Freedom under saddle becomes one smooth-gaited mare

Hope horsewoman readies Wyoming mustang for Aug. 8 Extreme Makeover

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 11:30am

    Three months ago, a skinny, wild roan arrived in at Equine Connections, in Hope. She had never been touched by humans — excepting a rough pass through a round-up chute where a halter was thrown over her head and a tagged rope around her neck. But under Wendy Harvey’s gentle touch, the American mustang has been helped, quietly and persistently, from a being a frightened mare to a increasingly confident horse under saddle and bridle.

    And in less than two weeks, Harvey will be trailering Freedom to Massachusetts to compete in one of a series of Extreme Mustang Makeovers held around the country. It’s showtime for Freedom and Harvey, and if they prove themselves to judges, Harvey is up for a prize of no small purse.

    But really, she just wants to bring Freedom back to Maine, and settle her in here. Harvey did not expect to bond so closely to the mustang — she’s got a number of other horses she adores; but this one, there’s something special about her. 

    Last winter, Harvey entered the Extreme Mustang Makeover project, which is a collaboration of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit, and the federal Bureau of Land Management. The Foundation is dedicated to getting the country’s wild horses and burros adopted, recognizing the value of their blood lines, and what it calls the “beauty, versatility and trainability of the rugged horses.”

    Makeovers are increasingly popular across the country, and not just with mustangs. Other horse rescue organizations use them, whether the animal is from the wild or off the race track.

    With the Mustang Makeover, experienced trainers are chosen through an application process. They then travel to various states — Maryland, Texas, Nevada, and now Massachusetts — to meet the trucks loaded with the horses. It’s a crapshoot about which horse a trainer gets. In Harvey’s case, the roan was quickly herded through a chute and loaded in the back of her trailer. Harvey barely had time to look at her.

    It is a gamble, but even moreso, it became a labor of love for Harvey as she spends the last of a 100-day training period giving all she has in time, experience and horse training knowledge to this five-year-old mare, who otherwise might have been destined for the slaughterhouse.

    Trust the process

    In April, Freedom arrived in Maine, lurching away from any hands that came close. She stayed close to her trailer, and slowly began to nibble at the hay, the grain, and a few treats. At first, carrots were so foreign, she didn’t know what to do with them.

    By May 10, she was following Harvey, seeking attention but still unable to tolerate the human hand on her neck. She was still shedding her winter coat, but beginning to fill out. 

    Every afternoon, Wendy Harvey sat in the middle of a round paddock in a folding chair, bucket of grain in her lap, waiting for Freedom to get closer. Finally, Freedom got up the courage to venture nearby, trusting her enough to nibble comfortably from the bucket.

    Harvey did not move, but spoke gently and constantly to the horse.

    On May 13, Harvey managed to remove the frayed rope that had dangled from her neck for months.

    “I didn't cut the rope off because I was afraid she'd panic at the sound of the scissors so I slowly undid the weave on the metal piece that held the ends together,” she said. “I actually laid my hand on her. She was still pretty squirrely, but she was letting me in.”

    During most of May and June, Harvey spent hours daily, before and after work, testing Freedom’s personal boundaries, waving her hand slowly around her neck, head and body. She swung ropes, and extended her hand, offering treats.

    They developed a slow dance: Harvey would stand next to the mare, and then bend closer, almost touching, but looking away from the horse. Freedom would edge away, her ears moving forward and backward. But when Harvey leaned away from her, Freedom would lean toward Harvey, not wanting to stop the interaction. It became a predictable game, and before long, Freedom’s sense of humor and quiet grace began to emerge.

    All the while, the usual barn commotion continued — dogs raced and barked and nipped, horses nickered nearby, leaning over the fence to watch Freedom, or bucked around each other in the field.  At Equine Connections, on the Gillette Road in Hope, horses rule the roost. They move about at will, sometimes poking through open gates, seeking attention and treats. They are well fed and sassy. 

    Freedom was beginning to feel at home. 

    Fast forward two months, and by mid-July, she was not only enjoying the curry comb over her back and neck, Harvey was climbing into the saddle on her back. A shiny brown coat had replaced the white, and her ribs were imperceptible. 

    It wasn’t an easy few months, however, and she still doesn’t understand commands. But, the mare is trying hard, and going through the paces in the ring. She is now cantering under saddle, a major training development for any horse, let alone a wild mustang.  

    One morning in July, Freedom galloped like the wind, her tail lifted high.

    “This was the first day she actually cut loose and ran,” said Harvey, amazed at the simple gift of movement. 

    They were doing ringwork, with Harvey in the center, ground-driving the mare.

    “When I asked her to canter, she took off, with her tail up off her back,” said Harvey. “She didn’t know that she could move.”

    And then there have been times when Harvey has been thrown off Freedom’s back through the training. 

    “We were walking and trotting, and when I went to dismount, I got halfway down and she panicked,” said Harvey. “So I got dumped. I got on her, back off her, got back on her. Next day, I rode her bareback and she jumped. Then, I tried another saddle on her. It was a fantastic ride. When I went to get off of her, I put my hand on her neck, and she went, ‘no no, no’ and took off. She trotted and trotted, and I finally got her to wind down. I tried to get off, and she panicked. She took off, cantering. She went one way, I went the other. I managed to land on my feet.”

    Harvey’s approach is slow and methodical, and she will admit, there were times when she didn’t think Freedom would ever open up.

    In April, Harvey just wanted Freedom to feel safe, not fearful. That was more important than the training. By July, it was apparent that Harvey had accomplished her initial goal. Freedom was happy having a stranger scratch her forehead. Hooves had been trimmed, and Harvey was putting rubber boots on her. She didn’t flinch when blankets and saddles touched her back, and the sounds of summer barely fazed her.

    Most gratifying to Harvey, however, is when Freedom stretches her neck, her head low to the ground, gives one large yawn, and looks to Harvey for a bucket of grain.


    About the American Mustang

    According to the Foundation, there are approximately 36,000 free-roaming wild Mustangs and burros in 10 western states. Many are descendants of wild horses transported to the Americas by by Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 16th Century.

    “More than two million wild horses and burros are reported to have roamed the west by the late 1800s,” the Foundation said. “By the early 1900s, competition intensified between wild horses and cattle, sheep, fences, farms, and ranches for the remaining open range. Wild horse population plummeted as tens of thousands of animals were rounded up for use as draft animals, saddle stock, military mounts, food or to reduce competition with domestic livestock for limited forage, water and space.”

    In the 1960s, many were brutally rounded up and sold to rendering plants.

    After the event, the schooled mustangs are then auctioned and adopted. In 2012, through these various events, the Mustang Foundation saw 561 horses adopted.


    2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover Events

    Date Event Location

    March 27 - ­28 Doswell, Virgina

    April 24­ - 25 Queen Creek, Arizona

    May 15 - ­16 Norco, California

    May 29 - ­30 Loveland, Colorado

    June 20 - ­21 Reno, Nevada

    July 10­ - 11 St. Louis, Missouri

    July 24­ - 25 Nampa, Idaho

    August 7 - ­8 Topsfield, Massachusetts

    August 21 - ­22 Gainesville, Georgia

    Sept. 10­ - 11 Fort Worth, Texas


    Related story:

    Working in Hope with Freedom, a wild Wyoming mustang

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