MSU students train wild mustangs for nonprofit that helps veterans

Levi Johnson, a Montana State University student prepares a mustang for riding with a round of groundwork and horsemanship flags during the colt-starting class on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, at the Bob Miller Livestock Pavilion in Bozeman, Mont. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

BOZEMAN — Nine wild mustangs stepped foot onto Montana State University’s Agricultural Research and Teaching Farm on Jan. 3. They came to MSU virtually untouched, hailing from Bureau of Land Management facilities in Burns, Ore., then were adopted by the Montana nonprofit Heroes and Horses to ultimately be used for therapeutic mountain pack trips with combat veterans.

Heroes and Horses is a program that uses horses and the remote wilderness to challenge and inspire combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The veterans learn horsemanship skills and wilderness survival, then embark on progressive, multi-day horse pack trips in order to overcome their difficulties and replace devastating memories with positive ones.

A handful of MSU students, with the help of local trainers and volunteers, assisted in gentling and training the adopted wild horses over the course of nearly 90 days as the first step in helping these horses transition into a life of mountain adventure. The horses, gelded males ranging from 2 to 6 years old, left MSU on March 28, headed to Arizona to begin the second phase of their training.

“The horses trained by MSU students, faculty and staff will ultimately serve as tools to teach military veterans new skills to start a post-military life,” said Dr. Shannon Moreaux, DVM and an associate professor of equine science in MSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences in the College of Agriculture.

“By using BLM feral horses for this service learning project, we are also providing a far-reaching service,” Moreaux said. “The horses will be uniquely repurposed and will have a better life than living in a long-term holding facility; we will have provided a significant amount of publicity for the BLM Wild Horse adoption program. And, ultimately, we save taxpayer money while helping to protect sensitive ecosystems from overpopulation.”

Professional trainers, including renowned horse trainer Buck Brannaman, along with his protégés Isaac Johnson, Noah Cornish, Wesley Fazari and Jon Ensign, began the gentling process, taking about a week to work with the mustangs upon arrival at MSU. During this initial phase, five horses were paired with volunteer students based on horse temperament and student experience, while the remaining horses continued their training under MSU equine faculty, staff and volunteers.

Each of the students selected to work with a mustang had prior horse-training experience, having taken MSU’s colt-starting class as part of their equine science studies. However, this was the first time several of the students had worked with mustangs.

Andrew Couch, a sophomore from Gardiner majoring in animal science and livestock management, said this was the first time he worked with mustangs under guidance, learning how to prepare a horse for future situations.

Students worked with the horses for four hours per day, six days per week, beginning at 6 a.m. at MSU’s Bob Miller Pavilion, teaching the horses to stand quietly, accept a saddle and bit, and respond softly to leg and bit pressure.

As the horses progressed, the students also were able to take them off campus to expose them to new surroundings, as well as varied terrain, said Stefanie Herrera of Helena, a 2016 fall graduate of the Department of Ecology in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. After graduating in December, Herrera began volunteering for the MSU Horsemen’s Club and was one of the students asked to work with the mustangs.

“Horses will show where the challenges are for veterans,” Herrera said, speaking on the connection between horse and rider. “If (a veteran) is angry or closed off, the horse will show it. This is (the horse’s) job. The horse has to be able to help that veteran out. Heroes and Horses is giving these horses and these people a purpose.”

Herrera added that the horses are rehabilitation horses as much as they are pack-and-saddle horses.

“I believe in the Heroes and Horses program,” Moreaux said. “It is important we honor the men and women who have suffered in foreign wars by ensuring they can reintegrate into a nonmilitary society.”

And, Moreaux said, it is important for students to participate in these types of service learning opportunities.

“Service learning is an educational application that integrates knowledge transfer with a social need,” he said. “Service learning enriches the learning experience, teaches civic responsibility and strengthens communities.”

“It was a pretty neat experience,” Herrera said. “I learned a lot and it was very humbling to be able to work with something wild that puts that much trust in you. I’m quite happy I got to be a part of that, and impact a horse that will go on to affect so many lives.” F

–Montana State University