Khaleesi was the first horse I started. She was what I’d consider basically feral. She was intentionally bred then born on a massive mountain property and handled minimally spending her first four year running with a large herd. I thought she would be the perfect project for me- a horse without a lot of human influence. After enjoying that process and the things I learned from it I was inspired by my past (living in the west) to the plight of the wild horses and was inspired to adopt a mustang. I wanted to do one small part to help the overwhelming issue of unwanted wild horses, and I knew a native equine would teach me even deeper layers of horsemanship. I had met a couple other mustangs in recent years that were fine horses with great connection to their humans and so I looked into finding one of my own.
Wyoming (then called Wild Heart) was in the TIP (Trainer Incentive Program) and so was supposed to have a solid start and good foundation and only needed some finishing miles. Somehow I had enough sense to realize it would not be best for me to start with an unhandled wild horse after only one experience in colt starting. Lets begin with one that has a good foundation-
I think I can take that on. I thought.
I had no idea what was to come.
Over the few years I’ve had Wyoming I have seen “success” in moving forward and then always sideways and backward in progress. I won’t attempt in this post to cover all the layers of our time together and my journey as a horsewoman. There were significant holes in her foundation, I’m certain some trauma I will never know, and there were plenty of shortcomings in my own communication skills and observational accuracy.
And so here we are beginning once again as I have a few times in the past. Another opportunity to learn from this mare, a horse of lifetime… I hope… because I can’t imagine having another one this challenging for me to uncover what she needs to become my partner.
I think this is the third time I’ve taken time off to re-evaluate and begin again. The first pause was for over a year where I left her with the herd for the most part and didn’t ask much of her except good manners. She is a friendly mare and enjoys to be close (sometimes too close) and I had hands on her regularly but didn’t do anything that would require more than basic cooperation. This first break came on the heels of working with a friend who was interested in the mustang project as well. If the fit was right the mare could eventually become her horse, but for the start we’d share the responsibility and work together. I was committed to her for life regardless how things went.
We brought her home and began some simple ground work sessions to get to know each other, introduced her to her herd, did some ponying on trail, and in a few weeks got her under saddle (she had been started and ridden by her TIP trainer) and began to move forward in a slow but steady way that normally would have built confidence and trust.
Things progressed at first, then after a certain point she began to refuse to go out. We checked saddle fit, made sure we had a French link bit that wouldn’t be harsh, my friend was an experienced rider, we had her physically evaluated, we took her out with herd mates for confidence. Yet she would turn around on trail and get more and more forceful when we would press through… she began to rear up and crow hop and buck if we insisted. This wasn’t a ride through it and she’ll see it’s ok situation.
Both of us worked on various levels in as many creative ways as we could come up with, we added hand walking, sometimes I’d pony her for a time from the lead mare, (please don’t give me suggestions, I promise we put a LOT of thought and asked for ideas from trusted sources, and in the end- it always got worse, not better). Finally one day I hopped on her when she began her refusal as my friend was not feeling so confident and I have less fear (maybe less sense). She turned rodeo horse on the trail without a lot of room to maneuver. I was able to ride her straight up the mountain (no trail) but back toward the barn making life much harder than if she were to just continue on the nice trail as we’d asked. I worked her through trees and around rocks in an attempt to connect her feet and her brain, and she didn’t put me off, but she never changed- she never softened or come to me. She put up with it and then eventually we went on home. She wasn’t the right horse for my friend that was for sure, so we dissolved that partnership – and yet I wasn’t sure what to do to help her. She was beginning to get more frustrated and occasionally going into fight mode as we worked with her. Things were going backward, so she went into the field until I could figure out what to do that would change things for the better, not continue to make them worse. In the meanwhile a reset seemed like the best starting point.
It was in that time I renamed her. I told her one day in the field: you aren’t Wild Heart anymore – you belong here, you have a herd, a “family” and you don’t have to be wild anymore. You can trust this home for life. You are no longer fending for yourself, for resources, for a herd, for your life, for survival. You are “home” now. What do you want to be called? I was reminded where she came from… Wyoming. It had traces of heritage in it, but didn’t brand her with the “wild” streak which I’d like her to let go of in time. It seemed like a good name for her.
Wyoming it is.
We began again. I’d done some work with her, had a fabulous horsewoman come help me get her out of kindergarten in our ground work and begin to prepare to take a rider again. A crash course due to time limitations of restarting her, but at least helping me get more tools to help her in the process. I’d also been working on trailer loading (this has been a very long term process with mild success and failure). Christmas of 2019 I had a clear sense it was time to put on a saddle and try riding her again.
I began with some ground basics. Got some conversation sorted out and then got on her. It was a beautiful Christmas gift.
I only rode her for 20 minutes or so, in the front yard, but it was hopeful. She was willing to try, and no western show.
