Mustang Trails

June 19, 2006

Our horses spend a good bit of each day climbing up and down the mountain on switchback trails they have created. During spring and fall, they generally climb up once in the early morning and again around ten at night. I can usually hear the sound of their bare hooves on the granite bluff and sometimes I catch a glimpse of them in the moonlight. Now that fly season is here, they reserve their climbs for after dark to escape biting deer and horseflies.

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I haven’t had a chance to read Jaime Jackson’s book, Paddock Paradise, a Guide to Natural Horse Boarding, but I understand he refers to behavior patterns he has observed in wild horses. We find our band of four formerly wild mustangs consistantly climb and come back down the mountain in the same direction and always in a roughly clockwise pattern. The following photo show a portion of the trail they have created that starts the uphill climb after crossing through the bottom of an arroyo.

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This portion of trail comes directly across a mostly smooth expanse of granite bluff at the top of our property. It isn’t terribly steep, but can be quite slick. I don’t think our horses would manage it nearly as well with shoes as they do barefoot. Our drought situation is currently so severe here in New Mexico we hear the forests are likely to be closed soon. I remember during my trail riding days in California when the parks would be closed to horses wearing shoes due to the sparks caused by steel hitting granite rocks and I’m glad we have kept our boys barefoot.

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After coming across the top of the property, the horses begin to move downward and around a steep bluff we call Cuervo Point. This portion of trail is remarkably steep and treacherous but I have seen the boys come down it at a trot with no hesitation.

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And finally, as the horses come down through the last section of loose pine thatch and granite sand, they have created a series of tight switchbacks to get them safely back to the lower portion of the property. We find our horses keep their hooves more laterally balanced than most do. It’s totally a theory, but we feel that might be due to their switchback activities – each time they change directions the outside of one front and back foot and the inside of the others get extra wear.

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The bottom of the property is relatively smooth and gently sloping. This is the area that is used for feeding, water and general socializing. During these hot summer days, the boys spend the majority of their time sharing tail swishing and rolling in the sand.

The Benevolent Leader

June 14, 2006

I wish every herd group could have the benefit of a benevolent leader; but how would you plan for something like that? They aren't obvious horses, especially in the beginning. And if you have a standard bully in the group, it takes even longer to spot one. I seem to be unconsciously drawn to them, with Corazon being the fifth who has come into my life. One of the five was a mare and one her son so I believe he learned the role from her.

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The band of boys – Valeroso, Llego, Corazon & Griton

When Cuervo was with us, he was a more typical kind of band leader. He could be both pushy and aggressive at times, especially about food. Sometimes when I wanted to work with one of the other horses, I would have to either work in a pen or put Cuervo in one because he would chase the others away to get all of the attention. When we brought Corazon home in February of 2004, Cuervo dominated him and then quickly began to ignore him. I suspect it was because Corazon simply stayed out of his way.

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Cuervo Humoso

The week before Cuervo died, Mike and I both observed unusual behavior in Cuervo and at the time we thought he had just finally decided Corazon was worthy of being his friend. The first thing we noticed was Cuervo stood back and allowed Corazon to drink first at the trough. This was highly unusual as Cuervo frequently made the other horses wait as much as half an hour to drink while he played and drenched himself with water. The next thing we saw was Cuervo seeking Corazon out and offering grooming. There were other small things that only people who know their group well would have noticed. In hindsight, we feel Cuervo somehow sensed his coming death and was passing leadership to Corazon.

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Cuervo behind, Griton in front

Cuervo was the second horse to be buried here, and both of them were band leaders. Each time we have allowed the others to smell the dead one and watch the burial process. And each time the remaining horses have shown a profound period of grieving. The only spot on our land with sand deep enough for a horse grave is at the bottom of the orchard and it is not a place where the horses habitually spend time. Yet after each death the others have spent a period of about a week standing or lying on the grave, being quiet with each other and showing courtesy to even the lowest in the group.

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Griton & Corazon

Since he was captured as a two year old, Griton spent the least amount of time with a wild group. He would very much like to be a bully and without Corazon's quiet influence, he undoubtedly would be. There are a lot of 'ifs' in this equation…if Griton had been in the band before Corazon, if Griton were older than Corazon, if Corazon were less likable, Griton might have actually become that bully. As it is, Griton is continually moderated by his desire to stay in Corazon's favor.

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Griton & Corazon

Mike's new horse, Llego, has only been here twelve days and already peace has been restored to the group. Corazon has befriended him and exchanges grooming. Griton tries to ignore him, especially when Corazon is interacting with Llego. And Valeroso, well, his little nose is still a bit bent out of shape but he is accepting that his only way to be part of the group is by minding his manners. I think the most telling sign of the integrated group was seeing Llego, Corazon and Griton all drinking from the water trough at the same time this afternoon. I have no doubt Valeroso would have been in there too if the trough were just a bit larger. 

