By: Robyn Szybunka

Robyn makes adjustments to her use of pressure and space.

Thumbnail for Earning Trust Through Choice with Wild Mustangs

Here, I am allowing the mustangs to choose me in a large space.

I love watching mustangs Reno, Jericho and Tahoe interact with each other, as I’m often surprised by their behaviour. For example, one morning I looked out the window and saw the Reno and Tahoe engaged in what seemed to be a fierce fight. I ran outside, wondering how on earth was I going to break up a battle between two wild mustangs!

As I got closer, I was relieved to see that they were actually only playing, though I’ve never seen geldings play so hard. They’re quite aggressive and use precise maneuvers to go after tendons, necks and other vulnerable areas. I’ve even seen Reno put Tahoe into a headlock-style hold by rearing up and putting one leg over Tahoe’s withers, then wrapping his other leg under Tahoe’s neck. Watching them brings to mind Roman gladiators training for the day they’ll have to fight in battle. It’s fascinating to realize that to these mustangs, they are training, preparing for the day they’d have to fight a stallion to win a band of mares. Fortunately, they somehow manage not to hurt each other, so I’ve learned to sit back and simply enjoy the spectacle.

I’ve also had to make some adjustments in my training techniques due to the incredibly sensitive nature of the mustangs, one being how I use pressure and another being what kind of space I work them in. I had been making some progress with them in their big enclosure and was able to approach them consistently, so I thought I’d be able to advance even further with them in a smaller area. I imagined all the progress I would make – maybe even getting halters on for the first time – by using the pressure and release techniques that had always served me so well with domestic horses, even the really skittish, unhandled ones. How different could these boys be, right? Boy was I in for a surprise!

Feeling quite confident with my plan, I built a smaller pen from panels within the mustangs’ large paddock and managed to move them inside it. After giving them some time to settle, I went back out to begin this great new phase in their training. However, as I started to approach them within the smaller pen, the mustangs began running around in a real panic, even though I had been able to get much, much closer to them when they were loose in the bigger space. I continued to approach, talking gently to them as I always did so that they would be sure to recognize me, but they only continued their terrified running.

Reno and Tahoe playing.

Reno and Tahoe playing.

This was not going at all as I had envisioned it, and I was concerned the horses might even injure themselves, so I went to open the gate to let them out. However, as I was doing that, the boys totally surprised me by coming up quite close, and once the gate was fully open, they hung out beside me in the gate opening, cool as cucumbers and happy to be my buddies again. I actually had to shoo them out of the pen and move them out of my way to get the gate closed again.

I then realized that while being close to me was something they could accept and would sometimes even seek out in a large space, that all changed dramatically for them when they felt trapped. It was clear that the sense of being closely confined in the small pen was in itself an enormous pressure for the mustangs, making anything else they had to contend with – such as me approaching – simply more than they could handle. However, once they had a choice to leave if they needed to, their fear melted away, my presence was no longer too much pressure, and they decided to stay.

As much as possible, I want to let these horses continue to make such choices. My goal is to build a relationship with these mustangs based on trust, and they continue to show me that their trust is something that can only be earned, never forced. While I am certainly familiar with traditional methods of catching and working with wild horses, and I understand that training approaches that utilize dominance and submission might make some things happen faster, that is simply not the road I want to travel. I’m in no rush with these boys and my goal is to honour who and what they are, without taking anything away from them. This might make the journey a little slower in the beginning, but I know that working from a relational perspective will pay invaluable dividends in the long term.

In case you missed it, click here to read the last installment in Robyn’s journey.


Horse trainer Robyn Szybunka adopts three Nevada mustangs and brings them home to Alberta. Follow her journey as she gentles and trains these wild horses.