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She Feels at Home Among Wild Horses

Straight-A valedictorian Corine Elser had been urged to go to college, but she's spent the last two years training mustangs in Oregon's high desert.

January 15, 2006|Jeff Barnard | Associated Press Writer

Now, "she's as good a hand as there is around this part of the world for starting colts," said Rose. "Sometimes I think she's too gutty. She broke her arm here last spring getting in a wreck with a colt somebody brought to her. Anytime you swing a leg over one of these son-of-a-bucks, there's that chance."

Out moving irrigation lines one day, Elser suffered a severe concussion when her horse stepped in a badger hole and apparently fell on her hard enough to break the cinch strap. A neighbor found her on the ground but still sitting in the saddle, the horse grazing next to her, the reins in her hand and no memory of the previous few days, let alone what happened.

Working with a young Kiger mustang stud named Storm, Elser buckled a shining white plastic riding helmet over her long blond hair before climbing in the saddle. "I'm not a cowgirl," Elser said. "I wear a helmet. When I came out here they said, 'OK, you're weird.' "

Riding through the sagebrush, she usually wears a ball cap instead of a cowboy hat, which is more likely to get blown off and spook the horse.

The stereotype of a cowboy climbing in the saddle of a wild horse and yelling, "Let 'er buck!" is far from what Elser does.

Elser builds trust and understanding in the horses she starts. That way there are fewer problems down the road. If a new horse is too skittish to handle, she will sit outside the corral, reading a Dick Francis mystery, while the horse gets used to her. When she can get close enough to touch the horse, she starts grooming.

"A lot of brushing out their mane and tail, and I try to find that itchy spot," she said. "Because once you find that itchy spot, they kind of go, 'Wow, humans are really good. They'll give me massages and get my itchy spots.'

"Normally, they really like their tail or their butt scratched, or in front of their withers, under their belly. It kind of really depends on each horse. They kind of start closing their eyes and they really drop their head. If you really find a good spot and they're relaxed, they'll stretch their head way out and stick their lip out and kind of wiggle the air back and forth, you know? It's really funny.

"If you can find that little good spot, they're pretty much conquered."

Elser can tell a lot about a horse from its face. She looks at the whorl of hair between the eyes to assess intelligence. The lower the whorl, the smarter the horse, she said. And on the side of the face is what she calls the unpredictable bump. When a horse has a big one, "One day he is dog gentle, and the next day he just wants to run."

Before trying to ride horses, Elser spends days, weeks, months sometimes working with them. Even when they are running around the corral dragging a halter rope, she is teaching them.

"I want him to turn toward me when I say, 'Whoa,' " she said, dust rising around her as Storm circled the corral. "When he shows his butt to me, that's disrespect. It all has to do with body language. I have my energy focused on his hind end. When I step in front of him, I back up, to release the pressure. It's called opening the door, and they want to come toward you.

"Once you get that much trust in them I like to present them with as many scary things as possible -- plastic bags, milk jugs full of rocks, and just a bunch of rattly stuff," Elser said. "Once they realize that scary object is never going to hurt them, then they start to really trust you."

For Storm's first ride of the day, she ran him around the corral to tire him out, then stood a long time with one foot in a stirrup, her hands on the saddle.

"If he decided to start bucking now, all I have to do is step out instead of being bucked off," she said before swinging her leg over the saddle. "It makes a big difference."

There is a lot of repetition to what she does, but Elser doesn't mind. She doesn't find it boring.

"You're always having to think of ways to change a horse's thinking," she said. "Each horse is different."

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