Taming a wild horse Funderburg’s latest challenge
- Published: July 5, 2018
By Kayla Graham
Laura Funderburg is no stranger to horses or life on the farm. She has been around horses for as long as she can remember growing up on Funderburg Farm, which has been in her family since 1885. The farm is located on East Hyde Road, near the Riding Centre, tucked back on a gravel road, opening to fields of horses and rolling hills.
Heading down the gravel driveway to the farm, one can imagine how easy it would be to fall in love with this land and these horses. The sights, sounds and smells transport you from the busy town of Yellow Springs, to the smell of hay and horses, the view of barns, fields and fences, the sounds of barking farm dogs, and running horses. You can forget where you are, as Funderburg says, “It takes you to a different world, and can sometimes be hard to leave.”
Funderburg has been training horses for 15 years, and it is evident that the learning is a two-way street. Horses are very straightforward, she said; they are what they are. The animal becomes a mirror, showing her what she brings to the table each day. Horses test her emotional fitness and challenge her to be the best version of herself, she said.
“Horses are nature in its finest form. They represent fairness and honesty, everything that we should be,” she said.
Self-awareness is key as a trainer in Funderburg’s view; a trainer must have the ability to control fear, frustration and even showing too much joy or excitement, as this might overwhelm and spook the horse, undoing a lot of hard work.
“It takes an unlimited amount of patience to train,” she said. “Don’t get mean or mad, just carry on.”
This year, Funderburg is putting her training skills to the test by participating in the second annual Appalachian Trainer Face Off, which will be held Aug. 24 and 25 in Winfield, W. Va. One of only 14 trainers nationwide chosen for the competition, she is tasked with training a wild horse.
The horse that Funderburg is working is named Queso, or as she affectionately calls her, Little Cheese. Queso is about nine years old and is one of three completely feral mares in the competition. She was part of a wild herd that was rounded up in January of 2017 from Bourbon County, Va. This is Funderburg’s first time training a horse from the wild and she says she has learned a lot. Through the horse’s sensitivity, she has had to learn to get her timing just right.
The training technique that Funderburg uses comes from the Parelli Natural horsemanship method, a training method based on principles of understanding horse psychology and using natural approaches of communicating and building trust during the training process.
“I have to teach her not to be afraid of unusual things in her environment, she has to learn to trust me, that I want to be her leader, and I want her to trust and respect me,” she said. “She needs to feel confident to go where I ask her to go.”
Much of the training consists of a combination of mental and physical challenges. One of the key components is teaching Queso to relax by keeping her head down when different objects, such as a plastic bag on a stick, trigger a fear response. Getting the horse used to objects in its sight-lines above or behind the ears, which can be scary, is a necessary part of training them to be ridden, Funderburg said.
It’s also important to allow the horse “soak time” or down time, to give them space to absorb the information for the mental changes to take place, she said. “Horses need time to be peaceful; they are motivated more by safety and comfort than they are by food. So this time for relaxation is key for any lasting change to take effect.”
The Heart Of Phoenix Equine Rescue, a nonprofit organization, located in West Virginia, hosts the Appalachian Trainer Face Off. The organization focuses on finding homes for abandoned and neglected horses in Appalachia. According to Funderburg, “People let them go and they breed and wander the roads. The horses are usually scrawny and there are skeletons everywhere.”
The competition not only assists in finding homes for the horses, but is also a platform to spread awareness for the neglected horses in Appalachia. Funderburg is also hoping to bring awareness to how much time and effort the volunteers put into rescuing these horses.
“I want people to realize it hits closer to home, and that they may be surprised to hear that all of this is happening only a three-hour drive from Yellow Springs,” she said.
The trainers in the Face Off have 100 days total with their horses before showing them before a panel of judges to be scored on a point system. The set includes a trail, an obstacle course and a free-style performance. The hope is that by the end of the two days, the horses will be adopted into new homes and given a fresh start. Training is key to adoption because, as Funderburg puts it, “uneducated horses don’t get homes.”
One of the perks of the competition is that the trainers get recognition for the work that they do with the horses. The Appalachian Trainer Face Off has a large Facebook following. Trainers and their horses have their own separate Facebook page where they keep daily postings so that people can follow their progress.
If you are interested in following Laura Funderburg and Queso, you can find them on Facebook under Laura Funderburg-Appalachian Trainer Face Off.