Mustang Winter

eli and me 2

In the fall of 2019 fresh from a screening of the film “Unbranded” ( documenting four friends riding mustang horses from the Mexican to the Canadian border, with an assertion by the leader of the expedition that the ride could not have been completed on domestic horses fresh in my mind, I rode our Clydesdale mare Jenny in the Bearberry horse rally in our hills. The event was 100 riders strong with the proceeds of the registration fee going to charity.  Arriving fairly early to the staging grounds, there was a fair bit of lounging about that went on before the ride.  It was in chatting to one gentleman about the pros and cons of this and that breed for this and that purpose that I became informed of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society – or WHOAS – that had their headquarters not far south from where the ride was taking place, and that they had several wild horses available for adoption.  Now here is something I went away thinking.

I visited the webpage of WHOAS.  (Check it out if you wish – There was one horse up for adoption at the time.  He was a young gelding, not quite three judging from his teeth, liver chesnut in colour and the name they had given him was “Eli.”  He has an excellent disposition, and has proven to be friendly and willing his description went.  The two photos suggested a well-proportioned animal aside from the head, which looked rather long for rest of the critter, relative even to the reason we coined the term, “horse-faced.”  I decided to go check him out in person.  Here was the real deal, after-all, just beyond our doorstep and ready for a new home.

I should mention that I have long been fascinated with tales of tough breeds of horse forged in the crucible of harsh lands.  Breeds like the Morgan horse, the Canadian.  The Newfoundland dog.  Which isn’t a horse, but rather a dog.  But you know what i mean, right?  I fancied that if I were to one day keep a horse explicitly for riding, as opposed to our big Clydesdales that have been doing double-duty as riding horses, I would seek out one of these breeds.  The caveat here being that these breeds have been around for many, many horse generations at this point, and are umpteen generations removed by pretty cushy times from the forces that resulted in their outstanding breed qualities.  It only makes sense that these qualities will have endured a certain dilution of their seminal potency.

Yet in the great expanse of hills on the eastern fringe of which is located our farm roam the largest bands of wild horses, or mustangs, in Alberta.  Horses that are 0% removed from unforgiving evolutionary pressures.  (There is debate over whether they are more properly termed “feral,” but everyone around here calls them “wild,” “wildies” or “mustangs” and that works for us.)  I had known for years that periodic trapping initiatives occurred in order to cull these bands, which are not popular with some ranchers for the fact that they eat grass they’d prefer went towards fattening some horde of squat beeves.  Wouldn’t it be something to get your hands on one of those for riding I’d been reflecting of late.  What could be better as a mount for these hills than a horse forged in these hills?  But i wasn’t sure how that might be practically effected.  Until now.

First impressions of Eli were very good.  The length of his head was in reality perfectly proportionate, forced perspective being to blame in the photos.  I spent some time with Bob Henderson, who formed the society in 2001.

​The society seemed to think our farm was a good match for Eli, and we agreed to adopt him.

This was in October.  Born and bred in the hills to mustang parents, Eli had been running wild until August, when as sometimes happens with bachelor males, he entered the pasture of a remote farm to woo the domestic mares there, in company with some of his adolescent friends.  WHOAS was called to come and remove the horses, as this is one of the functions of the society, to help keep these animals out of trouble.  The horses were trapped in a corral and trailered to their facility where basic preliminary gentling was accomplished by a handful of experienced volunteers.  Eli had learned to stand in a stall tied and to lead on a rope in a halter.  He was suspicious of me at first, and I spent some weeks going to visit him daily at the facility before trucking him home well into November.

He was kept in the corral with access to the big barn where I kept up the routine of tying him and graining him with oats daily to help him settle in and become used to me.  He got to meet our Clydesdales through the slats of his corral fence, further separated by a solar-powered hot strand (electric wire) spaced to keep the horses off the fence but almost able to touch noses.  The big Clydesdales spent a lot of time at that fence.  A month later they were introduced in the central paddock and all has gone as expected there, that is to say, plenty of jostling to establish herd hierarchy with no injuries.   The little mustang looks half the size of the big horses, which he pretty much is, but he holds his own, even managing to mount the big girls when they are receptive.  He’s gelded mind-you, and it’s a waste of time for the girls beyond being pleasant society, I guess.  Like dancing with the castrati.

Training Eli has been a joy.  In very short order he “joined up” with me, following me about like a dog and calling to me when I first left the house.  Contrary to what you might expect from a horse with wild genes in him that go back to explorer David Thompson’s era (1800), this horse has proven more sensible and less excitable in training than even some of our Clydesdales, a breed legitimately famous for its calm nature.  It’s as though natural selection, in addition to weeding out all the physical liabilities in these horses, has weeded out the mental ones, too.  And this of course makes perfect sense.  In a natural environment that includes puma, grizzlies, and big packs of the world’s largest wolves, or even just random grouse exploding into flight from underfoot, an overly flappable horse would not last.  Too much energy would be wasted.  Mistakes would be made, potentially fatal ones.  Condition would suffer, and winter would come.  Injuries might happen and there would be the wolves.  And so they have become like the zebra in relation to the lion.  They know when it’s time to worry, and just as importantly, when it’s not, and they process the distinction efficiently.

I’ve measured my new boy for a new saddle, a nice one that will fit me, too.  This comes in March.  He has learned so fast that I could easily have been riding him by now in the training saddle, but I am in no hurry.  Wait til the snow and ice are gone and the footing is better for that.  In the meantime, it took him about a day to learn to respond to bit pressure, to get used to the pressure of my foot in either stirrup, and he now takes my full weight flopped over the saddle like a halibut calmly enough to be sniffing around for something to nibble whilst I am up there.

I’m very much looking forward to this coming season.  It’s February end and Eli is losing his winter coat.  I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading!

– Jon

eli and us

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