I was excited to be interviewed by Debbie Loucks on Horsemanship Radio for the April 25th show. We discussed teaching, writing, and rehabbing horses. Horsemanship Radio is Monty Roberts’ show and Debbie is Monty’s daughter. The show is part of the larger Horse Radio Network, one of the largest independent podcasting networks in the world.
How exciting is that?
I hope you'll take a few minutes to listen to the interview. You can check out the show online. If you listen to podcasts on your phone, just look for Horsemanship Radio episode 206. And if you like the interview, it would be great to let Horsemanship Radio know in their comments.
Over the years, I have worked with both wild horses and off-track Thoroughbreds, but more heavily with OTTBs. In my experience, while the groups have much in common, they also have vast differences, the biggest being baggage.
Unless a wild horse has been shipped from stable to stable and trainer to trainer, they normally only have baggage from the limited handling they receive from the BLM in containment, and their minds are full of wild instincts. The OTTB comes with a lot of baggage from handling at every stage of his brief life and his mind is full of noise. Neither animal has any reason to trust humans. They have ripped the wild horse from all he knows, and they have overloaded the OTTB with training and experiences that often go well beyond what the horse can endure.
How to Be a Horse
A wild horse knows how to be a horse. He doesn’t know how to submit to the demands of man. The OTTB knows how to submit to demands but often does not know how to be a horse. Sometimes they even look at grass or pasture as foreign.
The wild horse is separated from the other horses so we can work on developing trust. I let the horse see that everything good comes from me. I get him used to my presence, and we work toward him choosing to accept my touch. Unlike a lot of trainers, I have no desire to see how fast I can accomplish the connection and willing cooperation with the horse because I want it to be genuine and lasting.
I help (or I should say helped since I’m retired) the OTTB experience life as a horse. If I can, I introduce him to a group of other horses, beginning with one horse, until he learns about herd life. Since his experience has been based on cultivating the flight instinct by running as fast as he can, I want to socialize him. Also, I’ve found that in almost every case, if a horse comes straight from the racetrack and you put him to work anytime during the next six months, his body will return to some level of racing condition.
The experience a wild horse has with pressure is from living wild in a herd, from the pressure put on him by helicopters to run him into a pen, from separation, and the processing that goes on with the BLM. It’s a tremendous amount but for a shorter time than what the OTTB goes through.
The OTTB is under continual pressure before he’s even a yearling. He doesn’t normally learn “herd pressure.” He learns “man pressure” and often doesn’t understand it.
If you put too much pressure on a horse and he can’t get away, they will often shut down. In my experience, a horse who has shut down or learned to tune out lots of noise (noise being demands, confusion, and pressure) is harder to create a relationship with than one who clings to his instincts. Round penning, or using pressure and release training while reclaiming or rehabbing, is different for the wild horse than it is for most OTTBs.
Wild horses are considered mustangs once they are captured. I see another difference between mustangs and OTTBs. A mustang exists through survival of the fittest. Until he’s chased in by a helicopter or lured into a trap, a mustang is alive because of instinct that is bred into him through generations. Only the smart and careful wild horses make it. And he and his ancestors live because they are physically tough and hardy, especially if they come through the capture and adoption process without injury. A three- or four-year-old mustang is a physically more mature animal than the same-aged racehorse.
Don’t be fooled by the beautiful, strong-looking physique of a three- or a four-year-old racehorse. Those sleek muscles put a lot of strain on developing bone and cartilage growth. These horses are still babies and deserve time to mature fully. Letting them down for six months during the reclaiming process is one of the healthiest things you can do to rehab an OTTB.
Just as there is a process for developing a relationship with a mustang, there is a process for letting a racehorse down. One doesn’t just bring the horse off the track and dump him into the pasture. He’s introduced to his new life a little bit at a time. Some horses may move from a smaller paddock to a larger paddock quickly, while others might need to develop a buddy relationship in the smaller paddock. Every horse is different. It’s when we try to treat them all the same that we screw up, and when we screw up, the horse pays the price.
Reactive is Not a Flaw
Mustangs and Thoroughbreds are sensitive, aware animals. They notice everything about their surroundings and often see things you don’t. Some people call this reactive as if it is a flaw. I dislike trainers who think their job is to wipe reaction out of an animal rather than create a relationship of trust. An example is the cowboy trainer who ties up a wild horse to a rail in his indoor arena, then goes off for a long ride on another horse while believing he's turning the mustang into a working horse. He’s shocked when he returns and finds the mustang has broken free. It is the mustang’s instinct to protect himself and he can’t do that left unattended and tied to a fence. A trainer who dislikes reactive horses should stick with docile breeds who will forgive their blundering mistreatment.
Rehabbing the Passed Around Horse
Reclaiming either a mustang or an OTTB that has gone through multiple hands differs from reclaiming one straight from the source (the track or the BLM pens) and they may be more alike than different. They may resent or have fear from the experiences they have had. It takes more time to develop trust when resentment or fear is present.
Success in rehabbing or reclaiming wild horses or OTTBs has a lot to do with your outlook on horse training or the way you view the horse. If the horse is only an object for you to shoot pistols from, or a vehicle for you to win ribbons in competition, or purses in horse races, you’ll never comprehend the joy of a trust relationship with a horse. If you are blessed with the real thing, you’ll never forget it.
Thanks for joining me at TheRidingInstructor.net,
Barbara Ellin Fox