Lessons Learned in Milan

Lessons Learned in Milan

Main Problems

  • High Horse to Staff Ratio bogged down training
  • Taking 31 stallions without consideration for effort to get them gelded
  • Horses in Holding take time to care for, but don’t progress toward adoption
  • Limits of Design of Facility: no shelter for horses, no open pen areas (wide rail spacing allows horses to fight), no barn for hay storage. Does not meet BLM standards for rail spacing.
  • Zoning does not allow equine in Commercial district (except horses across the street)
  • Too much Public Access
  • Lack of Housing. This could be alleviated with RV park plan.
  • Less appealing environment for (unpaid) staff and students/volunteers
  • Unclear Contractual Relationship with Horse Owner
  • Lack of Interest in Our Solution from government agencies, no major clients beyond Placitas Wild
  • Inadequate chute for a mass gelding of horses
  • Costs of leasing

Main Benefits

  • Access to Veterinarian
  • Access to Highway
  • Design of Facility: lots of individual pens
  • Production Capabilities
  • Access to Community

History

In August of 2018, we became aware that the Bureau of Land Management was interested in contractors that could get 1000 horses trained and adopted in 2019. We did not think it was a realistic goal, but we drafted a proposal. They said the chosen respondents would be asked to prepare a formal proposal. Our plan required $1.3 million to start and then $1,000 per horse adopted.

With just a few months to prepare, we felt that we should start initial preparations to scale up. We held a fund drive intending only to generate a show of interest from 200 people and, in three weeks, raised $12,000 from 215 individual donations. We cut it off after 200 donations. Realizing the BLM was dragging its feet, we revised our plan to train 200 horses the first year and 500 horses the second year for a smaller start up cost. We started seeking funding from the major foundations including the ASPCA, the HSUS, and the Right Horse Initiative. None of them were interested in the $350,000 proposal.

The government shut down on 22 December, 2018 and remained shut down until 25 January. The Mustang Heritage Foundation did not immediately restart and for several more weeks it was not clear if the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) would restart. We were looking at the prospect of having no horses to train.

The Placitas Wild organization contacted us about taking a large number of horses for emergency rehoming. With unclear prospects for BLM horses, we agreed to take them for $600 each. We located the old livestock facility in Milan, NM. and started renovating it to be horse safe. Just before horses were due to arrive, the Village notified us that the facility was not zoned for animals. They agreed to let us operate for 90 days and horses started arriving the next day.

Placitas Wild sent 51 horses, 31 of which were stallions and required individual pens. We were able to house the stallions in the facility and the mares in pens we constructed around it. We started training with inadequate staffing. Most of the time there were two people and sometimes there were three. Occasionally, we would have additional help for a week or more at a time. No one was paid wages, it was all done by volunteers. The care and feeding of the horses took away from the time and energy to train the horses, but at least 10 horses were in training every day.

The Village notified us that we would have to leave by the 9th of June. We were able to get the 31 horses gelded in the last week of May. The Village then extended our special use permit to August and limited us to 50 horses. It also prohibited us from using RV’s on the property for living quarters. We put horses and burros in foster care with other people to get to our limit. More volunteers started showing up, we squeezed more beds into the building, and I was able to train up to 20 animals a day by myself.

In August an intern arrived and we were able to increase the number of animals in training to 30. Eventually the intern was handling 10 horses a day. We kept detailed track of all tasks completed and were focused on maximizing the rate of training. We got down to having met criteria on 1000 training tasks (of the 1250 we started with). We had placed about 25 Placitas Wild mustangs into adoption.

Placitas Wild was given access to 40 acres for a wild horse sanctuary and they decided to discontinue training and adoptions and return the remaining horses to Placitas. We held them for a week until they were picked up.

Without horses to train, we considered our options. The MHF has changed its paperwork requirements to a system where the adopter is responsible to submit their own forms by mail. The trainer has no ability to expedite the adoption process. We feel that this is a serious impediment to adoption as adopters rarely have the tenacity to get through the adoption process by themselves. Extending the time required for approval makes it very likely that the potential adopter will find another horse that is easier to acquire. We decided to close down for the winter and reassess our options for 2020.

While we were preparing to vacate the property and return to Largo Canyon, Sena Fitzpatrick of the McKinley County Humane Society contacted us about taking two stallions that had been rounded up by the NM Livestock Board (NMLB). The other rescues could not take them as the NMLB facility in Santa Fe could no longer keep horses for gelding. We agreed to take them. The Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) contacted us about taking more horses from a failed wild horse sanctuary. We agreed to accept eight of them. There is obviously a need to continue helping wild horses in New Mexico.

Lessons Learned

Our old facility in Largo Canyon is marginally accessible down the 25 miles of dirt road. The Milan facility was adjacent to I-40. This made a huge difference in the amount of time needed to buy supplies, hay, pick up volunteers, or deliver horses. It saved money on vehicle repairs. It made consulting with a veterinarian possible and allowed better health care for the horses.

The Interstate is constantly noisy. A facility should be located near (but not on) a major highway. It introduces an undesirable level of distraction into training. Trains are more noisy but their sounds are less random than trucks and cars.

The facility must have adequate living quarters for staff and volunteers. An RV park as part of the facility is needed for recruiting volunteers from the vacationing public. There must be clear responsibilities for housekeeping. There should be a staff to horse ratio of no more than 10 horses per staff unless there is full time horse care staff.

The facility must be zoned for animals. Good water and good drainage are also essential. The facility must be gated to limit off hours interruptions. Signage must clearly indicated when visitors are allowed, but gates are required to enforce those hours.

The facility must have the chutes and pens to safely and efficiently do veterinary work. It needs to accommodate mares with foals as well as stallions. There must be individual pens for stallions and genders should not be in adjacent pens until after gelding. Post-gelding change in behavior takes about 6 weeks.

