Kids teach wild mustangs to respond to human touch in Placer County

05/30/2012 12:00 AM

05/30/2012 10:12 AM

As Rose Ellis, 14, gently pulled the sparkly purple hula hoop to the side, Nike, her yearling mustang, responded flawlessly, moving away from the pressure and turning her body.

The hula hoop technique begins to teach the horse, who just two weeks ago had hardly been touched by humans, to respond to the contact of reins, explained Gena Wasley, who is helping Ellis train Nike.

The two said it's still very early in the process, but the progress so far has been remarkable.

"When we first got her, she was afraid to be touched. She was scared out of her mind," Ellis said.

She is one of more than 60 kids across the country participating in the Mustang Heritage Foundation's mustang challenge. They have 120 days to prepare a year-old horse that had scant human contact to perform a series of guidance maneuvers. Unlike the adult challenge, which takes place over 90 days, the children, ages 8 to 18, do not ride the horses.

"I've been riding since I was 7 or 8 years old," said the Roseville teen. As she groomed Nike, she lectured her mother on the fine points of horsemanship. She said she can remember everything people tell her about horses.

But her previous experience with them barely prepared her for the mustang challenge.

"It's humbling. Normally, with horses you can tell them what you want them to do," said Ellis. "With mustangs, you have to have a different mind-set. You pretty much have to get into the mind of a horse."

Nike was fearful, jumpy and untrusting.

Nicks and bruises can still be seen on the horse's face from thrashing around when she was first put in a truck trailer. Nike's mother was among the thousands of horses roaming territory managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. She was taken into a BLM facility where she gave birth and then was allowed to return to roam the land.

Nike was among the 30,000 mustangs in BLM holding pens, until May 12. She was safe from predators, but untrained.

After watching a video clip of Nike, Ellis and Wasley snapped her up at auction for $400. After the competition, Nike will be given to a woman who will keep her until she is 3 years old and ready to be saddled.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation has had youth events before, but this is the first time they are participating in the mustang challenge, said Jennifer Hancock, marketing director for the group.

"We've always had a firm belief that youth are our future. Youth make better mustangs and mustangs make better youth," Hancock said. "They just learn so much about determination and life in general."

The foundation encourages people to take on wild mustangs. At times the BLM has been at odds with horse lovers over its efforts to reduce the number of horses on properties they deem overpopulated.

Working with a horse that hasn't been around humans is not easy.

"They are wild animals that have a brain of their own," said Hancock. "There is always some risk."

John Ellis, Rose's father, said it is a modest risk worth taking.

"It's been fun watching Rose's dedication," he said. "It will be a great summer full of horse challenges."


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