We’ve been living at Hay Creek Ranch in Oracle, Arizona for about six weeks now, less a week-long trip to Mexico. It has been wonderful to remain stationary after traveling so much. We’re settling into our life in the desert, exploring the area, and establishing daily routines.
I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to immerse myself in horses. For the first time in my adult life, I have the time and energy to ride or train every day. I’ve even begun seeking out other horses to work with to help sate my appetite.
There happen to be a few mustangs at camp that have not been trained yet. One in particular is very skittish and has had minimal handling. I have never gentled a mustang, nor started a horse that was so raw, but I’ve studied non-violent methods for doing so. Although fear and self-doubt sat in the back of my mind, I decided to take on the challenge of working with this horse. So, on a crisp December morning the mustang known as Lady met me in the round pen.
I began using body language to move her around the pen. She was very suspicious of me and did not like being locked in a pen with me. I used Monty Roberts’ Join-Up technique which relies on the horse’s unspoken language to communicate and bond. Lady gave me signals that she was ready to accept me and after only twelve minutes of working with her, she had come to me and allowed me to stroke her forehead.
I continued working with Lady and by our third session she was following me all around the pen at liberty, even trotting to keep up when I increased my pace. She has lots of trust issues to work through before she is truly comfortable around me or any other human. However, I was elated by the progress I made and the confidence she gave me.
Lady came from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holding facility at a prison in Florence, Arizona. Under the Wild Horse Inmate Program, incarcerated men domesticate mustangs and burros. She was adopted as untrained but there are also trained horses available. The inmates do all the training under the guidance of Randy Helm and other professionals.
I’ve been casually looking for a horse for Byron since we settled in Arizona. We discussed the prison program and decided to go see the available saddle-trained horses. He could ride Mackenzie for a while until I finished the mustang’s training and felt confident that he’d be safe riding it.
The prison’s adoption center had two geldings saddled and on display when we arrived. Their inmate handlers were in the saddles putting the horses through their paces. Each man happily answered our questions and told us the history of his mount. Unfortunately, these two horses were less than 15 hands (a hand is equal to four inches) tall and too short for our liking. Mr. Helm and the inmates discussed the inventory of horses still coming up in their training and identified a few potential candidates that were closer to our height preference. We were cleared to enter the prison’s holding facility and rode over in Mr. Helm’s truck.
The wild horse and burro holding and training facility is a network of covered stalls, round pens, and chutes. There is an adjacent turnout paddock and large open practice field littered with training obstacles for the horses. We arrived and found inmates working horses in the round pens, teaching their horses to stand tied to the corral, and riding through the obstacles in the field.
We watched as a beautiful, tall, four-year-old bay gelding named Titan practiced walking onto a large teeter-totter, pausing in the middle as it pivoted to the other side, and walking off. He was nervous about it at first so the inmate trainer dismounted and schooled Titan from the ground very kindly and gently until the horse could execute the move with confidence. Byron really liked Titan’s calm attitude so I asked the rider to trot and canter in the open field. I immediately noticed that his front fetlocks (ankles) sagged abnormally at a trot. This indicated a weakness in his tendons that makes him unsuitable for the type of riding we want to do. Disappointed, we looked at a few other “finished” horses but didn’t see any that met our criteria. I thanked Mr. Helm for his time and attention, promising to return in a few weeks to see how training was progressing on the up-and-comers.
The following morning, as I was sipping my coffee, I decided to follow up with a Craigslist seller that hadn’t returned my previous message. She immediately responded and told me to come see her horse. It turns out that she is practically our neighbor so Byron and I drove the fifteen minutes to her house. There, we met an eight-year-old liver-chestnut Tennessee Walking Horse mare. I rode her first, testing out her gaits. I felt confident that she was safe for Byron to try, so up he went. He rode her around their yard for a few minutes attempting to get her to perform the ultra-smooth Running Walk which the breed is known for. Unfortunately, all she wanted to do was Pace; an undesirable gait.
Later, we discussed the pros and cons of this horse. I wanted to keep looking, mostly because she is a mare (female) and I really wanted a gelding (castrated male) instead. Ultimately, we decided that her pros outweighed the very minor cons. So when I received a text message a few hours later saying that another buyer was coming to pick her up, we decided to swoop in and snatch her right away. Was this a ploy on the part of the seller? It’s entirely possible but we couldn’t resist, so Byron got an early Christmas present: his first horse.
While brainstorming names, I reminded him that his favorite TV show, Firefly, has many strong female characters. This inspired him to choose the name River, after River Tam the bad-ass savant.
Byron put River through the same join-up ritual. On Christmas Eve we all went for a ride, Byron on River and me on Mackenzie. One big happy horse family.