Why I Was Having Nightmares of Captain as a Lion
17th May 2018
It’s been a while since my last update on Captain and in recent days it’s hard to believe he’s the same wild horse. He’s been haltered, can be caught in a paddock, learnt to lead, navigates obstacles, can be brushed over his head and neck, loads on the horse trailer, has been to the beach and is building a solid foundation of trust and curiosity.
But even 10 days ago this wasn’t the case. At times I felt unsafe around him, even though he’d been so good to touch on the head during that first week; most days it was as though he’d reset and forget everything he knew.
Even on his bad days though, I never felt he wanted to hurt me; he is not aggressive to people, or other horses – rather he seems like the type of stallion that would round up his herd and flee in the face of danger, rather than stay and fight. I was however, aware that poor timing on my behalf could result in an accident and so I was always careful to read his body language to ensure Captain never felt unsafe around me, so that he wouldn’t have to defend himself.
We were in a stalemate of sorts. Because he was showing signs of a horse needing more time, I was expecting less of him and he’d gone backwards in his training. Captain just didn’t want to be touched and I wasn’t willing to push him; not only because I wanted to be sensitive to his needs, but also because asking a wild stallion for more than they’re able to give can cause them to engage their flight and fight responses and I had no desire to get injured. A good day was him approaching to eat out of my hand and on the rare occasion he’d initiate contact and allow a brief touch he’d recoil like I’d electrocuted him, then take a long time to build up enough courage to approach me again.
Then just 18 days out of the wild we had an International Car Rally on our road; the cars would be passing at the top of the cliff, which made up one side of Captain’s yard. In previous years the noise of the cars backfiring and skidding around the gravel corners had put a number of our horses through and over fences and it was decided that Captain and Massey (another stallion that was yet to be haltered) needed to be moved to Vicki’s stables so they could be safely contained; the rest of our wild Kaimanawas were all in the stables already, or in paddocks on the far side of the property.
To get up to Vicki’s stables though, Captain would have to be herded across the arena and up a long race through the bush, then across her driveway. The biggest problem was that I hadn’t been able to touch Captain in almost two weeks, so there was no chance of haltering him, and he was still needing to be contained behind six-foot fences. With limited options we strategically placed trucks and people along the route to ensure he didn’t go in the wrong direction or injure himself by going through a fence, since they were only standard height and the concept of wire fences was still foreign to him.
The night before the rally I had a nightmare of a brown lion with a black mane, named Captain, who was caged in a school classroom and needed to be moved. I was sent ahead to warn all the students and teachers not to leave their rooms so we could safely move this restless, prowling lion across the school grounds. Waking up there was no doubt my subconscious was aware of the potential danger moving Captain presented and I headed outside with trepidation. The biggest issue soon become apparent; he’d spent the past 18 days learning to face and approach me, and he was confused by someone behind him, constantly spinning back to face them. Without confusing the horse, and undoing a lot of the positive lessons he’d learnt, and within minutes it became apparent that herding him to the stables was never going to work.
Option two was to bring in domestic horses for him to follow and Kentucky and Showtym Moonlight proved to be great support horses. Moonlight took the lead, with Captain close behind, and Kentucky bought up the rear. I was relieved at how successfully this worked; Captain walked sedately behind them, not trying to antagonise or pick a fight with them, like some stallions would, before filing into his stable with absolutely no fuss. We repeated the process with Massey and he also followed the other horses with no drama.
The stables proved a great place for these stallions to observe the hustle and bustle of daily life. Although initially they stayed against the back wall, by the end of the day they had their heads over the doors watching as horses were saddled or led out to their paddocks.
I visited him twice more that day; the first time for just a few minutes to offer him grass, which he walked over to eat, and the second time I spent 40 minutes approaching him and reaching out a hand, so he’d grow confident enough to be touched. Being in my presence wasn’t what bothered him. Many times over the past two weeks I’d been able to stand half a meter from Captain for lengthily amounts of times, or hold my hand within millimetres of his coat, yet it was when he stretched out to bump my hand that he’d panic.
But that day, for the first time in two weeks, I noticed that Captain was improving. Every session he was better and the next morning he retained some (not much, but some) of what we’d done the day before. By the end of the second day I was touching him on the head again, and was even able to stroke his neck for the first time; after two weeks of ‘50 First Dates’, Captain he was making progress.
As I worked with him on Day 20, I saw a pattern emerging and I had a revelation; every day I’d been able to rub Captain’s head, I’d worked with him two or three times – every session short – and it had been the last session of the day that I’d been able to touch him. The first session of the morning would normally catch him up on what he’d achieved the day before, giving him a chance to remember he could trust me – sometimes this took fifteen minutes of patient and quiet work and other times it took up to an hour. The later session, however, where always short; he’d only take a couple of minutes to reach the same point before I’d leave him to rest.
