Human interference messing up a good thing…

Everyone talks about how wonderful it is to watch herd dynamics and of course, it’s true. We are blessed to be able to observe many different horses and see what works for them. What works for one doesn’t always work for another, and a good herd combo in Field A doesn’t always jive when moved to Field B.
Case in point;
Awhile back in our history, (maybe 18 months ago!) we were creating a band in a large, borrowed, 15 acre field. There were three geldings in this band; Jack, our 17 hh OTTB who has underdeveloped herd skills; Whisper, our 14.2 hh wild mustang with few people skills but excellent herd abilities’ and Finn, at the time was an 18 month old gelding in training with everyone. Jack had been the ‘de facto’ herd leader until Whisper came along and promptly took over. There was minimal chasing and no actual contact, because Jack is a thoroughbred and they are the equivalent of ‘english gentlemen’, and don’t come to blows if at all avoidable. Jack would rather sit down to tea and watch old episodes of Mr. Ed. So when Whisper arrived, thrilled to be with horses again, he established himself as the leader and began training Finn, who was kept on the edge of the band, which also included a few mares. This tale isn’t about the mares (sorry girls) but their presence is important. Just before Whisper moved in, Jack was desperately in love with the supermodel-of-the-fields, a tall drink of water we called Bella. That romance ended when the short fierce mustang entered the picture and won her away within a few hours. Jack was very ‘english’ about it and returned to his old companion, Ginger, who forgave his dalliance and grazed at his side again.

Things were peaceful in the field for the summer, and Jack seemed to enjoy being second in command; if I approached the herd, Whisper would flick his eye and send Jack back to intercept, sort of like stopping me at the door. If I persisted in wanting to speak to the boss, Jack would block my way long enough to allow Whisper and Bella to trot off. It was a very efficient team, really. As summer shifted to fall, our time in the field was up, and I needed to move the herd to our barn across the road and down the hill. Some new fencing was completed and ready for them down there. Since Whisper still wasn’t copacetic to being haltered, I set up simple rope ‘chutes’ to cross the band to a 1/2 acre fenced field, where I intended to then move them from the other side of that down the hill. We’d done this move a number of times so I anticipated an easy success. With the ropes set up, I crossed the band quietly into the smaller field, and locked up that entry, when I heard commotion.

Behind me, an uproar had begun. Apparently the field wasn’t big enough for other geldings, and Whisper had begun to chase his former first lieutenant around the perimeter of the field. Jack was scared and running; usually when horse is driving off another, they let up once dominance is established, but Whisper wanted Jack out of the field. I was trying to intercept and cut Whisper off (yes I realize now this wasn’t the brightest plan but Whisper’s fear of humans was great and I wanted to protect Jack). Whisper wasn’t breaking stride, and I could not catch either of them as Jack headed back for the closed gate he had come from. I watched helplessly as Whisper angled to drive Jack out and Jack, poor boy, with no alternative, leapt the wood fence.

It was a glorious site, or it would have been under different circumstances, the huge white thoroughbred soaring up and over 4′ of wood; and Jack nearly cleared it, escaping Whisper, he nearly pulled off the jump. But his back hock caught on the fence upright, the angled wood edge, and pulled Jack down, and he skidded instead of landing, on his knees on the road.

It was awful. I ran to him as he got up, cursing and mumbling, scared and angry, bleeding from scrapes and cuts, and I tried in futility to comfort him. Off he marched down the road, fuming in embarrassment, away from the house and field. I walked beside him, hardly able to keep up, agreeing with his insults about Whisper, waiting until I could get him to calm down a bit, and we marched all the way to a neighbors front lawn, and I was able to distract Jack by pointing out the grass, and we slowed and diverged off the road. And breathe. We were both shaking. Jack’s wounds didn’t appear deep but he was soo upset, that was the bigger concern. After several minutes I was able to slip a rope around Jack’s neck and then move to quietly halter him. We had to go back.

Together we began walking down the road, my hand on his shoulder. He wanted to return to the big field, but it was borrowed and our time was up. As we came within site of the small field, still with Whisper and the mares, Jack balked. I mean, balked big time. I tried walking him on the opposite side of the street but that wasn’t going to work. I was able to take him across and up into the neighbors field but things were becoming precarious. Jack was soo upset and so wanted to leave, and I was trying to help get him around and down to our barn to safety but he didn’t understand! Anyone who has tried calming a 17 hh injured panicky horse knows how scary it was for us, as I kept gaining and losing control of his direction, trying to spin him safely away and up into the other fields. Finally we had some small progress, as distance increased so did his quietness.