Training needs to take place in the animals home pen and in alley’s, plazas, or arenas. It needs to be safe from horse attack to lead a horse through the alley. The fences along the working spaces need to prevent horses from sticking their heads through. There needs to be turnout areas that are safe (no prairie dog burrows) and easy to gather from. There needs to be an obstacle course in a fenced training area.

There should be no gap between the ground and the first rail of the fence that could trap a horse leg (less than 1 foot). The pipe rails should be smooth and strong enough to withstand adjacent horses fighting (especially kicking). A portable welder should be available to repair fences immediately.

Gates should be freely swinging on hinges and should fasten with chain in slots. There should be strategically placed gates for moving horses through the alley system. Horses should be moved through alleys, not through open spaces.

The area for loading/unloading horses should be accessible in all weather. A way to crowd the horses in successive areas of the alley was very effective for loading horses. There needs to be security panels on each side of the gate to fold against the trailer and prevent horses from squeezing out.

The watering system needs to be easy to maintain, clean, and keep filled. Watering record keeping helps volunteers fill the water containers to the correct level. (Investigate automatic watering system?). Ice removal must be managed to not create hazards for horses or humans.

Hay storage under tarps is problematic, but possible. It would be much easier to have a barn for hay. It is easier to tarp individual bales than a whole haystack.

It was also possible to work without shelter through the spring and summer months at this elevation in this particular year. We did not receive much hail. The animals were hot at times without shade. Some kind of protection from wind and ice will be mandatory for winter.

There needs to be some kind of garage or concrete slab to work on equipment with tool storage nearby.

There needs to be a person designated to interact with visitors. People just wanting to tour should be asked to donate. There must be an effort to generate revenue from visitors.

It is much cheaper to procure horses from rescues than it is to pick up horses from the BLM. Rescue horses require vet care such as gelding. Approval for adoptions whether it is the BLM or a rescue can be a problem. There needs to be a very well defined process, delineated responsibilities, and an unambiguous adoption agreement with each animal owner (viz. BLM or rescue). It became a problem that we did not have a signed contract between organizations. It should have been required before starting the project.

Showing a potential adopter a small number of horses currently available results in more adoptions than allowing them to choose from the unfinished animals. Placing the finished horses in a place where they can be viewed from the street or parking lot attracts interested people to visit in an unobtrusive way.

Updating the training records and monitoring progress towards the overall goals of the program (training each horse to perform 26 tasks) can help keep staff motivated to work hard.

Finally, I learned that I might like to walk away and find something else to do, but when I feel that some animals don’t have a chance and I could help them, then I am unlikely to be able to turn my back on them.

In the end, it’s all about the horses.

Return to Freedom

Return to Freedom

The Placitas Wild organization had never been happy to let their horses go, so when someone provided them with a little bit of land (40 acres), they decided to take back their horses and let them run as a herd. They informed us last week, but it took us a few days to realize that they really wanted to just let them go. Twenty some have already gone to adopters and five more have approved adoptions. They will not return. Thirty will be taken back to Placitas, including almost a dozen that had finished their training program and were waiting for adopters.

We announced this on FaceBook and everyone wanted to know what this means for us. The meaning for the FaceBook readers was mixed. Some people were happy to see horses going back to the wild, some were disappointed to have more horses concentrated on the land. Several were disappointed to find no more horses would be available for adoption.

What does it mean for us? First, and most important to our survival, is that it drastically cuts cost of operations. We will only be feeding eight horses, three donkeys, a mule, and a zebra. We won’t need volunteers or students. We can go home to the house we own, with it’s good water and relative quietness.

It gives me time to finish building the mustang training classes on the MagicMustangTamer.com site. That work has been coming together and it’s already possible for students to get started with the first 17 modules. That will be my major project for the next couple of weeks with an expected launch date of around the 15th of this month.

We still have horses and donkeys to train. The burros will be going to the Cerrillos donkey festival. The Mustang Camp herd will be brought into the pens for a training refresher and hoof trimming. The McKinley County Humane Society horses (Arviso and Pearl) will be readied to be adopted. Things will look pretty normal but totally relaxed at Mustang Camp. We won’t be going crazy, stretched thin by too many animals. It’s going to be nice.

Struggles with Aggression

Struggles with Aggression

Fay and I walked out of the training pen, leaving an enthusiastic horse confused about our sudden departure. I headed to the porch to wait it out. Fay headed to the little gray car where a gray-haired woman was getting out. The woman had driven across the parking lot and into the field beside the mare pens. We have yet to figure out why people take the prerogative of driving onto the field, but it gets my hackles up every time.

I am basically a very misanthropic person. I don’t like or trust humans as a species. Push me and I get snarly like a dog who’s been kicked by its owner too many times. If I had approached her, I would have just walked up and asked the lady what makes her think it’s okay to drive onto my field without asking. I wouldn’t have been yelling, but the woman would have left in a huff.

Fay is a very nice person in contrast. She tries to handle all the visitor interactions for me. Her fresh 17-year old face and happy demeanor is charming. She asks if she can help the lady. The woman says she was driving I-40 and wanted to pull off and sit and watch the horses while she ate lunch. She gave Fay control of the conversation though when she added, “I hope it’s not bothering you.” Fay apologized but conceded that it was indeed bothering us. The woman left in a huff anyway. I walked out to the driveway and closed the gate behind the gray car. It was nice to not have to be the mean one.

I am the blunt person who will say exactly what I think. If I don’t like something, it’s no secret. You know exactly where you sit with me. I identify problems to fix and I don’t harbor grudges when things are over. I forget things ever happened. I was probably that way before I ever became an animal trainer, but the tendency has been solidified and polished by the experience. Grudges don’t get you anywhere as a trainer.

