I won Aesop on an internet auction where bidders from around the United States compete over two weeks to adopt the horse they want. It makes a little money for the Bureau of Land Management by upping the normal $125 adoption fee and creates more interest in adopting wild horses. It’s also nerve-wracking since you can lose the horse you want in an instant to another bidder.
I had been following the BLM’s monthly online adoptions for nearly a year when I saw a picture of a strawberry roan horse who had stunning color and the kindest face I had ever seen. A large, open eye, soft nostrils and a mouth with no tension in it at all. I am easily stolen by beauty but as a trainer I had come to value a naturally relaxed animal as well. This horse looked both beautiful and at home in the world. I had been clicker training seriously with horses for a few years and was curious about what it would be like to teach a horse from their very first lesson in their new home using positive reinforcement. I wanted a horse who had never been round-penned or pressured by a human. A completely blank slate. Naive.
So, I applied for my bidder ID number and began to bid on #0187. Everything was relevantly uneventful until the last hour of the auction when I engaged in a fierce bidding war with an adopter from New York. You have an abbreviation for your state in front of your bidder id number so you can see the location of who you are bidding against. New York and I bid over and over down to the the final four seconds. My partner, Sara, and I were on two separate computers, one of us checking the status of the bid and the other one actively bidding on the other’s advice. In the final second when she hit our last bid we both closed our eyes, afraid to look at the screen that declared the winner. I was pretty sure we had lost and was already rehearsing a speech to myself in my head about what is meant to be, etc, when I opened my eyes and hit refresh on my screen. #0187 had been won by the bidders in Wisconsin! He was ours.
We waited a month for him to be sent to Oklahoma where we could pick him up and drove down to get him. Here’s a video of Aesop in the trailer at our first rest stop:
He was the first wild horse that I had adopted and my responsibility to him felt vast. I was responsible for whatever he would learn, good or bad, but more importantly, I was responsible for how he would feel about humans in general. He was new. Unspoiled. I already had one mustang who had been damaged by his previous humans. The work to undo his old associations and teach new functional behaviors was painstaking and slow. Through him I knew first-hand how a horse could be ruined in the name of training. I wanted to offer this horse something different. I wanted to offer him a relationship he could enjoy and training that felt like collaboration and fun games to figure out. I wanted to offer him the choice to leave the session if he felt uncomfortable and the freedom to express his discomfort without fear of punishment. Trainers talk about offering choices and “a good deal” all the time like they are part and parcel of most training systems, but in reality these things are very rare.
I wanted to tell him in words, right away, my intentions. Maybe I even did speak them through the crack in the trailer door. But with horses you must live up to your word daily. Your actions tell your story. So I got him home and began the slow, quiet process of taming him.
Aesop is completely tame now with a full skill set and most people can’t believe he was ever wild. He stands wonderfully for the trimmer, is calm with the vet and happily engages with all new people. He is as kind and as relaxed as I guessed he would be through his photos. His foundation work is finished and this fall I started him under a rider. He is the kind of animal you get once in a lifetime, an animal who only says yes, who rarely worries and moves ahead in his training like he read the book the night before. I call him my gift from the horse gods. He will be six years old this year and we are only beginning our journey together. I don’t even try to imagine an end goal because Aesop constantly surprises me with his intelligence and graciousness. The same things I offer him: collaboration, gentleness, understanding and trust he offers right back. He truly feels limitless.