Struggles with Aggression

Struggles with Aggression

Fay and I walked out of the training pen, leaving an enthusiastic horse confused about our sudden departure. I headed to the porch to wait it out. Fay headed to the little gray car where a gray-haired woman was getting out. The woman had driven across the parking lot and into the field beside the mare pens. We have yet to figure out why people take the prerogative of driving onto the field, but it gets my hackles up every time.

I am basically a very misanthropic person. I don’t like or trust humans as a species. Push me and I get snarly like a dog who’s been kicked by its owner too many times. If I had approached her, I would have just walked up and asked the lady what makes her think it’s okay to drive onto my field without asking. I wouldn’t have been yelling, but the woman would have left in a huff.

Fay is a very nice person in contrast. She tries to handle all the visitor interactions for me. Her fresh 17-year old face and happy demeanor is charming. She asks if she can help the lady. The woman says she was driving I-40 and wanted to pull off and sit and watch the horses while she ate lunch. She gave Fay control of the conversation though when she added, “I hope it’s not bothering you.” Fay apologized but conceded that it was indeed bothering us. The woman left in a huff anyway. I walked out to the driveway and closed the gate behind the gray car. It was nice to not have to be the mean one.

I am the blunt person who will say exactly what I think. If I don’t like something, it’s no secret. You know exactly where you sit with me. I identify problems to fix and I don’t harbor grudges when things are over. I forget things ever happened. I was probably that way before I ever became an animal trainer, but the tendency has been solidified and polished by the experience. Grudges don’t get you anywhere as a trainer.

Lefty in 2017

The other day Fay and I were working with Lefty to get him ready for hoof trimming. He is a very emotional gelding from the Jarita Mesa herd in the Carson National Forest. Mustang Camp first trained him in the winter of 2012 and he was adopted to an extreme cowboy character (and movie extra). In 2017, the cowboy died in his sleep and the estate asked us to take back his three mustangs. The other two got a home near Abiquiu and we thought Lefty would live out his life in our permanent herd of mentally fragile equines. But Lefty, also known as Dakota in his cowboy years, had an admirer, Sonja, who found out we still had him and arranged to adopt him. I wanted to trim his hooves first since I knew Lefty was going to object vehemently.

Over the course of a few weeks, Fay and I carefully tried to keep Lefty from becoming overstimulated as we increased the amount of time we could handle the feet. We found out that it was too much for him to be handed a bite of alfalfa while his foot was being held, so instead, we had to hold the foot for a countdown of five, set it down, and give him five bites of alfalfa for him to stay under threshold. Still, every once in a while, out of the blue, his leg seemed to have a spasm that made his hoof slam to the ground, tip first. Then he would snort and run away if he wasn’t on a halter and lead. We could not identify the antecedents sparking this behavior.

I was cleaning his right front foot, standing a bit too close when one of these paroxysms occurred. His hoof tip smashed the toe of my boot with all of his weight. I howled in pain. The pain was overwhelming and I cried out loud and fell to the ground.

Fay did not know what to do. She said she would go get John, but I said, “No, just leave me alone for a moment,” even though I continued to weep. She stood watching in helpless horror, but eventually, I got up, dried my tears, straightened my glasses, and hobbled over to catch the horse. True enough, I felt like smacking the horse, but I knew better. I led him back over to the fence where we had been working. We went right back to training. I finished cleaning the hoof between Fay’s delivery of five bites. The toe is black and blue, the nail will fall off, but nothing is broken. Lefty’s hooves are now trimmed.

Early in the spring, another student and I were trying to move a frightened mustang, Apache, into his own pen. He wanted to run back down the alley which we were blocking. He was panicky. The student’s dog came into the alley on the far side of the horse near the gate that we wanted the horse to go through. The dog started barking at Apache. The student’s instincts were to block the horse, so she was almost run over when the horses came barreling back down the alley. My instinct was to teach the dog to leave the pen area on verbal command, so I yelled at the dog and chased it out of the alley. The student could not allow that level of aggression toward her dog, so she quit. I was sorry to lose a set of helping hands. Soul searching following aggressive responses and termination of relationships is my normal, I’ve done it so many times.

I have run people off many, many times. When you boil it all down, it’s almost always that they have violated my sense of predictability and control and raised my anxiety level. That combined with a little caffeine is the gateway to the danger zone. It’s my own vulnerability to adrenaline and I own the responsibility for it.

Having thirty recently-gelded stallions in rows of pens gives Fay and me the opportunity to see a model of aggression in action. Almost every gelding we are training occasionally gets a bit frustrated with our expectations and frequency of food delivery, so he rushes to attack his nearest neighbor. The geldings never attack us, but attacking the neighbor horse happens in almost every session. Sometimes we ignore it and continue, and sometimes we use it as an excuse to terminate the session. Terminating the session doesn’t really help a horse. Limiting the opportunity for attacks by having the horse on a lead rope is a better solution once the horse is able to be led. Things get better when opportunities for attack are limited.

