Saffron stepped off our trailer as an unhandled mustang, fresh from the wild, who had never willingly touched or been touched by any human. And she was very pregnant. We had done this once before and had sworn off of ever doing it again. But God works in mysterious ways. Here’s the video of how it all began at the BLM’s holding pens:
It was March 17th, a fine St Patty’s day. We were told by the BLM that she would probably deliver in May. We arrived home that evening and four days later Miss Firestorm was born. March 21. A solstice baby.
I worried about that look in mama’s eye. I had seen it before with Noelle, our first pregnant mustang. Noelle wouldn’t let me near her foal. And it took two days to figure out how to separate the two so I could work with the baby and begin his imprinting. This time around I had hoped to build a relationship with the mama before the baby came. Saffron had shown such promise right from our first meeting at the BLM facility in southern Mississippi (See the video above). And on her first night home she actually took a bit of hay from my hand after spending less than an hour debating the issue. It had taken 19 days for Noelle to bury enough fear to eat from my hand, actually a small bowl but it was in my hand. So I was encouraged with Saffron. But during that first hour after Firestorm’s birth there were warnings in the air. I decided to use the wisdom that intervening years were supposed to produce and would try letting the baby come to me. I relaxed, pressed hard to keep the adrenaline down, and let baby make the choice to approach, hoping she would wonder what that weird gangling object perched on the hay bale might be. I just sat. And sat. And waited.
But truth be known I was enjoying the watch time, mesmerized at what God and Mother Nature had created. A brand new baby, fresh from the womb, who was already walking, and thinking, and eating. Hopping and playing. And definitely curious. I had read the evolutionary logic about this phenomenon but seeing it first hand only moments after she was born brought it all to life in a manner that no book could. Being prey animals, flight animals, the horse in the wild must be on the move immediately; they must hit the ground running so to speak. This baby couldn’t wait around for months or years like a human baby, or even weeks like a puppy or a cat (all predators). No, she has to be able to move out with the herd virtually immediately to travel the 8-20 miles a day horses will travel in the wild searching for food, water, and staying away from predators. And Mother Nature had made sure it was so. If she hadn’t we would’ve never heard of the horse. They’d be extinct. And for those who don’t want to spend the time studying the scientific proof that the wild horse and the domestic horse are genetically identical this baby should be proof enough. Because those genes have no idea whether she was born in the safety of a paddock in middle Tennessee or out in the wild. And the same is true with every “domestic” foal. They are all born virtually on their feet, thinking, moving, working that brain and body, and ready to go wherever the herd needs to go. And they are born curious as if their brains are reaching out saying Fill me up! I wanna know things!
And it wasn’t long before Miss Firestorm and I became fast friends.
And happily mama said it was okay. Unless I stood up. Then all bets were off. I began a routine of feeding Saffron her breakfast right at my feet. She would eat, and reach out for an occasional sniff, while I played with Stormy. But still I couldn’t stand up and I couldn’t touch mama. Only baby.
And she let it happen. I would pull her baby into my lap, play with her feet, scratching and tapping on the bottoms, rub her ears inside and out, stick a finger in her mouth and play with her tongue, and rub her all over, from top to bottom, let her chew on a halter and rope, and, in general, get her comfortable with all those things that some horses can become very worried about later in life. For those with foals in your future I strongly recommend Dr. Robert M. Miller’s book and video on Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, and Allen Pogue’s video series on Enhanced Foal Training.
When Stormy was three weeks old I built her a playpen out of stall panels and began to feed Saffy on the far side. She would walk through the play pen to her bowl and I would close the gate behind her. Eventually Stormy would decide to follow and I’d close the back gate behind her, isolating her in the play pen and we’d begin some serious work with mama not in the same room so to speak. Stormy received her first baby halter and learned very quickly to lead on a loose line. She learned to step up onto her little pedestal. And learned for the first time to sit on her bean bag. She had lessons in moving her hind and fore quarters left and right, and backing up. In short, her brain was engaged and in high gear. And I believe all of this has had an impact on how bright she is today. And how curious. And how unafraid. The brain is like any other muscle. The more you use it the better it gets.
