Friday, March 18, 2011

A Mustang at Camp: Indigo's Story

In the northernmost corner of Nevada, close to California, are the Calico Mountains. Named for the colorful rock formations that resembled the piebald coat of a calico cat to some pioneer eons ago, and relatively lush in grazing and water supply, these particular hills are home to a distinct subgroup of the American Mustang. The mustangs still roaming western North America are all mutts of the horse world, pieced together from old Spanish influence, Native American's unique breeding stock, and ranch horses turned lose or wandered away from settlers. Calico Mountains Mustangs are unique in that they closely resemble (and are descendants of) the ideal ranch horse of American settlers. Possessing good confirmation and hardy, because of their bountiful homeland, "Calico Complex" horses are often as colorful and varied in their patterns as the mountains that surround their home.

The Calico Mountains, north of Gerlach, NV.

In the early spring of 2008, a shaggy red-and-white colt was born in these mountains. He had a white face, one blue eye, and (one would guess, from knowing him now) a slightly quirky expression on his face. We can't know for sure if this colt's first year was lived in peace and stability along side a healthy mother and a strong family unit, or if he was plagued from the start by the drought in Western America. What we do know is that on January 29th, 2010, his life changed both dramatically and traumatically— a helicopter rounded up the colt's family and drove them to a holding pen, where agents from the Bureau of Land Management loaded them into huge stock trailers and eventually they were shipped all the way to central Colorado, to a gigantic prison complex housing over 2,000 other formerly wild mustangs and burros from all over the American West.

One of the prison facilities at Canon City, Colorado, where 2,000 wild equines are housed, in addition to inmates.

There the horses are broken into pens which often hold 30 or more horses of the same gender, age range, and capture date. This little colt didn't catch anybody's eye for eight months, at least not enough to get him a $125 ticket to a new home; the cost of an adoption fee through the BLM. He waited. And, apparently, got a little beat up in the process from his pasture-mates.

I spotted him on a trip to Canon City while searching for a new camp horse, milling around in a pen of much more boisterous 2 year old geldings. He was the object of a lot of flying hooves and bared teeth, but despite being clearly bullied, he showed a great deal of interest in me, my best friend, and my sister-in-law. We were instructed by our guide to hang at the edge of the pen in case they herd got moving quickly, and as we stood discussing the merits of various horses, a white face and blue eye kept peeking out from behind other rumps and tails. We wrote down his tag number but passed him up. I do believe we nicknamed him "Ugly," which probably wasn't the sweetest thing to do, but he was sort of a ragamuffin, covered in scratches and bites and general wear and tear.

But after a few more hours of searching among the thousands of horses, my mind kept drifting back to "Ugly." No other horse had shown so much interest us the rest of that morning. His funny face kept egging me on. And so, with a signed check and a few pieces of paperwork, Ugly belonged to camp and we were a few short weeks and a long drive back to Colorado with a trailer from picking him up. He made it to his new home at YMCA Camp Flaming Arrow in late August of 2010, just before midnight.

Within a few short days, "Ugly" had a name and was wearing a halter. Called "Indigo" for the deep, purpley-blue depths of his right eye, he proved himself to be just as calm, willing, and interested in people (and the tasty food they bring around) as he appeared on that first day back in Colorado.

Indy's first halter. Yes, it's pink!

Turns out, with a little bit of grain and a fair amount of brushing, "Ugly" really.. wasn't. He has balanced confirmation; a little on the short side, but with powerful shoulders and hindquarters and strong legs and feet that are a throwback to his great-great-great-grandparents' lives working early cattle ranches out West. Within short order, he was leading happily on adventures around camp, checking out new places and allowing new people to stroke his shoulder or offer him a bit of hay. He learned that the saddle and blanket weren't going to eat him alive, and so carried those well without much coaxing.

Indy and another young camp horse learn how to trailer and tie safely.

Be warned, though, that Indigo is probably not an average mustang. Remember, we chose him for his personality— friendly, not very scared of people, and extremely calm. Most of his brethren were wild-eyed and terrified of humans, and would probably require a great deal more patience and time before being half as gentle as little Indigo. Even as docile as he is, Indigo has never been forced, beaten, or truly threatened— there is no sense in rushing or pushing any horse, especially one that was once wild.

Right before his first ride in the roundpen.

Flash forward to seven months later, and Indy is coming along right about at the rate a normal, hand-raised domestic horse would be in their training. He has carried a rider for short periods since early October and has just begun short, easy trail rides with me on his back. Nobody else has been on him yet, but that will come in due time— possibly this summer, once he is used to the camp wrangler and trusts her, too. Letting a horse mature a bit (age four or five) is a good idea before asking it for too much difficult or fast-paced work, but at the age of three, Indy will hopefully carry a wrangler on a few trail rides with a group this summer and should be ready for more work by spring of 2012.

Turning three and still a shrimp! Tall MA (5'10") rides little Indigo last Tuesday.

Our hope is that Indigo will learn to serve children and adults at camp as he grows and matures and continues his training. The hardiness, health, intelligence, and sound build of the American Mustang make them good candidates for learning almost any equine discipline. Indigo's gentle nature and friendliness make him a great candidate for a life filled with teaching children about horsemanship and the wild, wonderful horses of the American West.

Happy trails!

A view from between Indy's ears on a pleasant spring trail ride at CFA.

For more information on mustangs, visit Wild Horses of the Calico Mountains or The Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse & Burro Adoption. I could not have written this blog without the above two sites. The first two photos are from Wild Horses of Calico Mt. and a government website, respectively. Also, please note: This blog post is not intended in any way to serve as horse training advice. Leave that to the professionals, guys!

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