Behind the Scenes of Adopting a Wild Horse
For the last few weeks I’ve gotten quite a lot of communication from lovely folks who have made the big commitment to adopt one of our Onaqui wild horses from the 2021 roundup. For some horses the transition from the range to captivity is remarkably easy and others are struggling which is to be expected.
In less than a year they were removed from their home. Separated from their families. Placed in numerous trailers and in most cases hauled around the country to a new BLM facility before being loaded again and taken to their new home. If that happened to a human we’d be put on medication. And be sent to a therapist. Probably for the long term.
So as a girl who’s never raised, trained or taken care of a horse in her life and who now has 3 wild horse babies I wanted to share some behind the scenes stories from my perspective. Because I’m not a trainer – not even close. I’m not a domestic horse expert. I’m not a long time horse owner. I’m just a girl who loved living the island life until covid, moved to the dry as all hell desert solely because I fell in love with the wild horses and then was put in a position where I couldn’t let them go and brought a couple home.
I did however spent a ridiculous amount of time watching them simply be a wild horse with their bands in their natural environment and trying to understand what their behavior looks like without humans dictating it and interfering. Those wild horses taught me more about horses than I think I’d have ever learned in a lifetime from domestics. Their communication is unfiltered and concise and regimented. It’s a beautiful thing.
I kind of feel like adopting Teton and his little brother Dreamcatcher is like cheating because I’ve known them both since they were only a couple weeks old. They’d see me sitting out there more days than not and then when they were taken and housed in the BLM corrals I made the 2 hour drive to Delta every week and often more than once to sit with them, pet them, feed them, let them eat my shoes and try to give them something consistent. 8 hours a day I’d be there when I went just sitting on the feeders letting the horses snuffle all over me and reaching through the bars to pet the ones who were curious enough to let me.
So by the time the boys got to their new home yes it was a different location, but they’d had me around their entire lives so atleast there was that.
Teton will be two the first week of July. I am amazed every single day at his growth both in body and mind since he was in the wild. I still have images of him nursing from his mom at sunset 2 days before the helicopters flew. He was just a baby. He was put in a pen with the stallions because of his size and there was never a day that his band stallion Stetson wasn’t glued to his side protecting him if there was a ruckus. Stetson was an absolutely beautiful roan inside and out. Calm, assured, curious and very protective of his family. He was fortunate enough to travel to Engler Canyon Ranch where he will live out his life in a wild setting with many others. He taught Teton in short order what being an adult looks like.
The first day I found Teton in the pens I was in tears as he immediately came to the front and put his face through the bars and I put my face to his and he took his lips and smelled deeply and rubbed them all over me. Even after all that he was happy to see a familiar face. He is one of those horses who’s spirit absolutely radiates for everyone that meets him.
Fast forward to bringing him home. Every day except the day I saw Red Cloud deceased I feel guilty he’s in a cage. I always still see him living with his family on the range. I don’t think that will ever leave my mind. But here we are and so we have to move forward together. I had Cheyenne Grace first so when the boys came I decided to put them in together immediately. I thought it out and decided that with all the changes I’d rather get them over at once instead of having to keep adding more and more. So in together they went.
I was expecting there to be issues with the two very dominant geldings on either side of my horses as Teton is a big boy. However I was shocked as they greeted each other amicably. Sniffed and rubbed noses in affection rather than competition. After a couple hours one of them tried to challenge Teton over the panel and quick as lightening Teton grabbed him by the neck and just stood there. Not fighting, not making a sound, just holding him solid to prove a point. Then he let go and it was over as quick as it began and has never happened again. A point was made.
Teton has been wonderful about the halter, lead, saddle and having his feet picked up basically since I got him home. He immediately took the role of band stallion. Cheyenne and he had a lot of disagreements about this but he never gave an inch and if she’s in a mood Teton is the first to position himself between her and the baby or the humans in a gentle but firm way of “leave them alone.”
I was scared to death the first time I took him out for a walk around the property to explore the arenas, roundpens and overall area. There is literally nothing I can do if he decided he wanted to take off. Before his first walk I practiced with him for probably two weeks bringing him through the gate then backing him up back inside. Over and over and over. Because he was initially terrified at leaving his “safe place.” So I’d bring him out to his shoulders then back him in (over and over and over). Then it was to his mid-section. Then it was to his hips. Then we would come all the way out, turn around and go right back in. Finally I just felt really good about it one day so I walked him across the street to the arena where he got to learn about another gate.
His manners are excellent in that if he is uncomfortable he’ll take a step back. If I tell him to back up he will take exactly one step for each time I tell him “back.” Now we’re at a point where I can back him up from the side so we’re walking backwards side by side. He will put his front feet in the trailer but not his back. He loves the squirt bottle, is completely in tune when we are trying to learn and will quietly go in the back and nap when I release him and he’s had enough.
