“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” -Will Rogers
“With a mustang you cannot hide and you cannot lie to yourself.” -Anna Twinney
Recently I had the honor of spending a week in Cody, Wyoming gentling an untouched BLM [Bureau of Land Management – Federal authority on wild horses and burros] mustang. I have made this trip in August for the last three years to the lovely Dimock Ranch for a variety of reasons, but primarily because as a horsewoman I am addicted to the pure horse that is the BLM mustang.
The ranch, owned by Michaele and Chris Dimock, is heaven on earth for roughly 40-head of mustangs and domestic horses. Michaele, an avid mustang supporter, and accomplished equestrian and trainer, makes an annual trip to nearby Rock Springs where she takes on six to 10 mustangs to be gentled by students in Anna Twinney’s Reach Out to Horses® Reach Out to the Untouched Horse clinic. Michaele makes a very solemn promise to the mustangs she picks up at the government holding facility that they will never have to return there. She will find them all suitable homes. Homes where the contract that we begin with them during the gentling process will be kept. Photo above: Silly saddle pad prep: Look if I can stand on it and it is not eating me, I bet it won’t eat you either!
Wild-born BLM mustangs are gathered by a variety of methods including bait trapping and helicopter herding. They are then loaded onto trucks and shipped to government holding facilities, which, incidentally, often do not have shelter.
At some point they then receive a freeze brand and are gelded if they are male. The few “lucky ones” are assigned to a BLM-contracted trainer for training. I have heard but have not confirmed that roughly ten percent of gathered wild horses ever get adopted. Currently around 60,000 wild-born and gathered mustangs stand in government holding facilities to the tune of nearly $80 million annually for the taxpayer. The numbers are truly staggering and overwhelming. I cannot imagine the private hell it must be for a wild-born horse to stand in a dry lot for years and years on end. I think I would probably choose to exit the planet if this were my fate.
The Horse/Human Contract
Allow me to preface this section by explaining that many wild-born and gathered off of the range mustangs begin their introduction to the human world of training with the “rope and choke” method. In this methodology horses are roped and choked into submission and even unconsciousness. Because wild-born mustangs are challenging to catch and touch for the first time, the path to expediency is to force compliance. The contract with, and first exposure to the domesticated world of humans begins on a horrific note that in my opinion is a violation akin to rape.
I have written several pieces for this publication and my blog outlining my views on partnership with horses so I won’t go over those points here again.
I think we can all agree that any solid partnership begins with a good contract. A contract where both parties have a voice and there is an established communication of wishes, desires and needs.
Photo above: BlackJack and Staci – leading with horseman’s rope in rope halter in preparation for a regular halter and a clipped on rope.
In order to have a contract and ultimately a partnership, we must first have an interest by both parties. Allow me to give you a scenario to further illustrate my point:
I would like you to work for me as a bodyguard, keeping me safe and trusting you with my life. Something we do with our horses regularly. If upon our first meeting, I slapped you and kicked you in the shin in an effort to get you to sit down at my table to talk, you most likely would not be very interested in further dealings with me. Your first impression of me would be that I am not someone who is to be trusted, nor am I a good communicator. Furthermore you may wonder if any people like me are worth trusting or dealing with.
The little black gelding with a small star on his forehead and I met on a typically beautiful Wyoming Saturday morning in August 2015 at Dimock Ranch. At the time BlackJack did not have a name, and only very recently had the rope and plastic identifier tags been removed from his neck. He was in a pen with five other two-to-three year old BLM mustangs of varying colors and sizes. All geldings, the boys came from varying Herd Management Areas (HMAs).
BlackJack originally came from the Great Divide Basin HMA about 40 miles east of Rock Springs. The Great Divide Basin HMA encompasses approximately 700,000 acres and has a maximum allowable mustang herd size of 500. Topography within the herd area where BlackJack grew up is generally rolling hills and the basic forage includes mixed grass and saltbrush.
BlackJack had been gathered as a yearling in the fall of 2014 during the Wyoming Checkerboard Roundup. Between September 15 and October 9, 2014, the Bureau of Land Management rounded up, via helicopter stampede, and removed 1,263 wild horses from “checkerboard” lands in three Wyoming Herd Management Areas: Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, and Great Divide Basin. At least 14 deaths resulted from the roundup, including young horses who crashed into panels and broke their necks, and elderly, arthritic and ailing horses who were terrorized by helicopters and forced to run for miles before being “euthanized” by a bullet to the head. The 2014 Wyoming Checkerboard Roundup decimated the wild horse populations in these HMAs, leaving behind just 91 horses in the Great Divide Basin.
BlackJack had been standing in a government holding facility in Rock Springs for nearly a year. At the time we met, I knew very little of this. I knew his basic age and that he came from Rock Springs. That was it.
As we stood outside the pen watching the horses and getting basic information, I observed the little black gelding bump my friend Clea with his nose. As she absently petted him while listening to instructions he moved on to me and I began to pet him. Amused, I thought, “Wow first touch done; that was easy.” As I was petting BlackJack, Anna Twinney, founder and head instructor of Reach Out To Horses® took note and said, “There’s your first touch; and they don’t usually come that easy!”
