“Carlos doesn’t just read the horse he is
working with. He thinks like the horse. That’s why his movements appear
seamless – if he was reading the horse, there would be a lag in response. There
appears to be none.”
“To watch Carlos work, is to witness a synchronicity
of spirit with the horse of which most people only dream. To work with him, is
to discover a generosity of spirit that strives to ensure every horse and human
he works with understands their own potential to achieve that dream.”
“When I work with a horse, I feel like two rings
interlocked. I may talk to those who watch, but I am not totally with them,
simply because I am lost inside the heart of the horse.” Carlos
“Carlos doesn’t give people false dreams and hopes. He
awakens them to the latent potential in their horses, and themselves, so
that they experience that magical relationship, instead of simply dream about
it. That often means he gets on horses no one else is willing to – but if he
didn’t, what hope would the horse have?”
Horses for Life Magazine
Freedom of choice - Starting a wild horse in outback Australia
What is freedom, really?
At first thought it conjures up obvious words like ‘unconfined’, ‘unrestrained’, ‘independent’. But look a bit deeper and you will find it also relates to words like ‘generous’, ‘willing’, ‘relaxed’ and ‘natural’. And that’s exactly what we want to achieve in our work with our horses.
To me, it is the very essence of what I mean by ‘give’. When our horses understand what we are asking, they can willingly ‘give’ the softness and obedience we seek in our relationship with them, because it is based on mutual respect and trust.
You can’t force the understanding any more than you can demand the trust.
Wild horses have the purest of instinct, largely untainted by confusing interactions with humans. But ‘wild’ doesn’t mean ‘untameable’ or ‘savage’. It is simply a distinct, predominant trait with which you are working, like other traits, such as nervous or young.
You will see what I mean as I take you through the starting of Spinifex, a Northern Territory brumby. I hope, too, that you will see through her story how freedom of choice has the power to captivate (as opposed to coercion, which merely captures) the spirit, empowering the horse to trust the very thing that in the past had robbed her of understanding, security and, potentially, life. Humans.
Spin would have been born amid spiky clumps of spinifex grass on the bone-dry mulga shrublands surrounding the George Gill Range, southwest of Alice Springs, somewhere around seven years ago. Her mob would have roamed and sheltered in these red, rocky lands, bordered on the west by the spectacular Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and the Great Sandy Desert to the south, along with large populations of camels, cattle and dingoes.
The George Gill Range provides the perfect backdrop for the Spinifex grass whose colour inspired Spin’s name. ranges 2886
These drought-stricken plains are criss-crossed with the trails of wild horses, camels and cattle who must travel 30 -40km between one of the area’s last significant waterfalls and any remaining bits of edible vegetation.
A brumby’s introduction to humans would generally be through a traditional muster that most likely involves pushing herds by helicopter over great distances into camel holding yards, where those brumbies that are deemed to be of some value are put into a cattle crush and loaded onto trucks. From there, those that have no value, or are older, weakened or just ‘unnecessary’, are sent to the abattoirs. In Spin’s case, a camel had pushed through one of the station’s fences, through which Spin and a couple of other brumbies (all who were in poor condition), came to be on the station. There she lived, with another brumby and a couple of retired domestic horses, for the next five or six years.
Luckily, Spin was spotted by Angie Howard, who decided she wanted to work with this brumby, but in a way that would preserve her spirit. Over the next months, Angie watched Spin separate herself from her little herd to be closer to Angie’s Arab mare and another recent arrival to the station, a young quarter horse gelding. Then one day, when Angie opened the gate for the other two domestic horses, Spin walked through to join them.
That started a chain reaction, as the pecking order in the little herd changed dramatically. Spinifex took over as the alpha mare, driving the Arab mare away from Angie, particularly at feeding time, and keeping the gelding from entering the paddock. While the gelding was wearing the fallout in bites on his rump from Spin’s driving and punishment (one of the main reasons I don’t drive from the rear!), the Arab mare was exhibiting a change in attitude as she moved lower in the pecking order, hanging back and avoiding Spin, as well as generally pinning her ears back and being more unhappy about yielding her space. This situation is a good example of why ‘three’s a crowd’. Normally, horses will pair off. In this case that wasn’t possible, and the result was a very stressful situation for all three.
In the two months that she had been in with the other two horses, and having more regular contact with humans, Spin developed a reputation for chasing camels, dogs, cattle, the other horses, and gaining a label for herself – aggressive and dangerous. Feeding time was particularly stressful, with Spin controlling the space and food, driving off the other horses and requiring at least two people to feed in order to avoid further escalating the conflict. An attempt had been made by a horse handler to halter Spin by throwing a rope over her neck from the fence to hold her while the halter was put on. It was this traumatic introduction to handling that made it impossible to even approach Spin with a halter in hand. How easy it would have been to write this horse off as being too wild and aggressive and, as had been suggested to Angie, to just ‘get yourself another – there are plenty of them’. Spin would have been just another casualty of humans’ inability to see past (in this case) aggressive ‘behaviour’ and an aggressive ‘nature’ or unwillingness to take the time and effort required to uncover the real nature of this gentle and caring, yet spirited and resilient, brumby mare and turn her attitude into talent.
