Ranch Diaries: Turning a mustang into a willing partner

What it's like to start a horse who has a fear of ropes and an unhealthy sense of his own strength.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Saddling Toad is a moment I’ve worked toward since Sam and I picked up this bay BLM mustang early this spring. He’s made great progress, but a saddle on his back could bring out whatever anxieties this three-year colt still has.

Toad was adopted out once before – and returned – which made me a little suspicious. The first time I caught him and asked him to lunge around me, he reared and bolted, running frantically around the corral while the lead rope on his halter “chased” him. Clearly, he’d gotten away from people in the past and developed an unhealthy sense of his own strength. And he definitely had a fear of ropes, something a potential ranch horse must overcome.

  • Toad, getting used to the cinch.

  • Yellowstone, my right-hand man.

  • First saddling of Toad.

  • Showing my sister how to tie a rope halter.

  • Toad thinking things through.

  • Toad, working it out.

I tied my older gelding, Yellowstone, nearby to provide a sense of security as I introduced the saddle. I flipped the blanket on Toad’s back and swung the saddle up. Then I intentionally pushed it over the other side and it fell to the ground. He fought the post he was tied to, frightened by the saddle on the ground. I retrieved it and repeated the process: if my saddle ever slipped off or underneath him, he needed to stand calmly. When he stood still, I tightened the cinch, trying not to act nervous. Then I turned him and Yellowstone loose in the corral and waited for the rodeo.

I’d worked with Toad diligently for a few weeks after we got him. Then I started to feel defeated, confused about how much I should be asking of him, and frankly, scared. Whenever he was afraid, he’d nearly run me over in his hurry to get to his safe spot: me. He continued to pull away and run off. He seemed to have two speeds, frozen in place or fear-ridden gallop. I spent hours swinging a rope near him but he still flinched when it touched him. The deal Sam and I made when we adopted Toad was that I’d do the groundwork and Sam would work him under saddle. I’ve started many colts, but it seemed like there was no way I was going to be able to get this one ready for a rider anytime soon – or at all.

I knew I needed some help with this horse if I was going to make headway. I called up my childhood trainer and explained my situation, questioned whether it was worth training a horse with so many undesirable traits. When she asked me how many hours I’d logged with Toad, I was embarrassed. Given the time I’d spent, the mustang had learned – and retained – many new skills. Once I started keeping track of the hours I spent with Toad, and stopped confusing his genuine fear for stubbornness, we had a series of breakthroughs that stemmed from the conversation from my trainer. The large, rectangular corral I was using to work him gave him too large an area, with four corners ­ to stop in whenever he wanted to. I tied Toad to a sturdy post in an area where he could move around in a circle, and I tossed the rope and the saddle blanket on and around him. He learned quickly he couldn’t just run off; he had to face his fears instead. Seeing Yellowstone’s calm attitude helped convince him he would be all right. And earning that trust led me straight back to the corral, where I watched his reaction to the saddle.

He never bucked, even when I had him and Yellowstone trot and lope around the corral. He stopped and walked up to me when I asked him. I haltered him and lunged him both directions. He responded better than I could have imagined. I was proud of this little horse, but we have a long way to go. I’m not sure if I have what it takes to make him into a solid ranch horse, or if he’ll be willing to accept that job, but I’m going to give us both every opportunity to try.

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