By: Robyn Szybunka

Three wild, young mustangs are taking horse trainer Robyn Szybunka back to school.

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The mustangs are reading my body language and watching intently as I approach.

I really thought I knew horses pretty well, but these mustangs are sure taking me back to school! Simply being around these boys is an education. They continually show me how aware I need to be of everything I do, because every alteration in me has meaning to them – whether I intend it to or not. I believe this is due not only their senses, which are so acute that they almost seem like super powers, but also because growing up in a wild herd has attuned them to tremendous subtleties of communication, something humans dull down in domestic horses.

This was brought home to me while I was working at getting closer to the mustangs. I would think things were going well, then suddenly, they would tense up. I assumed it was just my proximity – I’d get closer, they’d get nervous. Then I realized that proximity wasn’t the issue: it was my breathing! As I got closer, I would unintentionally hold my breath, which they picked up on immediately and associated with a potential threat. They weren’t necessarily seeing me as the threat, but the tension and irregularity within me was like sounding an alarm bell. They then looked at me as if to say, “What’s going on? Is there a danger nearby?”

Mirroring non-threatening mustang postures as I attempt to get closer.

Mirroring non-threatening mustang postures as I attempt to get closer.

This made me wonder: If holding my breath made them worry, would letting it out help them relax? I took a few deep, loud breaths, and threw in my best imitation of “licking and chewing” for good measure, as I know that horses often do that when a stressor is removed. Sure enough, the boys picked up on my “relaxation,” and their own tension greatly diminished.

I now make more efforts to mirror the social behaviours of mustangs presenting non-threatening sounds, gestures, and postures in the wild. For example, when I have the boys’ attention, I bend over slightly and slowly move my head from side to side, showing the sides of my neck. Wild horses often use this gesture as a way of saying “I’m not a threat.” Sometimes I will also bend over and “eat” grass or hay with my hand, indicating that I am a “grazer” like them. This often makes them so comfortable that they go back to grazing themselves, and they’ll sometimes even approach closer to me.

I have also had to become better aware of the mustangs’ phenomenal sensitivity to spatial communication. One day when I was working at getting closer to Tahoe, the little pinto, he allowed me to get within about two feet from him and seemed quite happy for us to just hang out beside each other. I then tried edging a bit closer. He took a step away and stared at me with a puzzled expression that seemed to say, “Are you socially challenged, lady? We were having such a nice time, and now you’re pushing me out of your space for no reason!”

Curious and alert, the mustangs begin to follow me around their pen.

Curious and alert, the mustangs begin to follow me around their pen.

This spatial faux pas on my part taught me how much weight the mustangs place on the language of space, and by contrast, how much we dull this down in our domestic horses. We expect them to ignore the fact that we invade their personal space in many ways all the time. In effect, we teach them to disregard their own language, and, in a sense, to tune us out.

But the mustangs don’t know how to do that. They are always listening and responding to the things we say, even when we don’t realize we are saying anything at all. This, I now realize, is a tremendous gift, as it has made me much more sensitive to the things I do and how I handle myself around my domestic horses – and I can tell they appreciate it.

If you missed parts one and two of this series, you can read them here.

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.