When Vivian Gabor, a biologist with a masters degree in Equine Science and a doctorate in Livestock Ethology, first heard about the Mustang Makeover, she was interested in working with a wild horse, “not only as a horse trainer,” she writes in her book Mustang: From Wild Horse to Riding Horse, “but also as a behavioral biologist and equine scientist. I like to teach others about horse-appropriate training methodology, but I also like to educate myself and face new, intriguing tasks and challenges.”
For 90 days, Gabor recorded her experiences with Mona, the wild horse that had crossed a continent and an ocean to find a new home. Gabor shares the ups and downs as she progresses with Mona’s training, discovering new insights about horses and their true nature along the way.
This is what happened on the third day.
I spend far more time around Mona than I normally would with horses I am training.
Sometimes I just stand in front of her paddock stall and watch her eat. And she is always eating. It seems as if she would just swallow up anything she can get.
Today, I continue our training in the round pen. I let her walk around me at liberty to begin with, but it is quite difficult to get her to go “forward.” She goes back to walk as soon as I lower my body tension when sending her forward. Inviting her back in to me works quite well, because it gives her a break. She readily accepts breaks as a reward. She pays incredibly close attention to my body language, so I now show her that I immediately tone down my body tension as soon as she slightly lowers her head in trot. Again, all it takes is a few repetitions where the tendency to lower her head and my relaxed posture as a reward come together for her to understand what I want from her.
I try to touch Mona’s body more and more frequently. She doesn’t really like being touched. Why would she? She isn’t familiar with it. My touches don’t make any sense to her. Apart from another horse what other animal would touch a horse in the wild? Contact with another species would only happen in an attack. If horses touch each other during mutual grooming, for example, this is always preceded by certain gestures. A horse will approach slowly and enquiringly, and mutual grooming only begins if the other horse consents. We take it for granted that we can just walk up to our horses and touch them. We should definitely think about this.
Mona shows me clearly that she doesn’t enjoy my touch, even if I approach her very cautiously. I assume that she can’t work out what the point is. Her expression changes and she quickly sends threatening signals in my direction. I don’t allow myself to be intimidated, but consciously relax and touch her shoulder-wither area with slow, stroking movements. I stop touching her as soon as her expression relaxes. The idea is to show Mona that she has a say in the decision and that I won’t force her to do anything. She should realize that acceptance and relaxation, not defense, are the solutions for influencing me.
Yielding to Pressure
In the wild, higher-ranking horses would tell lower-ranking horses to move away by changing their expression, gestures, and physical tension. It is really easy for horses to transfer this to people, because it is how they naturally communicate.
Yesterday, I laid the foundations for this with Mona by getting her to yield her hindquarters and forehand. Today, I repeat these exercises with and without the rope. I don’t need the rope, because Mona wants to be close to me, follows me at liberty and, to my amazement, immediately starts doing the exercises from yesterday. She tries especially hard to step right over with her front legs if I immediately say the praise word “Good!” and remove the physical pressure. Stepping over to the side with her forehand and hindquarters works right away, too.
My gaze and the alignment of my body tell the mare where my focus is. It feels great that this communication method is instantly understood by this untrained horse. What I’m doing is logical to Mona!
I try another exercise with her that is firstly supposed to be about yielding to gentle pressure and, secondly, to mean that I can always get her to relax: head-lowering.
I give gentle downward pulses on the rope with one hand, and touch Mona’s poll with the other. The reaction that follows is stronger than I have ever seen in a domesticated horse. As soon as I build up gentle pressure on her poll musculature with my fingers, she violently shakes her head as if an annoying insect had bitten the crest of her mane. I don’t let her “shake off” my hand, but maintain the light contact with her poll. Now all she has to do is show the “right” reaction—in this case, move her head away from the pressure toward the ground. And would you believe it, a few seconds later, she hits upon the idea of doing just that. I stop touching her immediately.
Later, when we work under saddle, the “head-lowering” exercise will be extremely important to me, because it will allow me to ask Mona to assume a relaxed posture at any time.
This excerpt from Mustang: From Wild Horse to Riding Horse by Vivian Gabor, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).