Beginning The Journey – Mustangs & Veterans

So here it is.  February 4th, 2017 and in one week, I begin my journey with the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s “Veterans & Mustangs” on Sunday, February 12th.  I have received all of the information and forms.  We meet at the Mustang Heritage Facility in Georgetown, Texas on Sunday the 12th at noon.  At 1 p.m. we leave in a van for Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.  The plan is to get up early on Monday, February 13th and pick out our wild mustangs and head back to Georgetown, where we will spend the next three days getting to know our horse and beginning the training for both of us.

Additionally, due to my head injuries, age and time, I have experienced memory issues and have been told that those will not improve.  I want to be able to go back and relive the experience as well as share it with others, particularly my friends and family.  Most important are my children, who are now adults themselves.  I want them to know about the journey and to experience it through my words.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited.  Today my wife, Karen, and I went to Michael’s craft store so she could pick up some items for her new office.  While we were there, I picked up some new sketch pencils, a sketch book and a journal to take along with me.  I’ll be spending some days camping at the campground at Granger Lake so I’ve had the fun of buying new camping supplies to go along with the older stuff I’ve had for years.  This will be my first time tent camping in many years and I’m looking forward to getting up early, putting a percolator on the fire and inhaling that first wisp of freshly percolated coffee.  I won’t be sleeping on the ground.  I have a cot.  My body isn’t in any condition to be sleeping in a sleeping bag on the ground.

In addition to my giddiness over the prospect of camping, I’ve also been writing down possible names for the new horse.  I don’t name animals myself, I usually ask them their names and they tell me in their own way (don’t ask me to describe it).  But, some of the names I’ve been coming up with are:

Mare:

Eureka, Eureka Marie, Analiese, Stormy, Madeline, Alma, Katherine, Kate,

Stallion:

Apache, Brando, Bandit, Lakota, Duke, Caesar, Nolan, Storm, Smokey, Skipper, Audie, Charlie, Ely, Buck, Elroy, Sue, Rainmaker, Compadre, Thunder, Boba Yaga, Blue, Roger

 

First Contact

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.pauls-valley-signpauls-valley-donkeyspauls-valley-donkeys-2oklahoma-in-chutemhf-ricochet-corralmhf-signchody

Packing and Excitement

Tomorrow is the big day.  I drive to the Mustang Heritage Foundation ranch in Georgetown, TX.  We leave there at 1 p.m. to go to Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.  They’ve book us hotel rooms for the night.  We’ll get up Monday morning and pick out our mustangs and then head back to Georgetown and there is a reception.

So, about the reception.  I have social anxiety issues as a result of my PTSD.  I am worried about the reception because there are going to be:  MHF Staff, Purple Hearts, 100 Club members, Ann Marie Ludlow with the Advocate Newspaper, a Troop of Boy Scouts and other interested veterans and supporters.  I’m pretty sure I’ll get through it without any problems and hopefully I’ll enjoy it.  They’re all obviously good people and committed to the program and to veterans.  I’ve got some extra medication if I need it.

Now, to the fun stuff.  Yesterday I bought a new Stetson straw hat.  I have my old hat that I plan on using during the training but I have the new Stetson for the reception.  I have another hat that I bought last year that just doesn’t fit my basketball shaped head.  Last week I bought some new ropers boots because my old ones are worn out, but, much like my old cowboy hat, they’ll be good to have during training.

Today I packed my camping equipment and supplies, even though I’m not camping on this trip.  I’ll be staying in a hotel due to the weather.  I plan on going out and scouting the campgrounds so when I stay there next time, I’ll know what to expect.  It is fun packing the supplies, like when I was a kid with my grandparents and we’d pack to go to their lake house at Sam Rayburn lake.  The expectation is always considerable and my enthusiasm tends to boil over.  Typically it is times like this when, if in a social environment, I spout out the wrong thing and make everyone feel awkward or down right insult them inadvertently.  lol

 

Excitement

Tomorrow is the big day!  We meet at the Mustang Heritage Foundation facility in Georgetown, TX at 1 p.m. and then head to Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.  They’ve booked hotel rooms for us for the night.  Monday morning we wake up and go select our mustang!  Then we drive back to Georgetown for a reception with MHF Staff, Purple Hearts, 100 Club members, Ann Marie Ludlow with the Advocate Newspaper, a Troop of Boy Scouts and other interested veterans and supporters.  I was worried about my anxiety acting up since that usually happens around crowds and when I’m with a group of strangers.  But, all of those people are obviously good people and it should be fun.  I’m looking forward to it.

I bought a new Stetson.  My daughter, Erin, says my old hat is too stained and smells bad.  In addition to the hat, I bought some new ropers.  I bought the ropers over a week ago so I could break them in.  My old boots will be like my old hat, used for training.  I’ve posted a picture of my hats.  I told Erin that my old hat is a history book.

That old hat has worked cattle, mended fences, brush hogged trails, fed longhorn, fed bison, been slobbered on by bison, been knocked off my head by the horns of a longhorn named T-Bone, was on my head when I got kicked in the knee by a longhorn bull, has been on a horse riding for 6 hours in Terlingua, Texas, been pierced by a piece of metal that popped and would have put my eye out if the hat hadn’t slowed it down, been on my head while I gave longhorn and bison tours to children, adults, students, grandparents, great-grandparents, was on my head when a 7th grade girl saw a snake and grabbed me by the neck and damn near killed me in front of 104 other students and teachers, has been canoeing down a river, covered my head at night while working deer, watched from atop my head as I taught numerous people how to hunt and fish, bot the big stain from a blackberry while I was picking berries one day and I saw a snake and the blackberry flew and hit my hat when I was nearly pissing my pants, trying to get my hand away from striking distance of a Diamondback, been fishing with me and my wife, taught kids and adults how to rope calves at Fort Richardson, watched as I taught kids and adults about Longhorn and Bison at Brownwood State Park, seen longnose gar mating, had a surly horse with an attitude knock it off at least 15 times when he was demanding hugs… Cowboy hats have been watching history unfold for hundreds of years and will watch it for hundreds more… Every stain, ever tear, every sweat drop is a story. It’s better than any photograph album you’ll ever see.

I’m leaving here at 7:30 a.m. to get to Georgetown by 1 p.m. and have some time to visit and scout around.  I packed my camping gear even though I won’t be camping this time.  Just really looking forward to it.  I haven’t had a horse to interact with since Levi.  I truly hope it helps the way having Levi available did.  The nightmares have gotten worse and the other day Karen said, “I had to chase you down last night.  You were breaking my heart.”   The thing I suppose that I hate the most is how my nightmares, flashbacks and mental issues affect her.  She hasn’t done anything to deserve any of it and I wish I could just snap my fingers and make it all stop, but I can’t.

Well, anyway, I’m excited and really looking forward to this week.  I really appreciate the people from the Mustang Heritage Foundation and others who make these things possible.  I don’t know if they really ever truly understand how much “good” they do with these programs.  The positive effect is immeasurable.

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