20 July 2009

Dharma Darling

It was a simple mission: We were headed to Bertram, TX, to adopt a burro as a companion to eight-year old Janet, which we’d adopted a year before in Belton, TX – a burro that was shy and fearful of people and that the horses generally shunned. We also had three mustangs, two ponies and a Morgan-cross filly, so we didn’t need any more horses. Just one burro. Well, we thought, if we see a mustang there we just can’t pass up, we’ll adopt just one mustang – no more.

On May 29, 2008, my husband, Sherman, and I drove down to Belton early with to our third Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction. We headed for the pen of jennies, and immediately, a woolly-looking two-year old came up to the panel to sniff our hands. She was a cute as a button, and I announced, this is our burro! We took note of her tag number and had some time to kill before the auction began, so we walked the perimeter to look at the mustangs. Because of our limitations as trainers (we’re not), we never even look at mustangs that are older than two. At one pen of young geldings, we saw a beautiful sorrel that was one or two hands taller than all of the other mustangs in that pen. He was bumping and nipping all the rest, generally throwing his weight around. His mane and tail were wavy blond, and other than being a little underweight and all legs, he was a very handsome fellow. Then we overheard Patti Colbert, Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) Executive Director, advising a young woman that he was a fine horse. But the young woman thought he was “mean” and asked Patti to find her another horse. “I think we’ve found a horse that we can’t pass up,” I told Sherman. The gelding was curious about us – something we always look for – so we decided to adopt him, too. No one bid against us for our jenny or the gelding, so we were happy with the morning – a horse and a burro for $250.

While waiting for the bidding to end, we once again strolled among the horse pens. We came to a pen of mares that were two- and three-years old. Towering above all the other mares was a bay with white socks on her hind feet. She had lacerations all over her, looking as if she’d rolled herself in barbed wire. But she was alert, fairly calm, and wow! Was she a big horse – about 16 hands. “She’d make a great trail horse,” Sherman said wistfully. I reminded him we already had our burro and the ‘horse we can’t pass up’. We looked for her tag number – 3574 – on the bidding list attached to the pen and found that she was two-years old and at her third auction; therefore, her starting bid had been reduced from $125 to a mere $25. We watched her for some time, noting that while her injuries were numerous, covering her torso and her hind legs, they appeared to be superficial and didn’t seem to affect her movement or temperament. We worried about what would happen to her if she wasn’t adopted. We’d read stories about how financially burdened the BLM is, trying to feed all the horses it has in its care. But we also worried that our abilities as mustang trainers might not be up to the challenge of a horse that big. Sherman seemed to be taking this hard. I thought he was falling in love with her.

While paying for our sorrel gelding and jenny, the BLM representative asked us if those two were the only ones we wanted, as we qualified (due to the size of our trailer) to adopt two more. I said, “Well, there’s a bay mare in there, on her third auction, and my husband loves her, but she’s too big for us.” The BLM representative looked at our application and the diagram of our 20-acre property. “All you need are six-foot fences on your place” she said. “But we need to be able to handle her, too,” I replied. Don’t you have other adopted animals on your place?” she asked. “Well, yes…and they are lovely horses,” I hesitated. “Sold!” she exclaimed and began the paperwork for the adoption. Sherman went back to stare lovingly at the mare. “She sure is big,” I observed, a bit apprehensively.

Sherman’s daughter graduated from high school that night, and we had company in town for the occasion, so we couldn’t do much with our new herd for a few days other than feed them and keep them isolated from the horses we already owned. Our new jenny, named Donkey Hoadie, decided that she really liked people, especially if they brushed her. Our handsome gelding, now named Bailey, was interested in whatever we did and found the courage to sniff our hands and let us scratch his nose. But our big $25-dollar horse, now named Dharma stood off a bit, eyeing us suspiciously. Slowly she’d condescend to sniff a hand, but she didn’t want us touching her. Her most important rule was, “Don’t bother me when I’m eating!” Any interruption there resulted in head bobbing, rushing and often a wide swing of her hind quarters sometimes ending in a mule kick. We had gentled our other mustangs by grooming and petting them while they had their noses in a bucket of grain, but Dharma was having none of that. We kept trying, though, and one day she charged me after I neglected to notice her warning signals. She is so fast! Her hindquarters whipped around and she mule-kicked. I managed to avoid her hooves but fell over a fence support and injured my shoulder, spending the next several months visiting an orthopedist.

Now I was afraid of her, even though the incident had been caused by my inattention and impatience. When we fed the horses, I let Sherman feed Dharma. I even entered the corral from the opposite side so I wouldn’t have to pass by her. However, he is so patient with animals; and she was the horse he fell in love with. The summer passed and Donkey Hoadie let us halter her, brush her, and feed her treats while becoming Janet’s companion. Bailey loves treats of all kinds and likes to be scratched on the poll. One day we were walking in the pasture, and Dharma walked straight up to us. I nearly fainted, but she sniffed Sherman’s shirt and walked away. We were gratified that at last she was showing some interest in us. And that’s how it went for several more weeks. We’d be in the barn, or in the pasture, and she’d approach us for a sniff or to observe and then be on her way.

In August, we went back to our teaching jobs, and had just the weekends to spend with the horses. That summer we’d built a barn, and Dharma knew just where she was supposed to eat. The barn meant I could stay in the center aisle and feed her with some confidence. My fear started to abate. We like to work with the mustangs about 30 minutes after their morning feeding. It’s not too hot, and their full tummies make them drowsy and easy to get along with. One December morning, more than six months after Dharma’s adoption, we were working with a couple of our other horses. When Sherman finished with a little bay mare we adopted in February 2007, Dharma was nearby, so he thought he’d try to pet her, an exercise with which he’d had some minimal success. She not only let him scratch her withers and poll, but when he returned with a soft brush, she leaned into him and stood half dozing for at least 15 minutes while he brushed her mane, her neck, her flanks, and along her spine. My camera was in the house, so I quickly took several pictures with my mobile phone, just in case we were dreaming. Since then, Dharma has proven to be a calm, curious, and very intelligent horse. She’s trained us to know that when she waves her forefoot or paws the ground that she wants the liner removed from her feeder or that she needs more hay. She wears a halter, and we’re training her to lead and let us work on her hooves. She still does not tolerate any interference while she’s eating, but we’re working on that, too.

We could have ‘broken’ Dharma the old-fashioned way in a matter of days or weeks, I suppose. More experienced trainers might have even gentled her or got her to “join up” in just a few days or weeks. And we believe in gentling, not breaking. But because we don’t have much time most
of the year, and also because of our inexperience, the process is slow. If nothing else, a mustang will teach you patience. A friend who has had a lot of experience with mustangs agrees that one might seem like “a hard case,” and then one day, she’s your best friend, so if a two-year old gelding seems “mean” or a large bay mare lunges at you, give them time (and pay more attention to their signals). With patience and affection, they will become your fast friends and do almost anything for you. They are not domestic horses; they are wild – and very intelligent – animals, a part of American history, and they enrich our lives every day we spend with them.