Living in the Moment

Mustangs live in the moment and over the years I think I have learned the same habit. It isn’t always a good thing. A set of goals and a good organization list are really the only way to make efficient progress, but they are useless when you live in the moment.

I stop by the mustang pen for a quick pet. Three hours later I realize it’s time to feed and I am still playing with El Ocho. Its a game of how can I influence him to relax, to move, to follow me, to go away from me… etc. He’s getting quite used to “the human companion”. He understands working for positive reinforcement and has learned to hear my conditioned reinforcer sound as a sound he wants to happen. I think he will make someone a very cool steed.

With the mustangs leading now, I will put them up for re-adoption on the condition that they stay here in training until the end of June. Karen and Sarah are much more reluctant to think about the impermanence of mustang foster care. Enjoy them now ladies… We have some work to do this week in getting the wild ones to let us clean their hooves and starting to lead over obstacles, but it doesn’t take long when you are just living in the moment.

El Ocho and Trinity meet Mr. Halter

After working the boys with just a rope around their necks, I fastened it into a make-do squeeze halter, and asked them to start turning for me. Trinity thought it was an excessive request. He reared up and then stood his ground, pulling against me. I just waited. At first you might have to release just for a lean in your direction, but it’s only a matter of time until the mustang is following.

The Virtues of The Itchy Mustang

Haven’t had time to upload the videos so I haven’t posted to the blog…. dumb! What was I thinking???

The best kind of mustang to train is an itchy one. These guys go into paroxysms of rubbing back against our fingers or jutting body parts out to us to get a better scratch. The interesting thing is that you can leave the corral and come back in five minutes and they will be scared to let you touch them as if you never had. Of course it takes less and less time to convince them to give it a try.

El Ocho is the most itchy and the most fearful. I stand next to him and scratch with both hands. His poor coat is so rough and filled with gray dander, it must be quite uncomfortable. His upper lip stretches out as I scratch. I watch it like a gauge to how much he is enjoying my fingers. With fingers in the mid section of his back, along his backbone, his lip is out about 1.5 inches. Right above his tail, the lip-ometer goes to a full 2 inches. He twists his rump around to aim the top of it directly at me. His tail rises. He is suddenly like the most domestic of horses.

I stop and step back. He looks back at his body as if considering how he could scratch himself with his teeth, then he steps toward me, knowing I will do it for him. For a moment he is bonded to me, but he will forget this moment and only remember humans are scary creatures next time I come to the corral.

The body condition on these guys is pretty bad. They must not have been getting what they needed from the USFS hay. Their backbones stick out, their hipbones stick out, their ribs stick out. I would expect horses in captivity for six weeks would be in better shape. Horses down at that elevation should have slicked off. All the horses in the USFS pens were still shaggy beasts. Perhaps they were near starvation when they were captured?

The short summer coat has started to appear on Trinity. He is a dark bay with red highlights. Trinity is less timid. He is a horse that goes his own way and he might not want you to approach, but he doesn’t seem truly afraid. I showed Sarah how to get him to join up with me where he follows me around the pen. It takes a certain boldness, but it is not magic. Then I ask him to let me scratch him. Ahhh… the virtues of the itchy mustang!

Day One & Two

On Tuesday after lunch we headed into town to pick up the mustangs. In the pens there were maybe five older geldings, two younger mares, a yearling gelding, and two four year old geldings. The mares were small and would only ever be ponies. The yearling male had a sway back and a roman nose. Since we are anticipating re-adopting our mustangs out, we chose the two most adoptable of the boys, the pair of 4 year olds that Bob Browning had called a “matched set” when we saw them on Saturday. Number 33 and 38 were similar to each other indeed, but 33 has a long mane and 38 has a mohawk, naturally almost roached. It hurt to leave the others to fate, but two mustangs was as much as we could feed. They jumped in the trailer and looked relieved that the gate closed between them and the humans.

