Last evening Miss Saffron, our second mustang from the wild, received her first ever hoof trim. She continues to astound me virtually every moment we’re together. I suppose because of our very different experience with Noelle. How was I to know that Miss Mouse, our little American Saddlebred rescue, would provide the key to the vast differences between these two wild horses.
Saffy has been with us barely six months and she (with very little help from me) has accomplished so much. Noelle has been with us almost four years and she has yet to have a single hoof trimmed. They are two very different mustangs, clearly with very different backgrounds in the wild. I’ve been lifting and cleaning Saffy’s feet for several weeks now, preparing her for introduction to the nippers and rasp last night, and sure enough she stood calmly, solid as a rock for our hoof specialist Mark Taylor.
Yesterday morning when I walked into the paddock where Saffy and Stormy spend the night, 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 has learned the term during our evening No Agenda Time. On her first approach I say Give me a sniff Miss Saffy and she does. We exchange breaths.
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 morning, I was feeding Noelle, our first mustang, 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’s face as I was reaching across her neck to scratch the 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 would not sniff the pocket. Every time I asked she would pull away again. No way. Not happening. And therein lies the chasm between Miss Saffron and Miss Noelle.
I’m sure a portion of it resides in the fact that we were four years of experience down the road when we adopted Saffy. And frankly we were expecting yet another Noelle. But I’m convinced that most of this issue lies in the fact that these are simply two vastly different wild horses. First, Saffy is much younger. According to the BLM she was only 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. And both our vet and we believe she might’ve been even older. But there were at least three 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 this past year. She’s now six and a half. Until then she was very full of herself, always playing and cavorting like a baby (See the Video of Mouse at Three).
What this has told us is that a mustang at three or four in the wild 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. During this past year Miss Mouse has become 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 just wander back to wherever they are 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 rely on her own instincts and warnings has had the experience to see first hand how well her instincts work when she always reacts first and asks questions later (Noelle). Which is probably why we keep hearing around the horse world: if you’re going to adopt a mustang, adopt a young one.
Joe and Noelle
Does that mean I would trade Noelle? Of course not. I love her dearly. And deep down I know she loves 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. So, for now I will just be her friend and allow her the time her instincts require. I completely refuse to cowboy her in any way.
Joe and Noelle
Last evening Saffy’s baby, Miss Firestorm, also stood calmly for her second trim. But Mark found very little to do with her hooves because she gets so much exercise running, jumping, and being rambunctious out in the pasture and in the pea gravel of her paddock. Too, I was told, her winter coat has started coming in. Mark said this usually happens earlier with young horses than with adults. Mother Nature’s way of making sure her babies are well protected. What does that have to do with feet I asked. The protein that usually goes to the feet to keep them growing enough to travel the 8-20 miles a day they usually cover in the wild on hard high-desert terrain is now going into their winter coats. Because wild horses need a good winter coat more than rapidly growing feet since they don’t usually travel as far during winter days. It’s just incredible how all of this is worked out for the horse if we just let them be a horse and live the way they were designed to live.
Actually trimming Stormy’s feet should not be a big deal. I was lifting her feet on the day she was born and she was dozing in my lap on the third day of her life.
Still… I still cannot believe how fast the past six months have flown by. And how big she has gotten so quickly.
Stormy today (six and a half months) and her mama
Just compare the size of Stormy’s thighs and legs to Saffron’s. She’s going to be an amazing horse I’m thinking.
Meanwhile this gorgeous lady (Thank you Kathleen for all the photos), as I said earlier, never ceases to astound me.
She’s leading anywhere on a loose line, backs up on or off the line, moves her butt either way upon request…
She has learned to smile, to pull me up from my chair at No Agenda Time, and to ask politely for more hay. She comes when I call her (unless she’s munching something special in the pasture :), and, of course, she stands quietly for her feet to be trimmed. This mustang from the wild who had never touched or willingly been touched by any human when she came to us. And her baby is now training herself…
…to pick up the ball…
…to make her own bed…
…to thoroughly enjoy her life…
…and with a little help continue to sit or her very own beanbag.
What a delicious experience this has been for Kathleen and myself. And I thank God from the depths of my heart for the opportunity, and for showing me that I needed to know Noelle, and I needed to know Mouse, before I could really know Saffron and Firestorm. – Joe