Every time I got near the spotted mustang, he turned his thick neck to look over his shoulder away from me. If I stood on the left side, he looked right. On the ground when I worked him in circles, he twisted his poll so his outside ear tipped down toward the ground and I saw the white of his inside eye, straining to look away. He didn’t bend through his whole body, and his massive shoulders knew nothing but to crowd; anytime he was unsure or nervous, his first reaction was to crowd over the top of me fast.
I worked him on the ground for about a week, and when I had him saddling up nice, he was ready for a first ride. My boss Jim came out to the round pen to help direct the mustang in the pen and give me some pointers. As I went to step up into the stirrup, he tipped his head away from me and his hip into me. I tried to bring his neck back around, and the gelding started to squirm around and shake with anxiety. Jim said, “too much pressure. Let the lead rope go slack.” I didn’t understand how I was supposed to keep him still and not knock me out of the way with his hip without touching the lead rope, but I loosened my rope and fed him the slack. I raised my foot into the stirrup and he started to dance and turned his head to the right away from me, where I did not pick up my lead rope this time. He reached his head all the way around and seemed surprised when he ran into no pressure, and after a moment straightened his neck, and then brought his head all the way around back to the left and looked at me, for the first time. I petted his face between the eyes and stepped up, stroking his neck.
The first ride was uneventful – he was somewhat nervous but willing to follow both Jim and I as we went from wal
k to trot to lope in both directions and turned a few little circles in-between when he got tight.
When he found a nice place to relax, I carefully stepped down. The ride had gone well, but he was still anxious about me stepping on and off, and I still felt that any time I picked up the rope he would root against it, and almost panic when he felt the slack come out of it – in order to protect himself he felt he needed to turn his head away from it and pull the opposite direction. This had me a bit worried.
For the next week, I didn’t ride him. I spent tons of time working on my circles again, getting him to follow a feel and releasing him any time he looked in. The first few times it took what seemed like ages, because his habit was to look to the outside and pull against the rope. I left slack in the rope, leaving him nothing to run into, and anytime he looked in, I brought him in and rubbed him. Within a few days, he was looking in here and there, and by the end of the week he was soft through his body and in his eye moving around the circle without crowding me, all while on a float.
I also worked on stepping up and down on each side from the stirrup. This brought quite a bit of tension up in his body, so I practiced leading him up to the fence and helping him find a place to let down while I was in position to step up. I let him graze while I laid my weight over him from the fence, and then came back to the arena and did the same thing, hoping to build better connections. At the end of the week he was starting to relax his big thick neck down while I stepped up and down.
Today I took him back to the round pen to ride. On the ground he was soft and relaxed, with nice eye contact. I stepped up and down a few times on both sides, stroking his neck and waiting for him to let down a bit before I stepped back down.
He kept his neck centered and a few times turned to look at me, seeming interested instead of afraid.
When I sat, he was content to stay with me for a few moments, unlike the last ride where he tightened and scooted off when I sat down. He was a totally different horse, and that big thick neck seemed much less intimidating than it did before – he was relaxed and supple through his jaw and neck, allowing me to influence his body.
This time my ride was buttery soft – he stayed relaxed and with me, and didn’t resist when I lifted a rein to turn, but followed with his whole body.
The mustang was an excellent teacher for me to always go back to basics and not get in a hurry to make progress fast – After a week without riding, I was able to come back to riding with much more success because I spent time focusing on helping him find accuracy and relaxation.