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The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

A story of Mustangs

I want to tell you a story: a story to rescue you from the wintery cold of January and take you to sand and sun, heat and salty sweat. I may live in the damp and temperate Pacific Northwest, but my mind refuses to stay put. It forever drifts south bringing me dreams of languid afternoons and dry open vistas.

Nevada in August of 2005 was all of that for me. The Mustangs of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, scheduled to be rounded up and adopted out, drew me south. Sheldon has a reputation for beautiful wild horses and a desire to keep the numbers low enough that other species of wildlife have room to thrive. Their systems of managing the Mustangs are not as organized and stable as the Bureau of Land Management, so at that time, they needed adopters who could be there shortly after the horses were driven into the corrals. Adopting them out quickly- no branding, and no pre-adoption health care. Just the basics of placing horses in good homes. That suited me.

I wanted a horse as close to natural as possible. With the transition from wild to domestic as smooth as it could be. I wanted a horse that had been tough enough to live in the wild for years, a horse that knew it didn’t need me to survive. I wanted to be the first person to offer that horse a partnership, and learn from that horse learning to trust and bond with me of it’s own free will.

As always, this story is bigger than just me and what I wanted. Though that is perhaps what propelled it, I had incredible support from family and friends and it was an adventure for all of us. Cameron, my daughter, 3 years old at the time, left San Juan Island with me and we made our way to Seattle/Tacoma airport to pick up her Dad, returning home from a month of work in Russia. East we drove, to buy the perfect stock trailer- lightweight enough to be pulled behind the Land Rover, small, simple, roomy, and, excitingly bought with the money I had made working at a horse farm when I was sixteen. Money put away for a rainy day, and gloriously spent eleven years later in the hot August sun of eastern Washington. From there we headed south to Nevada, towing a trailer, newly named Mozambique.

Being adventurous, we couldn’t resist taking the shortcut that looked like it would save us hours of travel time. By the time we realized it was not even paved, and lead us through some pretty wild places, we were committed and loved every moment of it. I am sure our Land Rover Zambezi was grateful to finally get some off road time, living up to it’s Land Rover heritage.

Winnemucca, Nevada- way more fun to say, than visit. Except for the draw of the Mustangs of course. There we met up with Kaitlyn, thirteen years old, a student of Natural Horsemanship with me, and brilliant with horses already. Kaitlyn came along with her Dad and sister, there to help her pick out her new Mustang partner. The six of us wound our way across the valley to the corrals, in awe of the choices that lay before us. Of the two hundred plus wild horses brought in only a couple of days before, We could only take two home…

Blistering heat, sweat dripping without pause, patches of skin burnt to a crisp where sun screen had been forgotten, all that was of no particular importance to Kaitlyn and me. The horses, it was all about the horses. They had been brought through the sorting chute shortly after being rounded up, teeth looked at briefly to get a rough idea of age, an orange number painted on the rump and a tag strung under the throatlatch with the same number. Then they were separated into three groups: stallions, mares with foals, and mares without foals. We were given a printout, with the horses’ numbers, and corresponding ages. I was looking for a mare between the ages of 4 and 7, old enough to know herself and who she was, young enough to be open minded about all the changes she would be faced with. Kaitlyn was looking for a younger mare. One she could grow up along with.

I saw Saavedra in the first few moments I was there. She caught my eye, a flash of sleek black in the midst of the crowd- then I lost sight of her, and didn’t see her again until two days later. The horses were frightened of people, they would huddle at the far end of the paddock, until someone walked to the other side, and then they would all flee as far away from humans as they could manage. We spent those three days crouched behind binoculars asking each other things like. “What do you think of number 132? Tucked behind the bay horse… wait she’ll come out in a moment, I’m sure she will…”

We watched the stallions too, not because we were considering adopting one, just because they were amazing. The sheer power those horses possess takes your breath away. And when they hurl themselves against the metal panels, testing the unfamiliar limits of space, they make you feel small, and humble. They are raw horse power of which I have not seen the like of anywhere in domesticity.

After days of watching the horses interact with each other, poring over our conformation books, talking about the pros and cons of potential partners….  Kaitlyn and I made up our minds. She chose a yearling filly she named Yahzi, I chose a five year old mare I named Saavedra. I am still amazed, the first mare that caught my eye was the one who came home with me, even after considering all the others. Looking back, I have no doubt at all I chose the perfect horse for me.