That’s why I never ever give up on a horse.
"Inside every wild horse is a domestic horse; inside every domestic horse is a wild horse."
Spin’s distrust of humans had been further exacerbated by this experience of being haltered not in a way she understood, but in order for a human to prove that it could be done. That meant that our starting point was first to ‘undo’ the damage that had been done by her initial contact with humans.
The horse’s amazing survival as a prey animal over millions of years is due partly to his ability to learn. In many ways, although we are predators, we share similar goals – safety and comfort. Moreover, despite our higher ranking on the food chain, we also harbour many fears and insecurities, just like the horse. Over our first four days, 90% of my time was focused on working with Spin’s aggressive behaviour – introducing a halter wasn’t yet a consideration.
When you’re working with domestic mares and geldings, you generally have to watch their hindquarters carefully, as they will use their hind legs to deliver warnings and punishments. Mares also require you be soft and unrushed, giving them time to settle down when they show resistance. Their tolerance levels can – and often do - change many times in a single training session, but by showing you know when to back off, before asking again (and again, if necessary), you’re proving yourself to be a good leader.
Stallions will challenge your leadership constantly, using their teeth more and their front legs to strike out. With brumbies, you have to watch both ends carefully! Compared to domestic horses, brumbies have a far more heightened sense of instinct, herd mechanics and self awareness. To work with them successfully, your understanding of these issues – and your own self awareness – needs to match. Spin demonstrated an interesting combination of both alpha mare and stallion behaviour, at times striking out with her front feet and arching her neck to make herself appear larger than life, while at others, using her hindquarters to express herself.
But while her behaviour was certainly aggressive, it soon became apparent Spin was more like a school bully – presenting a tough façade that hid insecurities, bad experiences, distrust, fear, and an absolute will to survive.
Spin was obviously the alpha mare and, in the absence of a herd stallion, would drive the other two horses from behind – in this case, to control both space and food.
Here, Spin has chosen to run and make herself look bigger, much as a stallion would.
Here Spin is displaying typically dominant, aggressive traits that she’s used effectively as an alpha mare to control others. She wants me to yield, as they did, and follow her. When I did not respond as Spin expected, she would escalate this threatening behaviour, arching her neck and pinning her ears back.
Spin also displayed some stallion-like behaviour – striking out with her front legs. In response, I would drive her out of my space, but my heart rate, consistency and level of calmness didn’t alter.
Spin was good with her hind legs as well! These tactics had obviously served her well in the past, but when I didn’t respond as she expected, by yielding my space, there was a considerable amount of licking and chewing that started to take place.
To get her to turn and face me, I would kick dirt at her hindquarters. In this case, before she turned to face me, she lined me up for another double barrel kick to see if she could force me to give up my space. Instead, I moved her from her space, again.
Another tried and true tactic – to move into my space. If you look closely, I’m standing directly in front of Spin and you can see my hands (particularly my left arm) immediately came up to keep her from coming on top of me.
While you can see from the photos that Spin’s behaviour was explosive, my approach remained the same. I didn’t allow anything that the herd would not allow. I set small goals, for instance wanting only to be able to approach her with the halter in my hand and have her stand calmly, and I was willing to take as long as was necessary, and to ask as many times as was necessary, to achieve even the smallest of shifts in her response.
The key word here is asking. Asking creates learning and understanding. No matter how aggressive the behaviour, I always ask – I never demand. I may ask with more assertiveness or energy, depending on the situation, but I never use aggression. If a situation becomes dangerous for either me or my horse, I will tell a horse what I want him to do. For instance, when Spin would move into my space or throw a kick, I would tell her to move out by throwing up my hands or by using the rope to drive her out. But always, she had a say and could choose to run or to turn and focus on me. I would follow that up by asking again and again until I got the desired response.
By being consistent, and consistently calm and not becoming frustrated or angry (or taking it personally), and giving Spin plenty of reassurance and ‘thinking time’, Spin gradually began to see that I was not like some of the other humans who had given her bad experiences.
I was not acting like she expected – or like the predator I appeared to be. Spin, in turn, showed me her willingness to try and her willingness to be with me, often choosing to follow me as I walked around the round yard or over to the rails to grab a drink. She could have chosen to stand away, to stay disengaged and angry at the world.
But those early blossoms of trust are some of the most treasured moments I have in working with horses.
In this photo, I had seen a change in her and decided to give her the opportunity to approach me. Instead of approaching aggressively, she came in and stood over me protectively, as she might with a foal.
In these next three photos, you can also see how she chose to follow my feel, without a leadrope, showing me that she understands my body language and what I’m asking her to do.
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