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After the lights, the obstacle course, cow herding, and the horse-dancing to a favorite song… after the flashing cameras and more than 15 minutes of fame, came the end of the long good-bye. One hundred days of pouring time, energy, and love into one horse vanished into air filled with the rapid-fire call of the auctioneer.
But, the good-bye started on Saturday, June 1, the day six trainers were introduced to their wild horses.
Each trainer knew that when the 100 days were up, they might have to let the horse go to a new owner. I expect some of them were looking forward to the September Meeker Sheepdog Trials, which is when the horses would be auctioned off.
The trainers didn’t pick their horses; they drew numbers from a hat. The numbers corresponded to a tag tied around the neck of a mustang, waiting in a pen at the Rio Blanco Fairgrounds.
Maybe one person was happy with the horse that matched the number. Sarah Geis, a trainer from Denver, drew the black gelding. He was taller than the rest and the only black horse in the bunch. The trainers I spoke with that day liked the black and some had plans for him. But, Sarah got him and named him Wyatt.
Melissa Kindall, range management specialist (and de-facto wild horse expert) at the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office, called the event a karma connection. “Each adopter got the horse they were supposed to get,” she said.
Take Cody Rhyne, a trainer from Clifton. He ended up with the only mare. He told me in June that a mare is more difficult to train. You could tell he wasn’t thrilled when he found out that he was the one to train her. But, I noticed that by the time he loaded her into his trailer that day, he was talking softly to her and calling her Sweet Pea.
Cody officially named her Skye and now she’s a part of his herd. Apparently, he loved her enough to keep her.
Meeker horseman Joe Woods’ gelding Flintstone, who won First Place in both the obstacle course and the freestyle events, can pull a buggy overflowing with children. Woods auctioned off Flintstone but ended up being the highest bidder. So much for the long good-bye.
I have one word for the horses I watched at the final event last week: earnest. The trainers truly brought out the best in their mustangs. Some balked at the bridge obstacle. Some refused to get near the yellow slicker but that wasn’t the point.
The point is that these wild horses are trainable and strong. They were so willing to please the trainers Friday, it made me cry. And, I wasn’t the only one. Sarah Geis was sad to part with Wyatt. Paige Burnham, a trainer from the Grand Junction area, started to mourn the loss of her mustang Nitis at least a week before the final event. She knew she couldn’t keep him and consoled herself with the hope of finding an owner who would treat him well.
When she told me that Nitis is happier now than when he was on the range, I was doubtful. Why would a wild horse enjoy being a domesticated animal? She said if she had turned Nitis loose before she started training him, he probably would have bolted. “But once they figure out that you don’t tend to hurt them, it’s a much easier life than having to walk 30 miles just to get a drink of water!” she said.
After witnessing the care, respect, and trust between mustang and trainer during the final Mustang Makeover event, I am less doubtful. In fact, I get that this event is a life-saver for the mustangs.
There are now six fewer horses in the Bureau of Land Management’s long-term holding facilities – a drab, monotonous life no matter how you look at it. And, an expensive one. According to the BLM, it cost U.S. taxpayers $50 million dollars to keep over 46,000 wild horses and burros in long-term holding last year.
The Meeker Mustang Makeover may only make a small dent in that number but it seemed significant Friday night.
Local rancher Deirdre MacNab, one of the event organizers, said it was a “sell-out” crowd. More than 600 people filled the stands. She added that the organizing committee hopes to bring the event back next year. “It’s a good way to bring people to the local community and the horses to more homes.”
By AMY HADDEN MARSH
Special to the Herald Times