“Take off your hat,” Kathleen said.
“Take… off… your… hat.” She was almost whispering now. “Noelle wants you to take off your hat. Just do it.”
I glanced to to my left and she was very close, and her eyes did in fact speak with a nudge of entreaty. But I couldn’t imagine why it had anything to do with my hat.
“She wants to be closer and the brim gets in the way.”
I slid the hat off my head as Kathleen cautiously withdrew her iPhone from its holster.
She was right. Noelle took a step closer… then another.
The moment was so very special, and has been such a long time coming. We’re still a good ways from the finish line, but she has now told us with absolute clarity that we’re headed in the right direction.
Noelle is our first mustang. She’s been with us just over seven years as I write this and she has yet to have a single hoof trimmed or accept a halter or lead rope. Only a few months back did she finally trust me enough to let me safely cut off the halter that was placed on her when we picked her up at the BLM facility in Reno. Saffron, our second pregnant mustang, is the polar opposite. She was standing calmly getting her feet trimmed mere months after coming to us from the BLM. She accepts a halter, and leads to a loose line. Which isn’t really necessary because she comes to a call and walks with me wherever I ask. And I’ve been on her bare back. These are two very different mustangs. Probably with different backgrounds in the wild. Possibly different encounters with Bureau of Land Management personnel. And, unfortunately, very different encounters with me.
I learned that the tiniest mistake with a mustang, especially an older mustang, made before trust has been established, at her choice, amplifies the fear quotient exponentially. I clipped a lead line onto her BLM halter way, way too early and it scared her to death. She ran for at least ten minutes with this long lead rope chasing her like a snake. She has yet to erase it completely from her memory banks.
But she taught us a huge lesson. More than one actually. She taught us to never ever do anything whatsoever that could possibly under any circumstances evoke a fear response in a mustang, or any horse who has yet to say I trust you. And she taught us all about No Agenda Time. We just didn’t realize it at the moment.
Had I introduced her to No Agenda Time right at the beginning and made no moves to attempt anything with her that could even possibly evoke fear until well after she had, of her own free will, committed to trust us, I believe things would’ve been very different. But without the experience with her exactly as it happened, I never would’ve known any of that. And without Noelle, Saffron would never have experienced No Agenda Time. Nor would she be where she is today.
Noelle will be there someday. Now it’s just a matter of time.
One morning when I walked into the paddock where Saffy and Stormy were spending their nights before they joined the herd in the pasture, Saffy meandered toward me as she always does for her good morning rub and greeting. But she pulled up short when I was maybe six feet away and as I continued to approach she turned away with a huff and a puff, a signal I’ve grown very used to from Noelle. A signal indicating Oh my. There’s something new here! Something scary. Time to react first and ask questions later. Then I remembered I had a small Tupperware container in one hand (to fill with diatomaceous earth and take back to the house). I paused, talked to her a bit, held out the container and said Have a sniff. C’mon Saffy, have a sniff. She learned the term during our evening No Agenda Time.
On this morning she just stood for the longest, not looking away but not giving the container (or me) two eyes either. For maybe ten seconds. Then she turned and looked it right in the tupper. It didn’t bite her so, after a moment, she reached and sniffed the container, let out a breath, and it was over. I gave her a morning rub on the face, rubbed the container down her forehead, and proceeded to the tack room. Done.
Later that same morning, I was feeding Noelle in the round pen. The pocket of my treat/tool/med vest was bulging, unusually so, with several items I had just crammed into it, and it was therefore… different! This different pocket, which was always there, every morning and every evening, just not bulging so, touched Noelle as I was reaching across her neck to scratch her off-side.
That fast. A full roll-back leaving her a good eight feet away from me. I reached down and held the horse-eating bulging pocket out to her, talking softly, asking her to have a sniff. But the closer the pocket got the father away she moved. She would have none of it. Zero.
Ultimately she came back but she would not sniff the pocket. Every time I asked she would pull away again. No way. Not happening. And therein lies the chasm of difference between Miss Saffron and Miss Noelle.
I’m certain that part of this is their age difference. Added to the fact that we were four years further down the “road of experience” when we adopted Saffy. Overlaid by the mistakes with and lessons from Noelle.
