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|May 22-28, 2008
• Train fast to race fast
by Wina Sturgeon
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Back from the wild
Trainers work to tame mustangs
by M.S. Enkoji
Her name is Feather. She’s a mahogany-hued beauty who once roamed a high, wild corner of Nevada.
The 3-year-old mustang mare spent most of her life without humans. But in the past five weeks, a woman with an easy touch and a soothing voice is just about the only thing she knows.
Gena Wasley, 35, trains horses for a living, and she’s taken on a challenge unlike any before. She is one of 33 trainers who have agreed to transform wild mustangs rounded up from federal land into gentle creatures in 90 days for a competition and auction.
“The hardest thing is I’m up against the clock,” said Wasley, who is almost midway to her goal.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal manager of the wild mustang herds on public land, along with the Texas-based Mustang Heritage Foundation, will offer the first competition of its kind on the West Coast in June.
The contest awards cash prizes to trainers who excel with their horses. All the horses will be available for auction to qualified buyers during a June 6-8 event at Cal Expo in Sacramento.
Wasley, who brought the mare to its training ground — an Orangevale paddock — in March, named her for the feather she first extended toward the horse as a way to connect without really touching.
Once skittish, prone to turning away, even from the soothing tones Wasley exudes, Feather is changing into a trusting companion who follows her leader, enters a trailer on command and raises her hooves for inspection.
When Wasley rubs the blaze on Feather’s nose, the mustang’s eyes close lazily, her comfort zone growing wider every week.
Using a full duffel bag to mimic weight in a saddle, Wasley has gotten Feather ready for this moment. She eases a blanket onto her back, then a Western saddle.
Wasley eases her petite frame onto the mare’s back, lying across the saddle momentarily. Wasley swings a leg across the hindquarters, a motion Feather will experience every time a rider mounts.
“How does it feel?” Wasley says, softly.
In a moment, Wasley is back on the ground. No rush.
“I want to do it in doses so she’s comfortable,” she says.
For the 5,000 years that horses have been domesticated, the way it was done has been studied only for the last 150 years or so, says Jeannine Berger, one of 46 veterinarian behaviorists in the United States.
“That knowledge has come slowly into the barns,” says Berger, who is at the Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.
Necessity — the need to train many horses quickly to work a ranch — is why horses were once “broken” or “flooded” with the desired behavior, she says.
Cowboys saddled up horses and rode them as they bucked until the horse gave up, broken. That method was dangerous both to the rider and the horse, but it makes dramatic television, Berger says.
Eventually, another way of training, called desensitizing, developed. Slower, less dramatic to watch — with less dust raised — the method relies on observing the horse’s behavior and changing it in small steps.
“Your horse will tell you how fast you progress,” Berger says.
Because the mustangs know so little about humans, they are like puppies in that two- to four-month socialization window where they form their demeanor, she says. “Since they have no interaction with humans, they have no bad connections with humans, either,” Berger says.
There’s no template for wild horses, though, she says. “It depends on their temperament. They could be curious or fearful. There’s just lots of variables.”
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