I arrived at the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) on Sunday, at about 11:50 a.m. I would have arrived at 11:30 a.m. except that I got lost along the way. Once I arrived, I met Gayle, who is the program coordinator. John was the person who contacted me and he works with several different veterans organizations and helps with everything from fishing trips to the coast to various hunting events and the Veterans and Mustangs. I also met Dennis who helps with the various programs. In addition, I met the trainer, Katey. Katey was the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) champion. She’s 26 years old and full of knowledge. Along with her was Sarah who is also a trainer.
The four other veterans arrived; Harold, Julian and Charles. There was a woman named Penny who is worked for the DOD and was in Afghanistan where she experienced the Taliban overrunning her base and being subjected to a lot of fighting. Charles uses a cane and was in a wheelchair for 2 years. The VA sent him to vocational training for saddle making. Harold works with the Mustang Heritage Foundation driving a truck and trailer and helping with events such as Mustang Magic and the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Julian is a quiet guy and very handy when it comes to the physical work.
After all of the introductions were made, vehicle assignments were given out and we loaded up. I rode in a car with Gayle, John and Dennis. There were two trucks pulling horse trailers as well.
The 5 hour drive to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma went by quickly. Gayle, John, Dennis and I spent the time talking about veterans, raising race horses, various veteran programs, religion and a plethora of other subjects. Once we arrived at the hotel we were given our room assignments. It was very pleasing that they gave each the veterans our own rooms. We all deal with various issues, including psychological and psychiatric issues so it was nice not to have to worry about sharing a room with someone we didn’t know. It removed a lot of stress. When you have nightmares and other problems that present themselves at night, the prospect of sharing a room with a stranger can cause quite a bit of anxiety because you worry about someone else seeing you in the midst of a nightmare or flashback. After we got settled into our rooms, we all went out to dinner, courtesy of the MHF. It was a Mexican restaurant and the food was absolutely wonderful. After we returned to the hotel, we all retired to our rooms and I went to bed and was quickly asleep.
On Monday morning we met in the lobby of the hotel and had breakfast together. Afterward we wen to the Mustang and Donkey adoption center. The center has several corrals and barns. We could see a large herd of mustangs running together out in a pasture. The herd was fifty or more horses that moved together like a school of fish. They glided smoothly across that large pasture with their manes flowing in the wind. The reminded me of the scene in the Moscow Ballet “Nutcracker” when the ballet dancers are on the stage and moving together as one.
The wrangler for the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management was cutting six to ten horses at a time out of the herd and putting them in the corrals. In the end, there were five corrals filled with about ten horses each. At that point we were allowed in to walk along and look at the horses in all of the corrals. The mustangs have a thin rob around their necks with a numbered tag on it. The first horse I picked out had a history of lameness so I had to select another one. The second one I selected was a large bay stallion. He was on the other side of the corral with the other horses in his group but he kept sticking his head up and looking at us. I figured if he had that much curiosity, he was my kind of horse.
After all of the horses selected, we also picked up two donkeys. If you look at the photos of the donkeys, you see the black lines on their backs by the shoulders. That is called a “Jerusalem Cross”. The reason it is call a “Jerusalem Cross” is because they say that donkeys carried Mary and Joseph (Christian bible) to the manger when Mary was pregnant with Jesus.
We headed back to the MHF facility in Georgetown and again, the five hour drive went by quickly. It was good company and good conversation, which is about the most that you can ask for on a long drive like that.
When we arrived back at the facility, there were a good many people waiting on us. Ann Marie from “That Advocate” (a local newspaper), the executive director of MHF, other MHF staff, representatives from the Purple Hearts society, 100 Club, boy scouts, people from construction company owners to police officers. They backed the trailer up and released the horses into the round pen. It was very humbling. We had our pictures taken a hundred times it seemed. I saw an old friend from the Austin PD, Ruth Bullock” and gave her a hug and we talked for a bit. It was difficult to talk to anyone for an extended period of time because there were many other people waiting to talk to each of us. I had a minor anxiety attack and went and found a quiet place in a barn. After about fifteen minutes I decided to go back out to the festivities. From about thirty yards away I could see the other four veterans were in a group and as I got closer it became apparent that they were waiting on me for something. As I approached, Gayle saw me and said, “There he is!” I went from anxiety attack and hiding in a barn to be looked at by everyone there as I approached my fellow veterans. I felt another anxiety attack coming on but was able to suppress it.
