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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.

 

 

Rules of Engagement


I am sitting down to write this on Wednesday, exactly one week into the project. One week ago we pulled in the drive, big red truck and a trailer full of mustangs. Deliriously tired, we unloaded them into their new home and the year’s challenge had commenced. I blogged on Friday still running high on the new thrill, and then the exhaustion set in for real- no matter how much I rested it seemed almost impossible to catch up.

 

It is hard for me to imagine how Myrnah feels. Rounded up by helicopter on Saturday, loaded into a trailer with her herd and driven three hours to the corrals in Burns, Oregon on Sunday. Monday, watched by strange people with binoculars and cameras, the herd constantly moving back and forth along the fence line as far away as they could manage, searching for an escape. Tuesday, herded through the chutes, branded, vaccinated, wormed, separated off into a paddock by herself, and then, in a chaos of galloping hooves, run into a small trailer with a horse she had never met. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning demanded a constant shifting of weight to stay balanced as we traveled through an onslaught of lights, sounds, and traffic- a general bombardment of the senses with all things new.

 

Tired as I was, I am sure it was nothing compared to the exhaustion Myrnah was recovering from this week.

 

I don’t know if that exhaustion helped or hindered us. Regardless, I am surprised and pleased by how quickly everything is evolving.

 

Wednesday: I spent three hours with the horses building advance and retreat of eye contact, sharing space and allowing them to touch me. Myrnah progressed to letting me approach and reach out to her, her nose reaching out to me in return. Cleo was less interested so I thought here was the perfect opportunity to treat them differently: Myrnah, the horse for the experimental project (no tools) and Cleo, the horse to train with the usual tools. So, when Cleo was not interested in me, instead of taking the time to go slow with advance and retreat of eye contact, I chose to move her around using the fences to help her feel the pressure I wanted her to associate with avoiding me. It is a big space with lots for her to hide behind, so I only moved her around slowly. Mostly walk, some trot unintentionally. Turning her and moving her again and again until she was willing to look at me, repeating when she looked away. It worked, I got the desired result of her firmly focused on me any time I requested it… but it felt an empty victory. I didn’t like the degree of force I had used to get her to that point. I liked they way I got there with Myrnah, which lead me to the decision to treat them the same, at least until it was time to put a halter on Cleo.

 

So here are the rules.

1. The horses always have an exit route open.

Any time they feel too much pressure, they can walk away. When I approach, I do my best to never block their escape. Have I gotten it wrong sometimes? Unfortunately yes. The first day I got kicked at once by Myrnah when I approached and she felt trapped between me and Cleo. Sure, it wasn’t a fence I pushed her into but without an exit route available; flight turns into fight. I wasn’t very close- no harm done- but it reminded me to stay tuned into the rules I had set myself.

2. Anytime the horse wants a rest all they have to do is reach out with their nose.

I started developing this communication the first time I reached out to the horses. All they needed to do was reach toward me in return, and I would walk away, or turn away, or sit down. They reach toward me, and all pressure comes off. If I want them to be willing partners, they need to feel like they have some control of their situation. They need a positive way to say NO. If I don’t give them a way to say no, their only choices, when they get overwhelmed, are to run or fight. When they reach out to me, I stop everything, take a deep breath, and then, when they are unconcerned, I start again.

Thursday: Cleo started getting curious, still very hesitant about me though. I kept our interactions brief and frequent, either her choosing to come touch me followed by me walking away, or me reaching out to her and walking away after we touched- the back of my hand to the front of her nose. Myrnah was happy to be stroked over most of her body, only rarely reaching back to stop me with her nose.

 

Friday: They both seemed completely at ease stomping in and out of the trailer to clean up the hay from the trip, even with me sitting only a few feet away. Myrnah seemed comfortable being stroked all over her body, ears, eyes, legs and tail… I even think I may have found a few itchy spots, though her response is very subtle. Cleo kept walking over to me, sniffing me all over and then shaking her head like I smelled bad… only to do it again and again. It is awesome to see that curiosity.

