HORSE WHISPERING IN THE WILD – TAMING WILD HORSES
by Kelly Marks with additional research material by Telane Greyling
WHY I HAD TO FIND THE WILD DESERT HORSES…
Perhaps the first responsibility of a teacher is to inspire. If a teacher can inspire their students to be as passionate about a subject as they are, then surely that must be some success? However, If a teacher isn’t passionate about their subject then it may be they need to take some time out. Perhaps they need to become a student themselves for a while…
The opportunities for learning in horsemanship is limitless.
Maybe that’s what makes it such an addictive occupation. I love to read and feel you can learn so much from books. When I teach though I feel I can’t be completely authentic if I teach anything from a book alone. This could be due to a slightly unnerving experience when asked by a collage to teach the ‘Evolution of the horse’. Wouldn’t you know that year we would have two Jehovah’s Witnesses in the class? I’ve read Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ and very good it is too; but am I going to argue with God creating the Universe in 7 days? After all, it has to be admitted, I wasn’t actually there at the time.
Nowadays I make quite clear what is my ‘book learning’ i.e. “When I was young horses were all colour blind, but nowadays they can see various shades; this is if you accept what the current books were saying at each time. Versus my ‘practical experience’ i.e. “with nearly every nappy horse I’ve worked with what I’ve found is…” Another value of practical experience for the teacher is to remind you to give emphasis to the fact that any given situation can be different and must be looked at individually. Whereas sometimes from reading books and articles you can get the impression that various issues with horses are very clear cut. That in part, may be trusting faith or laziness in the reader willing to take some ‘experts’ writing as gospel without ever bothering to question. Beware also that your expert isn’t just blindly accepting the writings of somebody else!
There comes a time when you decide you should take your own advice…
Of all the different aspects of horsemanship I’d experienced I had never studied horses really wild horses. I’ve seen the ponies of Exmoor and Dartmoor and visited the New Forest area where ponies were wandering down the High Street of Lymington and even standing outside the town bank; but that didn’t seem quite the same. I’ve been gaining experience all the time with unhandled horses. I’m probably Oxfordshire’s most prominent ‘wild horse catcher’ but I suspect that’s mainly due to nobody else wanting the job. I felt the time had come for me to experience ‘real’ wild horses for both my own and for my students sake. Completely untouched, not wormed, not gelded, best of all horses that had never even seen human beings before. But where was I to find them and how would I go about the task?
‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear’
Those of you that have read my book ‘Perfect Manners – How You Should Behave so Your Horse Does Too’ will know I have quite a belief in fate. How else can I explain meeting Monty Roberts in a petrol station in France? In April of 2000 I was invited to do a demonstration in South Africa. It was a great experience and I made some special friends through the trip. A young lady I met very briefly at the demonstration was Telane Greyling. We discussed the work I was doing with horses and some of the thought behind it. It was only afterwards I discovered that Telane, a very shy and modest person, just happens to be the world’s expert on the incredible Namibian desert horses…
THE NAMIBIAN WILD DESERT HORSES
I’d been fascinated by the Namib horses ever since I’d first heard of them. How they’ve survived in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world is beyond belief. In the desert the temperatures at night can drop below zero; whilst during the day it can go above 40 degrees; in the shade not that there is any. To the untrained eye there appears to be nothing for them to eat at all. There are no written records of how they first arrived in the desert; although there are plans for DNA testing which may get us closer to solving the mystery.
Theories Behind Their Origin…
According to people in the area the horses have been there since ‘German times’ i.e. before 1919. There are several theories, some more romantic than others. One concerns a cargo steamer which ran aground somewhere along the coast South of Luderitz. Namibia doesn’t have a ‘Skeleton Coast’ for nothing. The ship was carrying TB horses from Europe to Australia; some of these horses could have swam ashore and found their way to the Garub plains.
Another theory involves an eccentric German nobleman, Baron Hansheinrich Von Wolf. He had built his castle ‘Duwisib’ on the edge of the desert about 150 kilometres north of Garub. The building material and furniture were carried across the desert from Luderitz by Ox wagon. Baron von Wolf also imported some stallions from Europe and started breeding horses which he sold to the German military. When World War 1 was declared in 1914, Baron von Wolf was in Europe and immediately joined the German army. He was killed in France during the Battle of the Somme the following year. The fate of his then more than 300 horses at Duwisib is unknown. t could be possible that some of them found their way to the Garub water hole as there were no fences at the time.