Lefty in 2017

The other day Fay and I were working with Lefty to get him ready for hoof trimming. He is a very emotional gelding from the Jarita Mesa herd in the Carson National Forest. Mustang Camp first trained him in the winter of 2012 and he was adopted to an extreme cowboy character (and movie extra). In 2017, the cowboy died in his sleep and the estate asked us to take back his three mustangs. The other two got a home near Abiquiu and we thought Lefty would live out his life in our permanent herd of mentally fragile equines. But Lefty, also known as Dakota in his cowboy years, had an admirer, Sonja, who found out we still had him and arranged to adopt him. I wanted to trim his hooves first since I knew Lefty was going to object vehemently.

Over the course of a few weeks, Fay and I carefully tried to keep Lefty from becoming overstimulated as we increased the amount of time we could handle the feet. We found out that it was too much for him to be handed a bite of alfalfa while his foot was being held, so instead, we had to hold the foot for a countdown of five, set it down, and give him five bites of alfalfa for him to stay under threshold. Still, every once in a while, out of the blue, his leg seemed to have a spasm that made his hoof slam to the ground, tip first. Then he would snort and run away if he wasn’t on a halter and lead. We could not identify the antecedents sparking this behavior.

I was cleaning his right front foot, standing a bit too close when one of these paroxysms occurred. His hoof tip smashed the toe of my boot with all of his weight. I howled in pain. The pain was overwhelming and I cried out loud and fell to the ground.

Fay did not know what to do. She said she would go get John, but I said, “No, just leave me alone for a moment,” even though I continued to weep. She stood watching in helpless horror, but eventually, I got up, dried my tears, straightened my glasses, and hobbled over to catch the horse. True enough, I felt like smacking the horse, but I knew better. I led him back over to the fence where we had been working. We went right back to training. I finished cleaning the hoof between Fay’s delivery of five bites. The toe is black and blue, the nail will fall off, but nothing is broken. Lefty’s hooves are now trimmed.

Early in the spring, another student and I were trying to move a frightened mustang, Apache, into his own pen. He wanted to run back down the alley which we were blocking. He was panicky. The student’s dog came into the alley on the far side of the horse near the gate that we wanted the horse to go through. The dog started barking at Apache. The student’s instincts were to block the horse, so she was almost run over when the horses came barreling back down the alley. My instinct was to teach the dog to leave the pen area on verbal command, so I yelled at the dog and chased it out of the alley. The student could not allow that level of aggression toward her dog, so she quit. I was sorry to lose a set of helping hands. Soul searching following aggressive responses and termination of relationships is my normal, I’ve done it so many times.

I have run people off many, many times. When you boil it all down, it’s almost always that they have violated my sense of predictability and control and raised my anxiety level. That combined with a little caffeine is the gateway to the danger zone. It’s my own vulnerability to adrenaline and I own the responsibility for it.

Having thirty recently-gelded stallions in rows of pens gives Fay and me the opportunity to see a model of aggression in action. Almost every gelding we are training occasionally gets a bit frustrated with our expectations and frequency of food delivery, so he rushes to attack his nearest neighbor. The geldings never attack us, but attacking the neighbor horse happens in almost every session. Sometimes we ignore it and continue, and sometimes we use it as an excuse to terminate the session. Terminating the session doesn’t really help a horse. Limiting the opportunity for attacks by having the horse on a lead rope is a better solution once the horse is able to be led. Things get better when opportunities for attack are limited.

Floyd is grumpy with Ryder

In some sense, I might be like a frustrated gelding with pointless inconsequential displays of misplaced aggression. More soul searching….

The thing is: the people that volunteer their time to help the mustangs are good people. They show up out of concern and compassion. They are trying to do the right thing in their own eccentric ways. They just might be awkward about social coordination, defiant about the right to personal free-will, forgetful, or slow to learn. I might expect too much. I need to cultivate compassion for them, the same compassion I have for the horses.

I listen to Podcasts while I muck pens. Hannah Branigan was talking to a podcast guest about the way of framing a problem to get perspective. This idea has been called the Will-It-Matter-In-Five-Years rule. It goes like this: When a problem comes up, ask yourself, “Will this matter in five minutes?” If it will, ask yourself if it will matter in five hours, then five days, then five weeks, five months, and then five years. If it won’t matter in five minutes, let it go. Most things go right there. I am trying to hold my boundary for getting pissed-off at five weeks. It’s helping.

She bites.

I didn’t have the driveway gate closed a few days ago and suddenly there were a pair of Native Americans at the training gate, wanting to look at the horses. John wasn’t around to handle potential adopters, so I agreed to show them the geldings. By the second horse, I realized that they were totally inebriated. This, by the way, was the first time since we have been here that we had drunks show up. Fay came scurrying from where she had been filling water troughs, but within half a minute, she realized that she did not want to take these guys off my hands, so she scurried back to the water. The drunkest one asked if we had any mares, so I took the opportunity to escort them out of the pen system and around to the mare pen, which was close to their truck. When we got there, I told them that they needed to go and come back when they were sober. The drunkest one immediate walked to his truck, where a third fellow was passed out in the passenger seat. The less drunk one lingered by the pinto mare and foal. He reached in to try to touch them. She snapped at his hand with the full intention of biting him. She has bitten Fay and she has bitten me. Her teeth are sharp. I hurried back to urge him on before the horse drew blood. I was prepared to get fierce, but he realized it was time to go. No one got hurt.

Training: it’s what we do

Training: it’s what we do

A lot of times when people get involved with Mustang Camp, they come up with loads of ideas for how Mustang Camp could generate money by doing something other than training horses and getting them adopted. With our 150-seat auditorium and sale ring, these days the idea is usually to put on some kind of program, attract tourists, let people pet the zebra, etc.. At Largo, the idea usually involved having a lot more guests. I listen to these ideas, then I ask, “Are you saying that we should do that instead of training horses?” They are great ideas full of creativity, but it’s not what we do.

Now days, my crew knows that training the animals is the most important thing to get done each day. They intercept visitors in the driveway. They solve little problems without me. Nothing interferes. Fay and me are left to train (or sometimes just me). The work gets done.

