A Horse Named Clementine
I got a lot of different reactions when I told people I was going to adopt a wild mustang, but I could almost always predict some amount of nodding and smiling while people tried to come up with follow-up questions that didn’t include asking if I was crazy. I got a few questions about if a wild horse could ever really be tamed (“you mean, you could someday ride it??”) and I even had a trainer at the barn where I took lessons scoff and ask why I would possibly spend my time and energy on a wild one when I could get myself a well-bred and already trained horse somewhere else. But I’m forever grateful for my mom’s response which was something along the lines of, if I’d thought it through, gone over the pros and cons and still wanted to go for it, then I should.
I’d dreamed about adopting and training a wild horse since I was kid, reading and re-reading Terri Farley’s Phantom Stallion series for inspiration. I daydreamed about the connection we would share, my mustang and I, while simultaneously believing I’d never have all of the skills needed to take on a wild horse and teach it the ways of the human world. When the Mustang Makeovers started taking place in my hometown, I kept planning to adopt one of the trained horses at the end, thinking that’d be a little easier than starting from scratch. But I never actually made it to the event. Each year, though, I always vowed to attend the next with enough money and enough skills to make it happen.
The summer after college, I took an equine massage course (yes, I am also a certified equine massage therapist) as a way to justify getting back to a life that included horses. The wonderful woman who taught the course, one of my most influential life teachers, happened to have a mustang - and when I told her about my dream, she looked me in the eye and told me I could do it.
The seed was planted in my mind and after the move to California that fall, it grew and took root in my heart. For $125, I’d be able to go to one of the mustang holding corrals and pick a horse of any color, body type, or temperament imaginable. I instinctively knew that that was where I’d find my dream horse, and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Cue that first paragraph.
Horses adopted from the BLM need to have certain requirements met during their first year out of the corrals - requirements such as six foot fences during the gentling process, something that most boarding facilities don’t have (not to mention that most barn owners hear the words “wild horse” and understandably say that their facility won’t be a good fit!). After the horse has been gentled, which is essentially the process of proving to the horse that humans are safe as well as teaching basic ground skills such as haltering and leading, the requirements get a little looser - meaning it’s easier to find a place to keep them.
So after doing a bit of research, I decided to work with a Bureau of Land Management approved trainer in the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP). This program allows trainers to make a little money gentling wild horses which in turn makes it easier for the BLM to get horses adopted. In October of 2015, I visited the mustang holding corrals in Reno, Nevada with a trainer who was just getting started in the program. I’d been put in touch with her by a mustang advocate on Facebook, and she seemed like a good fit. That morning, I just remember thinking that after years and years of dreaming, it might finally be the day I’d meet my horse.
And meet her I did. She was big for a mustang - I would guess slightly taller than 16 hands. A beautiful bay with a star right in the middle of her forehead. She was the first horse to walk up to me at the fence and immediately offered to let me share breath, an exchange where a horse breathes into your face and you breathe into theirs in return - it’s a mustang greeting that most don’t offer lightly. Later, when a wrangler took us into the pen to drive around and look at more horses, the bay found us again and boldly put her whole head in the truck looking for scratches! At that first meeting, she was bright and bubbly in the sweetest way, but she also clearly had a mind of her own. I gave her a name that I felt encompassed all of those qualities - Clementine. The trainer planned to pick Clementine up and begin her training right at the beginning of November, in the hopes that she would be ready to come to California in January.
I began making plans, all of them surrounding Clementine. Where she would live, what we would learn together, how to organize my days so I could get out of San Francisco as much as possible to see her…the next few months were spent living in my own head. I was sure she would be the one to heal the hole that had been in my heart since having to give my first horse away when I was 17. The hole that had kept me at arms length from horses for years.
The weeks ticked by as I waited for Clementine to be released from the corrals. Finally, two months after our first meeting, she made it to the trainer’s facility. Eric and I drove to Colorado that Christmas and stopped in Reno on the way back to see Clem. She was thinner than I remembered, and her coat looked matted - but the trainer assured me it was just that she liked to run a lot during their sessions. I fed my sweet mare a handful of hay and promised I’d see her soon, when she finally made the trip to California after her gentling.
I felt freer than I had since my move from Colorado, like I finally had something all my own in my new home. I’d finally be able to meet some like-minded horsey gals and get to living the life I’d been imagining for myself. In January, I quit my job and started a company - Clementine and Sage, named for my wild mare and the land she was born into.
