From Level 0 to Level 1

I’m not a horse training expert. I’ll readily admit that if asked. There’s a reason I state this is a blog about equestrian “misadventures.” I know enough and have the confidence to either succeed or fail in a spectacular fashion, there is no in between. I have trained several horses and ponies in my lifetime, and would say that I have more experience than the average non-pro rider that does not train horses for a living. Still, I’m not working with the knowledge pool of a person that rides six plus horses a day and trains five to ten different horses a month. There are many horse personalities I have yet to encounter.

A professional trainer could make more progress in half the time with my animals than I have. Twenty years ago, I made my peace with the fact that I won’t be competing at the highest levels of equine sport, and may never own a world champion anything not because I lack confidence in my ability, but because I chose to prioritize other things (college, career, travel, Offspring) which leads to a lack of time resources to devote to horses. Maybe one day when my Offspring is older and I’m retired, equestrian greatness might be achievable. Until then, I’m happy muddling my way through and getting as much experience as possible while working a full time job and chasing around a feral toddler.

I am always looking for ways to challenge myself. Even though I had more than enough horses in various stages of training, I decided to add one more to the roster. Is it possible to be reluctant and enthusiastic about something at the same time? Adding another horse to my already overextended training program wasn’t ideal, but training a wild caught horse had been a niggling idea in my brain ever since watching my first Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) event. Does it get any more romantic than taming (partnering with) the ultimate symbol of the American West if you are a horse lover? It practically inspires visions of riding bridle less and bareback across an open prairie shooting arrows into the air while your mount’s luscious mane and tail flow in the wind. What? Too much? Is that a little too Hollywood or Disney cliche for you, or are you like me starting to dream a little even if you know in your soul that 99.9% of the time it will not be like the movie in your head?

So on October 7, 2019 I started down a path to make that fantasy a reality. I picked a mustang from a BLM holding facility that had been caught in late July. I had some colt starting experience, but this was my first time working with a completely untouched animal. I have several posts you can read regarding the rough beginning of training my first mustang, aka Johnny Cash. EMM aspirations quickly vanished after the first month. Johnny Cash made it very clear he hated humans and wanted nothing to do with them. I’m hesitant to assign human emotions to a horse’s behavior. I believe animals process things differently from humans, but angry, is really the best description I can give his mental state. Johnny Cash was aggressive. He would bite, kick, or strike out when pressured even slightly.

Johnny Cash coming home from BLM holding facility in Paul’s Valley, OK

Every day with this horse has been two steps forward, one step back, sometimes three steps back. I’ve been working with horses, large animals, and livestock my whole life, but as one month dissolved into three, I began to question my ability to get Johnny Cash under saddle. Asking for assistance, or admitting a failure is not difficult for me. I’ve learned more from failure than I ever have success. When it comes to training horses, I will seek out knowledgeable people, but refuse to send my horse to someone else to train for me. If I wanted a world champion/4 star horse right now, I could invest in one and pay a trainer to keep it tuned up (also if I were willing to spend the cash). World champion isn’t the goal though. Improving my horsemanship, the incremental improvements I see in myself, my training methods, and my horses are the true reward for me.

I make it sound like Johnny Cash has made no progress with me, but in reality, he knows a lot of ground work maneuvers. The problem isn’t that he wasn’t learning, but that he just had a really crap attitude to the whole process despite my best efforts to get him to join up. Positive reinforcement didn’t work with Johnny Cash because in his world there was nothing positive about humans. He was ambivalent to treats and touch. Negative reinforcement worked better than positive, as he would do just enough to earn a release, and I was rewarding any “try.” Reinforcing training worked intermittently.

I tolerated Johnny Cash’s bad attitude out of pity for longer than I should have. I tried to empathize with his experience of being pulled off the range in Nevada, separated from herd mates, gelded, placed in government holding, and then coming to a farm in Texas where strange munchkins (aka miniature horses) patrol the perimeter of your corral attempting to steal your hay. It really wasn’t far off from a Wizard of Oz experience. He definitely didn’t see me as Glenda the Good Witch. I’m fairly certain Johnny Cash was waiting for me to call down the flying monkeys any day. Finally I decided that he had an ample adjustment period, and it was time to end the fear/anger/self pity cycle. I needed a few extra hands to help me, though.

Last weekend some really great friends came to my aid. I needed someone that could help me with farrier work, because Johnny Cash was still unpredictable. As an example I was traveling for work and Darling Husband was going to tie Johnny Cash to the “Tree of Knowledge” while I was away. When he attempted to halter my horse, Johnny Cash struck out catching him in the leg (three or four steps back in our progress). I also wanted people with experience of laying a horse down. I know the theory behind it, but I did not have practical experience. Until this horse, I hadn’t ever needed to lay a horse down, but I did know it was an effective technique for teaching a horse not to panic or react aggressively when placed in a compromising situation when round pen work just isn’t cutting it.

