Saving a Wild Mustang
I pulled in and drove down the driveway and into the pasture. I stopped at the corral where the Department of Agriculture Agent was waiting. She waved and undid the chain holding the gate and pushed it open.
I backed the trailer in and shut the rig down and stepped out. I walked to the back and knocked up the lever holding the trailer door shut. The door swung open. I reached in and threw a flake of hay on the ground by the back entrance to the trailer.
Then I pulled the paneling in, securing them to the sides of the trailer. This was routine. I had done it many times before in the fifteen years I had been rescuing and starting wild mustangs. I looked across the corral at the bay colored gelding. He stood off on the other side of the corral, not scared, but wary of me watching him. I didn’t like what I saw.
I ambled over and put both hands on top of the gate, placing my chin on the back of my hands and one foot on the bottom rail while I observed the mustang. The Department of AG Agent approached the corral and said, “I’m not sure this one is going to make it, what do you think?”
“I’ve seen some pretty sorry looking mustangs, but this one has to be the worst. It looks like someone stretched some horsehide over a skeleton and is trying to pass it off as a horse. This horse is close to starving to death. Look at his legs, they’re wobbling. He’s so weak he can barely stand up. He may die before I can even load him, and look at his feet. They haven’t been trimmed in at least a year and by the look of his coat, it looks like he has the mange. Where’d he come from?”
“We ain’t sure. We got a call from the guy that owns this pasture saying he found the horse wandering around down the road. He couldn’t get near it to halter it, so he coaxed it into his pasture with a bucket of oats. He sold his land and has to get the horse off and that’s why he called us. We didn’t know how bad his condition was until we came out and saw him. We noticed the neck brand and figured it’s a wild mustang from the BLM, Bureau of Land Management, so we called you. You think you can get him in that trailer? We can’t get near him.”
“Oh, I’ll get him in there; just don’t know how long it will take. I don’t want to get him worked up, it will only make the job that much harder.”
“You got a rope?”
“No, just this carrot stick.”
“No rope? How are you going to catch him, if you don’t have a rope?”
“I’m not going to catch him. Some people think they have the right to touch a new mustang, but they don’t, not without their permission.”
“You’re kidding me, right? You have to get its permission?”
“If you want to have him trust you, and believe me, you do.”
“You are going to get that horse in the trailer with just that stick? How are you going to go about doing that?”
“Well, first I’m going to observe him before entering the corral. I want to know as much as I can about him. A wild horse in a corral can be trouble, even one as weak as this one, You can make a mistake with a person, and you can explain it. With a horse, you have to live with it or start over. In my experience, there has never been a time when a mistake was made that one of these two things didn’t occur. He’ll appraise me and I’ll appraise him, I know where I want to get him, but he’s the one that knows how to get there. Every horse is different. I know for this to work I have to get this horse calm, focused and confident and to accomplish this I have to be calm, focused and confident. These mustangs can spot a faker before he even opens the gate. I have to speak confidently with him using his body language. It can’t be an act, it has to be real. I’ll need your help.”
“Okay, what do you need me to do?” She asked.
“I want you to walk slowly into the corral and go to the trailer and hold onto the trailer door handle. When the horse goes in, I need you to close it as fast as you can. He may not want to come out once he goes in, but in most cases, they come out faster than they go in and if we can’t secure him in there the first time, it may be a long afternoon.”
“But aren’t you supposed to slowly introduce the trailer to the horse and do a step by step training process when teaching them to load?”
“We ain’t training this horse to load. We are here to save its life. We’ll train it later. Once we are in the corral with him, I am going to start out by tapping the ground slowly with my carrot stick. When he moves, and he will, I will start to cut down the distance between me and him and stop tapping as long as he goes in the direction of the trailer. If he stops at the back of the trailer to eat the hay I dropped there, I will stop tapping and let him relax for a few minutes. Then I’ll start tapping the ground with the carrot stick once again. This will agitate him and he will either go into the trailer or around the corral to get away from me. He can’t and I’ll continue the tapping until he gets to the back of the trailer again. Simple, huh?”
“It sounds simple, but I doubt it is,” she said.
“We’ll see. Why don’t you go in there now and secure the trailer door and I’ll come in about five minutes later?”
