Science of Mustanging

Animal Welfare in Wild Horse


Mustang holding facilities represent a unexplored laboratory for the application of behavioral-analytic principles. Managers of these captive animals should become cognizant of the role of applied learning in their profession just as zookeepers have done in the last 20 years. Implementation of applied behavior analysis in the handling of wild horses, not only will benefit the work of the holding facility personnel, but extends directly to the adopting public.
Holding Facilities

Wild horses have to get adopted but science has not found its way to the post-capture part of the process.

The wild horse management programs have a mission to find adoptive homes for the animals captured and removed from their herd areas. While the managing agencies have focused their investigations on land carrying capacities, birth control and behavior of horses in the wild, little scientific attention has been paid to the post-capture elements of the process.  Our research is one of the first forays into this world, which has largely been considered the domain of stockmen and not of students of Equine Science. The wild horse management programs promote adoption to all eligible citizens without regard to their prior horse experience but the conversion of wild horses to trained horses is not trivial. The risk of failure is high for the average adopter. The availability of pre-tamed mustangs for adoption can limit this risk of failure but is limited to a few facilities. Mustang Camp aims to provide a management tool to make pre-adoption gentling easier and more effective to manage. It is our aim to take the process out  of the realm of anecdotes and put it in the light of quantifiable results.

Training starts in the mustang holding facility, intentionally or not.

Upon capture, the mustang begins to learn to operate in the human environment. Their initial perceptions and attitudes about humans and captivity are formed by their post-capture experience. All interactions with humans during this time, whether intentional training or incidental contact, are equal parts of the initial equine experience. Some of the basic elements of wild horse management, such as freeze branding, tagging, and gelding are highly aversive experiences for the animals. Little attention is typically paid to providing the animals with positive experiences. Undesirable behaviors, such as running away from humans, may be repetitively practiced to form habits that will be difficult to break. Each aspect of the human-mustang interaction has potential to affect the long term welfare of the horses.

Bad horse-training has serious consequences for the horse and the adopter and the adoption process

It is recognized that in domestic horses, poor handling and training leads to problem horses whose values and welfare are compromised. As one leading horse trainer, Richard Shrake, put it, “Sure you could ride them ... but you couldn’t get any refinement. A crude beginning made for a crude result”. In the past, when bad training resulted in unmanageable horses they could be disposed of at slaughter. Without easy ways to dispose of incorrectly trained horses, we need to plan the conversion of wild horses to tame horses in light of the many years this relationship will be expected to last.

The factors that contribute to the success or failure of mustang adoption should be objectively studied through a formal follow-up survey, but that is yet to be done. Most mustang adopters are happy to tell you why they succeeded or failed. A common problem is that the adopter simply can’t catch the animal. When it is too dangerous or traumatic to interact with the animal, often the human gives up trying. This sets the stage for neglect. Adoption agencies can increase the adopters’ chance for success by pre-adoption gentling. Increasing the likelihood of forming a positive human-animal relationship may influence more people to consider adopting a mustang.

There is an opportunity to fix this problem if we apply science to it.

Psychology provides models for optimizing behavioral interventions (training) which can be applied to mustang taming. The scientific approach can show us ways to tame more mustangs faster, more efficiently, and more lastingly. We have the opportunity to identify components in the mustang holding-facility environment that either enhance or interfere with building a positive mustang-human relationship. The approach to optimization involves study of both the overall result and the individual components that contribute to the relationship. The constant turnover in animals up for adoption provides the perfect environment to hone our taming effectiveness through an iterative process of trial / analysis / revision / trial.

Equine Science and Animal Welfare have uncovered many new principles that can guide us in the selection of methods.

We have no guidelines to follow, but must develop a science of mustang training from scratch because we can no longer accept preventable wastage resulting from improper handling. Traditional horse training practices cannot be assumed to be effective or humane. Practices involving domination or confrontation can be more effectively replaced with protocols focused on fear reduction through clarity, consistency and kindness. It has been demonstrated that positive handling procedures in the early stages of the human-horse relationship gets ingrained in the horses mind and can create long lasting positive results. Aversive protocols and delivery, in contrast, can create confusion and stress, elicit agonistic behaviors or compromise the animals willingness to try. Science has shown the importance of predictability and control in the reduction of stress. We now have the understanding to develop more effective and humane training practices. We need to eliminate current practices that lead to intractable and dangerous animals, ready to fight or flee for their lives.