Whatever the truth may be, according to correspondence between Von Wold and a military officer of the government, the horses used at that time were crossbred of English TB’s, German Trakehner, Hackney and Cape Horses.
So Do They Belong In Namibia?
These horses don’t just have drought and other hardships to contend with; there is a movement in Southern Africa to only tolerate indigenous plants and animals. Some see these horses as mere imposters that should be culled. However others would argue, Telane Greyling for example, that because these horses have prevailed almost isolated for such a long time they are of scientific importance. Valuable research on the effect and extent of inbreeding, adaptions to limited water and feed availability, social structure and behaviour could be conducted. Furthermore these horses are of cultural and historic importance against the background of their possible origin and the area they have inhabited. To argue from a commercial point of view they have developed into an important tourist attraction in Namibia during the past few years.
HOW I CAME TO WORKING WITH THE NAMIB HORSES…
Before leaving South Africa I was chatting at the airport to our tour organiser Sue Gilliatt about Telane and the Namib horses. “I’d love to go out and see those horses. “Has anyone ever tried working with them?” “Who would you need permission from to go near them?” I thought we were passing the time romancing about unlikely adventures. But, I should have already realised through my wonderfully organised trip out to South Africa; Sue was a woman that made things happen…
I was mostly informed of events by email. “I’ve found a way you can see those horses. “That’s if you agree to have the whole thing filmed as a documentary”. An English guy called Gary Robinson is really taken with the idea and wants to co-produce a documentary on you working with these horses with a film company called ‘Red Pepper’. ‘Gary hasn’t let any grass grow under his feet; he has already been in touch with Telane and a conservationist who has the wild horses on his land and would love to talk to you about them.”
So that’s how, on November 29th 2001, I found myself on the 16 hours drive from Johannesburg to the Southernmost tip of Namibia in search of the mysterious wild horses.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS…
As Ian Vandenberghe, Grant Bazin and I bounced along the dusty tracks to the southernmost part of Namibia it gradually started to dawn on me what I’d got us all into. What seemed like a great adventure and the ‘ultimate study trip’ had taken on a new dimension. Spurred on by a couple of encounters before I left.
An Unsettling Phone Call…
One was a last minute phone call from Monty. He’d been travelling and I’d only got to speak with him the day before I left. He wasn’t enthusiastic about my trip. In fact, if I remember rightly he positively forbid it. He warned me that wild horses will attack if they feel threatened; After seeing a mustang brought into captivity suddenly attack a man on a horse. Missing the man’s leg, the mustang ripped a large piece of leather out of his saddle.
Clearly he wasn’t impressed by my plans. ‘You’ll get yourself killed’ was his verdict. From anyone else I might have taken this sort of remark as a challenge but I respect Monty’s views. Thoughts of ‘Oh God!’ came into my mind. ‘You worked with a mustang in the wild’ I said. ‘Yes, but I’ve worked with these kind of horses all my life; I’m twice as big as you and I was twice World’s Champion in roping – can you even throw a rope?’ Well, actually… no, not in the way he meant, ‘They’ll come at you and helicopter you’. I’d never heard that term before. ‘They’ll come at they with their mouths but then wheel round and kick you with both barrels before you have a chance to get away.’
‘You’re just a little girl’ he said (which was rather sweet as I really wasn’t – even then).
As I was trying to laugh it off he said; ‘How would you feel if one of your students came to you and said you’d inspired them to do a trip like this?’. To which I suddenly felt horrified. ‘I’d hate it because if anything went wrong I’d feel it was all my fault’. ‘Exactly’. I needed to think quickly to turn his attitude around. ‘I think what you’re going to have to do is give me the very best advice you can to ensure I don’t get killed then.’ This was a positive turn in conversation. I’d now got him focused on the fact that I was going; the only way to help me was to try and get over to me the benefits of over 60 years experience in a very short space of time. There was suddenly an awful lot of information to take in…
‘What happens if you can’t catch a wild horses… in only 10 days?’
