When training colts trust paves the way to a successful training session
While watching the curly colt trot around the arena, the trainer challenged the audience to watch for cues that the colt was beginning to relax. Licking the lips, chewing, and eventually lowering his head signal the colt has accepted his new surroundings.
Steve Mantle, a wild mustang trainer with the Bureau of Land Management, gave a demonstration on starting colts during the Big Wyoming Horse Expo, recently. During his presentation, Mantle used a wild mustang colt he called Curly, and explained the differences in training techniques of wild mustangs compared to domestic horses.
“Anytime you can get a horse’s feet moving, it will help them to relax,” Mantle said, while moving the distracted colt around the round pen. This was Curly’s first trip to town. “What is really important to the training of wild mustangs is to expose them to new surroundings,” the BLM trainer explained. “Where they come from, they don’t see this many people in their entire lifetime. They don’t know what a car door slamming is, or what a manure cart is, and they react to all those things out of self preservation. The biggest difference between a wild horse and a domestic horse is self preservation,” he said.
Once Curly relaxes, Mantle puts pressure on the halter rope to teach Curly how to come to him. “I want him to find out there is a reason you pull on the halter rope, and a reward for not pulling on it,” he said. “When he does what I ask for, I want to give him relief of that pressure as quickly as possible.” If the horse seems tense and distracted, he encourages it to move its feet to give it something to do to help it relax.
“The more you reward them for doing the right thing, the harder they will work to get there,” Mantle said of the colt. “The quicker they get a reward, the more and quicker your release, the sooner they start to understand that is what you want from them,” he said.
Mantle also showed the participants how to teach the colt to yield its hindquarters so it won’t rear. “Once a colt understands the yielding of its hindquarters, it won’t rear because it can’t. If you take all its power away, it can’t rear up. However, it is important to be consistent by showing him there is a reward for doing things right,” he said.
Mantle said colts are smart and willing to learn – both the good and bad. “You can teach them things without even being aware of it,” he said.
Mantle shared a story about a nurse who worked the night shift at a cardiac unit in the hospital, and had adopted a colt. She called Mantle because when she first got the colt she could catch it, but after having it awhile, she couldn’t and wondered what she was doing wrong. Mantle said since she worked the night shift, she would take hay to the corral, throw it over the fence and go to work. After she worked a 10-12 hour shift, she would take hay to the corral, throw it over the fence and go to bed. Ten days later, the colt would stand in the back of the pen while she put out its hay, and wait until she walked away before it would eat. “What had happened, was she had done this for 10 days straight, teaching this colt if he leaves she won’t touch him. It was like rewarding him for going away,” Mantle said. “He would just stand in the corner of the corral and wait for her to drop his feed and walk away, and then he would go eat,” he explained.
Mantle said other trainers have told him to be a behaviorist, not just a trainer. “It is important to read the horse, watch the behavior he is showing you, and work with it,” Mantle said. “Each trainer has their own methods, and what works for them and the horse they are training may differ from someone else,” he explained.
Mantle also showed the crowd how Curly is strong on the right side, which is unusual for a horse since most people work with the horse from the left. “He is more comfortable where he can see me with his right eye. When I was working with him at home and I noticed this behavior, I would block him and work to keep him there. Once you get there, do absolutely nothing,” he stated. “He is sure that he is right, and will do whatever he can to keep you from going to left side,” he said. “If I get on the left side, I just want to be there to earn his trust. While I’m there, I try to brush him and work his feet to get him used to being worked from that side. Notice the behavior the horse shows you and use that to your advantage,” he said. “It is as important to do as many things with the left hand as with the right hand. With my own horses, once I started doing this, I noticed they were getting more balanced,” he said.
“I want the horse relaxed before they move on to the next step,” he continued. “Do a lot of nothing to bore him to death. Then, they will be more receptive to training. They can only take so much, so don’t start pushing them past what they can do that day, and always stop at a positive place,” he encouraged.
Mantle said it is important when working with a wild mustang to get them used to your touch. “You should be able to touch every square inch of the horse,” he said. “If you can’t, a domestic horse may get past it, but a wild horse will get worse if you leave it go,” he said. “Your goal should be to touch the horse every place, especially on his face, including its eyes and ears, so you can get the halter on the next day,” he said.