I got a letter full of questions from someone who is writing a magazine article about mustang training. Here is my reply to her.
I don’t know if I have time to write a book for you!!!! I think it would be best if you came out here and experienced it. You should at least come for one week when we are going to start some new horses. Or… come to our Mustang Intensive that will happen in April
1) You mention in your ad that one doesn’t need any horse experience to be a part of the program – but obviously having a passion for horses is helpful to really being successful there. Aside from passion for horses, what characteristics have been most important in a person really learning how to bond with a horse, particularly if they come to it with no experience?
There is being successful here and there is bonding with a horse. They are not the same. I don’t think people “bond with horses”, I think they just fall in love. What does it take to fall in love? You can fall in love with a horse and not be able to train it ….. these things are totally unrelated.
Along those lines, what would be the most important things to tell someone with no experience on day 1 of your program?
Follow directions, stay out of the pens and watch. SAFETY IS NUMBER ONE CONCERN. People with no horse experience have a lot of ground to cover.
2) During training, is it primarily a ratio of 1 trainer to 1 horse, or do the horses have multiple trainers?
These horses are going to people we can’t even imagine, so getting all the “trainers” to handle all the horses is important. That way the horse is more likely to generalize to all humans. When I am here by myself, it is very difficult, because I can’t train them to accept other people without other people.
3) What are the most important safety concerns that you must take into consideration?
Wild horses are primed for flight or fight. Either is very dangerous. I don’t let my human trainees into situations they can’t handle. They will get fearful and the horse will respond to their fear by getting fearful. It snowballs fast. Horses are dangerous whether they are wild or not; the things they do to each other almost casually would kill us.
4) I’ve been doing some research, and some of the materials I’ve referenced have discussed pen construction – that the horse is placed in a round or square pen, tall and heavy in construction so he (or she) can crash against it without causing damage or going through the boards. About how big a pen is best, size-wise, for effective training? How does one humanely get the horse in the pen to begin with, if it’s not yet gentled?
A pen 20×20 is what I like, but I have already dealt with some of the need for the horse to run away before it goes into the training pen. From the first morning it is here, our new mustangs are handfed. Someone is sitting out alongside the fence letting the horse find out that if it comes to the human it gets fed. Many horse trainers are opposed to this in principle, but the most honest part of our relationship is this: “Horse, you are now in the human world, we will ask you to work for us, but we will promise to keep you always fed, watered, and cared for.” We are making a promise to feed that animal for the rest of it’s life, so why not put the relationship right on that basis? We keep handfeeding the horse until it is quite relaxed to be near us. Within a day or so it is calling to us when it sees us. The need to run away from us has been obliterated. I then open the gates from the intake pen to the alley along the training stalls. I put hay in the stalls and give the horses a day to explore the system as a group. Then I start noticing when one is in a stall alone and I just shut the door. Soon all the horses are in the stalls. The stalls are pipe fencing on the south and heavy lumber walls on the north. The top rail of the fence is 7 feet. We never want a horse to be crashing into a fence — it is easy for them to break their necks! Sometimes things will get a little “western”, but it is a situation we want to avoid. We don’t even go into the stalls for days… we just feed and train them through the fence panel. They feel safer with us out of their pen. When we finally go in, we are already friends.
5) Is there a daily routine for your program that remains the same each day (ie up at 5, to the pen by 5:30, etc)? What would that look like at its basis?
The most sure routine is that we sit down together for meals and talk about the plan, the horses, etc. We have to adjust our schedules according to the weather. We feed when the light comes over the eastern ridge of the canyon, and again when it sets over the western edge of the canyon. I don’t wear a watch.
6) About how long does it take to get the horse to be comfortable with human contact? How long til you would consider it “gentled”?
Depends on the horse. Some are pretty well done in 2 weeks, others might never get “gentle”. They are usually coming up and touching the human fingers to get hay by their 4th day here.
7) Once you’ve gotten the horse comfortable with contact, do you consider it then important to train it for additional purposes (ie work, show, etc)? What is your sort of “bare minimum” before you consider the horse trained well enough, say, for adoption?
The USFS contract stipulates that you can pet the horse on both sides and it is accustomed to the halter. We take that a lot further because we want to insure that the adopter can succeed with the horse. Our mustangs learn to be lead around the yard, to be groomed and have their hooves cleaned, to be good to catch, to load in a horse trailer, to stand tied, and to be sprayed for flies in season. We actually have fun teaching them other silly tricks when we have time, like chasing a flag, standing on a pedestal, etc.
8) When working with someone who’s never been around horses before, do you find that it is helpful or important to accustom them to a domesticated horse before introducing them to one that’s less trained (or not yet gentled)?
I have a very reactive pet mustang named Cisco that I use to teach my students pressure/release in the round pen. He understands it very well, isn’t going to form a negative opinion about people, and is going to really mirror the degree of energy the people have. He teaches them to be calm and in control. I would not want to teach students this on a wild horse because it has to be done very well and very precisely to work without frustrating and scaring the mustang.
9) What’s the most difficult experience you’ve had with a horse? The best?
I am working with a partially blind mustang now. By far the most challenging horse I have tried to tame. He probably won’t ever be safe for an adopter, but he is extremely engaging for me. I’ve had him a couple of months and he has learned to calm down on command. For him it was a giant leap forward.
The best is when the adopters call me up and tell me how much they love their horse and all the things he/she has learned already and how they’ve been out riding around… and it’s the best horse they ever owned, etc.,etc….well, those calls are the answer to my hopes and dreams for the horses. I fall in love with all of the horses I train too and to hear they have a good life means so much.
10) What made you decide to start your training program? Did you grow up w
ith horses, or come to work with them later?
I grew up with horses. I trust horses. Mustangs are at a disadvantage in the world. They deserve a chance to just be great horses.
And finally, if there was one thing you really wish that writers or filmmakers would get right that you always feel is missing or done wrong in the projects you’ve seen/read about horses, what would that be (if anything)?
Writers and filmmakers focus on the romantic image of the cowboy. If you wear a hat and boots, well, you must know something about horse training. There is a scientific approach to animal training that could make a big difference for the good of the animals.
Did you watch our video series on YouTube?
Patricia Barlow-Irick Ph.D.
PO Box 620
Blanco, NM 87412