Before Saffron came we had already decided to do absolutely nothing with her until, by her own choice, she had accepted us. Until she told us very clearly that she trusted us. We began No Agenda Time on her second evening here and it took Saffron only 35 days to make the decision that we were completely worthy of her trust.
But still, these are two vastly different wild horses. Saffy is much younger. According to the BLM she was barely three when her baby was conceived in the wild. And still three when she was rounded up. Perhaps still three when we adopted her. Or barely four. Our vet agrees. The BLM said that Noelle was a late six when she was rounded up, probably seven when we adopted her. Possibly older. And these are very critical years between her and Saffy.
Critical, because at three to four a horse is still a child. Her growth plates do not even complete their fusing until late five-to-six years old. And our experience with Miss Mouse (an American Saddlebred rescued at less than a year old) was that she did not begin to develop her adult-like maturity until she was approaching six years old. Until then she was very full of herself, always playing and cavorting like a baby (See the Video of Mouse at Three on The Soul of a Horse You Tube Channel, and on Vimeo).
What this told us is that a mustang at three or four in the wild probably hasn’t yet matured enough to seriously take full responsibility for her own safety. She is taught from birth to respond to her genetic fear quotient React first and ask questions later. That little edge in time keeps the horse alive if a wolf or a cougar shows up. But until adulthood, if Mouse is any example, horses are more prone to react to other horses’ reaction to fear than to their own. In other words, they are trusting – at least to some degree – their herd members to be their primary fear trigger rather than taking responsibility for it themselves. As she approached six Miss Mouse became noticeably more reactive to first-hand stimuli. Until that change her freaky leaps in adrenaline were almost always either 1) in reaction to other horses reacting to something or 2) waking up out in the pasture and suddenly realizing that she was all alone. Her herd mates had wandered off. Yikes!!! And off she’d race to find them! Today, not so much. If she realizes she’s alone she’ll either say so what, or just wander back to wherever the herd is and settle in, secure in her own ability and awareness.
So… in other words. A three-to-four year old mustang (or younger) is likely going to be much more willing to trust some other horse – or a human who proves worthy – because she probably doesn’t yet fully trust herself (Saffron). A 6-7-8 year old who has fully learned to trust and to rely on her own instincts and warnings has had the experience to see first hand how well her instincts work when she reacts first and asks questions later (Noelle). Which, again, is probably why we keep hearing around the horse world: if you’re going to adopt a mustang, adopt a young one.
Does that mean I would trade Noelle? Of course not. I love her dearly. And deep down I know she at least tries to love me. And wants to do more than her highly sharpened instinct will allow her to do. You can see it in her eyes. And her actions. She has told us over and over during the last three years of No Agenda Time spent exclusively with her.
The object of No Agenda Time is to ignore the horse completely until she makes the decision to touch, to trust. No matter how it’s set up, when the horse decides of her own free will to trust you as her leader everything changes. We have used Monty Roberts’ Join Up to offer that opportunity. But the good things that occurred when we spent No Agenda Time with Noelle after Malachi’s death encouraged us to try it with Miss Saffron. She was, after all, a mustang like Noelle. Well, hopefully not too much like Noelle. We’d been at it for a month with Saffy, sitting right there every night, since the day Stormy was born; and we had decided that once we started we would pay no attention to time. We would take whatever time it took. Especially so because we really enjoyed this opportunity to sit with the horses and talk about our day. And baby Stormy’s attention made up for any lack thereof from Saffy.
We hadn’t been sitting long on my birthday evening when there was a crunch behind me on the pea gravel covering the paddock. A close crunch. I glanced up at Kathleen.
“Is she close?”
Kathleen’s eyes were widening. She nodded.
My heart was skipping beats. I wanted so to turn and see. Kathleen was easing her iPhone out of its holster. And suddenly there was this marvelous tickle. Whiskers on my neck. And a warm breath in my ear. Then a rub, cheek to cheek so to speak.
I was frozen in place for a long moment. I didn’t want to blow it. Finally I couldn’t resist. I turned slowly… and kissed her on the nose. Then reached around and scratched the off side of her face.