Having not realised how much multiple, yet short, sessions benefited Captain’s capacity to learn, I had only been working with him once a day (apart from Days 5, 6 and 7 – the only days I’d been able to rub his head). With 17 wild Kaimanawas in the yards, and 10 students to mentor through the process of taming their very first wild horses, he was often the last horse I got to; some days I hadn’t been able to spend time with him at all.
That afternoon, Vicki watched as I worked with him. Both Skipper and Massey had just been haltered for the first time in the open yard and she wanted to watch me work with Captain to see where he was at. She was hopeful he’d be able to be haltered, so he could start having fun adventures in the river, bush and beach and also be able to progress from life in the yards, to a paddock full of grass.
I however, was convinced Captain wasn’t ready. He reminded me too much of Elder (a stallion I tamed from the 2014 muster who was the most challenging of any wild horse we’d worked with). The similarities in their body language and reactions was uncanny and so I was training Captain with the sensitivity and time that Elder had needed, to avoid him regressing or becoming resentful about the taming process. He’d already had two bad weeks and I didn’t want that to upset him and turn that into two bad months, or even years.
In fact, my expectations were so low, that just a few days earlier I’d set up the six-foot portable yards into a 60 x 10-meter paddock for Captain. I was convinced he would take months before he’d be ready to halter, or handle, and I wanted him to have trees for shelter and plenty of space to roam while he adjusted to his new life in domestication.
But as Vicki watched me work with Captain she was sure he was ready for more, perhaps even to halter. It was our second session of the day (having spent 10 minutes with him that morning) and within minutes I was touching him on the neck and head; the very best he’d been to date. As soon as my hands were on him he relaxed and I was able to rub him for a while, before stepping back and rewarding him with both my voice and by giving him more space.
Glancing over at Vicki I raised an eyebrow and she shook her head in disbelief. Captain was much better than she’d been imagining and he was certainly as good, if not better, than the other two stallions which had been haltered earlier that day. She was confident he was ready and eventually I agreed to try; if he stood quietly I’d halter him, and if not we’d wait for another day. For me the thought of being able to take him out on adventures, and show him the fun and freedom of life outside of the yards, was a strong motivator. I wanted Captain to start seeing the benefits of life with us and not feel imprisoned behind towering fences.
First though, before I haltered him, Vicki suggested I tie his forelock so he could see me properly. It was something I’d first noticed down at the yards two weeks earlier; if his eyes were obscured behind his long, thick forelock he was a little more reactive; often I’d had to brush the hair out of his eyes with a long whip before working him.
Slowly I approached Captain and touched his forehead, in the very specific way he liked (never straight to the head, but first to the right side of his jaw, then down under his eye and up to his forehead), then gradually raised a second hand, slowly as not to startle him, so I could braid his forelock. Having two hands on him, or being that close to him, was certainly a big step for Captain and I was a little dumbfounded that he stood there so calmly to be braided. It was hard to believe that just a few days earlier he’d been pinning his ears back at me and snaking his head in a threatening manner if I got within a few meters of him, let along close enough to touch.
But today he was relaxed and quiet. After his forelock was done I quietly rubbed his forehead with a lasso rope and slipped it up and over his ears, then passed it to Vicki to hold while I lifted the halter up over his nose and did up the buckle behind his ears. The whole process took just five minutes, while he’d stood as still as a statue. After giving his neck a rub I slowly backed away and watched him, my mind trying to comprehend what had just happened.
In that moment, for the very first time, I saw Captain as his own entity; not as a younger, bay version of Elder. By comparing him to the most challenging wild horse I’ve ever tamed, I’d placed a stereotype on him that had influenced the way I’d been training him and as a result it had limited the expectations I had of him. If it wasn’t for Vicki’s belief that Captain was ready for more, it could have been weeks or months before he’d been haltered and he’d still be stuck in those yards, missing out on all the fun adventures he’s been enjoying over the past 10 days. My biggest mistake with this horse was that I’d been focusing on his similarities to Elder (which there are many), rather than his differences.
As I watched him I saw him for who he truly was; this was not an Elder 2.0, this was Captain 1.0 and I needed to start training him for the unique individual that he was, rather than projecting onto him the traits of another horse. Although Captain and Elder are similar, more so than any other wild horses I’ve worked with, in so many ways they are nothing alike. Captain is truly a remarkable horse and one of the most rewarding I’ve worked with to date. I can’t wait to share more of his journey with you!