Making that Mustang Connection

On October 8, 2019 Darling Husband, Offspring, and I made the life changing decision to adopt not one, but two mustangs at the Paul’s Valley Oklahoma holding facility. Our original intention was to bring home one, numero uno mustang. The problem is we do everything plural. You need one barn cat, go ahead and bring two home. One pony? No problem…buy him three girlfriends and let him make babies with two of them. Each member of our three person family needs one equine to ride, so we’ll rescue/adopt thirteen. One sheep turned to six, ten chickens turns into thirty, and on and on the story goes. It seems the only single animal on the farm is Thistle the donkey, and every day I wonder if she wouldn’t prefer some donkey companionship to the horses she currently resides with. A donkey draft team would not suck either. There is a wealth of background information regarding this seemingly random decision in my other blog posts. Mustang Madness part 1 and part 2 will get you caught up for the most part if you are new to the blog.

Johnny Cash and Denali right after they came off the trailer at GHLHF!

In theory we planned to “practice” our Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) skills on our newest mustang charges. If you don’t know, EMM is a competition in which trainers have 120 days to tame/train a wild mustang for a riding competition to show case their talents. We started a little later than the current trainers of the next EMM in Fort Worth TX. Our personal deadline for this project is February 13, 2020. Darling Husband has tamed/ halter trained one mustang. He participated in a program that gave him the advantage of a mustang trainer/instructor and a chance to observe five other veterans tame/halter train their mustangs. I’ve been riding/training domestic horses since my pre-teens, but up until this adventure had limited experience with wild caught mustangs.

Johnny Cash after his first grooming session.

We’re currently one month and a week into the mustang training adventure. Most experienced EMM trainers would already be riding their horses, and beginning to teach them more technical maneuvers at this point. Many of the mustangs would already have a few “off farm” outings to shows, parades, and training clinics. Ours are still in their corrals learning to lead…Joking aside, not all mustangs in an EMM progress quickly, and many do not make it to the competition at all because they are more challenging. Not all wild horses are 120 day horses. Some take quite a bit longer. While I do believe both Darling Husband and I started out with more challenging horses, I for one, am getting a crash course in the differences between un-handled domestic horses versus wild mustangs.

Preparing Johnny Cash to accept the halter.

I’m fully aware that training horses is all a matter of priority, and that “life” gets in the way for all trainers at some point or another. We did have some life events that slowed progress as well. Two weeks after bringing the horses home, Darling Husband left for a two week trip to Washington DC, promoting the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management’s adoption education initiatives. Offspring (who is three years old) and I were left holding down the fort and caring for two cats, three dogs, six sheep, six ponies, eleven domestic horses, thirty chickens, and our two wild mustangs. Unlike the other livestock that are on turnout and require minimal care, the two mustangs were still wary of humans and needed their corrals mucked morning and evening. I managed all of this while also holding down a full-time day job. Needless to say, progress was slow with both mustangs during those two weeks.

Darling Husband drove the MHF truck and trailer to DC for a promotional event in late October….

I definitely misinterpreted some early behaviors with my horse, Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash is a four year old gelding that was caught on July 25, 2019. Which means he is also a late cut stud with some residual stud behaviors. Once he’s trained, I’m sure I’ll appreciate the extra pizzazz and confidence he has to offer, but during the “get to know each other” phase it is a complication. What I interpreted as curiosity and a desire to make friends, turned out to be a show of aggression that I should have nipped in the bud by day 2. So far I’ve been bitten, kicked so many times I lost count, and on one special day he even struck out with his front hooves. I was beginning to look like a domestic abuse victim. There are times I feel like I’m living out the “50 First Dates,” story line. Johnny Cash and I make friends. He appears to enjoy being groomed and scritched. Then, the next day he acts like he’s never been touched by a human before.