But we had a dilemma; the only way now to get home was to continue to cross into another neighbors field, and no one was home. Jack walked willingly with me now, and together we climbed a stone wall and into the back area behind their barn, me praying that the dogs didn’t come out. All was quiet; we walked together down their driveway, now well past the field and our house, and when Jack saw that I was taking him down thru the gate to our barn, he sped up joyfully. Whew. So we made it down behind our old barn and Jack saw some familiar faces in some mares that had moved earlier. I watched his face as he brightened, began to rush to them, then paused, a shadow crossing his eyes, as he scanned for Whisper among them. Poor guy. I told him it was safe, and we moved forward again, and Jack was reunited with some friends.

His physical wounds were doctored, the scrapes healed quickly, the fetlock longer. But his mental wounds have taken a much longer time to heal. At Jack’s request, I attempted to reunite Jack and Whisper again in the big field about a month later. I stood at the gate and let Jack out and watched him wander up. One smoldering look from Whisper was all it took and I welcomed Jack back out of that field and back down to the barn, with a different group. His ego was badly damaged.

The boys wintered apart that year with different mares, and by spring, in a new large herd, and under new management, we tried again. It was going to be important for Jack’s health that he face this, safely, and important for our herd management that we be able to have them interact. By this time Finn had taken over the main herd. Finn trained with both Whisper and Jack, and he retains a respect for Jack that is invaluable. Jack is the quiet elder, and Finn protects him. Whisper was de-throned by his young strong pupil and took it graciously, and is a valued member of the herd, usually assigned to outlying security detail. He is a proud member of the herd. When they met again, it was under this new herd structure, and in the field that Jack had called home all winter. With enough space to move and increased confidence, Jack was able to face his adversary. And with increased awareness on my part, I could discretely help ‘move’ Whisper before Jack became trapped anywhere. As Jack’s fear lessened, Whisper pursued him less. He can ‘move’ Jack but usually they do their own thing. Jack is inside with Finn and the mares if he is with the herd, but Jack as also been assigned special duty elsewhere. Jack has found new confidence in spending time with the ‘baby band’ and as we continue to improve his health, his strength returns. Both horses are loved members of the herd.

This recounting is not in any way to blame Whisper for anything; the only blame lays with me and my faulty judgement. I learned a valuable lesson at Jack’s expense. Sometimes when people decide that horses ‘can’t get along’ it may be that they need more space and time to work it out. Horses are herd animals and hierarchal animals, and that is how they survive. In order to allow that to work, they need the space to do it in. Whisper is being the mustang he was born to be, and Jack is being the horse that man made him and in between, we are all learning slowly to find some harmony.

Whisper's first hour with Jack's band...

A Mustang Story

A short story about my first mustang;

He arrived as a rescue after weeks of emails and delays, in a small trailer, wearing a ratty halter, peering through the back slats of the truck. I admit it was love at first sight for me, with that long white forelock hanging over his pale spotted face. I had already been told that he couldn’t be lead and had prepared a chute of sorts around the back of our large barn, all the way to the lower far side where an old pole barn had been set up for him. I used his own instincts against him, building the chute from rope and ribbons blowing in the breeze, many supported by tree limbs stuck into the ground as fake trees. He seemed so calm in the back that I asked if I could try and lead him, the woman chuckled and said ‘sure, go ahead’. I hitched the lead over the trailer door to his halter while he stared at me with inscrutable silence. The  back was dropped and OUT! he shot, tearing the lead from my hands and going down the hill through my chute. Even if the lead had failed, the chute worked. He followed it at a gallop, probably seeking an opening through to the green pastures beyond, but as he curved around he suddenly found himself headed into the pole barn. He hesitated, but a little pressure from my flailing ropes following him did the trick, and I had him safely in a 50 foot square corral.

When he arrived...

Getting the lead off was the next challenge as he galloped around, but I gathered the ends of the lead, didn’t look him in the eye, directed his energy a bit, and slowly reeled him in. He was shaking, clearly upset. I had been told that some owner, three owners ago, had him somewhat tamed to lead and tack up, so I counted a little on his past, and on just staying calm, until I could get close enough to get the lead off the halter. Trembling, he allowed this, and unclipped he shot off again. At least for now he was safe and in a workable place.

He came to me through a referral because I had taken in another rescue, and his owner couldn’t manage to tame him. She was the third that had tried, his fourth owner overall unless you count BLM, who took him off the plains as a three year old stallion, which would make five owners before me. I was the sixth (and what combination of ignorance and enthusiasm made me believe that I could tame him, I will never know!). The man who originally ‘adopted’ him from BLM did so in order to breed him, because altho’ he is very short, he is an exceedingly beautiful speckled white boy, with a handsome roman nose, strong neck and legs, thick white mane and tail, and deep dark eyes. He was trucked across the country to be a mustang stud. Alas, his first round of foals didn’t ‘meet expectation’, so he was gelded at four years old, and passed along. A late gelding like this does something to a horse, and I suspect that he will always consider himself a stallion. The man who took him next worked for four years to touch him, halter him, saddle him, but thought he was too wild to ride. And his wife was afraid of him. So “Thunder”, as he was called then, was passed along to someone new. That next owner only had him about six months, declared him too afraid of everything, and gave him to someone else. The next owner was a repeat, saying that he didn’t have a mean bone in his body but was afraid of everything. He was being kept in a stall with a small turnout, alone, and she said that he had ‘reverted’ to wild. She changed his name to ‘Whisper’ and then gave him away, to me. Which is how I came to be the sixth owner of an untamed 9 year old mustang gelding.