There were demonstrations to give and courses to run in Johannesburg. Also a meeting with Red Pepper the production company that were going to document the trip. It meant a big financial outlay for them and they were taking a large risk; especially as they’d never even met me.
The 7 p.m. ‘crew meeting’ felt more like an interview once the director turned up. ‘What are your motives for going out to these horses?’; I explained about wanting to have more experiences to bring back to my students and he seemed satisfied. ‘What sort of horse would I ideally like to work with?’ ‘Ideally a 3 year old filly, she should be less aggressive than a breeding stallion’. ‘What would you like to do with her?’ ‘Umm, depends on the filly, see if I could touch her, see if I could get a halter on her. I want to see how, or if, her reactions differ from my ‘wild horses’ in Oxfordshire. I’ll have to see how it goes from there. I also want to generally observe how the horses interact in the wild.’
‘So what happens if you can’t catch a wild horses – you know we’ve only got 10 days to complete this documentary?’ I wish I’d been able to offer some absolute assurance. But I couldn’t. It was a question I’d been asking myself. ‘Well, then the documentary can be about a mad English woman failing to accomplish her dream’. Curiously they seem satisfied with that. So that’s how we found ourselves bouncing along the dusty tracks to the southernmost part of Namibia…
SO… HOW DO YOU CATCH A TRULY WILD HORSE?
I had been working with Ian Vandenberghe for over 6 years at that stage; though had only known Grant Bazin a short time, maybe a year. Grant was one of my first demo riders and went on to ride for Monty. I still run the courses from Ian and his wife, Sandy’s, stud near Witney in Oxfordshire and he also teaches with me. He’s a very practical sort of person and he loves to travel. It was Ian who originally encouraged me to do my own demonstrations. I think largely because he saw it as a way of him travelling to all the places he wanted to see. We had travelled all over Europe getting as far as Munich on one trip. Now I was exploring new continents I was pleased to have them with me. We did a lot of talking on the journey over. How were we going to catch our horse?
Every Problem Has A Solution…
Getting some domestic horses and ‘rounding up’ the wild ones seemed a good idea. However Grant had worked on round ups in Australia and was able to share some information about it. “In cowboy films they make it look a lot easier than it actually is” he explained, “In ‘real life’ horses don’t tend to run in neat bunches but they split up and run all over the place.” Ah. So it seemed clear a Plan B would be needed.
I felt sure there had to be a gentler, stress free way anyway. I mean I was and am a horsewoman from the South of England. To suddenly pretend I was a cowboy from Colarado was bound to end in tears. So after some thought we came up with the idea of creating a temporary corral around the watering hole and (hopefully) enclosing our youngster with her barely noticing what was happening.
Building Our Corral
We were fortunate to also have the help of Telane Greyling, a young woman who is not only the world’s expert on the Namib horses, but also an incredible handy woman. She would make the teams from ‘Changing Rooms’ look like amateurs. I’d already been in touch with Telane by fax and email. By the time we arrived at the watering hole Telane had already completed the post and rail fencing around it.
It was in the shape of a giant keyhole, with the top of the keyhole the ‘roundpen’ we hoped to eventually get our horse in. All that was left to do was to put shade netting all the way along the post and rail fencing so our horse couldn’t see out. This was an extra protection for the horse. To prevent her hitting the sides or trying to get out but would also help keep her focused on me.
Something I’d already learned from my Oxfordshire ‘wild horse handling’ is that when working with a horse to try to gain trust. The less distractions you can have the better. I’d already written in my ‘Handling the Untouched Horse’ book that one of the first essentials is to get your horse on his or her own. The possibility of one of these horses getting injured in any way due to our intervention was unacceptable. We had to make the chance of that happening as remote as humanly possible. Thanks to my dodgy faxed sketches and Telane’s incredible workmanship we now had a wonderful structure as our base.
A Stroke Of Luck…
Once the structure was built, all we had to do was hope we’d get some horses come down and walk into our corral. They had an option of drinking at another waterhole some 20 miles away. This was quite a concern. We needn’t have worried. We were still putting up the shade netting when the first breeding group appeared on the horizon. All work stopped. We lay on the ground, silently and still, to see if they would approach.
