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Wild About Taming Mustangs

Instructor at desert ranch boot camp teaches people how to 'gentle' the animals.

November 16, 2002|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Standing in the dining room of Lifesavers Ranch in the Mojave Desert east of Lancaster, a horseman is explaining what motivates a wild mustang.

"A horse," Jerry Tindell says, "gains its courage by being afraid."

Tindell's audience is made up of about 20 horse owners and prospective owners who have gathered for mustang boot camp on this brilliant autumn day. The purpose of the camp is to help people befriend and tame animals that until recently were among the biggest, fastest and most formidable wild creatures still running loose in America.

Tindell tells how the constant vigilance that enabled the mustangs to survive in the wild makes them standoffish and fearful around people who adopt and try to domesticate them. Often, the horses are not easily ridden -- assuming that their owners are lucky enough to get a saddle on them.

One woman tells Tindell that she often can't get near her horse. A man complains that his mustang only wants to mope about and act like a "lawn ornament." Another woman says her otherwise courageous mustang turns into a terrified ninny around her baby girl.

Tindell listens sympathetically and then takes the class outside to a dusty corral, where an edgy mustang named Wimpy waits. Wimpy was long ago gentled -- today's politically correct term for broken. But Tindell still asks everyone to back several feet away from the corral's iron fence, lest Wimpy defy his name and begin kicking.

In the language of pop culture, Tindell is known as a horse whisperer, but he prefers to be called a horseman. A resident of nearby Hesperia, he was hired by Jill Starr, the director of Lifesavers Ranch, to teach at the boot camp because of his ability to firmly but gently persuade stubborn horses to do exactly what he wants them to do.

Tindell has the air of a man who grew up around horses, which he did. He likes to joke that he didn't begin riding until he was 6 weeks old because his mother was overprotective. Everything he does reeks of confidence. Using subtle pulls on the rope, eye contact and voice commands, he quickly has Wimpy trotting tight circles around him.

"Sadly, most of the people who adopt the mustangs are first-time horse owners," Tindell says later. "But people fall in love with them. The problem is it's like taking a deer home and putting it in your living room and turning on the lights. Man, what a wreck!"

There are about 40,000 mustangs living today in the remote deserts and mountains of 10 Western states. They usually travel in small bands commanded by a stallion, are notoriously shy and, in many of their haunts, seldom seen.

The mustangs are, in fact, descendants of the Old West. Their ancestors were released to the wild, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, by an assortment of people and groups, including the U.S. Cavalry, Native American tribes, miners, homesteaders and those who no longer needed them or who couldn't afford to keep them.

The horses breed prolifically, and they have no natural predators. To keep their population in check, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public lands where most of the horses live, removes thousands of the mustangs from the wild each year -- 11,764 in 2001 -- and puts them up for public adoption. This is done to reduce overgrazing on land expected to provide forage for cattle and wildlife such as deer, elk and antelope.

The bureau often, but not always, finds good homes for the mustangs. Some owners are abusive. Others get frustrated with the training process and sell their horses. Because there is little demand for the mustangs, they are sometimes auctioned to slaughterhouses catering to an overseas market in horse meat.

Jill Starr founded Lifesavers Ranch to save as many of the horses as she could from the slaughterhouse. Weary of city life and a job in the music industry in Los Angeles, she said, she drained her pension fund and bought the 16.5-acre spread in 1993. After Wimpy, then a mistreated mustang, fell into her hands, she established the ranch as a nonprofit sanctuary for abused wild horses.

Starr hears about neglected mustangs from friends of friends or through a network of wild-horse activists. She frequently travels the horse auction circuit around the Southwest, leaving the ranch with a trailer that rarely returns home empty.

If the horses she acquires are relatively healthy, she will try to find them new homes. If not, she lets them live out their lives in a series of corrals she calls her geriatric row. There are usually a dozen or so mustangs on the ranch along with wild burros, quarter horses and draft horses she couldn't resist helping.

"We can only save so many horses, because we only have so much space here, and we're limited by staff and money," Starr says. "One thing we can do is hold these boot camps so that people who adopted the mustangs can keep them."

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