Fishing For Mustangs
By Frank Bell

John Sharp has forgotten more about horses than most of us will ever know. He's been at it about eighty years and in the last two of those years has taught me the art of using the bamboo pole to make first contact in the gentling of mustangs.

I met John in '97. I was doing a benefit demonstration for a handicapped riding program in north Denver when he asked the question "How would you catch a difficult horse in the round pen?" "I find a good cowboy who can rope and let him do it. I can take it from there", I replied with a smile. He liked that answer as he saw someone who knew his limitations and didn't pretend to be something he wasn't. Later, after the show he asked me to work with a difficult mustang that was at the Horse Protection League. We arranged to meet a couple of days later at the end of a clinic I was doing. Sure enough he was there with the two year old in a stock trailer.

"I can get a rope on him if you'd like," he offered. We only had a big indoor arena to work in and no confined area, so that would have to do. Out came the 12' bamboo pole and a length of ½" cotton rope with a loop on the end. "Now we'll do a little fishing", he informed me as he wrapped the rope around the end of the pole and left about three feet dangling. He eased the pole over the horse's back draping the rope on the other side and leaving it hang there. Then he proceeded to get the loop with the pole and pull it back to himself. With a loop around the horse's neck he then formed another loop which ended up over the horse's nose. "There. Now you can get some work done and have some control", he informed me with a smile. My mouth was probably so wide open it was catching flies.

We opened the door of the stock trailer and out rushed the mustang. I grabbed the end of the rope and off we went all over that arena. Eventually I was able to get the horse circling and get a hand on him, then it was just a matter of time. John watched very closely and when I had the horse in hand and quieted down, came over. "I like the way you work. It's quite similar to the way I do it, that is once you can touch the horse. Here's a little book I wrote a few years back that might come in handy when needing some special knots. I hope we get a chance to work together some day. You're not a cowboy, but a good hand just the same."

We stayed in touch with a few letters and phone calls. He invited me to one of his clinics, which I could not attend though really wanted to be there, but had a prior commitment. Then I was invited to participate in the first Wild Horse Workshop in Antioch, CA in late September of '98. It was organized by a local mustang club in conjunction with the B.L.M. who managed the wild horses in the area. I agreed to come, but insisted that John Sharp be invited as well, knowing his wealth of knowledge would greatly benefit everyone. He'd told me a couple of stories of using the bamboo pole to make initial contact, but I wanted to see it work and figured there was a lot to learn for all of us. Truer words have never been spoken. John Sharp stole the show with his technique. By the time the week was over I was a complete convert. I was predictably gentling wild horses in 1-2 hours, literally turning them into puppy dogs with their heads hanging in my arms just loving being with the human. There is absolutely no violence nor abuse, but an extremely sensible solution to gentling these creature in the most humane method imaginable and doing it quickly by comparison to conventional techniques. Furthermore, almost anyone can do this and most people have the simple requirements right in their backyard.


A 24' square pen is ideal with 6' walls and two extra panels attached in one corner and hinged in the middle. That panel will remain closed until needed. It seems best to allow the horse to settle for awhile before entering the pen and the length of time completely depends on the temperament of the horse. Ten minutes would be a good place to start. The handler then enters the pen staying in the middle and allows the horse to accept his presence. Avoid direct eye contact and maintain a non-threatening posture as the horse settles and accepts the handler's presence. Using a 12' bamboo pole allows the handler to reach the horse at any time. Begin by allowing the horse to see the pole in front, then over his head, then behind, moving the pole slowly, but with purpose. Some horses will rush right through the pole, bumping it and ignoring it. It may be necessary to tap the horse on the nose to gain the respect of the pole to contain the horse. What you're after is the horse stopping in a corner and settling. Using body language and the pole in front of the horse, this is usually accomplished inside ten minutes or so. Place the pole on the horse's withers pressing down firmly. Again avoid eye contact and assume a non-threatening posture.

This is a soothing spot for all horses. This is where they nuzzle each other, so we are using nature's gift to help settle the horse. When the horse seems settled, begin sawing (fiddling as John says) back and forth using probably 3 lbs of pressure. Work up the neck along the mane, then down the back to the dock of the tail. Watch closely for what feels good and what bothers the horse. Drift into the problem areas for a moment, then leave and go back to the familiar. When the horse does get bothered or leaves, go back to the firm pressing in the wither area to settle and reassure. From here it's a matter of exploring out farther and farther as the horse gains confidence. Using the end of the pole to scratch the back, rump, and neck areas can gain the horse's confidence fast since it feels good, just like rubbing on a fence or bush, but the handler is doing it for the horse. As the confidence grows work the pole under the neck, then down the chest and the front legs. The same with the back legs. Run the pole back and forth on the rump, then down the back legs watching closely as some will kick violently. In that case, stay high, but stay with it until it's not a problem inching into the difficult areas a little at a time. The most difficult area seems to be in the girth as it's never been touched. Work the end of the pole from the withers down the side maintaining contact if possible, then place the pole firmly in the girth area pushing up with firm pressure and hold. Many horses will try to escape, but try to keep the pole in place even if the horse moves. It's basically the same everywhere. You are teaching the horse to deal with the touching and maybe even like it. And they all seem to get there eventually. It's a game of finesse, just as it is in all aspects of horsemanship. Before long the horse is accepting touch everywhere and actually enjoying it in some places immensely. Scratching the rump area vigorously with the end of the pole worked consistently for me.

