Many years ago, when I brought Dragon to a new boarding barn, he was put in a field with a resident horse on the very same day without a proper introduction. While I was away for an hour picking up lunch, he was chased and chased until he slipped and fell violently on some railroad ties set into the ground and shaved off the bony point of his hip and possibly cracked his pelvis. A full year later, after much chiropractic work, worry and confusion over his physical issues, a very honest fellow boarder told me the story and everything made sense. He was only four at the time.
So, you can imagine, when I went to visit Pendle the Saturday before I was to pick her up from the Mequon facility, I was shaken to learn she had taken a fall when the wranglers were separating out one of the mustangs to get on his trailer to go to his new home. All of the horses adopted in the internet auction are shipped and housed together at the satellite facility. Each time a horse from the internet adoption group is picked up, the horses need to be separated using chutes, luck and long whips with flags. There’s no easy way to do it, to organize and move wild horses, and it requires an impeccable sense of timing and space. Pendle was in with a group of heavier boned, more relaxed geldings, so the flags and sorting upset her more than the others. During one of the sortings, she panicked and crashed into a fence, going up and almost over the fence, before falling over onto her side. Very luckily, she was unhurt.
On Sunday, when we went to pick her up, I was nervous about loading her, because I know that repetition tends to amplify fear. The head wrangler and I had a good talk ahead of time and agreed we would not only not put a halter on Pendle while she was in the chute, but would not cut off her ID number to avoid stressing her or causing any panic while she was confined. I would do those things at home once she was relaxed and we had a relationship. She was considered “reactive” based on her responses there at the pens and people warned me she would likely take longer to tame.
Here’s the video of Pendle being sorted and loaded onto our trailer to take home:
I basically held my breath the entire time, because I already loved her. I just wanted her safely home and in her short-term pen where I could begin to teach her humans were the source of good things. Below is a video of Pendle just off the trailer.
Old mustang tamers know that less is more. Sitting in the pen with your new mustang and doing something that offers no intention toward the horse is the safest, most animal-centric and easiest way to get started. Reading a book, playing cards or drawing are all good choices. They center your energy inwards, which is less threatening to the horse. Because you are busy with other activities, the mustang will feel free to observe, investigate and gather information about you. The automatic, underlying process beneath this is called habituation. Oversimplified, what doesn’t cause us harm, we quickly get used to. Definitively, habituation is the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus. It prevents all living things from wasting their time and resources reacting to every single thing they see. Below is a short video of Pendle investigating me just a few days after we brought her home.
People can act with mustangs the same way they act with fearful dogs. We seem to collectively believe that if we just get our hands on an animal they will learn how gentle and kind we are, and their wildness and fear will melt away immediately in a one trial experience. But in reality, that isn’t how fear or wildness dissipates. Fear and wildness are big, heavy things that take time move.
Habituation helps, and food helps even more. The very first thing all baby animals learn is to stay close to mom who offers nourishment and safety. This isn’t something we have to think about. Eating feels good, and by extension, those who offer nourishment feel good to us too. I am in no way saying that feeding your horse or cat or dog makes them think you are their mother, or of the same species. But that in the choice between stealing energy – making a horse run – or offering energy in the form of food, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. One feels bad/dangerous and one feels good/familiar. If you want to classically condition relaxation and safety, food is the route.
People talk all the time about horses moving other horses to justify using space taking gestures as inter-species teaching models. But, horses driving other horses out of their space isn’t pro-social or part of a deeper educational lesson. The goal of those behaviors is just to regain space and maintain it. Yes, horses understand those gestures. But those gestures are about driving others away, not deepening relationships and teaching new things.
I want my learners to be fascinated, to be relaxed, to feel empowered and to lean in. The older spells, the organic mechanism triggered at birth, is to seek a food source. To move toward what will sustain life. This is the framework I want to use. Misconceptions about food in horse training abound, and it’s true that mustangs have to learn to accept anything but hay as a reinforcer. But everything is novel for them – humanity, halters, ropes, fences and yes, grain. A naive learner is not an excuse to avoid food as a tool. It just means there is a learning process involved.
With Pendle, I offered a small bit of grain daily in the same tub, at the same time, when I fed all my other horses. Very quickly, she came to look forward to the food and enjoy it.
At that point, my use of the passive process of habituation and the passive process of classical conditioning, me delivering the food to her pen, began to wrap together into a more powerful whole. I was no longer very scary to her at all and I predicted good things that she enjoyed. The basic laws of learning had been used well enough to offer a bridge to new possibilities, hand-feeding.
Stay tuned for part two which will chronicle hand-feeding, first lessons and the gains in tameness offered by classical conditioning.
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to support more content like this, head on over to my Patreon page and become a patron. While you are there, you can learn about my other projects I have in the works for horse and dog people!