Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Friday, April 22, 2011

Horses: Mustang Dancer - Part Two

So let's return to the day my wife and I brought home our Mustang mare.

Once she was unloaded, everyone said their thanks and we talked about how it turned out great. We asked everyone to come back for a visit whenever they were in the area, and then left.

My wife finally asked me, if I knew how to train a Mustang?

I hemmed and hawed about it saying "It's been my experience blah blah blah!" Then I hit her with a "Well I knew this guy once ..." That's when she looked at me laughing and said, "Well I guess you're going to have to use what you know, aren't you!"

Now she didn't know how right she was. I've never trained a Mustang horse in my life. And the horses that I did train were never what anyone would call standard training.  I have had a few green horses that were fairly rank and I survived well enough to ride them out and tell about it.

Like most riders, we teach the horse new things almost everytime we sit in the saddle. My Grandpa used to say, "Hopefully the horse you're sitting on remembers you, your confusing way of riding, and will make the changes needed to get you where you need to go!"

He used to shorten that by saying, "Thank God the horse was smart enough to get you here!"

But as for training a Mustang, I decided to use an approach to training that even I could understand. Good old fashion Marine Corps Motivation. Simply put, I figured I'd use communication to build motivation and desire. With the Mustang I figured it would take what I know about horses and their basic behavior and see where we go from there.

Now after better than 40 years around horses, knowing shoers, trainers, other cowboys, and those "know-it-alls" who went to see "The Horse Whisperer" twelve times, I knew must advice is what you pay for it. So first things first, I set a target.

And yes, the first thing that came to mind was that shredded rope that she'd been towing around.

It had me going from the first moment I saw it. It reminded me of some sort of ball and chain on a convict. I knew I had to use it at first, but I also knew it had to go as soon as possible.

From the very first day, I saw she was frieghtened of everything. Her fear was something awful and not just a little fear. So at first I'd go into her pen and I tried for that rope. Each time I reached for it, she'd dance away and I'd get a like more frustrated.

"Patience," I mumbled, and this went on for about a week.

Then one day I decided to make her 40' round pen half as much smaller, and I added a 12 by 12 foot trap at one end.

After about a week or so, I noticed that I had trained her to respond to a que. The que was when I would start to reach down for the rope. She would automatically go nuts and throw a tantrum and dance away the rope from me. Sometimes when I'd start to bend over she'd wheel around and fire kicks at me.

It was all working as planned! Right!

Once I discovered that she was reacting to me bending over, I stopped and I found that I could stand on the rope instead. Once she felt tension on the rope she'd set her front legs and dip her rear end like dropping an anchor. I soon realized that it had became a battle of wills, and she was winning. The communication part of this was failing.

So I moved to motivation and desire, hers.

See if anyone knows anything about horses then they'd know that a horse's world revolves around food. So for about a month, when it came to feeding time I'd hold her feed out until she took some. After she'd take a little I'd step back and leave.

It worked a little bit but not as much as I wanted it to.

Then one day I wasn't able to feed my regular time and fed her at about 8pm. That's was when I found out something. With no other horses around her, she was most frieghtened at night. I sat a ways away and watched her for a few nights and the same thing happened each night.

She would take a bite of hay and pace the pen like a cell, take another bite and do it again, and so on. Talk about vigilant.

So the next day I left her alone until it got dark. That was when I went down to her pen with a flashlight and hay. I got in the pen and talked to her while she ate. I told her about the Corps, about my wife, about people who think they know everything, about joining SASS and getting into Cowboy Action Shooting, and about anything that came to mind.

Heck I even sang to her. First I sang old Marine Cadences and some Bob Wills tunes, but then I shifted to some Hawaiian songs that I learned when I was a kid. Strange thing is that I believe she understands Hawaiian.

My neighbor said I had a nice singing voice but could understand anything I sung to her. He'd obviously never heard of Makaha Sons of Niihau, or the fact that I once sang in a Barber Shop Quartet!

So our routine became me stepping on the rope, then she'd set her anchor, and I'd pick up the rope along with a flack of hay and waited and sang to her. She would ease up some to take a bite because she knew that I would leave if she did so.

And yes she really thought that that was working for her, she had the motivation to eat and the desire to see me leave.

But that only really lasted a few days because one day she gave in and came over and took the hay out of my hand and stayed to finish it. Whether she recognized it or not I really don't know, but while she was eating I didn't leave and stayed for a while.

Later our routine would be shorter as she learned to take food from me easier, and again I wouldn't leave right away.

In fact later she'd stand there and would eat just about anything I gave her. No big sudden moves and first, but then I was able to reach in my pockets, step away, even brush her mane and neck.

Then one day when she was eating, I reached over and stroked her cheek and took a hold of her halter and jerked her head from side to side. The next day I did it again, and finnally after a few days of this and working the trap, I really felt that we were on a roll.

One day I had her so calm in my hands that I blow into her nostrils and let her take it in. She was great! After eating Chinese food, pork chops, chicken what-u-call-it, or whatever, she didn't care. She would let me talk to her and she'd calm down pretty quick.

It got to the point where she made a fuss when she saw me coming. She'd settle down once I'd pat my chest, and talk to her in the dark. But every night for awhile there, it was the same deal with us.

Then there was that one day, I was feeding her a flack of hay and stroking her cheek when I decided to do. I slowly reached under her chin and unclipped that rope. It fell to the ground and she hasn't towed one around since.

A few days later I took off that rope halter where the knots had rubbed her skin raw in a few places. Later I fitted her with a newer halter when I found that she felt a little too free without one. So free that after I moved her to a much bigger pen, I had to rope her to catch her.

Other than a few times of hard-head action on her part, I'd pat my chest and reach my hand out ... she'd nod her head up and down to let me know that she understands. I'd reach out to touch her, she'll settle down pretty quick.

From time to time over the last two years, I've had medical problems. And yes, I have to admit that I've slacked up on a lot of things including her "training." But I still have her, we named her Dancer, and all in all she has a good home these days.

Now and then I let her run free on the property and both my wife and I enjoy watching her kick up her heels and fart and snort and run for a while. Since I'm feeling pretty good these days health wise, I want to start working with her again as soon as the weather warms up.

It's kind of funny really, whenever she sees me, she gives me all of her attention. And now and then I'll pat my chest, and more times then not, she'll nod her head two or three times and move to over to me. She stand at ease to let me close enough for me to stroke her cheek and brush her down.

She loves to be brushed.


Story by Tom Correa

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