We start mid-day. The first project is making the daily plan, which has evolved to be an index card listing each of the horses and the task they are working on. I keep it in my pocket and make notes on it between each animal. I’d like to share a recent training day with my readers.

Join us for a day with the ponies!

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

No, in this town the metaphor for entering an alternate reality that makes no sense should be “down the prairie dog hole”. I don’t think the rabbits bother digging their own holes here. We sit on the porch and watch the p-dogs. There are at least a dozen holes between the house and the street. We put used kitty litter in the ones in the driveway to discourage burrowing where a car might fall in, but it doesn’t seem to deter them. Navigating the parking lot in the truck involves swerving to avoid the pits of caved in tunnels.

Our leafy porch

The porch is a thick concrete block that runs the length of the building. There is a wide awning over the two doorways, and a couple of Siberian elm trees hug the edge of the concrete making it a shady leafy retreat. We sit in a tidy row on an ancient set of wooden sale-ring seats, watching the p-dogs through the leafy screen.

Click to listen to the prairie dog in the driveway.

Prairie dogs bark or at least yip like a big bird. The prevalence of carrion flies around makes me think that they breed in the dark rodent holes, perhaps on unfortunately dead p-dogs or just p-dog poo. Prairie dog populations  swell until some disease comes in and wipes them out for a while. “Some disease” might be bubonic plague, which kills people in New Mexico occasionally. Perhaps there are less zoonotic diseases that take them down as well, but in town, between the interstate and the train tracks, there are no coyotes to do any predator control. Perhaps there are ferrets? I saw a long and lean animal with a long tail run from burrow to burrow from my wooden seat on the porch. It’s an underground ecosystem and anything could happen down there.

One of the topics of conversation on the porch is the Village of Milan, our personal rabbit hole. We still don’t understand why they wanted us to leave and we are still in Temporary Use Permit limbo.  We didn’t get kicked out, yet, but we haven’t been told we can stay either. We simply don’t know. 

After Code Enforcement officer Rodney London served the papers for our eviction (see Blog 11. Slip Slidin’ Away), I went into a defensive strategy. I asked people to write letters, polite letters, to the Mayor and Village Clerk. Letters started pouring in from all over the planet. I called up Jami Seymore, at Fox News New Mexico, who had recently done a piece on us and the Placitas Horses. She came back and interviewed me, but Rodney London had little to say to tell the village’s side of the story. It made the village look petty and mean. See for yourself. Jami’s story aired on the morning of the 16th. We met with the Village trustees on the evening of the 16th, but none of them had seen the news at that point. 

I stood up to represent Mustang Camp, but immediately was confronted by Trustee Baca who had printed somewhat tangential things out about mustangs and the BLM from the internet she wanted me to respond to. I asked for her source and she said, “Just Google it.” I managed my temper until she called me a liar, saying I had said we would only have 50 horses. I had told the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) meeting in March we would swell up to 70 at first since we had to cope with the influx of Placitas horses. I hate being called a liar.

A scuffle broke out in the audience. Rodney, Howard Michael, and a P&Z member started yelling at each other on the sidelines. Rodney was insisting that “There are no minutes.” I assume they were arguing about if I had said 50 or 70.

Ms. Baca then confronted me about why we had left Largo Canyon, and why we had come here if we had so many supporters from around the world. She made a big deal of a letter sent in by Veronica Moore, one of our strongest supporters. She twisted Veronica’s letter to suggest that we had abused horses in some way. I could make no sense of what she was saying.

I tried to respond to the board authentically, but it seemed the cards were stacked against me. I could see that there was nothing I could do or say to placate Trustee Baca. So, trying to retain some dignity, I gathered my papers, and said, “Fine, I will continue preparations to vacate the property.” Later on John and Anja would tell me that I had failed in this moment and that I should never be the one to represent our organization. I should have just ignored Baca and told the story I wanted people to know about.

Lauri Jaramillo, a member of Placitas Wild, stood up and presented an emotional and passionate story of love for these horses. Trustee Archuleta and Mayguyor Gonzales had tears in their eyes. They wanted to support our plea to extend the temporary use permit. The female trustees remained unmoved. They agreed to postpone the decision until the 24th of May. The emotional appeal had been much more effective than the rational one.

Before we left the meeting, John made a point to invite the Board and Trustees and the Planning and Zoning Board to tour the facilities before the meeting. They had to come as a group as they could not meet with us individually by law. I had given up. John was optimistic, and Anja (MC’s president) knew she needed to coach me on diplomacy.

The next day the Cibola Citizen newspaper headlines were WILD EQUINE FIASCO and the Trustees got an opportunity to consider how Milan looked on state-wide Fox News seeing Jami’s piece. I imagine they also started hearing about it from their constituents who generally saw no reason to kick the mustangs out. I would like to know if they had more justification than “she lied to us about the number of horses.” Maybe someday we will hear that side.

The Village officials were polite when they showed up for the tour. It was the P&Z board mostly and Trustee Baca. We stood in the sale barn lobby and talked about what our mission and program is, then we hiked them around the mare pen and through the block of stallions. Everything was clean, neat, and organized, as it is almost every day. They were a little bit impressed and we got the feeling that things were going to work out.

The Meeting on the 24th was a little bit better. The next day’s newspaper headlines read THE HORSES CAN STAY, though the outcome still has me confused. The Village is accepting our horse manure weekly to put on their park where blowing dust is a problem. We had to get down to 50 horses by the end of June. We got down to 51 (still too many to efficiently care for and train in my opinion but I’m getting them out as fast as I can.) The Village is supposed to have a committee to work on drafting an agreement with us, but we suspect it will be better if we just submit a proposed agreement that says we will meet all the requirements to be a licensed equine rescue in the State of New Mexico and that we will comply with all local ordinances. No additional promises seem necessary to me, but I am not sure when I don’t understand the issue to begin with.