HOW DID THE NAMIBIAN HORSES BEHAVE?
As I said earlier, all my knowledge of how horses behave in the wild had previously been from books. That was the reason I wanted to go and see for myself what really went on. Please don’t think as I tell you my observations that it means anyone else is ‘wrong’. I’m sure it’s more than likely that with the different feral herds around the world that, as well as many similarities, there are differences as well. I can tell you what I saw and also relay the experiences of Telane Greyling. Who had spent hundreds of hours watching these horses. She had kindly sent me her Phd dissertation beautifully bound as a present when she had completed it.
Having watched many wild life programmes on television; it seemed unreal to be laying on the ground watching this small band of 3 mares, one with a foal that could only be a few days old. They were joined by a strong looking bay stallion at the rear. Then suddenly we saw a challenger to the family unit, a light bay stallion was arcing closer and closer; waiting for his chance to lead one of the mares away from the harem to join him.
The harem leader wasn’t amused by this at all and soon a fully fledged fight had started. They reared up at each other, inflicting viscous bites on each other’s necks. The ambitious bachelor had to be sent away not once, but six or seven times. Each time he’d try again but each time he was fought off. Being a stallion in the wild is a tough job!
We saw several encounters like this over the next few days.
Several things surprised me, not least that we saw so many fights. I’d always suspected that they’d been some how ‘staged’ in footage I’d seen before. That’s not just due to my natural cynacism. I’d read articles on wild horses that suggested ‘all natural horses want to do is live in peace and harmony’.
I was really surprised they’d risk serious injury as well as wasting precious energy fighting; this didn’t make evolutionary sense. All I can assure you si they did. Perhaps it just goes to show what a strong driving force sex can be! But this fact had certainly been lost on one the authors I read. They also wrote with great authority (as some people felt inclined to do, despite never actually seeing a feral horse heard); ‘In the wild the geldings pair bond for life…’ I must admit to not seeing many geldings in the herds I was observing!
Another surprise was hearing the stallions call out
Monty had told me the American mustangs keep really quiet, supposedly to avoid alerting predators. I can’t imagine that’s a conscious decision by the mustangs. Maybe simply a case of the mustangs that did make a noise would soon be picked off? And of course, who really knows the answers to these questions? I can only report what I saw and heard. These stallions would neigh in distress if one of their mares moved away too far.
I also heard a stallion really scream before he went full throttle at a bachelor to tell him to clear off from his mares. I’ve never heard of that happening before. Although we had to keep our movements perfectly still as we were watching them or they’d be off; we started to realise that they didn’t appear to worry about our voices. We started off communicating with each other in barely audible whispers, but soon found that clear, low tones didn’t seem to worry the horses at all.
Approaching The Water Hole
Although a mare might lead the band towards the water hole, with the stallion behind, looking out for potential usurpers, once the mare hesitated at seeing the corral set up, it would be the bolder stallion that would then take over and lead the group. It was interesting how the stallion would approach when unsure. Very much like we teach people to catch a tricky horse. They’d arc back and forth several times, gradually getting closer and closer. Once he’d satisfied himself it was safe the stallion would lead them into corral. They would drink for long periods. Up to two minutes at a time. Knowing that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to drink again for maybe two or three days.
One frequently hears in educational texts about the importance of ‘pair bonding’ and the horse is a herd animal and would never live alone; this wasn’t particularly demonstrated by the horses we were watching. The mares obviously kept close to their foals, but a fair few didn’t seem especially loyal to their stallion. They were only too happy to run off with the first convenient bachelor. Whilst the bachelors, may have a friend, a bachelor on the ‘look out’ might pal up with a really old guy or a youngster. When you think from the bachelors point of view, if he’s going to grab a mare or two he doesn’t really want another bachelor around. He’s going to be much better off working on his own. Hence, we saw three or four males out of the 30 or so we saw, that stay alone presumably until their luck changes.
Telane’s observations tie up with this; that pair bonding is not for life, the maximum time she’s seen two together is four years and it actually only happens in a very small percentage of horses. Learning more from my experiences with these horses. Then coming back to my two horses at home makes me fairly certain, that pair bonding is ‘man made’ something we artificially create, and not always for our own or our horse’s advantage.
