Wild horses and youth learn patience and trust from each other

Jul 25, 2022

“There is much we can learn from a friend who happens to be a horse.” — Aleksandra Layland

“Training mustangs is just so much fun,” said Aubrielle, as a chestnut-colored filly named Zuri nuzzled the 4-H member from Shasta County. Six months earlier, the young wild horse was wary of being touched. Now she was sporting accessories in her styled mane that matched the teenager's turquoise jewelry.

Over the past few years, UC Cooperative Extension in Modoc County has partnered with Modoc National Forest to provide public outreach and education to support the placement and care of wild horses from Devil's Garden at the northeastern corner of California. Adopting foals reduces overpopulation of wild horses, which can harm rangeland and the health of the mustangs themselves.

This year Laura Snell, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Modoc County, assigned weanling wild horses to 40 youth between the ages of 9 and 19 from all over the state. The mustangs were 4 to 6 months old in January when they were picked up in Alturas and taken home by California 4-H and FFA members, who feed and care for them.

“The moment when I got to touch him for the first time is probably one of the biggest parts of training as well as my progress with him,” said Morgan of Monterey County, who spent hours in the stall with Bowie trying to gain his trust.

“It was really amazing to me that I was able to touch him on day 5,” she said. “In the videos I watched leading up to getting him, most of the time it took one week to three weeks for the people in the videos to touch their wild mustangs. At that moment is when you really start to make that bond with a wild mustang.” 

“The moment when I got to remove his tag was a huge part as well because at that moment you know that the mustang trusts you enough that he is letting you get that close to remove the tag,” Morgan said.

The young trainers teach the horses to wear a halter, to load and unload from a horse trailer and to navigate through obstacles. Some participants also work on tricks such as laying their horse down, walking the horse backward and walking under the horse. In June, the participants gathered in Alturas to show their progress.

“It provides them an opportunity to seek out adult mentors who are horse trainers, learn responsibility, and learn a variety of things about caring for a wild horse and learning more about themselves in the process,” said Snell.

“We find that the youth do very well with wild horses. It's really a two-way street, with the horses learning just as much as the youth are in the six months they are in training,” she added.

Sisters Kailey and Maddi in San Benito County both adopted weanling horses. Removing the tag after about three weeks was a turning point for Maddi and her horse Fiona.

“The significance of getting the tag off was we hadn't been able to get near her at all,” said Maddi. “She had some aggression toward people out of fear. So getting past that, getting to the point where she trusted me and I could get that halter on her and get close enough to get that tag off was just a huge achievement. After that, once she trusted me, she started doing really, really well and flying through her training.”

Because wildfires are part of life in California, she taught Fiona to step over flames so she won't be afraid if they need to evacuate, Maddi told KSBW reporter Brisa Colon.

“It has been amazing to be able to share this experience with another very close family,” said Aubrielle's mother Ashley Phipps. “Our daughters have gone through the entire journey together starting with visiting the corrals to pick horses together, all the way through the training process. My daughter is older than Brooklin and has been a great mentor to her, teaching Brooklin and her horse along the way. It has been such a confidence builder for my daughter! Our girls will never forget this experience!!! And I loved every moment of watching them grow through the ups and downs. This program is such a blessing.”

To qualify for the program, applicants must fill out an application which includes being enrolled in a horse program such as the 4-H Equine Project, show they have facilities and feed for the animals, designate a mentor and have their parents' approval.  

The trainers and their horses competed in the Devil's Garden Colt Challenge on June 18 in Alturas, vying for awards in halter, showmanship and obstacle course with youth from 13 counties participating. Prizes totaled over $3,000.

By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach