50 First Dates with Captain the Kaimanawa Stallion
4th May 2018
Taming Captain over the past few weeks has reminded me of the romantic comedy 50 First Dates. The movie is about a woman who has a form of amnesia which causes her to lose her short term memory on a daily basis. A man falls for her, but because she keeps forgetting they have met, he must continually introduce himself over and over, thus making each of their “dates” essentially their “first date”.
Like this movie, every day with Captain feels like I’m meeting him for the first time. Even on a good day, when he finishes by standing relaxed while I touch him on the head or neck, the next morning he’ll be wary, scared and at times threatening about me even entering his yard.
Unlike our other 16 wild horses from this muster, who progress day on day, I can never assume that Captain will allow me anywhere near him, even if only hours before he walked straight up to eat grass from my hand, or to be touched on the head.
Captain’s not the only wild stallion that I’ve tamed who seems to forget everything he learns overnight. Elder, who came out of the wild in 2014, was also this way – no matter how much progress he made during a handling session I’d have to start from the beginning the next day; even now, four years on, I have to start each day from scratch. Fortunately, Elder has taught me the art of patience, timing and how to read even the subtlest of a horse’s body language which is standing me in good stead when working with Captain.
The most important thing I’ve found, when working with this type of stallion, is never, to have any expectations of them. Often I’m asked what my aim for a training session and I answer “I’ll see what he’s able to give me”. Each day I am grateful for whatever he offers me, although I always aim to finish each session on a positive note; he doesn’t have to be better than he was the day before, but ideally he’ll show some improvement from the beginning of the session.
It’s very hard for a stressed horse to retain new information, so when I’m working with Captain I’m always trying to keep him attentive and relaxed, while also gradually expanding his comfort zones. Most importantly I don’t want him to ever feel pressured to ensure there is no need for his natural flight or fight instincts to kick in. Fortunately, before a horse has to resort to that type of behaviour there are plenty of smaller warning signs to watch out for, and if we correctly read the subtle changes in their eyes, nostrils, ears and legs, then respond accordingly, we are able to prevent a horse from feeling the need to protect themselves by either fleeing or attacking.
Every time I’m with Captain I’m constantly watching his body language so I can gauge how’s he’s coping. One of the most important things for his psychological welfare is to never work him in a corner or in a small area, instead waiting for him to approach until he’s in the centre of his yard (at the moment he’s in a large 60 x 15m area). This space is important as I don’t want to limit his ability to engage his flight instincts if he feels a need to do so. It also is safer for me; if he’s able to move away from me, in any direction, it reduces the chance of him coming over or at me to escape out of a corner.
Because I’m still building a foundation of trust (and most days we’re having to start from scratch), Captain’s training sessions are minimal. To gauge what type of mood he’s in, I first enter his yard and approach him until he looks at me. Sometimes he’s so worried he’ll be watching as soon as I’m within sight, while other times I’m able to walk within a few meters of him before he’ll raise his head and calmly look at me. As soon as he turns to face me I stop and retreat a few steps to give him time to relax and think things through. Only when he loses interest, or looks away, do I take another step - normally just one is enough for him to tense and return his focus to me - calmly talking to him the entire time. Again, once he looks at me, I pause and back up a few steps to give him space. And so we continue this dance of sorts. Advance, retreat, pause, advance, retreat pause... until finally we’re standing in front of each other and Captain reaches out to sniff my hand, or pulls grass from my outstretched fingers.
Sometimes, if Captain’s having a good day, he’ll follow me as I step back and walk right up to me. Other days he’ll swish his tail and pace restlessly, even arching his neck or stamping a hoof. On these days I know Captains not coping with my presence and I slow things down even further. Every time I retreat I give him more space and wait longer, always reading his body language so I know when he’s ready for me to advance again. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds, and other times I’ll patiently wait for five or ten minutes before I’ll take even one step forward. My end goal is to be able to approach Captain (or ideally for him to approach me) without him feeling the need to turn away (flight instinct) or threaten me (fight instinct).
Always I give him space to take that final step towards me, or stretch out his neck, to take the grass or sniff my hand. I apply the same principles to touching him. So often I’ve been close enough to pat him, yet I wait for him to reach out and make contact with me so it’s on his terms, and in his timing. Just five days out of the wild I was able to rub him all over the head while he stood relaxed, but since then he’s been very hesitant about being touched. Over the past 10 days he’s recoiled every time he’s stretched out to bump my hand, springing backwards so fast it’s like I’ve given him an electric shock, then we have to start from scratch all over again.
If I’ve got my timing right and he’s able to stand facing me the entire session, then I know my timing has been on point and I’ve allowed him the time to remain relaxed and confident about the process. Occasionally if I miss my timing, he’s quick to remind me to take things slower, or to give him more space. He becomes very resentful if I continue to advance when his body language is telling me I should have paused or retreated.
Although his progress is slow I love working with him. He is attuned to the subtlest shift of my body or the tone of my voice and is so light and responsive to work with. Every wild horse teaches me something new, but Captain is truly challenging me to extend my knowledge, refine my timing and to just spend time observing and responding to his every movement.
With Captain I feel like every day we’re repeating our 'first date' and although it’s been 17 days since he was mustered from the wild, I still treat every day like it’s his first. One day he’ll retain the lessons he’s learning and remember that he can trust me, but for now I’m just taking it one day at a time and am so thankful for what he’s giving me.