Training to Trust

New owners bring wild horses and burros home from the range
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:42 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Jessica Chaney of Sedalia peers at one of the mustangs adopted by Gary St. Dennis and Donna Lindahl. The Adopt a Wild Horse or Burro program protects public range land from overpopulation by finding homes for excess animals. Most mustangs were taken home for $125.

Sedalia- A furious circle of hooves, manes and dust, set in motion by the wave of a white flag, represented the moment Gary St. Dennis’ life-long dream came true. He was taking home his first mustangs.

“I’m 60 years old, and I’ve wanted one all my life,” he said.


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Gabriele Thompson, of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, had the tricky job of directing the herd of wild animals with the white flag. She flashed the white material in front of the filly and stud colt St. Dennis had selected, startling the horses until they worked their way out of the pen and onto the trailer.

The horses, originally from Nevada and Oklahoma, will join two domestic-born horses and a mule at the home of St. Dennis’ friend Donna Lindahl, north of Knob Noster. The animals will stay on Lindahl’s property, but St. Dennis will be active in their care.

“Last year I broke a colt, and I swore that was the last one,” St. Dennis said. “But here I am with two more.”

The Adopt a Wild Horse or Burro program, run by the bureau, drew about 500 people to the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia from Friday through Sunday. Bill Davenport, spokesman for the bureau, said with the high price of gas and hay lately, he was pleased with the turnout.

During the event, one animal could be purchased for as low as $125 through an auction, and a second for $25. Three out of every four animals available found new homes, or 51 out of the 67 total. Five of the animals adopted were burros.

Davenport said most wild horses are purchased for recreational riding, but they can be trained in all equine disciplines.

Living under federal protection and lacking natural predators, wild horses and burros face overpopulation problems on the public range lands they roam. The bureau, which maintains the public land, monitors the population and auctions off excess animals to preserve the land. The mustangs, which are 5 years old or less, came from several Western states and from a Ewing, Ill., holding facility. The horses from the Western states are halter-trained by inmates in the Colorado prison system and then transported for adoption. While they can be safely led, they can’t be ridden without more training. Bureau staff worked with the animals from the Ewing facility to the point where they can be touched.

“They won’t be truly wild,” Davenport said.

Chris Jamison, a horse trainer, said that the amount of time required to gentle a mustang varies greatly and depends on the horse’s personality. Jamison has seen horses that can be led around after the first day but said some take a year to fully develop trust. Most owners, she said, will be able to pet their horses by the end of the second week.

“It’s just a question of how much time you have,” she said.

St. Dennis plans to have his grandson spend one hour each day working with the 2-year-old mustangs.

“It’ll be a good project for my grandkids,” he said.

Lindahl stressed that breaking a mustang requires a lot of energy and patience.

“It’s like raising kids,” she said.

Adoption candidates had to certify that they have adequate facilities and no animal cruelty complaints against them. The bureau verifies the information through random audit. The new owners take the animals home immediately, but the bureau holds the titles for one year, provided that a veterinarian certifies that the animal is healthy.

For those who do not yet have adequate facilities, Jamison makes adoption possible. She and her husband, Phil, owners of the Mustangs Forever ranch in La Monte, run an approved facility with the bureau’s mustang foster program. They care for the selected horses, working to gentle them until the hopeful owners have finished building their own facilities and completed their application with the bureau. The foster program saves the bureau from transporting and caring for more horses, and the Jamisons are compensated by the bureau for their efforts.

The foster program, which Chris Jamison started last August, has made it possible for Judy and Ron Ballenger of Sedalia to adopt two 2-year-old colts over the weekend.

Judy stuck her nose through the bars of the pen toward the mustang that she will soon name Earl, after her father.

“You better like me!” she said and laughed. “He’s Earl for now. I might name him something more regal later.”

Ron, who named the other colt, chose Jake.

Until the Ballengers’ facility is completed, Jamison will host and work with Earl and Jake, but the Ballengers say they will be over every day.

“Once you earn their trust, they’ll do anything you want them to,” Jamison said. “That’s how they survive in the wild. They learn to follow that herd leader. We just have two legs instead of four.”

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