reflections
July 24th, 2008 The Taming Of ShoGun

Every great love story begins with a bang. Meeting ShoGun was no different.

ShoGun was waiting for me in Illinois when I arrived. My good friends, Les and Tracy Marlin had graciously agreed to pick ShoGun up for me since I would be arriving two days past the scheduled pick-up date.

My late arrival was for good reason. Traveling with me would be Jane from Mont Vernon, New Hampshire and fellow Makeover trainer, Michael Gerald.

Jane came along to choose a mustang of her own from the holding facility and to help choose a mustang for her friend and trainer, Fern. Both had always wanted a mustang and our chance meeting at the Somersworth, NH mustang adoption had facilitated a friendship.

I agreed to help choose Jane and Fern’s horse and to tame the mustangs and let Jane be a part of the whole process.

I couldn’t wait! Four mustangs, six days and 2800 miles. Could we do it?

Tracy and Les greeted us as we came in the drive, excited to watch another episode of The Extreme Mustang Makeover unfold.

They had watched me tame Lucy and Maggie for the MidWest Mustang Challenge and heartily looked forward to the next show.

ShoGun didn’t disappoint.

Housed in the indoor arena, the two horses charged full tilt around the arena as we peered excitedly over the entry gate, wary of our presence and wild to the bone.

As I watched ShoGun careen around the arena I listened as Les and Tracy told me about their experience trailering ShoGun and Michael’s horse, Dakota. It had all been pretty routine and both of the boys had been settled right up until we arrived. Now they were excited and it was clear they knew something was afoot.

Michael, excited to work with his horse stepped into the arena and began working with Dakota, but ShoGun would have none of it. He ran around the arena full tilt, taking Dakota with him. We both agreed it would be best to separate them.

The indoor was incredibly hot thanks to the 90 plus degree weather and it was clear that Dakota would likely run less without ShoGun’s influence. Yes, my boy was a hottie!

After ShoGun was separated I opened one of the stalls and he quickly darted in. It was clear he was uncomfortable in such a small space but given the heat, my choices were limited.

I have worked enough horses to know that ShoGun wasn’t going to be easy in this or any environment. He was excitable and fearful with the stamina of a thoroughbred. Standing 15.2 hh and a lithe 1100 lbs., ShoGun had the moves of a warmblood and the stamina of a champion endurance horse. Keeping him moving was the worst thing I could do. Mustangs like ShoGun will run themselves to death before they will yield. In the heat (magnified in the indoor arena), 20 minutes of vigorous exercise could have caused him heat stroke. It was a delicate situation for a very sensitive horse.

I knew from his papers that ShoGun had been captured in December of 2006. He’d been castrated just 3 months later. From the Dry Lakes herd, I knew that not only was he hearty, but heavily influenced by the thoroughbred stallions turned out in this herd to increase the genetic diversity. ShoGun looked very much like his thoroughbred ancestry but with all of the instincts natural selection imparts to the mustang. It was an awesome combination!

ShoGun blew loudly, his head held high as I stepped into his stall and then, without warning, he was on top of me, his hooves pawing over my head.

Mustangs that are threatened will sometimes attack aggressively. I’ve seen it a number of times. When they feel cornered their instincts to survive take over and ShoGun wanted past me and out of the stall.

I instinctively moved in closer to him to take up some of the space between us, the only thing I could do given the circumstances. In retaliation, he spun and gave me both barrels with his hind feet, flattening me against the wall with his rump. Then he retreated, spun and came at me again.

I stepped aside; nursing my left knee. ShoGun had landed his last kick, but because I’d been close to him, the damage had been minimized. I rushed toward him again, popping him on the chest and throwing my body toward him aggressively to signal to him my boundaries. He backed off, spun, kicked and came in again, his hooves churning up the stall’s bedding into a fine dust that powdered the air.

Instinct is my friend, but this time experience saved me. ShoGun wasn’t giving any ground and it was clear that if I didn’t get him straight on the path toward respect that we’d have no less than a horse bound for slaughter.

