Living a Dream with Kathy Winkler Art
Several years ago, a friend of mine, who was the head of the BLM Wild Mustang and Burro adoption program on the web, asked me if I would like to go out to Laramie, Wyoming to spend a week with one of the cowboys/ranchers (Steve) she had awarded a contract to for gentling 100, newly rounded up 2 year old mustangs, to ready them for the internet adoption. She also invited 3 other friends to go along and help gentle these youngsters and get a halter on them.
The invite was a dream come true!!!! Steve, the cowboy/rancher and his two cowboy sons, went out on the range and rounded up a whole lot of mustangs and penned them, and then singled out the 2 year old equines, running them into other pens, and then taking the remainder of the herd and letting them go back out on the range. He then announced to us that each of us could pick out one of the penned yearlings and begin working with them. I chose the one pictured here with me.
Steve released my yearling into the round pen for me, as I stood in the middle with a long, taunt, but a little flexible buggy whip, which had a large plastic grocery bag, i.e., a plastic shopping bag, attached to the end of the whip. I kept the plastic bag next to the ground to be lifted only if the little guy decided to come into my space without me asking him to. I clucked to him to keep him moving, getting him used to my voice, and never attempting to get within his space. Horses, being animals of flight, will move away from anything they perceive as a danger to them. You have to pay close attention to their body language, e.g., noticing that a horse shows fear when its ears are in motion and folds them back behind them. Horses can see perfectly a whole horse length and a half behind them, without moving their heads, keeping in mind, of course, that animals of flight have eyes on the sides of their heads, while animals of prey, such as felines, have eyes in the front.
After a couple of days of getting this little fella comfortable with his surroundings, we then progressed to the next level, which was raising the buggy whip off the ground, and letting the plastic bag wave around like a flag. Once he got used to that motion, I used the whip to manage the horse’s motion. If I clucked to him and raised the whip, he would start into a fast trot and then a canter. I would then say whoa, drop the end of the whip to the ground and let the bag trail through the dirt, until he slowed down, all the time telling him what a good boy he was. Like with a small child, you have to teach new things in small increments – show, rest and repeat.
The next day, I noticed he was really paying attention to me. By the third day, I was able to get him to follow me without me touching him, just by using his natural curiosity given that he was no longer afraid. I would stop and turn around, and he would stop and wait to see what I was going to do. I would also stretch out my hand, hoping he would come in and sniff my hand. He eventually did that. Next, Steve brought me a halter, and I held it out to the little guy so that he could sniff it. Between Steve and me, we got the halter on him with no trouble. We let him try that for a while, remove it and repeat, after awhile. Next, Steve held him securely, while I ran the plastic bag at the end of the buggy whip down his legs very, very slowly. He got a bit wild-eyed, and did a little fancy dancing. I would stop immediately until he settled and we would start over again. By the end of the week, I had this little guy eating treats from my hand, and letting me “sack” him, so it is called. By the end of the week, he stood perfectly while I ran the plastic bag down his back and his legs, and his neck, never moving a muscle. He followed me around the ring and would stop when I stopped. After a whole fabulous week and me feeling proud of my accomplishments, the little fella was almost ready for adoption. Steve had to do a few more finishing touches on him before he would be ready.
After our return, Steve contacted my friend, thanking her for all the help she brought him, and to tell me that my little guy was easily adopted by a family. One of my friends fell madly in love with her little filly, which she named, Lil’ Bit. She didn’t want to leave her, so once she got home, she drove her truck and trailer back out to Wyoming from Virginia, and loaded Lil’ Bit up and brought her home. She furthered the little filly’s training, and turned her into a kid’s show pony (hunter classes over fences).