by Bill Hancock
Why wild mustangs? Because they’ve never been touched by human hands. There’s a unique bond that happens between a horse and their very first human handler, and there’s something special about their wild spirit, something that veterans can connect with. A mustang can be gentle in one second and a fierce defender of the herd in the other, very much like the soldiers I know.
When the Veterans & Mustangs program was first started, it was built on trust. Trust that you have to earn from your horse and the trust he must find in you. When a wild horse allows you to touch it the first time, something extraordinary has taken place. One of the most emotional moments for me in the program was when my horse let me groom him. Just the simple brushing of his mane was a very personal experience for us, and this is one of the reasons that mustangs are chosen for the program.
Adopting a mustang also helps with the management of the herd. Currently, there are approximately 68,000 wild mustangs on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and what many people don’t know is that the BLM is in charge of all the wild mustangs in the US. Another bit of information not commonly known is they are overpopulated, and this is where the Mustang Heritage Foundation comes in. Veterans and Mustangs is an adoption program created by the MHF. The MHF is currently responsible for over half of the wild mustangs and donkeys adopted every year.
Located in Weir, TX, the MHF kicks off the program each year by driving all chosen participants (vets and first responders) up to Pauls Valley, OK, for an overnight stay. Early the next day, they go out to select their very own wild mustang from the BLM herd. Once the horses have been selected, and paperwork verified, they’re loaded into trailers and brought back to the MHF facility in Texas.
Once the mustangs are back at the facility the training begins. Training is taken very seriously and Katie Ketterhagen oversees all of it. She is more than just another pretty, blonde cowgirl running around with a ball cap and Wranglers on. Katie is a Wisconsin transplant with twenty years’ experience training horses. She’s the one responsible for helping the veterans bond with their mustangs at the MHF facility. [I am a veteran and former police officer that has participated in the program from February to April 2017.] She teaches them how to approach their new mustangs, put halters on them and lead them around along with everything else that goes into training horses (and people). Katie is very thorough and takes great care to ensure that every participant learns how to handle their horse.
Connecting with a Mustang
Each person connects with a horse in their own way. It seems like a horse is its own planetary body with its own gravity that draws you in. It’s an amazing thing to see. Whether suffering from psychological wounds or physical injuries, or both, there’s something special about caring for a horse that can heal your soul. When you make that first eye contact, you can feel that mustang moving into your heart, and if it sounds like I’m speaking from experience it’s because I am. Those mustangs are going through the same emotions our candidates are, being thrust into a new environment, out of their safe places, having to learn something completely different than anything they’ve ever experienced. Anxiety, fear, apprehension and uncertainty, it’s all on the surface. I immediately wanted to assure them that everything was going to be OK, but mustangs don’t speak “human”, at least not right away anyway. To be a horse trainer you have to learn to communicate with them in a way they understand.
The animals are very intelligent and that’s where Katie comes in. She shows all the prospective trainers how to communicate with their mustang. I guess you could say she trains both horses and people, usually at the same time. Wild mustangs are just like humans in that they all have different personalities, so learning to interact with them requires time and patience.
Being imperfect and learning to overcome situations are two of the biggest aspects of the process, just as it is when learning to be a soldier or first-responder. You discover that you and your horse are stronger together than you are separate.
From the moment you step into that pen, the horse is watching you. Your facial expressions, body language, your eyes and voice are all being examined. Remember, wild mustangs are prey animals and they have to be hyper aware of the environment in the wild. If your voice is unsure, they know it. They know if you’re calm or nervous or scared or apprehensive or frustrated or angry. Remarkably, there’s not an emotion they can’t read.
Mustangs possess those same qualities that we treasure in our friends: Sincere trust and complete honesty. They also require the same from their owner. You both work together to gain each other’s trust. Much the same as we do in the military, you depend on each other every day of training.
Some mustangs are calm and approachable while others are more skittish. Those are the ones that require a steady hand. The miraculous thing that I’ve witnessed as soon as training starts is everyone has a renewed sense of purpose. Suddenly you have this 1500 pound animal that is relying on you every day and you have to get up every morning and get to work. Staying in bed or inside the house isn’t an option anymore. You have to take care of your horse. It’s one of the things the program is based on.
You will build a bond with your mustang that no person, other than yourself, can break. You’re in a new relationship where you learn how to build on your strengths and conquer your weaknesses, one at a time. Some people find that they became more demanding of themselves than the horse because they want to learn to know how to “talk” to their horse more quickly. A mustang just wants to know what you want it to do. Like I said, they’re quick learners and they have a lot of personality. My horse, Chuck Wagon, loved to be close to me. He wanted constant hugs and to always take my hat off my head for some reason. I guess he thought I looked better without it. As I mentioned previously, grooming was a very personal experience for us. I truly treasured the time that I got to spend brushing his body or untangling his mane and tail. He and I would play around a lot but when training started we were all business. Katie made sure of that. She makes sure that everybody is progressing, human and horse alike.
I was excited every time I went to the corral to be with Chuck. I wanted to help him improve, but in the end it was he that helped me.
When I went through the program, there were four other veterans with me. Two of them had retired from the army, one had served in the Army and the Air Force, and the other had served in the Department of Defense in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We all had combat tours, sometimes several combat tours, under our belts, and we ran the gamut from PTSD/Anxiety/Depression to time dissociation to physical injuries that limited each of us in some way or the other. Each of us fought our own personal demons, but I found that I was able to leave mine outside the gate every time I went in to work with Chuck. That round pen became our sanctuary, a place of trust and respect and learning. There was no room left for my problems. This is another important aspect of the program – the healing.
