Handling Mustangs: Equine behavior researcher Temple Grandin discusses a scoring system that evaluates handling of mustangs at BLM facilities

Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Western Horseman, April 2001, pp. 180-186

Recently my assistant Mark Deesing and I had an opportunity to observe gathering and handling of mustangs at the Bureau of Land Management facilities in Rock Springs, Wyo., and at Meeker, Colorado.


Gathering with a helicopter was very skillfully done. An experienced pilot practiced the principle of pressure and release by working on the edge of the flight zone of a group of horses. The flight zone is the mustang's safety zone. When a person on foot, a horse and rider, or a vehicle enters the flight zone, the horses will move away. When one is outside the flight zone, the horses will turn and look, but keep a safe distance.

The size of the flight zone is determined both by previous experience and genetics. Mustangs who have been habituated to the calm presence of people will have a smaller flight zone. The horses with more flighty, excitable genetics will have a larger flight zone. Both wild horses and wild cattle can be moved quietly if the handler alternately enters and then retreats from the flight zone. This is the principle of pressure and release. Continuous pressure on the flight zone might cause the animals to panic.

The helicopter pilot used the principle of pressure and release. If the horses started running, he backed off and flew away. The only time he got really close to the horses was to turn them when they went in the wrong direction.

Time was taken during the gather to allow colts and fillies to join up with the rest of the herd. The crew was very careful to prevent mares from getting separated from their offspring. The gather was conducted in the fall when the colts were old enough to easily keep up.

Wild horses are easiest to gather on ranges where gathering is infrequent. The range we observed had not been gathered in 10 years. On ranges where gathers are more frequent, the horses tend to run from the helicopter.

The horses in Wyoming were brought up to the corrals at a trot or a canter; they were never moved at a dead run. Jute cloth (burlap) was hung on two fences to guide the horses into the corral. A tame, trained, leader horse was released to lead the mustangs in as they approached the corrals. Overall, we were very impressed by the good methods used to gather the horses.

Gathering with a helicopter is about the only way that mustangs can be captured on northern ranges that are snowbound all winter. On more southerly ranges that do not become snowbound in the winter, the option of gathering by luring the animals into corrals filled with water and feed needs to be explored. For several weeks the horses would be allowed to feed and water in the corrals. Then one day a radio-controlled gate could be closed. This would only work in the winter months when the pasture is poor. In southern ranges, this method has the potential to reduce stress.

Genetic Factors

Mustang genetics are variable. The Wyoming horses are large, heavy-boned animals who may have a calmer temperament than mustangs from the southern ranges. Southern mustangs are smaller, slender, fine-boned animals. Slender, fine-boned horses with a spiral hair whorl above the eyes are often genetically more nervous. A flighty, nervous mustang may be more likely to be traumatized by rough handling methods.

Human Contact

At the Meeker, Colo. facility, handling of the horses during the adoption auction was excellent. Melissa Kindall and Valeria Dobrich, managers at this facility, had worked with local volunteers to habituate the mustangs to people. To do this, the BLM staff and volunteers walked the holding pens prior to the auction. People stood in the pens and allowed the horses to come up to them. They trained the horses that people on the ground are not threatening. This took five to seven days.

Using a silent auction, instead of running horses through an auction ring, avoided stressful handling. Haltering horses before the new owner took them was the only stressful procedure. Both Mark and I agree that haltering mustangs might be a bad thing to do. Having a halter encourages a new owner to tie the new mustang up instead of gentling him more gradually. A better way is to spend lots of time standing in the pen and allowing the horse to approach.

A mustang who is very high-strung and nervous may be traumatized and ruined by rough training. One person commented that all you can do with mustangs is ride them. Handling them on the ground and trailering may be difficult because they have had so many bad experiences with people on the ground.

Horses have very specific memories, and a horse differentiates between a person on the ground and a person on his back. A mustang who has been tied up and had rough sacking-out might learn that people standing on the ground do scary things. Many people have difficulty understanding how a horse's memory can be so specific that he differentiates between a person standing on the ground and a person on his back.

