How easy would it be to ride a wild horse? Would it take a year, a month or just a few hours perhaps if you can speak the horse’s language?
A BLANK SLATE BY JOE CAMP
Extracted from his book ‘The Soul of a Horse’
Written after watching Whispering the Wild – Taming the Untouched Horse
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to meet a horse who had never seen a human before?
Never been roped and jerked and pulled around by one. Never been physically forced to do things it didn’t want to do. Or was afraid to do. Never been frightened out of its wits by a helicopter trying to run over it. Or chased by screeching men on other horses. Or poked, kicked, and whipped. Or electric shocked into submission.
Kelly Marks wondered. And she set out to find such a horse.
She believed that horses would much rather be in relationship than not, even with a predator were that possible. Why? Because the horse’s number one concern in life is safety. Security. A good relationship means the horse feels safe and secure. It means the horse can trust. And will not be living in fear.
Kelly had a theory that every behavior problem she had ever witnessed in her training demonstrations was caused somehow, at some point in time, by a human. Perhaps inadvertently. Perhaps not. Perhaps years and years ago. But caused by a human.
So she wanted to find a group of wild horses somewhere on the planet that had never encountered a human. Never been near one. Preferably never even seen one. And then she wanted to start one of those horses. To Join Up and ride one of those horses. To approach them so softly, so carefully, that no signal would ever be sent that could possibly be interpreted as something for the horse to be fearful about.
What, she wondered, would happen?
Starting with a completely blank slate, no past history and no embedded fears of humans, could she convince such a horse that he had nothing to fear from her. Or would fear even be a factor so long as she did nothing that would encourage fear.
She knew from her work with hundreds and hundreds of horses that when a horse is afraid of a particular human the fear can often translate to all humans. Guilty until proven innocent. Which creates barriers that must be overcome on the road to relationship.
Her theory: if she could find horses who had never ever encountered a human then the horse should have no baggage. No pre-conceived fear. As long as Kelly did nothing that would cause the horse to see her as predatory, she should be considered nothing more potentially harmful than a rabbit. Or a squirrel. Or a deer. If she could prove this truth it could be immensely helpful when working with domesticated horses, and when teaching newcomers or people working with new horses what to expect and how very careful they need to be to not frighten this prey animal.
Kelly Marks is the founder of Intelligent Horsemanship in the UK and is a Monty Roberts Scholar and a Lifetime Protégée. And she has become Monty’s right hand in the UK and Europe. But she wanted to do this on her own and Monty was against it. He felt it was too dangerous.
But she found a herd in Namibia in southwest Africa that had never encountered humans in any way. Many, if not most, had never even seen a human. She and two others on her team recruited some locals and a documentary film crew and off they went. Even Kelly was surprised at the result.
One of Kelly’s team is her rider, Grant Bazin. In her demonstrations she rarely does the first ride on a horse herself. Among other reasons it would be very difficult for her to concentrate on her safety while speaking continuously to an audience. So her very experienced rider goes with her whenever work is at hand. The third member of the team is a very knowledgeable and experienced equine behaviorist, Ian Vandenberghe. Because Kelly’s number one job is to cause the horse to feel safe, comfortable with her, she believes that looking the horse directly in the eye could give the horse reason to believe she is a predator. So it is her behaviorist’s job is to pick up information from the horse’s eyes and body language that Kelly might not see and relay that information to Kelly.
The first thing they did was encircle most of the watering facility in the southern African desert with portable stall panels. They had their eye on selecting a horse from a bachelor band so as to not disrupt an existing family band, which they accomplished without incident. The isolated stallion was named Muddy Waters because he liked to splash water onto the parched earth and then roll in it. Once Muddy was isolated Kelly immediately poured buckets of water onto the ground and then sat in a chair nearby and talked to him as he sniffed out the puddle and then rolled in it.
This fair lassie could be alright he was probably saying.
Their entire procedure is immortalized in a documentary available for viewing online. The link is at the end of this chapter. But suffice to say it went so smoothly that Kelly decided to be the first to ride this horse who heretofore had never even seen a human much less had any close encounters with one. She did everything absolutely right and I never once saw even the slightest indication of resistance or fear. In fact, it went so smoothly that they thought it might be a fluke, so they selected another stallion from the bachelor group to go through the same process, only this time Grant would be first up.
And, again, everything went without a hitch. It’s amazing to see them scratching and rubbing these horses everywhere possible. Including their ears! With no negative reaction at all. And riding them together as if they had all been a team forever.
Two wild horses who had never been subjected to harrowing helicopter roundups and rough treatment from wranglers. Had never been trained by harsh or cruel means. Had never been exposed to humans who say, “You will do what I tell you or else!”
Which tells me that every behavior problem expressed by a horse, anywhere, everywhere, originates in an experience with a human.
And it tells me how very, very careful, and quiet, and calm, and comforting one needs to be when beginning with any horse. It also tells me, when added to our experience with Saffron, that a horse who has had experiences with humans can start anew. Can be taken back to the beginning. The slate can be wiped clean. It might take longer to eliminate a history than to begin with a horse who has never known humans, but once done, it’s quite like starting fresh. Once Saffron made the choice to discard her previous experiences and trust us, as mentioned before, it was as if she had thrown a switch. She was not just “in”, she was all in. Just like the two wild horses in Namibia.
Another awesome aspect of the African experience is that both of these horses were not just wild, they were stallions. Almost everyone I’ve ever asked about stallions says, in one form or another, “Oh, stallions are scary. Too much testosterone! Gotta be really careful around them. They’ll kill you in a heartbeat. Don’t even try it.”
Not to say that you shouldn’t be careful around domestic stallions. I suspect that reactions to bad human experiences with mares and geldings could be doubled or tripled if a stallion has been abused.
But the few I’ve been around, who were brought up and trained with care and compassion, have been as delightful as any other horse anywhere.
The entire Namibian experience was only six days and the building of the pens took the first day and a half. The most amazing thing happened on the sixth day when Kelly and Grant rode these two horses out of the pens – bareback! – to turn them back into the wild. I won’t ruin it for you… but do watch the documentary all the way to the end. You will save the link forever. Which is:
Those two horses were living the life they wanted to live. They were happy.
They had no reason to believe they should be afraid of the humans they encountered. And that belief was reinforced by the humans.
So long as Kelly and her team never once did anything that even approached causing the horses to be afraid, they were never afraid. Never reactive. They were using the thinking side of their brain at all times. How can I help? How do I figure this out?
And that is simply the best lesson ever!