Johnny Cash thinking this human isn’t totally scary…

That’s not to say my mustang hasn’t learned anything in the past month and a half. He leads fairly well. He allows me to touch him everywhere with touch tools. I can rub over every part of his body (including his ears) with my hands except his hind legs. Truthfully, I haven’t been brave enough to run my hand down past his hocks. My latest bruises from his last kicks are just now starting to fade. Johnny Cash yields the hind quarters really well, and is leading. He still needs a week or so before I trust him not to bolt when I allow him out of his pen into the pony paddock. I can throw ropes all over his body. He’s cool with me waving flags over his head/body, and the noises flags make when twirled super fast. Johnny has been wearing his halter ever since I finally got it on him in the second week. Many trainers have the BLM halter their horses before leaving the facility. I made the inexperienced decision to load my horse on the trailer without a halter. This cost me at least a week of training time, trying to get near him without getting kicked, bit, or within front hoof strike zone.

Selfie celebrating a successful night…baby steps.

Our next goals for training, are the removal/re-haltering process and getting Johnny Cash to like humans more before progressing further. I would love to be able to lead Johnny Cash in the pony paddock/round pen within the next week or so. Standing for a farrier is also high on the list of essential skills Johnny must learn. All of which is not only dependent on my horse, but also the weather. Apparently Canada’s winter weather got drunk in Texas and decided to stay a bit. I know if I were truly training for an EMM, the luxury of waiting for perfect weather would not be an option. This first month however has taught me a lot about mustangs and myself.

Relaxing more everyday…

For one, I’m not sure an EMM is a goal I aspire to any longer. Not because I feel incapable of competing at one, but more because I don’t know that I feel like expending the emotional energy on an animal that I won’t keep. All horse training can be emotionally taxing. You must focus on keeping your emotions under control at all times when working with horses to be successful. Horses are experts in nonverbal communication, and as a trainer you must be hyper aware of what your body language is projecting to the animal. While this applies to all horses it is 100 times more important when dealing with a wild caught mustang. I brought Johnny Cash home as an addition to our riding stock. I’m eventually giving up my favorite riding horse to Offspring in a few years, and I saw Johnny Cash as an adequate replacement. While I’m still holding February 13, 2020 as a goal to be riding Johnny Cash, I’m shifting goals from EMM competition to Extreme Mustang racing instead, which is the equivalent of a timed trail class on steroids.

Darling Husband trying to make contact…

Darling Husband after a month, finally bestowed a name upon his horse, Denali. Denali is progressing marginally better than Johnny Cash despite a rocky start in the first three days. Unlike me Darling Husband had the BLM install a halter on his horse before loading. That gave him a training advantage of about a week. Denali is a two year old gelding. Being younger his survival instincts haven’t quite reached Johnny Cash level, and he was gelded at a younger age (ie fewer stud behaviors). He tends to be more curious and less fearful/defensive about everything. Darling Husband and I usually work separately as we are trading off child supervision responsibilities, but occasionally we end up working together after Offspring has been put to bed.

Preparing Denali for touch….

Denali is a few stages ahead of Johnny Cash. Denali can be un-haltered and re-haltered, and Darling Husband has actually tossed a saddle blanket over his back and left it there. From what I can tell both horses lead, yield the hindquarters/forequarters about the same. When they are loose in the corral, both seem at the same comfort level when you approach them. Denali definitely enjoys human interaction more than Johnny Cash. He relishes being scratched, and so far Johnny Cash only tolerates the activity. Both horses will follow us around the pen with out a lead occasionally, but Denali was showing signs of responding to a “come here” command without a lead the other evening. I’m waiting for the day that Johnny Cash figures out what a “treat” is. Then, I can reward him with food, something he enjoys infinitely more than being touched.

If this were truly an EMM competition, Darling Husband and I would be a little bit behind the other competitors, but still in the running. There are several current EMM competitors that just put the first ride on their horses this past week. Others have been riding since day five. All in all I’m happy with our mustangs’ progress even though I had hoped to be doing some work outside of the corral by now. With all of the other activities/projects that happened for the Gardner Hard Luck Horse Farm residents this month, it would be unreasonable to expect more from the mustangs.

Johnny Cash would allow this, but I’m too short to see over his neck…

We’ve burned through a third of our self-imposed training time with two-thirds left to go. As one of the experienced/previous EMM winning competitors put it, the journey between level 0 and level 1 takes the longest amount of time. Once you reach level 1, your horse will progress through proceeding stages exponentially faster with each stage. It’s been an exciting and rewarding endeavor so far. Here’s to making more progress faster in the days to come!

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