Several years ago, the Bureau of Land Management brought a group of adoptable mustangs to East Tennessee to place them with horse enthusiasts. Having kept horses for several years, I decided to adopt a mustang so that I could own a living legend. I hooked up the trailer to the truck and headed over to the stockyards to adopt. They say that hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I realize how naïve I had been. At the time, I thought a horse was a horse.
When the auction commenced, I was surprised to see a general lack of interest. There were many horses available but very few adopters. As a result, I came home with not one, but two mustangs, a mare and her foal. The workers haltered them in a squeeze chute. Then, they loaded them into my trailer with lead ropes dangling from the halters to make catching them easier. I took them home and off loaded them from the trailer into a specially built round pen and covered stall, leaving them to settle in overnight before my training was to begin.
Having dealt with domesticated horses, I was accustomed to the herd cues and body language used by a horse. I was also aware that the horses would instinctively mirror my own emotions back to me. What I was unprepared for was the fact that in a wild mustang, these mirrored images would be so much stronger.
My first lesson was in patience. If I pushed too hard or got in a hurry they would push back. Having an angry 900 lb mare come at you with ears pinned back was not a happy situation. I learned to take things slow and easy. If I placed myself just outside the round pen fence, and sat quietly, allowing my emotions to fade and balance, the foal would approach, drawn by curiosity. Mama would follow close behind with her eyes wide and nostrils flared, ready to turn and flee at any hint of movement.
Eventually, I was able to move my seat into the pen. I would sit for long periods staring at my feet, pretending to ignore the pair as they paced around the pen. In due course, they would calm down and finally, they became accustomed to my presence. Often, I would double the time I planned to spend with the pair before approaching the pen as it was a process to offload the daily emotional baggage of life. I had to unpack my stress, anxiety, anger, frustration, and depression before I neared the pair because they would start reading my emotions before I even approached the gate. It became a ritual to let go of my emotions as I put my boots on. I would relax my anxiety while I scooped out their feed. I would set aside my frustrations as I pulled down the hay. I would work hard to project happiness even before I would begin my walk to the barn.
One day, while sitting in my seat in the center of the pen, my hard work was finally rewarded. While I was judiciously studying the dust on my left boot, I felt a warm waft of air against my ear. By shifting ever so slowly to the right, I was able to see the foal in my peripheral vision. He had crept up behind me and, as I watched, he used his upper lip to nuzzle my hair. I sat still and contained my excitement as he moved to the front of my chair. Keeping my head down, I slowly extended my hand and brushed it gently down his neck. He trembled just a little and moved away. I waited. Sure enough, he came back and this time, he stuck his head under my hand and allowed me to take care of a particularly itchy spot of shedding fur on his forehead. I was ecstatic. I had been granted the opportunity of a lifetime. I was the first person this foal had freely chosen to allow contact.
The day was not over, though, as I heard a snort and a shadow fell across my lap. The mare’s anxiety had gotten the better of her. She had come to check on her little foal and I had been caught petting him. I did not panic. I continued to stroke the foal’s neck and, in short order, the mare stuck her nose down to intercept my hand. I continued moving as I had been and scored a double success. The mare, aptly named Wild Fire, accepted a congenial stroke on the nose without panic or flight. Eventually, the stress became too much for her and she moved away but that day was the beginning of a partnership as we began the process of building trust.
I learned a lot from those two horses during those first few weeks of impromptu equine therapy. I learned that I was the master of my emotions, and, by controlling those emotions I was able to make myself more approachable. I learned that to receive trust, I had to be worthy of trust by being honest in my interactions. I could lie to myself but I could not lie to those horses. In retrospect, working with those two mustangs was a turning point in my life. It was empowering to realize that I was capable of spiritually connecting with a dynamic, powerful, and fully wild being.
Horses heal the hearts and spirits of everyone they touch. As Buck Brannaman once said, “The horse is a mirror to your soul . . . and sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror.”