For the next seven days BlackJack and I were partners. Throughout the course I experienced a range of emotions from extreme gratitude at this “one in a million” horse, to envy that some of my compatriots got to experience horses that were more challenging to “get the first touch.” As time went on, I realized this envy was misplaced. BlackJack, (originally named Jackpot – as I felt I had really hit the Jackpot with him!) had plenty of challenges in store for me, and in typical mustang fashion, he put my horsemanship and emotional skills to the test.
From the get go, BlackJack was regarded by Twinney and her instructors to be a “one in a million mustang.“ At first everything was “easy,” first touch, first halter. He followed me (and everyone else) around like a dog, begging (sometimes demanding) attention. He earned the nickname “Velcro” almost immediately from the group; if there was a human in the pen, BlackJack was there like a gnat buzzing around. It was unreal. Mustangs aren’t like domestic horses; human touch is not something they naturally want. We are predators; they are prey animals. The natural instinct is to flee. It is our job to gently lay the foundation for trust and partnership. The first impression should be one of gentle kindness.
It became clear to me in very short order that my little mustang needed an altogether different first impression from his fellow mustangs, but one that was equally important. BlackJack at a glance could be considered by some to have very rude ground manners and no boundaries. It has been my experience that most horse people either tolerate that kind of behavior to the point of danger, or have very little tolerance for it at all. I’m not sure which of these is worse; but I did know that this little dude was a blank slate, and I had a big job to do.
As I stood inside the pen with BlackJack on our first day together, Twinney, my mentor, stated, “He’s a baby, a clean slate.” Basically she was reminding me that this wonderful curiosity being displayed was fragile and could be easily destroyed. While my friends were challenged by their allocated mustangs to get their “first touch” without force, “moving through oil,” using body language and negotiation, I was challenged to mold this inquisitive brain into a trusting partner. Twinney compounded her point using the analogy of a precocious child: “He’s exploring his world; it’s your job to show it to him, and show him how to stay out of trouble.” Together BlackJack and I began our journey.
As with most any horse seeking human attention I was reminded in short order that pushing BlackJack off only made his curiosity and “pushy” ways worsen. My horsemanship was sorely tested as I “took” several bites (without reaction) to the arms in those first few days. This questioning equine brain needed a challenge to show him the right path, but not too much of a challenge. It was an interesting balancing act to be sure. Too much too fast, and his mustang colors cropped up quickly as I had a rearing, spinning, bolting horse. Too little, and he was curious and bored, getting himself “in trouble.” Every second spent in that pen was a learning experience that tested my skills and my emotions.
As BlackJack and I worked together that week, I was very aware of my responsibility to introduce him to this human world in a way that preserved his excitement and interest. I was proud of myself and of him as we navigated many firsts for him, first halter, first leading, farrier preparation, ropes, pads, brushing. As the time went on, my “pushy” little “Velcro” transformed into a calm, trusting partner looking to me for safety and direction. As a horsewoman there is truly not much more one can experience. It was, and remains to this day, emotionally moving.
As my week with BlackJack came to a close I was asked to write a description for potential adopters. It was challenging to sum up who this beautiful creature is in a few short paragraphs.
Photo above: Staci and Gino work with BlackJack on bathing.
“Hello, my name is Blackjack! I am a two-year-old BLM mustang from Great Divide Basin HMA in Wyoming. I was gathered in the fall of 2014. I have been:
*Gentled to touch over both sides of my body.
*Haltered in a rope and dually halter.
*Done very basic leading in an enclosed area.
*Had some basic prep done for bathing – this area needs more work and with time and patience should be fine.
* Preparation for farrier work, in that my legs have been touched all over and I have the beginnings of the idea that I need to pick up my front feet when they are touched.
* Highly motivated by touch and praise.
* Very innocent and a clean slate in my mindset.
* Likely to want to sit in your lap–my nickname during my gentling process was “Velcro.”
* Curious but sometimes wary of new things – please go-slow and I will accept new things if you give me clear, gentle, calm direction.
I love to have my chest and neck scratched vigorously. If I do get upset, I come down easily with a calm, loving, grounded person. I am naturally drawn to people and love attention. I am a one in a million mustang!”
Horsemanship is not only an intellectual journey but also a spiritual one. Each horse has something to offer on some level. I have found that the mustang offers a pure, undiluted view of how horses see the world. My respect is immense, and I am deeply moved that I have been granted permission to touch each one I have had hands on. These wild-born creatures do not have to take on the human agenda. They, above all horses, know this. For me, this translates to domestic horses and the life lesson we should all take from the mustang: that we are given a gift
each time we touch a horse, any horse.
Since writing this article I was thrilled to learn that BlackJack has been adopted by a fantastic couple in Cody, Wyo. True to her word, Michaele found him a fantastic home. His new name is Santana and his new partners are Doris and Darren who are passionate about their animals! A very happy ending for one of the 60,000!
For more information on how to support mustangs in the wild go to www.friendsofalegacy.org. For more information on how to adopt a BLM Mustang go to www.blm.gov. For more information on Anna Twinney and her work, please go to www.reachouttohorses.com.
Staci Grattan-Fornshell and her husband Brion Fornshell co-own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minn. Staci enjoys using her focus on good, solid horsemanship basics, true classical dressage and natural holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans. Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefiting horse owners and horses. For more information on go to www.spirithorsecenterinc.com.