Wild horses have been a part of the New Zealand landscape for some time (feral herds were recorded as early as 1876) but the delicate ecosystem of the areas they graze can be damaged if the herds get too big. As a result there is a lot of pressure on landowners to manage horse numbers by culling or removal.

Chloe Phillips-Harris, A 4* event rider, adventurer and Mongol Derby veteran, initially wanted to test the skills she had learned working with problem horses. Once word got out that she was prepared to take on wild horses, however, requests for help poured in from people desperate to see their horses get a second chance. And so the Wild Horse Project was born from Chloe’s drive to show just how capable these horses can be.

As part of this project, Chloe teaches “wild horse clinics” where anyone can learn how to work with wild horses. The setting for this particular clinic was beautiful Faiawa Farm near Kerikeri on the North Island, a boutique organic operation which normally offers luxury farm stays, but whose owner generously cleared the decks for Chloe to borrow their yards. Over the course of a week, participants had the opportunity to take a wild horse from completely unhandled to leading and then, if they felt confident, to take the horse home.

Participants came from a range of different backgrounds with wildly differing experience. Some had ridden all their lives, some had never ridden. They included a rescue worker, riders looking to update their pony club knowledge, a dog trainer interested in behavioural science, and even business people who sponsored horses, helping trainers like Chloe to reduce the number of horses culled every year. Chloe’s aim for the clinic was simply to teach anyone interested how horses learn.

A calm start

The participants sat on the yard rails while the horses milled around in the yards. Chloe was clear that “the horses should understand straight away that being around people is a calm experience” and this was reflected in the slow, steady way she moved around the horses and the quiet tone she used whenever she spoke. No sudden movements, no raised voice, no physical force. From there, the principle of pressure and release underpinned every step.

Safety first

Chloe uses a long, stiff stick to allow the handler to remain at a safe distance from the horse until they are confident that the horse will accept the handler’s approach. The stick has to be long enough to keep the handler out of range of a kick or strike and stiff enough to serve as a barrier between the horse and handler if necessary.

The first step

Chloe puts the first “pressure” on by taking a step towards the horse and waiting for the signs of acceptance (standing still, licking and chewing) and acknowledgment (watching the person, an ear flicking, or turning towards the person) before offering a “release” by taking a step away. The progression through the steps is painstaking; approach, introduction of the stick (allowing the horse to see and then touch), scratching with the stick, moving in close, reaching out a hand, scratching with a hand.

Equine personalities

Chloe spent some time talking about the different personalities of the horses at the clinic, explaining the importance of working with the horse in front of you, rather than the horse you envisioned you would have. Some horses were alert and inquisitive, allowing the handler to make relatively fast progress under Chloe’s supervision. Other horses were more anxious and avoidant. Chloe stressed the importance of still pushing the horse slightly out of its comfort zone a little bit at a time, even if they are very anxious, as without some pressure avoidant horses make no progress at all.

Chloe’s experience allowed her to make sensitive matches of horses and handlers and also to guide the novice handlers, teaching tact and timing as much as process. A good trainer will progress at the horse’s pace, determined by experience and feel. This doesn’t mean that inexperienced people can’t work with wild horses, but rather that the less experience a handler has, the more slowly and cautiously they should proceed.

Chloe also pointed out that the horse in front of you may well change as training progresses.

“How a horse behaves when it first comes out of the wild is no reflection on the horse you will have after a few months of patient, consistent handling. I had a pony stallion called Phoenix who came out of the wild very aggressive. It took hours and hours and a lot of patience, but he is now a wonderful pony working at Riding for the Disabled and competed in front of thousands at Horse of the Year show as part of the stallion challenge. By way of contrast, some big operations break in groups of horses at the same time and only keep the horses deemed “good” at that point, but this means many horses are written off too early. This approach produces only the dull, “doughy” personalities and dangerous horses which never lose an element of unpredictability.”

Working with aggressive horses

Some horses need to be approached very carefully in a non-threatening way. One little colt had been given to Chloe after showing signs of aggression and kicking someone in his adoptive home.

“Small colts are often aggressive because they are used to being picked on by the bigger colts; they are actually just scared and it comes out as aggression. With aggressive horses, teaching them “stop” and “go” using clear aids is very important for safety reasons. It gives the horse some structure and sense of security which helps them feel more secure, too, and less likely to lash out.”

As the horse moved along the yard rail with Chloe in the centre, she demonstrated the aid for “stop”, which is to move in front of their shoulder, blocking them (using a stick so you can stay at a safe distance). She then demonstrated the aid for “go”, which is to step behind their shoulder to drive them forwards.

“It is also important to avoid becoming too fixated on “stop”; allow the horse to move when they indicate they need it, as this relieves tension and they will be more workable afterwards.”

A systematic approach, rather than a system

Chloe stressed the importance of taking a systematic approach, as horses have excellent memories and thrive on consistency, but she also talked about the danger of trainers tying themselves to one particular system.

“Once you have a few different tools you can make it work. Sticking to one system and writing horses off if they don’t progress is daft.”

Likewise, Chloe pointed out that very few people have perfect facilities and encouraged participants to simply use their understanding of the principles to adapt to the facilities they have. It doesn’t matter if you have a round pen, stockyards or just an open paddock; there is always a way to work with the horse.

Wendy making calm progress with a youngster.

The light at the end of the tunnel

As the clinic ran on, at times the glacial pace gave the impression of no progress at all. Then all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, the horse would do something extraordinary. On the second day, a little brown colt who had been watching his handler with a lot of interest, stood quietly watching again from the opposite side of the yard. When his handler had their back turned to him, the colt approached for a sniff, with no prompting.

By the end of the five days all horses were able to be haltered and knew how to lead. Following their handlers around the yards, you could see distinct bonds forming between each horse and the person who had spent the week working with them. The most advanced were out and about leading around the farm and facilities sticking close to their handlers and staying focused even with dogs, kids and all the usual scary things around.

In conclusion, Chloe said, “I think taking slow small steps in the beginning and being very thorough means you actually make faster progress. Most of my horses are leading, even the big stallions, within two days and out in a paddock like a normal horse another few days after that. It’s a bit slower in a clinic, but still you have people who have never trained a wild horse before now confidently leading them outside a pen. I just love showing how adaptable wild horses truly are and how trusting they can be.”