ve got a clue then I’ll follow you!” Horses have evolved to live together in a herd to ensure their survival. They are more likely to survive in a herd than alone. Coexistence in the herd is governed by hierarchies. This reduces risk of injury in the herd and clarifies allocation of responsibilities. An animal’s status gives him additional security. Responsibility is given to higher-ranking animals, and young horses grow up under their protection. A high rank is obtained through physical fitness and experience. If we can manage to assume this protective role when training horses, the horse will happily follow us, and to a certain extent, hand over to us responsibility for his survival.


Mustang: From Wild Horse to Riding Horse

by Vivian Gabor is available for $22.95

from Trafalgar Square Books here.