“Okay,” she replied, and slowly entered the corral and walked over to the trailer while the horse cautiously watched her out of one eye while keeping the other on me. After a few minutes, I opened the gate and strolled casually to the horse, speaking softly. All I had with me was my carrot stick. I got about fifteen feet from him before he turned and bolted away on those wobbly legs. His hooves barely cut into the earth and his legs lacked power. He continued to trot back and forth along the far fence, watching me, head raised, nostrils flared, and ears pointing in my direction. He quit roaming the perimeter of the corral and settled into a side away from both me and the trailer, not agitated, just alert and ornery. I could see his sides twitching. Sweat had formed on his underbelly and on his chest. His breathing was more labored than it should have been for the short time he was running around. He was nervous and in very bad health. I thought there was a good chance this horse had a respiratory problem to go along with all his other health issues. After about fifteen minutes of this routine, I guess he decided it would be easier on him to climb into the trailer than to continue to trot around the corral.
The empty trailer clanged with the sound of the horse’s hooves as he burst in. The Agent quickly closed the door. I ran up to assist her in securing the door handle and we were ready to roll. The trailer was rocking back and forth as the horse moved around inside.
“I learned something today,” she said. “That was pretty amazing.”
“Well, if you consider the horse,” I replied, “you will find out they are pretty amazing.”
We walked around and entered the side of the trailer through the escape door and stood and watched him adjust. He stomped and turned around a few times before calming down. He looked at us and blew his breath out against my face. The grainy earth smell was intoxicating.
“That’s right, boy,” I said, “it was pretty easy, wasn’t it? You’re going to be fine. We’ll fix you up.”
At the time, I didn’t have the confidence that we could. I knew it was easier said then done.
“Come take a look at this fresh manure pile,” I called to the AG Agent after we left the inside of the trailer. “It’s filled with worms. My Lord, I have never seen so many worms in a pile of horse manure in my life. There have to be thousands of them in there.”
She looked at the pile and shook her head in amazement, “I doubt this horse has been wormed for a couple of years. You’ll have to take it slow and easy on the de-worming as well as the feeding or he will die on you sure as we are standing here.”
I nodded, “It’s a damn shame what humans do to defenseless animals. We need your agency to crack down on some of these folks.”
“I wish we could, but we don’t have any teeth. If we see something bad, we have to get the Sheriff in on it to make an arrest or a confiscation. Hell, if they are arrested, it’s a misdemeanor and they get a fine and a slap on the wrist and they are back doing the same thing a month later. It breaks your heart.”
“I know. All we can do is keep saving one horse at a time. I better head back. It will take me a couple of hours and I want to get him settled in before dark.”
“Ok, I need you to sign some papers, the government you know. It’s just saying you are legally taking custody of government property.”
When we arrived at the barn, the sun was barely peeking over the tops of the trees in the west pasture. In the distance, it looked like our horses rose out of the earth, first their ears then the shape of their heads and necks. They lifted their heads and their ears pointed in our direction. Then they took off and the earth trembled under the movement of their hooves as they ran to the fence line to meet the new member of the Mustang Rescue’s family of unwanted horses. I knew it would be a long time before this horse would be turned out with the herd. One kick that landed on this poor fellow, while they went through the ritual of determining herd hierarchy, could kill him.
I backed into the barn and opened the trailer. He tentatively stepped out on wobbly legs and headed down the aisle of the barn to the paddock we had set up for him. We had the water trough filled for him and a couple of flakes of hay waiting as well.
I stayed with him awhile that evening and at one point I reached out and he allowed me to touch him and I stroked his side. I promised him I would help him.
Softly I spoke to him,“Cages are everywhere. We all have them, don’t we boy?”
He nickered and I touched his flank and his hoof flashed up.
He just set the boundaries.
With the coordinated efforts of many of our great volunteers, three daily feedings, lots of love, and multiple vet visits to help him regain his strength his progress was nothing short of miraculous. He overcame equine lice, a bout of colic, and intestinal parasites to transform into the happy and healthy mustang.
He was adopted by a ten-year-old girl who was instrumental in nursing him to health. She is currently riding him and continuing his training in Woodstock, Georgia.