Meanwhile, I was still unable to touch Saffron, and couldn’t even approach her when I was standing. She would check me out every once in a while with a sniff, but would turn away from any effort to give her the tiniest of rubs. In all respects she was showing much less fear than Noelle was (she had been with us for three years). Except for the touching. So Kathleen and I decided to initiate our No-Agenda time. Every evening before feeding we’d set up two chairs in Saffy’s paddock and scatter some hay around our feet. We’d just sit and chat about the day pretty much ignoring Saffy but Stormy was usually all over us. Literally. She always wanted scratches and rubs, and wanted to nibble my hat and Kathleen’s chair. But mama was satisfied with a sniff here and there and we stuck to a no agenda policy.
You might remember that, for me, the most important element in Monty Roberts’ Join Up is that the choice to join up, to trust, belongs to the horse. It is not forced by the human. And when the horse makes that choice freely, of its own free will, everything changes. No-Agenda Time takes longer than Monty’s Join Up (which usually works for him in 30 to 40 minutes). Our No Agenda experiment with our new mustang Saffron took 35 days, but when it happened everything changed, like a flash, right before our eyes. Everything! As if she had just flicked a switch.
Then on April 15, thirty days after we began No Agenda Time and five days before my birthday, Stormy fell asleep right at Kathleen’s feet and the most amazing thing happened.
Moments after she dozed off, her mom, Miss Saffron, this mustang from the wild just a few short weeks ago, turned and sauntered off to the water tub for a drink, maybe fifty feet away… leaving her baby asleep at our feet. She had never even let Stormy interact with the other horses through the fence. And had never before left her in our care. The trust it took to do that both surprised and overwhelmed us. And it was surely a signal of things to come. Five days later, on Day 35, the evening of my birthday, Saffy gave me the best gift I could’ve asked for. Her ever so slowly eroding trust barrier suddenly cracked, crumbled, and fell completely away.
In an instant, with no advance notice she was suddenly all over me. Blowing noses, rubbing my cheek. Accepting scratches and rubs everywhere! On her neck, under her jaw, down her shoulder and leg. Her rib cage. Behind her ear (See the blog post An Amazing Birthday Gift from a Wild Mustang). It was as if she had flicked a switch. Everything that had been off the table was suddenly on the table. Everything! I had never seen anything quite like it. All of our other horses, to varying degrees, had progressed in increments, not leaps and bounds.
Happy Birthday! she said.
By the time Stormy was just over two months old she and Saffy had met all of the herd members except Noelle, on a one-or-two-at-a-time basis.
Baby was getting along with everybody, and mom had established herself as the dominant mare over all… again, except Noelle. So we decided to try another experiment. We let them go out with the entire herd.
We didn’t think it through. At least not enough to realize that a new mama in the wild never has to deal with dominance issues or worry about protecting her baby because she’s in a family band and everybody gets the drill. They all know each other and know where everyone is in the herd pecking order. And if some stranger ambles by the stallion will deal with it immediately because he knows that a new mommy will fight to the death to protect her baby.
But Saffron was the outsider in this “family band” and there was no stallion around to help. As expected, she was already dominant over everyone except Noelle, our other mustang. And our biggest concern. Noelle had been the leader of this herd since the day she joined them and the assumption was that she wasn’t about to give it up. She is a bit shorter than Saffron, but much stronger, with a bigger more powerful hind quarter, and much faster with the back legs. They fire like a machine gun. Literally.
When Noelle originally went out into our herd it took her about two minutes to take over completely. Only a couple of the horses even challenged her and only for a moment. One kick and they were gone. Yes, ma’am. You want it? You got it. See ya. As was the norm with our herd, it was a pretty quick and uneventful affair. Cash, Pocket and Skeeter had already assessed the situation and decided they wanted nothing to do with Noelle’s hindquarters. Mouse tried to nurse on her, got a good slap for it, and took up her position with Cash and Skeeter. Mariah exchanged kicks with Noelle but quickly decided she was outgunned and stepped away. Moments later they were munching grass barely inches apart. Since that day Noelle has been a very soft and polite leader unless someone refuses a request. She’ll start to swing her butt around and suddenly there’s nothing to kick. The other horse is gone.
