Mustang Challenge: Day 1

Last week I set up a challenge for the next band of wild horses that were brought in. I told Anthony and Bob that if they would leave them alone and not herd them, brand them, castrate them, etc., I would have them ready to be freeze branded like a domestic horse on a lead rope in 15 days. Bob just totally doesn’t think its possible and Anthony is merely dubious. They don’t understand the power of “Yes!”.

The challenge on Day One is to get them eating out of my hand. We started our work with breakfast. So far the stallion has taken hay from me twice and the black colt once. They will all eat hay from near my feet. This is quite an accomplishment for a band caught less than 48 hours ago. I had help from the Model Mustang brigade. I tied some halter broke horses to the fence around the new herd’s pen and just went around and fed the role models. I let hay fall through the fence and I offered it over the backs of the models. Mustangs are smart. If I was a horse predator as they had suspected initially, I would eat the mustangs on the fence, not feed them. Hmmmm… they were eating at our feet in no time. Barb, who wants to adopt the black colt, was helping me. We made it a point to chat and focus on the Models not the wild ones. This method really broke down the barriers to them accepting humans quicker than normal.
I wrote that at midday, now it’s late at night and I have just come in from the last feeding of the day. At lunch, they would eat from just across the fence from me and now they readily take food from out of my hand except for the one I call Grandma. The others don’t let her join them at the feeding frenzy and she is pretty shy anyway. I am not sure what to do about her as she is not getting much food. Might have to figure out how to get her in a separate pen tomorrow. As if the Forest Service would provide me panels to make a separate pen.

The USFS is not totally on top of their mustang program. Moldy hay, no personnel to take care of them specifically, a lack of pens. Many of the horses are sick with a respiratory infection (probably caused by the hay) but there is no one trying to medicate them – you have to feed them the drug with their grain, but they won’t eat grain. The recently cut geldings need some exercise, but Anthony just makes them run fast around the roundpen for a few minutes and destroys any trust we had created in them. I gave back the night feeding chores to Anthony yesterday, but he must have forgotten it’s his job tonight… don’t worry I fed them all. The USFS is supposed to get some contracts awarded for the facility, some new hay, and a stall cleaner/feeder, but the contracting officer is ignoring the situation. I requested some training pens and Anthony told me that the contract for gentling doesn’t mandate provision of pens. Hmmmm…. odd, where are we supposed to train?

Settling In

Things kind of settled down as more horses kept streaming in. The contract pays by how many we get to where you can catch, halter, and lead, so I’ve tried to just stay focused on that and let the USFS clean their own pens.

Feeding is a different story. The hay feeder persons are agitated that I am feeding them since they have contracts specifically to feed. I don’t care. Collect for your contract, help me for five minutes and call it a day, just don’t feed when I am trying to train, don’t use the moldy bale of hay, don’t throw the hay into the far corners of the pen so the mustangs don’t have to eat near where I sit with them. The hay feeders bug me. I wish they would just go away. They severely interfere with the training process. They leave dirty water in the troughs and throw the horses moldy hay. It’s a depressing situation.

I am working on conditioned relaxation with the studs. They spend about 4 hours in the chute where I use negative reinforcement to teach them to look sleepy. You can teach a mustang to look sleepy in about an hour, but it’s getting them to look sleepy while I bathe them with a wet rag that takes another 3 hours. Tomorrow we are going to video training Waylon to do conditioned relaxation… that is the “bad” stud who is eating out of my hand otherwise. It might take 5 hours for him, but I suspect that after the first hours he will have totally accepted his need to just relax and enjoy life.

Rip Van Winkle is a 15 year old battle-scarred stud with a ugly parrot mouth. We tried doing some more traditional training, Kitty Lawman style, but he kept trying to attack me and I had to wack him a few times. It was agreed by all that he wasn’t worth risking my life for. But when there is a challenging problem, I get interested in finding a novel solution. Now my buddy, Rip, will put on his own halter if I hold it out for him. The secret to our success is that Rip has a fondness for grain, so I clicker trained him. He will come put his head in a rope loop as well as put his nose through the halter. Today I was working with him and he nuzzled me like I was his only friend in the world (probably I am.) I will take him home if no one adopts him. He would make a good Trail of Tears sort of horse. War paint and feathers in his mane.

Rip withstanding, there are sure some fine horses here and this is a premium time to stop by and pick out the cream of the crop. I will take Rip perhaps but there are maybe six that I know I would be a fool not to adopt as they will be exceptional horses. We have a nice band of gaited horses with stocks and blaze faces.

