2022 Award Winner — Dayna Roberts, RVT

Dayna grew up in Upstate New York, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Equine Science and Management from SUNY Morrisville. She went on to further her education attending Penn Foster, where she obtained her Veterinary Technology Degree and became a Registered Veterinary Technician.  Dayna uses her Fear Free certification to advocate and educate about the importance of recognizing our pet’s emotional needs. She enjoys spending her time working with her Bureau of Land Management (BLM) feral mustang horses, where she has truly learned how deep a human animal bond can become.

Dayna Roberts, RVT

Wild to Mild: Gaining the Trust of a Feral Mustang

Growing up with a passion for horses, I always dreamed one day I would be able to adopt a feral Mustang from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The thought of being able to take an untouched horse and gentle them sounded like an amazing journey. Growing up, I’ve always had a passion for the equine world and seized every opportunity to become more involved and develop my skills; however, I knew getting a feral mustang would be an entirely new challenge. Since these horses are rounded up from the wild, their full prey instincts are still intact causing them to be very apprehensive and questionable of their surroundings. Of course, to them, humans are seen as a predator.

When I finally had the correct resources available to adopt one of these horses out of holding, I jumped at the opportunity. I adopted a 3-year-old grey gelding from Green Mountain, Wyoming. When pick up day arrived, he was loaded onto our trailer through a system of chutes and just like that, we embarked on this journey. When we unloaded, he came right off and pranced around snorting and checking out his new home. We kept our distance at first to let him acclimate and settle in. It was amazing to witness how in tune he was with any movement in his surroundings such as the slightest movement of my foot in his direction from 30 feet away would send him into alert!

Seeing how aware he was of every movement I made, I really had to elevate my ability to read his body language. I understood horses learn from the release of pressure, but I had to be extra sharp to give him releases and just as importantly, at the correct time. It started with releasing to just the flick of an ear in my direction. Through patience, dedication, and time our bond grew and he slowly began to allow me into his space more and more. Even though I was getting to the point of leading him about and being able to brush him, there was an underlying tenseness I still felt in him. He was allowing me to do these things, but I did not have his full trust. I reached out to a very experienced trainer in our area to seek help in gaining his full trust. This is where I was introduced to positive reinforcement training (+R). We started with simple behaviors like “touch it”, where I would hold an object up and if he touched it with his nose, he got a treat. We built on this behavior and it helped me clearly communicate what I was asking, as my body language was not always as clear. Within just a few training sessions I could see the tension melt away. He was now seeking to be with me and searching for things to do to earn him a reward. I’m proud to say that the hard work and patience has paid off, as we spend many hours riding and competing together.

Now I am working with my second BLM mustang and the learning continues. Although they are both feral horses, they couldn’t have more completely different personalities. This mustang is much less fearful and is full of curiosity. I have partnered positive reinforcement with his curiosity to gain his trust, which is working quite well! But again, there was a feeling of underlying tension. I decided one day to just sit outside his corral with no expectations but to just relax and hang out. I kicked my feet up and began reading.  His curiosity got the best of him and he couldn’t resist. He had to walk over and investigate these feet kicked up on his corral. He sniffed and nosed my feet, then went to eat hay, and did this a few times. Then he came over and decided to take a nap right by me; he dozed of, woke, ate some hay, came back over to rest. This time though he started to let out tension releasing signs. He started to blink more followed by licking and chewing, then yawning. He proceeded to take a nice long roll in front of me. I could tell at this time he was relaxing with me in his presence. The next day I went in to work with him and I could immediately tell a difference. He seemed much more relaxed and started to let me on the side of him, which he was very hesitant to prior. It was amazing to see the switch for him came from me just being with him without expectations.

I still have my first mustang and we have accomplished more then I ever could have imagined when I first got him. As I had anticipated it was not always easy, but it was definitely worth it. I am amazed at the amount of forgiveness these animals have when we make mistakes. The trust earned and built with these horses can create a powerful bond. I will be forever grateful to the lessons I have learned from these experiences. It continues to push me out of my comfort level and think out of the box while recognizing each animal as an individual with different needs. It is easy in such a fast-paced world to forget the subtle ways animals are telling us how they feel and all we need to do is slow down, watch, and listen.