Monday, July 20, 2009

The Mustang Chronicles, Day One
I have a new project. It happened very fast, and it's amazing.

I'm playing with a Mustang yearling (in addition to finishing up Level Two with Cheerios)!

My barn manager found a Mustang nearby that was up for adoption. Fresh from the range, BLM, Nevada, only in civilization since January. He's a yearling. The barn manager said he was black—he's really a dark brown with almost bay markings. He has a small star on his forehead and a snip on his muzzle:

The Little Mustang

Photo taken while he was living at the Foster Home. He can be haltered and lead, and is gentle enough that a child can pet him—but he's still a wild animal.

And he is perfection in motion. It's unusual to see what a horse should look like—we have bred a lot into and out of our domestic horses. This one looks like what God intended—pure, unmessed with, bred to be the survivor. His legs are straight and beautiful. His hooves—wow. His conformation is pristine.

He arrived three days ago from this writing. He's been gentled enough that he is calm around people, and accepts confinement. But he's still "wild" in the sense that he is Horse and we are Predators and he doesn't realize he lives in our world yet.

On hay loading day, we'd been talking about the horse, and I'd mentioned how I'd always wanted to train a wild one. Someday... in that far off sense of the word. Someday, when I'm solvent again, when I have my own farm, when I'm official Level Three.

Yesterday, a friend from back in high school days came out to photograph horses. This is a photo he took of Cheerios' blue eye. Isn't it amazing? WOW!

Cheerios' Eye by Mike Ridgway

After he left, I went in to chat with my barn manager about life for a bit before playing with Cheerios. I asked how she was getting along with the Mustang (no name yet) and what she had planned for him.

She said she hadn't done much with him yet, and probably wouldn't be able to train him until spring because she is training a bunch of other horses and giving lessons (and working full-time and raising a small child). I thought to myself, he might be a lot to handle by then if nobody is doing anything with him, and wished I could train him. But, of course, that's someday. I'm only just L2 Online. And it's not my horse.

The next moment, she looked at me and said, "You can train him if you'd like to."

Wait—WHAT?!? I'm hearing things.

I said in disbelief, "Really?"

She said, "Yeah. It would really help me out. And I know you aren't going to ruin him. I trust you with him."

Let me gather my jaw from the floor.

She asked that I keep her updated with status reports, and said the farrier is due out in two weeks for his first appointment and he hasn't had his feet handled.

Um... well, Pat says it never takes more than two days, so...

I accepted the challenge.

I played with Cheerios a bit first, to warm up. It went well. Rode a little. Carrot stick riding went well. I think knowing I'm L2 Online and L3 is in sight elevated my self-esteem and helped me relax.

I turned Cheerios out and went to the round pen where the Mustang lives. All I took in with me was a mounting block to sit on and my 22' line in case I needed it.

I started out by sitting on the mounting block to play the Quiet Time game. But I soon realized, this is not a domestic horse. This is a wild creature. I could be here for a week and he'd stay on the opposite end of the pen, grazing and watching me with one wary eye.

Time to change tactics.

I stood up, 22' coiled in hand, and moseyed toward him to see what he'd do. The entire time I was with him, I kept my energy low, my movements fluid and deliberate, and used as little as possible to see how much it would take to get a response from him. I moseyed. I stayed casual and neutral.

In other words, I was different with him than I am with Cheerios. I know Cheerios knows me. I don't worry about "messing him up". But with this one... he's... pristine. My challenge is to be very careful with how I go about this. Because I realized early on that this little wild horse embodies the spirit of Horse Itself, and he has a vibrant, "alive" energy that I want him to maintain for the rest of his life. It's more than try. It's an untouched spirit, undamaged by humans, simply unmessed with.

It's important to preserve that.

It didn't take much to get a response from him. He wasn't bothered by anything I did—he just decided to move away from me. I touched his bubble, and he left. No big deal. He just... turned matter-of-factly and left in the other direction. I tossed the rope coils at Zone 4-5 (holding the metal end) and he trotted around the perimeter.

I observed.

It became apparent that 1) he wasn't afraid of me, just wary; 2) he was totally thinking the entire time; 3) he would be quite happy trotting nicely around the pen for the rest of the day as long as it kept distance between us.

First impression? LBE.

(The barn manager said he seems curious about things that would scare most horses, like when the kids were kicking a ball around and it shot into his pen. He went up and sniffed it, rather than spooking away from it.)

OK. Obviously circling won't help. Change tactics. Have him change direction. All I did was walk a couple of steps toward where he was headed, slowly raise my arm, and he neatly changed directions. (Hello, Level Three? Can I use this horse for Liberty?)

Did that for a bit, and every time he changed direction, I took one step closer to him. I didn't encroach too closely—not wanting him to feel trapped. When he stopped, I stopped and relaxed. All pressure off. Since I was purposely keeping my energy low, this wasn't hard. To get him to move, I merely needed to raise my energy slightly—that's how attuned he was to me.

It was SO COOL.

I figured out fast where the edge of his tolerance bubble was—he stopped, and put his head up over the pen, looking for a way out. I backed up one step and he relaxed.

His attitude was so fascinating. All I keep thinking is how matter-of-fact it was, how aware and attuned he was to the slightest thing, but how quietly he responded. No silly RB panic. He seemed to say, "Oh, OK. So you're doing that, I'll do this. OK. You changed. Now I'll do this. OK. That isn't working, I'll do this." He wasn't getting frustrated, nor was I. We were simply trying to establish a conversation.

(Which is how I should be with EVERY horse, right? Just because Cheerios is "tame" doesn't mean he should be treated differently. Oh, what I've learned already; how much I take for granted.)