I continued the slow gradual work and eventually had some help from Emily Kemp once again in a spring clinic. I inherited a really great western saddle that suited our purposes better, and we were progressing together — building small steps toward her becoming a solid riding horse.
Eventually she was on the trail again, I was enjoying her though never truly confident she felt solid.
Once again, very gradually, things began to go sideways. First she would try to roll (while I was riding her on trail) and then she would be reluctant to leave the property, if I worked her in the yard she would stick her feet and not want to move. Eventually she would refuse to leave altogether and began to go western in the yard. I have limits to my riding skills, but in the bucking and rearing I sat through as calm as possible (I did not think she was trying to kill me, she was trying to communicate) it never got better.
Riding it out or even making her work harder to show her just walking along is much less effort- it didn’t help. She only escalated each week. And I became aware that though with other horses you can push through the sticky points, build their confidence and move forward, with this horse once she got to the “I can’t” she would eventually stop thinking completely and do anything to get out of whatever situation she felt was overwhelming her in increasing drama and volume until the “pressure” was removed. It wasn’t a choice anymore. It was like blind instinct, or raw emotion.
And yet. The horse seems to “like” me. She never seemed to want to hurt me (she absolutely could have), and she was always willing to try to work with me again. This mare was quite a puzzle, a lot of try in her and a desire to please, but a point gets crossed where she simple cannot do it anymore.
Everything continued to go sideways or backward and I used every creative thought process I had to help encourage her, build confidence, go back to fundamentals, try to go forward into a new challenge that might inspire her, more groundwork, less groundwork, lots of encouragement, more demands (she is incredibly intelligent and physically athletic and balanced so maybe she needed to be challenged to use her gifts more?). Everything had limited success… everything went sideways or backward by the second or third time.
Finally a barn move meant she had to be loaded up or left behind. I tried a larger stock trailer which was worse because of it’s unfamiliarity. In the end she loaded onto the small 2-horse we had worked on for at least a year or two. She’d had one semi-successful ride a few months back and then went backward not wanting to have to do that again… After an hour or so where she actually went under the chest bar and squeezed herself out through the front human door once (that was a terrifying moment for us all), I was able to hard wrap the lead rope to the chest bar and she stepped up to release herself and she was locked in for the short 7 minute drive up the road to her new home with the herd.
After this I decided to try to continue the trailer work with her to solidify that experience and build on it. Wrapping the lead line to the chest bar had worked to create a scenario where she pulled against herself and could release by coming forward. Let’s try that again. As so often happens with her, you can get it done once, but she’s had a week now to consider how she might change the outcome… and she did. She put all that mustang strength into pulling and as I stood there waiting for her to come forward and be able to release her – instead she bent the metal, broke out the chest bar which gave her another 3 feet of treeline which then put her outside the trailer (NOT GOOD) and rearing up. She tried to go sideways and hung herself over the upper door hinges and now was strung like a fish and the rope around the chest bar pulled tight enough to not want to come loose either.
My beloved sidekick Iva was watching from outside and had also been first witness to the mustang coming through the front door like toothpaste out of the tube a couple weeks before… stood calmly and said to me:
Jaime, this is not good.
I was able to loose the rope and free the mare. I had rope burns and she was basically unharmed, shockingly no one was seriously injured- except my trailer which did go in for some repairs after this session.
We returned to the field. I tied her to a tree while I reflected for a bit, and she stood quietly. I eventually set her loose and took a few months off to think.
What am I missing with her? Every success so far in working with her like I would any other horse has always gone backward over time. There were periods where much was going so well with us. She’s a fine mare… big personality, athletic, balanced, smart, responsive. When things are good they are really good…
Was her purpose in life to humble me and remind me how limited I am? Show me that in fact I have much less control than I ever thought over things? Maybe every puzzle does not have a solution? What is her purpose in my life?
I quietly reminded myself that I wanted a mustang to learn how to be a better horsewoman, and so regardless if she turned into a working riding horse or not, she is amazing at teaching me. The day I freed her from the trailer fiasco I was calm on the outside, knew to control my breathing and reaction, but deep down incredibly frustrated. In that moment I considered the term “breaking” a horse that many of us horsefolk have moved away from. And I asked myself, could I “break” this horse? and if I even thought I could… did I want to? Did I want her spirit broken if it meant I could control her? In this moment… frustrated as I was… was the closest I have ever come to wanting to break a horse’s will. And in the depth of my heart I knew… if I could do it… I would not.
I knew that day that I wanted Wyoming to be her vibrant, wild, beautiful self and I wanted to have a relationship with her, but regardless if I ever got her on a trailer or under saddle, I did not want to break her. Because that would break something in me in the process. Something neither one of us would be able to ever recover.
And after a couple months of down time to reset, I returned again this fall to the work… of learning how to work with this wild heart in a way that we could both live with.