Floyd is grumpy with Ryder

In some sense, I might be like a frustrated gelding with pointless inconsequential displays of misplaced aggression. More soul searching….

The thing is: the people that volunteer their time to help the mustangs are good people. They show up out of concern and compassion. They are trying to do the right thing in their own eccentric ways. They just might be awkward about social coordination, defiant about the right to personal free-will, forgetful, or slow to learn. I might expect too much. I need to cultivate compassion for them, the same compassion I have for the horses.

I listen to Podcasts while I muck pens. Hannah Branigan was talking to a podcast guest about the way of framing a problem to get perspective. This idea has been called the Will-It-Matter-In-Five-Years rule. It goes like this: When a problem comes up, ask yourself, “Will this matter in five minutes?” If it will, ask yourself if it will matter in five hours, then five days, then five weeks, five months, and then five years. If it won’t matter in five minutes, let it go. Most things go right there. I am trying to hold my boundary for getting pissed-off at five weeks. It’s helping.

She bites.

I didn’t have the driveway gate closed a few days ago and suddenly there were a pair of Native Americans at the training gate, wanting to look at the horses. John wasn’t around to handle potential adopters, so I agreed to show them the geldings. By the second horse, I realized that they were totally inebriated. This, by the way, was the first time since we have been here that we had drunks show up. Fay came scurrying from where she had been filling water troughs, but within half a minute, she realized that she did not want to take these guys off my hands, so she scurried back to the water. The drunkest one asked if we had any mares, so I took the opportunity to escort them out of the pen system and around to the mare pen, which was close to their truck. When we got there, I told them that they needed to go and come back when they were sober. The drunkest one immediate walked to his truck, where a third fellow was passed out in the passenger seat. The less drunk one lingered by the pinto mare and foal. He reached in to try to touch them. She snapped at his hand with the full intention of biting him. She has bitten Fay and she has bitten me. Her teeth are sharp. I hurried back to urge him on before the horse drew blood. I was prepared to get fierce, but he realized it was time to go. No one got hurt.

Training: it’s what we do

Training: it’s what we do

A lot of times when people get involved with Mustang Camp, they come up with loads of ideas for how Mustang Camp could generate money by doing something other than training horses and getting them adopted. With our 150-seat auditorium and sale ring, these days the idea is usually to put on some kind of program, attract tourists, let people pet the zebra, etc.. At Largo, the idea usually involved having a lot more guests. I listen to these ideas, then I ask, “Are you saying that we should do that instead of training horses?” They are great ideas full of creativity, but it’s not what we do.

Now days, my crew knows that training the animals is the most important thing to get done each day. They intercept visitors in the driveway. They solve little problems without me. Nothing interferes. Fay and me are left to train (or sometimes just me). The work gets done.

We start mid-day. The first project is making the daily plan, which has evolved to be an index card listing each of the horses and the task they are working on. I keep it in my pocket and make notes on it between each animal. I’d like to share a recent training day with my readers.

Join us for a day with the ponies!

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

No, in this town the metaphor for entering an alternate reality that makes no sense should be “down the prairie dog hole”. I don’t think the rabbits bother digging their own holes here. We sit on the porch and watch the p-dogs. There are at least a dozen holes between the house and the street. We put used kitty litter in the ones in the driveway to discourage burrowing where a car might fall in, but it doesn’t seem to deter them. Navigating the parking lot in the truck involves swerving to avoid the pits of caved in tunnels.

Our leafy porch

The porch is a thick concrete block that runs the length of the building. There is a wide awning over the two doorways, and a couple of Siberian elm trees hug the edge of the concrete making it a shady leafy retreat. We sit in a tidy row on an ancient set of wooden sale-ring seats, watching the p-dogs through the leafy screen.

Click to listen to the prairie dog in the driveway.

Prairie dogs bark or at least yip like a big bird. The prevalence of carrion flies around makes me think that they breed in the dark rodent holes, perhaps on unfortunately dead p-dogs or just p-dog poo. Prairie dog populations  swell until some disease comes in and wipes them out for a while. “Some disease” might be bubonic plague, which kills people in New Mexico occasionally. Perhaps there are less zoonotic diseases that take them down as well, but in town, between the interstate and the train tracks, there are no coyotes to do any predator control. Perhaps there are ferrets? I saw a long and lean animal with a long tail run from burrow to burrow from my wooden seat on the porch. It’s an underground ecosystem and anything could happen down there.

One of the topics of conversation on the porch is the Village of Milan, our personal rabbit hole. We still don’t understand why they wanted us to leave and we are still in Temporary Use Permit limbo.  We didn’t get kicked out, yet, but we haven’t been told we can stay either. We simply don’t know. 

