I was invited to a restaurant one evening here in Central Oregon to meet some horse people. Supposedly there was a couple who had just recently adopted a few Mustangs and the word was that they might need some assistance in bringing the Mustangs further along in their training. For some reason I favor working with Mustangs, not because they are easier to work with, because that's not usually the case but because I deeply appreciate and respect their integrity and their honesty. Generally, and to a great extent, unlike domestic horses, Mustangs shoot from the hip and are brutally honest. I like that even though that kind of honesty can be painful at times.
I met the couple and we briefly discussed the two young horses. Both horses were about three years old and both, I believe, had the same mother but had different sires. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, we agreed to meet at the boarding facility where the horses were being boarded the following week. I was excited to meet and work with these beautifully spirited animals. My job was to gentle them and to put them under saddle.
The young woman had adopted a buckskin gelding named Noah and her husband had adopted a cute-as-a button little bay mare named Valentine or Val. Both horses were small, quite normal for Mustangs, and measured about 14h1 or 2 I'd say. Right off the bat I realized that Val, the little mare, had her mare thing going which means, and I don't mean anything condescending here, but she was simply being a fussy, protective and somewhat difficult female. And considering the mare's roll within the herd in the wild one has to have respect and admiration for these traits even though they can be sooooooo "I'm-the-bossy female" at times.
The little gelding, Noah, right away seemed as though he wanted to get along. Right off the bat he was taking to the ground-work in a very easy manner and he quickly learned and accepted walking over a tarp, having the tarp draped over him, having ropes touch him on his legs and back, umbrellas, balloons, blankets tossed over him etc. That is a major aspect of the work; getting Noah and Val to accept these things and to resign themselves to the understanding that nothing was going to happen to them and that these items, although unfamiliar, would cause them no harm. At the same time a major part of this process is that the horses naturally associate me, the trainer, with the desensitization process so they also learn to trust me. Survival mechanisms run exceptionally clean and clear in Mustangs so it is important to allow them to express their honesty in the training process whenever it surfaces but my job was to continue introducing these elements slowly, gently and without fuss into their world until they understood that they were harmless; basic sacking-out techniques.
At this point I should say that I have come across what has turned-out to be a very powerful training technique that I use especially on these types of horses; Mustangs that is. I busy myself with grooming and endearing myself to the horse, just rubbing on them and touching them everywhere and talking to them and then within that context I ask the horse to, for example, take one step back or take one step forward or give me the front foot etc. I never make a fuss. As soon as they comply with say that one step back I simply continue softly and gently grooming or rubbing or touching. In this way the horse is learning without even knowing it because the learning is taking place in a very calm and comfortable setting kind of disguised by other pleasant and non- threatening activities.
As an example of this I remember an eighty-five year old acupuncturist I'd met while living in Germany many years ago. He'd have the needles in you before you'd noticed what was happening. You had to be extremely aware and quick to catch him putting the needles in. He was a true artist. He'd put you on the table, get everything ready and then he'd ask you a question or say something and just at that instant when you were thinking about what he'd said - bingo - the needle was in. This is kind of what I'm referring to with the training method. Groom, rub, touch, soft, quiet, whisper, ask the question and get a response then right back to groom, rub, touch, soft, quiet, whisper. The process is basically uninterrupted and it happens in a fluid uninterrupted manner.
Anyway, by now four weeks had gone by and still Noah was getting gold stars daily. He was taking the saddle pad, saddle and I'd begun putting weight in the stirrup and bellying over. Val was also getting gold stars but she continued to be a tad reluctant, she was hesitant to really commit herself. You could look at her and see the gears turning in her head. Sometimes, in the middle of training, she would just stand in the middle of the arena staring at me without moving a muscle. What in the world was all this to mean she was thinking. And how much do I need to relinquish. By nature her job is to protect herself and her herd in the wild and trusting quickly was simply not her nature. I knew she would come along if I just continued to be patient. But by now she had also taken the saddle and saddle pad and I was also bellying over on her. She was coming along.