Well, back to the Rip story. Guys stop by looking for some work training these horses and Bob probably would put them to work, except that he and I have an agreement to work as partners 50/50. He brought a young Navajo man to meet me. The boy told me how he trains them in this confrontational style, so I took him on a tour of what I had going at the moment. I figured he could realize how his methods would mesh with ours by seeing what was going on. We stopped by the chute where Magellan was just hanging out. I explained to the young man that I was training the stud horse to relax. He said he never want them to relax, he wants them to move their feet. He thought getting a horse to relax was weird. So then I took him to Rips pen and showed how I was training the dangerous wild animal. Rip is quite affectionate when he was training that that is when he reached out and rubbed my face with his nose. The young man just turned and walked away. There weren’t any horses to play bully with here in facility, sorry guy.

Stephan got here from Largo School today. He is staying in my tent on the other side of the facility. He neglected to bring any camping gear. It would be better for his development to let him sleep on the ground with no gear, but instead I let him use my stuff. I talked to him about thinking his momma was going to be around to take care of him. He knows he has a unique opportunity here and that after 4 weeks he will know a lot about training horses.

I am living now in a vintage airstream trailer that John pulled down to here from Navajo City. It’s a major improvement from the horse trailer. I even have power to plug this computer in.

Browning Ranch Mustang Facility & the Angry Supervisor

There was a red-tape problem with releasing mustangs to my facility but I was invited to come train at the USFS facility in Farmington, NM at the Browning Ranch. When I got here on Saturday there were 11, and today (Tuesday) there are 34 horses. They are stacking up and we are about out of places to put them. The next set will have to be housed in some new and creative way, although we have arranged for adoption for 4 so far.

One of the problems with releasing them to me to train at my place is that they have to have a vet geld and take a coggings test, and they have to be freeze branded before they can even be shown to be government property. This, however, is an incredible learning opportunity for me to be here. Working with Bob Browning is really and education and totally engaging. He is so extremely knowledgeable and has so much experience that I am gifted to have him as a co-trainer/mentor. He is doing some of the steps in the gentling process and I am doing others. He’s given me suggestions to improve my process and sure enough they were good ones that made it easier on the horse. Bob doesn’t do too much “chasing” horses in a round pen… his style is to introduce rope to the whole herd by moving the horses to and fro under his rope, which is hung from a wire off the round pen top rail.

On the other hand, I’ve brought a focus on spending a heck of a lot of time in the pens hand feeding the horses, sitting near the pens, and getting them used to and interested in human activity. I was out one night until almost two a.m. just going up and down the asile doling out hay bits. Now they nicker when they see me coming.

Kimberly just stopped by on her way home from her job at a local restaurant. She is a mustang aficionado…. we had to fill up the wheelbarrow for a late night snack for the herd. She is feeding her special mare while I finish this blog.

The bands come in as a unit and we try to put them into pens as a unit, but if the studs are too protective, they keep the mares from eating or approaching us. We had to separate the one we call Bad Boy from his six band memebers and as soon as we got him in his own pen, his mares started eating out of our hands. He is still next to them in a separate pen. Some of the studs will let the mares approach us and we allow them to stay with their herds. I am not sure why, but Dan got quite furious with me for having moved the Bad Boy away from his herd today. Dan had warned us not to go into the pen with this stud as he was dangerous, so we were extremely careful to move the horses without ever putting ourselves in the same space as Bad Boy. We try to move horses at a walk rather than letting them get excited and charge around. Bad Boy and his mares went into the roundpen calmly, and then on the way out because BB goes in the lead, it was easy to close a gate behind him and capture the mares for separation. We managed to get the job done without upsetting any horses.

So when Dan was angry we had moved the horses, I was shocked. We don’t have room for more horses now so we can’t really just put some of them on hold and not do anything with them for 10 days. We have to get them processed and ready to go to adoptive homes. We have pens to keep clean and have to move horses out of pens to get that job done efficiently. I was ready to quit or to cry after getting yelled at and told that he was bring them in with pure minds and the trainers are only on an ego trip, I wanted to just pack up and leave , but I thought about it and decided to let it go…. the horses are what matter. If I wasn’t here these horses would get fed once a day on the gray-green musty grass that makes them cough. They would still be running from the fences where humans pass by instead of nickering when they see the humans coming. Dan can say I am not gentling them if he wants, but that’s not what the horses say.