CHOOSING OUR HORSE…
As we observed the horse’s lifestyles and communities another thing became clear quite quickly. It would be much fairer to work with one of the more independent bachelors than it would be to take a filly out of a herd.
Through my experiences I have made a great effort to become a ‘complete horseperson’. I have studied as many horse disciplines as I can and worked with an extremely varied amount of horses. However, if I was asked my preference it would always be to work with the more sensitive horse. I have often experienced a particular affinity with mares. It may not be politically correct to say, but also stallions do know the difference between male and female handlers! I was hoping to ‘get away with’ a gentle, little soul who would appreciate love and attention. Having seen how these stallions treat each other they were a very different proposition altogether. However, that was how it was going to have to be…
How I got to meet Muddy Waters…
I’ll never make a scientist if you have to call horses by numbers. I was pleased to hear that Telane had always found names for her study horses and didn’t disapprove of my sentimentality. Muddy Waters was so named because we’d already seen him at the waterhole on the first day. He loved to make a puddle at the water hole and roll around in it. It must have felt particularly good to him.
He was obviously a real fighter but equally obviously he was never going to win any prizes for fighting; covered from his head to his knees with vicious bite marks. He had half an ear missing and coupled with this, tiny biting insects were working their way into every crevice. The cool waters mixed with the mud must have felt wonderful on the itchy spots, giving him at least, some temporary relief.
Was It fate?
A couple of days later when I was out with the documentary crew getting to know some of the surrounding areas I saw Muddy again by chance. He was standing alone in the desert. We stopped the Jeep so I could see how he’d react if I went closer. Gradually arcing closer I managed to crouch just 10 yards from him before he moved away. I believe it is possible to ‘pick up’ emotions from animals and people. There was an overwhelmingly sadness coming from him. I felt very drawn to help him but without a clue of what I could realistically do.
I talked to Ian and Grant and the film crew that evening; Our time had come to ‘get on with it’. The next day we would go to the water hole. If horses turned up I was to select the most suitable horse to work with.
I couldn’t sleep that night. In the night I woke up and saw (or dreamt I did) the shadow of a horse and rider going across the side of my tent. I took this as an omen that everything was going to be fine. Ian and Grant just said I should be careful drinking the local water.
We’d barely got things in place down by the corral when Ian sent the message around ‘Get still everyone! There’s a single horse approaching!’ A solitary horse wound his way down to the corral.
It was Muddy Waters; it was as if he had chosen me…
CATCHING A WILD HORSE…
It had been fascinating to watch the wild horses at the waterhole. I felt we must have been incredibly lucky to see so many goings on. Then I suppose that’s why the average soap opera usually revolves around the drinking area. Where would Eastenders be without the Queen Vic or Coronation Street without the Rovers Return? The time had come to move on though. We’d decided that ‘today was the day’. I was to see how or if a wild horse would accept me getting closer.
When the rough looking stallion who I’d already got close to once whilst out in the desert, wandered into our keyhole shaped pen, it seemed like he’d chosen me rather than the other way round. I’d even already given him a name – Muddy Waters, having seen how he liked to make a pool out of the sparse amount of water and roll around in it. He was covered in bites, he was obviously a real fighter, and perhaps the mud soothed his itching.
As Muddy came into the larger part of the keyhole pen, Grant, Ian and I quickly pulled the curtain across to take away his escape route. We then gently encouraged him through to the ‘roundpen’ section. It went so smoothly it almost took us by surprise – suddenly we had our horse – so what now? I’d already written my book ‘Handling the Untouched Horse’ before I’d left for my trip and working with some of the ideas based in that book I had a plan put together to get a headcollar on. I was prepared for it to take a couple of days or more to follow through.
First of all Muddy was just left alone in the corral for some time to acclimatize to his new surroundings. He didn’t seem distressed in any way even though it was the first time he’d been in any sort of enclosure in his life. He’d already had a good drink and wasn’t attracted to the bucket of water we’d set up there ready. He mooched around nonchalantly and eventually settled to standing in the spot furthest away from the entrance.
