A Girl on a Mission to save Wild Horses
Written by: Erin Phillips
From my earliest remembrance, I have been enamored with horses. I was the typical horse-loving girl who was never satisfied with just the toys and figurines. When I was very young, my lifelong dream of owning a horse began to grow.
My family and I lived in a subdivision during my very early growing-up years, so there wasn’t a possibility of having a horse. My parents let me visit horses at every opportunity, and I was always thrilled to go with my older siblings to their riding lessons to watch and visit the lesson horses.
When I was nearly three, my parents decided that the Lipizzaner show coming to town would make a fabulous birthday present for me. At that time, Lipizzaners were my favorite horses. To say I was overjoyed would be an understatement! When the day finally came and we drove to the arena, I was surprised to see there was a large crowd waiting to see the Lipizzaners. I decided that everyone must have come to celebrate my birthday with me! For the next hour, I forgot everything in the bliss of watching the magnificent white stallions effortlessly perform some of the most difficult Grand Prix movements. Once it was over, I waved to all the people who had come to “my” Lipizzaner show as they exited.
My love for horses continued to grow with each encounter. A couple of years after the Lipizzaner show, my family and I moved to a small farmhouse on five acres. Would my dream begin to come true? I would walk throughout our property, envisioning a horse grazing on the lush grass. I continued to ask my parents if I could get one, but neither of them had much experience with horses and said “no”. After all, horses are large animals and a five-year-old girl is just a fraction of their size.
A quick, normal visit to our local library changed the course of my life. While browsing the shelves, I found a documentary showcasing a stunning palomino stallion on the cover. I excitedly read the title – it said “Cloud; Wild Stallion of the Rockies”. I had no idea that there were wild horses, but I thought that it must be very interesting. I hurried over to my dad, who agreed to take it home so we could watch it. I could hardly wait!
That documentary became my very favorite and began a lifelong infatuation with wild horses. I made a promise to myself, I would help the wild horses someday and give them homes. At the time, I couldn’t do anything for the wild horses, but I comforted myself, knowing that someday I would do all that I could.
I decided to make getting a horse my number one prayer request. Every day, I begged God to help my parents to allow me to get a horse. One day, when I was seven years old, Dad told me that if I could find a miniature horse for $200, he would get it for me. I began eagerly searching for miniature horses in my free time. Other than the price, I had one specific requirement – I wanted a white one like the Lipizzaners.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take me very long to find a horse that nearly fit the requirement, so my dad was surprised to come home one day and find me very pleased with myself! I had discovered a little white colt, just five months old. The price was slightly more than Dad’s limit, but because I wanted the little colt so badly, he went to work negotiating and came out with a deal he couldn’t refuse.
During the days leading up to bringing my new little horse home, I tried to choose a name. Nothing seemed to suit the tiny colt, and I realized I must wait until I saw him in person to choose. When we arrived at the miniature horse farm, I saw my mini for the first time and suddenly knew that he was a wild horse at heart. It took four people several minutes to catch him and he had an indomitable spirit. Suddenly, his name dawned on me – Cloud, after the wild stallion! What could better fit this spunky, sassy baby horse?
On our drive home, Cloud rode in the back of our van. A few hours into the trip, the driver behind us nearly slid off of the road when he saw a little horse’s face peering at him through the back window. Soon, I fell asleep, clutching Cloud’s lead rope. The day had proved to contain more excitement than I could handle.
Throughout the next nine years, Cloud and I had many adventures together. We spent hours walking and riding on trails around our farm, worked through behavior issues, and survived the destruction of his shelter when a hurricane crashed through our area. I sought advice from professional horse trainers on Cloud’s frequent behavioral issues and was always met with the same sentence, “You have to show him that you’re the boss.” Sure, I could do that. He was so little that I could push him around if I wanted to, but I never had the type of relationship with him that would yield results. So results rarely happened.
The promise I had made as a five-year-old to the wild horses eventually became reality. In 2018, I began volunteering for The Cloud Foundation (an organization born from the Cloud documentaries). By the end of the year, I had become very involved in the advocacy world, writing my first article about wild horses for a magazine when I was 14.
Despite my success as a wild horse advocate, I knew that something needed to change in my relationship with my horse. I wasn’t happy, and neither was Cloud. During this time, my family and I moved to a place where I could own a mustang. If I was going to gentle and train a wild horse, I needed to figure out how to train well. In the Fall of 2019, I embarked on a quest to find horse trainers that had a much gentler approach. One day, I stumbled onto a website titled, “Mustang Maddy”. I was immediately intrigued and began reading all the posts and watching the videos. The knowledge I gained completely changed my life and the way I worked and communicated with my horses.
I began training Cloud every day using Liberty and Positive Reinforcement training. Cloud began to look forward to his time with me and gained many skills that he previously had no desire to learn. Throughout my training with Cloud, Mustang Maddy’s team willingly answered any questions I had, giving me the tools I needed to be successful.
