Magic Mustang Tamer

Task 01: Relaxed Handfeeding

Fresh from the range, the wild horse will be as far from you as possible. We have to change that.

ALERT: Do not reach for the horse.

Task 1 Subtask 1 Eat from ground near trainer with 1-3sec latency

Overall Objective: Associate the presence of the trainer with food.

The Set-Up: The animal should have had time to adjust to his new surroundings, but not gotten in the habit of being fed with open access to the hay. We usually give them a undisturbed feeding when they arrive and allow them to rest. Carefully limit distractions such as barking dogs, machinery, horse fights, etc.

Prerequisite Training: None

Protocol: Make yourself as unobtrusive as possible, sitting or crouching outside the fence where the horses are. Position yourself behind a fence post, or even crouch under the neck of a tame horse. Toss a bit of hay into the pen and wait. It is important to be still and quiet. Make yourself comfortable and wait. Keep waiting. They will eventually creep up and eat the hay. Unobtrusively replenish it, putting it slightly closer each time.

QC: Approach the trainer and eat from the ground near trainer w/ 1-3 second latency, or simply stays with the trainer and continuously feeds.

What if:

  • What if the horses keep fighting each other or one is upsetting the others? You may have to separate them. The horse that is causing the commotion is more afraid than the others.
  • What if I have checked everything over and over and it should work, but one horse just can’t relax? There may be other psychological or health factors keeping that horse from being able to let down, such as heavy parasite loads or low grade infection. When your horse is relaxed and feeling good, extraneous noises will not bother them. As long as they are jumpy they are not relaxed. If your horse might be an adrenaline junkie (have the habit of getting excited), see the Trouble Shooting Guide.

Task 1 Subtask 2 Eat from trainers hand with 1-3sec latency

Overall Objective: Positive reinforcement requires being able to hand the horse food. This goes against the horses natural instincts.

The Set-Up: As in subtask 1. Make sure your hand does not smell like sunscreen, perfume, hand lotion, dogs, etc. Smelling like another horse or like alfalfa would be more acceptable to the new animal.

Prerequisite Training: Must be willing to approach trainer (T1.1)

Protocol: While the horses are feeding from the ground near you, hold some hay and rest your hand on the fence. Don’t reach for the horse and don’t stick your hand way inside the fence. If they aren’t hungry, it will be slower. Use small bites of food that they can chew quickly and do not let much hay drop on the ground. Be careful not to do anything to scare them in the first 15 minutes that they are eating from your hand. You can gradually get more casual and let them see you stand and move, but a moment of herd panic could set you back a long way. Your goal is to make it easy and pleasant for the horse, don’t do anything to undermine that. Once you can move around, put the hay back from the fence where you have to walk away from the animals to get it. Return to them very slowly with the hay held out in front of you. They will quickly be sticking their noses through the panel wishing you would hurry up. Now you know the animal has their mind off of fear and onto desire for food.

When the horses get very relaxed, they will be feeding as fast as you can hand them small bites. This may not happen until the second day. If one horse lags behind the others, continue this process after it is in its individual stall. Until you can get them to eat from your hand relaxed, you cannot proceed with positive reinforcement. Take your time to do this exercise thoroughly, and the rest of the training program gets much easier.

QC: The horse will take hay from the trainer’s hand within 3 seconds of it being offered, even though the trainer is standing and moving around between offering hay.

What if:

  • What if the animal stops eating? If the animal does not take the food in 5 seconds, take the food away. Give at least a 10 second time out. Try again. If the animal is still reluctant, leave him to grow desire and motivation.
  • What if a horse is trying to bite?  Feed it with salad tongs and don’t put your hand in the pen. It is probably also biting its herd-mates and should be separated. Treat aggression at this stage like you are dealing with a carnivorous animal — don’t take chances. It will calm down as its fear diminishes.
  • What if the horse gets frightened by touching my fingers when it takes the hay? Check that you are maximizing predictability and trust that the horse is going to get hungry enough to overcome its squeamishness.

Task 1 Subtask 3 Look for food in response to bridge sound

We recommend a verbal bridge for taming wild horses. I use “D” (rhymes with me). At one point, I used “X” (rhymes with sex) and if I am training a foal in with its mother, I might employ X for the foal. I also use a clicker at times, especially when working on the hooves. If I am training by negative reinforcement, I use “good” as a bridge signal, but in this procedure we are working with +R.

Objective: The horse will expect food when it hears the bridge sound or sees the bridge signal.

The Set-Up: You are feeding a relaxed motivated horse through a fence panel in a quiet location. You know what you are using for a bridge sound or bridge signal.

Prerequisite Training: The horse has learned to take food while remaining relaxed.

Protocol: Make the sound, hand the animal the food. Repeat many times. Try to use small bites and have a high rate of reinforcement. Increase the temporal variability so that the interval is not predictive, but the animal is cued by the sound. When the animal will turn its head and look for the food at the sound, it knows the sound means “chow is being served”.

QC: The horse will turn to look where food is delivered when it hears the bridge sound.

What ifs:

  • What if my animal never seems to notice the sound? Your horse may be deaf and need to have visual signals. A raised finger, a touch to your hat, or other easy signals might work for you. Think carefully about the consequences of what ever signal you use, as some signals will lead to accidental or inconsistent bridging.

2 thoughts on “Task 01: Relaxed Handfeeding


    On the Task 1 video, around 0:47 I notice Morgana nodding her head repeatedly and then around 1:30 the yearling does it, too. Is this behavior an indication of anxiety? Duchess the mustang mare used to do this kind of head nodding after I’d gotten her to do something, had clicked, and was reaching for the treat, but now she doesn’t, so I’m wondering if it was something she did when she was a little nervous but now she’s more relaxed. What do you think?

  2. Patricia Barlow-Irick Post author

    Some people say it is how a horse examines something more closely. I am not so sure. They are definitely anxious to be in the presence of humans. We would have to study the antecedents of this behavior across horses to really know anything about it. Perhaps someone has done the research, but I don’t know of it.

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