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Life Lessons on the Ranch

Haven for mustangs gives humans a glimpse of their own behavior.


LOMPOC — As afternoon clouds chase shadows over rolling hills in the Jalama Valley north of Santa Barbara, a band of eight hikers ascends a ridge in silence. They are seeking a peculiar encounter between horses and humans. Up above them, a herd of 11 mustangs pricks their ears forward in attention, lining up like sentries.

Seeing this, the humans freeze, following the cue of their own "lead mare," a woman named Neda DeMayo. With the single-mindedness of a flock of birds, they angle their bodies away from the horses and stand still. Any sudden movement, they have been told, might provoke a stampede.

The hikers have come from all over Southern California to see the wild mustang herds roaming about DeMayo's 4-year-old horse sanctuary called Return to Freedom ranch and to learn from her mentor, horse trainer Carolyn Resnick. Their visit comes at a time when Congress is considering whether to allocate about $30 million over the next four years to drastically reduce the population of the remaining 48,000 wild mustangs on public lands. People like DeMayo fear for the mustangs' future.

DeMayo and Resnick have given the hikers detailed instructions for approaching the herd, whose contacts with humans have been minimal. Most were rounded up by helicopter in Oregon and now have occasional encounters like this with visitors. The humans are not to face the horses, which instinctively flee creatures that move toward them, just as they will follow anything that moves away. Instead they sidestep their way slowly up through wheat-like grass. Eventually they come within a few yards of the herd. They keep their eyes cast down, checking the mustangs with their peripheral vision.

Two of the horses are chestnut-colored, one black and one roan. Three babies poke about among them. The black horse makes a show of pushing two younger horses away from the people.

"He's just the cop," DeMayo explains softly. "He's dominant, but he's not a leader. When it comes to water, food and sex, he doesn't get a vote." The lead mares and stallions, she points out, stand to the side demurely but would lead the flight to safety in the case of danger.

A chestnut-colored animal steps forward. Freddie, DeMayo calls him. He seems to fear humans less than his companions. Resnick moves forward for a greeting. She runs her hands down Freddie's spine and over his rump, mimicking the kind of ritual grooming common between horses.

She motions for a student and reminds the woman how to greet a wild horse, by first establishing eye contact and then offering the horse a hand. To the quiet delight of the group, the wild horse responds with a nudge to her palm.

The small band of people has come to the Jalama Valley hoping to learn different things from the horses and their human interpreters. Acting teacher Catherine Johnson drove from Ojai with her husband and daughter to learn how to communicate with their two new horses. Dodd Lew, a residential property manager, drove from Santa Ynez because, he says, the plight of orphaned wild mustangs seemed a metaphor for the loneliness he wants to heal in his own life. Screenwriter Susan McCabe drove from Van Nuys to research a script.

"I've been crying since I got here," says McCabe, who was moved to learn how horses instinctively do what is best to preserve the herd, not exactly the mentality in Hollywood. "The lead horse is not the dominant horse, not the most powerful horse. The lead horse is the one with the best ethics."

The Reverse of Traditional Training

Resnick, a diminutive woman in her late 50s with blond hair, grew up playing with wild mustangs in the desert near Indio. She begins her lessons in horse and human behavior on this July weekend with morning sessions in an open-air paddock. A white stallion named Shilo munches alfalfa nearby. Above the paddock, students gaze down on the lesson from a second-story viewing deck.

Traditional horsemanship forces the horse to enter the human world, Resnick says, whereas she operates in the reverse. "I bond myself into his world rather than having him succumb to mine. I work on getting a horse to accept me as family."

Resnick ambles about Shilo as he eats. "You give a horse fear by coming to him with an agenda," Resnick tells her students. "The first part of the bond is to come to the horse with no agenda." Resnick sometimes simply sits at a distance from a new horse, as she did when she was a kid, and reads a book.

After Resnick establishes herself as a benign presence, she then says hello. She waits for Shilo to fix both eyes on her. Then she walks forward tentatively, a hand extended.

Shilo looks away, and Resnick backs off too.

This alerts Shilo that Resnick is receiving the horse's signals. A herd counts on every member to spot mountain lions or wolves. A horse sometimes will run off another member seemingly without provocation. Usually, Resnick says, it means one horse is disciplining another for not returning a glance, not paying attention.

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