Today is my two-year adopt-aversary with Henry Wheeler. Certainly people have accomplished more with their horses in two years in terms of ribbons and trophies and points, but we’re taking the slow and steady approach, and I’m okay with that.
Since I’m not sure I’ve ever shared the story of Henry’s adoption, today seems like a good a day as any.
Once I decided I wanted a horse, I decided I wanted a mustang. I am a firm believer in and lover of mutts and their associated hybrid vigor, and as an ecologist loved that I could be the reason there was one less horse on the range. (While I certainly don’t want to see wild mustangs extirpated, I definitely think their numbers are too high to be sustainable for both the ecosystems they inhabit and their own survival. It’s a very complicated issue but there is no disputing that gathers happen and horses go to holding facilities and any chance to adopt one out is a good move for everyone concerned.)
Once I decided on a mustang, I started looking for adoption events, and the Extreme Mustang Makeover was the best option for me because the horses would be saddle trained. I may have been sort of clueless adopting a horse with just 100 days of training after being ‘out of horses’ for 20 years, but at least I knew enough not to get myself an untouched or TIP-trained mustang. (TIP horses have been gentled and taught to load and unload from a trailer, halter, and pick up all four feet, but nothing more.)
The Extreme Mustang Makeover is an outstanding program. Say what you will about forcing horses to a certain place in 100 days (I would argue ‘forcing’ isn’t even an appropriate word because a lot of trainers hold their horses out of the competition if they don’t think they will be ready), the pageantry and fun of these type of events do great things for the breed. Leading up to the event I stalked every trainer I could find online, looking for updates on Facebook and Instagram that would give me insights into the personality and experience of the horse and the philosophy of the trainer. But not all trainers are social media-savvy, and some just don’t post very often. In the end I made a short list of horses I was interested in based on a single photo of each on the EMM website.
We drove to Nampa, Idaho with the dogs and an empty trailer, having set up a round pen in the apple orchard outside our residence at the time, a 460-square foot single-wide. We stopped at the feed store and picked up two bales of hay – one grass, one alfalfa, because I had no idea what I was doing – on the way. We arrived Saturday in time to watch the pattern class and attend the ‘Meet the Mustangs’ event in the stables. Youth freestyles were going on, but I tried not to get distracted by all the cute yearlings. The group of riding horses was mostly made up of representatives from the Idaho Black Mountain and Hardtrigger HMAs, with a couple of Beatty’s Butte (OR) and Triple B (NV) ‘stangs thrown in. All were geldings. The color range was mostly bays, sorrels, and a couple blacks. No greys or flashy pintos to catch my eye and make me irrationally choose a horse with an incompatible attitude because of its color.
The first thing I asked each trainer as I made the rounds at each stall was whether they planned on adopting the horse. I did NOT want to be in a bidding war with a trainer that had fallen in love with their mustang. I’ve been a foster mom for dogs and I know how easy it is to get attached to an animal, and if they want to keep them they should be able to do so, by all means. Some folks responded along the lines of “hell no,” (those raised red flags for other reasons), others said squirrely things like “I’d really like to keep him, but…”, and one or two said they planned on bringing the horse home no matter what. I crossed those off the list and didn’t bother with any more questions. A few said they loved the horse and wanted them to go home with a wonderful adopter, and those were the ones I pushed further with questions. How tall is he? Is he good with dogs? Has he ever bucked, bitten, kicked, reared, bolted? Is he “stud-y”? How is he on trails versus the arena? Perhaps not strangely I remember the answers to these questions from only one respondent, Whitney, Henry’s trainer. She stood in his doorway with the door open and he quietly munched hay beside her. She ran her hands through his mane and talked about how much she’d come to love him, and how once she’d earned his trust he’d decided he would do anything for her. Everything she said was the right answer, his easy-going demeanor was hypnotizing, and Hip 5 moved to the top of my list.
After my time in the stalls, I had a short list of three horses and it was time to go back to the arena for the freestyle competition. Henry and Whitney had made the top 10, and would perform for about 7 minutes with a sock hop theme, doing everything from bouncing giant beach balls to jumping into the back of a pickup to chasing a cow. It was a great performance and they ended up fourth overall.
I had full on chills and wanted to bring this horse home with me so badly at this point, and was very grateful he had such a low hip number so I wouldn’t have to anxiously wait through all the others to bid. Have you ever bid in an auction? Have you ever bid in an auction on a living being that you have suddenly fallen madly in love with? I had not. I was nervous, but Whitney wanted him to go to me, as did several new friends we made in the stands. I had an idea how high I wanted to go, and when they called out for bidders I started waving my number like crazy, and the new friends helped get the auctioneer’s attention when it was needed. Someone across the arena was also bidding on him, and my entire body was shaking as I kept pleading for them to give up before I had to. They did.
I jumped up and down and ran to the arena fence to hug Whitney through it. We were both crying. It was such a good feeling knowing she was rooting for us to be together, especially because I know how much she cared for him.
It was a whirlwind day and we wanted to get him home before it was pitch dark out, so after completing the paperwork we said many teary goodbyes and exchanged numbers. He got a hay net and lots of pets and we hit the road.
He slept so hard the first few days I had him, I started to wonder if it was normal. What a crazy 100 days for a formerly-wild stallion from Nevada. I’m glad to have learned a lot from and about him in the two years since, and can’t wait to see where we are in another two years.