Dreamcatcher turned 1 last month. He’s always been smart, but is getting old enough to start thinking things through meaning he’s finally getting nervous. He reminds me of Teton at that age. He has that baby stubbornness about him, but if I’m training Teton Dreamcatcher will get along side and try to mimic his brother’s movements. So it’s a two for one. When I take him out of the pen to the arena to work his attention is better and better and his stubborn streak less and less.
But it’s still been hard. Getting him to leave their pen and his family was a major project. I went through the same steps as Teton in that it was a win if I could get him out of the gate, give him a reward, then right back in he went. Then we tried going to the arena closest to him where he would call and call to his friends. The kid just didn’t have any confidence. Now we’ve gotten to where he’ll lead and trailer pretty well. Going into a trailer was impressive as he charged BLM several times and put them on the fence when they were trying to load him at the facility with flags. It was a good thing for me to know – push him too hard and instead of flight it’ll be fight.
Although he gets all the cuddles he can handle and little lessons I’ve been focused mostly on Teton because of his size, and Cheyenne because she’s difficult. The kid learns vicariously and he has small lessons instead of long sessions.
But now to Cheyenne. This is actually for everyone who is feeling frustrated and discouraged and thinks that maybe they’re not the best fit for their horse. From a girl who basically doesn’t know diddly about training horses. I see a ton from trainers which is SO helpful seeing how things should be done, I talk to a trainer and other horse folks to get their opinions all the time because quite frankly having baby horse triplets is just hard. It definitely doesn’t make me love them any less but damn some days it’s hard not to beat yourself up on where you are or where you should be or where they should be, etc.
I adopted Cheyenne late October of 2021. She is from the Swasey HMA and was rounded up best guess around 4 months of age in 2020. She was weaned in the BLM pens in June of 2020, adopted out in September and returned to the facility skinny and with atrocious feet unhandled in September of 2021. We’ll never know what she went through, but whatever it was it wasn’t good because she has some pretty strong reactions to say the least.
When I got her she couldn’t be touched. That’s fine. I didn’t care. We’d get there eventually. She was put in the pen with the Onaqui mares and when I found her they were going after her continuously. Chasing her, biting her, kicking her. She never fought back that I saw. Ever. She looked sad and defeated. Then the pens closed for a week and when I returned little Onaqui mare CreamPuff had taken up the role of protector. She kept herself between Chy and the other mares and if they’d come at her she’d chase them off. Cheyenne found a good friend in that little cremello from Evander’s band.
When I brought her home it was cold as all hell. So I had a little camp chair and a book and I’d sit in her leanto to stay out of the wind and I’d read a book. I put a slow feed bag of hay next to me and as the days went by I’d move it closer and closer. If I even had a picture in my mind of touching her she’d go flying back and away.
For 3 weeks I went every day for a couple hours and just sat and read and talked to her. Eventually she started sniffing my leg. Then she’d take hay from my hand but that’s it. She has always been food motivated so I began trying to walk with her at liberty just giving her little treats if she’d even take as much as a step with me.
She was terrified of everything new. Literally everything. So we started a game that I did with my mastiff. If she touched her nose on the new thing she got a treat then I immediately turned and walked away with it. I’d present it, tell her to “see it”, when she touched it there was an immediate reward and I turned and left. Then we’d do it again and again and again.
Finally a month in she let me touch her. I scratched her mane and she jumped to high heavens but I kept my hand on her and began slowly scratching and her whole body shook and her lip went nuts. For 20 minutes she stood there shaking like a leaf. God only knows how much that girl needed to release. Literally.
Then came the halter. She’d touch it, I’d give her a treat, then I’d turn my back. Over and over and over until she wasn’t scared at the sight.
I’d try to encourage her she was welcome to touch me too by turning my back and putting my hand on my shoulder with a treat so she could sniff my hair, shoulder, back and get a reward without being scared I was going to ask anything of her.
I put a tarp through the bars of the panels and left it there for weeks. Any noise or movement caused immediate panic. If the lead rope drug on the ground she was terrified so I got a second one and tied it to my belt loop and I’d just wander around with this thing behind me until she didn’t care.
She hated being touched while eating because it blocked her vision of you and began kicking when he was frustrated. I had someone very well-versed in horses sort out the kicking problem immediately and slowly we began working on touching her while she was eating. I’d pet her then leave, pet her then leave. Now I literally lay myself half on top of her while she eats and she couldn’t be happier.
The first time she saw a peacock she thought it was a dragon and must be slayed immediately.
She LOVES dogs. All I can figure is she must have had a dog friend in her previous life because she positively melts when she sees dogs.
She’s exposed to chickens, cats, tractors, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, other riders on horses every day. But still she is very alert and wary of new things. Her ears are on high alert, her eyes wide and neck bent. It took months before she was actually happy about another human touching her. She would tolerate it (sometimes) but wasn’t thrilled.
I tie her off, but she hates it. She paws and paws and paws. She calls to Dreamcatcher when they are separated for even a couple minutes. The two have bonded considerably even if he’s at the bottom of the horse totem pole.