I then went into the enclosure with some hay that I sprinkled around a chair that I brought in for myself to sit on and I waited to see if he’d be tempted to come and try some. I didn’t have to wait long. He didn’t eat like a ravenously hungry horse, He ate slowly, keeping an eye on me admittedly, but he didn’t seem to perceive me as any great danger. I’ve known domestic horses much less trusting. I was wearing my hard hat and a thickish coat even though the temperatures were over 45C. I’d been warned that wild horses may view you as a predator and will attack and with the nearest doctors surgery at least a 3 hour drive away I felt it best to take a few precautions.
Having said that we did arrange for a vet from South Africa to come out with us, Dr Sheelagh Higgerty.
Sheelagh already knew about the Namib horses and was a good choice as she really cared about animals and their welfare. I suppose she would have had to treat any of us if we’d got hurt. There are concerns at the thought of being treated by a vet though. Would they shoot you if you broke your leg? I thought it best not to take arrogant chances, especially as I’d been well warned of the dangers.
GAINING MUDDY’S TRUST
Soon Muddy was eating the last bits of hay that were nearly touching my feet and as I talked to Ian in low tones we decided to put the next part of the plan in action. The chair was taken out and Ian handed me a long bamboo pole that was padded on the end. The idea was that I should desensitise Muddy to being touched and stroked with the pole before getting closer myself.
The advantage of having such a long light pole was that I could reach out and touch him whereever he was in the corral, even if he was moving away. As soon as he stopped moving away and looked at me I could take the bamboo away from him as a reward. Although he took a couple of bites at the pole to start with the method worked very well as it does with our horses in Britain.
Soon I progressed to our shorter ‘false arm’ that many of you might have seen at Monty or my demonstrations. Muddy was letting me work quite close to him with the arm but as soon as I tried to get closer with my own hand he’d jump away. Ian had a suggestion. ‘Don’t keep trying to change from the false arm to your own hand’ ‘Just keep making the arm shorter and shorter so eventually it’ll be the same length as your own arm and you’ll be touching him naturally.’ It’s always invaluable having someone on the outside seeing the ‘bigger picture’. I followed Ian’s instructions and very soon my hand was gently stoking his neck. It was really happening! We’d not only come out and found the Namib horses but here I was standing right beside one and stroking him.
It Was A big Moment…
It didn’t take much more work to get a headcollar on him (I always use one that opens at the nose as well as the head for untouched horses so you can put it on in two stages) and I even did some gentle leading with him, just from side to side, of course.
From first walking in the enclosure with him to getting the headcollar on took less than 40 minutes. You get to a stage like that and the obvious question is ‘What next?’ However, I felt that was enough for the day. We wanted time to think and I was puzzled as to how gentle he was and was keen to get our team vet to come and look at him. Muddy accepted Sheelagh with equanimity. I put him at 11 or 12 years old – he looked a bit ‘worn’ and I guessed that would be pretty old for a desert horse.
How Old Really Was He?
He let Sheelagh look in his mouth. ‘You can see here’ she pointed out to me ‘He’s just 5 years old’. That was a surprise. Then she took a look round all the ‘wounds’ on him. They were actually all dried up. The problem was it must have been really uncomfortable for him because as the hard tops of the scabs were drying they were pulling his skin very tight. No wonder he so loved rolling in the muddy waters. ‘Though he looks a bit rough’ Sheelagh declared, studying his bitten off ear ‘He’s actually in perfectly good condition’. That was the news I wanted to hear.
The desert sunsets were spectacular. As the sun was going down and a magnificent round moon appeared in the sky, we finished off the evening with a relay team pouring buckets of water into Muddy’s corral. And he rolled and he rolled and he rolled.
RIDING THE NAMIBIAN WILD HORSES
Grant Bazin had travelled all the way out with us to Namibia to be the rider. At that time I don’t think you would have got a better rider of young or difficult horses than Grant. We’ve worked together all over Europe, Britain, Ireland on seriously difficult horses. I was the person that handled them on the ground and Grant was the rider. Now here we were in Namibia and I had something pulling me very hard. I didn’t really understand it myself. I had a chat with Grant outside the tent that night. ‘Grant it’s about riding Muddy….. I’m just wondering how you’d feel….. What I mean would you be very disappointed…..’ It didn’t take Grant long to guess what I was trying to get round to saying and he made it very easy for me ‘Of course, it’s fine by me if you want to ride Muddy. After all he’s your horse. He chose you.’ I felt butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t wait for the next day.