I didn't need to throw the rope constantly, either. It was body-to-body dance.

In the middle of all this, I remembered the latest Savvy Club DVD, where Pat plays with four horseanalities. He pointed out that everything means something and nothing means nothing, and how just swapping the rope from one hand to the other matters to the horse. I noticed I was holding the rope coiled in the hand closest to the Mustang, and switched hands. Then I became mindful of which hand was closest and adjusted accordingly.

It made a difference.

He kept trotting, but he slowed down and relaxed more.

He'd get to the point where he would stop trotting and stand still. Then he'd look at me. I'd turn away. He'd stand still a minute... and trot off again. But he'd go around once, then circle closer and feel like he was thinking of coming to me (politely, even), then at the last minute he'd veer away. Without changing his rhythm, gait, or attitude.

We repeated the change of direction exercise several times until finally, he stopped and turned a quarter-turn toward me.

Whoa. I tried to see if he'd Stick To Me, but he wouldn't. When I got three steps away, he'd trot off again.

When we stopped and he faced again, he wouldn't come in. He maintained the distance between us. If I stepped forward, he stepped back and vice versa.

OK. After a few rounds of that, time for a new tactic. He'd been doing a bit of blowing, licking, chewing and his head had dropped, so I knew I was getting through. Let's try... disengaging the HQ.

Interesting. He senses it, I see the HQ muscles twitch, but he doesn't disengage right away. He turns his head to me, though. So it's a dance. I dip, he turns, I take off pressure, he looks away, I stand up. Repeat. Then trot off again.

I did notice the hind leg closest to me was cocked. NOw if it were Cheerios, I'd likely think he was relaxed. But... with this one, it could mean that—or it could mean, Hmm. I might need to kick. So I'll cock my leg in preparation. I cautioned myself on that. :-)

I decided to just mirror him and see what he'd do. When he left, I left. I stayed parallel to him and walked when he walked, trotted when he trotted, turned when he turned. THIS was fascinating, too. I had to stay right in tune with him. It got to where my brain totally shut off and I was just in the moment, dancing with the horse. There was no thinking. Not on my part anyway. I was now simply responding.

Eventually, the mirroring got through to him. He not only stopped, but he faced up. We stood there a LONG time, with the Mustang standing there neatly, ears forward, pleasant expression, looking at me.

You'd think, OK, now turn away, take off pressure, he'll stick.

Nope. Finally, I realized, just stand there. Don't move. Just hang out. Let him look. Have the agreement that we both know we're here, but we're cool with it.

He relaxed.

I waited.

It seemed like the right time to try to connect.

So I slowly—not sneakily, but gently and gradually lifted my hand and extended it to him to sniff.

The first time, nothing. I retreated. I waited. He waited.

The second time, I took one step closer. He stayed put. I repeated. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. I was close enough that he could reach out if he wanted to. So I waited.

And waited. Every now and then, retreat, approach.

And then it happened.

His little nose reached over cautiously and sniffed my hand.

When he retreated, so did I.

Now. I probably should have walked away and called it a day at that point. But I had that goal thing—touch him.

We repeated the greeting a couple times. He was more relaxed about me. The last time, I greeted, then casually reached up to stroke his forehead. Not realizing until I had my hand on his forehead that duh, I'm supposed to go to the withers first. Well, 50-50 chance, right? He wasn't too bothered by it. His head went up about a half inch, but he accepted my hand. I retreated and tried again, this time going toward his withers as he eyed me a bit warily like "Um, where do you think you're going with that?"

But he didn't move.

It occurred to me that I might be dealing with an RBI now. LBE when the human is a safe distance away; RBI when the predator is too close. I listened to his breathing. It was a little shallow. But he wasn't all hard and stary, just wary. He seemed a tad tense. So I went easy. I stroked the front part of him. When I sensed a "yeah but" I retreated.

I was probably stomping all over his thresholds, I realize now, but he behaved admirably.

When I returned to pet his head, he left. Again. Quietly, no big to-do. He just ambled off.

Well, that's not a good note. I repeated the whole process to get him to face up, which happened very quickly, then avoided his face, stroked his withers briefly, then walked away. He stood still and watched me go.

All right. Much better. He didn't leave until I opened the gate.

Yes, he is completely different from a domestic horse. Playing with him yesterday, I realized he is going to teach me everything I'll ever need to know about feel and timing and harmonizing with a horse, because he is so AWARE. He is alive and attuned and present in every single moment. He takes nothing for granted.

He has much to teach me.

It also made me realize how much we humans have dulled out even the most sensitive domestic horses. We have horses that are so bored with us that they don't even react. A bulldozer could drive over them and they'd barely look up from the grass. The spooky ones got that way because humans built it into them. We go "BOO!" and send them up over the round pen gates, out of their minds to get away from the human torturers who cause them so much panic.

But this wild one, he's special. He's Spirit Embodied. I am blessed with such a gift to be able to play with him.

And the weirdest thing I noticed. You know how all horses smell unique? Cheerios and Shaveya don't smell the same, nor do they smell like other horses I've been around.

When I got close enough to Mustang to touch and smell him, I realized he smelled familiar.

He smells like Wildflower.

1 comment:

Pete McKee said...

Just stumbled onto your blog through the random feed from my own blog. I also had the pleasure of working with a BLM mustang. Best horse I ever had for working in the woods and such. Your description of the yearling's attitude is very similar to my horse's. She was about 22 years old when I got her. That wildness doesn't leave them. Not everyone understands that.

If you're interested, you can read the posts about "Cocoa the Mustang" in my blog, Random Notes From the Saddle.

Take care,
Pete McKee