RIDGWAY – The Yiddish word is bashert, said Alice Billings, for that strange force of destiny that brought her together with the wild mustang named Liberty who has stolen her heart.
“We have both been through a lot,” she said.
Two years ago, Billings, reeling from a divorce, was figuring out how to make it on her own at the place she calls Thunder Heart Haven, a 10-acre spread tucked alongside County Road 5 as it strikes out of Ridgway toward Elk Meadows, where she keeps a small herd of senior horses and three llamas.
At the same time, Libby had just been rounded up with the Spring Creek Basin herd of mustangs in the infamous 2011 “gather,” that took place in the 22,000-acre Disappointment Valley herd management area about an hour southwest of Norwood.
Separated from her band, the pretty bay, standing 13 hands high with a sweetly scruffy chin and muley points, was forced to adjust to captivity for the first time.
The federal Bureau of Land Management organizes and executes the gathers, culling the herds to what they deem sustainable numbers. The Spring Creek Basin gather of two years ago was particularly controversial, garnering passionate protests from wild horse advocates with groups like the Spirit Riders Foundation and Disappointment Wild Bunch Partners, demanding that the gather be stopped while they questioned the numbers of horses the BLM wanted to remove, and how they planned to do so.
The gather proceeded despite their protests. Helicopters were used to round up 40 of the 82 horses in the Spring Creek herd; some were selected for release back into the herd – the mares among them dosed with a contraceptive. Some died in the roundup and its aftermath. The rest of the mustangs were taken away from the range and put up for adoption at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds in Cortez.
Billings was there, one of many mustang advocates observing the gather on the day that Libby came in. At the time, however, it was a stallion named Cinch that caught Billings’ eye, the sire of Libby’s unborn filly.
Sadly, Cinch did not survive the round-up. Many things went badly wrong that weekend, and Cinch’s death was one of them – his neck was broken when he got trampled by another panicked stallion, and he was euthanized.
Billings wasn’t planning to adopt a mustang from the gather. She was simply there to be an observer, and an advocate for the horses. “The only way to do that is to see what the heck goes on,” she explained.
Libby was among the mustangs sent to the Montezuma Fair Grounds to be adopted. Billings didn’t go. “I knew it would be too emotional,” she said.
Four horses – including Libby – were left unadopted, and were transported across the state to Canon City where the horses are kept in holding pens and prisoners work with them.
In spite of herself, Billings was obsessing about the mustangs. When her good friend and fellow Spring Creek herd advocate TJ Holmes traveled to Canon City to check on them, Billings found herself asking which one would be right for her to adopt.
Holmes, intimately familiar with each member of the herd, instantly recommended Liberty. And before Billings knew it, the wheels were in motion for the adoption.
“It was the rescuer in me, wanting to be a part of the whole process,” Billings reflected in retrospect. “It’s as if spirit led me to do that. I was emotional about the roundup. It was a conscious decision, but not on a conscious level. I knew she wasn’t adopted before for that reason; she was waiting for me.”
Libby arrived at Thunder Heart Haven in January 2012, joining 67-year-old Billings’ herd of seven horses, and three llamas. Shortly afterwards, in the dark early hours of the morning in early March, the young mustang gave birth to a stillborn foal. Billings was philosophical about the loss, figuring it gave Libby a chance to grow up, and bond with the other horses.
As Libby settled in over the following year, Delta-based horse trainer Dave Doubek made frequent visits to Thunder Heart Haven to begin the mustang’s training process. She learned about being a kept horse, lapping up the attention lavished upon her.
In the early months of 2013, Doubek told Billings, ‘Come spring, I am going to have to pick her up and take her to my place.” It would take daily sessions, he explained, to prepare the young mustang for saddle training.
Doubek follows a system of horse training known as Parelli Natural Horsemanship.
“It’s very systematic,” Billings said, describing how Libby eventually learned to calmly enter a horse trailer, for example, and to tolerate a saddle and a bridle through a series of games played between horse and trainer, again and again and again.