‘But don’t worry’ I said ‘We’re going to find you a horse as well’.
I don’t need to give a great deal of information on starting Muddy. He was certainly among the easiest horses I’d ever worked with. After getting the saddle on I did a little long lining off the headcollar to see if I had just a little steering and Grant came in to give me a leg up and saw me on safely. Magic! I spent various times in the afternoon applying water and vaseline to Muddy’s scabs to try and loosen them up so they’d come off naturally. He loved having the water poured over him and would stand there contentedly. I was really pleased when Sheelagh who’d been watching him in the pen said when he heard my voice outside his head would go up, twitch an ear and go over to look for me. Always after I left he would have a roll in any small pool available.
I felt honour bound to find a horse for Grant now but didn’t know if lightening could strike twice as it were. Would another nice healthy bachelor come stepping into our keyhole arena. Would Muddy being in the one end put others off so they’d go and find a water place further afield? It didn’t appear so because the very next day the handsomest young man came in with a few bachelor stragglers around him.
Having made an alternative pen on the side of the main pen for Muddy. We then enclosed our bachelor group and worked to separate our chosen one. It can be a bit like separating an egg, with it sometimes taking several goes to get that yolk right away from the white.
But Could We Catch Him?
Grant, Ian, Telane and I very gently worked together to move the horse towards the pen. Just as we were getting close an enormous gust of wind picked up the sand around us and whirled it around our heads for a full minute. It felt like we were in suspended animation. I’d never known anything like it. It died down just as we got our horse in the pen. The crew who were filming said ‘Hey that’s amazing! Do you know what that was? They call them ‘Dust Devils’ out here!’ So there we had the name of our second horse. Dust Devil it was.
Dust Devil was 3 years old, and unlike Muddy there was barely a mark on him. His looks were not unlike some of the better class racehorse yearlings sold at Newmarket sales. He didn’t remain Dust Devil for long, having tendencies far too angelic. We settled on just Dusty, and although again, I did the starting procedure, he was Grant’s horse and he rode him. So now we had one each.
What Ever To Do Next?
Even though it was just over a couple of days I was getting more and more ‘bonded’ with Muddy. It was very satisfying to watch the scabs start to fall away and there was lovely new pink skin underneath with hairs already starting to grow. The film crew always having to be conscious of their budget, having gone from worrying that we’d ever see or get near the horses were now asking ‘It’s gone so well – so when are you going to put them back?’ I was fine about Dusty but had misgivings about putting Muddy back and got a bit wobbly.
He seemed so quiet and gentle, he didn’t appear to have an aggressive bone in his body. Now his 5 inch scabs were starting to come away and he’d learned about human kindness – how was he going to cope with going back out in the wild again? I had this horrible thought of going away but him coming back to the pen to wait for me, and wait and wait. I discussed it with Sheelagh.
Did He Have To Go Back?
With African Horse Sickness there wasn’t an option of him coming back to England. What about if we found him a nice little girl owner in Johannesburg to give him a good home and hack around a bit – wouldn’t that be a better life for him? He’d have to be gelded. Five years is getting late for that but I kept trying to weigh up the pros and cons.
Muddy helped me get the answer. And in no uncertain terms.
I can see on reflection that I was starting to take too much for granted, get a little too complacent. I’d never had a moment’s problem washing him over and grooming the bits that had any hair. This afternoon I asked Emma, one of the film’s production assistants who adored horses, if she’d like to give me a hand by brushing his mane. Emma was experienced with regular horses but was probably unaware (entirely my fault) that we were dealing with something just a little, but significantly different here. Emma pulled the brush through his mane a little too briskly. She caught a knot in his mane. It hurt him!
The speed that Muddy arched his neck, pinned his ears and went as if to attack her was incredible. We both looked in shock. But I replayed it in my mind quite clearly. He hadn’t gone for Emma. He’d gone right at that brush to attack it. It had no right hurting him like that! It was then I saw that the romantic idea of the Johannesburg home in the suburbs would not only be a very bad idea for Muddy, but also for the nice little girl owner I’d imagined. There was definitely still a wild horse in there and as such he had a right to his place and take his chances.