So… about those local ordinances… there is a section in the code about animals in the village. Livestock are specifically not allowed unless they have a special livestock permit. Zebras require an exotic animal permit. No one has ever applied for either of these permits until we did. On June 6th, 2019, we became the holders of Animal Permits Numbers 0001, 0002, and 0003. Sixty animals are covered by our permits. I suspect the Board of Trustees is not familiar with the livestock permitting system and will be shocked to learn that we complied with it. There are no other legal livestock in the village. The horses across the street from us that belong to a member of the P&Z board are in violation of the law. Not that we care.

We think the Village will want to meet with us again in July about the special use permit. They still might evict us or just let us continue, I don’t know what will happen down this rabbit hole. But it remains a topic of much speculation on our leafy porch.

Witness to Suffering

Witness to Suffering

I was nervous about the final horse to be gelded. We had tried to put Amigo in the chute three weeks earlier for vaccinations and coggins testing, but his desperation to escape was so intense and violent that we had let him out, untouched. He was, by far, the most beautiful of the thirty-one stallions: a clear brick-red bay with white stockings, and a white patch that defined his coloring as “pinto”. On the day he was to be gelded, I was afraid for him and so I left him for last.

Dr. Gonzales DVM, however, was not to be underestimated. He had gelded 27 wild horses in one day for the McKinley County Humane Society, dropping them, drugged and immobile, from the bucking chutes of the Pine Hill Rodeo Grounds. He came to us with excellent recommendations, and, as we considered it, just in the nick of time.

We were still under an order to vacate the premises by the Village of Milan by June 9th. With so many stallions in our keeping, our options were limited. They could not go in a pen as a group without blood being shed, bones being broken, and permanent scars. Where else could we find a facility with 30 individual pens that were stud-proof? Gelding would allow them to become a normal horse herd, but we were out of time. When Dr. Gonzales DVM agreed to geld them, a prayer was answered. 

The appointed day dawned and it was cold and snowy, despite being the end of May. I had two volunteers to press into service: Helene, the hiker who had walked from the Mexican border along the Continental Divide Trail, and Yijing, the Chinese art student who was trying to experience “true nature”. The three of us were shivering as Dr. Gonzales organized us, his father, and an assistant into the gelding team. Helene was to be responsible for the bucket full of disinfectant and tools. Yijing was to carry the tray of drugs. I was to cover the horse’s head with a towel and keep it’s neck straight. John would move the horses to and from their pens.

The first day was long and exhausting, but we only got twenty-four of the boys gelded. Some of them were over-adrenalized, but the doc had no qualms about bumping up the dosage to the limit for the wild ones. First a tranquilizer, then the knock-out dosage of ketamine. A high dosage of ketamine made them twitch as I held them. No one woke up prematurely and things went smoothly. Yijing hid her eyes behind Helene’s shoulder every time the vet cut open a scrotum. Nature was a little too gory for her. Helene took up the vet’s offer to let her do one of the geldings, but her incision technique was too tentative, and Dr. Gonzales finished the job.

The second day was merely cold and windy. It wasn’t long before we had only Amigo left. Predictably the beautiful stallion put up a fight, slamming into the walls of the chute and trying to climb out. I had never noticed that the upper edge of the gate hinges were bare sharp metal . Slamming his head into the metal, Amigo sliced his right eye lid into a gaping wound as the vet filled his veins with drugs. He fell out of the chute onto his right side burying his bleeding face in the soft dirt. I wrapped his head in the towel. They had to drag him away from the fence and I did my best to hold his head by the halter to keep the wound from dragging through the dirt.

The gelding team huddle around Amigo.

Dr. Gonzales worked fast, knowing this horse would not stay down long and that he needed to put some stitches on the eyelid. The wind came up from the west and it started spitting snow and blowing the duff off the ground. He swabbed the belly with disinfectant to get the soil particles away from his incisions. We all prepared to roll the horse onto his left side, but at that point it was “too much nature” for me too and I could not look at Amigo’s face. The other five members of the team huddled around his head and neck to create a windblock. The bone over the eye was broken. Doctor Gonzales cleaned the wound and put in a purple stitch to hold the skin over the exposed bone. It was a grim moment.

Amigo started regaining consciousness and we all moved to the fences. The horse willed himself to his feet, but his feet were not ready. He lurched from side to side, staggering and falling. Dr. Gonzales was tense, horses at this point can easily break their legs. We all held our breaths until the horse was able to stand again. The broken bones, blood, and permanent scars that I was trying to avoid by gelding, had been visited on the beautiful stallion. Dr. Gonzales prescribed some antibiotics and left us with a five gallon bucket overflowing with stallion testicles.

The Village of Milan Trustees met the next day and the wild horse advocates were there. The Trustees were a little bit miffed that the issue had made regional news and they looked like horse-haters, but that’s a whole other story for another post. The important point here is that they gave us until June 24th to get down to 50 horses. I would have to double up on my training effort to meet this deadline. 

But I couldn’t. I had a suffering animal to care for. His mane was entangled in the puss-seeping  scab that covered his eye. He needed care and he needed husbandry training if we had any hope of saving the eye. I spent three days working with Amigo and refusing to give the deadline a second thought. I trained him to let me spray his face with a spray bottle of water, then to let me put the scissors in various places to cut the mane, and, finally, to press his eye against a warm wet sponge. The weather turned warm and dry. The scab became as hard as any plastic. Scab material seemed to require three hours of soaking to even begin to dissolve, but the wild mustang only had two and a half hours of patience for his trainer. In order to avoid too much frustration, I reminded myself constantly to focus on the project and let go of the outcome. Just keep trying, it’s the only thing to do.

After three days the mane hairs that formed the hardened matrix fell away. One crusty bit hung down from the eyelid from a purple stitch. This hanging scab annoyed the mustang. The antibiotics were keeping infection from setting in, but with the eye now exposed, he quit letting me spray his eye. I couldn’t blame him. I searched for another way.

