Written by Preston Bates
After leaving the east coast and racehorses behind, the first job I got out west was with a fella who had 20 some mustangs to settle and train and needed a hand. It was a pretty remote ranch and rough as a cob. The houses, barns, corrals, trucks, trailers, country, boss man, all of it was rough.
There in the corral stood a big rough bunch of waspy, rangy mustangs, mostly bays with a couple washed-out duns and a flea bit grey. Suspicion blazed in the eyes of each one. The plan was he’d work with half the bunch, and I’d do the other half.
On the first day, I asked the boss for any advice. ‘Well, treat them more like you would a mule than you would a horse” he advised. “I’ve never worked with a mule other than my grandpa’s old coon hunting mule and he was just like a big old hound dog.” He shook his head, “No. Don’t treat them like that. Be slow, don’t be in a rush to get too far, too fast. Let them come to you first. Don’t look them hard in the eyes when you first meet them. Let them touch you first. Use horse body language. Watch what they tell you, don’t listen to it. Always leave them wanting more. End every day on the good. Show them don’t tell them. Give them time to figure something out. Be willing to show them two or ten times the same way you showed them the first time, they will come to understand what you want. Be honest with them. Trust them. Be brave around them. Never back down to one. Be the herd leader.” I nodded, “Simple as that?” “Yep, simple as that,” he said spitting the last hours wad into the dust.
We sorted the horses into two groups, then we each did our own thing with our own group. I started out just going in the corral with them and sitting on a bucket with my back against the fence watching and being watched. Being low and small and quiet. Being no threat. I sat there for hours and hours. Occasionally I’d get up and walk slowly around the corrals, drifting them as I went, not making eye contact but paying attention to which moved first, and which moved last and slowest, and then I returned to my spot.
At feeding time, we put out hay in long bunkers and sprinkled it with sweet feed. It didn’t take but a feeding or two before they all were addicted to that sweet feed. About the third day, I took my sittin’ bucket into the corral and set it down with a second bucket that I had smeared the inside with molasses and sprinkled in a bit of sweet feed. I set that bucket between my feet on the ground and then rested my elbows on my knees and hung my hands limply over the bucket.
It wasn’t long before they got wind of the molasses and sweet feed and I soon had a few hovering around. One got brave and came close, lowering his head towards the bucket but backing away cause those scary hands were hanging there. Then getting a bit braver he came in and lowered his head into the bucket but as he got in, he touched a hand! Yikes! He fast-scooted back but braved up again a few moments later and returned this time putting his head in and only flinching a bit when HE touched my hands again. He relaxed and commenced to chewing down. He’d jump and scare himself when he pressed into my limp hands but kept his head in the bucket. Finally, he relaxed and rubbed and bumped himself into my hands as he licked that hard-to-get molasses off the inside of the bucket. The others looked on in awe.
Eventually, another came up and wanted in on the action pushing the first away. This one didn’t take as long as the first. And then another got brave, and it was getting too pushy to stay seated, so I stood up and that scattered a few feet, but they quickly were right back again.
I stood and let the brave ones take turns on the bucket, making sure they came in and touched me and I never reached out to them. The shy ones watched and learned.
The next day I split them up according to temperament and attitude. Confident, pushy ones with the same, and low esteem, shy ones with the same. Then worked them one on one with the bucket till soon they all were happy to stick their head in as I rubbed their ears, heads, and necks. Soon I was standing with them, rubbing them all over as they licked the tub. Eventually, the bucket left, and they stood like perfect horses as I brushed, picked feet, lead, flexed, and sang to them. They all loved me.I made sure when I did something new with the one that was furthest along that all the others watched and learned.
We did a lot of groundwork with these horses, and it was back in the day when not many folks had heard of a horse whisperer or had been exposed to different ways of getting a horse going. Fortunately, my boss was a wise man and had a wise friend known as Ray Hunt with whom he had spent some time. For those not knowing Ray Hunt, he is THE Horse Whisperer. He was the one who exposed the world to other ideas and made it all understandable. I know there were a few other folks who were doing the same at that time but in my book, Ray Hunt is the horse god and that’s all there is to it. Many others agree.
My boss passed a lot of what he’d learned from his friend down to me as it should be done. I’d watch and then try - and low and behold it worked! They understood! I understood! It really was kinda simple when it came right down to it.
It was easy with the mustangs. Mustangs are much easier to train than about any other equine in my opinion for several reasons. First off are graduates of the school of survival. They are smart. In the wild, if you are stupid you will die. If you have bad feet you will die. If you have a high metabolism you will die. Second, fresh off-the-range mustangs are like a blank canvas. No one has taught them bad habits. They have not learned to train humans. They understand and respect the concept of a herd and a herd leader. If you respect them, they will return it. If you are brave by their side, they will be brave by your side. You must be both parts of the herd and the leader of the herd.
When it came time to ride these horses after a month of intensive groundwork and hanging out with them every moment of every day, we didn’t get a hump or buck outta a single one. Again, we started with the best ones and let the others watch. Soon we started using them for ranch work, usually riding one and ponying one or two others. It was kinda a pain in the ass sometimes, but they all got lots of miles and saw and did new things every day
Of course, I had my favorites; one nice thick bay, in particular, had taken my heart but all in all, there wasn’t a knot head in the bunch. Two months of hot, rough country riding and we had ourselves a fine bunch of riding horses. Slick and gleaming, solid of flesh and strong limbed, they all were gentle, friendly, fearless, inquisitive, smart, cool dude horses. They all had great ground manners, stood ground tied, they all could rope, drag calves for doctoring, move a herd, trek the steepest trail. We were both proud as could be of them all. I know for a fact if we had taken 22 backyard horses they sure would not have turned out like this bunch of wild mustangs.
It came the day we had to admit they were good to go and go they must. They were a contract deal to a big summer camp up north. I tried to buy the bay. We had become so close. I felt we were a part of each other. “I’ll give ya my paycheck for that horse”. I told the boss man. “Your paycheck ain’t big enough to buy that horse,” he said in the manner I knew was to be the end of it. I was simply heartbroken when I loaded him on the trailer. If I’d been driving I’m pretty sure I woulda offloaded him somewhere along the way to pick up later and ride off into the sunset with.
With the horses gone it was time for me to be as well. I spent the next few months traveling the west, staying here and there, doing this and that. Every bay horse I saw made my heart ache a wee bit and a small smile.
You’ll have to read the rest of the story in Part 3!