 

Saturday: Myrnah started walking away sometimes, not like she didn’t want to be with me, just like she had some other places she wanted to go. I would just rest my hand on her withers and walk with her; eventually we are going to travel together, we might as well start playing with the idea now. Interestingly, she took me right into the trailer, all the way to the back, where we hung out as she cleaned up the last bits of hay. I can’t believe she was wild one week ago- I know domestic horses that are not that trusting! Cleo definitely wants to be part of the action, and got right between Myrnah and me to let me know it was her turn at one point. She really only trusts me when I stay in front of her, though she did let me stroke her neck and take the number tag off.

 

Sunday: I walked in the trailer to hang out with Myrnah only to have Cleo tell her to get out because she wanted to get in with me. Cleo got in, and then Myrnah got in again with her front feet just behind Cleo. So there we were all together in the trailer, me thinking, This is awesome that they both feel so comfortable with me in a very tight space. Then I realized I didn’t want to move and scare them out, so I was essentially stuck there until they decided to go do something else. There was little hay left, they were just cleaning up bits left on the floor and occasionally nuzzling me; nonetheless we were in there for about forty-five minutes before a fox ran across the paddock and gave them something more interesting to investigate. By that time it was fully dark and I was glad to go in to bed.

 

Monday: Cleo let me stroke her neck and back as far as the top of her croup, and down her front legs as far as the knees. I am keeping our interactions brief and frequent so she doesn’t get overwhelmed. The wonderful side effect of this is that she doesn’t want me to leave when I do. She watches me with Myrnah keenly and often takes steps in our direction, as though her hesitance and interest are hanging in a balance. Myrnah is picking up all four feet for me now- at first just picking them up and putting them down, and then with practice holding them up a bit longer each time. Her nose she will turn toward me from fingertip pressure, and she thinks about following me as I walk away, but only sometimes and only for a couple of steps.

 

Tuesday: Cleo let me stroke the full length of her back and over her rump, as well as all the way down her front legs. Running my hands down her lower legs still brings her nose around often, asking me to pause as she adjusts to me being in her space. Sometimes she holds her nose against my hand for awhile and we sit there quietly together; sometimes she just reaches back for a brief check in. Touching her belly or tail still causes her to take a quick step away: she feels too much pressure from that and there is not time to communicate, she can only react. I am sure that will change soon. Every day sees her more confident.

Those are the highlights: Wednesday to Wednesday, week number one. I will give you more next week.

 

 

Elsa Sinclair

EquineClarity.com

 

 

7 Comments

  1. Beautiful!
    I’m glad you decided to treat Cleo the same way as you do Myrnah, because that was exactly my thought when I read about your initial approach of Cleo and not being happy with the feeling it gave you.
    Are you also going to film things?

    • Marja, Thank you so much for your on going support. If you are ever traveling in my part of the world you will have to come visit and say hi. We are filming. Hopefully we will have a teaser of the footage ready to post sometime in the next two weeks. If all goes as planned we will put together a documentary of it all at the end of the year.

      • Not much chance of me getting to your part of the world, but you just never know ;-)! Thanks for the invitation anyway.
        I’ll keep on following your blog, because it’s so interesting to read about your experiences and you are so eloquent with words to describe them, it’s a pleasure to read!
        So you won’t be putting small videos here from time to time? Well, then I’ll just have to wait for this documentary, which no doubt will be just GREAT. You can put me on the DVD list already ;-)!

  2. Elsa, The part about Myrnah leading you back to the trailer of her deliverance, rather than of her restraint is INCREDIBLE. Also incredible is how fast you are progressing with BOTH horses, just by being you. It’s working!!! 😉 Michael

    • I keep reminding myself progress isn’t linear, there will be some ups and downs I am sure. It is fun to watch it all working so far though, for sure!

  3. Elsa, I was wondering how big of a space they are living in right now. I see in the pictures they are in a round pen, do they have a bigger paddock attached or do you move them in the pen to be with them?

    • Ritzy, They have the round pen you see in the picture, and it is open about 14 feet on one side, that leads into a ten foot wide track that leads to the barns almost 100 feet away, there are two barns that you can walk all the way through into another small round area that is open to connect back into the track. It’s hard to say exactly how big it is, they do have plenty of space to get away from me if they choose though. Today we took the big tall fence panels off some of the wood fences to make them a pen for grazing right out one of the gates. It should be fun to open that up tomorrow. 🙂


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