I lay awake and worrying almost every night. Should I put him in a darkened barn or would he flip out? Could I get a fly mask on him? Could I get an eye patch over his eye? What if I trained him in a different way?

I started training him to take an oral tranquilizer. Dormosedan is a gel that comes in a thin tube. He would have to let me put it in his mouth long enough to squirt it under his tongue. It was too expensive to fail on the first try.

His pain kept him distracted and unfocused. He could only train for two minutes at a time. He couldn’t blink, the center of his eye accumulated a thick pad of dirt and duff cemented with pus. Maybe it was protecting the eye in some way. Maybe it would be more painful to lose the pad of dirt.  I started not to be able to bear to look at him. It was too painful to my own self confidence to be so helpless.

His owner, Miranda, came with medications, sprays, ointments. We couldn’t do much but spray his eye. At this point, it probably was so painful he no longer avoided the spray and I think the moisture provided some real relief. I tried using spray and shade over the eye as a reinforcer to motivate him, but his fear was always too high and he ducked away from the shadow. I called Dr. Gonzales to see if I could figure out another way. He said put the Dormosedan in his food and forget about under the tongue.

The next day Miranda drove over from Algodones, where she lives. Amigo took the gel tube into his mouth and I gave him a quarter of the dose, followed by a handful of alfalfa. We left Amigo for 30 minutes to let the drug start to work, then came back to a slightly more relaxed mustang to give him the rest of the medication. Dormosedan takes 40 minutes of quiet time to take full effect. No adrenaline allowed.

He was not as quiet as I hoped, but he let me spray his eye, then take the dangling scab in my fingers. I fiddled with it to see how to get the scissors on it safely. One snip and the hated scab was gone, but the pad of dirt was glaring. It made no sense to try to cover the eye with a patch until it was clean. I started rinsing the dirt pad with pink eye solution. It seemed welded to the eye.

Amigo decided I was trying to help him and cozied up to me. He wanted to hang his head over my shoulder, but his drug induced friendliness was short lived and he moved away from our ministrations before the pad dissolved. It would take another Dormosedan day to do anything more.

It was a major improvement, but still I felt like a failure. My husbandry training was only half-effective. I had no real hope left of anything more than watching this beautiful creature suffer in the glaring sun and dusty wind. Waves of guilt and shame washed over me. I couldn’t bear to look at him.

I decided to try some human pain-relieving eye solution, so I mixed Visizine and pink eye solution. He didn’t mind me spraying. The dirt pad continued to grow like a stalagmite. Finally it seemed that it was going to break off. It was kind of terrifying to think about what might be under it. I kept his eye spray bottle in my training cart for quick treatments during my training day. Sooner or later the lump was going to fall off. We would just have to deal with whatever we found under it.

I dreamed that Amigo was in his pen looking at me through his left eye. It looked normal and I was joyous. I think they call these compensatory dreams, dreams that make up for the pain you are trapped in.

In Bennie’s trailer

Then, out of the blue, Miranda found a vet who would take him on as a patient. Dr. Thal has an equine practice in Santa Fe. Amigo’s transportation was arranged. We solidified the loading chute and let him stand around with the mares until the truck came. Bennie and his grandpa helped me load Amigo, and, just that quick, Amigo was gone.

He is lucky to have an adopter that loves him. Dr. Thal, take care of this special boy. He’s been through a lot.

UPDATE: 28 June. We just learned that Dr. Thal removed the eye.

Slip Slidin’ Away

Slip Slidin’ Away

It’s rainy everywhere in North America today so our muddy conditions are nothing extraordinary. The greasy red clay churned up under the animal hooves only a small annoyance in the big picture. With some careful walking, one can avoid a pratfall, but nothing will avoid the gumbo sticking to all surfaces of your boots.

The big annoyance in the big picture was the letter delivered by Rodney London, the Milan Code Enforcement Officer. It says we have until the 9th of June to vacate the property because Mustang Camp is not aligned with the best interests of the village. Wow. A half-vacant town with undrinkable water thinks it will be better off without us. Okay.

But what do we do with the 70 horses?

This place has been hard. The volunteers I expected to show up, have been few and far between. My phone says I walk about 7 miles a day, feeding, watering, and training. I am exhausted. The trucks and trains keep me awake at night. I don’t drink enough water.

It’s the kind of water that when you bathe in it, your hair feels dry and dead. When you heat it or chill it, the minerals fall out of solution and float on the top. It tastes like minerals. Everyone I ask, even the water department guys, says they drink bottled water. I grow depressed by the ubiquitous prevalence of plastic water bottles. Controlling single use plastics is not going to happen in this kind of environment. Not too much hope for the planet here.

In truth, we’ve done good here despite the problems. We got most of the horses chipped, vaccinated and did their coggins. We have some geldings scheduled with the vet (perhaps 10 can get done before we vacate). Five horses are on step 24 and four on step 20 of the 26 Steps of training. Another group is slower in coming up through the tasks. I have been training 15 everyday. Perhaps now I need to triage the most salvageable?

We have had a lot of commitments for adoptions. A few horses have gone out, but many are awaiting training before they go. People try to talk me into letting them go untrained. I could agree to it if the horse was a tractable animal, but the ones that are truly problematic are not the kind of animals that will work out as big pets. Pressure them and they will break fences or respond with aggression. But maybe they have to go as they are? Maybe my time is up on them?

I could take them all back to Largo if I didn’t have 30 studs trying to fight with each other. I just don’t have enough individual pens there and no way to get them vetted. If they could go somewhere to get gelded and then come to me, it might work. Let’s see what happens next.

UPDATE: You can help us by writing a letter to the Mayor of Milan giving the reasons that Mustang Camp should have community support. The Mayor is on our side but just needs justification for helping us. The Mayor is
Mayor Felix O. Gonzales and can be emailed through the village clerk at villageofmilan@villageofmilan.com The deadline for these letters is the 16th of May.