Mostly, successful training is about repetition, and patience, and time spent with the horse, Billings said.
“You have to be prepared to stay with the horse all day long,” she explained. “That’s the way to teach horses...or anybody. It’s the same as with a child; you need to figure out their ‘horsenality.’”
Libby, it turns out, is a left-brain extrovert. “And I am too, actually,” Billings laughed.
Billings was amazed how well her spirited mustang responded to Doubek’s training. “I watched Dave, and it was absolutely mind-blowing,” she said, describing how he could remain soft-spoken and neutral in the midst of Libby’s free-spirited storms.
Before long, he was working with her seven days a week in a small round arena.
Billings was there as much as possible, to observe and participate in the process. May 25 was Libby’s fourth birthday. Billings baked “horse cookies” for the occasion, and made the by-now familiar trip out to Doubek’s place.
Doubek also had a surprise in store for Billings. “He brought her into the round pen and told me to get on her, bareback,” she recalled. Doubek hoisted the petite Billings onto Libby’s back for the very first time. There was no bridle, no saddle, to get in the way of the experience.
“I was trying to be in the moment; it was so emotional for me,” Billings recalled through tears. “That’s what people have to understand about adopting. You have to be systematic, and you have to give them a chance.”
Today, Libby is back at Thunder Heart Haven with the rest of her new herd, and Billings can easily toss a saddle on her and put her through her paces in the round pen, transitioning from a walk to a trot to a lope, without any help from Doubek.
It wasn’t always such smooth sailing. Billings recalled the first time she tried to mount Libby in a saddle – she took off before Billings was fully settled.
“The next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” she said. “All I remember is hitting my helmet on the rail. I sat up, got back on, and everything was cool.”
Doubek said to her, “Remember, you were the one who chose to ride a 4-year-old wild mustang.”
Billings hasn’t looked back since. “He did a phenomenal job with her,” Billings said of the training regimen. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when something goes wrong with a horse, it’s because of human error. And most aggression,” in horses as in humans, she said, “comes out of fear.”
AN AMBASSADOR FOR WILD MUSTANGS
Out in the round pen by her barn, Billings attempts to saddle Libby for a ride, while marveling at the wonder of mustangs.
“I really feel that they are genetically programmed differently,” she insists.
For one thing, they are very curious. Libby keeps turning her head, and stamping her hoof, trying to see who the strange person with the notebook is, sitting on the stump behind her, as Billings tries to put on the saddle once more. It’s still a fairly new experience for both of them.
“I know, sweetie heart, we are getting there,” she croons softly. “Mama’s just a little clumsy today. Hello, my sweet girl.”
Thunder – the only other mustang in Billings’ herd – was always different, too. “There is a streak of wildness in him, even in his 30s,” she said.
As we speak, Thunder is off on his own in a different section of the paddock from the rest of the horses.
Libby, meanwhile, was right in the mix when Billings went out to find her and lead her to the round pen. She’s like the pretty, popular new girl that all the other horses want to be around.
But on the day that Libby joined Billings’ herd in early 2012, Thunder was the first horse to come down to greet her.
“It was as if he recognized she was a mustang, too,” Billings said.
Today, Billings envisions Liberty as an ambassador for wild mustangs. The adoption and training process has not dampened her wild spirit. Instead, that spirit has simply been channeled, and refined.
“Dave said she was the smartest horse he ever worked with,” Billings said. “I love her dearly.”
Not every horse adoption from the Spring Creek Basin gather of two years ago has had such a happy ending. Three or four mustangs have been relinquished, because their owners found them too much to handle.
Other adopted horses have not been lavished with the kind of training which Billings invested in, but left to themselves out in the pasture.
“Many people get caught up with the passion and emotion, but you have to be willing to put in the time and money. It took a lot of both to get to this point,” Billings said, as Libby came in for a horse cookie and a velvety nuzzle.
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