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“Would you like to see his favorite trick?” asks Paige Burnham as she helps her sorrel mustang Nitis bow to a visitor. The visitor, being me, is dumbfounded and all I can do is stand there with my mouth open.
Just three months ago, Nitis (Native American for “Red Boy”) was a wary wild horse, standing in a corner of a pen at the Meeker Fairgrounds. “He was super-reactive,” said Paige. Her mother, Leiah Burnham, agreed.
“When we were up there that day looking at all the horses, I was pretty sure he was going to be one of the tougher ones,” she explained. “Some of them would come over and let people pet them, and he was standing in the back corner with his rear end turned towards you and he’d snort and hit the fence.”
Almost 100 days later, Nitis is saddled and bridled for my visit to Paige’s grandmother’s place in Palisade. The mustang is friendly, curious, and likes to sniff hair. Is that a trust thing? Paige doesn’t know. Just in case, I remove my hat and allow him to snorfle my head.
“He’s not as skinny as he was in June and his mane is all shiny and combed out,” she said. “He measures about 14 hands but he could have grown a little.”
Paige is one of six horse trainers participating in the first Meeker Mustang Makeover. In early June, trainers met at the Meeker Fairgrounds to pick up their horses. Each horse is 2 or 3 years old. All are from the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, west of Meeker. Some were rounded up off the range. Others were sired in the wild and born in captivity.
None of them were halter broke. None of them had any real experience with human beings. There was lots of clanging and banging that day as they were loaded into trailers headed for their new homes.
But, on this early September morning, there was no clanging and banging. No whinying. No wild eyes. In fact, Nitis did a great job loading quietly into the trailer at the end of our visit.
“He really likes to try to please and he’s very sweet,” said Paige. “He loves everything about people now.”
At 21, Paige is confident about her animal training skills. “I’ve always been around animals,” she explained. “We have a picture of me on a horse when I was 2 or 3 days old so it’s not been something I’ve grown up without.”
She was in 4H and showed dairy goats. Then came a pony and some horses that she trained herself. She said she never officially learned how to train a mustang. “I just kind of feel out what he’s wanting to do.” She added that Nitis was food-motivated at first, very hungry. “So, I just worked with him and saw what wasn’t going to work and what was going to work, “she said.
Once Nitis was halter broke, which took four people and half a day, Paige used positive reinforcement techniques to teach him to accept bridle, saddle, rider, and to walk, trot, and canter. And, bow. “He’s clicker-trained, like a dog,” she said. “When I ask him to bow, he bows. I click and then he gets a treat.
Positive reinforcement is different than the common pressure and release training. The technique of offering rewards for desired behaviors caught on in the 1940s with dolphins and circus animals, according to Tim Sullivan, Curator of Behavioral Husbandry at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Since then, techniques have improved and are gaining popularity, particularly with equine and canine trainers.
Paige trains service dogs for Wings-and-Warriors, which provides service dogs for military veterans and others who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or traumatic brain injuries. “That’s where I was first introduced to clicker training,” she said.
After a clinic last year at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo with Shawna Karrasch, a former Sea World trainer who has used positive reinforcement with dolphins, Paige was hooked. She tried it with Nitis, who did not respond well to pressure and release. “It’s really helped him a lot,” she said.
But, Nitis’ training has not been without challenges. He was in reaction mode for a long time. “A couple months in, he was still running to the back of the pen when I got there because, mentally, he was very scared,” she explained.
Getting on the horse was another challenge for both of them. It was difficult to put the saddle on him plus she had her own fears, stemming from an accident a few years ago while dismounting a horse.
But, they’ve both put those fears behind them, which is a testament to the trust between trainer and horse.
Paige believes that even though Nitis is still a mustang, he’s no longer a wild horse. She said if Nitis were turned loose on the range, now that he’s acclimated to a trusted human, he’d come home. “If he were turned out before I worked with him, he probably would have run off but not anymore.”
She and Nitis are almost ready for the final competition on Friday, Sept. 6 at the Meeker Sheepdog Trials. Each trainer will take his or her horse through a series of tests, including an obstacle course, a freestyle event, and cutting a cow from a herd. So far, Nitis has passed most of those tests with flying colors. But, things could change in a strange setting in front of a crowd.
Paige has also made a tough choice: She’s decided to offer Nitis for auction.
It’s obvious that there is a love affair going on between horse and rider but Paige has her hands full with her Andalusian mare. She said she’ll be happy if a kind, caring person adopts Nitis. “I’m willing to work with them, to show them how I’ve trained him and what he needs,” she said before choking up. “As long as his new owner’s nice to him, that’s all I want is that he’ll be taken care of,” she said through tears. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”