“Hello Miss Saffron,” I said softly. “Welcome home.”
She blinked. And blew me a long slow breath. I returned it.
Kathleen’s phone camera was clicking away.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I said. “A few moments ago I couldn’t touch her. And suddenly… like she just flipped a switch… she’s in.’”
“All in,” Kathleen grinned. “Like I said. Happy birthday.”
Noelle was in her usual spot in the next paddock watching it all. Why, I found myself asking again, was she so different? So very different?
The question had badgered us virtually from the time Saffron arrived, for even then we knew. Long before this birthday gift, we had toyed and talked about several obvious differences between the two, but there was still a big open space of unconnected dots.
Until I began to write about Saffy.
Definitely the difference in ages when each came to us was a piece of the puzzle. And I’m certain that our own maturity played a role. We now had twice as many years with horses than we did when Noelle joined our family and we were pretty much mistake free with Saffy.
But, as I began writing about her, another concept bubbled up, one that I now believe could be a major piece of the puzzle. As mentioned earlier some of the very best moments with Noelle came after Malachi died when we were all so torn apart. The No Agenda Time we spent with Noelle in Malachi’s playpen definitely evoked her best efforts ever. She was reaching out, wanting to be close, overriding her hair trigger fear quotient. Even out in the paddock this was true. We felt that she could be on the verge of a Join Up.
And what did she get for crossing all those thresholds?
As with the mistake of the early lead rope, we suddenly scared her to death, and for the third time in her life she was ripped away from everything she called home. From where her baby had been born. And died.
From southern California to Tennessee.
For Noelle it began when the horse transport informed us that there was no way they could get up the hill to our house where the paddocks and stalls were. Too steep and curvy.
The rest of the herd could be walked down the hill to the transport. But not Noelle. She would have to be shuttled down the hill in a smaller trailer. But the only flat ground for loading horses into a trailer was well away from her paddock. And the only reasonable place to load her was out of the playpen. Which would mean she would be on a slant attempting to load uphill into a trailer on a slant.
All things considered she seemed to be dealing with it well and in pretty short order she stepped up into the trailer in pursuit of a slice of tasty green alfalfa. The door swung shut… on her butt… which wasn’t quite inside. So it wouldn’t latch. She fired her back legs which exploded into the door and sent it and two people flying. She was out in a flash and raced through the playpen into the farthest corner of her paddock. Totally ballistic. Scared to death. Not at all understanding what had just been done to her. Or why.
From that moment it took two and a half hours to ultimately get her into a frame of mind to give it another go. But finally she loaded.
It was a three day trip with a 24-hour rest stop during which Noelle had to remain on the transport for fear they might not be able to get her back in when it was time to leave. And, too, she had not yet been integrated into the herd.
When she finally landed in Tennessee, she was a very different horse. She didn’t refuse my touch but she had definitely regressed, was unresponsive, and was way more freaky about every little thing. Which is not really surprising considering the experience from her point of view. Just sad. As the cold weather crept in we decided that it would be cruel to keep her locked up in an isolated paddock during the winter on the hope that we might make some progress. So we turned her out with the herd. There would probably be little work with her anyway since Kathleen was still living in California until the twins graduated from high school and was only back for long weekends every three or four weeks.
Almost three years ago, after Saffy’s success, we reinitiated No Agenda Time with Noelle. We sit and talk while she munches hay from a small round tub at our feet. We hoped we could recapture what we had with her before the move to Tennessee, and take it further. And finally, with the moment captured by the two photos above I think we’re on our way. But it will be on her time, not ours. By her choice, not ours.
What I didn’t know early on but now believe is that every fear of human is caused by human. The current human, or some past human. Somewhere. At some time. And therefore can be associated with all humans. See Chapter 29 of Born Wild.
But, for now I will just be Noelle’s friend and allow her the time her instincts require. I completely refuse to cowboy her in any way.
And I thank God from the depths of my heart for showing me that I needed to know both Noelle and Mouse before I could really know Saffron, and that all of that would set the stage for that very special moment captured in those two photographs at the beginning of this piece. – Joe