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AND END…
So it was another discussion night for Ian, Grant and myself around the campfire. First of all we’d never ridden them outside the pen before. How on earth were they going to react when they suddenly saw the wide open spaces again? We planned to ride them out a mile or so to let them go. How would they feel about being ridden together? These were two stallions after all. They’d been corralled next door to each other and Muddy hadn’t been too pleased when I came over to him one day with Dusty’s smell on me. Would there be any chance they might want to fight each other? What would happen if they wouldn’t go away?
We felt it was a very good thing the training period had been so short because we had disrupted their lives as little as possible. They’d probably wake up the morning after the release thinking the whole experience had just been a bizarre dream. I know that thought has crossed my mind since.
I didn’t like the feeling that Muddy would get lonely and sad out there again.
Mind you the few days with us were like a little health spa visit for him. He was definitely much perkier, more as you’d expect a 5 year old stallion to be. The film crew positioned themselves on a hill to film ‘the release’. I suggested we ride them out bareback on just headcollars – the less to deal with at the time the better. Grant jumped up on Dusty, and after I gave Muddy his last groom, Ian gave me a leg up. Once up there and faced with the open desert I suddenly thought ‘Bareback?! Whose crazy idea was this?!’
…And Off We Went
Telane was up front on Brian, a horse we’d hired in case one would come in handy, and this was his chance, to give us a lead out into the desert. He was a handsome, 6 year old dun. The only trouble with Brian was that although he’s been a ridden horse for over two years, he was very spooky. Whereas I’d never known our two to take a sideways look at anything – on the journey out, everything Brian spooked out, they both spooked at in exactly the same manner. I had never had it demonstrated more clearly to me how horses will be influenced by others attitude to things, and I guess that includes us in the equation as well.
On the ride out I reflected as I felt Muddy come more and more to life under me. How come these horses were so kind and easygoing? Are they a special type of horse? Were we just very lucky with the two horses that turned up? It could be either of those things, but it could also just possibly be that they had never had one moment to fear us. We had never caused them one moment’s pain (except that wicked brush that Muddy soon saw off). We hadn’t trapped them or frightened them.
Normally wild horses would be chased and then lassoed. Their first experience with people may make them think they were about to be choked and killed in the same way any other predator would do it. How many things must we do to domesticated horses to cause so many problems and make them fear and dislike us?
Our Final Farewell…
My thoughts were suddenly disturbed by a signal from the director that it was time to get off and let them go. I looked out to the left though and saw a strong black stallion with a small band looking over. Supposing Muddy was to get in another fight? He might be ready for it but I wasn’t prepared to see him get hurt. ‘I don’t think this is a good time’ I said to Grant ‘What about the black stallion?’ ‘No, they’ll be fine’ he said ‘It’s really got to be now’. I had misgivings but jumped off and released Muddy’s headcollar. Our boys stood mesmerised watching the herd as we backed away from them.
The black stallion came posturing across and looked as if he was going to go for Dusty.
Another second and I’d have run over at him with the headcollar flailing to see him off. ‘Get away you bully!’ it would have been. But I stopped as I realised I was watching the most extraordinary thing. Muddy suddenly drew himself up to look twice his size. He was no longer my poor little horse but a real wild stallion and he was defending the younger horse…
He got in between the two, and after a couple of powerful strikes at the stallion he steered Dusty away protecting him from the stallion and leading him out to a safer place. Grant and I could only stand and watch as Muddy and Dusty then made their way off. Side by side. Muddy had found a purpose at last. He’d become a protector and mentor to the younger horse. I hadn’t considered that as a possibility but now I saw it as the best possible ending.
Grant and I had a long walk back. We met Ian coming to meet us. None of us said much. That night by the camp fire it broke a long silence as I voiced something that was only just starting to truly dawn on me…
‘Well we did it you know. We actually did it.’ We rode the wild horses of Namibia and then set them free.
That was over 10 years ago. I’m well settled in England now and we still show the documentary on the Five Day Foundation course. If I ever catch a glimpse of it or students ask questions about the experience it always seems somewhat surreal.
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