By: Robyn Szybunka
Robyn Szybunka continues to learn what makes wild horses tick.
Before I got my mustangs, a wild-horse experienced friend told me that horses raised in the wild can be quite different than domestic horses, even domestics who have never been handled or around humans much. I believed her, but Tahoe, Reno, and Jericho continue to show me just how different they really are.
I had initially kept the boys in the same pen, as I felt they needed each other for both physical and emotional comfort, and I was sure I would be able to make good progress with them that way. I had worked with unhandled and pretty squirrely domestics in groups before, and it never took long before I could get whichever one I was focusing on to settle down and work with me, regardless of what the others were doing.
That strategy didn’t work so well with the wild boys. Despite their very individual temperaments, they would inevitably react as if they shared one mind when I started doing some basic groundwork with them in their pen. If one got even a hair nervous, the slightest thing would set all three fleeing – and boy, can they move! It was impossible to get one to separate from the others, as they would swirl around each other like a school of fish evading a predator.
Once again, I was awed by the intensity they put into everything they do. I knew that they had grown up where their ability to react with speed and total commitment could mean the difference between life and death, but I had not understood all of the challenges this would present for training.
My mentor, Josh Nichol, suggested separating the boys into individual pens and pairing each mustang with one of my domestic horses in hopes that the mustangs would do the “mind meld” with the domestics, as they had with each other. If they did, there was a chance they would pick up on the calm, people-positive energy of my stock horses, and would thus become less reactive.
While this sounded like an excellent idea, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to accomplish, given the mayhem that had erupted the first time the mustangs were in close proximity to a couple of my domestics. What happened was that one of my horses had an injury requiring rest, so I put him and a buddy into the smallest pen I had, which shared a fence with the mustangs. I knew my horses were easygoing and did not imagine this would be a big deal – but to the young mustangs, it was a very big deal! Instead of the “approach and greet” behaviour we expect from horses meeting over a fence for the first time, the mustangs flew into a desperate, fence-crashing panic if the domestics so much as glanced at them or moved around. I knew they would eventually settle down if I left them to work through it, but the risk of them getting hurt simply wasn’t worth it. I grabbed a halter and shouted for my boyfriend to grab another, and we got those domestics out of there pronto!
Afterward, I realized that to the mustangs, the approach of strange, older, male horses would naturally be cause for concern, though in the wild, they might have been less worried, as they would know they could simply leave if the older horses made any aggressive moves. However, given the mustangs’ keen understanding of what it means to be “trapped” in their pen, and how this can add greatly to any anxiety they feel, their panic was completely understandable. I kicked myself a bit for having not thought of this beforehand, but vowed to be more mindful of how they might process things in the future.
We did eventually get the wild boys comfortable with the domestics, to the point where they are each now sharing a pen with one of my stock horses as planned. But, we did it in stages, with careful thought given to how each change might affect the mustangs. The good news is that the pairings are having a positive effect, just as we hoped they would. More on that next time!
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.