Over the next few days in the pole barn, it became clear that he wasn’t afraid of everything, but being a wild stallion by birth, he was afraid of noises and confinement that would be reasonable to fear in the wild. He was very very alert, with an acute sense of smell, and very experienced in the ways of humans. He was also sane and smart. No plan or trick would work on him. Even the thought or glance to a rope or gate would be spotted and reacted to. He also, however, had no meanness, no sneakiness, no tricks himself. He behaved honorably.  I learned that if I treated him with a quietness and a respect, he relaxed a little. He could hold his head up. I took his halter off soon after I could, probably the first time in months that he had his head free, and he was very grateful. But he also didn’t want it back! He was not interested in being tamed.

There is a basic tenant of some natural horsemanship which rings deeply when you think it through, and that is, ‘Every creature has the God given right to say No’.  Most horses, in their domestic lives, aren’t given this opportunity. I have observed that these horses, after years of being told what to do, when given the option of saying No, say NO loud and clear. They didn’t choose to be tamed and so they say no, thank you (if they are polite), and head for the hills. These horses then need to come full circle to the concept of a willing partnership. Building an mutual bond, having the horse willing to say Yes,  takes some time, some patience, as you may imagine, and some direction to see the idea at all. Not all of my rescue horses make it to saying yes, they were pushed too far.

Such was the path with Whisper, who gratefully accepted the offer to say No and said No. In the confines of the pole barn, however, he realized that No didn’t get him very far, and after some coaxing over a few days, allowed me to touch him, then brush him (not the tail!), and finally to put the halter back on. He tolerated all of this while holding his breath and staring bug eyed at me, his whole body a taut rubber band ready to shoot off. It seemed pretty clear that he would never relax in confinement and by himself. Horses are herd animals and he needed a herd. I found him to be very sensitive to leading, so unwilling to touch and have conflict that he could be lead with two fingers. So I decided to risk taking him to the field with my small herd. This meant haltering and leading him out of the gate, around that big barn where we came in the first day, up in front of the farm, and down the road to the 15 acre field, where he didn’t even know other horses waited. This may sound like just a walk, but it was a big deal to me, I was walking with a wild horse. He was walking willingly with me.  We walked together quietly, stopping often to observe the surroundings, to have a bit of carrot, to keep it all calm. When almost there, we came across a string in the grass, marking a future fence, and he wouldn’t step over it. I tried coaxing but he wouldn’t do it. We circled around to the far side and were going at a nice clip before he realized he had walked over it there! So we got to the horse field with no one in site and walked in the gate, into the huge green pasture. I slipped the halter off his face and just lead him around around his neck, cutting across the field towards the run in shed where the others were. Then we saw them, three horses staring down at us from on the hillside. Immediately I saw the wild mustang that Whisper was, the fierce leader, neck arched, proud head, elegant line through his extended stance, as he flared his nostrils and breathed the scent of the others. I let the rope fall off his neck and said Go on now, and he did, trotting swiftly to meet his new band.

Whisper in the center of the herd...

Over the next several weeks I saw little of him, which was his choice (that No thing again) and as he settled in and took over the herd. One of my rescue thoroughbred mares became his lead mare and the others sorted out a new pecking order. He is a great leader and he is fearless. He is the first to hear someone coming and is always on alert. All of the horses are getting more exercise as he keeps them moving, and when my neighbor added her horses to graze in the big field, the band grew larger. Throughout this time I continued to halter and work with the other horses. He always watched from a short distance, suspicious why the others would come to me. If there was any conflict he was gone. But he became curious; slowly I worked back to being near him, then petting his nose on occasion. I became the carrot fairy, shameless bribery yes, but I needed to change this mustangs opinion of humans!  There were several times I ended up pursuing him in vain, and had to remember to have patience, and let him come to me.  In the last few weeks, though, he has begun responding, coming when I call him, staying long after the carrots are gone. Now he lets me pet him down his whole side, his feet, and bring his head around and into my chest, a huge gesture of trust. He discovered he likes a good scratch when he is at liberty. He knows that he can leave so it is becoming his choice to stay.  Two days ago, I slipped the halter on him, and off, three times.  No big deal. If learning is on a scale of one to ten, they say that one to two is the most important step. Whisper, after being granted again his freedom and asked to be a partner, seems to think that it might not be so bad. He is beginning the journey to saying Yes.

Whisper and Bella in the twilight of the field...

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