“He’s an aggressive horse”, she said, “He attacked someone and ran them out of the round pen”. This was my introduction to the horse that I was going to work with for a week.
As the other half of Reach Out to Horses, I’ve had the fortune of participating in almost all of our events over the years. Last year I was able to spend the week in one of my favorite courses, Reach Out to the Untouched Horse. In this wild horse experience, folks get to spend the week, one-on-one with a wild mustang, gentling him without ropes, chains, chutes, or any other tools of dominance. The tools are only communication, compassion and a methodology that Anna has perfected over many years and thousands of horses. With Anna’s master teaching and coaching I was given seven days to help a mustang learn a new world, and hopefully show him that humans had a positive role to play in his life.
My mustang, though, didn’t come untouched, straight from the BLM holding pens, as most of the horses in the event. He was previously adopted by a well-meaning couple, hoping to give him a second chance at life. So many people see the suffering these horses endure when they are traumatically rounded up from their homes, ripped from their family, and forced into holding pens. My horse was one of those, now over 50,000 horses, waiting for the “powers that be” to determine their fate. So this couple decided to rescue him, train him and give him a new home and a new life.
They did what so many well-intentioned, but misinformed people do with a mustang. They treated Mustangs like a horse. Big mistake. One of the most common misconceptions is that a horse is a horse is a horse, and that mustangs are simply domestic horses in the wild. They are not. Mustangs are, in an equine way, what wolves are to dogs. They are wild animals, they are smart and they have an independent nature that can make them difficult, and downright dangerous, to train if you don’t know what you are doing. Train a mustang like a domestic horse and you never know what you are going to get other than, most likely, injured at some point.
They began my mustang’s training, as many horses do, in the round pen. But when they attempted to get him to move he attacked them. He charged his handler and ran him out of the pen. Already branded with a bad reputation as a mustang, that was all they needed to see. Clearly this horse was dangerous and aggressive. The decision was made that he would be left alone in a pasture until they could find help.
Turns out, this course and I were that help. My job… turn this guy around. Change his mind. Gentle an aggressive horse.
I joined him in our 24’ by 12’ run and he quickly moved as far away from me as he could, placing his head in the corner so I would not be able to approach him without entering his kick zone. If he didn’t interact with me, perhaps I would leave him alone. When I presented him with food, he was bold enough to eat, even with me right next to him. But touch, connection, was out of the question. Initially he didn’t seem particularly aggressive. We wanted to see if his reputation was accurate, Anna assessed him and looked for his triggers. She found them and in response he double barreled towards her.
That was all we needed to see to know that this guy was for real! He made it perfectly clear. “Mess with me, and there are consequences.”
I decided that, of all the training I could do, the best thing I could teach him, if anything, was that humans weren’t all bad. I thought if I could convince him that I had value, that I could be trusted, perhaps he would be open to listening. That became my goal.
I worked slowly, giving him space, asking him to try a little bit at a time, consistently pushing the boundaries but never demanding more than I felt he could give. Days passed and I began to doubt if he would ever come around. I wanted to push him, to “just get the job done” and get him gentled. But I knew that, not only was that dangerous, it wouldn’t work. And that voice in my head that wanted to “fix” this horse was nothing but pride. That voice wanted to look good, accomplish something no one else could, WIN! That voice had my ego’s best interest in mind, but certainly not the horse’s.
I wondered how many horses, over eons of time, had to suffer at the hands of men and women with these exact same thoughts. I wondered how much abuse animals (and humans) had to endure due to ignorance, arrogance and pride. That thought kept me focused on my goal; value and trust.
Finally, after 4 days, we touched for the first time. It was an exhilarating and emotional moment I’ll never forget. For the first time, he was willing to see me, to give me a chance. I continued to work with him, slowly, showing him that his willingness to connect wasn’t a mistake. He relaxed more and more with each day, and over the course of the next three days I had him haltered and leading. The final day of leading was magical. He wasn’t spooky, he didn’t try to get away, or pull against the rope. He walked with me; a true partner.
I only wished that I had another week with him, or even that I could take him home. I knew with more time, he would have come around. But I was happy with what we had accomplished, with what he had accomplished. He had come so far in a very short period of time.
I finished the week with a great feeling of personal satisfaction. After all, my goal was to show him I had value and to gain his trust, and I had done that. But as I reflected on my time with him, I realized that I had learned so much more than a powerful horsemanship methodology. In fact my most important lesson had nothing to do with horsemanship. I realized, in that moment, that he wasn’t an aggressive horse at all.
Horses are thrown into the “aggressive” label any time they lash out, attack, or injure someone, especially if it appears to be for “no reason”. Although the reason may not be apparent to the human, it is perfectly clear to the horse.
My horse wasn’t aggressive, he was defensive. In his mind, he was put in a confined space by a human and chased, or even attacked by a human! He wasn’t trying to kill anyone. He was defending himself. After all, if he was truly aggressive, then he would have attacked me at some point. But he didn’t. Why? Because I gave him no reason to attack. I pushed him, I asked him, I moved him out of his comfort zone. But he tried. He tried hard. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he would defend himself if needed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all aggressive horses are secretly sweet little foals yearning to be understood. Sometimes that aggressive title fits. But if we callously label all trouble horses as aggressive, we not only give them a label that follows them for life, but we never give that horse the opportunity to be understood and possibly even find their way to a partnership with humans.
It wasn’t an aggressive horse, but a lack of communication that was the real problem. I knew, in that moment, this dangerous horse gave me a gift I will always cherish. I taught him that I had value, that he could trust me. He taught me that every being has a reason to do what they do and simply categorizing any one, or any thing, as aggressive or dangerous tells more about me and my ignorance than it does about the being I am labeling. I taught him to be comfortable around humans, he taught me to truly see each individual for who they are, and not what I think they are. Finally, I taught him to accept the halter and to be led by the gentle and kind hand of a human. He taught me to keep my heart open and overcome prejudice, allowing me to help a troubled soul.
Who really taught who? Thank you my friend.