Sarah and Liz were in the truck behind the trailer and they reported that the boys rode well. This was their second trailer ride, the first being from the forest where they were captured. It is about 50 miles from the holding pens to our pens, 26 of those miles being a bumpy dirt road through the oil field. The drive gave me time to think about their names. I didn’t know anything about their personalities, but I still felt like I could name them…. the only thing I knew about them were their numbers…. hmmm. Trinity and El Ocho, that would work. Trinity has the mane.

We cleared the pens around the gate and drove into the yard. I backed up to the pens and we all went to work. Liz and Sarah turned some old wheelbarrows into feeders by stripping the wood and hardware off. I filled up waterers. They brought some extra panels and we built a chute between the pens and the trailer. I opened the door and we waited. It took a long time before they finally decided to venture down and out into the pens. They took little heed of Roy, the border collie, who is the friend of all E. caballus and enemy of all E. asinus.

They moved like a school of fish, always touching, so we didn’t even try to separate them on the first day. We just threw them a barrow full of USFS hay with a sprinkling of greener alfalfa. They never tasted anything so good!

Wednesday morning (Day II) the Students of Horsemanship had an assignment. Get Ocho and Trinity to eat alfalfa from their hands and spend as much time as possible sitting outside of their pen. The students were to announce “EX” as the mustangs reached for the food. This was make this word into a conditioned reinforcer. I came home from work and the girls were outside the pen handing clumps of alfalfa to the boys. The mustangs are very underweight and could benefit from a little extra feed. We moved panels around and connected two pens together so the boys could be separated. We left them and went in to watch Kitty Lawman tame some mustangs on a DVD while it rained.

I took Cisco into the pen, Sarah took Marla in. We wanted to create a little bit of distraction and not “chase” the boys. Chasing is not the best thing for a mustang and I was sure they had had too much chasing to begin with at the holding pen, where Anthony was using more traditional methods of natural horsemanship involving round pens and whips. We are going to come back to this issue on Day 3.

The mustangs shifted from pen to pen, then Ocho, who is by nature more nervous than Trinty, sprinted through the chute ahead of his mate. I stepped between them and shut the gate. They could now be treated as independent beings.

Sarah and I set to work to teach the mustangs to target our fingers held in a v, like a peace sign gesture. It was only about 15 minutes to get them going on this. Karen came out and got involved while I went and found the camera.

The Set Up

Over the winter, I had to leave the corral and go to work as The Waitress over at the Roadhouse. It was pretty hard to leave my herd to languish in the corral. I started advertising for some help and the Universe started sending me young folks that wanted to work with horses.

Hmmm… they started getting frustrated that I was rarely home to teach them something.

Hmmm… okay, take turns going over to the cafe, earn some tips, and I will stay home and teach you something on the days when you are home. They jumped at the chance. The Roadhouse is a fun place to work.

Hey, it was a home run! I was home five days a week and had four eager assistants. I gave them reading and DVD assignments and they made a lot of progress. Then as traveling kids are wont to do, they moved on. I updated my ad, and pretty soon I had a handful of applicants planning their summer vacations around coming to Largo.

One of the things that happened while I was at the Roadhouse set up the other side of the equation. Dan Elkins started stopping in for breakfast after his long nights on the Jicarilla Ranger District catching mustangs. If I had a chance I would sit down with him and discuss our favorite topic: MUSTANGS. I will write a whole post about Dan later, but let’s just say he got me thinking about using mustangs to teach horsemanship.

I have the students, the school, heck… maybe the Forest Service could provide a couple of wild horses??? I called Anthony Madrid and explained what I was thinking of doing…. maybe.. if any horses were left after the auction?

They had 28 in the pen when I got there on Saturday. Hmmm… there would probably be a few left to choose from on Monday. All of the horses captured this time were dark bay or black. Bob Browning started extolling the virtues of two small geldings in the center pen. The mare and foal were nice. I figured my choices would be the most homely. I studied the older animals who would also certainly be left behind. Well, we’d pick up the mustangs on Tuesday so we could only speculate until then….