Monday, November 19, 2012

Cocoa the Mustang (pt 1)

It's been about three years since I retired my old horse.  I'd like to take some space here to brag about her. 

I have had the privilege of working with other peoples animals for many years.  I did not intend to own horses until We had the property to keep them on.  However, our job options have kept us in suburbia, and I was leery of the expense involved in purchasing, and then paying board for a horse. 

That changed several years ago.  A friend of mine had an older horse that was giving him some trouble.  He said the horse was not mean, just extremely stubborn and uncooperative.  He was a novice horseman and at a loss as to what to do.  He couldn't afford a more usable horse until he found a new home for this one.  Because of her age, the only people willing to buy her were the meat packers.  That prospect did not appeal to my friend at all.  Instead, he offered the horse to me free of charge, if I would take over her care.  She was what we call an "easy keeper".  She stayed fat eating only grass and hay.  That was a big point in her favor.  I went to see the horse, and found that she was rideable.  After finding an affordable place to keep her, Cocoa came into my possession. 
Marlyn riding Cocoa the Mustang

She was a B.L.M. mustang.
From the freeze brand on her neck, we know that she was born wild in Nevada, and captured as a two year old.   The vet pegged her age at about 20.  Once I started working with her, I found that she had no serious problems.  Although the ones she did have were likely more than a novice could handle. 

She was well trained.  She knew what she was supposed to do.  But, it was obvious that she had become an expert at avoiding work.  The biggest issue was me learning how to understand her temperament.  I had some idea of the differences between horses born wild and those born into domestic conditions.  However, I did not have any first hand experience with it.  One of the first things I noticed was that she did not enjoy human contact the way a domestic horse does.  Most horses I've worked with seem to enjoy being groomed and petted.  They let you know which part of their neck or withers they prefer to have scratched.  Not Cocoa.  She simply stood there and tolerated it.  That same aloofness carried over into her work as well.  She did every job I ever asked of her, but her attitude was strictly business.  Whenever I approached, her expression said "What are we doing now, and where's the hay?". 

It took a few sessions under saddle for us to really get to know each other.  In each phase we had to establish who was in charge.  It started with tacking up.  As I said, she was well trained.  She didn't try to avoid the saddle or act skittish.  the test came as I tightened the girth.  Cocoa arched her neck, flattened her ears, and began chomping her teeth together.  She didn't reach for me, but I didn't wait for her to.  I simply gave her a gruff "Knock it off!"  That was enough to stop her aggressive posturing, but the look in her eye told me that it was far from over.  In those early days she acted as if she would bite me most times that I saddled her up.  Each time I was able to stop it with words.  After a while, I wanted to see just how far she would actually take it.  That day, I took my time with the saddle and girth, and ignored the slowly escalating aggressive signals.  Finally Cocoa reached for me, mouth open and teeth bared.  I gave her a sharp slap on the softest part of her muzzle and continued working with the saddle.  She returned her head and eyes to the front.  Her expression softened with her eyes blinking and brows wrinkled.

She never tried to bite me again.  From time to time, she acted as though she would.  I'd stop it by simply looking in her eye and saying "I'm watching you.".  I've come to believe that it was a test of leadership.  "We're about to go to work.  Are you still on your game?". 

She had another small habit that may have been a test.  Or, it may have simply been exuberance.  From time to time, when we were at a canter, she would buck.  It didn't happen often enough for me to worry about, and it never lasted more than a couple of strides.  I always broke out laughing when the old gal tried to crank it out like a young bronc. 

The real test came on the trail.  One afternoon, we were riding alone on familiar trails.  At a fork in the trail, Cocoa decided that she should be the one who determined which direction we go.  I reined her to the left, but she wanted to go right.  She shook her head, stomped, reversed directions, and threw in the occasional crow hop.  I knew that the outcome of this little tussle would set the tone for our entire working relationship, and I wasn't about to give in.  We were going to take the left fork if it took til midnight.  I think we fought for fifteen or twenty minutes before she finally relented.  After that, from time to time, she would attempt to contradict me on our choice of route.  But, it never again took more than a simple correction to keep her on the path I chose. 

I don't like working in a vacuum, so I constantly read.  this helps me see what other folks are doing in similar situations.  Over and over again, professional trainers make the same point.  Horses in general, and wild born horses in particular, do not respond well to abusive methods or indecision.  The continuing little tests seem to be a trait of wild born horses.  they need to know that the one in charge is up to the task.  And to perform well, they need to trust that the one in charge will make the right decision. 

Another thing I noticed was other peoples reaction to her.  When people learned that she was a mustang, they tended to back away from her.  Even some experienced horse people acted as if she might suddenly attack them.  I heard parents warn their children away.  It didn't matter that Cocoa had been a well trained saddle horse for 18 years.  She had been a wild animal for two years.  That aura of wildness frightened some people, just as it attracted me.  It was the traits and habits she had developed in the wild that endeared her to me. 

Next time:  More Adventures with Cocoa.

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