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Riding Wild

By Stefanie Skidmore

This spring marks four years since I started gentling my first wild horse, initially intending to adopt her out to a suitable new home. Lacy, a petite yet athletic dun Mustang mare with personality and stamina for days, just turned six years old. She's still here today, and I could not be more grateful for and amazed by what a journey it's been for us…

It started back in the early spring of 2017. I was still married, although newly separated, and still in school with a little over a year to go before I'd finally finish my graduate degree program. I was working crazy hours, trying to figure out how to keep afloat. All while jumping head-first into this wild horse adventure as a TIP (Trainer Incentive Program) trainer, someone who gentles BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Mustangs for the public to give them a better chance at finding and keeping a good home.

At that time, I had Blanca, my grey mare. Whenever I could make the time I'd hop on Blanca and ride alone or with friends, sometimes for just 20 minutes, other times for half a day, or all day long. Those rides never failed to clear my mind and help me get a better, more positive outlook on both the present and our future. Blanca and I had covered many miles in the mountains together and 'the queen' as I respectfully referred to her (and still do), was getting older.

Nobody quite knew how old; after all, I had met the nameless grey horse while volunteering at a wolf sanctuary back in 2009. She had been donated to feed the wolves - apparently due to having melanomas and probably more so because of some behavioral issues. She wasn't young then, and even less so in 2017. Vets would look at her teeth and shrug, saying, "Twenties? Getting to be hard to tell exactly at this age." I figured I'd give the old gal a year or two of a good life; by then I thought surely, it'd be time for her to move on to greener pastures on the far side of the rainbow bridge. Little did I know then that she'd have at least another decade and thousands of mountain miles left in her.

(Photo: Fun above the tree line – Denali, my dog, Blanca, and Lacy. Photo Credit: Chris Peterson)

With an aging mare, and a burning desire to keep riding the mountains, exploring more country, and eventually making overnight trips to get further into the wilderness and stay longer, I had been looking for a young horse to bring along that would start out being ponied and carrying gear and eventually become my main riding horse.

The previous year I had adopted a handsome half Mustang colt who proved to be a friendly, smart yet goofy youngster. He'd get into everything, had a busy mind, and was forever pestering Blanca. His training came along fine. He would do just about anything I asked of him, enjoyed learning tricks, and even packed fresh game meat. Despite those redeeming qualities, his goofy, mischievous, busy-body nature was not what I was looking for in a riding partner, so the plan had been to make him a pack horse and a riding horse for my then-husband. Our marriage ending and the less-than-ideal dynamic between the gelding and my old mare, who was growing increasingly annoyed by him, eventually lead to me selling the gelding who now lives happily with a large horsey family as part of their herd and is being ridden and driven by mom and the kiddos.

(Photo of Lacy standing calmly while I take out my phone for the umpteenth time to take yet another picture of the beauty around us. Photo Credit: Chris Peterson)

Lacy, on the other hand, the gangly two-year-old Mustang mare that was still acting a little bit wild, had opinions about everything yet showed a lot of promise both physically and mentally, stayed.

With time, guidance, and exposure to lots of different situations and settings, Lacy was able to get past most of her insecurities related to unknown objects and unexpected movements behind her. Old lady Blanca turned out to be an invaluable mentor to Lacy, showing the young Mustang how to navigate both man-made and natural obstacles, and bravely face traffic, trash cans, realtor signs, and potentially horse-eating rocks and logs. I ponied Lacy many hundreds of miles along roads and through the backcountry before it was time for the young mare to start carrying weight. I ground drove her, got her used to hobbles, wearing a driving harness, and had everything imaginable hanging on her saddle.

Meanwhile, I continued gentling other Mustangs, graduated school around the time the divorce was final, and kept working and riding farther and farther into the backcountry. Still being ponied, Lacy started moving cattle next to Blanca who, even at her advanced age, loves pinning her ears and chasing after a wayward bovine trying to make a break from the herd. I start my horses slowly, putting first rides on at 3 years old and gradually increasing duration and intensity until they are about 6.

(Blanca showing Littlefoot the ropes around cattle. PC: Chris Peterson)

Blanca supervised as Lacy took her first tentative steps under a rider in the last daylight hours out in their pasture one evening in the spring of 2018. Around the same time, Lacy learned alongside me about pack saddles, panniers, manties, and lash ropes.

Blanca was a calm role model for the young Mustang mare as we embarked on our first two-pack trips later that year. Lacy proved to be a solid, willing backcountry partner, quickly adapting to new challenges. Although no stranger to mare-stare and 'maritude', she's all business when it comes time to hit the trail. The following two years brought more backcountry rides featuring increasingly challenging terrain, other pack trips to a new destination, and Lacy's gradual transition from packhorse to main riding partner as Blanca made it clear that it was time for her to do shorter, easier rides from now on.

In 2019 two more Mustangs, Tiny and Littlefoot, joined the resident herd. Lacy now mentors both geldings just like Blanca helped teach her. She leads the way over downed timber, through deep snow and muddy creeks, up and down rocky slopes, and past whatever trail monsters we encounter. With Lacy's confident guidance, Littlefoot mastered his first packing season last year and the first steps with me on his back this spring, while Tiny is getting ready to join us come summer as a second packhorse on longer trips.

(Photo: Headed into the wilderness with Mustangs Lacy and ponying Littlefoot)

Lacy has gained another brother, Denali, the vision-impaired German Shepherd, who, with endless friendly persistence, won over my once passionately dog-hating mare. They now nap, play, and travel together, and both are at home and on our backcountry adventures.

I like to refer to Lacy as 'the princess,' as 'the perfect horse,' or alternatively, 'she who can do no wrong.' That blatant exaggeration on my part is usually received with eye-rolling and sighs by others. Still, I don't know anyone who dislikes my inquisitive, opinionated, beautiful little mare who holds her own in the mountains while moving cows right alongside bigger, purposefully bred horses that cost a lot more than Lacy's mere $125 adoption fee. She is sure-footed, level-headed, energetic, responsive, and has taken everything we've encountered - including hidden bog, lurking moose, escaped yaks, hunters popping out from behind trees, unexpected snowdrifts, riding in the dark, and getting caught in afternoon thunderstorms above treeline - in stride.

Just this past week, after a snowstorm, I took Lacy and 3-year-old Littlefoot out together for a bareback mountain morning ride. The air was crisp and the snow deep, the sky still dark and covered in storm clouds as the sun was trying to emerge. There was no funny business as we galloped through fresh, untouched snow with Denali bounding alongside us and then clambered up to our favorite scenic, albeit windy, lookout spots above the valley. There's nothing quite like exploring wild places astride wild horses, and I continue to be both blown away and humbled by these animals' ability to transform and adapt and the trust they are willing to place in humans as they put their instincts aside and try to do the things we ask of them, something that must seem so incredibly foreign to a once free-roaming Mustang.

(Photo: Backcountry riding... Not always easy, but oh so worth it. Making memories with Denali, my dog, and Mustangs Lacy and ponying Tiny. PC: Chris Peterson)

These guys were all carefully chosen for their lives as mountain riding and pack horses based on both their personalities and physical traits. To achieve lasting success and a rewarding partnership with any equine, especially a Mustang, a good fit between horse and handler, the animal's disposition and our training styles and goals are crucial. If you choose wisely, listen intently, and communicate clearly, you will reap the rewards.

Stefanie Skidmore is an avid backcountry rider, Mustang trainer, and founder of Wild Horse Outreach & Advocacy (WHOA), a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Mustangs successfully transition from wild to willing and from holding pens to homes; sustainably, with compassion and competence.

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