This May I had the privilege of joining Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California - truly a once in a lifetime experience!!! For those of you who don't know, Natural Lifemanship offers a handful of trainings for therapists, horse professionals, and interested others to learn about how the brain, the body, and relationship all come together to make our lives better. We have an introductory training called the Fundamentals, and then a secondary training called the Intensive. The Intensive training is a 3-day small group experience in which participants get to choose an unhandled or rescued horse with whom to work on relationship building for the duration of the weekend. It is a deeply personal and profound experience, as well as a wealth of learning for professionals seeking to incorporate horses into their therapeutic work. The intention is for both the humans and the horses to connect and grow in a positive way through their interactions through the weekend. Natural Lifemanship feels strongly about equine work being mutually beneficial for both human and horse.
This time, we took the Intensive one step further - in partnering with the Wild Horse Sanctuary in California, we were able to work with 5 young mustangs who had had little to no contact with humans up to that point - and help them prepare for adoption. The situation for mustangs in the USA is a controversial and emotional topic - currently, there are more mustangs in holding pens around the US than there are free roaming on federal land. And unfortunately, the numbers of mustangs on federal land is unsustainable still. If left to their own devices, many mustangs would die of starvation - however, the current solution of rounding up mustangs (often by traumatic helicopter chases) and placing them in holding pens until they are adopted is also unsustainable. One of the major issues facing these mustangs in holding pens is that they are wild and few people are equipped to house, handle, and train a wild horse - so, many spend years, if not their entire lives in small spaces as a means to keep them from starving on federal land.
Natural Lifemanship has roots in the mustang herds of the West - it is in working to gentle mustangs that founder Tim Jobe developed much of his perspective on horse psychology and behavior that serves as part of the foundation for Natural Lifemanship. The truth is, there are quite a few differences between wild mustangs and domesticated horses - witnessing wild mustangs and experiencing the gentling process with them brought to light much of the disparities between natural horse behavior and what we see in most domesticated horses today, offering rare insight into the workings of the horse brain, especially when survival is at stake. Because of Tim's work with mustangs, and the mustang's place in the hearts of those who work with NL - we were so honored to get to spend time at the Wild Horse Sanctuary. Our Intensive took place in the same way it usually does - 8 participants matched with 4 mustangs to spend 3 days building a relationship. The goal is always mutually beneficial connection in any work we do. The goal for the training was to provide participants with an opportunity to experience themselves in a new and challenging situation, to learn to attune closely to horse communication, to practice calm and predictable relating, and to feel the process of relationship building that a client might feel in their one equine therapy session.
The training was a huge success - the participants were engaged, thoughtful, open and vulnerable - and therefore they were able to make great strides in only 3 days. Mustangs that couldn't relax with humans in their vicinity on the morning of day one were seeking out touch and curiously investigating their human counterparts by the end of day 3. The participants had to find their most quiet, calm, and sensitive ways of communicating while acknowledging how their own fears, patterns, and blind spots were obstacles to relationship. As a therapist and trainer, it is a great privilege to guide people through this process - it is one of my most favorite aspects of my work. It also doesn't hurt that we get to witness young mustangs experiencing relationship with humans, many for the first time, and we get to be a part of them becoming calmer and happier in our presence - a skill that will support them in having long, healthy lives with humans. And since we live in a world where horses (wild or not) intersect with humans, and often rely on them for safety and security - co-existing peacefully is an essential skill we are thrilled to be a part of building with them.
After we had wrapped up the training on day one, we were offered a guided walk into the back pasture of the sanctuary to look for some of the wild herds. We were fortunate to find one after about a half hour of walking. We got to visit with Lightning and his mares and foals - some of whom were curious and eager for small interactions. Lightning kept a close eye on all of us, and let us know when he felt we were too close - a message delivered clearly and with impressive calm authority. The presence of these (mostly) wild mustangs at the Sanctuary is difficult to describe. These horses are built to capably move through rough terrain - with stout legs and strong hooves.
The experience at The Wild Horse Sanctuary is one I won't soon forget - and the struggles of the American Mustang is often on my mind. If you are interested in learning more, or are wondering how to help, I have listed some sites below that offer some information. Special thanks to Windows to My Soul for their support for our training!! For more information on joining a Natural Lifemanship training (or joining us next year at The Wild Horse Sanctuary!) - please go to our trainings page.
PS - I am not an expert in mustangs, just sharing my experience - I hope to learn much, much more as life goes on, perhaps even gentling one of my own someday. I would LOVE to hear about your experiences with mustangs - please feel free to share pictures and stories!