I reached through the stall bars and grabbed my short driving whip. I use the whip sometimes to help desensitize horses, never to hit them. But ShoGun took the movement as another challenge and once again he rushed into me. I let him come and stung him hard on the nose with the whip.

I didn’t want to hurt ShoGun, but horses that are panicked, fearful and fighting for their life such as ShoGun was, will stop at nothing to go free. Freedom for ShoGun was out of that stall and back with his friend Dakota. He was extremely determined to get past me and back to his friend.

I needed to help him understand that I was there to help him, not hurt him and stinging him with the whip started us on that path.

ShoGun shook his head and backed into the far corner of the stall, this time eyeing me.

Then he charged again, snapping with his teeth.

He was going to be tough to reach.

Horses like ShoGun are often labeled rogues. For the inexperienced, and sometimes, the experienced, they present challenges that are life threatening. ShoGun had spent his three years surviving by using his athleticism and fleet of feet and as a horse with a busy mind, he had had enough of confinement. He wanted out of that stall and he was willing to pound down walls to get it. He kicked viciously at the back wall, frustrated and angry that I’d proven to be an unwavering barrier.

I knew from working other horses like ShoGun that underneath his behavior was an extraordinary horse. The best ones always start out hard to reach.

I stepped forward and spoke softly to ShoGun, letting him know that I wasn’t there to harm him. He arched forward with his neck, defensive of his position, but this time he remained in his corner. I thanked him and left the stall. I wanted him to have a chance to think about our relationship. He’d given just a little bit of ground and I wanted him to know that I appreciated that.

He wouldn’t rush me again that day, but he did religiously keep his guard up.

That evening when it was cooler I opened ShoGun’s stall and let him out into the indoor. He tore out of the stall, ever vigilant about his freedom. We worked together for several minutes with ShoGun giving me everything but his cooperation.

It was so hot I turned on the hose and let him run through the stream of water, desensitizing him while cooling him at the same time. He kicked vigorously every time I put the water on his legs, giving no indication that the water was desensitizing him at all. But he did enjoy the coolness of the water and at the end, stood for me to hose him, but would not allow me close enough to touch him.

The next morning ShoGun stepped up his efforts to avoid me. Horses sometimes do this, even when you’ve ended on a good note. They process things over time and it was clear that ShoGun had decided that I wasn’t on his list of chosen friends.

He zoomed around the arena faster than ever, giving no ground. Instead of chasing him, I grabbed a lawn chair and set up camp in the middle of the arena. If my eyes were closed he would stop thirty feet away and snort, his head held low and his ears pinned. If they were open, he’d run circles around me. My body remained still. His level of alert was so high that he literally watched my eye movement for cues to take flight!

After 45 minutes ShoGun had not slowed down. Every pump of my heart drove energy into him.

It’s hard to see horses so afraid of people. ShoGun, I think, had some bad experiences that were haunting him. Sensitive horses need time and patience. Extra sensitive horses need time, patience and therapeutic training to help them process our involvement without endangering themselves or the handler. With skill, he would never appear insecure. Without, he’d most likely end up labeled as dangerous.

Getting up from my chair, I started heaving everything I could find into the arena.

I drug in all of the lawn chairs, the air mattress from my horse trailer, plastic barrels, a kiddie pool, and dumped all of my training equipment out onto the arena floor.

ShoGun went ballistic with each addition, but as the arena floor filled with new things, he slowed from a run, then down to a trot and finally, he began to walk. Then, just as I expected, he set up camp in a corner. This would be his safe place.

I sat down for a bit and waited for ShoGun to realize that I wasn’t there to intimidate him. His breathing slowed and then, he lowered his head.

I stood up from my chair and began to approach. When he moved off, I worked with him through body language to begin taking a leadership role. Working freestyle, I inspected each of the items I’d brought into the ring and waited for ShoGun to mimic me.

Together we explored the barrels, the lawn chairs and the air mattress. ShoGun showed a lot of interest in everything but the training equipment and the plastic kiddie pool. He completely ignored the training equipment and nervously regarded the pool.