Then the day came for me to throw my leg over and to sit on their backs. All the ground work until this time had been leading up to this point in time. Both horses accepted me immediately and we even took a few steps that first day. I remember that Val stood there for quite a while with me on her back before taking that very first step into her new life. I never force them to move in those beginning stages. I just wait till they feel comfortable to take the first steps. Sitting on their backs is one thing but when they finally take that first step and feel the weight up above them this is when young horses can become fearful and take to flight or to bucking. Noah and Val took that first step without incident. From the saddle I'd rub on them and talk to them and comfort them that everything was o.k..
Soon we were walking around the arena. I kept a light, soft hold on their faces with the hackamore so that they would not forget that I was there because that is another good way to get in trouble. If they forget you're there and then suddenly they realize it they can become startled and again bolt or buck. That's why I keep a constant soft feel on their face with the hackamore at the beginning. Within a few weeks we had also learned the trot without incident. Each gate i.e. walk, trot and canter have levels of difficulty and fear with young horses. Just because a horse will walk quietly with you on their back does not mean that a trot and canter are also acceptable. For this reason it is careful work to gently bring a young horse up into the next gate gracefully and without problems.
By this time, which is about two months later, Val and Noah were pretty much running parallel in their training. Saddling, grooming, tarps, umbrellas, walking behind them, even loud noises had all become pretty much accepted. And we were even riding in the outdoor arena and then even around the ranch. It was still necessary to be extremely careful with these young horses because an accident or a wreck as they are called could set the training program back quite a bit so it was very important to continue to be extremely watchful.
Noah was doing exceptionally well. I'd ridden him on the trail all around the ranch but, until now, I'd not asked him for the canter. One day in the arena the moment felt right and I opened the door for the canter and he accepted and cantered a few steps on his left lead and since we were headed into the corner of the arena I brought him quickly back to the trot. Next I decided to ask him for the right canter but my mistake was that I asked for it on the straight away. I think that opening on the straightaway confused him when he saw all that room and he bolted heading straight for the panels at the end of the arena. And believe me this all happened in an instant. One instant all was well and the next instant he had bolted. Just before Noah reached the end of the arena going full speed (and I had visions of him crashing into the panels) he turned like a shot to the right and I went flying off straight into the panels. I crashed into the panels like one would if one were to hit a trampoline sideways. I hit, bounced off, hit the ground and stood up and began brushing myself off wondering how come I wasn't broken somewhere. So, I mounted him again and we finished our ride at the walk and trot for that day. But of course I was thinking about how the incident could have been avoided and I always look for where I could have done things differently.
Two days later the owner was leading Noah to the arena for me to work with him and he was being difficult and was challenging her authority, not wanting to be led into the arena. That should have been my hint for the day because when he did come into the arena there was something new in his eye. From my experience I know that horses in training can take five steps forward then two steps back and then two steps forward and six steps back so their learning from day to day is not always linear and constantly going forward. It seemed that Noah was right in the middle of taking some steps backwards in his training for whatever reason and I just didn't act on it. I should have known not to mount him on that day. Hindsight being 20/20 I know now that I should have taken him back into the round pen and re-established leadership and herd hierarchy.
So, my mistake was that I mounted him and he again immediately, as two days prior, bolted and turned on a nickel this time to the left, tossing me head-first into the ground. Right before I hit the ground I turned my head quickly to the left so I wouldn't land on my head and I hit the ground on the tip of my right shoulder. I heard something crunch and for a few seconds I imagined that it was my neck. But after standing-up and brushing myself-off and attempting to mount once again I realized I couldn't lift my right arm - so I figured the shoulder had been broken. The x-rays confirmed a broken scapula and four broken ribs.
Meanwhile, as Noah was taking some steps backwards Val was blossoming and stepping into herself. She'd calmed down, was much more sure of herself and was taking huge steps into her new world under saddle. That's the last time I rode Noah or Val. I turned them over to a good, soft young trainer who will take them from where I had brought them in their training.
At 62 years old I guess I must finally realize that I just might have to stop my work with putting Mustangs under saddle. It can be a rough business even on the best of days and even if just about everything is done correctly. There comes a time for such changes in life I guess. I love those little Mustangs and I thank them for offering me the great pleasure to get to know some of them. It was a ride or rides that I'll never forget.