Carrot Coincidence

Carrot Coincidence

The wind was howling when I arrived at the property. Ron met me at the truck. He had found us on Workaway.info , a site to match people with work experiences, and we are his first experience in that system. Normally, workawayers don’t work so hard. His blue gray eyes twinkled as he told me about all the things he had finished on this project. What a god-send! Earlier in the day he had finished tying the concertina wire back to the chainlink fence so it didn’t stick out, but not without loosing a bit of blood in the process. I covered the 800 lb bale of hay in the back of the truck with a tarp and we went inside to fix some dinner. He likes to eat a ketogenic diet for the most part. Cabbage and bone broth with brewers yeast sounded good to me.

While he was frying cabbage, I started messing around with the electrical breaker box. The labels were almost illegible, but soon we had lights and power. It started snowing sidewards and we lit the catalytic heater to take the chill from the room. Here in his 58th year of life, he is on a walk-about, maybe more accurately, a van-about. He wants to live in his van and follow the weather, take some landscape shots, and generally recover from years behind a programming desk. He is really smart, funny, and kind of philosophical, so we immediately fell into a deep discussion of life. It’s like we had always been friends.

I decided that the catalytic heater was a bit fumy so I turned it off and tried opening the electric oven door. It didn’t look like the varmits had been inside the oven which immediately started heating up, but pretty soon, it started smelling like roasting rat poop, so we turned it off and retired to our own nests. My nest was in the house and the smell of cooking rat poop lingered. It smelled more like boiling rat poop to me. It kept me awake for a while and the wind covered up the sound of the incessant freight trains and the semi’s rolling westward. Neon lights over the truckstop. It could not be a bigger contrast with Largo Canyon.

Saturday morning. Last minute preparations for the arrival of the first 15 horses. I called Sandy Johnson, but she was already gone and her husband said that she was moving horses. We went down the street to CJ’s feed store and bought a water trough and picked up 10 blocks of the salt I had ordered. CJ is a really nice person. She has a flock of hens and sells eggs. I’ve been keeping in touch with her over Facebook. She is going to unload the semi of hay when it comes with her big piece of hay moving equipment. She wanted to know how things were going so I told her about the P&Z meeting. The grizzled cowboy is her neighbor too. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’ll come around.” That was welcome news. She had never heard of needing a special use permit to have animals.

Ron and I adjusted the panels on the arrival pen until it seem stronger. We unloaded the 800 lb bale onto some railroad ties and filled the water. Now we just had to wait for horses. I used the wait to do some house keeping. I looked under the rangetop burners and realized that under the burners was a sea of floating rat poop, moistened by the rain dripping through the ceiling fan. I think the range needs to be replaced after the leak is fixed.

By midday, I was wondering about the horses, so I scoured around for Sandy Johnson’s cell number. She rarely answers it, but she did. They were moving horses somewhere else and wanted us to start picking up horses on Thursday. I called John and he got a bit miffed about all the effort we had put into being ready, including the $150 water trough. Our plans require continual adjustment, it’s just a fact of life.

It took some pressure off. On Sunday, John would bring the camper trailer and have Bill pull a load of railroad ties to put under the hay. Ron and I prepped the donkey and zebra pens. I am hiding the zebra behind the sale ring to keep him from attracting walk-ins. The set tourist hour is to keep people away from the animals in training during the rest of the time. My other goal for the tours is to generate enough income that I can hire a mucking specialist. Keeping 70 horses clean will require Herculean effort without the benefit of a river to float the poo away.. I have to paint a big sign for the front yard that says, “Visitors welcome during tour hours only. All other times: No trespassing.”

By early evening, we were exhausted. Ron offered to buy me dinner at the Wow Diner. It was really good and their tea service was exceptional with a big silver pot. I drank it slowly because we were so busy talking. We lingered, happy to be sitting in a warm space that didn’t smell of rat poop soup. The weather was milder, but this chest cold was starting to set in.

Back at the property, I cleaned and arranged my office, finally falling into a fitful sleep now that the wind let me hear the trains passing every 10 minutes. I woke up to a dog barking. A truck was pulling into our yard. I peeked through the blinds. It was a big fancy truck and horse trailer. It pulled forward, then backed up, then pulled past my window. It stopped and the occupants threw out a cardboard from a case of beer and some empty blue beer cans. I think the truck pulled into the grumpy cowboy’s driveway, but I had retreated to back under the covers. It was 2 a.m. Were the bars closing or was this just a late night arrival?

At five, I gave up pretending to sleep and got up to clean the bathroom, which was mostly scraping up soaked ceiling tiles and dead baby mice. I had a bucket of water. I could now pee indoors. When Ron came in, I was mopping with clorox. Improvements happen bit by bit. Ron said it was his birthday. Born 3/10/1961, so I took him out to breakfast.

Warning: the Wow Diner does not have good green chile. It’s a Texas version or something. But again, we lingered over that giant tea pot. He had told me stories about his grandparents on the first meal out. His grandfather was a character that found ways to circumvent the dictates of his wife. Over my half-eaten burrito, he told me the story of the grandparents immigrating from the Ukraine. They went to Pennsylvania and bought some run down farm to grow carrots like they had in the old country. Ron’s grandfather was a carrot farmer!!! Ron didn’t really know the story of Milan.

This led into a discussion of synchronicity, Carl Jung, individuation, and all my favorite topics. This was new stuff for the grandson of a carrot farmer. I just love coincidences and the whole carrot theme is so perfect for positive reinforcement horse trainers. Surely, it is a good omen. I need to pay careful attention to what I learn can learn from this man who now aspires to train donkeys.

Ron cleaned the back lot of junk, we moved railroad ties to the hay area, and I hammered off sharp edges in the pens. Finally, it was time for me to go. John and Bill would meet me on the road out near Pueblo Pintado. The route between Largo and Milan goes though the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, a spectacular drive, but I was starting to feel really sick. A fever was coming on, but there were no easy choices. I had to get home to feed the animals their evening meal. John had considerately watered and portioned the hay so I only had to deliver it. I woke up at three to the sound of rain.