So I asked our friends to help me put an end to the aggressive nonsense. After a solid four hour working session on a Saturday (I’ll skip the gory details), I wasn’t entirely sure that we had made any progress with this horse, but I had learned a lot. We did lay Johnny Cash down and rubbed all over his entire body until he relaxed. I understood why my previous solo attempts didn’t work. This was not a job for one person. Our friends assured me we had made progress, that my mustang was not one of the “easy ones,” but Johnny Cash would be a different horse the next day.

The Sunday after our marathon working session, will be forever known as the first day of Johnny Cash’s domesticated life. The kicking, striking, biting animal was gone. Johnny Cash was the calmest he had ever been since arriving at the GHLHF. I didn’t work him at all that Sunday, just approached him, haltered him, and fed him a few treats. The rest of the week, I worked on handling his back feet. Johnny Cash is still tense when the right hind is handled, but he hasn’t offered to kick anything (me, Darling Husband, a multitude of desensitizing tools) since last Saturday.

This past weekend was amazing. Johnny Cash allowed me to trim his front feet and pick up/hold the hind feet. I sprayed him all over with fly spray. We loaded in the horse trailer, and he backed out successfully three times. He panicked a little the first time his hind foot stepped down from the trailer, but calmed down quickly without attempting to charge over me. We went into the back pasture. There were no spooks that resulted in him pulling away from me. Johnny Cash took every obstacle like a champ with multiple distractions. Johnny Cash didn’t even acknowledge the chainsaw and tree crashing to the ground behind him as we walked over ground poles/through jump standards (with me walking backwards, trying not to trip, and get some video at the same time). He wore a saddle blanket and surcingle for the first time, with no drama.

Johnny Cash and I spent some time just hanging out. He grazed, I tried to take photos that show how gorgeous he really is. He would come back over to me and I would feed him a few treats. He actually approaches me in the round pen, now. It only took a few minutes to teach Johnny Cash how to side pass in both directions and back through an L shaped obstacle with none of his usual drama about being presented with a new task. I even began prepping him for mounting by bouncing up and down beside him, putting pressure on his back like I planned to spring onto it. He actually appeared to be dozing during that part.

We have started working on flexing to each side, preparing to teach a one rein stop. Johnny Cash was extremely resistant to giving me both eyes on the right hand side initially, but after what felt like an eternity of clinging to his rump like a spider monkey as I asked him to turn his head, but not move his feet J.C finally softened. I’m hoping the message that there isn’t any need to kick me was reinforced as well. We’ll continue to work on these skills and several others this week. Hopefully I can teach standing at the mounting block (short girl problems) before the weekend. How I would love to be able to spring onto his back from the ground, but alas I don’t have the vertical, and he is not the horse to make clumsy attempts at mounting just yet. The plan is to focus on ground driving, and an introduction to saddle with our professional stunt rider Mad Max the monkey this weekend.

Every mustang trainer and natural horsemanship trainer that I respect says on a skill level scale of zero to ten with zero being no skills and ten being competitive level, training from zero to one will take the most amount of time. In my past I usually started with a horse already at skill level one, and progressed quickly. I’m extremely appreciative for the assistance from our friends that helped me get from level 0.75 to 1. I’m optimistic that Johnny Cash will make the step from level one to level two within the next two weeks or so. For the first time in four months, I feel like this isn’t an entirely futile endeavor.

2 Comments

  1. I have laid down a number of horses as well but only the very difficult/dangerous ones and also saw this amazing turn around!! One of them was a tiny 32″ miniature horse stallion that would try to bite my THROAT when he was angry. And it didn’t take much to set him off. I’ll tell you that laying down a 32″ mini is MUCH different than laying down a 1200 pound big horse. LOL! It was actually pretty easy! My mom and my good friend were there. We waited until he got mad, as I said it didn’t take much, and then I yelled GO! And we all three grabbed him as he went up into attack mode and simply laid him down. No ropes needed. We had a little giggle while he was down when comparing it to other times with the big horses. Then we all loved on him while he was down and did a little desensitizing and when he got up he was a completely new and different horse who never reverted back to his old ways. He was so gentle my kids could handle him! He was the one I had people who were new to driving drive! It’s amazing how doing that can work wonders. But only when done correctly and on horses that actually need it. I helped a neighbor with her Percheron/Friesian cross gelding a few years ago who was laid down (by a professional horse trainer), when he didn’t need it and it nearly broke his brain. He is a super scaredy-cat kind of horse and laying him down convinced him that people were terrifying and he became dangerous in that he was always trying to escape. He is doing awesome now but it took us about 6 months to convince him we were not there to hurt him. Poor guy 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well Johnny Cash was definitely not safe. He’s behaved like an angry stallion since day one, so laying him down was a necessity. He did fight the process. Getting him totally laid out and keeping him there until the anger went away took 3 people. I was warned he may need to lay down a few more times before he’s totally with the program, but so far his attitude has much improved!

      Like

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