In addition to my time and combat tours/war in the army, I had spent several years on the Austin Police Department. Previous classes before mine had other first-responders in them as well, and many of the people I talked to believed there was a direct correlation between the Veterans for Mustangs program and their improved outlook on life. It always seemed to happen when people started concentrating on the mustang’s abilities and not dwelling on their own disabilities. In my class, I know our horses brought out the best in us.
This is not one of those “feel good, more pomp than substance” programs. I learned a great deal about horse science, veterinary care, anatomy, mustang behavior and their lives in the wild. The subjects we were taught during the morning sessions were first rate, and the experience we gained from training in the afternoons was invaluable. The knowledge I graduated with was a great building block for mine and Chuck’s future together. Yes, this means that everyone who finishes the program does so with a brand new horse! This is an opportunity of a lifetime. There are never any slow moments. A Dr. Moore, an equine dentist, even came out to give us a lesson on how to take care of our horse’s teeth. He was patient with us and answered all our questions, and I felt like I was getting to experience something incredible that I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to witness.
Within the Vets & Mustangs program, we have some people come through that have experience working with horses and some who have never touched a horse in their lives, but the beauty of the course is that you all learn at the same speed. The program director, Gayle Graham teaches the classroom portion of the course and arranges and oversees all field trips. All participants get to go to the homes of some of the legends in the horse business. People like B.F. Yates, Dr. Charles Graham, Patti Colbert, Larry Gonzalez, Michael “Spanky” Stephens and David Graham were all more than happy to share their knowledge of horses and taking care of horses with us. We even got to meet the million dollar winning race horse, Kiss My Hocks, at the Southwest Stallion Station ranch. On another trip, we got to meet a famous roper and horse trainer named Larry Gonzalez. We got to watch Larry’s people as they worked out a horse by swimming it. That was something I’d never seen before.
All aspects of owning a horse were covered, so if you decide to keep your horse at the end of the program you know what you’re getting into.
A horse is a magnificent creature and seeing one in all its glory is a sight to behold. Gayle shares her extensive knowledge and no matter your level of experience is, everyone is treated as equal. I made some lifetime friendships when I went through the program and I can’t say enough about how much good it does for both horse and man (or woman) alike.
The program does not have therapists, counselors or other medical professionals on hand and is not considered “therapy”. I agree because it can be something so much more. When it was over we all had a new companion, a new purpose. I had a new friend named Chuck Wagon that was counting on me to be there for him, every single day, and I couldn’t let him down. Even when I didn’t feel like getting up I found myself outside with Chuck, happily playing with him like we used to do in the ring. I found that the program provided a new goal for me to meet every day, a goal to build something positive, no matter how small. While caring for and training Chuck, he suddenly became more important to me than myself.
If you are selected to participate, the only advice I’d give is to make the most of it. There are at least twenty or thirty people that would love to be sitting in your chair in that classroom. Each class is small, only about five people. A small class size allows for more time with each participant and their mustang.
At the end of the program, you are given the option of either keeping your horse or allowing it to go to the trainer. If you wish to adopt the mustang, the fee is approximately $125.00 and is covered completely by the Mustang Heritage Foundation. If you decide not to keep your horse then it is sold at auction, typically for charity.
I brought my horse, Chuck Wagon, home with me but first I sent him with Katie for 3 more months of training. He turned out to be quite the character and we formed a strong bond. He loves to swim and to play with an oversized soccer ball. I still treasure every minute that I get to spend with him. I enjoyed the process of buying a saddle, tack and all of the other items and equipment needed to care for Chuck.
The program is completely free to the participants due to the generosity of the foundation and the members. It couldn’t exist without the generosity and support of people who donate money and time along with the hard work of the MHF staff. The people involved care deeply about what they’re doing and put a lot of time and effort into. The MHF is a full-time operation that is continually moving and evolving. The Veterans for Mustangs program is just one program that the foundation holds. Educating people about mustangs, putting on events, fund raising, helping veterans and the other daily business operations keep the staff in constant motion. The cost to put a veteran through the eight-week course is approximately $3000.00. The entire amount is covered by donations.
I can tell you, as a participant of this program it’s worth every penny. I was enrolled in the program before I was asked to write this article. Now I know how important it is in the crusade to help our veterans. The value is immeasurable. It saves lives. I have a friend who was in the course who had spent two years inside her home because of PTSD, anxiety and depression. This course broke her out of that prison and got her involved in the world again. The course is family friendly and holds an open house for each class towards the end. You can see the changes the program makes in the lives of veterans and their families. I only got involved in the class at the request and with the encouragement of my wife, Karen and a good friend, Sheriff Robert Chody (Williamson County), and I’m thankful every day that they talked me into it.
The MHF is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit foundation. The Executive Director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation is Kali Sublett. She and her staff put in many countless hours towards the foundation and the Veterans for Mustangs course in particular. To donate you can mail donations to Mustang Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 979, Georgetown, Tx 78627 or donate on line. If you’d like to volunteer to help or otherwise contribute, contact the foundation at 512-869-3225
For more information on the Veterans for Mustangs program or an application to participate, contact Gayle Graham at 512-869-3225 or you can email her at: 1GayleGraham@gmail.com
Their website is www.mustangheritagefoundation.org and they are also on Facebook under “Extreme Mustang Makeover” and “Mustang Heritage Foundation.”
If you’d like to talk to Katie Ketterhagen about the training of the wild mustangs, you can contact her at 512-940-0520 or KatieKetterhagen@aol.com.
About the author: Bill Hancock is a freelance writer who has written books about Whitetail deer hunting, written a collection of short stories and writes newspaper and magazine articles. He is a former soldier, Austin police officer and state wildland fire fighter and ranger. He currently resides in west Texas with his wife, Karen who is a nurse manager and their two dogs, Daisy and Jake. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.bdhancock.com and he can also be reached at email@example.com.