These mustangs, at least the ones we know, do not mess around with nipping and biting. They go straight for the heavy artillery. And Noelle can spin and fire those back legs faster than I can think about it. We pretty much knew all that and had assumed she would have the upper hand. But we didn’t assume that once into it Saffron was not going to give up and walk away like the other horses had done. Only then did it hit me. She wasn’t fighting for dominance as such. She was fighting to protect her baby. Once it started Stormy kept her distance but was definitely freaking out, running helter-skelter around the pasture. It began like this:
It went three rounds and in the third round Saffy went down on her hocks for a moment. They were on a pretty steep hill and she was on the downside.
I couldn’t tell if it was caused by Noelle or if Saffron merely slipped on the hill. But it was enough for us to say No more! It’s fascinating to me that Mouse (in the background) is paying close attention to all that’s going on, no doubt with her adrenaline on the rise… and yet Mariah (foreground) is just munching away paying no attention whatsoever.
Anyway, Kathleen and I broke up the brawl and directed Noelle into the next pasture and shut the gate.
Thankfully, in the end, neither Saffron nor Noelle were any worse for wear. Noelle had only one mark on her while Saffy had several, but they were all superficial. I suspect both horses were sore the next day but it didn’t show.
Nevertheless, we wouldn’t be trying that again until the baby was no longer a baby. To watch the video of the whole gnarly thing on Vimeo go to: Two Dominant Mustangs – Rounds 1, 2, and 3
We’ve kicked ourselves for not realizing our timing was bad. In retrospect it seemed so obvious. So logical. No mama in the wild and very few in domestic situations ever have to worry about dominance issues after the baby is born. Kathleen feels especially guilty and can’t figure why she, a mother of three, didn’t consider the mommy quotient. And why didn’t my ever-present logic-to-a-fault kick in? I suspect that we can at least partially blame the human in us. We tend to want everything to be just perfect. All eight horses should be out there roaming the pastures together happy as clams. And probably, secretly, we also wanted to be able to stop the shuffling and sorting we were having to go through to keep the two mustangs apart. All too often it’s not what the horse needs, but what the human wants.
But lesson learned and no harm done.
Since that day, Saffy and Stormy spent the daylight hours every day in either the west pasture or the eastern one, usually with two or three of the rest of the herd, whom we rotated so the newcomers got to know everybody… except, of course, Noelle.
Saffy is still dominant over everyone (except Noelle) and hasn’t yet begun to hang out much with anyone in the herd. She allows Uncle Skeeter to tag along and Stormy loves him. Saffy puts up with Mouse, most of the time. But baby spends time with every other herd member (again, except Noelle). And they all get along fine. Her favorites (other than Uncle Skeeter) seem to be Pocket and Mouse.
Cash and Mariah pretty much ignore Stormy even when she’s hanging out with them. They apparently don’t much care for the babysitter thing.
We alternate pastures, but not every day because both Saffron and Firestorm love the pond so much.
Stormy because it’s fun! Saffy because she likes her mud bath. Nobody else in the herd ever gets in the pond. Mouse has, maybe twice in three years, and Skeeter will get his feet wet every once in a while. All of which is really interesting, at least to me because Saffy and Stormy are in it up to their necks virtually every available day.
Stormy was almost seven months old before the entire herd was all together again and able to go wherever they liked whenever they liked.
Meanwhile, I had begun teaching Saffy to move her hind quarters and forequarters left and right, and to back up. Just a few steps so far. All at liberty. And I had begun to introduce her to a rope halter, which she wanted no part of in the beginning. By this time she was accepting rubs on the face and neck with the halter. Stormy continued her sessions in the play pen every morning, and took nice long walks on her lead rope three or four times a week. She had no issues with accepting the halter and lead rope no matter where she might be in the pasture – unless she’d just come out of the pond. That’s when she pretends she’s a race horse!
We leave a large blue tarp in the round pen for Mouse to play with, and Stormy has decided that Aunt Mouse knows how to have fun. At a mere three months, Stormy walks all over the tarp, wads it into a big ball, and picks up an end with her mouth and drags it across the pen.