She leads great and will load in the trailer with encouragement but is scared of narrow enclosed places like the barn. If anyone other than me (and my wonderful friend who helps me train them every month or so) tries to touch her back feet she literally comes unhinged. She will kick for upwards of an hour. She has no quit in her that girl and the farriers have literally tried everything under the sun. Yet I can sit underneath her and file her feet all I want and she is gentle as she could possibly be.
If you (by you I mean someone other than me) pushes her too hard she will strike, head throw and lunge and kick. The only thing she hasn’t done is rear thankfully. She will never be a horse that will respond well to pressure and release training I don’t think. You have to let her think everything out and reward her and she is a totally different horse.
I have taken new humans in with the horses as often as possible. I figure the more they socialize the better. The more they learn that humans are fun and bring scratches and rewards the better. However, Chy still can be leery more so than the boys.
There was an incident this spring where I brought Dreamcatcher back from working him in the arena and Chy was in a snit. She was running and calling and pissed that he had been removed. So I bring him in through the gate and before I can take his lead off and turn to shut it she gives me one hell of a stink eye and goes blowing out the gate. Down to the main road where she took a tour of the neighborhood while one of the geldings on the corner persistently called her back home.
I grabbed her lead, halter and a handful of flavorful treats she loves and started following after her. She’d come to me no problem, then jump and kick (not at me) and race off again. That girl LOVES to run. I mean really, really loves it. But there’s a time and a place. So around and around the property she ran saying hi to all her horse friends along the way who’d now come to the front of their pens to watch her tantrum. She spun broadies around the tack shed and finally as she started to think she was going to blaze by me again she caught a whiff of the treats and stopped in her tracks and walked over panting to eat one as I put on the halter and lead her back home.
I was shaking like a leaf. All I could see was her making it to the highway or getting lots in a neighborhood and it being game over. Needless to say now I have very different protocol for coming and going and she’s getting a lesson in giving me space when I bring the boys back.
While I’m telling stories I’ll leave it at one of Teton. My rock.
I wanted to take him to the round pen about 3 weeks ago but there were 3 farrier trucks parked between point A and point B. There were 4 horses tied to the hitching posts getting feet done and there were chickens everywhere (nothing new). So I decided he’d done it before, and we have to practice so out we went. Teton is great in that instead of reacting he will usually stop dead in his tracks and assess then move along.
Not this day.
This day it was all fine and dandy until someone started up a side by side behind us and sprayed rocks a bit and that big beautiful boy lost his ever loving mind. He bucked, lunged and kicked out as he sprinted forward with me floating behind him like a human kite. I actually thought this might be that one time I had no choice but to let go of the rope but I didn’t. I managed to “whoooaaaa” him midair and bless his heart he stopped. He was breathing heavy and obviously scared but he stopped and let me walk right up where he laid his head against my chest and I just kissed on him and told him it was okay. Mind you my shoulder and hip would disagree, but it could have been worse. A lot worse.
I walked him on to a far arena instead of the round so he could have the freedom to just walk it off and relax and we stayed there quite a while before I took him back to the others once the trucks had all cleared out and it was a wide, clean area to navigate. But still he was nervous which is totally understandable.
With social media being so prevalent it’s lovely to see people’s progress with their horses and all the bonds they’ve made. But it can also give a false narrative too that getting a wild horse to adjust to it’s new life is easy and fast. I love to post happy, fun videos of all my kids accomplishments but there are days it’s a total shit show and I half crab crawl to the hot tub to try to unwind my muscles from whatever quirky thing unfolded.
And with Cheyenne especially I think for years she’ll be a work in progress. That little lady loves me to the moon and I trust her with me completely but when she gets a bee in her bonnet she’s a force to be reckoned with. Teton is my saving grace keeping the others in line, and the baby I have zero doubt will start to go through his own issues as his mind starts to mature. Every single day it’s work. And a lot of work. I have to try to figure out how to outsmart them, introduce them to new things, desensitize them without scaring them, etc. It’s a LOT.
I just hope that for folks that are getting frustrated or doubting themselves or their newly adopted Onaqui will take the time to read this and realize it’s not just them. I personally think the wild ones love sooooo hard once you get through that barrier but it’s bound to take time – and for some more than others. Just because they aren’t allowing for touch or halter or whatever doesn’t mean they’re not fit for being around humans. They have been through more mentally than any of us can probably imagine and maybe to start with they just need for time to be allowed to have no expectations. Every one of them is different just like we’re all different.
Like I said, my boys are different because of the relationship we always had, but little Chy is a force. That little lady loves the socks off me but if I’d have gone at her in the beginning asking even one thing I don’t think we’d have ever broken through. And here we are 6 months later and aside from her neighborhood exploration and hatred of farriers she’s come so far she’s not even like the same horse as when I got her.
So hopefully for those of you reading this having a rough day with your horse you’ll know it’s definitely not just you. It’s just much easier to post and share all the good days, not the days when they may possibly be considering lighting the world on fire.