Day 2: Adapting to the needs and personalities of 17 wild horses requires 17 different time frames, sensitivity and patience!
19th April 2018
I was up at sunrise and down at the yards by 7.30am to feed out. This morning a few of the Kaimanawas are on edge and there’s a moment of relief when I see they are all in the same yards that we left them in the night before. One of the mares is highly sensitive and Vicki’s older stallion is already proving to be a challenge; she’s going to have her hands full when she returns home on Monday. It quickly becomes apparent that these two belonged together in the wild, which is going to make the taming process that much more difficult. The stallions sole job in the wild is to protect his mares and this stallion understandably becomes stressed every time we enter his mares yard, just like Elder did with Honor four years ago.
He takes his fear and helplessness out on the young stallion in his pen, savagely biting him, before trotting back to the fence line to check his mare. Confident she’s okay, he again turns and charges the other stallion from six meters out, laying another savage bite on him. Worried he’ll put the youngster through a fence I rush in to separate them, letting him in with Koha, one of the other mature stallions; fortunately, this old boy is much kinder and they settle down to eat.
Most of the students that are here as part of our Workshop, are back at the house having breakfast and I use the solitude to work with my own stallion. This morning he’s not hiding behind Pumba and we’re able to separate them. Now alone, my gorgeous bay hides by the gate with his head lowered, staying as close to the other stallions as he can. Not wanting to rush him I lean against a post and spend half an hour checking emails on my phone while I talk to him. Slowly his expression relaxes; no longer are his ears back, or his lips and eyes pinched. He’s starting to relax and as I watch him I can’t help but see the similarities with both Major and Elder in those early days. Everything about this stallion; from his reactions, to his facial expressions and unease is reminiscent of our two veteran stallions and I fall a little more in love with his soul.
He’s going to need time, impeccable feel and timing, and a lot of patience to win over. As I begin working with him I am so thankful for everything Elder has taught me over the past four years – I feel like he trained me for this moment. Slowly I begin a dance of sorts, approaching and retreating mere centimeters, in sync with his body language. This stallion, who I assumed was timid, soon proves he is both smart and brave as he faces, then begins to approach me. Never does he do more than walk, for Elder has taught me how to anticipate a horse’s movements. Largely I’m able to avoid making this stallion feel uncomfortable by my presence, so he has no cause to either flee or fight. Slowly over the course of twenty minutes he walks over and eats grass out of my hand. That level of trust, less than half an hour into our first session is truly humbling. To reward him for his efforts I open the gate so he can re-join his friends.
Everyone is down at the yards now and they set to work mucking out, picking grass and topping up water; it takes a couple of hours. A few of the horses are so tense only I can enter their yards and as I slowly muck out around them they stand shaking in the corner; in one yard I don’t even finish, not wanting to stress them too much.
Once the chores are done Lily and Soley begin working with their older mares. Lily’s three-year-old (Fern) walks straight over and eats the offered food, while Soley’s mare is far more unsettled and she’s only able to stand at the furthest side of the yard initially. After 10 minutes the mare stands still while facing her – it’s a perfect finish.
Next up is 12-year-old Nina, who touched her colt for the first time the day before, again this gorgeous boy proves he’s a gentle soul; Nina is soon scratching him on his neck and head while he blinks sleepily. She’s followed by 14-year-old Jazz whose colt takes a step towards her after just a few minutes, something he wasn’t comfortable doing the day before – this is one of the more spirited ones (aptly named Spirit) so it’s a huge step of faith and she leaves the yard, happy with his progress.
Two of the yearlings have yet to be worked and one in particular is fiery. Working quietly, 18-year-old Taylah soon has it looking at her without darting for cover; more than enough progress for its first interaction with people. Its companion is far more relaxed and Mikayla spends half an hour offering the filly grass, which she ignores. Stepping in I soon have her facing me, then to my surprise she walks over a few minutes later and stands relaxed as I touch her all over the neck, back and rump while she stands loose in a 4m by 6m yard.
While I was working with the yearling, I catch glimpses of 12-year-old Joseph making progress with his colt under mum’s supervision. Yesterday it took a few steps towards him but today his Kaimanawa is straight up to eat the offered grass. These horses truly are amazing with the curiosity and trust they’re already placing in us. In the distance I hear Soley reading to her horse in German; the mares have the largest yard, yet both are choosing to stand within meters of her. This young lady has the patience of a saint and her horse is so much more relaxed already; I have a feeling they’re a perfect match.
Amanda soon arrives and within seconds her delightful stallion Pumba strolls up for attention. I swear she’s spent no more than half an hour at the yards since the horses arrived, due to a busy schedule, but he sure seems to love her. Even the chestnut, who’s a lot more reactive, is eating out of her hand – she couldn’t be more thrilled with the experience these boys are giving her.
Impressed with the other stallions progress I decide it’s time for Koha to meet me. This battle scarred warrior is one of the oldest (perhaps 12 to 18-years) but he has a kind nature. When I saw him in the wild he lived near the front entrance, and would have seen humans most days – he certainly showed little concern for us, allowing us to photograph from about 20 meters away. Today he looks a little stiff so I hope it’s nothing permanent. He deserves a good life and he’s trying really hard to be our friend. Just a few minutes after I enter his yard he wanders over. Not expecting it, I stand quietly as he investigates me. Once he loses interest I leave to get a handful of grass and offer it to him on my return; he readily accepts it and stands watching me thoughtfully as he munches away.
Now only three Kaimanawas are left to work and I supervise as 12-year-old Amie wins over the trust of both the filly foals. Soon they are eating out of her hand. Her own foal Lacey stands with pricked ears as she scratches her on the forehead and Sunny, one of our client’s foals, bumps her muzzle against Amie’s hand.
Just before dark our ninth workshop student arrives; 14-year-old Leia will be training her own 2-year-old mare. Her chestnut is one of the most reactive so she spends just a few minutes standing quietly in her yard while everyone else finishes feeding out. Finally, it’s time for dinner and I head home absolutely shattered; it’s been a huge two days (especially considering I was in London only a few days ago and I’m struggling with jetlag, often waking up at 4am). It’s all worth it though as the past 30 hours have been among the most rewarding of my life.
The Kaimanawas we’re taming, and the students I’m mentoring, are absolute naturals. Each day we’re seeing such special moments that will be ingrained in our memories for life. There is nothing as rewarding as those first moments when a wild horse decides we’re friend, not foe, and it’s a real privilege watching these 17 Kaimanawas learn to trust us in 17 different time frames, and in 17 different ways.