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Llego, Corazon & Griton

Changing Herd Dynamics

June 9, 2006

This month our small bachelor herd of mustangs increased to four with the addition of Mike's new horse. All of our horses were born wild and spent time as part of free roaming bachelor bands. Griton was two on his capture date, Corazon and Llego were three year olds and little Valeroso about four. They each had time to develop unique personalities and behaviors within a male group before learning how to live in the human world.

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Llego, Valeroso, Griton, Corazon

Corazon is what I call a benevolent alpha and what Mark Rashid refers to as a passive leader. These are horses who never fight to become leaders; it's more like they are elected. They are calm and quiet and avoid conflict unless given no other option. If there happens to be a bully in the group, the benevolent one will just avoid him and gradually the rest of the group will be found around his quiet influence.

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Griton & Corazon

Corazon and Griton have been together the longest, a little over a year, and have a well established friendship. Griton on his own could easily become a bully, and tries to at times. When he does get aggressive with the others though, Corazon simply walks away or avoids him and Griton must stop his activities to stay with his friend. I've used Corazon's example many times to discourage undesirable behavior in the herd…I either walk away or turn my attention to another horse. When the trouble maker discovers he has been left on the outside, he learns to keep his manners in line.

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Corazon, Griton & Valeroso behind

Valeroso joined our group about six months ago. He spent the longest time in the wild and has had the least amount of work with humans. At not much over thirteen hands, he is tiny compared to the others but his spirit is huge. Valeroso comes from an area of New Mexico where there isn't much forage or water and his small band was harassed by people on ATVs. With his very crooked front legs, we think his naturally aggressive behavior is what helped him to survive. He and Griton went from being play buddies when he first arrived, to an uneasy tolerance as the two butted heads for position.

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Griton & Valeroso

Llego joined our herd just a week ago after only eight months in captivity. He is calm by nature and I think may turn out to be another benevolent alpha like Corazon, though he is much more willing to respond to a challenge than Corazon is. Initially Valeroso was completely infatuated with him and followed him as close as a shadow. Griton challenged Llego but when Corazon avoided the conflicts, he quickly has settled down. At this point there are only small skirmishes between Griton and Llego. For the most part, I am seeing them calmly standing together swishing flies with Corazon sandwiched between Griton and Llego and getting the benefit of both their tails.

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Llego & Valeroso

Valeroso has sadly caused himself to be left on the outside as the others increasingly follow Corazon's lead by avoiding the trouble makers. Just a couple of days after Llego arrived, Valeroso began challenging everyone but Corazon for their food. They seem to recognize he is not a threat, but when he charges them with penned ears, bared teeth and kicking, they respond by chasing him away. It is sad to see Valeroso standing by himself; but the others are teaching him what is acceptable behavior within the group. The same thing happened during the first couple of months after Valeroso joined the group and I expect this is a process that will resolve itself by the end of summer as the group becomes adjusted to its new member. If he approaches calmly, they already allow him back into their circle, even sharing piles of hay with him.

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Valeroso

It has been a little over three weeks now since I started Corazon's diet to hopefully help him avoid developing insulin resistance. I am not seeing weight loss at this point and quite frankly, I would be concerned if he dropped weight too quickly. What I do see is a less distended, bloated looking belly. I took the photo below just this evening. Because he is standing on a slope in this photo, his back feet are parked a bit behind him and this makes it a little difficult to exactly compare to the one below it taken on May 17th. I think you can see what I mean about the change in belly shape though.

Taken June 8, 2006:

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Taken May 17, 2006:

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I have fine tuned what and how I am feeding him in several ways. I started weighing out his hay and I am giving him three pounds of grass hay, three times per day. Morning and evening Corzon receives one pound (dry weight) of thoroughly rinsed and soaked beet pulp. Both morning and evening he receives 1/4 cup canola oil with two teaspoons cinnamon and his other supplements are given in the evening only. I have found if I stick to this diet exactly, he remains very content and will even leave a bit of his thin flake of hay. Deviate in the slightest way by adding so much as one sugary treat like a horse cookie, bit of apple etc. and he becomes a ravenous monster scouring the ground for any tiny piece of hay or other forage.

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I can't believe it's been a month since my horse injured his left front hoof. Where does time go? I took an updated photo of his sole to see how it had changed in a month. Here is the shot taken right after the injury showing the large chunk of bar and sole he knocked out. He undoubtly did it while running across the mountain and hitting a sharp rock. This caused a very bad bruise and extreme lameness –

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Here it is two weeks later showing the effects of a 2" rain cleaning things up –

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And here is the one I just took –

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Wow! Exfoliating sole and some wall to actually trim! Looks like that big chunk of frog is working it's way off too. You can also see where he is continuing to maintain a just off center toe rocker. I'm going to have to take a careful look at his heels. It's hard to tell in this photo but it looks like one side might be wearing more than the other. This may not look very pretty but I'm hoping all of this loose stuff means we have a hoof that is actually starting to function.