I finally felt like I could successfully gentle a wild horse! In 2020, the dream of starting a wild horse rescue was born. In 2021, it became a reality. I launched a website and named my rescue Mustang Mission.
In the fall of 2021, I took a leap of faith and committed to rescuing an older mustang gelding from the Bureau of Land Management’s online auction. I began fundraising and God made all the pieces fall into place. I named the handsome 15hh bay gelding Alamo. He had been a warrior in the wild but had been unable to win his last battle for freedom. Even though he could never be wild again, I could give him back a freedom that wild horses cherish the most – the freedom of choice.
I remember that day so well – February 25, 2022. The day Alamo stepped into my life. Two incredible people who had recently heard about my rescue volunteered to pick up Alamo from the BLM’s drop-off in Okeechobee, Florida. They pulled into our driveway at 4 pm and we immediately unloaded Alamo. Alamo calmly walked into the round pen and started a new life – and a new string of adventures for me!
Two days later, I woke up and looked out of my window at Alamo’s pen. He was not there! My eyes scanned the field – there he was, grazing with my miniature horse! I hurriedly dressed and ran outside, followed closely by my siblings. The field was not completely closed yet, so by the time we got out there, he was walking back into our woods. We spent the next few hours getting Alamo into an adjacent pen, then worked on raising the round pen panels so that he could not jump them again. Towards the end of the day, Alamo walked back into the gentling pen and stayed there! A few weeks later, he was gentle enough to move out into the field. What a relief!
Training an older mustang gelding (one who lived 11 years in the wild) is not for the faint of heart. However, Alamo has been one of my greatest teachers. I learned that connection is far, far greater than control. It is nearly impossible to control Alamo – he seems to grow hundreds of pounds larger when any effort is made to force him to do something. Several months after Alamo arrived at my rescue, he was not progressing well with pressure from a halter and spooking far too often. He was scared of going through gates and refused to leave his pen.
I decided to drop all ropes, just using a handheld target. It was the answer for Alamo! Within a few months, I was taking Alamo on walks all over our property, in and out of gates without a problem, and we had an unbelievable bond. The best part was knowing that he truly trusted me.
In June 2022, I heard about a mustang filly that was in a livestock sales pen (often the step before a kill pen). I decided to take yet another leap of faith and rescue her. The week of her rescue was fast-paced. She had only a few days before she shipped out of the facility. There were so many times when I was only able to save her because one little piece slipped into place. Several times I went ahead and took the next step to bring her to safety, even though I didn’t know how it was going to work out. Those were the moments when I really knew that it was God working to rescue Ember, not just me. So many people agreed to help me on very little notice and I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for them.
Ember was in Kentucky and a transporter took her to North Georgia, where we picked her up at an overnight resting stop. Everything was going smoothly, then when we were just two hours away from home, our car broke down. It was 9 pm, and we soon realized that we would just have to sleep on the side of the road. A police officer brought more water for Ember and she slept comfortably in the trailer through the night. She even got desensitized to traffic!
Although Ember had made me work hard to touch her for the first time, she proved to be very easy to train and quickly moved into domestic life. She loves walks around our property and that helped us grow a strong bond. Currently, she will follow me anywhere, making it unnecessary to use a halter and lead rope.
Alamo had some great milestones, too! He has not spooked since the day I began purely doing Liberty training with him. Now, he has gotten to the point where I have introduced leading with a halter and rope to him again, and he is excelling at it. We’ve begun riding work, completing Alamo’s first ride bridleless and bareback. I am amazed every day at the trainability of Alamo – as long as it is at his pace. He desperately wants to do everything I ask of him because he knows that he has a voice in the matter.
Some days I look back on my journey to this point and I’m so amazed that God has brought me to this place in my life. There have definitely been struggles and many times when I have felt inadequate to train my horses. I have sometimes questioned my sanity in starting a horse rescue off of so little support, but I have seen God provide time and time again, and I know that He will continue to do so.
I am excited to continue this journey of rescuing mustangs and I would love it if you would join in on the adventures! Recently, I co-rescued another mustang, but you’ll have to visit my website to learn more about him! There are so many other exciting things happening behind the scenes and I think that you’d love to follow along. Our mission is: To rescue mustangs and burros in bad, dangerous, and neglectful situations in an effort to preserve, protect, and acknowledge a national icon–and part of God’s creation–while educating the public on the plight of these animals. Mustang Mission will advocate for mustangs and burros in the wild and work with other organizations to keep them free.
Thank you so much for reading my story! I hope that it has made you want to go outside and spend some time with your horses and thank God for them!
Learn more about Erin or Mustang Mission
You can visit my rescue here: www.mustangmission.blogspot.com
You can get in touch with me at: [email protected]
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