MURRAY — To most people, the idea that a horse that has spent most of its life roaming freely, far removed from humans, can be trained is just simply not attainable.
Greg Reynolds, though, runs to such an opportunity. A longtime horse trainer from Marshall County, Reynolds is part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover program that is led by the Mustang Heritage Foundation. That organization literally takes these wild animals and turns them into serviceable creatures.
During last week’s Wild Mustang and Burro Adoption event in Murray – held by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management – Reynolds was present to give demonstrations of how this can be done. His shows left the crowd at the Cherry Expo Center on the Murray State University campus in amazement. Though only exposed for a short time to the animals with which he was working, he made significant progress.
As he would work, he would explain each step, starting with what he said is the first and probably most important step.
“First off, I don’t want to let him hang out by the (the metal gate that surrounded him and the young white mustang that was his subject) because that’s where they want to be,” Reynolds said as he engaged in what is called “lunging,” where he allowed the horse to run in a circle around him. “I’m moving his feet and I’m moving him forward. When he stops moving his feet, I’m going to re-engage, which means I’m going to point and cluck and raise my stick up, maybe spank the ground, and see if we can get him going a little faster.”
With every step from that point, Reynolds said the idea was to make the horse think, along with realizing he was not in charge of his domain anymore. However, he also said the key to success was not to be authoritarian with the animal, and that consideration must be given that the horse was in a completely different world and was quite nervous.
That was why when the mustang – quite unexpectedly to the audience – decided to venture to the fence and actually smell people’s arms, Reynolds called this a good thing.
“That’s OK,” he said. “If he wants to stop and smell something like a saddle (which was also hanging over the gate) for a minute, then I’m going to back off and take that pressure off and leave him alone for a minute. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity, even though it might not be my goal at the moment, let him take the opportunity to say, ‘Hey! Can I check this out?’ I’ll say, ‘Yes sir!’
“So by doing that, he’s already showing some signs that he’s going to have a little common sense.”
Meanwhile, and rather subtly, Reynolds was steadily doing something that may or may not have been noticed by the audience. The distance between the horse and him was getting smaller, and with time, he let the horse run around him. Then, the horse stopped and looked at his human counterpart, presenting a kind of chewing motion with his mouth.
Reynolds said this is one of the five signs that the horse was relaxing, therefore making himself more trainable.
“Licking and chewing is one. Lowering their head is another. Blinking their eyes is another good one and if they take a deep sigh, that’s another,” he said. “Also, cocking his hind leg is another, so if your horse gives you any of those signs, or a combination of those signs, you see him start relaxing. That’s how he is processing what’s happening.
“Oh, I haven’t explained this yet, but pressure and release are a very important principle when it comes to teaching a horse, when it comes to handling a horse. Horses are motivated by pressure, but they need that release, so when you’ve worked with him for a bit, let him back off and have a chance to think a minute and process.”
A few minutes later, after Reynolds resumed the session, the horse jerked and ran from him after hearing a sudden squeak of a nearby gate. Reynolds did not try to stop him and said that the reaction of the human in a situation like that is as important as the reaction of the horse.
“It’s important not to have big reactions. When your horse reacts like that, he’s looking for leadership and if you jump like you’ve been shot every time he moves his feet, then you’re going to kind of enhance that jumpiness in him,” he said. “But if I learn to kind of chill and not have any reaction when he reacts, then I don’t let him run over the top of me, you know? If I can just kind of stand here and relax with him, that helps him out.”
Just then, Reynolds acknowledged a song playing over the Expo Center public address system, a country number from Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers from several years ago called “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Loved.” Reynolds became whimsical, a sign that he was in complete control of the moment.
“Ya’ll are going to have to excuse me. I’m going to have turn my microphone off for a bit because this is a song where I’ve got to sing along,” he said, drawing laughter, then answering a common question. “People ask me, ‘Do you talk to your horse?’ Well, as you’ve seen, I’m talking the whole time we’re doing this, but I think your voice can have some influence on them to a point. Still, you know horses are not capable of understanding full sentences.
“They’re not capable at this point of understanding words, but I can start to build some words into his vocabulary. When I ask him to stop by how I’m positioning my body and say, (in a low voice, no exclamation) ‘Whoa,’ he’ll start to hear that word and he’ll start to associate that sound with moving his feet.”
In a total of 25 minutes, Reynolds worked with the horse before eventually closing the distance to where they were perhaps 5 feet from each other. It was at this point that he used his long stick to reach out and touch the horse’s face. After a few nervous quivers, the horse stood still and allowed several rubs with the stick.
“This stick is nothing more than an extension of my hand, so if he’ll touch this stick, he’s making progress in the direction of touching my hand,” he said, uttering “Good boy!” as the horse appeared to take a small nibble of the object. “Let him play with it a little bit. Let him be curious about it. He’s trying.
“You just hold it up against him and let him start to see that that feels good.”