ShoGun calmed in this exercise and finally, he allowed me to stroke his nose and slowly, I slipped a halter over his head. We did this exercise several more times and with each success, ShoGun began to put more and more faith in our relationship.

He was still extremely guarded and adamant that I stay in front of him. He refused to let me past his neck and tried to kick or bite me (sometimes both at the same time) if I somehow managed to move past his head and into his side.

Ignoring protocol, I elected to abandon the thought that I might pet ShoGun’s sides, belly, legs or rump and instead showed him the lead rope. He snorted heartily and tore off around the arena.

Then, slowly, ShoGun allowed me to attach the rope and then he would tear off around the arena.

Sometimes I held onto the rope and sometimes I would let it go, alternating ShoGun’s experience and working to help him understand the pressure principles that would keep him light on the halter.

Soon, ShoGun was following me and then, he began to let go of his anxiety. He started sighing and enjoying my rubbing of his head. So much so that he buried his head several times like a child might hide in their mother’s skirt.

We ended the session with ShoGun following me over the air mattress, past the dreaded plastic pool and back to his stall where I removed his halter and gave his head a good rub. He still would not let me rub his side.

The next morning ShoGun and I worked to overcome his lack of enthusiasm for my being in his vitals area. He reacted by attacking me again. This time his rush was shorter in duration but his effort was the same. He spun, kicking and then turned to clip at me with his teeth. I countered by rushing at him which sent him retreating to his corner. And then it was over. ShoGun began to work with me. I haltered him and we stepped out of the stall and into the arena for a quick review of his new knowledge of leading on the halter. As soon as he showed interest in working with me, I opened the arena gate and we stepped out into the open yard.

This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The moment I would get to show ShoGun the freedom of the out of doors again. He’d been cooped up too long in the holding pen and his mind was ready to begin exploring his new world. He didn’t disappoint. Where his feet had been stuck to the ground in the indoor arena, he now moved forward with enthusiasm, making it easy to teach him to follow me on the line. He was loving it!

We ended our walk with ShoGun loading off and on the trailer.

It was the same with Smokie and George, Jane and her trainer’s horses. Each horse was gentled, than taken outside, a reward for their hard work in trusting me.

By day four ShoGun, Smokie and George and Michael’s horse, Dakota, were loaded up and ready for our trip to Kentucky where we stayed overnight at the first class Saddles and Sheets horse hotel (www.saddlesandsheets.com) where once again, the owner, Steve greeted us enthusiastically and made sure the horses stalls were bedded two feet deep in straw!

That evening we gave ShoGun, Smokie and George baths to wash away the sweat and grime of the previous days and let them graze outside the next morning before our push for New Jersey where we would deliver Michael and Dakota to their home.

The horses traveled well and on each leg of the trip they learned more and more about the outside world. I think it’s fair to say that they enjoyed every minute.

Once home ShoGun and I prepared for our trip to North Carolina for the Equine Extravaganza. ShoGun and I went to represent Equissentials and The Mustang Heritage Foundation as well as my company The Mirror Effect and to give ShoGun the stadium-like experience that he’ll have in Fort Worth.

ShoGun’s favorite part was getting to watch all of the excitement. He took everything in!
ShoGun even participated in the breed presentation for mustangs.

We met many wonderful people there, including fellow Extreme Mustang Makeover trainers, Jim Thomas who brought his lovely mare Reba for everyone to admire and Dave Robart of Robart Pinchless bits (www.pinchlessbits.com).

SHOGUN GOES TO WASHINGTON, D.C.!

During our trip ShoGun grazed on the grasses of seven different states but his favorite was the grass of The White House.
ShoGun at the White House

ShoGun was a big hit with the public who loved the fact that ShoGun was a mustang and property of the United States Government
(photo of ShoGun and the public)

My favorite part of our stop in D.C. ShoGun went up the steps of The Department of the Interior! This is the government entity that manages the wild mustangs.

ShoGun at the Department Of Interior

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