Technology of Taming

Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.

Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of.  It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.

To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.

The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.

In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.

You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site  that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.

The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.

I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).

It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.

TechTameJessicaFilippi

 

 

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Wild Horse

I didn’t have a riding lesson last weekend because the weather finally caught up with me. It’s been a pretty mild winter so far, but snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s is beyond the pale. Growing up, I never rode outside in the wintertime, instead moving into my barn’s large indoor arena in late fall. It’s a reversal that seems funny to me: in the city, where the majority of our lives is lived indoors, I am riding outside all winter. Indoor space is simply at too much at a premium here; we’ve penned it all up to rent it out for millions of dollars. The horses have their small barn to live in, but we’ve gotta ride them outside in the park.

To make up for the horse deficit that a week without riding creates in my heart, I rented this movie called “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” from Netflix. I discovered it during one of my periodic binges on the Apple Movie Trailers site and was immediately taken by the description:

Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up and removed from public lands by the U.S. Government. All will need permanent homes. None has ever been touched by a human hand.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride tells the story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that dares 100 people to each tame a totally wild mustang in order to get it adopted into a better life beyond federal corrals.

The movie follows a handful of contestants in the Challenge from when they take their horses home on Day 1 all the way to the competition on Day 100 as they do what has quite simply been my lifelong dream: train a horse from scratch.  The horses are completely wild at the start; confused, restless in a paddock, shy to human presence, let alone touch. Wild horses have personalities as distinct as the schoolies I know; some are congenitally calm and take to training very easily, some are more aggressive and recalcitrant. The trainers take small steps every day, forming bonds of trust that cut both ways–the horses must learn to trust trainers, but also the trainers must trust the horses enough to push them forward. Some of the best moments in the film are when the trainers are able to get on their horses for the first time, in their own time–one as early as Day 3, and one as late as Day 90.

Watching the movie reminded me of my dream to undertake this crazy mission of training my own horse. Not that I’d forgotten it, exactly, I just had sort of let it shrink away. As I’ve become more entrenched in my life here, the possibility of ever being able to do it has simply become more remote. But lately I’ve been re-examining my priorities. I think it began with my decision to start riding again after such a long time away from it. I realized that I never stopped wanting to ride and that if that was true, I just had to do it. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to ideal, but for now I am riding and I am getting stronger and more confident and more in touch with my horse instincts every time I go.

I have been thinking, however, that it isn’t enough. I have this dream to train a horse, and it is not a dream that I can achieve here. In fact, most of what I want to do is not something to be done here. I want to ride horses every day. I want to hike in the woods and I want to watch birds. I want to drive a car and sing out loud with the music. I want to be able to play my bass guitar without worrying about disturbing my neighbors, who live 18 inches away from me. New York City is an amazing place to live, with a zillion incredible things in it. But they are not the things I want. So why am I paying a gargantuan rent to be near all these things? Additionally, it is inconvenient and expensive to do the things I like to do here because they are not city things, but elsewhere they are a regular part of life. It’s hard to see beyond the city sometimes, to imagine a life elsewhere. It’s a very special kind of tunnel vision wherein the awareness of the rest of the world recedes, and all you can see is concrete and stores and throngs and throngs of people…

For now, these are just thoughts. But they are gaining traction. I am tired and worn down from this city life, and ready to stop putting all my time, energy, and money into it while neglecting my true goals and dreams. All of this is to say, I guess, that perhaps I won’t be an urban equestrian for too much longer.