They drove as many horses as they needed to, through the chutes that day, in order to sort our two out. The handlers deemed Yahzi a sweetheart who would adapt to her new life quickly. They warned me to be careful of Saavedra, she still bears the white hairs on her shoulders where she cut herself repeatedly, fighting as she came through the chutes. After the papers were signed, and the official necessities organized, they herded our mares into the trailer and closed the door quickly behind them. We had thirteen hours to drive, a ferry to catch, and another hour and a half after that before we could let them out. We were given specific instructions NOT to open the doors before we were backed up securely to their new pens where they would live until they learned to trust people.

Thirteen hours driving non-stop, and three-year-old little girls strapped in car seats are not a natural combination. So, the drive had to happen through the night. John and I switched off, taking cat naps when we were not driving, though John did the lion’s share, letting Cameron and I sleep peacefully most of the way. The Mustangs traveled restlessly, running circles in the trailer when large trucks thundered past. The Land Rover stoically did it’s best to maintain course in spite of the horse power behind, trying to pull us off the road and back into the wild.

Horses reproduce more quickly than their natural predators are able to keep up with. The land they are given to live on at a certain point is not adequate for their numbers, so I understand why people manage them they way they do. I am grateful I am allowed to offer a home to and learn from such magnificent animals. My heart still aches for them though, as they are torn from the freedom they grew up in, and must adjust to sharing their lives with us.

We made it safely home to our island paradise. Saavedra and Yahzi came out of the trailer to a land of lush green they had probably never seen the likes of. To this day, I think they can’t quite believe the wealth of food laid out at their feet day in and day out. It is a far cry from the sparse sage brush of Nevada.

As the adoption rules state, the mares were kept in small pens until they could be reliably haltered and led. When my mother, a great advocate for freedom, let me know she believed we could get them out of those pens and released free in the pasture with our other horses within 10 days. I didn’t believe her. I wanted to do things gently, and as slowly as necessary. I know people often train wild horses with classic round pen techniques, running them until they are willing to face their fear of people. They often put a halter and lead on, letting the horse drag it around for days, so they submit to the fact that someone can pick up the end of the rope any time and bend the horse to their will. I wanted none of that.

My thought was to take those ideas of pressure and release and lower the intensity, lower it until I felt it was a process in which the horses could be willing partners. Kaitlyn and I took it to a game of eye contact and release of eye contact. Just staring at those horses was enough pressure. It didn’t take them long to figure out, if they stared back at us, we would shift our attention, perhaps sit down, or pretend to read a book. (the original outline of the plan was to actually read the book, but we found the process was much too exciting to be able to do anything other than revel in the moment). Teaching those horses to make eye contact led very quickly to their being curious. Once they were curious, it was an easy step to sharing space and touch, then rope and halter were accepted simply, without fanfare.

My mother was right. Within ten days, they were free again. This time out on the lush green grass of the Pacific Northwest. To this day, they have never questioned their basic partnership with people. It still amazes me they were willing so quickly to give their trust. It is a gift I hope I never take for granted.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

8 Comments

  1. Dear Elsa,
    While I watched the start of your quest for your mustang, your telling here is awesome and and well written. An exciting, clear tale of creative peaceful communication. WOW!
    All my best to you and your project(s), Michael

    • Thanks Michael, This entry was incredibly fun to write. Here’s to many more WOWs as the project goes on. 🙂

  2. Elsa,

    So not only are you an incredibly gifted horsewoman, you have the gift of writing and storytelling as well!
    Just for a day I would LOVE to look at the world of horses the way you do. I am so envious!
    Good luck and I look forward to all the fabulous happenings coming in the future as this adventure unfolds.

    • Thankyou Maggie, the writing is opening up a whole new world for me. As I write, I seem to think more clearly, and as I think more clearly I feel as though I see the horses with intensified clarity as well. It’s an adventure for sure 😉

  3. Wow, not having heard the story of the beginnings with your mustang I was thoroughly entranced. Great writing. I really look forward to Mondays now.

    • Thanks Ritambhara, I will do my best to keep us all entertained, lucky for me, horses create endless fabulous stories begging to be written down. 🙂

  4. Hi Elsa,
    I recently discovered your blog and I’m thrilled with your adventure!
    Being a Carolyn Resnick student I am very interested in liberty training and letting my horses teach me how I should handle and approach them.
    Very much looking forward to your future stories!

    Marja and her seven Icelandics, from The Netherlands

    • Welcome to the adventure Marja. The horses do tell us a great deal, we all just have to get better at listening I think… That’s my goal anyway.


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