Time passed with only the vaguest of updates from the trainer, but on my end I continued to move forward. I found a boarding stable that would take Clementine. Made jewelry on my kitchen counter. Got trailer transportation lined up. Posted pictures of finished pieces on Instagram. I waited. And waited. And then waited some more. In March, just two weeks before I was set to bring Clementine to California, the trainer sent me a message, revealing that she hadn’t been able to touch Clem in weeks and was taking her back to the holding corrals.
I found out later that the trainer hadn’t been feeding the horses (she had two other wild mustangs in her care at the same time as Clementine) and her “training” method was to run the horses in endless circles in an attempt to wear them out to the point where they couldn’t fight. But mustangs are all heart, and she didn’t break them. The day before she returned all three horses to the BLM, she had tied Clementine to a tree trunk cemented in the center of her round pen - and Clem had pulled in out of the ground in her attempts to get away.
The BLM wranglers I talked to on the phone were just as shocked and upset as I was about the way events had unfolded. But they encouraged me to wait before deciding if I still wanted Clementine, reminding me that mustangs don’t forget trauma. Because of what she had been through, they said, she might never have the ability to fully trust in humans. At that point, it had been five months since Clementine and I had first met, and I felt more responsible than ever for what happened to her. I beat myself up endlessly, saying I should have done more research on trainers, I should have taken more trips to Reno, I should have INSISTED on weekly updates…and I felt that it was on me to set things right.
So I contacted the owner of a boarding facility located an hour and a half north of our apartment in San Francisco who was passionate about gentling and working with wild mustangs. She was up for taking on Clementine, regardless of what we’d need to work through. I was also able to talk to the TIP trainer there, and ask the specific training questions I’d been too afraid to ask the trainer in Reno - which left me confident that Clementine would be given a voice and a choice in her training (which is something that I really believe in). Most importantly, I’d be able to be a part of Clementine’s rehabilitation process as the drive was manageable a couple of days a week. New plans had been laid.
But once again, though I had all of my ducks in a row, I found myself waiting - this time for the BLM to tell that me Clementine’s paperwork was in order and I could come pick her up. After a couple days of radio silence, I finally got word - Clementine was in quarantine. She had been put in a pen next to a horse that came down with strangles, a contagious sickness that causes a horse’s lymph nodes to swell, making it difficult to swallow and breathe. No horses would be going in or out of the corrals for at least a month.
After all that time, dreaming endlessly of a mare with a bay coat and a twinkle in her eye, it felt like I was being forced to give up. In my mind, I had betrayed this horse by allowing her to be taken to an abusive trainer. I felt that it was my fault that she had been exposed to a potentially life threatening sickness. Finally, tearfully, I made a decision about Clementine. In my mind, she deserved to live with her herd in the corrals, at least for the time being, to heal both emotionally and physically.
A week later, I climbed into a truck with the mustang-passionate barn owner, an amazing woman who has become an amazing friend, and a couple of other souls who have also become dear and familiar on this journey. They were headed up to the California mustang corrals to pick up a pair of horses and had graciously invited me along - saying that if a horse caught my eye, they would gladly haul it home. I was grieving the loss of Clementine and all of the dreams I’d had about the two of us. All of those possible futures. But despite my raw heart, I felt the pull of something hopeful. The draw of a distant flicker of light. And so I went, with as much of an open mind as possible.
And it was there, walking down a long alley between pens filled with wild horses, that I saw the horse from my childhood dreams standing apart from the rest of his herd. Sturdy, with delicately shaped ears and a coat the color of clouds - and he was watching me. Using a pair of binoculars, I was able to catch the number on his neck tag, which identified my mystery horse as a five year old gelding from Wyoming. Born on the range just four hours from my hometown. Made of wind and sky and sage, just like me. I did not choose Cirrus. No, after his own winding journey, from Wyoming to Utah to California, he chose me.
I still think about Clementine, though I lost track of her a couple months later when she was moved out of the Reno corrals, most likely to long term holding. I think about how she saved me when I was lonely and scared, living in a new city, and how just knowing she was out there changed the course of my life. I was a serious introvert, away from my few close friends and family, giving my all at a job that drained my creativity - but through it all she was the glowing ember in my heart. It was thoughts of her that gave me the final push I needed to start my own business. To take the reins in my own life. And most importantly, I think about how meeting her put into motion the events that led me to Cirrus, the horse I’d been waiting my whole life to meet.
I bestowed upon that elegant bay horse the name of a drifting prairie soul, lawless and free as the wind. A name that was pure sunshine and more wild than I ever believed I could be. But looking at things now, I think it’s the name I was trying to give myself - the self I was striving to become. Her hoof prints marked the the beginning of the path I’m walking today, this very minute. And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I may be following them still.