We did on-camera interviews with the MHF video and biographer folks as well as an interview with Ann Marie from “The Advocate” newspaper. It all went very smoothly and in the end, I found it enjoyable. They really made us feel welcome and appreciated. I could immediately feel the rest of my anxiety melting away. At around five o’clock everyone started filtering out and we, the veterans, were told to be there at nine a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Tuesday began as a great day. The Williamson County sheriff, Robert Chody, is a good friend of mine and we worked together on the Austin Police Department many years ago. He called me at six-thirty a.m. and asked if I wanted to go for breakfast. He picked me up at the hotel a few minutes later and we had breakfast at a near-by restaurant. Robert is the one who put me in contact with John who got me a spot in the Veterans and Mustangs program. If not for Robert, I would not have ever known about the program. Robert won the lottery when he was on the police department in Austin. He remained on the department for a while but eventually resigned. Even though he had millions of dollars, he came back in to police work and became a constable in Williamson county. In 2016 he decided to run for sheriff of Williamson county and won by a landslide. He doesn’t do the job because he needs the money; he does it because he loves working in law enforcement and genuinely cares about people, both the public and law enforcement officers. He is by far one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling “friend”.
After breakfast, Robert dropped me off at the hotel and I headed off to the MHF facility. Our morning was filled with going over the rules of the facility and the program. They are all based on safety. Then we were told to go feed our horses. We were told it was our job to feed and take care of our horses every day. After feeding, we went back to the classroom. The rest of the morning was watching the MHF documentary, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride.” It is a fantastic movie that shows the training and time that goes into training wild mustangs for the Wild Mustang Makeover. After that, we went to lunch.
Upon returning after lunch, we met with Katey who took us to the round pen. She then cut one horse out of the herd and started his training. She had a mustang training flag which is basically a piece of plastic on the end of a long buggy type whip handle. The horse was nervous and kept running around the round pen. When he would look away, Katey would flap the flag. When he looked at her, she wouldn’t use the flag. Then he would turn and look at something and she’d rattle the flag. He’d look at her and she’d stop. This went on for almost twenty minutes. She ensured when he ran, he ran in the same direction each time because she was just working on training him on the right side. She will train him on the left side later.
This was part of the training to “yield the hindquarters.” What that means is that you want the horse to face you so he won’t be able to kick you. When you use the training flag and the horse learns to look at you and realize that you’re not a threat, he will turn and completely face you. This means he knows and you know that he can’t kick you, which builds up trust. Eventually this is what happened with that horse. He would turn and face her. Then she was would raise her arm straight out towards the horse. She was not close to him but the horses must get used to you raising your hands around him because that is how you have to put the bridle and other tack on him. Two more horses were bought int round pens and trained by Katey in this matter.
It was cloudy with the temperature in the fifties, rainy and the wind was blowing about ten mph. The round pen area is covered so we didn’t have t worry about any rain but there wasn’t anything to block the wind and we were cold. But, being cold and all of us aching out there due to old injuries, didn’t stop us. My horse didn’t get into the round pen today but he will be in it tomorrow. Training a horse trumps weather.
What I learned today is that a horse demands honesty. You can’t lie to a horse because they read you. They read your body language, the tone of your voice and your soul. You have to be honest and truthful with a horse and he will do the same. You learn to respect each other and moreover, you learn to respect the process of the training. They are fantastic beasts who are willing to earn your respect and trust. “Earn” and “Respect” would seem to be the key words for horse training. Additionally, I’ve bonded with a couple of people in the group because we are all from the same part of Texas.
Normally I’m very nervous around people. My wife knows that I could easily spend twenty four hours a day at home without ever going out to interact with people. I have a couple of friends, Dorothy, Terry and little Clay that I see from time to time but I don’t really have any other friends. My wife’s friends are my friends in many ways but I don’t go out to visit them. The riding in the car with Gayle was a blessing because getting to know the person in charge of the program was a huge relief. By the time we got to Oklahoma, I had no doubts about the program. I felt comfortable. Any personality differences with my fellow vets are minor. I don’t tell stories from my army days but I do share some cop stories from time to time.
It was as fine of a day as I could have hope for. The weather doesn’t bother me, the old injuries are going to ache as they always do, that arthritis is going to gripe at me but it is nothing compared to the pleasure of being around my horse, even though I haven’t got to train him yet. Just standing there at the fence and looking at him is calming. Not having significant anxiety issues every day makes things enjoyable. I have some anxiety issues but nothing like I usually do when I’m around people.
Now, the big question. What did I name him? I have thought about a name for him for weeks, ever since I was first accepted into this program. It seems the most popular names for horses are the names of Native American tribes such as: Apache, Comanche, Sioux, Cherokee, Kiowa, Lakota, etc. I was going to name him Cherokee River but once I saw so many names in that vein, I decided to name him something different. At breakfast on Tuesday morning, Robert and I were talking the old days. I was involved in an incident while I was on the department, an incident that was a shooting. I’m not going to get into the details of the shooting but the important part of it is that one of the bullets I fired struck my partner’s, Duane Williams, police car. The bullet struck the street and ricocheted into the door of his car. It was a brand new police unit with less than one hundred miles on it.
Now, most of the officers on my shift had nicknames on the street bestowed on us by the locals because we worked in one of the roughest areas of the city. Duane’s nickname is D Willy because his name tag says, “D. Williams.” So, in honor of an incident that happened eighteen years ago, and in honor of one of the best partners I ever had, I named my mustang, “Ricochet Willy”.
More to come tomorrow after we wrap up training for this week.