Now depending on the horse's level of comfort, the handler will be easing in slowly closer and closer all the time working his way up the pole. Before long the horse will take a sniff of the pole or an elbow or even your face. Just allow it to happen and maybe some soothing words like
"easy . . . easy". When close enough, the hand will replace the pole touching initially with the back of the hand in the shoulder, neck, wither area. When the hand is working well and the horse is accepting the closeness, ease the pole to the ground or outside the pen with a minium of disturbance, then begin rubbing and scratching all over, but bearing in mind that the wither area is the comfort zone, all the while talking soothingly and reassuringly. I prefer to keep one hand in the shoulder, neck, wither area and explore with the other drifting into new areas then back to familiar. Every horse is different and will accept different and varying touch. I call this process "search touching". Some horses will not be comfortable with the handler that close or even allow touching. The point is to be able to touch the horse pretty much everywhere with the pole before getting in close and using the hand. Some will move along fast and accept almost everything while others will be very wary. In either scenario, once the pole has been everywhere, and the hands where they can, it's time for the chute.


Back off and open the chute wide enough for the horse to enter easily. Drive the horse in then close quickly and rope off securely. I prefer to have the panels open enough to allow the horse enough room to get turned. The horse should be ready for this step and not freak out. Have a sharp knife nearby. Even at this point pretty wild things can happen. Lots of soothing words all the time. Again, allow the horse to settle and if agitated, use the pole to help relax while easing in closer and closer. Once secure move to the shoulder area and begin stroking, again maintaining contact in that area while exploring the rest of the horse's body. From here it's a matter of using good judgement as the horse becomes comfortable. Ease the chute closed to the point of almost touching the horse and secure. A competent assistant can begin on the other side, though careful not to overload the horse. At the workshops we would eventually have four or even five people stroking the horse everywhere. But this has to be gaged and is completely dependent on the horse's temperament. When the horse is accepting and even enjoying the touch, it's time to do John's rope treatment process.


Using a length of soft cotton rope begin sawing the rope around the horse's neck gently running it up and down the neck on all sides. Experiment with the pressure, but a fair amount seems to settle the horse and get them used to touch and the feel of the rope. A handler on each side can work together in this process as the legs, girth, belly, and flanks are gently exposed to the cotton rope as it touches the horse's body everywhere. Again caution in not moving too fast or creating too much pressure. Most horse love this process. This could easily take a half hour and should not be rushed, but gaged to the horse. When this has been accepted, it's time to slip on the soft rope halter with a 12' lead. The handler will climb up on the panel above the horse being certain the horse sees him above with each eye. In other words be sure the horse sees you out of the left eye as you are overhead, then the other side by leaning over and tilting the head to the right. This will prepare the horse for riding later. Now slip the halter over the nose and secure of the left side. Again giving the horse some time to settle and adequate reassurance is always a good idea. If the horse is doing well in the chute some facial exploration is a good idea as well. Stroking under the chin, rubbing the eyes, ears, and getting in the mouth are all big steps if the timing is right. Remember the horse can explode at any time, so caution in the placement of hands through the metal panel is greatly advised. Offering the horse a bit of hay or any kind of food is also advisable during this work in the chute. A horse that is eating is a relaxed animal- period.


With the halter on, begin asking the horse to lead and back in the chute. The help of an assistant to encourage from behind can speed up the leading process. Usually with good timing the horse will be leading, backing, yielding his head laterally and lowering his head within a short time. Remember to reward for the smallest try, the slightest change. This isn't about perfect leading, but an understanding. This will help dramatically when the chute is opened and the horse is asked to lead in the 24' x 24' pen.

From here it's a matter of opening the chute and allowing the horse to move with the lead for a few minutes, then picking it up and teaching the most basic of all steps in the training of horses, take and give which was initiated in the chute. I have a very specific routine that I use on all horses regardless of age or issue in which I teach the horses to yield to pressure, accept a variety of challenging stimuli, which I call desensitizing, then teach the horse to dance which I call ballet on the ground. When the horse understands this process, then it's time for the saddle, and when given the invitation by the horse, the rider.

I have observed and personally worked a wide variety of techniques in the gentling of wild horses. Nothing in my experience comes close to this bamboo pole process followed by the chute and rope treatment, then teaching the horse to yield to pressure. We all have John Sharp to thank for sharing his vast knowledge that is rapidly revolutionizing the way mustangs are gentled and will be for generations to come.

My 7-step safety system is well explained in my foundation video "Discover the Horse You Never Knew" and is exactly where I am headed after working the above process with every single mustang or with any horse for that matter. The Dances With Horses audio/video library also includes: "Starting the Young Horse, Working With Young Horses, Mounting the Difficult Horse AND Problem Foot-handling, Trailer Loading, Spooking/Shying, Water/Bridges, Communication in the Saddle, Retraining the Racehorse, A Day in the Life of a Horsewhisperer, and Solving 7 Common Problems including catching the difficult horse, proper foot handling, ears/clippers, bitting and bridling, pullback problems, herd bound, and barn sour. These videos and audio book 'The Gentle Solution' along with clinic information and our other products can be ordered off our Dances With Horses web site at or calling 800-871-7635.

Frank Bell has specialized for years in helping horses through their people problems. Bell is truly a horsewhisperer. He has pioneered a practical set of exercises to help the horse and the rider reach higher ground. This 7 Step Safety System is being used worldwide with predictable success. Frank's company Dances With Horses offer a variety of products including an audio/video library to help equestrians achieve their goals. Frank's safety system has been featured in major equine publications worldwide. Ordering: 800-871-7635. Join the Gentle Solution Revolution at:

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Updated: October 2005.