Completely undomesticated, they had to learn to drink out of the small automatic water drinkers that hissed when they were used, understandably a rain puddle always remained the first choice of watering hole. Hay left on the ground would cause them to bolt to the far corner of the paddock and stand there snorting. Grain was unknown to them and had to be left with them so that they could explore it for themselves.
These are just some of the things we would expect our domestic horses to understand.Once having herded the mustangs though a gate to an adjoining pen I tipped a lorry load of sand in their paddock to replace sand lost in storms. As they returned to their paddock and discovered this pile of sand in their world, they did every thing they could to keep away from it, galloping around the outside of the paddock. Stopping to face it snorting and pawing the ground with their front hooves before setting off for more circuits of the paddock. After 15 minutes of similar behavior and with no response from the pile of sand they stopped in a corner to face the mound. After a further 5 minutes they began a slow cautious approach, stopping to snort and paw the ground every couple of steps and each time the sand did not respond they grew a little bolder.
When the first one reached the pile of sand pawed it and still nothing happened, they grew very brave and the pile of sand was transformed into a play thing for digging in and much to their obvious enjoyment for rolling on. Also in the sand were tiny shoots of new grass. As their digging uncovered these shoots, the mustangs lifted the shoots from the pile holding them carefully in their lips and shook them hard before eating them, something that they had obviously learnt in the wild to avoid eating dirt.
The mustangs’ acute awareness of their environment makes their sensitivity incredible. While working with these horses I used just my body language to communicate with them. Their sensitivity meant that simply shifting my weight from the heel to the ball of my foot could cause them to back away from me. They of course could read me from the very start and often would subtly become the trainer and would get me do want they wanted.It was very clear that these mustangs could see no benefit from being with humans (predators). So my goal was reach across the divide between horse and human and let them find value in being with me. The only way to start this process was to learn and understand the nature of wild horses. To discover how their minds work which then allowed me to understand how they perceive the world. These mustangs showed me so clearly that horses are unique individuals and each one requires to be worked with differently if you are to achieve the best relationship with them.
To start with progress was made in very small steps. Often the lessons would last only two or three minutes. The biggest reward that I could give the mustangs for a correct behavior was to stop working with them and leave. So to begin with, for them to just turn their head and look at me was all I needed to end the lesson and leave the paddock. Though future lessons I was able slowly to shape this response until I could touch them.Everything that we expect our domesticated animals to understand and cope with these mustangs had needed to learn. From being touched to learning that a lead line was not a snake, even grazing while on a lead line took three to four days to learn, because when the horse is grazing their view of the surrounding area is restricted and they feel very vulnerable.It is completely understandable that these mustangs could be scared, nervous and very cautious as well as requiring plenty of time to learn and adapt to new situations they faced daily.
Their perception of the world is clearly so different from our own. Though working with mustangs it became apparent just how much we take for granted with the domesticated horse. Horses, like us can have a bad day or fear a common object and unfortunately, just like humans, horses also make mistakes no matter how hard they might try do the right thing.It is important when working with domesticated horses to understand their evolution and to acknowledge just how much of our world they have already learnt to deal with and accept. I believe part of a horse’s beauty comes from being a freethinking, spirited animal, who with sympathetic training is willing to work with us. They are not machines programmed to do exactly as we want, so in our work with them it is worth remembering that today’s’ horse is the result of 60 million years of survival and that his mind and spirit are descended from free wild ancestors.