And that is my kind of training. No long tedious sessions coaxing her to get up the courage to step on the tarp. Just wad it up, toss it in the pen, and walk away :)
Folks who followed Noelle and Malachi will understand why we breathed a little easier after passing Firestorm’s third-month birthday on the summer solstice. One of our goals with these mustangs from the wild is to visually demonstrate the research and science that a horse is a horse, and every horse on the planet is genetically the same, and given the opportunity they would all prefer trust to no trust, relationship to no relationship. Why? Because for a prey animal, a flight animal, it makes life easier. Security, safety is the number one concern of the horse and when he’s in true relationship with another animal, or a person, that relationship removes one more thing from his worry list.
Another goal I’ve had virtually from the time we started this crazy journey is to have a horse about whom I knew everything from the day he or she was born. We know nothing about Cash’s first nine years, or Mouse’s first seven or eight months. And very little about Skeeter’s first eighteen years. We know a lot about Saffron and Noelle and how they lived prior to coming our way. And we’ll know everything there is to know about Miss Stormy. Right from her first hour on the planet. There will be nobody to to fault for the way she turns out but us.
And I like that. A lot.
This day had to come. Kathleen had done her part by assuring Miss Saffron that there was nothing wrong with wearing a halter (see the blog post). Now it was my turn, the next step. I had to show her there was nothing wrong with wearing a lead rope… and giving to pressure. And I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. The only time a lead rope was ever put on Noelle, our first mustang, it was an explosive disaster. But these are two very different horses, I kept telling myself. Saffron trusts us implicitly and has said as much often. But as I clipped the rope onto Saffy’s halter neither of us knew that I was about to make a serious mistake.
We all know that mustangs come out of the wild with an enhanced fear factor. They’re taught from the day they’re born that to stay alive they must be afraid of everything that moves and most things that don’t. React first and ask questions later. But Miss Saffy’s gift of complete trust on my birthday had apparently lulled me into oblivious folly. The way I teach a horse to respond to a lead rope is to let them teach themselves. Pull the rope just barely taught enough to let the horse be a bit uncomfortable from the pressure. Then hold it until she takes a forward step which releases the pressure and gets her lots of praise and rubs. Then we do it again, and again, and again, until she has the concept well absorbed. That’s how Stormy learned to walk on a loose line in two days. But she had never actually lived in the wild. And mama wasn’t piling on the lessons in fear because she was no longer freaking out at every little thing. But the minute that lead rope tightened on Miss Saffy she went completely ballistic. Old fears of being confined with nowhere to run leaped to the surface and she started peddling backward across the paddock at light speed, dragging me with her. This was my first “rodeo” and I thought seriously about turning loose and racing for cover more than once. But, inexplicably, I didn’t. And I even remember the moment I realized what was wrong and shamed myself for making the mistake of allowing her to pull on the rope so hard that she felt inescapably trapped. And there were several fleeting thoughts about how calm I was as she dragged me all over the paddock. The years with the herd were paying off. I knew as long as I could keep my balance I was in no serious danger. Saffy is sweet, and trusting, and bonded. But she was afraid. A wild horse with four years of experience living with fear in the wild. All of this caromed through my brain in a matter of seconds. While I was desperately looking for a moment to catch up and loosen the line to take the pressure off. It came when she backed onto a small mound of pea gravel and her back feet almost slipped out from under her. The line went slack. I advanced, talking softly and calmly to her, and managed to keep the line loose, hopefully restoring her trust.
“Easy, Miss Saffy. Easy,” I whispered, moving ever closer. Her eyes were wide, nostrils flaring, and her breathing was heavy. But I felt confident about her inner self. I believed she would respond. And she did. Her eyes narrowed and her breathing eased. I stroked her forehead, then both cheeks with both hands. She came back to me and I offered her a treat. At first she said no thanks, then had second thoughts and munched it down. I put the tiniest amount of pressure on the lead rope to the left, easing her face around to see another treat in my hand. She responded, and took the treat. Then I moved the line to the right, and again she responded, and took another treat. The halter came off. She got a rub on her face and neck and I walked away, leaving her to think about it.
