Home off the range: Mustangs arrive at NAC
April 7, 2009
When Jan Drake, the resource manager at the National Ability Center (NAC), moved to Utah, a fellow horse-lover invited her to the western deserts to watch the wild mustangs. The experience etched an unforgettable image in her mind. "I thought, ‘I want to have one of those someday,’" she says.
Eight years later, Drake has realized her dream. She has three wild mustangs of her own. Two of the horses, a weanling and a 2-year-old that she recently adopted from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), will become therapy horses for mentally and physically disabled children at the NAC.
The BLM controls the size of free-roaming herds across the western United States to maintain the balance of available food and water, explains Drake. In February, she attended a BLM adoption event with a plan to bring mustangs into the NAC’s therapeutic riding program for the first time in its history.
Horseback riding has been shown to improve balance, coordination, strength and self-esteem for physically and mentally disabled individuals. The NAC’s therapy program is open to people of all ages with different types of disabilities.
Drake went into the adoption looking for horses with desirable confirmation and mellow temperament. A tri-color pinto from the Cedar Mountain Herd immediately caught her eye. "He was really calm and didn’t get uptight about anything, even when he was getting vaccinated," she says. "I also wanted a weanling so that the kids can watch him grow up."
Another mustang from a holding facility in Nevada also seemed to fit the bill. Drake made her decision, loaded the pair of mustangs in a trailer and hauled them back to Park City. Upon arriving at the NAC, the mustangs willingly trotted from the trailer to the stable, says Drake. "I think they knew it was a good thing to be here." Within a few days, she had both horses in halters, and by the week’s end, they were walking on lead ropes and getting brushed.
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The right to name the younger mustang was auctioned off at the Red, White and Snow fundraiser in March. His official title, in honor of the designer of the original Ford mustang, is Carroll Shelby KR (King of the Road) – Shelby Mustang for short. Drake decided to call the other mustang Miss Etta, after a character in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Shelby and Etta are currently working on basic ground training including walking on a lead, backing up and communicating with their trainers. Drake and the NAC’s lead instructor, AbbyJane Ferrin, are taking baby steps with the mustangs to get them used to being around people. By nature, mustangs are cautious around strangers and wary about having their faces and legs touched. "You have to stay within their comfort level and not push them too much," says Ferrin.
The important thing is to move at a slow pace and gain their trust, Drake adds. "Mustangs are very smart and loyal, but they can be tricky." Their willingness to cooperate in training depends on the day, she says.
The next step in the mustangs’ training is working in the indoor arena and preparing them to interact with children. Drake says she’s excited about the prospect of using the mustangs for lead walking and ground work in the NAC’s summer camps. "What little kid can go home and say, ‘Guess what, mom and dad? I got to work with a wild mustang today!’" she says.
Once they reach the age of three, the mustangs will be sent to Jim Hicks at the Sage Creek Equestrian Center in Heber for saddle training. "We don’t have quite the gumption for saddle training ourselves," Drake says. She adds that Hicks appreciates how much further he will need to go with the mustangs since they will be working with disabled children and adults.
Drake’s ultimate goal is to help mustangs get adopted by showing people what they are capable of. She hopes to continue to incorporate wild mustangs into the NAC’s programs and help the BLM find new adopters. "To be able to take a horse off the range and make it a therapy animal is an amazing thing," Drake says. "I want to show people that mustangs can be trained and what they can do."
To follow the adventures of Shelby Mustang, Miss Etta and their trainers, visit http://nationalabilitycenter.blogspot.com. For more information on the National Ability Center’s therapeutic riding programs, visit http://www.discovernac.org.