The semi-load of hay was delivered this (Monday) morning and CJ’s hay loader had a problem. We’ve postponed moving the stallions until tomorrow, when John will be here to help me. Sandy Johnson has said they will haul the Placitas Wild horses and then asked us to do it. Hard to keep track but the horses have to all be in Milan by the 19th. Tomorrow might be the day when we euthanize Dasher, the laminitic pony. That plan is still flexible.

Packin’

We started out with a plan, really, we did.

The Plan

It was supposed to be easy. Lease the property, get the utilities turned on, take down the concertina wire, clean things up, move in our trailer, start welding on the fence system, get rid of the mesh, get some water hoppers, some hay, and attach the gates. Ready for horses.

But by this morning, John was starting to totally freak out. He was panicking as he reached for a cup of tea. I took the cup out of his hand, and said.”Let me do that for you. Go sit by the fire and calm down.” I filled the tea cups and grabbed my planning book as I went to join him.

Getting the property leased was no problem. The problems started right after that. We were informed it was commercially zoned and we could not have horses there. Across the street are cows and horses. It’s a Livestock Auction facility. We wrote to the mayor and the planning and zoning board. We delivered the letter to the Planning and Zoning Enforcement guy, who was wearing a gun and dressed like a state cop. Wow! They take P&Z seriously in Milan. John was not worried by this. Just a speed bump, he thinks we will get a variance.

Appreciate Utilities!

Then the water went on without a hitch. We didn’t reconnect the building because of the danger of water freezing in the pipes, but we have water. Electricity did not do so well. The electrician wanted $3,000 to put in a new meter. WHAT the hell!!! No way. The landlord said get another estimate. Second electrician said $800. We said, “Okay.” But it still is not done. They may be waiting for the electrical inspector to give them a green light.

We organized a work crew for tomorrow to clean up the property and get the pens ready. Of course a major storm is predicted. John is camping out in the building without the convenience of utilities. Luckily it’s a warm tropical storm on the way.

Concertina Wire

The State Highway Department had promised to remove the razor wire hanging from the fence on the north boundary. It is about human head high and according to the land plat, their fence is sitting on the Livestock Auction property. It’s incredibly dangerous to have around animals. It has to go. The Highway Department promised to remove it, but it is still there. My back up plan involves covering it with rags, which would be incredibly funky.

Here at home I’ve been working on the trailer. It’s very old, but serviceable. There was some kind of electrical short, so I took the electrical panel off and systematically tracked down the problem, which was an external plugin that was getting water leaking into it. If I had my life to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would have chosen to become an electrician. I like it because it follows rules meticulously. Yesterday, I started remaking some of the wood trim around the windows that had disintegrated over the years. Today I am adding some storm window material to keep the winds from sneaking through the louvers.

We sipped our tea. I opened the planning book. “Let me read you the list I made.” When I write lists, I always like to include stuff that is already done, so I don’t feel too hopeless. We started with the page titled “Stuff to Purchase”, then went to the list of Things to Prepare at Largo. My accomplishments were checked off. His main list, and the source of his anxiety, was the list of Things To Do in Milan. Reading the accomplishments calmed him down. We started adding details, like what to pack on the truck. Brooms, and mops, and beds, and blankets, and welding equipment, and buckets. A cart, some hoses. We talked about what to do if it was pouring rain when the volunteers show up (clean the building). He made some popcorn for the road and set out for the next installment of this adventure.

If ever you get scared and anxious, make a list. It helps.

Timing

Timing

Dawn on the 27th of February was supposed to be a particularly propitious moment astrologically, so I thought I would avail myself of time to start working on some much needed fundraising. I had it in my brain that I was going to initiate this campaign, come hell or high-water. The universe had a concurrent plan to use my tiny speck of determination to remind me of how everything can go wrong.

It started when I was at the Progressive Horse Behavior and Training Forum in Florida. I was given the slot as the final speaker, so, of course, I didn’t give a moments thought to my flight home that very evening and I missed the flight. Frontier Airlines only flies between Orlando and Albuquerque every other day so I had to wait until the 26th. The fight was at 9 pm, but I was compelled to go the airport very early.

I dream of airports frequently. I don’t know what the archetypal meaning of airports is, but I felt at totally at home even though I was just hanging around for 12 hours. Well, actually I was on my computer doing things like finding boot prints and hoof prints. Now airports provide electricity for computers and charging phones. How convenient! Each person that I met or talked to seemed like they could have been in a dream. I enjoyed every minute.

Finally at 9 p.m., we boarded the plane. Frontier seats are not adjustable. You try to sleep strapped to the chair of torture. Orlando flights are always full of crying babies. Landing is such a relief.

I didn’t really have a plan other than to find the truck. I knew it would be dangerous to try to drive home arriving sometime after 3 a.m., but I had plans for that propitious moment at dawn and didn’t see the point of checking into a hotel. I was supposed to pick up catfood on the way home. Where do you get catfood at midnight? Walmart of course.

There was a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Walmart. He was wrapped in a sleeping bag and looked rather cozy. A Walmart sleeping bag is cheaper than a hotel room. I bought one, along with the catfood and a big jar of peanuts. The gas station across the street looked open, but I had to wait until 1:30 a.m. before I was allowed to fuel. Wide awake, I departed civilization up Highway 550.

At about 2:30, I decided I needed to pee and pulled over. The gear shift got stuck. The key got stuck, The steering wheel wouldn’t move. I didn’t care. I pulled out my fund-raising project and started working on it. At 4:30 a.m. it was ready to launch, but I wanted to wait for dawn. I pulled the sleeping bag around me and fell asleep.

The sky was growing light as I opened my eyes. I turned on my computer and hit the send button. Click the image to make a donation. It’s good for both the project and for you.