Sweet Cicely wasn't living up to her name this weekend. Standoffish and a little irritated, she tossed her black mane and paid no attention to the petite woman who had entered her metal pen. After several failed attempts to earn Cicely's respect, Sibylle Westbrook again timidly stepped toward the 900-pound mustang.
"Get bigger, not closer," instructor Donna Maye West called out gently. "Tell her, 'I need you to give me some space.' She's messing with you."
After a few more attempts, Westbrook, 43, managed to persuade Cicely to walk forward and conduct several inside turns. Classmates watching from a set of silver bleachers applauded.
Little things feel like grand accomplishments at Wild Horse Boot Camp in Lancaster. A crash course in horse whispering for beginners, the program was created more than a decade ago by Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue, an organization that provides refuge, training and adoption placement.
Westbrook, a stay-at-home mother from Eagle Rock, said the annual four-day camp, which ended Sunday, had enriched her experience as a recreational horseback rider.
"I have a better understanding of the psychology of the animal and how a bond is formed," she said. "Learning with a wild horse, you really go back to the basics."
It's hoped that educating people on how to "gentle down" wild horses will promote their adoption, said Jill Starr, president of Lifesavers. Although similar programs exist, Starr believes her camp's intimate class setting makes for powerful experiences.
One year, two middle-aged college buddies arrived, believing the camp name implied a rip-roaring adventure. What they encountered involved no riding and required a gentle demeanor. The men stayed, and at the end of camp, one was able to coax a mustang into a halter. The burly man began to weep; so did his classmates.
"To step in the pen is transforming," participant Carol Green, 64, explained. "I have to create ways to get them to do what I want them to do on their terms, not mine. I didn't expect to have such emotion attached to it."
Many of the 300 horses cared for by Lifesavers, which runs the 46-acre facility in Lancaster as well as a sanctuary in Kern County, were taken in from failed adoptions. With an estimated 38,000 wild horses and burros roaming its land, the Bureau of Land Management controls the population by removing thousands of animals each year. Those put up for adoption often struggle with owners accustomed to domestic horses. Some are abused before they're eventually given up.
At Wild Horse Boot Camp, it's all about paying respect to the mustang. Helmets are required during class, as is the ability to stay calm. The camp, which usually has about a dozen participants, is divided into two small groups so that everyone receives ample one-on-one time inside a pen. On the first day, safety techniques are taught and each group collectively chooses three mustangs to work with.
Participants fly in from across the country, staying overnight in bunkhouses and waking at dawn to help scoop manure and rake hay from the pens of their chosen horses. Class runs all day, and participants find that its intensity makes them immediately supportive of one another.
By Saturday afternoon, Sweet Cicely had been replaced with Noel, an aggressive bay with white stockings. After West demonstrated how to encourage Noel to move her hips to one side, Ken Brown, 77, tried to emulate the instructor.
"She's not minding me like she does you," said Brown, a retired contractor from San Diego, as Noel darted away skittishly.
"Soft in your feet, soft in your heart," West reminded him. "You're doing great, stay in there."
After Brown took a few baby steps, clucked his tongue and held his arm out, Noel was persuaded to oblige.