As a person with autism, I can understand this. My memories and the horse's memories are like photos stored in a computer. Memories are stored as pictures or "audio sound clips."

The pictures stored in memory of a man on the ground and of a man on horseback are different. It is sensory-based rather than verbal-based thinking.

First experiences make a big impression on animals. A new mustang owner should do everything possible to make the horse's first experience with him as positive as possible.

Scoring Handling

Small changes in handling procedures in the BLM corrals can bring about great improvements in handling. The use of objective scoring during handling can make it possible to document both improvements or deterioration in handling methods.

Most handling problems occur in the corrals. The BLM has really good gathering methods, but there are sometimes problems after gathering while handling and loading the horses onto trucks. Mustangs have to be handled for sorting, selling at auction, and marking with the distinctive BLM freeze brand. During freeze-branding, each horse is held in a padded squeeze chute. When the horses are brought up to the squeeze chute quietly and handled calmly, they seldom get excited.

One of the most sensitive ways to measure the quality of horse handling is to count the number of horses who rear. Mustangs rear if a person enters their flight zone when they are confined in a chute, where they cannot move away. They remain much calmer in a chute if another horse is standing within three feet. Solid sides and top on the chute also help reduce rearing. The horse feels safe if there is a solid barrier between him and a person.

We have been working with Bud Cribley and Stan McKee at the BLM to use quantified objective scoring to monitor the way mustangs are handled in the corrals. We have tested this scoring system at the Meeker, Colo. (see Table 1: Meeker Handling Scores), and Rock Springs, Wyo., facilities.

Table 1: Meeker Handling Scores
Full Rears 0% 0 Horses
Half Rears* 20% 2 Horses
Kicks 0% 0 Horses
Fell Down 0% 0 Horses
Flipped Over 0% 0 Horses
Head Hitting Gate or Fence 0% 0 Horses
* The only time half rears occurred was when the horses were being haltered.

Each variable, such as rearing, is scored on a yes/no basis for each horse. This makes scoring simple and objective. A horse either rears or he does not. Each horse is either scored as "reared" or "not reared." This is preferable to scoring the number of rears, because one very wild horse who rears often could distort the figures for the entire group.

Research in the beef and pork industries indicated that this per-animal, yes/no scoring system is the simplest and most accurate way to measure behavior under either field or commercial conditions. The scores should be viewed as representative of the entire group and as a way to evaluate how the people handled the horses.

At the Rock Springs facility, 40 horses were observed while they were vaccinated and freeze-branded. On the first day scores were very poor. On the second day, we worked with the people at Rock Springs to improve handling. When we rated 33 horses on the second day of observations, the scores were excellent (see Table 2: Comparing Scores). The scoring system was able to measure the improvement.

Table 2: Comparing Scores at Rock Springs
First Visit, August 20, 1999 -- Scores for 40 Horses Second Visit, September 22, 1999 -- Scores for 33 Horses*
Full Rears 87% 35 Horses Full Rears 3% 1 Horse
Half Rears Not Recorded Half Rears 12% 4 Horses
Kicks 25% 10 Horses Kicks 0% 0 Horses
Fell Down 12% 5 Horses Fell Down 0% 0 Horses
Flipped Over 5% 2 Horses Flipped Over 0% 0 Horses
Head Hitting Gate 10% 4 Horses Head Hitting Gate 3% 1 Horses
Entry Speed into Crowd Pen Run Entry Speed into Crowd Pen Trot

The first step to improving handling was to handle all mustangs in the corrals quietly on foot, instead of having riders run them out of the holding pens. Care was also taken to fill the crowd pen and single-file chute only half-full. Handlers stayed back from the chutes to prevent rearing caused by them entering the horses' flight zone.

An understanding of horse behavior can reduce stress on wild horses during handling and prevent traumatic, scary experiences that can interfere with future training. Handling scores will make it possible to compare the performance of one BLM facility with another.

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