Zeus – The Training of a Wild Horse

If you’ve seen our Facebook posts, read our newsletters or watched our YouTube Channel, you’ll know that we’ve got an Alberta Wildie here for training.

His name is Zeus.  The vet figures that he is around 10 years old.  He was recently gelded. What strikes me the most about Zeus are that tiny little things, that any horse rider or owner would take for granted, are huge mental obstacles for him. Standing in front of him. Touching his face. Drinking out of a bucket or eating out of a feed dish.  Wearing a halter.

wild horse albertaConsidering that Zeus spent the 10 years of his life in the wild with no interaction with humans, this isn’t surprising. His thought processes and instincts are completely different from that of a domestic horse, as the result of having to survive in the wild – where predators are real – and humans are among them. Needless to say, Zeus is very skilled at running from, and out-maneuvering, any perceived danger or uncertainty. It’s also interesting to note that my horses are not to sure what to make of him. His herd behavior is different – and I think to them, he looks like a horse but doesn’t act like one.

My horse training philosophy is based on working with the mind of a horse vs physically forcing them to do things in a vain attempt that they’ll eventually figure it out.

wild horse alberta

Something is over there…

And working with Zeus’s mind is a journey, because his fear is so ingrained into his psychology that it has been hard for him to process much else. The work I do with Zeus right now is 90% feel/energy and about 10% motion. I’ll try to explain that better. It is very important to me, when I’m working with any horse, that they start from a place of mental peace, focus and clarity. Just like an athlete – they need to be in a proper mental state before they can excel and try to the best of their ability. Fear and stress do not contribute to a positive and productive learning atmosphere.

With Zeus then, establishing that mental state is a huge mountain. A born predator (me) who has the ability to put his mind to rest vs cause him flee for his life?  It’s not part of anything he has ever known. I equate it to the scenario of dropping a 5 year old child that was raised in urban Canada into a remote village in China – absolutely everything would be foreign and frightening. But through the hours I’ve spent with him, subtle changes and patterns are emerging in his behavior. He is learning try. He is succeeding at little things that he has come to realize result in peace and pride. And this big mental leap for him cannot come without the cost of time and an infinite amount of patience on my behalf.

wild horse alberta

Zeus came with the warning, “If you take his halter off, good luck getting it back on.” Thus, I took it off a few days after he arrived.

I have been doing much work with Zeus lately with no halter or rope. In order to put a halter on him and have it be a good experience, he needs to feel that working on and around his face is a good thing. Zeus also lives in an open pasture, not a stall, so it’s not a given that he is caught. Just simply being able to approach him, to touch him, to be in his space…it requires a very delicate sense and balance of energy. Then I can ask for subtle yields and motions: Can I ask him to take a step toward me – energetically? Can I put my hand on his neck with pressure akin to the weight of a feather and ask him to release in that? I now can – and that came after hours and hours and hours. With a domestic horse those things would have been accomplished in minutes. With a seasoned horse – seconds.

wild horse albertaIt’s not important what Zeus does. What he thinks, however, is paramount. His motions and what he does with his body are a result of thoughts in his mind – just the same as you or me. My job then, is to cause correct thoughts and reward them. Because any more than a feather weight of touch will cause him to brace or worse, flee, the actions I take are minute but meaningful. Without a halter or rope, I have to be very careful to balance both the level and direction of my energy. It’s good training for me too!  I can never get frustrated. I can never get tense. Not only are those unproductive states, they are also easily sensed by a horse.

Today I was able to take Zeus to a very relaxed state, standing by the left side of his head (he is very right side cautious). In fact, standing at his left shoulder and simply stepping toward his head – even with zero forward energy, would cause Zeus to turn away – and eventually take that first step to leaving. I spent about an hour gently working with touching his face, until I was able to put my hand over the bridge of his nose – a big deal for him!  I’ve put over 9 hours into having him accept my touch on his face – and not simply touch, but to release when touched.  What I mean by that is that he is realizing that my touch and minute requests are simply a cue for him to let go of mental tension.

And of course a good scratch feels great!

That going consistently, I very gently put my fingers over his face, touching the right side of his nose, and energetically asked him to turn his head toward me. He responded!  I was so proud of that because it was the first time he’d released in that way. These actions though, were mainly a review of what we’ve accomplished in all the hours we’ve worked together i.e. touch and release.  The big barrier with Zeus has been his right side.

Gradually I worked my way to stand a few inches forward toward his nose, playing with the same small release exercises. Then I took a step back away from him, so I was about 45 degrees off the left side of his face, in front of him. Normally in this position, Zeus would turn away to the right and leave. But this time, although he turned his head away to the right, he didn’t leave. And he has the right and opportunity to – we’re standing in an open pasture.  Offering him all the peace I had in my body I energetically invited him to turn his head back toward me. He did!

This was HUGE!

For the first time he voluntarily turned to face me and relaxed. No raising of the head in brace or fear – he was totally content. I was ecstatic and I don’t doubt for a second he felt the pride I felt for him. Such a small movement – but such a huge mental leap for him.

The session continued with another huge first for Zeus today. We repeated the standing in front, turn to face me exercise. Next was a huge test.  From my position in front of Zeus, I wanted to walk to his right side. He has never let me attempt that – any try – as small and un-energetic as I can be – has always ended up with Zeus turning around to the right and walking away a few steps. This time though…he started to turn his head away as I moved ever so slightly to his right. I was able to cue him to bring his head back, face me and release.  Another small step from me and another cue. Soon I was in a place he’d never let me be before: 45 degrees ahead and on his right side. I had goosebumps!

This was so incredibly beautiful – do you see what I mean by how tiny things that we take for granted are so mentally huge?

From that spot I was able to slowly move to Zeus’s right side.  He was on alert now – head up slightly and eyes open. But I was able to touch him, to ask for releases and bring him back to that important state of peace.  I was then able to scratch and rub the whole right side of his face. His releases were huge and obvious with much licking and chewing. He had finally let goFinally. I will freely admit that some water leaked out of my eyes at this point.

Today we hit a milestone. This was so, so big for Zeus. He has overcome a huge mental obstacle that will pave the way to the next steps. I was able to lead him at liberty today – another first. For the first time he was totally and utterly content with me. And I with him. Sharing that with a horse…well, honestly I consider it one of the greatest pleasures of life.

wild horse albertaIt was a beautiful warm sunny morning as well. I took the opportunity to sit down in the pasture next to Zeus. He was so relaxed at this point that his lower lip was hanging partly open. He lowered his head and stepped toward me.

Wow.

For him to acknowledge me as a leader that can provide him with a great mental place, and for him to relax so completely in my space was incredible. This has been a requirement before we can proceed any further.

And today – he nailed it.

I tried leading from the right side, but Zeus was hesitant to take a step forward. I was, however, able to ask him to step toward me on the right side, and get a forward thought out of that. We’ll get to forward on the right side at liberty later. We’ve done that on the lead rope already. Although difficult for him, he did great – it’s in one of the videos.

Needless to say this is a real journey for both Zeus and me. Working with a truly wild horse is a fantastic opportunity to explore the subtleties of horse mentality. It’s an exercise in patience and creativity.  And the reward is an incredibly moving experience.

Thank You Zeus !

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About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.