For a horse that could have ended up banished to long term holding, he was fortunate enough to be chosen for adoption. In mid-May, 2012, Blue Eye was one of 22 yearlings herded into trailers and trucked to the Willamette Valley.
At Fitzgerald Farms near Yamhill, the indoor training arena had been converted into temporary corrals. The young horses bolted from the trailers, crashed into metal chute panels, balked at being urged where to go, turned, ran, abruptly wheeled around and charged again before finally ending up in individual pens.
Nine months of captivity did not make these mustangs domestic.
“These are wild horses,” said Josh Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald and his wife have brought these colts over the Cascades to pair each one with an Oregon teenager. The teens will be responsible for gentling the wild horses, training them and taking them to competition, followed by a live auction and adoption.
They have to do all of it in 98 days.
“It’s a huge commitment,” says Erica Fitzgerald. “It’s super important that the kids are smart about how they do it and don’t put so much pressure on their horses that they end up getting one another hurt.”
She has assigned Blue Eye to 12-year-old Alex Russell.
“He’s so cute!” exclaimed Russell, as soon as she spotted the bay with one blue eye in his pen. “I like him.”
Blue Eye does not seem equally enthused.
“They have never been touched by a human,” says Erica Fitzgerald. These horses don’t know if we’re tenderizing them to eat them or what our approach is.”
Erica Fitzgerald set up the Teens & Oregon Mustangs program specifically to make more mustangs ready for adoption. A horse that’s no longer wild and can take some instruction will have a much easier time finding a new home.
Alex dons a riding helmet for safety and cautiously enters Blue Eye’s pen. He keeps to the far corner. For half an hour, Alex barely moves. She wants him to become accustomed to her presence.
She offers him some hay. He plays hard to get and backs up. She barely says a word, occasionally offering soft assurances.
After one hour, Blue Eye allows her to touch his neck briefly. Their truce lasts only a few seconds before he pulls away. But by now Alex also has hold of his lead rope.
Their calm tug of war continues. At one hour and 18 minutes, Alex succeeds in removing the neck tag with his BLM number and pets his neck.
That’s all she’ll try on day one. “That was my main goal,” said Alex, “to get that neck tag off and touch him.”
She also came up with a name. Blue Eye will now be known as Jasper.
Erica Fitzgerald says the kids always amaze her, adding “the kids do things that you would just never expect them to be able to get done in such a short amount of time.“
By day two of training, Russell had Jasper following her around a training corral at the end of a lead rope.
Most promising, he not only let her pet him, Jasper seemed to really enjoy Alex scratching his neck.
“He’s very friendly now,” said Russell, “He’s kind of fond of me. “
By late August Jasper strides into the Yamhill County Fairgrounds at Russell’s side as calmly as if he’d performed a dozen times.
Russell leads him through an obstacle course, signals him to walk backwards for a bit, board and exit a trailer. To show off just how gentle he’s become she takes him through a “horse wash” spraying water. Moments later, she turns on a leaf blower doubling as a giant hair dryer. Jasper never flinches.
Russell is pleased with how far they’ve come as a team. “I love the fact that I can adopt out a once-wild horse,” she says. “It’s the thrill, having 98 days to train and gentle a wild horse. You completely don’t think it’s possible until you do it.”
After 22 teens lead 22 horses through various competitions, Russell won fourth place. It garnered her a prize belt buckle.
She will not be able to keep him.
Minutes after the awards ceremony an auction determines who will go home with the newly trained, formerly wild horses.
Jasper sells for $1,025 to a local family Russell knows. She’s glad she’ll be able to see Jasper again.
“I feel like I am still making a difference,” says Russell. “It might not be a very big dent out of the enormous population of wild horses right now, but it helps better the life of that horse.”
Erica Fitzgerald says the Teens & Oregon Mustangs has succeeded in finding 123 horses new homes since the program began in 2009. She knows it's a small contribution given that more than 49,000 wild horses and burros live in captivity.
“We have a disaster on our hands if we don’t do something about it,” says Fitzgerald. “I felt compelled to do something.”