After Code Enforcement officer Rodney London served the papers for our eviction (see Blog 11. Slip Slidin’ Away), I went into a defensive strategy. I asked people to write letters, polite letters, to the Mayor and Village Clerk. Letters started pouring in from all over the planet. I called up Jami Seymore, at Fox News New Mexico, who had recently done a piece on us and the Placitas Horses. She came back and interviewed me, but Rodney London had little to say to tell the village’s side of the story. It made the village look petty and mean. See for yourself. Jami’s story aired on the morning of the 16th. We met with the Village trustees on the evening of the 16th, but none of them had seen the news at that point. 

I stood up to represent Mustang Camp, but immediately was confronted by Trustee Baca who had printed somewhat tangential things out about mustangs and the BLM from the internet she wanted me to respond to. I asked for her source and she said, “Just Google it.” I managed my temper until she called me a liar, saying I had said we would only have 50 horses. I had told the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) meeting in March we would swell up to 70 at first since we had to cope with the influx of Placitas horses. I hate being called a liar.

A scuffle broke out in the audience. Rodney, Howard Michael, and a P&Z member started yelling at each other on the sidelines. Rodney was insisting that “There are no minutes.” I assume they were arguing about if I had said 50 or 70.

Ms. Baca then confronted me about why we had left Largo Canyon, and why we had come here if we had so many supporters from around the world. She made a big deal of a letter sent in by Veronica Moore, one of our strongest supporters. She twisted Veronica’s letter to suggest that we had abused horses in some way. I could make no sense of what she was saying.

I tried to respond to the board authentically, but it seemed the cards were stacked against me. I could see that there was nothing I could do or say to placate Trustee Baca. So, trying to retain some dignity, I gathered my papers, and said, “Fine, I will continue preparations to vacate the property.” Later on John and Anja would tell me that I had failed in this moment and that I should never be the one to represent our organization. I should have just ignored Baca and told the story I wanted people to know about.

Lauri Jaramillo, a member of Placitas Wild, stood up and presented an emotional and passionate story of love for these horses. Trustee Archuleta and Mayguyor Gonzales had tears in their eyes. They wanted to support our plea to extend the temporary use permit. The female trustees remained unmoved. They agreed to postpone the decision until the 24th of May. The emotional appeal had been much more effective than the rational one.

Before we left the meeting, John made a point to invite the Board and Trustees and the Planning and Zoning Board to tour the facilities before the meeting. They had to come as a group as they could not meet with us individually by law. I had given up. John was optimistic, and Anja (MC’s president) knew she needed to coach me on diplomacy.

The next day the Cibola Citizen newspaper headlines were WILD EQUINE FIASCO and the Trustees got an opportunity to consider how Milan looked on state-wide Fox News seeing Jami’s piece. I imagine they also started hearing about it from their constituents who generally saw no reason to kick the mustangs out. I would like to know if they had more justification than “she lied to us about the number of horses.” Maybe someday we will hear that side.

The Village officials were polite when they showed up for the tour. It was the P&Z board mostly and Trustee Baca. We stood in the sale barn lobby and talked about what our mission and program is, then we hiked them around the mare pen and through the block of stallions. Everything was clean, neat, and organized, as it is almost every day. They were a little bit impressed and we got the feeling that things were going to work out.

The Meeting on the 24th was a little bit better. The next day’s newspaper headlines read THE HORSES CAN STAY, though the outcome still has me confused. The Village is accepting our horse manure weekly to put on their park where blowing dust is a problem. We had to get down to 50 horses by the end of June. We got down to 51 (still too many to efficiently care for and train in my opinion but I’m getting them out as fast as I can.) The Village is supposed to have a committee to work on drafting an agreement with us, but we suspect it will be better if we just submit a proposed agreement that says we will meet all the requirements to be a licensed equine rescue in the State of New Mexico and that we will comply with all local ordinances. No additional promises seem necessary to me, but I am not sure when I don’t understand the issue to begin with.

So… about those local ordinances… there is a section in the code about animals in the village. Livestock are specifically not allowed unless they have a special livestock permit. Zebras require an exotic animal permit. No one has ever applied for either of these permits until we did. On June 6th, 2019, we became the holders of Animal Permits Numbers 0001, 0002, and 0003. Sixty animals are covered by our permits. I suspect the Board of Trustees is not familiar with the livestock permitting system and will be shocked to learn that we complied with it. There are no other legal livestock in the village. The horses across the street from us that belong to a member of the P&Z board are in violation of the law. Not that we care.

We think the Village will want to meet with us again in July about the special use permit. They still might evict us or just let us continue, I don’t know what will happen down this rabbit hole. But it remains a topic of much speculation on our leafy porch.