Gentling with a Bamboo Pole
Some of these sequences were photographed decades ago before we participated in a helmet safety study. The results of the study were impressively conclusive. Since 1998 we always wear approved helmets when training and handling horses.
One of the toughest things for many new adopters to accomplish (as well as trainers not familiar with wild horses) is how to safely initiate that first contact. A wild horse has pretty keen defensive and flight instincts and most of them live in a "glass bubble" that they simply don't want humans to penetrate.
If you force the issue, you can get your hands on the horse but you take the risk of generating resistance and resentment which will impact the speed of the horse's early learning. If you wait until the horse decides to come to you, you'll often find that 6 months later the horse has learned how to get what he wants while he keeps you at a distance and you'll have the BLM Compliance Inspector breathing down your neck because your adoptee is in serious need of a foot trim and other basic care.
Not everybody has a round pen and even fewer people have the eye and timing to be effective with a newly adopted horse. If your horse's feet have grown long, you are risking injury to the horse if you run it around and force it to yield.
The most logical solution was presented by wild horse trainer emeritus, John Sharp, who at 84 years of age showed all of us how it is done at Wild Horse Workshop '98. His answer was to use a simple bamboo pole and a piece of cord to make an easy introduction to the horse and get it to accept humans.
It is by getting the horse to engage in this thought process that he will begin to reason his way to accepting and interacting with humans, which is something you can't usually accomplish if the horse is forcibly restrained or you come in too close, too fast.
Only try this method in a safe pen. The BLM standard spec 20' x 20' wild horse pen works best. With adult horses you will need 6' high fences. If you are struggling at this and overdo it, you can send the horse over a shorter fence. If you are using a woven wire fence, be sure you have a 2x6 sight board along the middle and top of all sides! Orange construction netting can also be used to create a sight barrier.
When we work the horse with the pole, we will enter the pen without the pole and mosey about until the horse settles down. I always take in a piece of rope looped through my belt when entering the first time with an unknown horse in case this is the one animal that may want to charge me and I need to keep him away from me. Once the horse has settled down, I'll pick up the pole and carry it a bit.
If the horse is curious, I may put the end of the pole on the ground near, but not too close to the horse and allow him to sniff it if he chooses. Then I'll pick up the pole and quietly (not sneakily) "trace" the horse with it and when he is OK with the motion above him, lay it down across his withers. (Preparation for poling can be found in Gentling Wild Horses - 101.)
"Tracing" a horse with the pole
Making contact with the pole.
(We have a "ball" of duct tape
Starting to touch.
We work our hand up the pole,
Scratching out old hair
The handler's position and movements here are important. If in the horse's mind he is being pursued, he's going to run. If he's just scooting out from under what seems to him to be a tree branch poking him, he'll stop moving as soon as he figures out that the pole continues to touch him and that it's not such a bad thing. If the horse starts to get frantic, it's time to back off, reestablish quiet control and reintroduce the pole a little more gently.
After he stands still for contact, just about every horse I've seen will, at this point, turn his ears back to the pole. "Something's wrong here! This doesn't feel so bad!" Just keep up a steady rhythm and inch up his neck and down his back just a little bit so you don't rub too much on just one spot and make him sensitive there.
When the horse really gets into it, I'll go back to the shoulder and rub, this time I'll inch my way quietly closer to the horse as I rub, not enough to catch his attention, but enough to get to him before he gets tired of the rub. As I inch forward, I'll also slide my way up the pole. Before too long I'm close enough that I can touch the horse with my fingertips right next to the duct tape ball on the end of the pole.
With the exact same motion as the pole, I'll scratch the horse with my hand and quietly remove the pole. Usually at this point the horse makes a "double take" so I need to be prepared for him to react. I'm usually just a little bit forward of his shoulder so he shouldn't try to blow past me. If he starts to back up, I'll back away and we'll start over with the pole.
Most of the time the horse is still accepting the fact that whatever is going on feels pretty good. If he doesn't seem too tense I'll increase my "scratch range" along his shoulders and back. I'm not going to try to approach his head, chest, legs or belly at this early stage.
Continue to Part Two
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