Making Friends

A well-meaning friend asked me the other day if we “got those mustangs broke yet?” I was quick to tell him that we are gentling them, not breaking them.  He didn’t quite understand so I went on to explain that we want to be their friends and you don’t try to break your friends down.  You start by letting them know they can trust you and a friendship starts to build from there.  He still looked a little uncertain of this, so I then asked him how he treats his friends and how his friends treat him.  I think I finally got through to him, but I am not so sure…

It is very unusual for two people to become friends without knowing anything about the other.  Friendships are built by spending a lot time getting to know each other.  You communicate with each other and sometimes you have to learn a new language to do this.  If you are totally committed to this friendship you will do all that you can to learn as much as you can about the other.  You find common bonds and build on that.  Soon you learn to trust each other, knowing that the other will not betray that trust.

Embers beautiful mane

Horses have a very beautiful language in that every body position means something different to them.  Where we are standing in relation to their body.  The squareness of our body to theirs.  What it means if we stand behind them.  It is ALL a part of their language.  And if we had any hope of our friendship with Image and Ember to grow, we needed to realize how important this language is.  Just something as simple as standing in the wrong place could give them mixed signals on what we are asking them to do.  My husband loves to use hand signals, especially when we are out in the field baling hay.  Sometimes I have no idea what he is asking of me with the motions of his hands so I have no idea what he wants me to.  So it is very important for me to learn his language of hand signals.  By thinking in these terms, I can completely understand how important all forms of communication are: whether baling hay or building friendships with a wild horse.

Image and Ember in their paddock area

We needed to keep working with Image in overcoming his fear of the corral.  We knew that he had to have some good experiences in a corral to start overcoming that fear.  We knew the terrors he had faced in the corrals of his not-so-distance past and we did not want him to relive any of those experiences any longer than he had to.  We gently coaxed him in and out of the corral several times and then left the gate open to their paddock area so that he could freely go in and out of the corral on his own.  My heart is happy that he no longer shudders at the thought of going through that gate.  He just walks right on it without any hesitation now.

Me with Image and Ember

Next we started working with a lead rope.  They both got used to having the rope anywhere and everywhere on their body.  Then it was time to learn how to lead.  Image did really well.  With pressure – release techniques, he was soon leading very well.  We were careful to always reward for doing well, even in the smallest of victories.  Sometimes he would get a little stubborn, but by gently coaxing him from the back, similar to what his mom may have done in the wild, he would almost always do as we asked.  If not, we backed up to what he knew he could do and started over.

Me with Image after leading him around the corral

After leading Ember around the corral

Ember was a little trickier and we found that lunging her worked best.  (Note:  I have used the term lunging incorrectly here.  My horse lingo is awful and I apologize to any misleading I have done by using the wrong word.  Basically we what we ended up doing when we would approach Ember and she turned away from us:  When she turned to flee from us, we started to flick the end of the lead rope on her rump.  Not hard enough to hurt, but it’s intention was to make her aware that if/when she turns her back to us, it will be uncomfortable for her.  We continue that until she turns to face us.  Then we released the pressure from her by turning our back to her.  Then we could approach her and put the halter and lead rope on her.  I now know that many different trainers use a similar approach they all have their own fancy phrase for what this is called.  2-13-12)   She has a tremendous amount of energy and gets bored very fast if not doing something fun and exciting.  She has been doing very well with leading now.  Every now and then she becomes “Queen Ember” and will not do a thing we ask of her.  I have learned that Ember is a thinker.  She has to think every thing through before she does anything.  She is so different from Image in how she approaches different situations.  I know I have said this before, but it still remains true.  She will come around in her own time.  And we will be here, waiting.  Sometimes friendships are built very quickly and sometimes they take some time to build that trust.  We have the time.

We let both Touchy and our 8 year old mustang, Abi, out with the kids to let them get to know each other.  Touchy, having been out with the kids before, did very well with them.

Image and Touchy

Not knowing exactly what Abi would do when introduced to the kids, we put a halter on her.  Abi was so excited and nervous to meet the new kids, she ran in circles.  In her excitement she kicked and bucked and put on quite a show.  Never once did she aim at the kids.  All of this was nervous energy and excitement.  As soon as she calmed down, she came over to where Terry and I were to get some comfort.  We coaxed her over to the kids so she could start building a friendship.  She was little too keyed up to completely enjoy the situation.

Abi meeting the kids

With both Image and Ember now leading fairly well, both in the corral and out in their paddock, we knew it was time to let them out into the big pasture with the big girls.  We put halters on both Shy Ann and Abi.  And then we put all three older girls in the back pasture so the kids could completely focus on us and what we were asking them to do.  We led them over to the creek to cross it to get to the pasture.  We had thought that this may be a challenge for them.  Even though they were both used to getting in the water holes up on the mountain, running water was a completely different thing.  With a lot of coaxing, one step at a time, I was able to walk Image across the creek.  True to her fashion, Ember had to think about it.  While thinking about it, she stuck her nuzzle in the water and seemed to be blowing bubbles.  She knew what she had to do.  She wasn’t crazy about the idea though.   She chose to jump across rather than walk through the water.

Image saw the green grass and immediately wanted to graze, so I let him.  Ember saw the other horses in the back pasture and thought that getting to them was a higher priority.   After Image got a few good mouthfuls of grass, I led him closer to Ember in the center of our big pasture.

Image and Ember in the big pasuture for the first time

We took their lead ropes off and let them graze for a couple of hours before letting the big girls back in the pasture with them.  Ember ran close to the fence that separated her from her new friends.  Everyone got excited by this and were soon prancing around.

Everyone but Image, that is.  He was clearly more interested in enjoying this green heaven he had just been led into.

We were unsure what would happen when our alpha, Shy Ann, met the kids for the first time.  We knew that the area had to be big for them to run in so we waited until this moment to let them meet without fences or corral panels.  Terry stood close to the kids as I opened the gate for the big girls to come back in to the main pasture.

Shy Ann about to meet Image and Ember

Shy Ann trotted down to the kids and sniffed around.  She immediately postured her Queen status, as if the kids didn’t already know the power she holds in this new world.  But just to make sure all was understood, she told them the way it was going to be.

Shy Ann greeting the kids

Image showed no signs of questioning Shy Ann’s authority.  Ember, on the other hand, decided to sass Shy Ann a bit.  She led Shy Ann on a merry chase.   She knows that Shy Ann is the queen of this green castle, but she can still have fun, right?

Abi decided to join in the fun.

And soon they were all tearing across the pasture.

Image brought up the rear.  He is clearly not in to running as his cousin Ember is.

Ember was born to run and run she did!  It did my heart good to see her so happy running all over the place.

Image stuck to Ember like glue when Shy Ann decided to exude her authority once again and chase them around a bit.

Ember soon outran Image and left him behind as Shy Ann continued her chase of Ember.  I was surprised to see Shy Ann snaking Ember.  I have only seen stallions do this in the wild to bring members of their band back into the fold. 

They all soon settled down and went back to grazing.  It took a few more hours for them all to get close to each other and graze without any drama.  I was very pleased that no one got kicked or hurt.  These friendships are not being built overnight, but in time we will all learn to trust and depend on each other.