It was scary, but a good beginning, I thought. For both of us. It was my first such wild and wooly experience and I was happy I stayed with it when I wanted to drop the rope and run. And happy that I got her back and was able to leave the experience positive instead of negative. And I vowed to not let that mistake happen again.
The next morning, happily, with Kathleen available to shoot, Saffron showed no resistance to the halter and lead rope. No bad memories. And I was mentally set to never allow that rope to get tight, to become restrictive, to make her feel trapped or confined. I thought about Chapter 22 of The Soul of a Horse. Cash had gotten his lead rope wrapped around a hitching post and felt suddenly confined. He freaked out and yanked the entire hitching post out of the ground. From that moment, he could never be tied without freaking out. The ultimate solution was Clinton Anderson’s Aussie Tie Ring which allows the lead rope to slide through the ring, telling the horse that he can get immediate relief from the pressure of being tied. With the ring, Cash quickly began to realize that he wasn’t actually tightly confined and he would relax. We’ve never tied any other way since.
And that would be the procedure for Saffy on this day. The first time I put tension on the line, she wanted to back away from the pressure. I merely let the rope slide through my hands until she stopped, which was almost immediately. Then I held an ever so slightly taut line asking her to take a step forward.
She stared at me seemingly forever. I dangled a treat and finally she reached as far as she could reach without taking a step, and I let her retrieve the treat. Then I moved away, getting beyond her reaching range unless she took that all-important first step.
The line went slightly taut. Even though intrinsically I KNOW this stuff works it’s still sort of amazing to me when it does. She reached as far as she could reach but it was no longer enough. She thought about it, only for a moment, and then took that first step.
And another, her resistance dissolving away, steps coming faster.
Note the loose line
I gave her a treat, much praise and rubbing, and removed the halter. This is how I wanted to leave it. With her thinking about following that loose line, even in and out of circles. My teeth were clenched down tightly on the enormous EeeeHawww trying to escape. This was, after all, a pair of all-time firsts. The first time this wild mustang had ever taken forward steps on a halter and lead rope… and the first time ever that I had been on the other end of such first steps (except for our two babies). It felt spectacular. But I walked off as calmly as I could, trying to act as if this was just the way things were supposed to be.
And guess what?
Made me wonder why we were messing with that silly lead rope anyway :).
Oh yeah, now I remember. This horse is a wild mustang. Would that they could all be like this lady. Our very special Miss Saffron.
First Time, First Human Ever on This Mustang’s Back
Totally a Non-Event
Kathleen shot a series of 16 photos of this first mount. I’ve included them below for all of you who like a good laugh. But also to show that the only move she made was to spread her legs and balance herself to hold my weight. I love that! Complete and total trust. So willing. Which is why you hear me say so often: Get the relationship right first, before anything.
Note above that she is spreading her right front to help balance and support my weight. That movement away from the mounting block caused me to lose my own balance and throw more weight against her.
She leans right to fully balance my weight. I look like I’m barely hanging on but I don’t remember the moment as anything scary.
Now she shifts back to her left to catch the sagging Joe :)
I’m okay. Are you okay? :).
Her first time ever with a human on her back and all she was worried about was not dropping me off. Just amazing. So trusting and so willing.
What a good girl.
And here is our very special Miss Firestorm… today
As I said in the beginning, life just doesn’t get better than this. Most of the photos by Kathleen. A couple by moi. To learn more about these two read Born Wild.
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The story of our journey with horses (to date) is told in the two books that follow: the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd and its sequel Born Wild – The Soul of a Horse.
And what a story it is as two novices without a clue stumble and bumble their way through the learning process so that hopefully you won’t have to. If you haven’t read both of these books already please do because with that reading, I believe, will come not just the knowledge of discovery but the passion and the excitement to cause you to commit to your journey with horses, to do for the horse without waiver so that your relationship and experience will be with loving, happy and healthy horses who are willing partners and who never stop trying for you. Horses like ours.
Read the National Best Seller that started it all.
Now in its 17th Printing.